Saturday 27 December 2014

Total Wargaming

I have been further pondering the reasons why I really do not like more modern wagaming. By this I mean that I have never, in fact, wargamed anything seriously (insofar as wargaming can be serious) later than the Napoleonic period, and that was only because I was a guest. All right, I have, somewhere, stashed away, some very old microtanks. I can only plead teenage ignorance for that.

Still, I do feel somewhat uncomfortable with games from, say, the start of trench warfare onwards. The reasons for this might be manifold, of course, and I can think of a few, but overall I suspect that there is one overriding reason.

Let me deal with the lesser reasons first. To start with, wargaming in World War One has often been thought to be boring and lacking in tactical interest and finesse. I do not think this is a particularly good argument, largely because it is not terribly true. Granted, there were only limited options for getting men from these trenches to those, but the war shows immense grappling with how to do it effectively. Innovations such as poison gas, tanks, hurricane bombardments and mining all showed efforts to solve the tactical problems of the mastery of defence.

A second objection to twentieth century and later wargaming is that it is not pretty. Armies had (mostly) gone to ground and were wearing field grey, khaki and similar uniforms. Even American Civil War armies had colour, it could be argued. A World War One game, on the table, simply looks a bit dull, because that was the effect the armies were looking for. As an objection to the period this is, I think valid. Compared to a full blown Napoleonic game, a First World War one is simply not going to have the same visual appeal, and visual appeal is part of the wargame. Of course, this is a matter of taste, and mine might not be yours. On the other hand, the aesthetic quality of a game is not the sole determinant of whether it is worth playing.

Of course, we could go on with these sorts of objections. I am sure there are many more which could be bought against any particular period. For example, Second World War wargaming tends to focus on the tank, with its problems and opportunities. Much of the fighting, however, was between troops where the tank was of less use or, in some cases, was simply a liability. Another problem, which I have mentioned before, is the simply range of the weapons. A tank gun is accurate up to (say) two thousand meters. That needs a big table at any scale. Artillery ranges, of course, are even longer. This can, of course, be handled by ‘off the table’ guns, but given the intrinsic appeal of models, where is the fun in that?

None of the above, however, are the reason why I recoil somewhat from these games. I suspect that the real reason is related to the issue of what is known as ‘total war’. This is a term which begins to be applied roughly from the American Civil War onwards. It describes a situation where the countries at war are regarded as fighting each other, not just the armies, rulers or governments. Total war requires the employment of all the resources of the state to defeat another state. Given that this is the case, the war is conducted against civilian populations as well as armed forces.

We can see this in a number of ways. For example, the British defeated the Boers by rounding up the civilian population, denying the enemy the protection and support they needed for a guerrilla campaign. Similarly, Germany declared an open submarine campaign to try to starve Britain into surrender. The target here were not combatants, nor, in fact, necessarily British merchantmen, but any ship sailing to Britain. The nascent bombing campaigns towards the end of the war were similar cases, and these things simply grew in the Second World War.

Total war, therefore, is a matching of state against state. Economies are placed on a war footing. Civilians are targeted deliberately, as the production facilities and government capabilities are attacked. Furthermore, the advent of truly industrialised killing, through high explosive artillery and machine guns made the casualty lists incredibly much longer. I seem to recall that the casualties at Waterloo on all sides were about 47,000. The British army lost 60,000 on the first day of the Somme. Total war pushes our ability to wargame, I suggest to its limits.

I am not saying that we cannot wargame such battles as the Somme. I know that there are many sets of innovative rules which permit such actions to be played at the tactical, grand tactical and strategic levels. It is not, I think, a matter of whether such games can be played, but what is represented when they are played. For example, the Somme was only possible due to a huge effort of production and stockpiling artillery shells before it. Without that, the battle could not have begun. Is this to be represented in our wargame?

The answer to that question is dependent on the level at which we are gaming. But the question pulls other questions in. Do we represent the air raids on defenceless civilian populations, which might reduce the rate of production? Do we simply ignore the supply problem, assume that our guns have infinite supply and distort the game another way?  These and many similar sorts of questions have to be either tackled 9in which case our rule book is going to be massive) or tacitly ignored. In short, total war is vastly complex as well as devastatingly bloody. How can a wargame represent, even in part, the problems of the real armies and nations?

Most sane people, of course, ignore these problems and simply play a wargame. But the underlying uneasiness seems to be still there. There is a slight defensiveness from, for example, players whose armies are the World War Two Germans. I suspect that this is because, whatever the claims to the contrary, the army was involved in some of the other acts of the German government, if only because it was defending the nation from some of those acts being stopped.

I am not sure I have advanced my thinking much, here, but I have tried a little. I do think that there is some mileage in the concept of total war, and that, probably, we try to wargame such conflicts too simply. But I’m still not sure.

Saturday 20 December 2014

Christmas Post

This is actually my second attempt at a festive post. The first was written when I was tired, cynical and had spent the week sitting in traffic jams, and turned out to sound very bitter. So hopefully, this is a bit lighter.

Actually, I want to challenge the readership. It isn’t a quiz, because I do not know the answer, but I would like some ideas.

My local garden centre has, this year, started stocking Airfix models and some figures (they have also started on Hornby train sets). Being a wargamer, of course, I keep an eye on what they have, but not being a WW1 or WW2 wargamer, I’ve never bought anything.

This week, however, I did notice that they have World War Two Italian infantry and World War Two Gurkhas on special offer, at a mere two pounds a box. They have a few other things as well, like a Churchill Crocodile tank for four pounds, but the infantry caught my eye.

The question I have for you is this: Which theatre could I use both for? Did Italians and Gurkhas ever meet?  If not, is the a reasonable and logical ‘what if…’ campaign in which they could, assuming that I can obtain enough figures to represent, say, a company of each?

I am not saying that I will dash out and buy the figures, but I was just wondering and, not be an expert of World War Two, I thought I’d challenge the assembled company. There is, of course, no prize, except the normal internet kudos, but I shall nominate the best comment, and also the funniest.

And in the meantime, a very happy Christmas to you all, and thank you for reading and commenting.

Saturday 13 December 2014

Neo-Colonial Wargaming

I have just finished reading ‘Empire’ by Niall Ferguson (Penguin, 2003). This is, of course, slightly outside my comfort zone as I do not, generally, wargame or read history post 1800, or even post 1700, assorted rants about World Wars One and Two aside.

Anyway, ‘Empire’ is a good read, and even rather amusing in some places, but it does make a point which had not really considered before. That point being that Africa was largely colonised at the muzzle of the Maxim machine gun. A bunch of, say, Fuzzy-Wuzzies were not going to overcome the machine gun in any sort of fair fight. The Boers only did so relatively well because they had modern weapons (the Germans sent them to cause trouble, in which they succeeded).

This got me around to thinking about the colonial period of wargaming and problems associated with it. Firstly, of course, there are all the problems of asymmetric wargaming, which can be an inspiration but can also cause problems. By asymmetric here, I do not think I am meaning quite the same as modern asymmetric warfare, where one side is a bunch of insurgents and the other is a regular army with firepower but struggling to contain civilian deaths (something which does not bother the insurgents, as all such deaths can be blamed on the regular army).

By asymmetric, therefore, I mean one, small army with high firepower against one, probably much bigger army, largely without modern weapons. Of course, scenarios can be created of ambush, or small parties of well-armed regular against ever increasing numbers of native, and so on, which can make for a balanced wargame. Similarly, inventive supply rules can keep the modern army on tenterhooks as to whether they will survive or not. Somehow, there is always the possibility of balancing up the game.

On a larger scale, of course, as already hinted, the carve up of Africa was mainly an issue of European power politics. Outside bits of the British Empire, most colonies cost the coloniser money, as well as lives and resources, and did not really produce that much. But the point of, at least the scramble for Africa was prestige, of doing down your European rivals, blocking them strategically, and so on. After all, the British were heavily involved in Egypt because, strategically, it guarded the passage to India. German policy before and during the First World War was to create sympathetic Arabs who could cause the British problems here. It more or less did not work, but it was an issue for the British.

As Bismarck once remarked, his map of Africa ran through Europe. No African was present at the Berlin conference which carved up Africa into European zones of influence and basically meant that the Scramble for Africa was on. And so our colonial wargaming, in general, springs from this sort of viewpoint. Professional armies, with the latest weapons, can simply go into some native area and seize it, mowing down anyone who objects with a machine gun. Quite often, of course, this movement into native areas was provoked by the fear that another European power was about to do the same thing.

So, colonial wargaming is predicated on European power politics, and those power politics are, in fact, the same ones that led to the outbreak of the Great War. As most wargamers are probably aware, there were, in the twenty years or so preceding the Great War, a number of colonial incidents which could have led to the outbreak of war between the colonial powers. That they did not is probably simply a matter of luck.

The issue here, then, perhaps begins to press on our ethics of wargaming. Is a colonial wargame, of spears against Maxims, as fair fight? Is it really something that we wish to reproduce in loving detail on the wargame table? At Omdurman (1898), according to Ferguson, 52,000 Dervishes took on 20,000 British, Egyptian and Sudanese soldiers. In the following five hours, around 10,000 Dervishes died; possibly ninety five per cent of the Dervish army were casualties, while around four hundred on the Anglo-Egyptian side were killed or wounded. Fourth-eight British soldiers were killed. Can we ethically reproduce this carnage?

The problem here is, in part, the motivation of the original participants. The Dervishes were brought into action, and remained there, through religious devotion. The British were there for revenge, as the expedition was at least in part a response to the death of Gordon. I think it is rather hard for us, as wargamers, to reproduce such motives on the table. The result of this is that a wargame of Omdurman becomes a clinical exercise in mowing down natives with machine guns.

Of course, with clever scenarios and rules we can change this. We can, for example, make the Dervish objectives simply to do better than the originals. We could challenge them to kill more Europeans, or to reach the river, or whatever. By doing this, of course, we could argue that we are no longer recreating Omdurman. We could also argue that we are giving the Dervishes a chance. But is that chance not one imposed by the colonial power, inviting our noble but lesser opponent to try a bit harder, safe in the knowledge that the machine gun will always win?

I am not suggesting that all colonial wargaming should cease until these ethical problems are untangled, and nor am I claiming to have answers to these issues. But I do think it is worth acknowledging that such issues do exist, that wargaming does not exist in a ‘game bubble’ which bears no relation to the past or to its interpretation in the present. While wargaming is a leisure activity, it is not as such immune to such issues.

Those of us (and I may be alone, of course) who struggle to think that a wargame of the first day of the Somme could be in strict good taste should, perhaps, also reflect that Omdurman might also be tasteless. Just because the Victorians said they were savages does not mean that is how we should see the Dervishes. The casualty rate was appalling, just not in ‘our’ (western? colonial?) men.

And perhaps, finally, I can understand why none of my own armies are post-1713.

Saturday 6 December 2014

Why I Don’t Wargame World War One

Well, ‘tis the season of something or another. Actually, it is Advent, or near enough, which does raise the question of why the world, in its commercial aspects at least, has been doing Christmas since early September. I did see some research which suggested that Christmas now started in mid-August, having moved back a month since 2007. Mind you, this did depend on, I think, twitter feeds and statistics. Which either means that the world has gone Christmas mad, or that Twitter is unreliable, or that there are lies, damn lies and statistics. Or some combination of these, of course.

Anyway, I digress only to raise the question of when to break out my ‘Keep Calm, its Only Christmas’ mug. It would appear that I am some months too late. And I would also like to point out that Advent is actually a fast, like Lent, and is not supposed to be a months long knees up. Someone told me the other day that people she knew put their trees up so early they took them down before Christmas Day, because they were fed up with them. Sad, but let it be a warning to us all.

Anyway, the other season has been the season of Remembrance. I thought it was a day (or possibly two, since they moved it to the nearest Sunday and then moved it back), but apparently it is now officially a season. And, it being the centenary of the First World War breaking out, there has been a lot of First World War about. Indeed, one commentator I read (I forget whom) noted that all conflicts seemed to have been conflated into the First World War. Perhaps that is a uniquely British thing.

The centenary has also influenced the wargaming world. Around the shows, on blogs and manufacturers web sites, World War One has been popping up all over. Refights of the battles and new figure line are, so far as I can tell, all over the place. This strikes me as slightly odd, as for years, when I was a lad, World War One, at least on the Western Front, was deemed to be unplayable.

Now, of course, things have moved on. Rule sets have been written to enable the gamer to play out some of the big battles of the Western Front. Innovative techniques in rule creation, in assessing the effects of barrages and so on have been used. The scale of the figures has been shrunk, so that a base might represent a battalion. The level of abstraction has been increased beyond the imagination of a 1970’s gamer (at least, beyond my imagination; that may not be very hard). The games can be played. So why do I not like them?

I suspect that part (but only part) of my problem is the ‘Oh what a lovely war’ syndrome. By this I mean that the historiography of the Great War that I was bought up with was that it was a war fired by nationalism and jingoism (with a dash of social Darwinism thrown in), that the battles were pointless wastes of blood, and that the whole thing was a disaster fuelled by idiot politicians and incompetent diplomats, an international treaty system which ensured a Europe-wide conflagration, and an utter failure by the armed forces leadership to recognise the realities of warfare.

Even though this picture may well have been nuanced over the years, it is still clear that it does hold a lot of historical weight. There might be arguments over the ‘lions led by donkeys’ thesis, which argues that any officer over the rank of captain was incompetent, or whether the Allied armies were actually really good by the end of the war, and so on, but it is clear that as the first really modern war, the mass slaughter, howsoever it occurred, was exactly that.

And so, I return to the level of abstraction that World War One requires on the wargames table. As far as I can see, casualties are not inflicted. Units might be disrupted, supressed, or to have gone to ground. Artillery barrages might devalue the defence. Machine gun emplacements might degrade the opposition. But the men are not blown to bits; they do not have no known resting place because the ground upon which they fell has entirely removed any trace of them. The wargame table fields are not filled with stones engraved ‘A Soldier of the Great War Known Only to God’. In short, the necessary level of abstraction removes us, as wargamers, from the individual experience of the carnage of the First World War battles.

Now, of course, it can be argued that any wargame does exactly that. We rely, as I have probably repeatedly mentioned on this blog over the years, on a degree of abstraction, otherwise we could not wargame at all, either practically or emotionally. All wargames are, to some extent, sanitised, of course, and much of the violence is abstracted away. So what, for me, makes World War One an no-no?
I am not sure that there is a single answer, and nor am I sure that I have a consistent one. For me, the historiography of the war is about the horror and intensity of the fighting. Replacing that with nice markers for ’suppressed’  on a battalion caught by artillery in an open field is pushing the bounds a bit too far. I think also that the season of Remembrance also focusses on that carnage and, for me, makes it harder to play a game without imagining the effects of my barrage on the ground. Earlier wars may have had their share of horrors and outrages, but the battle lines did not spread over hundreds of miles.

Finally, perhaps I have been too influenced by the poetry and prose in response to the war. Siegfried Sassoon and, in particular, Wilfred Owen portrayed the war as a senseless slaughter of ordinary men. Even more so, Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That showed the perceived disaster of the war, and is engrained in my interpretation of it. Finally, and most devastating, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ simply makes the battles unplayable. When the book ends with the statement ‘He died on a day that the high command simply reported at it was all quiet on the western front’, what can a wargamer do? In my case, I simply don’t go there.