Saturday 30 September 2017

Decisive Battles of the English Civil War

One of the subtitles of this blog should, perhaps, be ‘I read the books so you don’t have to.’ I have, indeed, recently finished ‘Decisive Battles of the English Civil War’, by Malcolm Wanklyn (Pen & Sword, Barnsley: 2014), which is, apparently, a revised edition of a tome of 2004. It is a book that I really rather wanted to like and enjoy, but I am not wholly sure that I did.

The first issue is, perhaps, with the title. Now, often enough, titles are not the fault of the author, but, so far as I can see, Wanklyn equates ‘decisive’ with ‘significant’. The two battles of Newbury, which feature in the book, were, perhaps, significant, as victory in the first for the Royalists and in the second for Parliament, could well have decisively changed the course of the war. But significant is not the same as decisive, although I suppose a book entitled ‘Significant Battles of the ECW’ would probably be deemed to be boring.

By many measures, of course, Austin Woolrych’s assessment in ‘Battles of the English Civil War’ that the three decisive battles were Marston Moor, Naseby and Preston still stands. Marston Moor cost the Royalists the north, Naseby cost the King his throne and Preston cost him his life. Wanklyn observes that this can be nuanced, in that the Royalists still drew resources from the north after the middle of 1644, and that the King was still king after the middle of 1645 and was dealt with as such. However, that is the fate of most broad brush-strokes of history.

Wanklyn does agree with Woolrych, however, that the battles and their outcomes do need to be made more central to historiography. Historians have a terrible tendency to be interested in stuff like treaties and agreements. Woolrych noted that if one side or the other had not won the battle, there would have been no need for the treaty. In ignoring battles historians give a one sided view of the world. Battles, of course, have only been disregarded in historiography since, roughly, the end of the Second World War. This was coupled with the rise of Marxist interpretations of history where, for example, the ECW is the result of the rise of the gentry (or the fall of the gentry, or the rise of the merchant class, or whatever). The brush-strokes are drawn more broadly. The result of a war is inevitable because the economic factors make it so.

Thus, in seventeenth century Britain, Parliament was inevitable going to win the English Civil Wars. If the participants had known that, of course, they could all have stayed at home. Wanklyn disputes that this is the case. Wars, campaigns and battles are contingent and, therefore, the outcome can never be a result of simple economic balance. Yes, Parliament had the bult of the economic resource, and, in fact, the bulk of the population, to draw on. Possibly this had an effect, in that the troops of Parliament tended to be slightly better equipped, paid and, perhaps most decisively, present in higher number of infantry on the battlefield. Nevertheless, in battle numbers and equipment are not decisive.

Wanklyn sees the need for narratives of what happened on the battlefield to explain the outcomes of the battles. However, he also argues that most of the narratives that we have are, in part, made up. Some accounts simply assume that, say, the left wing of the cavalry were in a certain place because that is what military theory says should have happened. However, if this cannot be ascertained from historical sources, it should not be assumed. He wants, in a sense, to produce a minimal narrative, acknowledging the things that we cannot know because the sources do not tell us.

Battles are, of course, complex things. Participants, on the whole, cannot tell us very much, except that which they themselves experienced. Putting the fragments of battle narrative together is fraught with difficulty over geography and timing. Even more recent developments, such as re-enacting and battlefield archaeology can only tell us so much. Reenactors are not fighting battles, nor are they present in the numbers (particularly of cavalry) that the originals had. Archaeology can only tell us what evidence has survived. A concentration of musket balls may imply a fierce fire-fight, or it may be where an ammunition waggon turned over. Nothing can really be decisive in counting, at least as a single piece of evidence.

We might consider that Wanklyn is impossibly post-modern in his approach, but in fact he would have an ally in Whatley ('On the Possibility of Reconstructing Marathon and Other Ancient Battles', The Journal of Hellenic Studies 84 (1964), 119-139.). The point is that we cannot ‘reconstruct’ battles. We simply do not have the evidence.

So what, you might ask, is the problem with Wanklyn’s book? I think there are two. Firstly, there is the structure, which takes each battle in two chapters. The first is on the context, sources and landscape for the action, the second on a construction of what can be known. Fair enough, but I found it a bit tricky to keep the balance between what I read about the sources and what was accepted as evidence in the narrative. Perhaps intermeshing the two would have made the battle narrative a lot more broken up and difficult to follow, but at least it would have been obvious to the reader why a piece of established historiography was being rejected at a particular point. Maybe there is just no good way of doing this.

The second problem is with the maps. Now, I accept that there is a great deal of uncertainty about locations, geography, unit identity and so on, and that this has to be reflected in the maps. The problem I have is that often geographical features are mentioned in the text but are not on the map, leaving the reader confused as to what is going on. A few more maps, for example of the route of the flank march of Waller’s troops at Second Newbury, would have been helpful.

Overall this is an interesting but slightly frustrating book. It is causing me to ponder afresh ECW fighting. Wanklyn’s point is that ECW armies, when they functioned properly, we combined arms forces. Cavalry needed infantry to operate properly and vice versa. Similarly he argues that the forces were a lot more flexible in use that we might have been led to believe from our, somewhat flawed, historiography to date.

Saturday 23 September 2017

The Odd Corners of Wargaming

Wargaming, it seems to me, can take you into some rather peculiar places, at least in terms of interest and trying to find stuff out. Wargamers, by and large and so far as I can tell, do not usually take part in expeditions to find the lost city of Machu Picchu (which was never lost, incidentally; the Inca knew perfectly well where it was, they just never bothered telling the Spanish), or trekking in the wastes of Siberia, but I find, at least, that I land up asking questions which only a few others have ever asked.

Take a recent incident as an example. The houses where I live are almost all tiled, as they are, I imagine, in most places in England. But it has not always been thus. I was brought up in the south and there thatch is still, in some of the more picturesque villages at least, quite frequent. As I am pondering a wargame based in the north, I wondered what people used to have a roofs in the past.

The Estimable Mrs P and I could think of a few examples of thatch in our local patch, but not many. Puzzled, I consulted my big book of northern history and looked up building materials. There, in a paragraph, was an explanation. Clay tiles came in during the seventeenth century, largely replacing thatch. I do not know exactly why tiles replaced thatch. Possibly the tiles are longer lasting, but a decent thatch lasts 20-30 years and, from painful experience, modern tiles at least do not seem to last much longer than that.

Now, we can also ask what the thatch was made of. In these parts there was a mix of straw and heather thatches. This was a minor lightbulb moment for me at least, as we had been a little puzzled by the relative absence of reed beds and the like to make the straw for thatching. After all, animals would have taken the priority for fodder and bedding over human comfort. Heather, at least in some parts, would have been plentiful, cheap and not much use for anything else.

This, of course, hits the next question: what colour was the thatch? Now here we hit a real problem, I think. I know that real thatch is grey or black. I have, as I mentioned above, seen a fair number of thatched cottages in my time. And yet my thatched cottages for the wargame table are distinctly yellow in colour. That is correct, they are the colour of straw, as you would expect, of course.

Now we land up in some obscure place in human psychology. More precisely, we land up pondering what ‘looks right’ on the table. A thatch with a black roof just would not, I think, look right. Even though I know that in real life thatch is not yellow, my table needs to look right.

Either that or I am, yet again, in a minority of one, and should be rightly regarded as barking by the rest of the world.

It does not stop there, of course. I do, I realise, many things wargame wise because thy look right. Armour is shiny, even though by the English Civil War it was being carefully blackened to avoid rust. Cannon barrels are black and carriages are wood coloured. For the matter of that, wood is brown, while really, when it has been weathered for a bit, it is more grey.

Of course, there are also problems of scale, which I have mentioned before. My houses are in scale with the troops, so they are much bigger than the ground scale. At present, this is being further complicated by the presence of smaller scale ships in the town harbour, and even smaller scale ships for the Armada. I have tried this out. Somehow, despite all the jumps in scale, it looks about right.

I have worked it out, in fact. From the 1:300th scale castle tower, looking out to sea, the Armada on the horizon is about a mile away, given that the Armada ships are 1:2400th scale. The assault ships which are to be used are, of course, in the correct figure scale, but then they will only become of major interest to the landlubbers when they are near the beach anyway.

There may, of course, be undetected problems. In my role as the Spanish commander, I might try to use some of the smaller ships to rush the harbour. Naturally, as the English counterpart, I have a battery of ships guns to place on the mole to protect the harbour from just such an eventuality. The ships are the small ones, the guns are the big ones and the ships in the harbour from which the guns came are somewhere in between. It might look right, but I can foresee madness looming when the shore batteries and Armada ships attempt to engage each other.

The human mind is a flexible and subtle thing, of course. I have a suspicion that all of this does not really matter. Firstly, of course, everything is an abstraction anyway. The Armada troops are not really going to be put ashore by half a dozen small rowing boats. The town, even Whitby after the Abbey closure and its subsequent decline in prosperity (wagaming as a portal to economic history. Who knew?) was still larger than the ten or so buildings I have for it. The ships in harbour are, in fact, seventeenth century – the French La Corunna and the English Speaker. They are also in full sail, which would be ludicrous when in harbour, and one of them, at least, does not have the room to turn to get out.

I know all this, and yet, somehow, it is probably the ‘nicest’ terrain I have ever set out for a wargame planning session. I might have to dig out the camera and treat you all to a photograph of it, so you can point out all the flaws to me.

Saturday 16 September 2017

Project Wargame?

There has been a bit of a meme around recently on the wargame blogs that I view around the idea of project managing the hobby. I think, in its inception it was harmless enough, a reflection on what would constitute enough for a wargamer; which projects are those which are to be done before one hangs one’s dice up.

As such, I think the question is, perhaps interesting, but maybe a little pointless. We all know, after all, that there is always that one more project, extra army, more units for this one, a few more terrain pieces for that one. We know that we can give it up anytime. We just do not.

Looking through my archives of figures I have found this a lot. I have a variety of ‘renaissance’ figures, and many of them are, in fact, painted. But I have also found a horde of unpainted figures and other items, presumably bought on the basis of ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’. Somewhat surprisingly, given the average wargamer’s ability to concentrate on any given single thing for more than eight seconds at a time (oh, hang on, that is the latest estimate in our smart phone “enabled” world; goldfish, incidentally, can manage 6 seconds, so we are safe from that quarter at least), I have a number of painted, never used figures and objects. The weirdest one of these has to be the Irregular Miniatures Aztec Causeway, part of the Aztec town set (much of the rest of which remains unpainted). Even more oddly, the causeway is about to be reincarnated as Whitby Harbour. But I digress.

Anyway, I tried the Estimable Mrs P. out on the idea of project managing wargaming. She gave me one of her ‘Never mind, I love you anyway’ looks, and then remarked that as wargaming was a hobby, it did not require project managing. Just do things you enjoy, she opined, and stop if you stop enjoying them.

Fair enough, I thought. But then a nasty thought struck me. As you might be aware, I am busy rebasing assorted troops for the Wars of the Counter-Reformation, that is, warfare in the age of the Armada. I had spent some time in reviewing my troops (and ships as well. If you ask me, rebasing ships is a lot harder than rebasing toy soldiers.) While doing so, I noted a number of gaps in the lines. I required (I could say ‘need’, but one never ‘needs’ in a hobby) some more rowing boats, to expedite the landing of the Armada troops on this Fair Isle. Some further sword and bucker men were to be added as well, given that the cavalry would be unable to land mounted and pikes in a small boat would be a disaster, I imagine. Further than that, there was an absence of Huguenot cavalry. ‘Why,’ you might ask, ‘do you require them?’ For completeness, of course.

There is also the small matter of an appropriate Irish army. I had cobbled together such for my previous escapades but now, of course, official, authentic figures were available. Gone (or redeployed, at least) are my bonnacts looking suspiciously like highlanders. On order are the real thing.

And so, looking back, I see a rather alarming trend in managing this project emerging. I have, thus far, resisted the temptation to right down a list of things to do, prioritise them and then tick them off as each militia unit is painted, each ship is rebased and each cannon is remounted. But the temptation is there. Project management is lurking by the door.

Now, far be it from me to be biased against project management. I may simply have had bad experiences thereof, n0t least a colleague who, when confronted with unrealistic goals and implausible time frames responded with ‘let’s project manage our way out of this!’ No, no, and thrice, no. Let us return the idea to management and tell them to think it properly this time. It is not our responsibility to sort out the junk that comes from on high (someone remarked to me recently that they’d hate to be my manager; point taken, so would I).

My other objection to the way of project management is that it reduces everything to money. At least, money is hiding in the background, even if it is turned into weeks or units. Money is the god-idol of our age, and all must bow before it. My favourite story about this was of my poor, benighted colleague who had had managing our major project dumped on him. At a meeting (in the days when I attended them) he exclaimed ‘We’ve got the get this bit done. We should have started it last month, and so we’ve only got two months left!’ I turned to him and said ‘Which bit again?’ He reiterated. ‘Oh, I did that last week.’ I got a long, silent, slightly resentful stare. But it was true.

Anyway, the point is that project management, for all its ability to enable some things that need to happen happen before other things which depend on them, is a bit of a black art dressed up as a science (much like ‘management’ itself. On my lips the ‘m’ word is used only as a term of abuse; Alistair McIntyre’s ‘After Virtue’ does a good job in demolishing the mystique of management. More managers should read it and resign and go and do something useful with their lives).

Anyway, I do not mean to rant (although rereading the above, you could be forgiven for not believing me at all). Project management is something we all do a bit of. I need to buy the toy soldiers before trying to paint them for example. That, in its simplest form, is project management. Most project management is little more than this, incidentally, but beings remuneration that most ordinary mortals can only stand and stare at. I am sure that the original post does not deserve the polemic dished out above for a fairly innocent idea.

In the interests of disclosure, I had better add that I have known at least one nice, human, hardworking and effective project manager. She resigned her post after six months as senior management would not sign off on any of the bits she needed to get done.

It is of course possible that my toy soldiers will do something similar….

Saturday 9 September 2017

The Elizabethan Militia

As part of project Armada, I have been reading a book which is only semi-related to wargaming. From the title, the unwary wargamer might suppose that it was suitable as a tome for the hobby: ‘War and Politics in the Elizabethan Counties’, by Neil Younger (2012, Manchester, MUP). Nevertheless, it is an interesting book, partly because Younger discusses the strategy of the Elizabethan regime, and partly because he has a much higher view of the Elizabethan military than has often been the case.

First things first, however:. Younger observes, correctly, that the wars Elizabethan England engaged in between 1585 and 1604 have no collective name. Intrigued, I checked what the set of army lists in DBR were called for the period. Barker calls it ‘The Wars of the Reformation’. These include English, Irish, Low Countries Spanish, Dutch Rebellion and both Huguenot and Catholic League French. The wars cover 1560 to 1605-ish, with the Spanish and Dutch lists going on to the end of the Thirty Years War. The name ‘Wars of the Reformation’ is rather a misnomer if you ask me. Lutcher did his bit of vandalism to a church door in 1517. John Calvin, who I (probably wrongly, granted) regard as a ‘second wave’ reformer died in 1564. The Reformation was well on by the time the period started. The Counter-Reformation was launched by the Council of Trent which met from 1545 – 1563, after all.

Perhaps ‘Wars of the Counter-Reformation’ would be a better term for the period. The religious situation in Germany was more settled after an agreement that the state would follow the brand of faith of the ruler, and so Germany was reasonably quiet in the period. There were various rebellions in the Low Countries, granted, and France went through one of its seemingly periodic collapses. How much all of this really had to do with faith is, of course, slightly moot. It did, but faith was not the only issue involved, even in the Low Countries.

England went to war in 1585 reluctantly. The country was poor and divided, it was felt. The Elizabethan settlement of the church in 1560 had tried to keep more or less everyone on board and had been reasonably successful, but there were still a lot of recusants around and their loyalty was in doubt. The Elizabethan regime employed classic delaying tactics to avert war, and it was only in 1585, when negotiations collapsed, that preparations for conflict were started.

The Elizabethan strategy consisted of three parts. The first was to avoid invasion. It was unclear how many people would rally to the Protestant regime’s defence, particularly as the head of it was an aging, childless woman. Avoiding putting the support for the Queen to the test was paramount. Allied to this was the control of Ireland, which was seen by many as a springboard to invading England itself. Thus, the major troop deployment of the regime was, in fact, from 1595 to Ireland.

The third element of the strategy was to keep the Channel ports, those on the south, in neutral or friendly hands. Thus Elizabeth sent support to both the Dutch rebels and Henry IV, even when the latter turned to Catholicism. A mildly Catholic but tolerant regime in France was preferable to a Counter-Reformation inspired Spanish backed radical Catholic one.

The English strategy was, thus, defensive in nature. This did not, of course, preclude local offensive action. Some of the Elizabethan raids on Spanish ports were among the most spectacularly successful of their type ever. But, overall, the government tried to reign in those politicians and generals who were most enthusiastic about offensive warfare, either at sea or on land. War, the government knew, was expensive. A defensive war was the cheapest option, and that was what was fought. In strategic terms, although Elizabeth was dead before the peace treaty was signed, the English obtained their objectives.

Part of the war preparations in England and Wales were the creation of county lieutenants, crown representatives. These tended to be reliable (radical Protestant) nobles from the area, and to them passed the requirement to organise the Elizabethan defensive militias, in this case, the trained bands. Militias had, of course, always existed. Theoretically any male between 16 and 60 was in the militia. But warfare had developed, and pike and shot units were required. Each county was called upon to train a proportion of its men in modern methods, as well as arm and pay them.

As Younger observes, the Elizabethan militia was never (well, hardly ever) tried out in action. We have no historical evidence whether the measures would have been sufficient to defend to country if the Armada had landed. Much historiography, however, argues that it would have done badly against Parma’s professionals, or the troops from Spain carried on the ships themselves. Younger begs to differ a little. Some of the militia seems to have been of reasonable quality and trained to some extent at least. Further, quite a few of them were enthusiastic and, as the Dutch had demonstrated, a lot could be done with enthusiasm and a fair bit of digging.

The idea behind the defences against the 1588 Armada are not, Younger observes, as is usually represented in the history books. They suggest that three armies were formed, one to track the Armada along the south coast, one at Tilbury to defend against landings in Essex when that seemed likely, and one in London to defend the capital and Queen. In fact, the first army never existed. The trained bands mustered in each county as the Armada approached. The plan was that this would be the initial resistance if there was a landing, and the county trained band would be reinforced by trained bands from neighbouring counties, fighting, presumably, a drawn out delaying battle until the Spanish were exhausted and cut off, by the navy, from reinforcements and supply. Given the defeat of the Armada and the fact it never landed, the third army never existed – the trained bands were sent home practically before they had set out. The Tilbury army did come into being, but only for a short time.

Younger observes that this might not have been the best way of defending the realm, but it was financially efficient. Unlike most early modern European powers, Elizabeth’s government fought a long war without going bankrupt or losing credit status. The focus is often (probably rightly) on the navy, but Younger observes that when the regime of Charles I went to war in the 1620’s it was soon in financial and political straits. Both the strategy and the trust of the county elites for the government were lost.

Saturday 2 September 2017

Rules, Generic Rules and Periods

As avid readers of the blog will be aware, I do not have a great deal of enthusiasm these days for generic rules. The rule sets I have written have been for specific periods, or even sub-periods. For the record, I have written or help write rules for the English Civil War (or War of the Three Kingdoms, or British Civil War, or whatever we are calling it this week), the Roman Imperial era, (First Century BC to First Century AD) and some rules for Ancient Greeks from Marathon to after Alexander. The latter have not been published and, so far as I am any judge, will not be. These are all in the Polemos series published by Baccus. I have also written some rules for the Elizabethan Anglo-Scottish Borders, called ‘Shake Loose the Border’ which were published as a magazine article quite a while ago.

Now, I have also mentioned using both DBA and DBR. I also possess a copy of DBM, although I think I only ever played it once. DBA is a good rule set, don’t get me wrong, and I enjoyed it. DBR is not so good, in that it does seem to mess up some of the basic troop interactions (I have not seen DBR 2.0, admittedly). They are both generic rule sets that go both around the world and across the centuries. Granted DBR is a bit more specific than DBA, but the range of cultures is huge.

This brings me to one of the problems I have with such sets, a distinctly wargamer’s problem. I used to take note of army lists, and one of the things you can do with DBR, as I think I mentioned once, is to make up 100 army point armies. This works quite nicely for Western European powers. You get armies of between ten and fifteen bases, and I can live with that.

Where it fails is for other cultures. I dug out my DBR 100 AP lists the other day. They date back to the time when I must have had a great deal more time than I do today, as they cover more or less every list in the army list books, some of them more than once. What I do notice, however, is that the less ‘advanced’ a culture is, at least in its means of killing other people, the more bases the army has. The Inca, for example, hit thirty three. The Pueblo Indians hit thirty or so as well. The problem is that some of the cultures listed surely cannot have fielded that many soldiers compared to the twelve of a full Western army.

A long time ago I was a member of the DBM email list, and very interesting it was too. I had a break from it for a few months and then came back. In the meantime a new edition had come out and all the competition gamers (an occupation which I cannot get my heads around, neither then nor today) were discussing lists which were termed ‘WoC’. It took me a while, several weeks I think, to work out that the reference was to lists like the Incas, and the acronym meant ‘Wall of Crap’. The rules had been changed such that the most effective competition armies were those with many, many elements. An Inca army at 400 army points was, literally, a wall of poor troops stretched across the table. The idea was that an opponent, fielding say a small but quality army of French Medieval, simply would get overrun. The bases would go down to lucky dice rolls and overlapping. The losses to the Inca (or whatever other WoC army was being fielded) would be huge, but their wings (or whatever they are called in DBM) would still be a long way from breaking. The idea was that they were impossible to defeat.

As with DBM, so with DBR: an Inca army is a tough proposition because there are so many of them. I, of course, also found them a tough proposition due to the number of bases I had to paint. I think it was the DBM Inca who broke me, Renaissance wargaming wise. Actually, the Estimable Mrs P. thinks it was the Aztecs who broke me, and given what I have recently found in terms of semi-painted figures, she might be right.

So that is one thing, and I suspect it is a problem with any rule set that uses a points system. Granted the idea is to provide ‘balance’, whatever that means, between different armies, but it does seem to skew the systems as well.

Another problem that there is with these sorts of rule sets is that they do cross both the centuries and cultures. At any given time there is a wide variety of cultures co-existing on the planet. They do not all fight in the same way. Similarly, there are different cultures that succeed each other in a given area. Again, they do not fight in the same way.

This is a problem which can be solved in two ways, it seems. First, you can create highly specific rule sets of given era / culture combinations. I am considering such for the Wars of Elizabeth, for example, and have written some, as described above. The alternative, as someone mentioned in a comment a week or two back, is to self-consciously write rules to deliver a generic, high level view of a wide variety of eras.

Either of these approaches is fine, it seems to me. But we do have to be clear as to what we are doing. Polemos: ECW will not, in my view, do for Elizabethan wars. I do not think that simply tinkering with the edges of the rules, adding troop types and so on will cut the mustard. The fifty odd years that separate Elizabeth and Charles I is sufficient to cause problems, at least at the level I would like to model.

You could also, I imagine, really go for a generic rule set covering, say, 1500-1800. This would model the basic interactions and flow of the battle. I dare say it would be quite interesting if you could get it right.  But you do have to accept that specific period flavour will be missing.

Most wargamers, and most rule sets seem to ignore the argument above, and I dare say most wargamers will continue to buy cross-cultural, cross-era sets because they are easiest to use, and enable jumping around across periods and continents. But I do think there is cost to doing this, and it is not one I am particularly willing to pay.