Saturday 24 February 2018

When To Retire Gracefully

Oh dear. It is very difficult, I suspect, when writing a blog not, at some point, to offend someone. Not only that, but blogging, as with all social media, leaves a permanent record on the internet of all your blatherings. Thus, as some politicians, journalists and other people in the public eye have discovered, a few words dashed off without your usual care and attention can come back to haunt you.

I seem to have inadvertently upset M. Foy, of the Prometheus in Aspic blog. He feels that a post from last November, entitled Vive la Difference was a criticism aimed at him and/or his blog. While he (or rather, a post on the aforementioned blog) was mentioned, and quite prominently, admittedly, in the post, I was doing the ‘philosopher writing a book review’ sort of thing. I am sure you have seen the sort of thing – you read a review of a book and find that the words have little to do with the book in question. Philosophers, in my experience, do this rather a lot. They prefer to talk about their own view, rather than the views of the author. Thus, my post was sparked by the original, and not meant as a criticism.

Be that as it may, hurt feelings are hurt feelings, and I apologise for any impression of criticism which was present in the post. I shall not try to defend it. I do note that it was not the first time I have moaned about people (not M. Foy) laughing at the size of 6 mm figures and claiming impossibility to paint. I doubt it will be the last. I also note from the date of the post that I was probably donning emotional armour in preparation for my annual foray to a wargame show. Such things leave me rather depressed about my hobby, I admit. Finally, I hope the point of the post was that we, as wargamers, should be open to learning from each other. If that was not as clear as it could have been, then mea culpa. Still, an explanation is not a defence, and the apology stands.

I hope we can lay the matter to rest here. A hobby is a hobby; even considering waving handbags at each other at dawn is taking the whole thing too seriously. I hereby lay my handbag down.


I have started to wonder as to when wargame toys, of various types, might be laid to rest. In my second wave wargaming, I have been going for about twenty years or so, on and off, and have accumulated a fair quantity of stuff. Thus, as many of you may have noted, my "new" 'Wars of the Counter Reformation’ armies are old ones revived. Well, re-based, anyway. On the whole, I do not have a problem with them. I would concede that I could probably do a slightly better paint job on them now than I did all those years ago, but not sufficiently better as to warrant repainting them.

You might have noticed, from the photographs of ‘Whitby Fight’ a few weeks ago, that I have a range of buildings. Many of them are very old, Hovels, card ones. I recall the pain of cutting them out and sticking them,. Often, the pain was real, as you had to ensure that your knife was very sharp to cut them, and small pieces, fingers and sharp hobby knives are only asking for one outcome, really, and that involved blood (among other things, of course, but I do try to keep the blog family friendly).

Now, other buildings I possess are more recent (I think the Hovels buildings were copyrighted in 1980-something), and things have progressed. There are some very nice resin buildings around, and, over the years, I have acquired some of them as well. Even I can, often, make a reasonable paint job of them. They mix in reasonably well with the card stuff, and so I am not particularly bothered by any differences. In fact, the only thing that did surprise me was the light splash (I’m sure there must be a technical term for reflection in flash photography) which the card buildings gave, particularly the tower masquerading as Sneaton Castle. The inner part of that, where the battlements are, was white and proved a bit problematic to get a picture of.

Before digressing further, the point of what I am trying to ask is: when do we pension things off in wargaming? I am sure there are some gamers who are still happily using the figures they bought and painted four decades ago. Similarly, I have little doubt that many are busily buying and painting the very latest models which, it has to be said, have a lot more detail on them than even those of a few years ago.

As a further aside, I have sworn off buying the latest Baccus ECW range. Having seen them in real life, they are way too detailed for me to do them justice. At this rate I shall have to head for 2 mm, just to keep my painting efforts sane.

But the pensionable age of figures, terrain items and rule is a question I have not resolved. As I mentioned, I still recall making the Hovels buildings, and am reluctant, even at this distance in time, to relinquish them and their use. I am not claiming they are particularly good, or beautiful, or anything. But I made them and do not want to let them go (after all, they have mouldered in a cupboard for the last decade or so while I have sojourned in the ancients world). As with the buildings, so with the soldiers. I painted them. I do not need any (well, many) more. I continue to use them.

Rules, I think, seem to be a different issue. I have many rules of a certain age on my shelf. The wargame rule world seems to move on more quickly than casting technology. Rule sets also seem to multiply. I used to have a fairly comprehensive collection of ‘early modern’ rule sets. I doubt if I could afford such today. But I am not sure when I decide to pension a rule set off.

Further, over the last twenty years, historiography has certainly moved forward. My recent reading has suggested that a lot of things I thought I knew about warfare in the sixteenth century is probably wrong. My recourse, as some of you have probably worked out, is to write my own. But things will change again, and they too will be pensioned off.

So, is wargaming a hobby of constant renewal? A quest for the ‘perfect’ set of rules? A desire for beautiful figures of gorgeous terrain? How does it work for you?

Saturday 17 February 2018

The Return of the Abbeys Campaign

As many of you (if there are many, of course) might have noticed, my wargaming is nothing if not intermittent. This is usually because real life keeps breaking out, and that is also true, in spades, of the period from my last wargame (that is, the one where the Armada landed at Whitby) and now. However, the delays have not been entirely due to the exigencies of life, but also due to a decision I made when I started this round of linked battles.

The decision I made was that I would, so far as is possible, create suitable troops and terrain for each action. For the Armada landing scenario, I needed a bunch of rowing boats, my Armada ships to be rebased and, in some cases, repaired and a bunch of Spanish sword and buckler troops to be purchased, painted and based. That done, I found that the emotional investment had been quite high, and I was worried that the resultant battle would not live up to my imaginings, and the quantity of the work invested in it, particularly as the rule set was ‘experimental’. I needed some encouragement from the Estimable Mrs P to actually put the figures on the table.

In spite of all the anxieties, I enjoyed the game, even though, by many yardsticks, not much happened. The Spanish got ashore and the English ran away. Or rather, they made a tactical retreat. The English strategy for resisting Armada landing was never to fight them on the beaches, particularly. There are, in England, way too many beaches anyway.

My addled brain has, therefore, been working on the next action in the campaign, which, as I mentioned, is a Guisborough, where there was a priory. This was a large and wealthy place and was a centre for the rising against Henry VIII known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. As I read somewhere recently, the only mistake the leaders of the Pilgrimage made was to trust Henry VIII’s word as a king.

Fortunately (or, perhaps not, as we shall see) I have access to old maps. Guisborough in the 1840’s was a bit of a ribbon town, with the ruins of the Priory at one end, the parish church next to it, then the market place and houses. There is also a stream running from fishponds in the Priory Park (two thereof, presumably one for the Prior and one for the monks and lay brothers), to the south of the town and then round to join the river that runs to the north. Thus Guisborough is a bit of a pocket. The main road (before the by-pass) ran down from the hills, over the stream by a bridge at the western end of the park, into and through the town (turning left, or west) and then to another bridge over the stream, a bit above the confluence with the river.

A review of available terrain items suggested that another bridge was required. I did consider carrying on regardless and turning the first bridge into a ford, but that seemed to undermine my original decision to try to do things properly. Those of you who have seen the Yorkshire Tea advert will understand why this might be important.

So a bridge was purchased (from Leven Miniatures) and it now requires painting and basing. I already had a bridge, and that too needed basing; that is almost complete. I also suspect I need some stream and river bends to make the terrain work, and also a piece to turn a river into a stream, given the spans of the bridges are rather different. Of course, alongside the bridge a few extra suitable buildings were acquired, and they too will need painting and basing before action can be declared. I also need to consider Guisborough Priory. The tower of the church was knocked down in 1550, apparently, and fell through the roof of the nave, demolishing it. All that is left is the east end. I feel that I would like to represent it on the table, but cannot quite work out how at the moment.

This, plus the aforementioned real life, a job (which occasionally seems so surreal as not to warrant mention in the same breath as ‘real life’) and a research project have conspired to prevent any actual wargames being played. This has given time for my imagination to run riot, of course….
‘Someone to see you, my Lord.’
‘Who is it?’
‘He says his name is Bert Trousdale, my Lord.’
‘He says he is a militia captain from the next town.’
Don Pedro grunted. ‘Show him in.’
‘So, it is agreed then. On Monday next, you and your men will seize Hisborough Bridge and hold it, and we will come a relieve you and defeat any trained bands that remain.’
There was a rapid exchange of barbaric sounds between the Priest translator and Trousdale, with much nodding. Trousdale smiled, stood up and stuck out his hand. ‘Shake’ he growled.
Don Pedro allowed his hand to be pumped up and down. Trousdale bowed slightly, nodded, turned and left the tent. Don Pedro massaged his fingers.
‘Bring soap and hot water.’ The servant left the tent as well.
‘Can we trust him?’
The priest shrugged. ‘They are men of their word around here,’ he said, ‘so probably.’
Don Pedro looked at the scout. ‘Are you sure?’ he demanded.
‘Quite sure, my Lord. There are two bridges. One before the town and one after. The English army is in the town. The militia are at the bridge on the other side.’
‘Nombre de Dios,’ he mumbled. ‘Call a council of war.’
Of course, things are never as simple as they seem. There are two bridges. Trousdale is holding the one which is least convenient to the Spanish, but which is also least likely to get him hung as a traitor. So Don Pedro has to work out what to do about it. As a further complication it is possible that the militia (as opposed to the Yorkshire trained band army in the town) will not turn out to be as loyal to the Spanish Catholic cause as their captain believes; for that matter, it is not certain that Trousdale is either a militia captain or about to support the Spanish. It will all turn on some dice rolls when anyone asks.

Last time, someone (JWH?) asked for some orders of battle. For what they are worth, these are they:

Troops                  Spanish         English Home
Demi-Lancer         2                  1
Light Horse           1                  1
Pike                       4                  3
Bill                                             *
Shot                       4                  3
Bow                                           *
Skirmisher             1                 
Gendarme              1                 
Militia                                      4*

* Alternatives; The English home army may have 4 militia bases or up to 2 bill and 2 bow bases, the rest being militia.

For the Whitby scenario, the English had 4 militia bases. The Spanish converted their gendarmes, demi-lancers and pikes to sword and buckler men, on the basis that eighteen foot pikes and horses did not go well in rowing dinghies.  The Spanish light horse – mounted arquebusiers – were converted to foot skirmishers. The Spanish came ashore in two, six base, waves, separated by the time it took the boats to row back to ships and load the second wave. This was controlled by a die roll for each boat, but did not cause significant delays. Similarly, the boats rolled an average die to see if they drifted left (on a roll of two) or right (five). This did happen a bit but did not cause significant disruption. Nor, in fact, did cannon fire from the harbour, but that was because the English had a bad dice day. The Spanish troops also had to roll to disembark onto the beaches, but as they had a good dice day, it did not cause any delays. I think the scenario is rather better balanced than my play out of it…

For Guisborough I think the scenario might work quite nicely as a three player game, especially if the English think Trousdale is loyal, and the Spanish think he will be holding the near bridge for them. There being just the one of me, however, such decisions will all be done by dice.

Saturday 10 February 2018

Crocodile Infested Streams

If you look in some older wargame books, you will find some calculations as to how far a person can walk, across country in, say, fifteen minutes. This is then used as a basis for calculating how far a unit of troops can move in a similar amount of time. The answer is, of course, far further than a unit of troops would actually move in the given time. Thus is is massively reduced, along with some hand-waving sort of argument that, due to the requirement to keep in line, the troops actually had to move rather more slowly than individuals would.

Here, as my regular reader will know, we try not to do hand waving sorts of arguments, or, if we do (and we all hand wave from time to time) we do try to acknowledge that we are wafting our limbs around and look at the reasons for that. The point here, in terms of movement is, of course, that shifting five hundred men across the countryside in anything like a coherent manner is a whole lot more difficult than we might imagine. This applies even if the men involved are trained to do it.

I am starting to suspect that the dispersed nature of modern troops and warfare has a bigger impact on wargaming older periods than I imagined. It is a truism I have heard that, under pressure, people often tend to bunch up. Modern warfare make bunching up a disaster – a bigger target for weapons of all sorts is created. Thus a lot of training goes into making the soldiers move in a dispersed manner. It is safer. On the whole, of course, these considerations do not apply to anything much before the invention of modern high explosive artillery. Troops were in rather tight formations to aid command and control before the mid-nineteenth century (say; let’s not be picky).

Moving a battalion of infantry from the English Civil War across country is not an easy matter. Terrain is rarely entirely flat. Frequent halts have to be called in order to dress the lines. On the other hand, the accuracy of ranged weapons was low (for reasons I will come back to in another post, hopefully) so the slowness of the advance, and, for that matter, the density of troops, did not matter all that much.

Then there are other problems. A unit of pikemen, for example, needs coherence to be effective. Dispersed pike, for all the arguments I have occasionally seen to the contrary, are useless. On its own a pike is merely an eighteen foot lump of wood, slightly unmanageable. In my view, people who think that you could ‘fence’ with a pike have never tried hefting wood around. The power of pike is in the unity and order of the mass, not the individual. Hence, I suspect, the comment that you see in the sixteenth century and beyond, that to kill a pikeman is to murder an innocent man.

Terrain is rarely simple. Even our garden has folds in it, enough to cause a pike block to pause and redress its lines. Hedges are impassable, woods a disaster, although the same people who argue in favour of pike fencing also seem to think that pikes are perfectly capable of being used in a wood. And that brings me, roughly speaking, to an explanation of the title of this post.

In some of the Polemos rules, bases trying to cross streams have to roll. I forget what the criterion is, but they can, in fact, fail to cross the obstacle. This has caused some amusement, and comments along the lines of the title here – are there crocodiles in that stream?

At the end of the lane up which I live there is a stream or, in the local language, a beck. It has been tinkered with by humans over, I imagine, the centuries. Just last year, a whole load of work was carried out to reinforce the banks to stop them collapsing, manage the flow to stop it undercutting the banks and remove some trees, to stop leaves clogging it up in the autumn.  This is, then, a heavily managed landscape feature. Nevertheless, I would submit that five hundred people attempting to cross the stream would firstly, be thrown into some disorder themselves and, secondly, do a fair bit of damage to the banks.

On the face of it, a single person could cross it stream, although the banks are fairly steep, with the only problem being wet feet. A unit say eight deep is a different proposition, I suggest. By the time the fourth of fifth is clambering across, the banks would be collapsing into the water, the mud would be stirred up and, as troops with heavy equipment are more clumsy than your average hiker, a few, at least, would simply fall in (much to the amusement of their comrades, I imagine).

 This trouble is for a feature that is man managed, canalised. How much more difficulty would an unmanaged stream offer. The canalisation of the flow means that the banks are solid (more or less) and the flow is even. There are no bankside boggy bits or hidden pools. The undergrowth is cut down. And so on. It is quite possible to suppose that an ancient tribal unit, for example, could hesitate at such a crossing, or at least find that it takes a while. You might dispute the (I think) one in six chance of that happening, as in the Polemos rules, but it is really a bit hard to suppose that it is unlikely, that a unit will pass a stream with only a slight delay, as in most rules (at least, the ones I can remember).

Finally, of course, we should remember that the Scottish pike charge at Flodden was disrupted by a hidden ditch. The cohesion was lost, the units opened to the English bills. The slaughter was frightful, to the extent that most later sixteenth century Scottish armies refused to cross the border at all. Even small terrain features can have a big effect. The case of crocodile streams most recently commented on was a refight of the battle of the Sambre. The stream disrupted the Gallic attack. Perhaps a refight without the stream would be instructive (as would Flodden without the ditch). Caesar and the English could find life a lot tougher than they did with the terrain features present.

Saturday 3 February 2018

The Safeguard of the Sea

Oh dear. This will kill the ratings, you know. This is another post about navies and wargaming and all that stuff. I have never got to the bottom of why naval wargaming is so relatively unpopular, nor yet as to why should my posts on the subject, which are such as to get the word ‘intermittent’ a reputation for consistency, be so rarely looked at.

I have been reading a book which simply adds grist to my mill, namely ‘The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain, 600 – 1649 by N. A. M. Rodger (London: Penguin, 2004). This was a Christmas gift (as was volume 2, The Command of the Ocean, 1649-1815, but I have not got to that yet). This is a hefty tome of some 430 pages of text  plus assorted notes, appendices, glossary and a bibliography with some annotations as to the usefulness or otherwise of the work referenced.

Rodger’s main point is that in the period from the Norman conquest to the reign of Elizabeth I, only two English kings really got hold of the idea of naval power and how to use it. These were Richard I, who seems to have learnt a lot about it while on crusade, and Henry V, who used medieval navies in the way that Rodger thinks they should have been used, to obtain strategic surprise by landing armies in unexpected places. Most English kings did the obvious thing and landed in Flanders to attack France. Edward III, granted did land elsewhere (having exhausted the Flanders options) but this seems to be something of a fluke and was really meant to be raid rather than an invasion. Henry V invaded.

The book is rather disparaging about other English naval efforts and the kings who used, or rather, didn’t use them. Edward I comes in for a bit of a pasting over all those castles in North Wales. Apart from Conway, Rodger thinks, they were not only a waste of effort but also useless and strategic white elephants. As royal castles the king’s prestige was bound up in their keeping. Thus if one of them was besieged, the English had to relieve it. Given the paucity of English naval power in the Irish Sea, they had to relieve it overland, and thus open themselves to ambush along the way. An English naval squadron based in Chester would have been far more productive of controlling Wales than the castles.

Rodger notes that, as far as we can tell, pre-conquest England was a naval power of note, and seems to have been on its way to some sort of informal overlordship of Wales, Scotland and Ireland. This seems to have been totally scuppered by the conquest, firstly because the Norman kings were uninterested in navies except for cross-channel movement, and because England became embroiled in a series of continental wars (you could argue that they went down to 1558) and meant that Wales, Scoland and Ireland could be pretty well neglected. If they could not be neglected, then they had to be dominated, usually by conquest and military occupation. This did not work very well, and probably landed Britain (as the archipelago) in a lot of trouble in the longer term.

Strategically, Britain faces three ways. There is the east, across the North Sea towards northern Germany and Scandinavia, and, crucially for naval supplies, the Baltic. To the west is the Irish Sea, the Western Isles of Scotland and assorted Viking naval powers associated with them. And then there is the south, the Channel coast. Until the English Civil War, really, the Irish Sea was under patrolled and under resourced. Most effort had gone into the Channel.

The command of the sea was never a viable option. Communications were slow and the interception of a hostile fleet could only be by either luck or in inshore situations. Scouting was not much done until the sixteenth century and, even when it was achieved, actually sending a message to the fleet in time was more or less impossible.

In the conclusion, Rodger notes that historians often assume that, post-Conquest, the sea made England invasion proof. He notes that English governments were overthrown nine times by foreign invasion – 1139, 1153, 1326, 1399, 1460, 1470, 1471, 1485 and 1688. Scotland was successfully invaded in 1332. Major forces were landed in England in 1069, 1101, 1215, 1405, 1462, 1469 and 1487, plus in Scotland in 1708. This ignores raids or assistance sent to forces hostile to the government, and completely ignores Ireland. The sea was the highway, not an impregnable barrier.

Rodger also notes that the naval efforts of the Irish and Scots are frequently ignored. In fact, for most of the period, these nations were far ahead of the English in naval force and prowess. Their rulers had a far better understanding of the possibilities of projecting power using naval assets. The English only slowly learnt (or, perhaps, relearnt) the possibilities of naval power.

Arguments over the ‘military revolution’ aside, Rodger notes that there was a sixteenth century naval revolution. The ships of Elizabeth’s navy were different from their predecessors, although not that different. Elizabeth’s navy, he argues, was built for a specific purpose – the short range defence of the realm. It could, and did, take the offence during the war with Spain, but English ships could not be victualled for long, and so the long range or long term projection of power was not possible. He also notes the difficulty in victualling a fleet based on Plymouth, when the only possible base for supplying such numbers of men was London. Local resources and infrastructure were not adequate to the task, and Plymouth is a long way windward for London. Thus the main fleet was usually kept in the Channel, in the downs or Medway.

Finally, Rodger notes that the fleet was the most complex technical problem facing a government (and it still is). Warships are complicated beasts; their crews cannot just be rounded up off the streets – you need a large merchant marine to supply skilled sailors. Further, ships need regular, complex maintenance. There have to be dockyards, skilled workers, plans, stores and experienced administrators. Rodger’s argument is that this started to happen in Elizabeth’s reign, faltered under the early Stuarts, but Charles I, with the ship money fleet, was just about starting to pull it together again.

The problem for Charles (aside from money and his own political ineptitude) was that no one had exactly decided what the fleet was for. Hearkening back to Elizabeth’s reign did not really help; circumstances were different. Was the fleet for short range flag showing, reputation building and creation of the image of power, or was it a long range, trade escorting and protecting force, capable of real power projection over the oceans. No one seems to have really noticed that there was a question until the civil war. Charles favoured the former; his merchant enemies (many of whom owned very profitable privateers) favoured the latter.

I have gone on a bit, but then it is a long book. But it is well worth reading and pondering. As a final note, in the bibliography entry to Philippe Contamine’s War in the Middle Ages, Rodger notes ‘ An egregious example of a common approach; the distinguished author blandly announces that he proposes to ignore naval warfare altogether ‘as a matter of maintaining internal balance’, because it is too complicated.’

As wargamers, are we guilty as charged?