Saturday 25 March 2017

Weird Historiography

One of the strangest experiences I have ever had was, admittedly, many years ago now. I was, for no very good reason, in San Antonio in Texas (the one in the USA) and visited, on a Sunday morning, The Alamo. Granted, The Alamo is a site of some historical importance, so what, you may wonder was so odd about it.

Now I admit that I, as the author of the blog and as a general gawper at historical sites am not from the United States of America, nor, in this case perhaps more importantly, am I from Texas. However, the really odd thing about The Alamo from my point of view was firstly, the respectful crowds of people wandering around the place and secondly the attendants holding up signs saying (something along the lines of – memory is not perfect)  ‘this is a national shrine – please be silent’.

As you can tell, I have been wondering about this ever since. My own feeling, apart from the general bizarreness of the atmosphere, was that only a bunch of lunatics would have considered defending the place. The walls are low, the buildings are built into the walls and there are lots of windows. In short, against any sort of artillery and determined attackers the place was indefensible.

That led to a further thought, of course. Only a bunch of total incompetents could have taken days to capture the place. I am not aware that the Mexicans at that time were particular humanitarians, so it probably was not an effort to save lives. When the place was stormed, they did not show particular quarter to the defenders, in accordance with the laws of warfare and sieges of the time.

Nevertheless, in the USA, and in particular in Texas (despite being a state of the USA, Texas still has something of the feel of being independent, or at least semi-detached. Texans are the only people to have voted to join the Union and seem to feel that they are willing to stay so long as the Union does not upset them too much) The Alamo is a significant site. There is a lot of myth accumulated around it and the siege and the war between Texas and Mexico. I am sure that many Texans, reading the comments I made above about the defensibility of the site would feel a bit aggrieved. It is a bit like telling the British that the RAF outnumbered the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain.

The point I think I am edging towards is that, very often, our historiography is dodgy. If you visit the average historic castle in the UK, for example, in the shop you will inevitably find figures of knights in armour with lances, swords and so on. There is a great focus on the castle as defended, and so much the better if it was besieged.  Actually, the castles were built for control and as centres of justice and administration. While they were defendable, that was not their main role. Principally, it is probably true, they were symbols of prestige, demonstrations of wealth and power. If you were a peasant who had at best a scythe and a pointy stick you were going to realise, in fairly short order, that besieging the castle and getting rid of your lord was not going to be easy, or even, perhaps, possible.

Nothing historically is really that simple, of course. Cathedrals are another statement in stone about wealth and power. While a few of them look like castles, they were not designed that way. They are, however, claims about the mightiness of God and the reach, wealth and power of the church. The aim of a cathedral is different from that of a castle, but, from a peasant’s eye view, the effect might be similar.

It is also, I think, a bit of a mistake to suppose that most castles were besieged at some time. Up the road from here is the ruin of a castle built to control the road along the foot of the moors. It was not, it seems, very big, very powerful or even particularly useful. It would have been a statement of power and control. It quickly fell into disuse and then into ruin. Around the corner there is a Cistercian Abbey which is a far larger and more impressive ruin. But the shop still sells knights with lances, although it does also sell teddy bears dressed as monks.

The point is, with both The Alamo and British castles, the myth is propagated that they were viable military installations. For all I know this goes further. The Rhineland is dotted with castles, including a rather nice one built in the middle of the river. Defensible? Probably. But actually they were built as a means of controlling the river traffic and charging (extorting – you are much more likely to pay a toll if cannon might be trained on your barge) tolls. The threat of armed force is often more effective than its actuality.

And so we loop around to wargaming again. I do not know how popular the Texas-Mexico war is among wargamers. My guess is not so much. Most of the activity seems to have been one sided, one way of the other. But the myths are real enough. So too with medieval castles; their existence suggests an ongoing threat of violence. Actually, although there are notable exceptions, medieval England was a reasonably peaceable sort of place. Even the Wars of the Roses caused fairly small amounts of damage, and that was, on the whole localised. But we like our myths better.

I suppose that, underlying this, is some sort of ethical question about what we wargame. On the basis of what I have just said, a ‘real’ medieval campaign game would have years of not much happening, followed by a short, limited campaign finishing in a battle and a few executions. Everyone else then retires to their castles, taxes a few more peasants and waits to have another go.  That might be realistic, but is it not rather boring?


  1. Before I go any farther I wish to make it clear to CSIS and any other security agency who is monitoring the internet that I am not a potential terrorist or fanatic advocating or capable of violence.

    Now, a few thoughts in fairly random order.

    I'm not an expert on the Alamo or the Rebellion but I don't think the Alamo was defended because it was a great fort but at the time the town had strategic value. The Mexicans had tried unsuccessfully to defend the town against the rebels and the mission was a slightly more defensible position against small government forces and as a base for patrols. I have read suggestions that the Mexucan army was not expected quite so soon or expected to be so big and the grand plan had not been to try to hold them back with a handful. The question then becomes "why they didn't skidadle at the first sight of the enemy?". The answer is probably partly that they were a group of fanatics of the sort who might have resorted to blowing things up in modern times and partly that they were amateurs who didn't understand the situation. There is some evidence that they considered themselves to be combatants covered by international conventions, unfortunately the Mexicans saw them as rebels and outside international law and subject to summary justice. But there is also that whiff of testosterone and hubris mixed with that 'Noble self sacrifice' ideal that results in things like the 300 at Thermopoli, Camerone, Gandamuck, Rorkes Drift etc etc

    As for the Mexican delay, I think they were just regrouping and recovering from a difficult march which had stretched the army out while trying to get a handle of the situation. They may have hoped to not have to take casualties storming the place but were probably just waiting until it was time to move on.

    As for wargaming there are a rather surprising number of ranges for the Texas thing in every scale and they sell well. Alamo games in particular pop up often at conventions (as do Rorkes Drift games..). They are often lean heavily towards recreating the movies and tend to be played in that spirit.

    As for other castles I think they were very serious about defence. Defence against raiders and revolting peasants like modern sandbag checkpoints or barracks surrounded by wire fences etc.

    1. I think the thing that got me at the Alamo was the really weird atmosphere and the people with the signs. I mean, it doesn't happen on most battlefields of the C19, let alone anywhere else.

      But I also suspect that the Crockett mythology and films play a big part.

      While castles were useful against raiders (although not that useful) as with modern checkpoints they only really work if the defenders can be bothered, and also if they are in the right place. castles actually mean much more than that as well - power, wealth and symbolism are as important, i think, as the defence function.

  2. Read quite a lot about the Alamo and to say anything negative about the Siege of the Alamo I Texas would risk a lynching . Brave men not the less (I'd of been the one chap that scarpered over the wall in the dead of night) , an interesting book which I think will NOT be for sale at the Alamo gift shop

    1. I don't think the bravery of the defenders is at question, it is just that trying to defend it struck me as being a tad optimistic. I don't recall the bookshop - I think I was too dazed by the experience, and retreated to the Spanish Village nearby, which was a lot nicer and cooler.

  3. There's a lot of mythologising goes on, or dodgy historiography, if you prefer. I think that the only thing that really matters when setting up a game is acknowledging the assumptions, compromises and sources that have gone into its construction. I'll leave the politics of mythologising for a different venue.

    In one of the Extra Impetus magazines, there was a Wars of the Roses campaign that did precisely what you suggested. Each campaign is only likely to have two or three battles, and could potentially have just one. The campaign ends when one side is decisively defeated and chooses to flee. Players then swap roles with the usurper becoming king and the king becoming the usurper. Rinse and repeat until one or other pretender to the throne dies. It may be assumed that years pass between campaign seasons, but they are glossed over for the sake of keeping the game running.

    1. I rather like the idea of 'just carry on until one of you dies' approach. I also recall that Tony Bath used to impose rest years in Hyboria, just so the battle areas could get a bit of a breather.

      The problem is, as wargamers, we have to try to sort mythology from history, or at least be specific about which bits of the overall package we believe and are using. Too often wargames sit within the mythological bias of the players.

      Mind you, I'm reading a book at the moment which argues that the Greek philosophers were not doing what we would call philosophy. Western philosophy has thus been wrong for centuries about what it is doing and where it comes from. Not that that would disconcert the few philosophers I know....

    2. My current campaign has a system where truces are imposed with a duration based on how badly a nation loses a war, so they can last for months or years. It has the same effect. Wars tend to be over within a year too. I had not thought about it before, but it actually works well at simulating the sort of warfare you discuss.

      I suspect many wargamers are not too bothered about whether they are dealing with mythology or not. They just take the sources they know and use them without worrying too much about the sources' biases.

      Do you think the sky would fall if two philosophers actually agreed what philosophy is?

    3. If two philosophers agreed ojn anything I think the purpose of the universe would have been achieved and it would end...

      Agreed on what wargamers use, but I still think we can and should do a bit better. But then, despite everything, I am an optimist about how smart humans can be.

    4. Yes, we should aim to do better when gaming historical actions. Wargamers are certainly capable of this, although their willingness to try may depend upon the reasons why they game.