Saturday 26 May 2018

The Collection

Strictly speaking, I am not reviewing the following book:

Stewart, S., On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993).

It only looks like it.

What I do want to talk about is the view of collections expressed in the book. Wargamers, aside from everything else, are collectors.  We have to admit it. We might even be hoarders, some of us. I really will get around to painting that army. Someday. Most of us, I imagine, have been there, thought that, however little our nearest and dearest might believe us.

Stewart argues that there is a difference between a collection and a souvenir. A souvenir is designed to transport us back to the place it signifies. She quotes Marx (which is not quite the alarm bell that might have been a few decades ago). The souvenir is a commodity made by labour. The souvenir spans the gap between the produced object and the origin. It reconstitutes the scene of acquisition.

The collection (or strictly, the objects in the collection) further alienate from production. We collect, but we do not ‘earn’ the item in the way that we obtain a souvenir, by actually visiting somewhere. As collectors we are consumers. The objects in a collection, therefore, signify money. Collected objects, such as coins or old bottles, are abstracted from their original use.

There is thus a difference between craft and mass production. A craft is a pre-industrial mode of production. The collection replaces craft activity in late modernity, Stewart suggests. A collection is a consumer activity. It links a pre-industrial aesthetic – that of the hand-made and one off – with a consumer society mode of production, that is mass-production, and mode of acquisition. We collect the ready-made.

The quality of a single collected object is negligible. What is important is the relation of an item in the collection to the others. In a coin collection each item matters, but in relation to the other coins. The value of a collection is not the sum of its parts, but the overall aesthetic, which is given by the position of the object and its manipulation within the collection.

So far, so abstract, I concede. But how does this apply to a collection of wargame figures?

Well, the last point I think can be agreed. A single wargame figure (as opposed to a model not intended to be used for a game) has very little use or value outside its army. The value of the single cavalry trooper is negligible without the rest of the squad, regiment or whatever. Even if the wargame is to be played at the lowest level of skirmish, the single figure is of comparatively little use.

What of the value (for the wargamer) of the model? Well, I suppose that this might vary. I recall from the old DBM-list (which was a fairly scary place for a newly returning wargamer) there was, on occasion, great glee or massive despair when new versions of the rules were released which made this or that troop type better or worse than before. Did the value of the soldiers change?

I suspect the answer is ‘sort of’. The intrinsic value might not have varied, but the use within the collection, the army, might have done. However, this must be limited by the fact that the troop type is still required, or at least permitted, in the army. The particular value of the troops might have changed, but their overall use value has not.

We could, I suppose, argue over whether wargame figure production is a craft or mass production. I have to say I could argue it either way. It seems to depend on whether you think spinning a mould of 24 figures or so is sufficiently ‘mass’ for mass production. Of course, I know that some wargamers cast their own figures or even make their own moulds, but this is not behaviour I see at many wargame shows. So far as the consumer goes, in many cases, the receipt of, say, 144 identical infantrymen counts as mass consumption, if not strictly mass production.

However, that said, a craft element is to be found in a wargame collection. Many wargamers paint their own figures, make the terrain and so on. Some, admittedly, do not, but the majority, I’d say, do their own painting of at least some of their figures. This, surely, is a craft, a throwback to a pre-industrial way of proceeding. Interestingly, I recall that a lot of model railway figures come pre-painted, which might cast a different light on the craft of making model railways. But I digress.

Stewart argues that the combination of pre-industrial content and post-industrial form is a contradiction in a collection. Forming the collection is aesthetic consumption. Creating the collection is functional consumption. The collection ‘marks out the space of the ornament and the superfluous’ (p. 166). Further, she suggests that purchasing a collection all at once is not acceptable.

So, is a wargame army a contradiction? I think that some of us, at least, would feel a little uncomfortable (for want of a better word) if someone bought a pre-painted, ready-made army. How, after all, can you love them if you have not painted or based them? Part of the discomfort might be along the lines of worrying that our fellow wargamer might simply be a munchkin (to borrow a role-playing term) and have simply bought the powerful army. Not necessarily, I will concede, but there is something about it which does not make us altogether happy.

Is a wargame army superfluous, an ornament? In all likelihood it is. We do not strictly speaking need wargame figures to survive. Their resale value is fairly negligible. These days the lead content of figures has dropped to the extent that a wargame collection (or collection of collections) would probably be of little use in a nuclear holocaust. Wargames are a product of late modernity, of a consumer society and of the emergence of a moneyed class with leisure time.   

The collection of wargame soldiers is something which can never have an end. So the next time you feel guilty at having acquired another load of figures what it is doubtful that you will ever paint (let alone play a wargame with) just remember that you are doing your bit for the post-industrial economy.

Saturday 19 May 2018

In The Frame

A long, long time ago, I wrote something about how wargames are framed. As I recall, this was based around some comments by Gadmaer which focussed on how paintings and plays, in particular, ‘frame’ the action. That is, there is on stage action, and off stage. Until recently, for example, most rapes and murders in plays were committed off stage. On stage we see the consequences of the activities both on and off stage.

All of this is, I think, still true. In film and television programmes too, much activity takes place off screen. It might be represented in flash-back in some examples, and of course the late modern fascination with the pornography of violence, let alone plain pornography, means that often the rapes and murders, sex scenes and so on are presented to us in glorious technicolour.

The second point therefore is that the framing is done in both space and time, and is informed by the culture of the day. The murders in Shakespeare, for example, are usually off stage. In the average cop film, they are in frame. We might consider that this is something to do with the technical ability to show someone being killed who isn’t being killed, but it is also to do with the acceptability of the scene in the first place. Culture ultimately, I think, trumps what is technically feasible.

A wargame table obviously operates as a frame. I was reminded of this when taking photographs of the end of the Guisbrough battle. As I mentioned when I wrote about setting the battle field up, it is framed in space, and consciously so. The ruined Priory is off the field. The hills and woods to the south of the battle field are off table. Partly this is because I could not find a suitable representation of the Priory. If I could, I probably would have given it a go. Partly, in the case of the hills and woods, it was because I did not want to clutter the actual battlefield any more. The hills and wood would, I think, not have added much to the action.

Perhaps a little more subtle than the geographical framing is the temporal. A wargame is, by necessity, a linear time frame. One thing happens and then the next thing. Cause and effect are firmly entrenched. I have not hear of too many wargames which play with the linear nature of time. Modern novels, of course, do so from time to time. For example, Penelope Fitzgerald’s Gate of Angels starts in the middle and works both backwards and forwards. I have not heard of any wargames that do so.

Nevertheless, a wargame does frame the time. We focus on the battle. We might pay lip service to what has gone before. Articles in wargame magazines often frame the battle in this way – starting from the political situation, the war, the campaign and the moves leading up to the action. But the bulk of the article, the bulk of what we, as wargamers, are interested in is the battle itself – the orders of battle, terrain, deployment, plans and movements. We, therefore, frame the battle in a certain way.

My narrative style of wargame campaigns is, of course, doing the same thing. I have given up on the idea of plotting map moves in detail, and of keeping track of logistics and reinforcements. These things can, of course, add a great deal to the game, but I have opted to frame my wargames in a certain way, skipping over the detail and focussing on the battle field activities. This might, of course, offend the purist but, I suspect, most honest reflection by wargamers would admit that this is more or less what everyone does. A pick up scenario is but one manifestation of the same thing; I’m just trying to connect mine a little bit.

The third thing we do, of course, is miniaturise the whole thing. As mentioned in my discussion of Yarwood’s paper a few weeks ago, miniaturisation enables us to overlook the whole battlefield. In fact, of course, looking at a map of a campaign is doing the same thing. Most generals do not have this advantage. I believe it was General Slim who remarked that the British army fought its battles on the side of a hill, in the pouring rain, at a point where two maps met. As wargamers, and, for that matter, consumers of military history, we get an overview of a miniaturised world.

As I think I noted before, there is also surely an effect of the degree of miniaturisation. While all wargame rules in fact distort the figure to ground scale, there is a limit to what we can get away with before it starts to look a bit silly. A representation of, say, Waterloo on a six foot by four foot table with 54 mm toy soldiers might push credibility for some people. Similarly, a representation of Kursk with 15 mm tanks on an eight by four table might strain some credibility in some quarters. There are limits to what we seem to be able to get away with, and I am starting to think that those limits are aesthetic rather than anything else.

Normally, of course, we get away with the credulity strain by scenario-ising the action, making it part of the whole. Our 54 mm game becomes the defence of Hougoumont. This fits into the overall narrative of the battle of Waterloo. Our level of miniaturisation has led us to frame the wargame temporally and spatially in a certain way. In fact, we have given up the advantage of miniaturisation, to some extent, as we can no longer gain an overview of the whole battle, just this part of it. But this yielding of overview is to make a playable game which we can believe.

There are, then, lots of interacting factors which go together to make up a wargame. Miniaturisation is but one of them. Temporal and spatial framing are others. Even though for most people most of the time these factors are not explicitly considered (‘Just put the stuff on the table and play!’) the look and feel of the wargame is, at the end of the day, what counts. 

Saturday 12 May 2018

Elizabeth’s Wars

One of the books on my ‘to be written about’ pile is:

Hammer, P. E. J., Elizabeth's Wars (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

I got this because, as you may have noticed, I am trying to update my historiography of the sixteenth century. On the other hand, the book does not really contain any of the descriptions of battles, weapons, uniforms and campaigns which wargamers so frequently hanker after.

You get quite a lot more in the book than just wars from 1558. Elizabeth’s reign was constrained significantly by the activities of her father and siblings. Henry VIII managed spectacular diplomatic isolation in the 1540’s and spent vast sums of money on defending England, invading Scotland and also invading France. He also managed to upset a fair number of people along the way, including the Scots, French and Imperial Emperor. The fact that he was a Protestant (sort of) in an increasingly aggressive Catholic Europe also did not help; nor did the rather ambivalent point of view of some of his subject to the matter of religion, on both sides.

Somehow the realm survived, made peace in Europe and struggled on with an ultimately unsuccessful war against the Scots. Quite what was to be achieved by fighting in Scotland was a bit of a mystery by Edward’s reign. Certainly, Scotland’s alliance with France was a problem for the security of the realm, but there was no way that, after being invaded, the Scots were going to allow Mary Stuart to marry Edward. Still, fighting continued until the English regime fell and a series of revolts, partly about religion and partly about taxation paralysed England and forced some sort of peace.

It did not last all that long of course. Peace in Early Modern Europe rarely did. Mary Tudor married Phillip of Span and England was again embroiled in continental war, albeit with a more reliable partner. However, the loss of Calais in 1558 had rather wider implications for England than the humiliation and loss of the entry port into Europe (much used of course, by Henry – if Edward III had not captured Calais, England’s involvement in continental wars would have been much lower – discuss). Calais and its garrison provided England with a cadre of trained professional soldiers. The royal garrison of Berwick was too small and remote (not to mention in too peaceable part of the realm, as it turned out) to replace it.

The problems facing Elizabeth when she came to the throne were manifold: religion, foreign affairs, the nature of the Scottish settlement (or lack of it), her own marriage and the succession and, above all money. These would have tested most monarchs of that or any other age. Above that Elizabeth had another issue that of her sex. This influenced many of the others – if she married she would lose power to her husband ad Mary Tudor had, and possibly have her realm dragged into wars which were not in its best interests. But beyond that she could not, by the mores of the day, command armies. The problem was that men, aristocratic men with an inflated idea of their own importance as it was, would command her armies and, if successful could threaten her throne.

Hammer takes us through the wars Elizabeth had to fight. The early interventions convinced her that wars were expensive, costly in the lives of her subjects and rather pointless. The assistance to the Protestants in Scotland was vaguely successful but the military aspects bordered on fiasco. The intervention in France was worse. The Tyrone rebellion in Ireland was both bloody and expensive, and the outcome was not the subjection of the island that might have engendered security. Against this background was the rising threat of Spain, chaos, from time to time, in France and the revolt of the Netherlands.

As an additional complication, the more Protestant elements of the kingdom, who often happened to be West Country sailors, wanted to expand their trade and piracy, at the expense of the nearest thing to a regional superpower there was at the time, Spain. The raids they launched were, mostly, irritants to the Spanish Empire, but did not help diplomatic relations at all, especially as the Queen and her council, desperate for money, had a tendency to take profit from the attacks (when they were profitable).

Elizabeth’s government did not wander blindly into war with Spain. They were, so far as it was possible, prepared, but money was always a constraint. English armies in the Low Countries were under-supplied, under-equipped and under-manned. The navy was better prepared but still the government had a tendency to not pay the seamen. The Armada was fought off by a combination of good fortune and strategic error by the Spanish high command.

The Elizabethan regime counter-attacked, of course. The 1595 Cadiz expedition is described as one showing a high degree of coordination by navy and army, and was carried out with a great deal of success. After a decade of war lessons had been learnt although it does have to be remembered that the Elizabethan strategy was always ultimately defensive. Elizabeth aimed for a draw in the war, while some of the aristocrats seem to have seriously thought they could win.

The exception is, of course, Ireland. The Tyrone rebellion had to be won. Strategy and religion combined here in a lethal cocktail that sucked men and money from England and left Ireland itself devastated and depopulated. But Elizabeth’s government could do no other – a Spanish base in Ireland would leave the whole of the west of England (to say nothing of Scotland) exposed to invasion. Further, despite the navy which defended against the Armada being based in Plymouth, there was no viable naval base to control the Irish Sea – logistically, London was the key.
Of course, the paradox of all this is that from historiographical viewpoints, Elizabeth and her government just about hung on. In myth and propaganda things are rather different. The cover of the book shows ‘The Armada Portrait’ of Elizabeth, serene with imperial crown (Henry VIII had declared England an empire, by the way), her victorious navy in the background and her hand resting on a globe. Later generations looked back to the tradition of the Elizabethan sea dog and contrasted their own age unfavourably with it – this was particularly true of the run in to the English Civil War, but not exclusive to it. It is also possible that this requirement for image making and propaganda stimulated the cultural golden age that did flourish – Shakespeare, Spenser and all that. If you want propaganda, you need someone to write it, but now I am speculating.

Saturday 5 May 2018

Guisbrough Fight

Don Pedro look dubiously at the liquid in the tankard placed in front of him. Apparently, it was better and safer than the water. Feeling extremely brave, he took a sniff and a sip, trying to hide the wrinkling of his nose from his anxious hosts. If that was better, the water around here must be pretty terrible. But he sat back and smiled. Some of the tension slipped away, but Don Pedro still rather wished he had taken the hospitality offered by the Manor House rather than the local tavern.

Still, it had been a successful, if long and hard fought day. The English had bought some guns with them this time, and had stood and fought. Deploying under artillery fire had proved to be nearly too much for his novices, and the initial idea of a flank attack on the town via the Park had bogged down, or rather, never got off the ground at all. It had taken ages for the cavalry to turn the left flank of the English position, and that had only been possible due to Captain Trousdale’s treachery. Trousdale was now, hopefully, enjoying Mass in the ruins of the Priory. Still, Don Pedro leant back and hazarded another sip of the ale. Tomorrow they must try to find out where the real English army was.

The picture shows the situation at the end of the battle. Don Pedro is centre right, encouraging his infantry to form up again and advance. The Spanish artillery to his left has recently come into action and, the English artillery (there were two bases thereof) has been silenced. You can see the fire fight on the bridge, or at least, the English shooting rather ineffectively and the Spanish pikemen, who have taken over the assault from the arquebusiers who you can see shaken on the road, advancing.

Here, a closer view of the fighting around Chapel Beck Bridge is seen. The bridge itself is just out of picture, a little closer to the camera. Trousdale is to the left of his men, who were the only base on the ‘Spanish’ side of the bridge at the start of the battle. The other six bases of militia were on the Guisbrough side. You can see the Spanish cavalry running riot in the rear of the English position. The Gendarmes (with a terrain shaken marker towards the centre of the picture) have just charged some yellow coated English pike (having recoiled the arquebusiers). To their left some demi-lancers have just disposed of one of the English guns. Between Trousdale’s men and Guisbrough another base of Spanish demi-lancers lurks threateningly against the English reserve bill and bowmen in the centre foreground.

This is the point at which English morale collapsed. You can see a base of billmen fleeing into Guisbrough; the English demi-lancers have already left the table, having been charged in flank by the Gendarmes after dispatching some treasonous militia men. The loss of the artillery base and some bad dice rolling put the English into ‘withdraw’ mode. The Spanish, again, did not lose a base, but the battle was a lot closer than the score line suggests.

The action was enjoyable, and I learnt quite a lot about the rules. Artillery seems to be a bit on the powerful side. They did not cause any casualties but certainly disrupted the Spanish infantry advance in the centre. What was originally a three wave attack of mixed pike and shot turned into a few bases making piecemeal advances, solely through the effects of artillery fire and bases recoiling. I might need to downgrade the artillery ranged combat factor (currently 4) a bit, or mess with the combat results table. The effect was, possibly, a bit overwhelming.

The original Spanish plan was to cross the Park with skirmishers to outflank the English. Perhaps wisely, Don Pedro declined to commit many resources to this effort – only two bases, as can be seen in the top part of the photos, and these were held at bay by the English border horse. The main Spanish effort came from the cavalry who rode around the battlefield, made contact with Trousdale, established his loyalties and then crossed the bridge to wreak havoc. The rest of Trousdale’s men fell out among themselves – the loyal English militia eliminated the treacherous ones just before the Gendarmes struck, but were then left without room to manoeuver or orders.

The other issue for both sides were tempo points, or rather the lack of them. Neither commander, after bidding for points, could actually achive very much. Mostly, Don Pedro got troops moving using his personal point. The English general only really used tempo to get his reserve moving in an attempt to stop the Spanish outflanking manouver.

This was probably a rather more complex game than my usual ones, and, for most of it, it seemed like the English were going to frustrate Don Pedro, if not actually defeat him. The combination of Trousdale permitting the Spanish cavalry to cross the bridge, and their arrival in the rear of the English position was devastating. On the other hand, the English defence was a bit on the passive side, relying on the artillery to sufficiently disrupt the Spanish to allow their infantry to be picked off as they apporached the stream and bridge. It nearly worked, but more attention should have been paid to the defence of Chapel Beck Bridge.

As for Don Pedro, I think he should have kept his skirmishers in hand and deployed behind them, protecting his infantry from the English artillery for as long as possible. The assaults on the bridge may then have been better coordinated and the whole thing a little easier.

Now, I have to decide on the next battle. The next Abbey is, in fact, Mount Grace Priory, just as the road turns south into the gap between the North Yorks Moors and the Dales. On the other hand, there is a very tempting bridge and confluence at Stokesley, the defence of which could be interesting but, perhaps, a bit like Guisbrough. We shall see, but at this rate, I am going to need a 6 mm James Herriot figure.