Saturday 30 December 2017

Britain and Europe 1500 – 1780

Now, there is a title to get many British people, anyway, who are politically engaged, hearts racing. Or, more likely, the whole electorate have been bored and turned off by the whole load of manoeuvrings, political chicanery, public posturing and occasional rants on live television. Still, it keeps journalists employed and gives some of our more dubious politicians something to think about other than mugging old grannies on the streets for their pensions (they steal it by other means instead).

Inevitably, the post is about a book, and that book is Houlbrooke, R., Britain and Europe 1500 – 1780 (2011, London: Bloomsbury). It appears to be part of a series of four, tracking the development of relations between Britain and Europe. Of course, there are objections to this idea, some of which are tackled. For example, we could argue that Britain is part of Europe, and so any discussion of the relationship should be conducted on the same grounds as, say, Europe and Germany, or Europe and France. Fair point, conceded, but geography alone dictates that Britain, the scattered archipelago North West of continental Europe interacted with some bits of the continent more strongly than with others.

Houlbrooke develops the book in three chunks – 1500 – 1603, 1630 – 1707 and 1707 – 1780. The astute among you will recognise that the divisions are caused by, in the first place, the union of the crowns of England and Scotland and, in the second, by the Act of Union itself. Both of these were, of course, significant for Britain internally and, as British power increased during the eighteenth century, had an increasing impact on Europe and the rest of the world.

The chapters start with a narrative section of the era under consideration. This is followed by political, economic, diplomatic, cultural, technological and scientific changes and interactions between Britain (Houlbrooke excludes Ireland, the island, from Britain, on the grounds of culture and, after the mid-sixteenth century, faith) and the rest of Europe. A few points stand out. Firstly, Britain as a trading nation was not isolated from Europe, even after the end of the Hundred Years War and to loss of Normandy and Gascony to the English crown. Scotland too had strong links to France, the Low Countries and, more than England, Scandinavia. James VI’s wife was, after all, Danish.

Secondly, one of the key events in British history was the passing of the Navigation acts in the seventeenth century. This does, of course, go against the free trade grain, but it established the English merchant marine as the carriers for trade, slowing easing (or violently easing) other nations out of colonial, Baltic and Mediterranean commerce. The Protectorate recognised that doing this required a blue water navy capable of protecting overseas colonies, factories, trading bases and commercial shipping. This ensured the ultimate success of the maritime empire. As a flank power, Britain was nearly unassailable while other countries, the Dutch included, had to watch and defend their land frontiers as well.

Thirdly, the formation of the Royal Society was very important. This might seem a bit dull, but the Royal Society provided a forum to exchange and development of ideas of all sorts. Thus technology, for example navigation aids, fell within the Society’s remit. It was also an open forum. Many of its fellows were non-British, and so news about innovative ideas, inventions and discoveries tended to be funnelled through London.  The Royal Society, in some part, provided the conditions for the industrial revolution.

Fourthly, eighteenth century Britain was intensely nervous about two things. The first was the Hanoverian connection, which meant that Britain engaged in European warfare of which Parliament was, in part, very suspicious. Secondly, there was a good deal of nervousness regarding the Jacobites, again especially after the Hanoverian succession. There was also a rather surprising gap in warfare of about 20 years due to an agreement between Britain and France to get on with life and not fight.

From a wargamer’s point of view, of course, the book is a bit of a dead loss. There is little information about the details of battles, for example, or armies, campaigns, weapons or tactics. It seems to surprise some wargamers, at least, that there could be anything interesting beyond these things, and yet, somehow, there is. Of course, much could simply be dismissed as unimportant ‘social history’; the quote marks are meant to suggest a wargamerly curl of the lip in a sneer.

And yet the wider context of history and development is important. The context sets the conditions of the historical wargames we play. The decision of the Elizabethan government to fight a strategically defensive war in 1585, and to stick to it through until 1603 sets the conditions for western European warfare, as well as diplomacy and commerce, throughout the later sixteenth century. The Protectorate decision to create a blue water navy, initially to fend off threats from the newly Royalist naval elements from 1648 had an impact that would be felt through until 1815 at least. And so on.

The point is, of course, that no war, no battle can be divorced from its historical context. Britain lost the war of the colonies, of course, but in doing so bankrupted France and set the conditions for the Revolution which destroyed ‘Old Regime’ Europe. It also set the conditions for British maritime and financial supremacy, because the British maritime fleet dominated trade with the former colonies. The point is that the conditions were then set firstly for the naval blockade of Europe and, secondly, for the British financing of the various alliances that fought against the various French regimes.

Of course, ignorance of the above does not stop us sticking toy soldiers on the table and having wargames, and nor it should. But more engagement with the broader themes of history should give us a better context for our battles; enable us to see why some battles took places at some points between some sides, and not others. I suspect that, if we decide not to engage in this, we may well miss out on how enriching a hobby wargaming can be.

Saturday 23 December 2017

A Christmas Present

In keeping with a spirit of giving, I am offering a present here.

To spoil the surprise, it is a draft of the Polemos: Age of Alexander rules.

I emphasise draft. as in unfinished, incomplete, lacking in finesse and liable to change. I suppose I should mention that this is done with the support, nay, encouragement of Mr Berry, the guru of Polemos, perhaps in the vague hope that it might encourage the author to actually finish the rules and get them published.

But if anyone is interested enough to have a look, please do. Just remember they are only worth what you paid for them.

Further, if anyone is interested in play-testing them and reporting back, so much the better. Comments to me here or, perhaps, better, to the Polemos Yahoo! group.

If the link works (I've never linked another document in a blog post before), I might even post the Wars of the Counter Reformation rules as well, if anyone is interested.

And a Happy Christmas to you.

Saturday 16 December 2017

French Cavalry

I must firstly apologise to all those wargamers who saw the title of this post and clicked on the link expecting to find pictures of beautifully painted Chasseurs-a-Cheval or hussars, or something of that nature. This is not the blog for you.  I rarely post pictures of anything because my painting skills are not up to being photographed. Mind you, my painting skills are matched in their paucity by my photographic skills.

Those of you who are used to the style of this blog, or who have waded through the first paragraph whether-or-not may be rewarded by a few nuggets about French cavalry, of the period of the French Wars of Religion, 1562-1598. It is, to me at least, somewhat surprisingly interesting.

Now the French state, between the dates stated, did one of those amazing falling apart things that only the French really seem to have been capable of. It is not that the state disintegrated, nor was it particularly heavily invaded, it just sort of paralysed itself, and existed in a state of hostility for decades, sometimes as civil war and sometimes just as barely concealed armed hostility. After much chaos and confusion, not to mention a few battles and large scale death and destruction, Henry IV became French king and everyone went home.

The interesting thing about this, from a historical wargame perspective is the development of the French cavalry arm during this period. At the beginning, everyone was a gendarme, and rode en-haye with a lance to smash the peasants who dared to stand up to their social and military superiors. By the end, cavalry were deployed in smaller blocks, deeper formations and used more firearms. The development seems to have been via the caracole, a deep formation of cavalry (often German reiters) relying more heavily on firearms.

For a number of years I have had a puzzled relationship with the caracole. The idea, basically, is that the horsemen sacrifice mobility and shock for shooting in ranks at the enemy with whatever firearms they had to hand. The front rank fired, turned to the left, the next rank fired and so on. Assorted people are quoted in stating it could be quite effective, but why on earth did cavalry adopt it, even for an apparently short time?

A caracole, properly conducted, could be quite scary. ’a man could see nothing but fire and steel’ a contemporary reported. On the other hand, it is also reported that the whole formation could go ‘bang’ at the same time, from too long a range to be effective, with the rear ranks simply shooting up in the air. Presumably discipline and training had something to do with it.

The reason for the adoption of the caracole seems to have been two fold. Firstly, dealing with solid blocks of pike was not that easy. The French had proved, in the Italian Wars that gendarmes could charge through pike block without winning the battle, and at high cost to themselves. Standing off (or, in the case of riders, sitting off) and shooting at the pike probably seemed like a viable option.

The second reason is that, of course, reiter type cavalry were cheaper than gendarmes and a relatively dense block of them could disrupt and defeat a thin line of lancers en-haye. Once in confusion the gendarmes were just as vulnerable as anyone else and possibly more, as the lance is rather a one shot weapon, while swords and pistols can be used again, even in the same combat.

So the evolution of the French cavalry comes down to money, in the end. Henry IV was permanently cash-strapped and missed several opportunities to finish the civil wars because of it. His cheaper, lesser nobility cavalry were less well armed than the royal gendarmes (who tended to be the higher nobility) and needed more time off to replenish horses and arms. However, they did a good battlefield job.

French cavalry also developed lighter (and cheaper) horse, chevaux-legers and arquebusiers-a-cheval. These gave Henry IV the opportunity to conduct a war of lightening marches, striking at the enemy when they were not expecting. The light horse were the scouts and could form the flank of the cuirassiers. The mounted arquebusiers could fight mounted or dismounted, providing the rest of the horse with a solid firepower base to perform either defensive fire duties of soften up the enemy for an attack. Henry IV developed a hit and run style or warfare, suited to his limited resources.

So, what of wargame terms and wargame rules. Well, obviously, the interaction of lancers and reiter types needs to be pondered. In general, a deeper formation of reiter could disrupt and defeat lancers charging en-haye and, really, there was no other tactic suited for lancers. So, unless the lancers get lucky, the reiter is the way to go.

On the other hand, the reiter is not so clever when it comes to dealing with solid foot formations. Mind you, nor is the lancer, but the key is in the terminology. In favourable circumstances the reiter can use the caracole before closing in with the sword to finish the infantry off. If not then, of course, they are not in particular danger from the latter – infantry cannot outrun cavalry. Further, in Henry IV’s ‘equestrian’ army the reiter can call upon the mounted arquebusiers to dismount and give the infantry a hard time, while hovering to dissuade the enemy from closing in. as with so much of military history, combined arms operations come to the fore to win.

The reason for the post is not a random wander down a back land of military history (although it may be that as well). Academically, there is debate over the military revolution of Maurice of Nassau and Gustavus of Sweden. There is an argument here that some of their innovations were not that new. Henry IV got there first. Secondly, there is an impact on the way wargames of the period should be played, and their rules written. How do we model these interactions?

Love, R. S. 1991. ""All the King's Horsemen": The Equestrian Army of Henri IV, 1585-1598." The Sixteenth Century Journal 22 (3):511-33. doi: 10.2307/2541473.

Saturday 9 December 2017

Sandwich Anyone?

Sometimes, when you are a bit of an omni-reader, as you have probably guessed I am, synthesis appears, as if sprung to life as smoothly as the meshing of gears on an Austin Riley. One such meshing has just happened, and so I am dashing along here to tell you all about it.

Of course, it being about matters maritime I very much doubt if anyone is going to be particularly interested. There is something very odd about naval wargaming, in that very few people actually seem to be interested in it at all. Given that Britain has a ‘great naval tradition’ and that the Unite States still has, I believe the biggest and most powerful navy in the world, this seems a little strange. Various navies and nations, over the years, have taught us that geo-political and strategic power is often most usefully and easily projected by naval forces. In short, the dictum of the British Empire still applied: If in doubt, send a gunboat.

Yet I can verify, in my own blog statistics that if I write a post about matters naval, the number of hits (which is never great at the best of times) crashes. For example, whereas a post titled ‘Project Wargame’ got over 230 hits, one updating the world on my Armada project got about 80. I admit that this is neither a scientific sample nor a statistically convincing one, but it does strike me as being a little, well, odd. Are naval wargames so unpopular?

Out there in the blogosphere of wargame matters things seem to be similar. Few posts on blogs that I occasionally look at seem to mention matters maritime. It is, of course, entirely possible that naval wargamers have better things to do than blog about their projects, rules and battles, but it does seem a bit weird, not to say, landlubberish (if that is a word).

Now, each wargamer to their own, I concede. But I did, a few years ago, have terrible trouble establishing anything very much about the navy in the English Civil War. There was, at that time, one book on the subject I believe, and it spent most of its time proving that the navy had won the war for Parliament. I suppose that you need a radical hypothesis like that when you are attempting to show that something largely un-regarded in fact mattered.

The navy did matter in the ECW, as I am sure that some of you are aware. Without it being in Parliamentary control the Royalists could probably have made a better fist of the war than they did, with increased access to foreign imports of, say, gunpowder (which they often seem to have been short of) and mercenaries. Some supplies did get through, of course, especially after Rupert captured Bristol. Henrietta Maria, of course, is famously the only British Queen to have landed in the country under naval bombardment (and she went back to find her dog, as well). But have you ever tried to find wargame models of naval vessels of the 1630’s? I do not believe they exist.

Now, the symbiosis of my reading matter came about in this wise. I read History Today magazine and, in November’s issue there was an article on the Battle of Sandwich. I am sure that you all know that this was fought in 1217 between the English and the French. William Marshall, the English Protector of the infant Henry, was struggling to contain a French invasion and baron’s rebellion.

The English had made a fairly good start in defeating the French and others at Lincoln, and so, in order to carry on the fight, the French needed some reinforcement. This was collected by the French Queen (I don’t think she did it personally, mind you) and dispatched. The English got wind of this and intercepted the French fleet, somewhere off Sandwich and Dover. Either good fortune or a nifty bit of sailing gave the English the upper hand (or the weather guage)and the invasion fleet was defeated. The French already in England were thus left with little option except to return home.

On my shelf I have a book by Susan Rose called ‘England’s Medieval Navy’. It is a nice book, with plenty of colour illustrations giving a good impression of the very little that is really known of medieval ships, shipping, mariners and naval warfare. Having the book available was a happy accident and I have just finished it. The point she makes is that naval operations in the medieval period were, largely, logistical, in support of or, in fact, landing armies. Thus Berwick Upon Tweed was an important harbour for invading Scotland, and the Channel ports, on both sides, could be vital targets for raids and jumping off points for invasions. Only a few full blown naval battles occurred, of which Sandwich / Dover was one.

Whether Sandwich was a battle ‘more important than the Armada’ is a judgement I do not feel qualified to make. The author of the article was fairly sure that it was, claiming that if the French had succeeded, England would have been a fief of the French crown and history would have been different. Possibly, but the English barons were a fairly fractious lot at the time and France itself was the victim of a fair number of collapses of Royal authority through the medieval period. History would have been a bit different, perhaps, but it is a bit hard to see Sandwich as being that decisive.

From a wargamer’s point of view, it would be a nice battle to fight. It would be different, visually stunning if you can get the heraldry right, as the ships were brightly painted and bedecked with banners, and even the rules would be reasonably straightforward, as the fighting was similar to that on land. The only drawback that I can see is that there are few, if any, suitable wargame models available.

I did once, a long time ago, read an article on medieval naval wargaming advocating using half-walnuts for the cogs. I have no idea if it would work and my modelling skills are not up to it. But it would, at least, be something different to try out.

Sandwich anyone?

Saturday 2 December 2017

Unintended Amusement

Occasionally, out in the Internet and associated social media platforms, most of which I avoid like the plague, one can come across the odd gem that just, simply, tickles one's humour buds. Admittedly, this does not happen very often, and it happens even less often in wargaming circles. Wargamers appear to be a fairly serious bunch. We take our pleasures without smiling, on the whole.

Still, sometimes some of the stuff I write and post, and a few people read, gets posted by some kindly soul, to the ‘Utter Drivel’ message board on The Miniatures Page. Now, I do not, in general, read TMP, although I did have a very, very, peripheral hand in setting it up in the early days. I certainly do not frequent its message boards. On the occasions I have looked, it has reminded of nothing but the flame wars which used to characterise most of the old Usenet news group.

Anyway, I can see in the statistics for the blog when a link to it has been posted, and I usually drop in to see what it is and what a different set of people think of my deathless prose. It does not particularly bother me one way of the other, of course. I have seen and heard of enough abuse on the internet to know that, unless it is illegal, it should be ignored.

A few weeks ago I blogged about ‘Method in Wargaming’, and it sparked a degree of interest in the comments, and also got a link posted to the ‘Utter Drivel’ site. Part of what was posted included the sentence

“About half of my occupation is doing fairly silly things with reading stuff around education, theology, science and philosophy.”

This actually elicited very little response, but one comment did nearly make me fall off my chair laughing, and alarmed my colleagues at work (for it was my lunch hour). The comment, in full is:

“The guy needs to read about Science, requires definitive assumptions and data. Only sad folk can usefully comment on things they don't understand. Try making useful comments on napolinic drill without understanding drill manuals or studying human capabilities.”

I could, of course, make comment on the English, spelling, capitalisation and grammar of the post, but that is not what amused me. Unfortunately, we have had to become used to the poverty of modern means of expression and accuracy of the written word.

What made me laugh, and out loud too, was the non-sequitur, suggesting that I need to read about science (I beg your pardon, ‘Science’) when the sentence quoted quite clearly states that I was reading about the subject.  Furthermore, I reflected that perhaps I need to contact my alma mater and ask if they wish to rescind my first degree and PhD in physics. Or maybe I simply need to reassure the clueless poster that I do know something about science, have read more science than you can shake a stick at, a fair bit of philosophy of science to boot, and that science does not consist of ‘definitive assumptions and data’. Only people, believing something called ‘scientism’ as a matter of abuse, think that. It is a view which is heavily popularised but largely ignored in academic circles, and in fact should have died out no later than the 1960’s.

I have spent, perhaps, rather a large number of words over a trivial incident on a trivial forum over a trivial blog in a small, un-regarded corner of the Internet. It did amuse me for a few seconds, and probably only did so because it rather tickled my sense of the absurd. But I suspect there might be something a bit deeper going on, which does affect historical wargaming.

I find, in my teaching work, that people are finding it harder and harder to understand text. Now, we all come to texts with our prejudices intact, and that means that we read a text in a certain way. In this case the text could be anything – a historical source, a secondary source, a set of wargame rules. For example, when Polemos: ECW came out we discovered that people were rallying routed troops, and doing so, under the rules as they read them, very easily. Unfortunately, this was read-through from other rule sets where it is perfectly possible to rally the routed. It is just that in PM: ECW you cannot do it. Somehow, people read the text they think is there, not what is in front of them.

Science has mostly captured the moral high ground of knowledge. ‘Scientists have found…’ is a sentence which often starts a news story. Yet science is an interpretative scheme or, if you will, a certain way of talking about the world – a small part of the world, in fact. Other forms of knowledge are still possible, including historical knowledge and knowledge of wargame rules. It is just that, too often, our pre-judgements about what is there get in the way. This, too, happens in science, where a given interpretative scheme is pressed beyond its limits until it collapses, but the scientists who have worked upon it refuse to believe the evidence of collapse presented. Scientists can even adjust, invent or modify their results to prove their point. It is a human activity with the usual human flaws attached.

The point is that nothing in human knowledge, broadly defined, is that certain. Hypotheses in science are universally under-determined. Nothing, in fact, can be tested exhaustively. Similarly in history the next document might be the one that shows that King Arthur defeated the Norman invasion in 1066 and reigned in secret for decades, or indeed that England has been invaded successfully many times since 1066. Historical hypotheses are, perhaps, a bit flakier than some scientific ones, but all human knowledge is contingent, everything we think we know might be wrong and (in fact) quite a lot of it is.

This has, sadly, become quite a serious post. The upshot is that no set of wargame rules is ever going to be definitive. I suspect that we already knew that. The other outcome is a plea for careful reading. We all make mistakes, but in the age of the Internet we can parade our ignorance in public and that is probably not a great thing to do, in general.