Saturday 7 May 2016

What Kind of Historian are You?

A long, long time ago, there was a young, enthusiastic, fresh faced wargamer. He could reel off lists of battles; describe weapons systems, fortifications and the methods of siege warfare, some of the politics behind the battles and campaigns, and so on. He could describe armour, munitions, logistical assets, artillery, how many horses it took to drag the guns along and so on, and so on.

One day, one of his parents, in a mix of frustration and anxiety, said to him ‘You know a lot about the battles, but what about anything else? What did the people eat? How did they eat it?’

Our wargamer was not perturbed or brought up short by the question, and continued wargaming. But the question bothered him a bit over the years. How one dimensional was wargaming, and how did it use the conclusions of history?

The question waxed and waned in his mind over the years. Sometimes he nearly managed to answer it. For example, there was a trend at one point in military history to account for state forming by the fact that rulers went to war and thus needed to raise taxes. Our wargamer could happily read this sort of military history, fight his wargames and think, with some justification, that the foundations of the battles were secure, that he was not just glorifying violence, or indulging in a passion for the pageant of armed conflict.

On the other hand, reading wargame magazines tended to depress him slightly. The major sources used by wargamers were usually, those written in the late nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century. While reasonably accurate in some senses, he found that, inevitably, history, or at least historiography, had moved on. The earlier writers focussed on the great leader, the individual whose bravery and foresight saved the day, the king who unleashed destruction on another country. The question of what might have been going on in these events rather passed them by.

Further questions arose in his mind, when he had time to think about them. Military and political history was all very well, he considered, but other things happened as well to change the way people thought about warfare. The rise of geometry in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was both driven by and a driver for the methods of fortification and attack that were used. Political ideas, such as the representation of taxpayers in legislatures caused a great deal of conflict, both civil and military, and so on. Even, he noticed, fashion made a difference to how troops dressed. The average solider became, on the parade ground at least, a victim of the latest trends in the clothing of the elite.

Thus, a proper consideration of a period should be underpinned by all other sorts of history – political, social, cultural and intellectual. As the scope of the requirements for actual understanding widened in his view, our wargamer started to wonder about some of his colleagues. He was impressed at the depth of  their knowledge across all of history that enabled them to wargame quite happily in ancient Greece one week and Cold war Germany the next. The knowledge of history possessed by such wargamers, he considered, must be huge.

A little further reflection and observation disabused him of this impression, however. A wargamer is quite happy, in general, to pick up an army and a set of rules and play with them, without the slightest idea about the period, the politics, the campaigns or, indeed, what his tin soldiers would like to eat.  A game is a game, and the background does not seem to matter that much.

And yet the implications of his parent’s question kept coming back to him. We know a lot about how people in the past attempted to slaughter each other, but what do we know or care as wargamers? Is the game the thing and the thing alone?

Of course, people, even wargamers, have limited amounts of time and of interest. We can only do so much background reading, so much web searching and so on. Sometimes we just want a wargame, and to pick up the soldiers and rule, plonk them onto a table and roll a few dice. Sometimes we might just want to see what happens in a Napoleonic wargame, or how the ancient Greeks looked on a battlefield. A trial, a taste, is what we require.

Some gamers never seem to get beyond this, however. A period is a period and that is the end of the matter. Ancient Greeks fought in phalanxes and that is just a brute fact. But, with regard to our wargamer’s parent’s question, actually it is not. The Greek phalanx grew out of a particular social and political context, the Greek city and the way it was governed. The attributes of the solider, the horsemen and the light troops were dictated by this structure. Greek warfare was governed by other things than just plonking the troops on the table and seeing what happens.

So the question arising is this: what sort of historians should historical wargamers be?

As I have noted, often they are just superficial historians, skimming the surface for a nice battle in a nice new period and then moving on. Often they are content with older (and probably, cheaper) works of history that chime in with how the wargamer thinks. Wargaming is, after all, dominated by white males who think that white males make history. This is more or less what turn of the twentieth century historians seem to have thought too.

Really, however, history is much more interesting than that. It can be argued that what really matters in history is ideas, and those ideas are the things that fuel conflict and the manners by which wars are conducted. The conduct of a wargame, by that measure, should be governed by the mind-set of the original people involved. Thus, the ideal that a wargamer should aim for is to understand, so far as is possible, the minds of the original politicians and general who went to war and conducted the operations. Anything else should not be termed historical wargaming.



  1. Yes! Yes to all of this. Guilty as charged when playing out of 'my' period. In period I am a cultural historian/necrolinguist/archaeologist, but out of it I am a wargaming butterfly. I have a nodding acquaintance with Herodotus and Thucydides, but my Greek army still marches to the rules' tune, not to one driven by real historical knowledge. My Roman army was more informed by A-level Latin and many trips to Hadrian's Wall, but nothing deeper. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!

    Love the tone of this post, as much as anything else. But it does get to the heart of the matter. If we want to do nothing but put pretty counters on the table and move them round, that is fine, but a richer experience can be found in better understanding of the whys and wherefores of the wars we are refighting.

    1. I think everyone is 'guilty' in some respect. But it does hopefully lead us to ponder why we choose new eras. Why switch from the 17th Century to Greece and Rome? Do we just play games or claim something deeper.

      I have no idea as to the answers, but do agree that a richer experience can be obtained by a more detailed study of a period. But mostly we seem to butterfly on to the next period and game.

  2. Its been over a decade since I stopped referring to myself as an "historical wargamer" even when staging a scenario based on a particular historical battle. The term seemed misleading when the event was a game not method of study and analysis.

    It is a worthy thing to study say warfare as one facet of ancient Greek culture but one must remember that wRfare like many aspects of culture evolves and responds to outside as well as inside factors which in turn desrve to be studied but eventually there are limits to what one individual can learn and understand so we make choices.

    Beyond cultural context there is another aspect of warfare as a human activity that deserves study. There is good evidence that like many activities there are principles which transcend culture, space and time and go back to basic human nature. The is why it was relevent to 16thC or 18th or 20thC generals to read Caesar or Vegetius or Sun Tzu. Not for the details relevent to the time and place but for the principles based on human nature beyond cultaral norms. So it is that principles such as surprise, preparation, economy of effort, concentration of effort, maintenance of the aim continue to apply centuries after they were expressed in writing in various languages.

    In addition to principles, there are also different cultural aspects of war that can be traced from appearance as being passed through various cultural inheritors with modification after modification for time and place but still leaving a trace. The influence of Roman military institutions and ideas can still be traced in "Western" military practices despite the advance of weapons.

    In other words, in addition the perfectly legitimate "toy soldier" as game and the study of war as an aspect of a particular culture there is also the study of warfare as a cross cultural aspect of human nature.

    1. Interestingly, Phil Sabin has the argument that a wargame can be a useful historical study, to at least try to understand what the options for the original generals and their forces were. While the outcomes may not match the historical ones, the idea is that we can learn why certain things happened the way they did.

      Whether there are underlying truths about warfare to be gleaned from the study of the broadest historical context is interesting. Of course, the military and historians would argue that there is, but it seems to be a sort of essentialism, that everything can be reduced to a few points. I am not totally convinced about this, but I can't refute it. There are some tactical and strategic approaches that have worked down the centuries.

      I guess the answer is that there is both continuity and change. Concentric attacks take place on different scales in different periods. Maybe this is done deliberately - do general sit down and think 'I'll use strategy X'? Maybe it is only in retrospect that we can see the similarities.

    2. I agree with Phil Sabin on this. When we did the Towton project, we made the terrain as close to the contours as our feeble modelling skills permitted. With the figures laid out according to the most likely historical deployment, you could see why the battle developed the way it did. I found the same when I refought Helsingborg 1710 on terrain as accurately modelled as possible. Actually seeing how the figures and units fit into the terrain is quite instructive and can give you insights that just reading about the battles does not. Whether you can learn more about battles than this is another matter, especially given that the rules will reflect the prejudices of the author.

    3. I think that you can learn a fair bit about battle by trying them out, both terrain and activity. But we need to always remember that it might be an insight into what happened and why, and not the real thing.

      And if it comes out weird, we might need to consider the rules or the players and their suppositions and outlooks.