Saturday 31 December 2016

Practising Safer Texts

Someone, (I think the novelist L. P. Hartley, but I’m likely wrong) once said something along the lines of ‘The past is a different country. They do things differently there’.  And herein lies the crux of the problem that I have been vaguely gesturing at  in some recent (and probably much older) posts. How on earth do we interpret ancient texts? Indeed, who can interpret ancient texts?

Texts are used for many purposes, and the purposes that we read them for are, in fact, fairly unlikely to be the purposes they were originally written for, nor, indeed, the purposes the original readers would have been interested in. So, for example, we might be interested in finding out how many rifle armed militia men were present at an American revolutionary war battle. An account of that battle may say something like ‘The rifle bullets came so thick the sky was black with them and no man dared to raise his head for fear of them’. While this text might tell us that rifle armed troops were present, it really does not tell us much more than that, aside what it felt like to be on the receiving end. We could also raise further questions, such as how did the writer know that the incoming bullets were rifle rounds, anyway.

Already, from a simple and made-up example we can observe a few of the problems in texts. Firstly, we question the text in ways that the original writer, readers and the text itself could not, probably, have formed the questions. Secondly, the text might not be entirely accurate, in terms of modern ‘accuracy’. The problem of the unreliable narrator is one thing: the text might be enhancing the author’s own feelings of bravery and significance, for example. Secondly, the writer is not omnipotent. Things were almost certainly happening about which the author knew little or nothing. Their text is but a snapshot of the world as it seemed to be.

Next up we also have problems from the interpreter’s end. Our world is not the world of the author. Their world view is different, their language, meanings and values will all vary from our own. For example, even World War Two memoirs reflect a society very different from our own, one where, at least in the UK, society was more deferential, at least on the surface, than it is today. We have to attend to the social location of the writer and their readers to start to apprehend what their meaning might be.

There are further issues, of course. It is quite likely that the original text was written in a language which is not that of the modern reader. There are issues of translation, from, say, Latin into English. Languages are not one-to-one translatable. Interpretation is required. For example, where the Hebrew Bible in English refers to God being patient, the Hebrew (apparently) literally means something like ‘long of nostril’. The idea, as I understand it, is that it takes longer for the snort of exasperation to be emitted. And so a translation is ‘patient’.  As my Old Testament tutor put it: ‘I just thought you might like to know that’.  But it does indicate the sorts of problems we encounter here.

This is all very well, but it is not helping the wargamer’s cause, wanting to know how many men with rifles to deploy on the battlefield. And here we approach the rub, perhaps. Wargamers cannot really go with ‘we don’t know’. We need a concrete number of figures on the table, not just ‘around so many’. Granted, we can pick a number which makes it reasonable that the opposition will have bullets whistling around their ears most of the time, but that is an interpretation of the text resting on some, perhaps dubious, guesswork.

So we hit the main part of the problem. We have to interpret texts to extract the answer, but how do we do this and who can do it? If we admit that authenticity is in some sense part of historical wargaming, and that we derive any such sense from the texts which speak of the battles we are interested in, whom on earth can say that this is the right way to interpret the text?

The question of authority in interpreting texts is a major problem. For example, if the text is a religious one, such as the Bible, the issue becomes whether the text can be interpreted as historical, objectively, ‘scientifically’ and so on, or whether the text can only be interpreted by those within the faith community, perhaps who have some authorisation to do such interpretation. You only need to consider the history of interpretation within a particular denomination to start to realise the complexities that can arise here (and which are still argued over, extensively).

In wargaming we do not have quite the same issue over faith, although some of wargamers sacred cows, such as Alexander being Great because he conquered practically everywhere, start to bear a slightly uncomfortable feeling of blind faith. But still the question arises: in a diverse and diffuse community, who can interpret the texts. There is, of course, no one interpretation of texts, and one view would be to leave it to the experts. However, with a few exceptions, professional historians do not tend to wargamers. They interpret within their academic community. Only by interpretation of their interpretations can wargamers use this material. This gets complicated.

Short of advising all wargamers to obtain advanced degrees in history, perhaps the way forward is to ensure that we retain a level of critical engagement with the sources and the texts of wargaming. There will be multiple interpretations of ancient (or, as noted above, more recent) texts. We, as wargamers, do not in general have the resources to follow all the lines of inquiry, but as intelligent human beings we can engage critically with them. This, of course, applies to the texts of wargaming, such as rules and army lists, as well of the primary source material of history.

I think that there is a lot more to be thought about here, and a lot more to be written, but I do think that the task might be quite important for wargaming, otherwise we will just sit around, thinking that some classic of wargaming literature was the ultimate in wargame experience.

Saturday 24 December 2016

Happy Histories?

It may just be me, but there seem to be a number of dark clouds hovering over my reading this year. In the first place, I read and commented on here Geoffrey Parker’s ‘Global Crisis’, which was a fascinating if rather depressing read. Part of the argument is that the world’s leaders pretty well carried on with their squabbles and wars, ignoring the plight of their rapidly impoverishing, starving, disease ridden populations. Leaders stood upon their dignity, rights and, in some cases, divine appointment. Somewhere around a third of the world’s population died.

I am currently, as I mentioned the other week, reading Jonathon Sumption’s  ‘Cursed Kings’, the fourth volume of his Hundred Years War series. France in 1400 was a happy, peaceful, prosperous place. The only problem, really, was that the king was, more often not, bonkers. But that was fine, because there was a range of princes all ready and willing to take up the reins of government.

Shame they fell out among themselves over who got the biggest cut of looting the treasury and taxes. By 1414 France was undergoing a civil war, both government and princes were deeply in debt and the tax burden had skyrocketed. Across the Channel, Henry V, having succeeded his father and played a large part in crushing rebels against him, was bent on invading France. He did not seem to be particularly bothered on which side in the civil war he intervened on. The scene is now set for another round of devastation, caused by world leaders.

This blog has never been a political one. After all, it is about my hobby, wargaming, and not about current events, modern conflicts and the news. The litany of appalling and callous leadership of the past, however, has started to make me wonder about the present. Not that I wish to debate recent events and elections across the globe, but to raise fears about leaders and mandates that appear to be as misguided as those claimed by our medieval and early modern leaders. I dare say that the cult of management and leadership with which the world is becoming ever more infected does not help either.

Still, I am trying not to be depressed this Christmas tide. Incidentally, might I remind the rest of the world (it seems) that Christmas strictly starts at sun down on 24th December, not sometime in November? The bit before Christmas is Advent; it is a time of preparation and fasting, at least in traditional terms, rather than spending money we do not have and eating things we really, secretly, do not like. I mean, does anyone really like mince pies? Seriously?

My mood is probably not being improved by a number of medical semi-crises this year, and the fact that the estimable Mrs P has to dash around like a mad thing validating everyone else’s ‘Xmas Warm Fuzzies’ at this time of year.

It is enough to make me say ‘Bah, Humbug!’ But I shall refrain, and wish you all a Merry Christmas. 

Saturday 17 December 2016

Putting the History In

We forget, often, as wargamers, I suspect, that there is such a thing as history. I do not really think this is unique to wargamers, but it does happen quite frequently in wargaming. We can, and do, argue over whether, for example, the French Medieval Ordonnance army would triumph over the legions of first century Rome. Whether this is a sensible question or not is rather moot, but given that we can find the argument, it must be at least an intelligible question.

We are not alone. History is one of those strange things that pops up rather more often than we suppose, and can quietly modify our positions, or be modified by them. The spate of ‘false news’ planted during recent elections is a case in point. As George Orwell put it in 1984, he who controls the present controls the past, and he who controls the past controls the future. False news is an attempt to control the present. It is, in postmodernist terms, an attempt to make the present conform to how you would like it to be. Whether the item is true or false is irrelevant here; if we remake to world to our taste, the tool we use to manufacture it is not important.

Of course, over history, people have always attempted to make real their own beliefs and desires. Even in medieval times (referring back to Sumption’s Hundred Years War books) the various sides, at various times, issued manifestoes which they believed would bring all right thinking people onto their side. We, they say, are the true rulers of this or that territory, and our claim is just and based on these facts. That the other side could and did do the same was neither here nor there.

The historian, as I have said before, is thus faced with a ‘two frame’ problem. They have to understand the world viewa of the original protagonists, and then match that into language from their own world view. These things vary in space and time. History is always going to be written and rewritten. There is no such thing as a total, accurate and complete history.

Wargaming, of course, adds another frame to the pile. We view history in a certain way, through high politics, strategy, war, campaigns, battles, armies and generals. We add also other constraints, such as wargame figures, tables, dice and so on. Our view of a battle can be constrained by what we can place on a table, or represent in rules. If we are not careful with our history, the rules can become that history, the toys can be the actors, and we really do launch out into some sort of fantasy and alternate history.

There is nothing wrong with that per se, of course. But it is a good thing if we do at least recognise what we are doing. When we start to design our army according to a given army list, we are starting to flatten history out. Each army comes from a given context: a time, place, set of circumstances. When we reduce that to something like zero to six mounted knights, we are reducing that context to something else – a set of marks on a page, which only mean something in the context of a set of rules.

We have to do this sort of thing, to an extent at least, in order to cope with the sheer complexity of the past. I would defy anyone, at least in the English speaking world, to really get a grip on the history and politics of the German states in the medieval period. Some sort of simplification, if not case based study, has to be undertaken here. Otherwise we would be bewildered and unable to achieve anything, let alone a wargame.

Yet this very flattening of the historical complexity leads us, perhaps unwittingly, down the road of comparing legions with Medieval French. Once we do start to flatten out the contexts, the comparisons become easier. I start to compare, not one army with another, but one set of sorts of bases with another. Within the context of the rules the comparison is sensible, or at least intelligible. Within the context of history, of course, it is liable to be laughed at.

Wargamers, then, sometimes unwittingly, sometimes deliberately, flatten out the context of history. I do not really have a problem with that, so long as we realise what we are doing. If we want to have a game of Aztecs against Ming Chinese then there is no real issue: in this case, the game is the thing as we know that it is a game, at least as long as we have some idea about history and geography. When we start to lose that knowledge, we are probably heading into dubious waters.

The problem is, of course, that we cannot simply compare the battlefield performance of different armies from different periods or times. The Aztecs had a different view of what a battle or a war meant from the Ming (I imagine they did, anyway). The cultures from which the armies arose were different. They had differing world views. A battle, in short, meant different things. Who won could be less relevant than the meaning of the affair. Losing well could be, for example, more noble and therefore acceptable than winning by subterfuge.

As wargamers we are apt to forget these sorts of nuances. We could, in fact, be accused of clinging onto a classical world view, whereby there is one culture and everyone else is a barbarian. If they do not follow our rules, our precepts, our world view, then they should jolly well have it imposed upon them. We flatten out the cultures to our convenience. In wargaming terms, everyone gets treated like, say, Napoleonic British infantry, only more or less bad. The fact that the Aztecs would not have even recognised such a style of warfare is neither here nor there.

By our flattening out of history, therefore, we are imposing a kind of cultural imperialism on the past. It is made to conform to our rules, our expectations, our world view. We could argue that this is inevitable, and to an extent I would agree.  But it is only really acceptable when we recognise it for what it is.

Saturday 10 December 2016

Missed Battles

I am currently engaged in reading the fourth volume of Jonathon Sumption’s History of the Hundred Year’s War. This volume is called ‘Cursed Kings’ and covers 1400 – 1422. Big wars, someone once said, deserve big books. Sumption’s volume is about 900 pages long, and is of a similar size to his previous efforts. Big war, big book.

Sumption’s is a volume that should be dear to every wargamer with an interest in history. It is a history of big things: Kings, wars and battles. High politics is the centre stage, both within and between countries. While intellectual and cultural developments are nodded to, Sumption is interested in other things, the decisions of politicians, the efforts of generals and soldiers, the contingency of things.

Of course, he covers other things. War, especially the destructive and debilitating kind of the medieval period, was often followed, if not accompanied by, famine, plague and pestilence. The second volume of the series chronicled in depressing detail the destruction of France by war, routier gangs, plague and dislocation. Life as a peasant became nasty, brutish and short. Life as anyone else was not hugely better, unless you were a great noble or king.

By 1400, of course, the situation had improved massively. Most of France proper had been recaptured during the 1380’s. There was a truce with England, with a suggestion that a permanent peace might be on the cards. France was prospering. There were only a few dark clouds on the horizon. Firstly, Richard II of England was deposed and murdered by Henry of Lancaster. As Richard was married to a French princess, this caused alarm in Paris, but as Henry IV had been supported by Louis of Orleans in his bid for the English throne, not much was going to be done about that, except increasingly impolite requests for the 13 year old girl to be returned to France and (rather more optimistically) the return of her jewels and dowry.

The second cloud was the insanity of the French King. From the early 1380’s he had lapses into what appears to be paranoid schizophrenia, or something similar. Ruling the country during the king’s ‘absences’ became increasingly difficult. This was exacerbated by the existence of a number of the king’s uncles, the Queen, and Prince Louis, who proceeded to loot the state of taxes and fall out among themselves. The number of times France stood on the edge of civil war in the early 1400’s are quite large. Eventually, of course, it all fell apart.

The English were not in any better state, and were probably worse off. The English crown was without money, and Parliament, as Parliaments were wont to do, assumed that the king should be able to live off his own income and not bother the state for taxes (the Long Parliament of the early 1640’s had the same view). Henry IV was, as an usurper, weak anyway and had to spend to maintain a glorious court (to establish the mystique of kingship), buy off supporters and semi-supporters, and to try to fight off pretenders, the Scots, the Welsh (Glendower) and protect Gascony and Calais.

Given all this, it is a wonder that there were so few battles. All right, Shrewsbury happened in 1403, when Hotspur rebelled. There were some ambushes and a couple of small scale battles in Wales. But the big plans for invasion rarely were delivered. For example, Louis had a wonderful strategic vision for a multiple invasion of English assets – an assault on Calais, an invasion of Gascony, an expeditionary force to Wales to invade England in association with Glendower, and persuasion on the Scots to invade the north. Such a combination would have been very difficult for Henry to survive.

Of course, it all came to something and nothing. A few men at arms landed in Wales, only to have their shipping dispersed by the English. They helped to capture a couple of castles for the Welsh, but the invasion of England petered out as Glendower was unwilling to risk poorly armed Welsh levies against English men-at-arms, even with French support. The invasion of Gascony went ahead, and landed up with the capture of a castle or two and a threatening of Bordeaux. The commercial ties between the city and England, however, meant that there was no way for the French to make much progress. Threats to Calais fell apart anyway, immured in the politics of the French court.

Overall, then, we have a huge range here of ‘missed’ battles. Battles that might have happened, but did not. These non-battles did not happen because of a variety of reasons – malice, timorousness, incompetence and impoverishment. The crowns involved simply could not afford to implement their grandiose schemes. Further, the grasp of geography was a bit dodgy, as well. Louis seems to have thought that the Welsh and Scots could unite somewhere in the English Midlands and march on London. Well, perhaps they could, but it was a lot further than he seems to have thought.

Finally, there was logistics. Feeding an army was a problem. Living off the land was one way of going forward, but most farming was subsistence. There was not that much surplus food around. Established garrisons, such as those around Calais were small for a good reason: they could be fed. Paying an army was another problem. Both sides could and did raise money from Estates and by loans from merchants. But when nothing much was achieved, the taxes set aside for war were spent anyway, and the Estates grumbled and demanded investigations into corruption and misuse before being willing (let alone able) to vote for any more.

For a wargamer, of course, these are rich pickings. Some of the battles which did not happen are so much more interesting than those that did. There were, for example , several times that Edward III offered battle in the years before Crecy, sometimes in much less favourable circumstances than in 1345. What would have happened if the French could have taken the gambit? Similarly, the invasions scenario outlined above could make the basis of a good campaign. As wargamers, we can magic the logistical problems away; we still have coordination as an issue, but who can tell what might have happened. I might even be typing this blog in French (or Welsh).

Saturday 19 November 2016

Radetzky’s March

In a possibly desperate attempt to justify my claims about framing and history, I would like to comment, briefly, on an all-round Austrian hero, about whom only a few, even among wargamers, ever seem to hear. The interest is not so much in the content of our hero’s life, but it the circumstances which have made him so obscure.

An article in December’s History Today magazine (yes, even history magazines run ahead of the calendar) about Josef Radetzky is about his contemporary fame and his subsequent obscurity. Radetzky fought the Turks in the 1780’s, the French in 1813 and crushed the 1848 uprisings in Italy. Now, however, he is rarely recalled, except through an obscure 1932 novel, and Johan Strauss’ March in his honour.

In his lifetime, (1766 – 1858) he was hailed as a military genius; his accomplishments were lauded across Europe. At his death he lay in state in Milan, then in Vienna, and then in Heldenburg, where he was buried.  The Times of London compared him to Wellington, an honour which, at that time, no higher could be paid to a foreigner.

So why has Radetzky slipped into obscurity. The answer seems to be that he was just a bit unfortunate with the results of the timing of his achievements.

For example, from 1809 – 1817 he was chief of staff of the Austrian army. He has been described as the chief architect of the defeat of Napoleon. However, the major success of this time was the Battle of Leipzig and the 1813 – 1814 campaign. This led to Napoleon’s abdication, of course. But it was then overshadowed by Napoleon’s return and the subsequent Waterloo campaign, in which the Austrian army was no involved. Rather fewer people cared about the success in 1814 when it all had to be done again in 1815.

Similarly, Radetzky was the commander of Austrian forces in Italy in 1848. He ignored his superiors, went on the offensive, crushed the Piedmontese and pretty well finished the revolutionary war before it started. Again, he was badly served by history. His activities in Italy were undone within a year of his death as the Risorgimento took place. What might have happened if Radetzky had still been in command? It is, of course, hard to say, but Italy might look rather different today if he had.

So what happened? It is possibly, of course, that Radetzky’s achievements are still lauded in Austria and similar parts of the former Empire. Anglo-American historiography, however, has almost entirely ignored him.

Firstly, as noted, his main achievements were largely undone by the next steps in history. It is not exactly Radetzky’s fault that Napoleon escaped from Elba, or that Italy was reunified in a way which no-one expected. It is not his fault, either, that history can argue that Napoleon defeated himself in 1812 in Russia, and everything else was a mopping up operation. As a military officer Radetzky defeated Napoleon in 1809 at Aspern, and it could be claimed that Wagram was a stalemate. The politics of the situations overshadowed the purely military aspects.

Thus, in our historiography, at least, we remember Wellington and Nelson, but not Radetzky. But there is a wider and further framing question here. We can regard Radetzky as simply being on the wrong side of history. He fought for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which collapsed in 1918. Historians ever since have been picking over the corpse to establish the causes of that failure.  The empire, according to one view, was simply a conservative, reactionary state with little hope of surviving in the longer term anyway. Successes like Radetzky were just bumps in the road to inevitable failure and collapse. A multi-ethnic, multi-national empire like that could never survive the transition to modernism and the nation state. The empire was justly kicked out of Italy, Germany and, of course, was responsible for the outbreak of World War One. On this analysis Radetzky fought, and won, in vain.

Our interpretation of Radetzky thus lies in the frame in which we try to understand him. In the frame of 1813-1814 he might well stand as ‘the Great’, a Field Marshall of outstanding ability. But in the frame of even 1813-1815 his success is a little more nuanced; Leipzig was not the final world. Similarly, in the context of the 1848 revolutions, his contribution is a success, at least when viewed from the side of the Empire. By 1860 that view is much less focussing on success; it is overshadowed by subsequent events.

Of course, on an even broader canvas, Radetzky becomes ever less important. Most of the achievements he could lay claim to were undone by 1918. The Empire collapsed. The post-Napoleon Europe his victories achieved had died on the Western and Eastern fronts. From the viewpoint of this history, Radetzky is at best a side-show, a tragic figure trying to hold back the tide of historical inevitability.

Radetzky, of course, would not, and could not see it like that. He did what he had to do (all right, he did not have to father a child in his eighties on a woman who was not his wife). As chief of staff and governor in Italy, he did what the context of his times required. It is not his fault that he was on the wrong side of our current (or at least recent) historiographical debates and viewpoints. He would not have seen, I suspect, his activities as either tragic or irrelevant.

So hopefully this idea of framing history is coming into a little bit of perspective. The importance of someone is a function, at least in part, of the time frame we impose on them. Similarly, the importance of an event is, in part, a function of the time frame. Further, both are limited by our concepts of what happened next. Leipzig is trumped by Waterloo. Finally, the importance of people and events are also framed by our impressions of what went forward. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was doomed to fail (and it did, of course) and so anyone appearing to oppose that decline and fall is, simply put, irrelevant.

Saturday 12 November 2016

Historiographical Greatness

The discussion we have had about how Alexander III of Macedon came to be known as ‘the Great’ has been, to me, at least, fascinating. There is a great deal there about how we view, receive, and consume, even, history. Even those of you who basically said that Alexander was great are taking a historiographical view.  Greatness is, of course, is the eye of the beholder.

As was pointed out, other people through history have been given the epithet of ‘the Great’ – Peter, Catherine, Frederick, Alfred. In many cases it seems that this is so because they have a historical achievement to their name, or at least a set of spectacular bits of achievement which have accumulated around their name. Peter did a bit of westernising and beat the Swedes. Catherine did a bit of land expanding (not personally, I don’t think). Alfred did a bit of defending and brought in some literacy. And so on. Whether a leader is a great one depends on what you care to examine.

More recently, of course, there has been a decline in greatness. In part, I suspect, this is because historiography has changed rather. Instead of the ‘great man’ (or ‘great woman’} view of history, which allows alexander to conquer the world and gives him the credit, there has been the rise of other historiographical viewpoints.

I may have mentioned before that there are a variety of views about the causes, course and conclusion of the English Civil Wars (which were neither English nor Civil, but let us leave that argument for another day).  These views include religion, the rise of the gentry, the fall of the gentry, the poor weather in the first half of the seventeenth century, the fissiparous nature of the three kingdoms (and one principality), the increasing power of Parliament, the decreasing power of Parliament and so on.

Similarly, depending on what you focus on, you can make a case for the wars being won by Puritan discipline, or by the fact that the navy backed Parliament, or by the victory of the hard liners in London in 1644 leading to the creation of the New Model Army, and so on. History, and more importantly, the interpretation of history, is never that simple.

Perhaps that is why I do feel a little disappointed in those wargamers who simply argue that Alexander was great, and deserves his plus three on the general-ship dice. Firstly, they decline to engage in any historiographical comparisons, and secondly they miss out on a good deal of interesting stuff. Maybe Alexander was great, but he did have to work and win battles in a certain strategic and historical context. He had no access to machine guns, and so had to make the pike work as hard as possible.

The context in which any general works is something of a given. Generals are notorious for entering into a war ready to fight the last one, but as someone pointed out recently in the news, really, given funding constraints, particularly in peace time, the generals have little choice in the matter. Alexander came to the throne in a kingdom already committed to invading Asia; in fact, it already had done so. While it would be theoretically possible for Alexander to have withdrawn the expeditionary force, it would probably not have gone down too well at home. The invasion was pretty well forced upon him by circumstances.

Similarly, the arguments on the Parliamentary side in late 1644 pretty well forced a change in the nature of the armies and general-ship. A number of factors were recognised, implicitly if not explicitly. Firstly, and most importantly, there was the question of what winning the war might look like. What would happen if the war was lost was perfectly clear – the Parliamentary leaders would hang. What winning would look like was more difficult. How do you negotiate with a defeated king who is still king?

Despite these issues, the most pressing factor was that the war had to be won. This consisted in a number of facets, such as creating the NMA, although actually that army was only one of a number of forces operating in 1644-5. The difference is that Fairfax was permitted to do what it took to win the war without constantly referring to London. Thus came about the string of victories in the summer and autumn of 1645.

The freeing up of the military strategy of the Parliamentary forces was a major factor, but not the only factor, in winning the first Civil War. The country was weary of troops and fighting. Trade was depressed and taxation was high. Some sort of solution was needed. This is the context for the political decisions which eventually won the war.

What, then, of the great man thesis? Was Alexander just lucky to hit the Persian Empire just when it was at its most rocky? Did the political and economic situation in the Empire simply suit an invader with a reasonably good army that, even when he made mistakes, could fight its way out of trouble? These are historiographical questions, and are unlikely to be decided one way or the other.

On a similar theme, of course, we can question whether Cromwell was a great leader or just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Again, as I’ve tried to point out, the context was specific. The war was won before Cromwell really came to prominence as a war leader, but we see him as the person of the wars. Whig history of the late Victorian era has a lot to answer for here.

As I mentioned, there are no real answers here. The evidence is, broadly speaking, given. All we argue about are interpretations. In ECW studies, the debate is swinging back from the Marxist sort of economic and radical politics explanations towards to view that the major problems were the King himself and unresolved (and probably, unresolvable) issues in religion, which themselves related back to differences between Charles and a lot of his subjects. But this is a change of interpretation, a change of emphasis in how we view the importance of what was going on. We could suggest that it has arisen as a consequence of the realisation that in the contemporary world, religion is more important than the secular Marxist historians might have thought.

But the point, I think, is that the question is never quite so straightforward as ‘was Alexander the great?’

Saturday 5 November 2016

Alexander the What?

I have by my side two books, both of them interesting in their own way, but between them I think they augment the point I was trying to make last time about the framing we do when we do history. Indeed, there was no post last week because I was trying to finish the second book, as I had already had this as an idea.

The first of the books I want to discuss is ‘The Genius of Alexander the Great, by Nicholas Hammond (1997, London: Duckworth). Hammond was a well known classical scholar, and did an awful lot of work of Greece and Macedon during the classical age. The thesis of the book is well summed up in the title: Alexander was not just the Great, but he was a genius. His logistics were first rate, for example. His military acumen was second to none.  He set out to, and achieved, conquest of the known world and, if others had not go cold feet, he would have conquered the rest of it as well. Indeed, had an early death not overcome him, he would have got as far as the Gates of Hercules within another campaigning season or so.

In this, of course, Hammond has to explain a few bits of history away. For example, Darius got between Alexander’s army and his base just before Issus, which does not seem to be the mark of a particularly great leader. We all have bad days at the office, granted, but Alexander had to rely on his army to fight their way out of the predicament. Similarly, the debacle in leading part of the army across the desert has to be explained, especially in the light of the excellent logistical mind that Hammond credits Alexander with.

There are a few other anomalies that have to be smoothed over, as well, such as drunkenness and murder, but on the whole, Hammond’s alexander is a rather likeable chap, at least in terms of despots of the era, who could do a nice turn is cross-cultural relations and with whom you could have a drink (or seventeen).

The other book is Alexander the Great Failure, by John D Grainger (2007, Continuum: London). I do not think that Grainger is a classicist, but a more general historian. In fact I recall reading one of his previous books, Cromwell Against the Scots, which finished with an appeal for England and Scotland to remain united, on the basis that when they fell out, mayhem and military government ensued.

Grainger’s point is that alexander did nothing to fix any of the problems he inherited from his father, including the personal nature of the Macedonian monarchy. This caused problems in Macedonia when the king was absent, as Alexander was for most of the time. He also failed to fix the heir, by, despite being urged to before invading Asia, not marrying and begetting a son. In the end, he did gain an heir, but that heir was posthumous and got murdered before any significant activity too place.

Aside from that, Grainger rather grudgingly admits that Alexander was a good commander, although he points out that Macedonian progress in Asia would have been harder if Darius III had been more secure on the throne, and the Egyptians had been less restive. The biggest charge against Alexander that is laid is that he failed to sort any administration out for the conquered areas. They were left to Macedonians he appointed, or, more frequently, the already existing satraps were left in post. They quite frequently revolted.

Grainger’s evidence for Alexander’s failure comes from pushing beyond his death in the historical record. The collapse of Alexander’s empire was not, according to Grainger, inevitable, even on Alexander’s early death. Several of the successors had a good go at conquering the empire and holding it, but all failed. If Alexander had had a viable, teenage heir, then the empire might have held together. But he did not, and it fell apart as the successors lost trust in each other, and grabbed what they could hold.

The upshot of this is that the empire collapsed. The eastern satraps became independent, or were reconquered by the resurgent Indian states. Macedonia was exhausted and failed to defend itself from the Galatian invasion, and the successor states slugged it out to mutual exhaustion and, in doing so, permitted power to arise further west, in the shape of Rome, which eventually conquered the whole lot.

The interesting thing about these two accounts is that, whichever one you might like, they are both based on the same set of historical data. There are no new facts, no astounding discoveries in either volume. Both base their account of the reign of Alexander and beyond on the existing historical record. So far as I can tell, neither author has bent that record out of shape to accommodate their views.

We have, then, what we can call a ‘maximal’ and a ‘minimal’ view of Alexander. Maximally, with Hammond, we can call him a genius. Minimally, with Grainger, we can call him a disaster. Either view is acceptably academic: it is based on reasonable interpretations of the sources. Both authors admit that there is a lot we will never know about Alexander and his forebears and successors.

So we have here two historical frames, one in which Alexander is the Great, and one in which he is a failure. Which do we choose? Do we have to choose?

In fact, I don’t think that the two pictures are incompatible. Grainger admits that Alexander was a good general. Hammond does not really discuss administration. But somewhere in these (perhaps rather extreme) views of Alexander there might be considered to be some ‘truth’, whatever that might be. As historical wargamers, are we committed to a framework of history for the specific periods we game in?

We could wonder if this mattered, but I think it does, even at the level of whether Alexander gets +3 on his command dice for being a genius, or being at -1 for being a drunkard. Somehow, we have to make a judgment.

Saturday 22 October 2016

Wargame Frames

A wargame table is a frame for the action which takes place upon it. Whether it is a lovingly detailed miniature reconstruction of an actual battlefield, or a hastily slapped together chalk and felt concoction, it still frames the action. What I mean by ‘frame’ is a bit diffuse, though.

To start with, the wargamer has come to a decision, somehow, about where the game action is going to be. This might be as part of a campaign, whereby the narrative of the campaign drives the location of the action. It could be a scenario, or simply a player designating the crossroads as of strategic importance. By some sort of decision we come to the conclusion that this is where the action is going to be.

By this act we have ‘framed’, in an important way, the wargame we are going to have. In a wargame there are two distinct areas: on the table, and off the table.  What happens on the table is the subject of our attention. What happens off the table we need to make a conscious decision to consider.  The frame focusses our attention, and defocuses it on other things.

The same is true in a play or a film. The stage, the camera angle and location, frame what we see or do not see. In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth’s suicide occurs off stage. In part, of course, this is because it is rather hard to stage someone throwing themselves off a battlement (although they manage it in Tosca), but it also shows the distance that has grown between husband and wife. Macbeth shrugs off her death as something that would have happened anyway. The focus remains on Macbeth and his actions and inactions. The frame ensures our attention remains focussed.

In novels and other written works a similar, although perhaps more subtle, focussing occurs. I have spent a part of the last few weeks trying to convince some research students that they cannot just chuck everything they have done in the last few years into a thesis. Firstly, they will not have room, and secondly it will just be a confused mess. They have to pick their material, choose an angle, a viewpoint, and develop that. One of them quoted myself back to me: The hard thing about thesis writing is choosing what not to put in. That sounds a bit too profound for me, but it is probably true.

So it is with historical writing, I think. An angle is chosen, the data amassed, but a choice still has to be made. In the book on the 1659 Commonwealth, the frame, in this case a time frame, has to be chosen: April – November. The geographical frame is a bit easier, perhaps, it being Great Britain, but as I noted a week or two ago that is not too easy as foreign policy, both to outlying bits of England and towards other states has to be considered. Nevertheless, the material has to be organised and decision made about inclusion and exclusion, which to consign to foot notes and which to write paragraphs about. This is an ongoing exercise in framing.

Wargames are no different, I think. We choose what to focus on and, inevitably, choose what to ignore or downgrade. This sort of framing activity occurs across the different activities of staging a wargame. It can also have different results. For example, the fact that side A had five crossbowmen may be ignored in a game where hundreds of men are represented. Where each side is 20 men in a skirmish game, then those five crossbowmen take on a new importance. There is not just a frame of action, but a frame of scale.

The frame of action is where the attention is. Over the years I have read a wide variety of wargame rules, and one of the things that I find interesting to see is how the author deals with troops that go ‘off table’. They have left the frame of attention; how do we handle that? Some rules leave them there for a turn or two and then allow them to re-enter the frame. Some rules count them as lost. Some count them as half-value for the purposes of deciding who won, and so on. The point is that the unit being within or outwith the frame matters. We struggle to deal with such situations.

I think this point is exacerbated by the habit of wargamers of filling up the tables with troops. I confess to being guilty of this, but perhaps I have grown up (or grown lazy) and my table is now far bigger than the location of the action is likely to be. There are now no flanks anchored in empty space on the left or right wing. Troops rarely run off the table unless they rout there. The action is, of course, focussed in one part of the table, but at least I can see that part in some sort of context.  Of course, I have yet to solve the problem of the action taking place in one small corner of the table, yielding the same problems as above, but a big enough table is a start, at least.

Framing our wargames is something we cannot do without. Any realistic wargame of, say, Waterloo is not going to be able to cover the march of the Prussians and Grouchy’s  corps as well. In this case we can self-consciously wave the issue away with some sort of timetable for their arrival on table. Perhaps the more tricky issue is when we are not conscious of our framing and its consequences.  In a historical battle the time framing might be more important. You would get a different view of the options in many battles depending on what stage, precisely, you took for the start of the game.

So there are many facets, I think, to framing our games, and I have probably only touched on one or two here. There would be many more, depending on our reading of history, categorising of troop types and so on. I think the point is that we need to make ourselves conscious of our framing activity.

Saturday 15 October 2016

More Spiritual Wargaming

There is usually a range of opinion regarding some of the posts I make to this blog, and last week one on ‘The Spirituality of Wargaming’ is no exception. As you have probably already noticed, the term ‘spirituality’ was intentionally left vague. Any attempt to nail it down runs the risk of becoming like those sociologists of religion who try to understand what people mean when they say they are ‘spiritual but not religious’. To be honest, that expression reminds me of a Not the Nine O’clock News sketch called, I think ‘The Agnostic’s Creed’, which began ‘I believe in God, or at least it stands to reason that there is something out there, doesn’t it; did you see that program on BBC2?’ I dare say someone can dig up a YouTube clip of it….

Anyway, I chose the term ‘spiritual’ to differentiate some parts of wargaming, those which go on in our heads, from the material components of wargaming, the soldiers, terrain and so on. One of the things that does go on in our heads is the narrative component of the game. Someone on The Miniatures Page commented that the last post was a long winded way of saying that we liked the narrative part of the game. That would, I think, be true (I’ve never made claims to brevity, here) but I do not think it is the whole story.

Another comment was to the end of someone plonking badly painted figures on the table and attempting to use all the rule tricks in the book to win the game. There is nothing, I suppose, intrinsically wrong with that, but it is not really helping anyone else whose interest might be in the narrative flow, the imaginative parts of the game. We could describe our figure plonker (for want of a better expression) as a wargaming materialist, in the sense that the other aspects of the wargame mean less to them. That is not to say, I suppose, that winning is a material aspect of the game, but that the material parts, such as just using the figures as counters, count for more.

This is, I think, where it starts to be shown that even the material aspects of the game have a spiritual expression. The Estimable Mrs P used to tease me massively about the advent of ‘Grey Armies’, those unpainted figures that you just wanted (at least, in the first flush of youth) to get onto the table and have a game with. Maybe it was an expression of enthusiasm, or youthful callowness, but now, as a solo wargamer, I still shudder a bit to recall that I did use unpainted figures. It is not something I would consider doing now.

The point, at which I am slowly and long windedly aiming, is that the material components of the wargame can also have a spiritual dimension. In the book about the Spirituality of wine, which started this whole idea, the author comments that there are few pleasures in the world better than slowly sipping a glass of well-crafted wine in good company, and preferably with good food as well. In terms of human social activity, she is probably right.
In terms of wargaming activity, what is the equivalent? I think, and I am becoming more convinced of it as I get older, that a wargame with nicely painted figures on nicely made and laid out terrain, with a good reason for having a wargame (a scenario or as part of a campaign) is probably as good as wargaming gets. The rest is down to the company. Using half- or un-painted figures detracts from that. Having a game just because you want a game also detracts from it. It is not that such a sort of game is a bad thing, but that it is not the best. In the same way that industrial-technology wine turned out by the million bottles is better than no wine at all, any wargame is better than none, but should we not, as wargamers, be aiming for the best games that we can have, the best overall experience?

Most wargamers, I think, would agree. The quantity of effort that goes into, say, demonstration games at shows is remarkable. The figure painting, terrain making and so on are true creations of a craft form which, in many other walks of life, is being squeezed out. And, perhaps, there, in that last sentence, it the key to the pleasures of wargaming, and also, maybe, to the paradox of the hobby.

If nothing else, wargaming, as I have described it, is creative. We create our soldiers, our units, our armies. Even though many of us buy toy soldiers, their painting and basing is our creation. The terrain too is ours. The Estimable Mrs P looked in on a Fuzigore game once, there the Romans were being ambushed, and noted that the terrain was creative, the game narrative was so as well. As a hobby, wargaming can release our creative expression, even if the rest of life consists in sitting in front of computer screens.

The paradox this reveals, of course, is that warfare is anything but creative. Wars, at least as they have been practiced in the twentieth century, are the ultimate in the capacity of the human race for destruction. Even before the unleashing of the destructive powers of the military-industrial complex, wars could be seriously destructive. You only have to read Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis to realise that.

And yet some part of humanity can work with that destructiveness and turn it into something creative. Even a Second World War Russian front game can have an aesthetic creativity to it. It is most emphatically not my thing, but I can accept that, to those interested, the wargaming activity can be a thing of aesthetic pleasure. Perhaps it is just that there is nothing so awful that humanity cannot redeem it a little bit. I am not sure. But I can see it happening.

So I shall leave this one on this note of paradox. Creativity in chaos; a wargame full of craft and aesthetic delight from a field of destruction. What will we think of next?

Saturday 8 October 2016

The Spirituality of Wargaming

Now, there is a title to send most readers, of whatever religious persuasion, running for the nearest hill, or, possible, loading up their intercontinental ballistic armoury of arguments for God / atheism /whatever-ism you might choose, and aiming it in the general direction of chez Polemarch. Please don’t. A blog post is hardly a cause for a flame war and, anyway, if that is what you are thinking of doing, this blog post will be a sad disappointment to you.

The estimable Mrs P has been reading a book about the spirituality of wine. Yes, really, she has and, I am told, it is very good, written by a real vintner. It is now on my book pile, but I thought I would pre-empt my reading of it by pondering what sort of spirituality goes along with wargaming. You might consider that the answer to that is ‘none’, but I think I might, by the end of the post, respectfully demur.

Right, well, obviously, wargaming is about toy soldiers being pushed around on tables. Actually, that is only one sort of wargaming. Role playing games may also have miniatures, but they do not have to. Similarly, computer games have figures, but they are not material. And that is surely the first point about spirituality and wargaming. A wargame happens much more in the mind than on the table.

I have mentioned before that the wargame figures, singly or in blocks, on the table are a sort of counter, a symbol of the unit they represent. To some extent the counter has resemblances to the original (assuming that there is one, in fact or fiction). It shows us what the unit is, horse or foot, perhaps something about its capabilities too. But the fact that, for example, coloured pieces of lead or cardboard mean something is imputed by the human mind. A wargame is not, or at least, not only, something material. A lot of it goes on in our heads.

There is something, therefore, transcendent about a wargame. It is something beyond the material, empirical world of the figures on the table. The figures are only part of it. The rules, similarly, are part of but do not exhaust the wargame. We need them to conduct the game, granted, but in all honesty, as someone who has perpetrated a few rule sets, they are pretty dull. Reading a set of wargame rules is not going to convert anyone to wargaming as a hobby.

The real part of a wargame, I suspect, which does get the pulses racing (albeit in a rather relaxed, staid sort of way) is the imagination. The figures on the table, the terrain, the rules and so on go together to make something interesting, and that interest is sustained by our imaginations. The lancer’s charge on the square is interesting. It captures our imagination. We crane over the relevant dice rolls to see what will happen. Our joy or disappointment is due, at least in part, to our imagination of the drama of the event.

A boring wargame, therefore, is one which does not do this. That does not mean, I think, that a one sided wargame is necessarily boring. There are always dramatic incidents along the way. The drama is in, say, how many of Blue force can escape before they are trapped. The fact that Red will inevitably win does not necessarily to create a dull game. A boring game is one where there is no drama.

I suppose I could go on along this theme, but I think there are other things going on with regard to the spirituality of the game. Why, for example, do so many of us spend so much time and effort in painting figures to the best of our ability? I suspect that the answer is something to do with the transcendence of the game. We want our figures to represent the best we can do. This of course varies from one wargamer to the next (I am, I happily confess, a fairly rubbish painter. But it is the best I can do). As objects of our imagination, our figures seem to somehow represent us. ‘This is what UI can do’ they say. Somehow, the figure is me.

All of this seems to add up to a statement that materialism is wrong, or at least that empiricism is not the whole story. Our wargames mean something beyond the mere pushing of objects around a table. The figures mean something to us, and within the narrative of the wargame itself. The narrative of the game is something that is hard to project. Many blogs ‘write up’ the battles the author engages in. I confess, I find them hard to follow. Even a large quantity of pictures and a good description does not ease this difficulty. I think that is because the word and image cannot capture the drama of the game.

A further point might also be that the drama of the game is intrinsic within the game itself. The dramatic crux of the whole story is one that can only be seen in retrospect. The story of, say, Marston Moor could have several cruxes, so to speak: the Scots running away early crying ‘Wae’s us, we’re all undone’, or the destruction of the Parliamentarian right could have been the points at which the battle was lost and won. As it happens, they were not, but that was not obvious to the participants. It is only in retrospect that the importance of these and other events can be described.

Thus, at least in the sense that a wargame is more than the material, a wargame is spiritual. Of course, any pure empiricist out there will be spitting nails by now, or priming their missiles, as described above. If so, I hope they try to identify, before committing to launch, exactly why they are so upset. I fear they might find that it is nothing to do with the empirical realm. It might just be because their beliefs, those things so hard to pin down empirically, have been undermined.

Saturday 1 October 2016

Constructing the Past

It would seem that I am back. I confess, my enforced silence over the last month has not been all due to eye problems, but a severe outbreak of Real Life has also contrived to drive me from the keyboard. Still, RL seems to be settling down into its more usual torpor, and I have nearly finished the treatment for the eye, so I think it is high time to get back into the saddle and ride off on further adventures in the weird world of wargames.

I have not, as you might imagine, actually done an awful lot of wargaming in the past month or so. I did finish off the wargame which was on table at the point of my eye giving up. The Persians won, in case you were interested, defeating the Thracian horde and occupying the port. They did not even need to burn it. I learnt a lot about my rule set from the game, mostly glaring bits that I had missed out.

Aside from that, I have attempted to regain my painting mojo, and did fifteen 6 mm Moorish cavalry figures. They are now awaiting basing, along with the other lot I did in, um, January. My only excuse is that I painted 151 ancient galleys between the two. But painting has not been going well this year.

The point of the title is, perhaps, a bit contentious. The argument behind it is that we cannot reconstruct the past. That is, we do not have sufficient evidence to reconstruct the past. The mind set of, say, a first century AD Stoic is inaccessible to us. To read, say, the Letters of St Paul, about how his flock once were pagans asleep in their sins but now they have turned to the true Way is not, really, to give us any insight into what pagan worship was, nor what the people thought they were doing when they did ‘turn away’ from their sinful lives and put on Christ. We simply do not have access to the world view that might have made sense of this.

To put the same point another way, we know that units of the Roman army built altars and sacrificed on them to the gods. Exactly what they thought they were doing or achieving by this is obscure. We know that it happened; it is just that the world view is alien to us. There is a gap, so to speak, between the evidence of something occurring and an understanding of why it occurred.

Of course, we can use intelligent guess work. There is a certain amount of evidence of, for example, thank offerings for safe return of individuals from perilous journeys. It does not take an awful lot of imagination to suggest that perhaps the units were making offerings for similar sorts of things, or perhaps just general thanksgiving for getting through  another year. Whatever the regime, the human soul will usually find a way of celebrating something, somehow.

However, we do need to be cautious. Ezra Pound once wrote a fragment of a poem in the style of Sappho:
Too long…
What tends to happen is that the blanks are filled in by enthusiastic editors and translators:
Spring [sends forth the flowers, but for me]
Too long [have I suffered with desire for the lovely]
Gongyla [who has departed]
The bits in square brackets are the editorial insertions. They tell us nothing about Sappho, even assuming that the fragment came from her. They tell us a lot more (often, an awful lot more than we want to know) about the editor, the translator, and their times.

In part this is inevitable, but we need to be careful. The first annals of Alexander the ‘Great’ we have were written four hundred years or so after his death. Granted, Arrian may have had access to ancient sources. He certainly claimed to have done. But what can we really be certain of? After all, Paul’s letters were a lot more contemporary with his subject than Arrian’s Anabasis was to Alexander.  As I mentioned, despite Paul’s letters, access to its world view is difficult, if not impossible.

The problem is, then, that we insert our own ideas and concepts into the ancient text. We can view Alexander as a great man, a glorious general leading an obscure, peripheral nation onto the world stage. In that sense we can project ideas of, say, Nelson and the British Empire back onto the ancient world. Here is a man who did everything, beat the odds and so on.

On the other hand, we can view alexander as a destructive force, exporting war to otherwise peaceful parts of the world, destroying nations and ways of life. He can be portrayed as a ruthless power-monger, and drunken, deluded despot. One modern view of Alexander has him as ‘a reckless alcoholic, a vicious psychopath, and a destructive barbarian.’

How true are these views? Did Alexander export destruction of Greek civilisation? Is the former view, that of a despotic destroyer, a child of our age of anti-imperialist suspicion? Is the view that he exported what later became known as Hellenism only important because the Romans made it part of the civilization of the western world? Of course, there is the possibility that the collapse of the view of classical civilisation as being the highest point of aim for society could also play a part in our turn against Alexander as a good thing.

This does affect us as wargamers. Firstly, there is an issue of epistemology in history. We do not know many of the things we would like to know about the military forces we put on the table. We have to approximate, make best use of the sources and, in short, guess. History was not written for us.

Secondly, our view of the past is inevitably shaped by both our zeitgeist and the historiography that we read. If we stick with early twentieth century history, we may well find a historiography that is approving of empire building. The second half of the century is probably the opposite view. Exporting civilisation becomes imperial colonialism. What Alexander did moves from a glorious campaign of bringing enlightenment to the masses to a despotic, nearly fascist, destruction of an alternate world.

Which should we wargame? Does it really matter?

Saturday 27 August 2016

A Short Intermission

I have to say that I am suffering a bit with an eye problem, to the extent of spending an afternoon in our local ‘Eye Casualty’ department. It turned out to be quite big and busy. I was entirely unaware of its existence until earlier in the week.

Anyway, the upshot of this is that I have an eye problem, which is being treated with more drops than you can shake a stick up, which is making seeing out a bit of a problem at times. I am assured that this will pass quite quickly, but as this is being typed one-eyed, I’m not sure how easy it will be to turn out my usual article every week or two.

Thus: there will (probably) be a short intermission in broadcasts.

I’m told the maximum length of time this will last is seven weeks. At present I am in the glorious situation of being chauffeured by the estimable Mrs P and observing the world through a mist. I am still thinking about stuff, however and even, in my study, am half-way through a rules test / wargame. I have already discovered holes in the rules that you could drive a bus through.

Anyway, don’t go away, or at least check back sometime soon, but there will probably be a short intermission until I can see (and hence function) properly. There is nothing like an incident like this to remind one of how important sight is.

Meanwhile, the Estimable Mrs P. is attempting to establish who the patron saint of eyes is. Any ideas?

Saturday 20 August 2016

Global Crisis

Yes, this is another boring book review that will have most red-blooded wargamers reaching for the soap opera button.  But of course, I read these books and tell you about them so that you do not have to. And so to Geoffrey Parker’s ‘Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century’ (2013: Yale University Press, New Haven).

Geoffrey Parker’s is a name that should be familiar to any serious historical wargamer with an interest in sixteenth and seventeenth century history. He has written extensively on such subjects as the Thirty years War, the Dutch revolt and the ‘Military Revolution’ which, according to some ideas around, gave Europe the military power to start to dominate the globe in the succeeding two centuries. As serious historians go, he certainly has the track record to produce a synthesis on the scale of the title of the book.

The book is long and complex, the the overall thesis is fairly simple. Parker  identifies the fact that the sixteenth century was fairly benign climatically, and that, overall, the world population expanded, with agriculture extended into more marginal areas. In the early Seventeenth Century, the global climate cooled. A 0.1 degree C cooling reduces that growth time of crops by one day. This may not sound serious, but it also increases the probability of crop failure and the probability of double crop failure substantially. If you are already farming on marginal land,  the combination of these factors is catastrophic: the population can no longer feed itself.

To famine is then added the problems of disease. There were few methods of disease control in the early seventeenth century, and smallpox and the plague were rife. For example the Manchu high command was decimated during the war with the Ming through exposure to smallpox, as were the Native American populations in North America. The Manchu eventually ordered that only smallpox survivors could assume high command positions.

This indicates that third issue associated with the century: war. Political leaders across most of the world showed an unerring instinct for increasing the miseries of their people by choosing to go to war just as the crops failed. At the least, this lead to an increase in tax demands on a people whose ability to pay was already compromised. At worst it entirely depopulated areas of their country. As statistical services were almost unknown, rulers largely decided that the population were simply being recalcitrant and started to increase demands and threaten. This led, almost inevitably, to revolts and in extreme cases (Portugal, Catalonia, Naples, Palermo, Ireland, Scotland, England, China, Muscovy, Ukraine…) to war, civil or not.

These causes are interlinked. Agricultural communities under stress have few options, assuming that quietly starving to death is rejected. There is an increase in banditry. People flee to the cities. Political chancers take advantage of the unrest to make a stab at glory. On the other side, governments struggle with commitments far larger than income, and attempts to maximise taxation also causes unrest.

The upshot of all this is a world of starvation, disease and war. The best estimate available is that around one third of the world population died between roughly 1618 and 1688. Some governments did better than others ar staving off the problems. For example, the Moghul Empire weathered the Little Ice age slightly better than others, because its hinterland was bigger and its wars were at the periphery. Thus the bulk of the population were spared some of the traumas of warfare, and fared a little better, at least until later in the century.

The top spot for surviving the crisis was Japan. On the other hand, this seems to be because the wars of the Sixteenth Century had so depopulated the country before the Little Ice Age hit that there was no food crisis. A strng central government also kept the lid on popular unrest, and built a string of granaries across the country to help in times of crisis. Strict control over foreign traders also helped reduce the issues of epidemics, although this was not quite as total as we are often led to believe. Nevertheless, if you wanted to survive in the mid-seventeenth century world, and did not mind too much about your freedoms, Japan was the place to be.

Other places fared much worse. Louis XIV probably rules over fewer people in 1700 than he did in 1661. Not only that, but his soldiers were shorter, averaging 5’ 3”, due to the famines in the later part of the Seventeenth Century. Constant war from the 1630’s through most of the rest of the century dislocated French society. The soldiers of the early eighteenth century were short (try representing that on the table).

Britain fared little better. Between 1638 and 1651 it is estimated that half a million people died. This is on a population of about 5 million, and represents a larger proportionate death toll than the First World War. In places, such as Ireland, things were worse. In Germany, as well, although the scene is patchy, some areas lost half or more of their population. Parker notes that the possibility of recovery in population is lost if women marry later, as they tend to in times of dearth and crisis. A woman marrying at 28 rather than 18 has ‘lost’ three children, more or less. It took a century or more for some areas to recover their population numbers to the 1600 level.

Parker’s book is designed as something of a warning. There may be arguments over the reason for climate change (most of them sponsored by the fossil fuel industry) and politicians are easily bought, especially those who have no knowledge, interest, or desire to learn anything about science. Sometimes it feels like what passes for acceptable in some areas would be termed corrupt in others.  However, even discounting these arguments, the climate is changing, and does change. It is a dynamic system, after all. We have, Parker notes, the technological and intellectual equipment to do rather better than our seventeenth century forebears in dealing with and anticipating the problems this will cause. However, there is little evidence of political will to do so.

Overall, Global Crisis is an excellent book, packed full with treats and delights for the wargamer from places across the globe. For me, the description of the Manchu versus Ming wars were very interesting, although, as with the rest of the book, the death, suffering and destruction created by the wars give the whole work a very downbeat flavour.

Buy it and read it. Read it and weep.

Saturday 13 August 2016

Long and Short Period Rules

One of the things I have often banged on about here is that rules which cover a long period of time cannot represent a given, much shorter period, very well. Thus, I would contend that DBM cannot really represent a Romans vs Gauls battle in anything but the most abstract, bland and sweeping manner. The fact that it can even try is a testament to the utility of the rules, that fact that it is a allowed to do si is a testament to wargamer’s ability to accept something that is not chocked out with period ‘flavour’.

I recently commented to someone that sweeping rule sets have a place in wargaming. Given the above, the response was ‘OK, well, what is it, exactly’, and I have been pondering my response ever since. Not that I think I have a particularly original or clever response, but I do think that it throws up something to be considered, even if I cannot manage much about it.

Anyway, for what it is worth: history has both continuity and discontinuity. For thousands of years, until roughly the widespread use of handguns, battles were decided by men with pointy sticks. I know that this can, of course, be highly nuanced, and that the type of pointy stick can also be relevant. Further, of course, the pointy stick brigade can and were more or less ably supported by assorted chariots, horsemen, skirmishers, archers, elephants and so on. Context is important, naturally, but the fact is that most men on a battlefield at a given time had some form of pointy stick with them.

The pointy stick bearer is, therefore, a sign of continuity across history. We could, in fact, argue that pointy stick holders are still with us, that they did not vanish after about 1700 in Western Europe, but were subsumed into the musketeer with a bayonet. The combination of ranged fire and the staying power of the pointy-stick (or assault value, if you like – it depends on how you view the pointy-stick) combined to make the infantryman more or less irresistible. If we accept this argument, we have to accept that the bearer of a pointy stick, in all its guises, signifies continuity across military history.

The corollary to this, in terms of wargame rules, is that if we can get our rules for the bearer of a pointy stick right, across all ages, then we can have a go at creating a truly universal set of rules, valid for all time from Ancient Sumerians to the Ardennes and beyond. Of course, we recognise some breaks in this continuity. Gunpowder made people change stuff, as did the advent of the machine gun and tank. However, we can just then divide history into broad sweeps, such as ‘Ancient’ (to 1500), ‘Horse and Musket’ (1500 – 1875) and ‘Modern’ (1875 – present). Instead of writing one universal set of rules, we need three sets.

Of course, the continuity implied in this view of history also suggests that we only, really, need one set of rules, with bolt on extras which add to the basic set, say, gunpowder weapons, and then another add on automatic weapons, and then some extra bits for air power.  The idea here Is still that continuity is stronger than change.

A set of rules that covers a broad period, as described, is focussing on the continuities of history. The fact that a man from 1500 BC and one from 1500 AD is armed in more or less the same way, or at least is deployed and used tactically in more or less the same way, allows us to sweep history up into a few abstract categories. The man is the universal solider – PS(O) – and everything can be derived from him.

This does, of course, miss an awful lot of nuance. A Roman legionary was not the same as a French Medieval Knight. The world views of the two were poles apart. The details of their training, deployment, expectations and so on were simply not the same. At one level we can subsume them both into a ‘swordsman’ class, but at another we cannot. A subsuming set of rules is missing an awful lot of change as it focusses closely on the continuity of warfare.

We could ask whether this matters at all. A wargame, at the end of the day, is just a game. Historical accuracy is less relevant than having fun. If I like to play Vikings against samurai then that is my decision. I might even accept that it is ahistorical, a match up has no bearing on reality, but if the game is the thing, and I have fun, no-one is seriously going to challenge me, are they?

Of course, no-one is going to challenge anything in particular. It is a game, we do not have to grant history that much respect if we do not wish to. But the wargame is only then a bit of fluff, a romantic comedy at Cannes. There is no particular meaning to a Viking against Samurai match; it simply lives in a world of its own, cut off from any meaning.

If we wish to take things only a little more seriously, we have to have some regard to the changes that are implied in the less sweeping views of history. These are the things that make history to be history, after all. Prince Rupert’s cavalry did not behave like the Chasseurs a Cheval of the Napoleonic era. They did not behave like the Gendarmes of the previous century. They were, in short, themselves. Attempting to fit Rupert’s cavalry into a different category will simply result in bits being chopped off the original’s behaviour.

So, yes, there is a place for sweeping rules which emphasise the continuities across history. A solider in 1501 did not behave differently, particularly, from one in 1499, even though we might sweep the two into different eras, different rule sets. In which case a set of rules covering 1499 – 1501 would be more accurate, at least in some uses of the term ‘accurate’. But what they are will have to wait for another post. 

Saturday 6 August 2016


Historiography must be a really odd thing. Historians, it seems, can be more driven by ideology than by, well, given what I have said before, I hesitate to use to word ‘facts’, but if all the usual caveats applying, historical facts. Interpretation against a matrix of ideological concepts seems to be the way some history is done.

I, as no doubt many of you, will know the sort of thing. The most obvious example in my experience is the English Civil War, where you have Marxist concepts, such as the rise of the bourgeoisie, encountering revisionist concepts, such as that King Charles I was fairly useless as a monarch.

The thing that has always rather intrigued me is that few of these committed historians seem to allow that both sides could, in a sense, be correct. There is no particular reason, it seems to me as a naïve and un-ideologically committed non-historian, why the rise of the bourgeoisie could not run along in parallel with Charles I being a bit incompetent. Maybe that is why I stay a humble physicist. All this political commitments is a bit beyond me: your experiment works or it does not. An ideological commitment to it working cuts no ice in nature.

In the August 2016 edition of History Today, Professor Jeremy Black has a short piece about counterfactuals in history. Professor Black has a bit of a track record in advocating counterfactuals as part of the historical process. The idea, he suggests, is that the historian could be able to see the possible decisions that historical actors could have made, and, from the options available, obtain some idea as to what might have happened (or at least, what might have been perceived by the actor to be the likely outcome) and thus some idea of why the choice was made as it was.

My usual example of this is Prince Rupert at York. There he is, with a letter from his uncle which says, basically ‘save York, save my crown; lose York, lose my crown’. He has just out-maneuvered  the Parliamentary and Scottish armies that were besieging the place, and has to decide what to do next. He decided to fight, and lost Marston Moor. Rupert has often been condemned for this decision. But the question that a counterfactual analysis can ask is ‘what other options did he have?’

He could, of course, have stayed in York until his opponents marched away, but York had been besieged and there may not have been enough food and fodder for his men. The besiegers, after all, had eaten a fair bit during the siege, and the Royalist supply lines would have been rather tenuous with three enemy armies in the offing.

Rupert could have reinforced York with his foot and struck south with the cavalry. This would have almost certainly have led Manchester’s army to follow him to protect their bases in the Eastern Association. But that would still have left York besieged, by two armies. Rupert would almost certainly have had to return to relieve it again.

Another option was to do what he did, and fight. He could have delayed deploying and fought after the garrison had recovered a bit, but that ran the risk of his opponents recovering from their surprise at his being in York at all, and of Rupert’s army, which had been dashing around the country relieving places for a couple of months, getting stuck in York itself, which was not a great prospect, as already noted. Further to this, his army was largely borrowed, and the longer they were away from their bases, the more likely those bases would be captured by the enemy.

Even a quick look at his options (and Rupert at this stage does not seem to be someone who indulged in lengthy introspection and pondering of his options) seems to indicate that fighting, and fighting fast, was the most likely option to obtain his objectives, that of making York safe for the Royalists. Of course, it was a gamble, but the relief of York itself was a gamble, and it had, at least, paid off. A similar situation earlier in the year, at Newark, has similarly paid dividends. It is probably that Rupert knew, as well, that the King needed a quick victory before the resources of Parliament overwhelmed the Royalist cause.

A counterfactual analysis can therefore help in working out why an individual acted in the way they did. However, to return to ideology, there is in some ‘left’ history a view that history is deterministic. Rupert would lose anyway, because Cromwell’s army was made up of ideologically motivated proto-Marxists, and they were of the rising merchant class and would inevitably conquer the world. Something like that, I may be exaggerating a little. Counterfactuals turn that around and focus on the events and decisions which people made. History is contingent; it is not just the activity of forces over the ages which we are helpless to control.

In historiography, then, counterfactuals tend to be the weapon of the ‘right’ against the determinism of the ‘left’. Individuals can make a difference, they do have options. There is a constant input of decision made into historical process. And this is where wargaming might come in.

A historical wargame, of course, is a sort of a model of some sort of historical situation. The set up, and the existence of the battle at all, is not part of the decision matrix the gamers have control over, but the process of the battle is. We can and do play the ‘what-if’ game. What if Rupert had deployed a few hundred meters further back? What if the initial break in the Scot’s ranks had spread panic through the right wing? And so on. A wargame is an overall processor of these sorts of contingencies and decisions.

This is set against the ideas of Marxist determinists. The outcome of the battle, according to this view, is hardly relevant. What matters are the other factors, particularly the economic factors, affecting both sides. On that basis, with control of the navy and of London, Parliament wins. The rest is detail.

Without wishing to commit to the ideology of either side, it does seem to me that history is a lot more complex than the Marxists think.