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.