Saturday 17 August 2013

On Skirmishers

I have been reading a bit about ancient wars and battles, specifically, for those of you with long memories, those in the Greek and Classical worlds. One of the things that has struck me is the large number of light troops which are attached to the armies.

Numbers, in the ancient world are, of course, always rather dubious. However, the normally reliable Thucydides reports 10,000 Boeotian light troops present at Delium, although they had little influence on the battle (IV.93). Sabin, in Lost Battles, represents them with one ‘token’ levy unit.

Wargame rules (and writers of history, both ancient and modern) tend to be rather dismissive of skirmishers. I myself have fallen into this: in Polemos: SPQR a base of skirmishers is set at being about 75 people running around with javelins and so forth. Now if I transferred that to Delium, I would need over 130 bases of skirmishers alone, which would fill up most people’s wargame table without any of the battle-winning troop types getting a look in.

It seems to be the case therefore that while my representational scale might be awry, the effects could be accurate. Skirmishers had very little impact on the ancient battle. I know that there are occasional exceptions, but in the ancient world they tended to be peltasts, who appear to have been more professional and capable than your average javelin chucker.

It also has to be admitted that many sets of wargame rules do not represent skirmishers terribly well. Notoriously, in one of the version of DBM, a single base of skirmishers, set at an angle to a block of advancing heavy infantry, could delay the latter hugely. Treating skirmishers as just another troop type with compatible capabilities does not seem to represent their actual activity terribly well.

The other problem, of course, is that ancient writers were not, in fact, terribly interested in skirmishers. They were not of the right class, for one thing. Battles were won and lost by the heavy infantry (I generalise, but then, so did they). Skirmishers were the necessary but uninteresting part of the army. Exceptions do, of course, occur, but in general, light troops are not discussed or reported upon. Again, peltasts may be, but the general skirmisher is not.

So, how can we handle skirmishers within our wargame rules?

In Polemos: SPQR, as I have said, a base represents about 75 men, which, I confess, is probably incorrect. However, in my defence, I have come up with a novel (to me, anyway; I don’t imagine that it is original) method of modelling the performance of skirmishers.

If you read the few accounts that there are of skirmish type tactics in the ancient world, I do not think that you find the more modern ideas of ‘clouds of skirmishers’ or skirmishers advancing in open order. The best description of skirmishing is not, in fact, from skirmishers at all (please correct me if I’m wrong), but of the Persian cavalry at Plataea. Here, they advance in groups, throw javelins at the Greek hoplites and then retire to the main body.

There is no description of the cavalry being in open order, just advancing in smaller groups from the main body, discharging missile weapons, and then retiring.

The more I thought about this, the more likely it seemed to me to be generally the case for ancient world skirmishing. In the ancient world, there was much less emphasis, in the first place, on the individual, and so individualistic activity, like skirmishing 10 feet or so from your neighbour, is less likely. Additionally, I cannot imagine that any such troops would be trained and so, as I believe it to be the case, that untrained troops tend to huddle together, it seems to me highly likely that skirmishers would too.

There are other factors at play, as well. At Caharre, as is well known, the Parthians skirmished pretty well all day. They must have had some means of relieving their front forces, if only to resupply with arrows. This is much simpler if the whole unit was not involved at a given time. If a bunch of 50 men were dispatched from a unit of 500, for, say, ten minutes skirmishing, then each batch of fifty would have about an hour and a half to rest in between such activity, while the enemy simply saw a screen of men discharging arrows at them, constantly. The rest could be seeing to their horses, restocking with arrows, having a drink and a bite to eat, and so on.

What is very wearing for one side would be a walk in the park for the other.

Of course, the commanders would need to be careful to keep their units out of harm’s way, and we do read often of the skirmishers simply being chased off by heavier troops. However, they usually did reform and return, which suggests, in my model, that the charged skirmishers simply run back to the mother unit and reform upon it.

This then, is the model I have attempted to work with in Polemos: SPQR, and intend to implement in the Greek rules when they finally get off the drawing board. Skirmisher units represent the base unit, and their range represents the distance to which the packets of men are sent out to throw their javelins (or whatever). The whole unit is not fighting at any one time, nor are the men standing at the base and shooting. Only a small proportion of them are doing that at any one time.

Of course, it is still required that the skirmisher’s action is still, mostly, disruptive, not fatal to the enemy. That can be fixed through the relevant combat factors, of course.  And the units under attack can still advance to drive off the skirmishers, although they would have to get at the mother unit to do any real damage. A failure by the skirmishers to inflict any damage  can, of course, be interpreted as a local success by the attacked base.

Finally, of course, I can now rationalise my representative scale. A base of skirmishers can represent many more than 75 individuals, but it is that 75 who are in action at any one time. The overall base would represent, say, 750 individuals, which makes it much more viable to have the whole lot on the table at any one time.

So, there you are: a model of skirmishing in the ancient world. I wonder how much it leaks…


  1. Excellent post - anything which attempts to represent anything as mystical as the behaviour of skirmishers is brave, and having it justified in a presentably scientific manner is a fine effort indeed.

    Like all the other old dogs, I have struggled with skirmishers for as long as I've attempted to fight war-games. Real battles, it occurred to me, in my simple way, require thousands of people, and the only way this can be played as a game is when/if the armies organise themselves into some conveniently identifiable large lumps, and we can simplify the troop handling.

    I always had problems with making this work convincingly - problems which I seem to have shared with the rest of the wargaming world. It is many years since I was involved in ancient or colonial gaming, but in the Napoleonic world I was more recently impressed by (e.g.) Dr Mustafa's approach, whereby skirmishers do not appear in any explicit form, but are present merely as an attached parameter for each close-order unit. I say impressed, because I can see how that would work, yet I was repelled, because I like playing around with skirmishers and, after all, I have rather a lot of them facing potential redundancy packages.

    And yet - and yet...

    Something vaguely worrying about this as well. What happens if you have some formation which consists entirely of skirmishers - even, as in colonial warfare, entire armies without a recognisable structure. Just a cloud of gnats. Long ago, I used to try to enforce some kind of implied "units" on such a force - e.g. as many men as could hear and follow the shouted commands of a single leader - but the reality might be that we need a giant skirmish game with thousands of players, which is not a game at all. Just an O&M analysis of a real battle. Spinning-of-head time.

    I believe that we do need skirmishers to appear - in some non-abstracted form - but I have yet to see a rule set - or even a gaming philosophy - which makes that workable. Nobel Prizes await...

    1. my only brush with Napoleonic skirmishers was an encounter with British light infantry, who could pick off my officers and gunners at massive range with impunity. I don't play Napoleonics now...

      I think a lot comes down to the classification of units. I could envisage a 'cloud of skirmishers' unit (or set of bases, or whatever). The thing is I'm not sure how they would operate. A model of a few brave ones moving forward, throwing whatever, and then scampering back to the perceived safety of the mass seems right, but is only speculation.

      I'm not sure about colonial wargaming, but most armies had some sort of structure, surely, even if it wasn't obvious to western opponents. Someone must have said 'you lot over there, you lot over there...', surely?

  2. Overall, I think your representation sounds fair enough. I have a vague recollection of Thracian peltasts being described that way as in advancing in small parties then running away if charged.

    There are a number of descriptions of skirmishers in action, Xenephon has some in the Anabasis where they do seem to be more like the old Wrg or cloud model. I have a vague recollection of Thucidites describing Aetoians in action but its been too long for particulars or reliabity. Livy I think was another if you include Romans

    However, the best descriptions don't seem to come from battles but from what was later termed petite guerre. My feeling is that the primary role of light troops was that of security duties, foraging, harrassing the enemy, attacking detachments, etc in between battles.

    1. I think that you are right in that the skirmisher was a useful fellow off the battlefield (and probably many joined up for loot alone), which made the odd decent skirmisher (Balearic slingers, Cretan archers, peltasts) stand out from the, um, crowd.

      The problem I have with Xenophon's Anabsis is that it seems like one long skirmish (OK, except Cunaxa), so it is difficult to generalise; but the lights on the march were, I think, a cut above the average.

      Maybe troop quality and training is key here.

    2. I was thinking mostly of the "native" lights they opposed. Mind you interesting to note that archers and slingers were recruited from the ranks of the hoplites, from those who had those skills as well as hoplite ones. Probably due to the mercenary nature of the troops.

      However, opposed river crossings, forcing mountain passes, assaults on villages etc may be skirmishes in a sense but with combined totals of some 15-30,000 men on the field in some of these actions they are bigger than most traditional wargames.

    3. Fair point. I suppose that what I mean is that they were not your standard sort of 'formal' battle. Running fights to secure passes, resources and the like, perhaps. None the less interesting scenarios, better than most wargame 'defeat the enemy' sorts of thing.

      It has always struck me that a sort of 'long march' wargame campaign could be viable. Lots of issues of terrain, elusive enemy and logistics to think about. Possibly best fought out solo, though.

  3. The elusive skirmishers! Representation of skirmishers is one of the things I look at early in any set of rules. I have no idea how that actually worked in the past, but from the lack of any detail I would assume they harass at the early stage of the battle and then disappear. Armati seemed to do well on skirmish representation - touch them with any other unit and they are removed from the table. I do like your idea of abstraction for numbers, and have always thought that skirmisher bases always represented roughly where they are.

    when I first read the post (and it was just me read late rather than the way your worded it) I thought the base unit you were referring to was a base unit of heavier infantry that the skirmishers then move back and forth between to harass the enemy. This reminded me of Fantasy Rules! which had the idea I always liked where you attached a skirmisher base to a heavier base and the skirmisher base was taken off, and the unit now had a (small) range factor and a +1 in close combat. But then I read the post again and realised "base unit" was a base unit of skirmishers...

    1. Well, actually, I do have it that certain troop bases can skirmish, as there are records of German infantry doing so, among others.

      But I doubt if many players do that with their precious heavy infantry!

      Having just been reading De Re Militari, Vegetius recommends the lights to retire behind the second line and return to the fight when the enemy breaks. The heavy infantry should not pursue, it is left to the lights and cavalry to do that.

      How much that reflects on actual practice is, of course, a matter of debate.

  4. These are interesting thoughts on a very difficult question. But if we take a look on modern day skirmishes with bows and slings in Africa we actually will see ‘clouds of skirmishers’ or skirmishers advancing in open order, and not bunches of closely packed warriors detached from a parent unit.
    Here is the link to some pictures:
    Picture No 5 shows it quite well.

    1. Interesting...

      I wonder what a bit of training does? And of course, for a bunch of people, incoming rifle fire does no favors.

      I suppose that a lot depends also on context, aims and who the enemy actually is. But I will admit that clouds seem as likely as anything else.

    2. Africans on pictures fight another African tribe also armed with slings and bows. No firearms are in play. There are also some textual descriptions of this conflict around the web, but not very detailed. If I remember it correct these tribes met on some field between their territories skirmished there, and in the evening moved back to their homes, to start it again in the morning. Conflict lasted for several months and they had only 20 dead. So from European point of view this is not real war. No one tried to get decisive victory on battlefield, or by surprise attack on the other party.

    3. I wonder if they would have approached it differently if they had been facing a bunch of men with spears, rather than a bit of a mirror image.

      I suppose that either a cloud or a base unit and the brave model could be adopted, depending on the circumstances.

      Sometimes our categorizations are probably too rigid for the real world.

  5. Strikes me (Notwithstanding you don't do Napoleonic)that there are French accounts from the Peninsula which record occasions when their attack defeated the British front line but they got stopped by the second line. The British accounts of the same action say that their skirmish line fell back and the main line stopped the French according to plan.

    Allowing for the fact that being shot at perhaps isn't conducive to making a reasoned judgement on these things, it sounds like the skirmish line must have looked pretty substantial to the French to be mistaken for a firing line.

    1. Question: When is a skirmish line a skirmish line?

      Answer: When it doesn't stop the enemy...

      Or, possibly, when it is shooting at me it isn't a skirmish line, much like all ATGs in World War 2 were 88 mm ones.

      It seems to me that we are rapidly heading in the direction of definitions again. Perhaps it is simply up to the unit commander how dense to make his line?

    2. Maybe it can be decided retrospectively?

      "Our first line's been beaten!"
      "Don't worry - they were only skirmishing."

    3. Possibly conditional upon the second line winning...?