Saturday, 25 August 2018

What is Military History?

As I have mentioned before, one book tends to lead to another. After reading the account of the Nine Years War I mentioned a while ago, this book seemed to follow fairly naturally. The discussion of ‘Drums and Trumpets’ military history sparked me to find out what historians actually think military history is. I confess, having read some bits of military history for a while, the answers, at least for the influence of early modern military history, did not entirely surprise me.

Anyway, I obtained a copy of:

Morillo, S., Pavkovic, M. F., What Is Military History? (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018).

This is the third edition of the text; I suspect the second author (credited with a ‘with’) did some of the updating, but nevertheless, there is a degree of confidence when a textbook runs to more than one edition. Not only that, it is a remarkably recently published book for something I have read.

The answer to the question is, mostly, ‘unpopular’. Academia does not particularly like talking, thinking, researching and investigating warfare. After something of a golden age – it is noted that Delbruck, Oman and even Creasey’s Fifteen Decisive Battles of the Western World are still in print, which is rather remarkable for works over 100 years old in all cases and 150 in the case of Creasey. The issue is rather in Creasey’s title, however: what does a decisive battle entail?

Now, the unpopularity of a subject, the ‘yuck’ factor if you like, should not stop us from working on it as historians. After all, the world needs historians of the Holocaust, for example, even though I doubt if any historian (or most other right-minded people) would consider the Holocaust to be a good or popular thing. War is, apparently for humans, inevitable, but a generation of historian grew up in the middle of the twentieth century who had political and ideological objections to studying war.

The study of warfare was therefore relegated to popular history (where it does sell) and professional academies. It has had to rather creep out of the margins to take academic history from, as it were, the flanks. Thus we have some interesting ideas floating around which might have their origin in considering warfare, but which reach much further than that, thus making them acceptable to mainstream history.

The ‘New’ military history started with ‘war and society’ studies. This is the idea that warfare, or specifically armies reflect, in their organisation, the societies from which they spring. As some of you might know from browsing such works, something that looks interesting from a wargaming point of view turns out to elide the very function of the army under study. ‘Armies were recruited, organised, fed, paid, and sent home; they sometimes marched, but they never fought.’ (p. 43). So new military history failed to actually examine how these organisations did the job for which they existed.

John Keegan’s Face of Battle also changed the game rather. This, as I’m sure you know, focussed on the experience of the common soldier. There are now plenty of studies of this sort of genre, even though, for many eras, actually figuring out what the experience of the common soldier was is a bit tricky. By the very fact that they were common, not a huge quantity of information about them is extant. Nevertheless, for a wargamer these studies are more useful. Goldsworthy’s The Roman Army at war 100 BC – 200 AD certainly helped me writing Polemos: SPQR.

Next up, the publication of Geoffrey Parker’s The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800 had a huge impact. I am pleased to say that it sits on my bookcase, as I brought it when it came out. Parker is, of course, an eminent historian and he got attention. His thesis is twofold. Firstly, he argued that warfare was an important factor in creating the early modern state, and secondly that technology in the west, applied to warfare, enabled the start of expansion. This stimulated the ‘military revolution’ debate, of course, but non-military historians had to engage with Parker’s thesis. Military history had, sort of, gone mainstream.

The currents in military history are, therefore, broadly away from battles and campaigns and towards social, political and cultural history. Military history, by abandoning battles, has been brought much closer to mainstream historiography. Whether this is much use to us as wargamers is a bit of a moot point, of course.

The chapter ‘Current Controversies’ extends some of these comments. First up is the military revolution debate itself. I will not go into the detail but more or less every claim of Parker’s thesis has been questioned and contested. Not only that, but many more military revolutions have been identified both across time and across the world. So many revolutions have been found that it seems to me that the original idea has become rather lost rather than answered. Of course, most of the issue revolves around your precise definition of ‘revolution’.

The second controversy is around counter-insurgency. This shows the ties of military history to current events and the military in various countries. These studies might be of interest to the wargamer but mostly, of course, we prefer battles than skirmishes. So far as I can tell, counter-insurgency operations are more suited to role-playing games than wargames.

Third up is the question of ‘western exceptionalism’, which was pushed back to the Greeks by Victor Davis Hanson’s The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece. This was (and was developed into) a provocation. The argument is simple enough: the Greeks sought decisive battles characterised by face-to-face combat. This is a characteristic of western combat and led to the triumph of western civilisation (although, in my view, it is open to Gandhi's response, that the latter would be a good idea).

There are, of course, many other bits within the volume, most of which are interesting. For example, given my recent griping about naval wargaming, the question is posed as to whether naval history (as opposed to maritime history) is military history. Surprisingly, some people think the answer is ‘no’. That shows something, but I am not sure what.

Still, this is a good book, worth reading if you wonder why you cannot find the order of battle for Rocroi outside a tome about a hundred years old.

Saturday, 18 August 2018

Go East Young Man

As the regular reader (and there is only one, especially given that it is August and everyone seems to be on holiday) of the blog will know, I have been digging out old soldiers and rebasing them. Overall, it has been a slightly strange experience. Some bases I have pulled out of their drawers (I mean storage, of course. Stop that snickering in the corner), and greeted like old friends. I have not seen them, I would estimate, for over 15 years, and yet I know exactly who they are, what they are and how they behave. Others, of course, I have to sit and puzzle over, and, occasionally, resort to my army lists (DBR 100 AP armies) to establish exactly what the troop type might be.

The first fruits of the rebasing project are now finished and downstairs in the snug. These are the Poles and the Muscovites. The point of the project is not just to rebase all these toy soldiers. Remarkably, for me at least, the idea is to have a few wargames as well. Thus, the creative juices of the wargamer were set to devise a scenario with narrative potential involving the aforementioned armies, namely early modern Poles and Muscovites. Fortunately, as any wargamer will know, these two armies spent a fair bit of the early modern era at war.

The upshot was as follows.

 The picture shows the edge of a recently built Russian town and fort complex, Tsarputinsberg and part of its outer defences. The garrison consists mostly of expendable ‘Western’ mercenaries that are armed as conventional pike and shot. These are operating the heavy cannon in the earthworks and providing a base of arquebusiers as back up.

The building of the fort and town has not gone unnoticed, and it has been under fairly desultory siege by a Polish Commonwealth army for a while. Tsarputinsberg, therefore, could do with some resupply, and you can see the convoy on the road. It is escorted by a Muscovite army consisting of mounted Boyar cavalry, some infantry (including a couple of bases of Streltsi) and a few Cossacks. The convoy consists of 14 bases of assorted wagons, pack horses and mules.

Naturally, the Poles would prefer that the convoy did not arrive, and so have moved some of the besieging army around the defences to intercept it. They have just broken cover, to the left, the Hussars (far end) and Pancerni (middle distance) riding over the hill in the best traditions of Taras Bulba. Actually, in the best tradition of the only bit,I think I remember of the film, which consisted of (I suspect) Yul Brenner waving forward a long line of Cossacks over a hill to charge, well, someone. Memory does not serve as to whom, and although I have read the book (which isn’t great, as I recall, although 19th Century Russian literature is not my thing) is, I suspect, rather different from the film.

Anyway, the Polish plan is to block the road just out of artillery range of the fort with the war wagons (you cannot have an early modern Polish army without war wagons and Hussars, now, can you?) supported by the infantry you can see in the left foreground. Meanwhile, the cavalry will attack down the hill, seize the convoy and all will be well with the world. The Muscovite plan is to block the Pole for long enough for at least half the convoy to get to safety.

I do not know if it is just me, my rule or wargaming more generally, but ambushes are very difficult for the defender to succeed at. I noted before that under my Polemos: SPQR rules the only way I had found for the Gauls to win was to ambush the Romans. The same sort of thing happened here.

The picture shows the battlefield at the end of the game. You can see that parts of the convoy have been captured and the rest will shortly follow. To the right are the fleeing remnants of the central block of Boyars. Even if the Muscovites had held on a bit longer, it does not look as though any of the supplies will get through.

So, what happened? If you look closely you will see that the Hussars have not moved, and nor have the far block of Muscovite cavalry. This amused me no end. The Hussars, as we know, are the original class ‘A’ loonies under the Gush WRG rules, or ‘T1M1’ under Tercio. The sort of troops I could never afford on my original schoolboy wargaming budget. Here, they pick up a plus one in the rules for being self-proclaimed elite troops, and another plus one for being uphill of the enemy.

An awful lot in the rules depends on timing, seizing the tempo at the right moment to get your charge in. The Muscovites did that and the central block (together with the general, who went down fighting) bravely charged uphill, outnumbered, at the Polish pancerni and, after a swirling cavalry action, lost, as you can see. The Boyar at the far end quite sensibly, in my view, refused to charge the Hussars uphill. In the Polish bound, rather to my surprise, the Hussars refused to charge the Boyars, even though they are elite and were uphill. Dice can be odd things at times. The Muscovites were quite happy with this result, as you can imagine. Presumably, the Hussars did not want to get their lances dirty, or something.

Anyway, that situation lasted for the whole game – the Hussars failed to charge at least three times. As you can see, even at the end of the game, the stand-off continued. The battle was won and lost in the middle, where the Muscovites fought bravely but numbers usually tell in cavalry actions and they were always outnumbered.

As a scenario it was rather fun, but ambushes do seem a little one-sided. I could have moved the road further away from the hills, but I suspect that would have only delayed the result. Perhaps the Russian deployment was a bit flakey; I could have got the infantry into action sooner if they had been deployed within the convoy, rather than at the front. But then the war wagons would probably have blocked the road, so again, I am not sure.

Anyway, next time, the mercenary garrison had better try to break itself out for the place.

Saturday, 11 August 2018

Alexander Again

Never let it be said that I am unwilling to flog a dead horse, or to disturb a sleeping dog. As those of you who read it may have noticed from the last post, my thoughts are turning towards Macedon again, and the escapades of Alexander III, sometimes known as ‘the Great’.

Specifically, I have been reading:

Anson, E. M., Alexander the Great: Themes and Issues (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).

This is by a scholar of the man himself, and, as the title implies, looks at some of the more disputed and controversial bits of historiography related to Alexander and his times.

The first thing to note is that Anson thinks that alexander obtained the ‘the Great’ bit fairly early after his death, although as someone noted the last time I discussed this, the first reference to this is in Plautus, the Roman comedic playwright (p. 1). However, Anson argues that the Greeks gave him this name for conquering the Persian Empire, not for being generally great. After all, Anson also notes, Alexander has been characterised in a number of ways in the historiography: ‘The Pretty Good’, ‘The Downright Awful’, a paranoid, a drunkard, someone in constant competition with an assassinated father, and with an Oedipal complex. He has also been seen as a civiliser, and the cause, at least, of mass murder. Here, at least, is a complex historical character.

The wargamer will probably be most attracted to Chapter 2 of the book, which deals with the reign of Phillip II and the rise of Macedon. This discusses the many changes which Phillip seems to have wrought in Macedon itself, not least in reforming the army. Originally, the Macedonian state had been barely a state at all, just a bunch of nobles owning land and acting as companions to the king. Phillip started to win battles and, hence, land, which he distributed not just to nobles but to others who became a burgeoning ‘middle class’, who owed their status, and hence were loyal, to the king. This was the core of the Macedonian infantry.

Anson notes that the sarissa was introduced very early in Phillip’s reign. As a defensive weapon is required much less training than the hoplite panoply and it was cheaper, although Phillip’s income increased rapidly after 356. Middle class Greeks could keep their panoply, but native Macedonians were pastoralists and tenant farmers who could not. The indications are, according to Anson, that Phillip had an independent command before his brother’s death at the hand of the Illyrians in 359, and may have started using the sarissa then (p. 49).

The other innovation Phillip implemented was the foot companions, the pezhetairoi or hypaspists. These could serve as sarissa armed phalagites of be equipped for hand to hand combat, a 15 to 18 foot long pike not being ideal for that. It was these troops that Alexander took in fast moving situations.

There is no evidence that Phillip had a ‘master plan’, but, after a little bit of pushing and shoving in Greece, must have realised that seizing mastery of Greece was a possibility. The question was what to do next, and that had to be something to unite the Greeks. The answer, as we all know, was the invasion the Persian Empire. This was a pan-Hellenic ideal, to punish Persia for the damage to Greek temples and other involvement in Greece over the centuries. Of course, other aims were involved: Persia was reported to be a plunderer’s paradise; some saw the war as a good way to get rid of Phillip, as he was unlikely to return, and so on.

The question is then to what extent did Alexander simply land up in the fortunate position of having domination over Greece, and good army and a bridgehead in Asia, compared to his own ability to conquer the Persian Empire? As with most questions in history, this one can be argued either way. No doubt Phillip left him in a strong position, but he did have to take the initiative and, of course, win the battles.

Other chapters in the book deal with interesting, but less wargame related material. The fist discusses to what extent the Macedonian army became a democracy, focussing on the meetings of the army in Alexander’s later years, the ‘mutiny’ refusing to go further into India, and responses to the death of the king. There is an interesting chapter of Alexander’s deification – how much he thought he was actually a living god by the end of his life, and whether this fitted into Greek of Persian patterns of humans, heroes and gods. It is around these issues that many people start to wonder whether Alexander was of sound mind, but perhaps we do not understand the classical mind-set sufficiently to judge.

The other interesting chapter for the wargamer is Chapter 5, which discusses Alexander’s kingdom of Asia. This observes that the conquests after the fall of the Persian Empire had to fit a different rhetoric to the theme of punishment. Conquest became the idea. Alexander often confirmed in place the rulers of places he conquered, such as Porus. He was interested in conquering stuff, not really forming an empire. Further, he started to recruit Persians into the army, and Persian practices into the court. This caused a lot of dissent from the Macedonians who, as we all know, largely wanted to go home.

In terms of the campaign I mentioned last week, however, it would seem that the army that would be used against Carthage would consist, at least in part, of Persian troops, some armed in Macedonian fashion (Persians were recruited into the Companion cavalry, for example) but presumably some using their traditional weapons and tactics. Once a horse archer, I suppose, always a horse archer, or at least, you are useful enough to be employed as a horse archer, rather than retrained as a phalangite, for example.  

So, this is an interesting, scholarly, book, with a good bibliography of references to follow up upon. The question not answered, of course, is the one stated up front: was Alexander mad, bad, great, a god or just lucky?

Saturday, 4 August 2018

Another Start?

His ambitions knowing no bounds, Alexander had decided that, after the subjugation of the entire eastern seaboard, he would head from Syria towards Africa, because of his enmity to the Carthaginians. Then, crossing the Numidian deserts, he would set his course for Gades, where the Pillars of Hercules were rumoured to be; afterwards he would go to Spain (which the Greeks called ‘Hiberia’, after the river Hiberus). Then he would skirt past the Alps and the Italian coastline, from which it was a short passage to Epirus.

Accordingly, Alexander instructed his governors in Mesopotamia to cut timber on Mt. Libanus, transport it down to the Syrian city of Thapasacus, and there lay down kneels for 700 ships. These were septemremes, which were to be transported to Babylon. The kings of Cyprus were instructed to furnish bronze, hemp and sails.

Quintus Curtius Rufus, The History of Alexander (London: Penguin, 2001), 10.1.17-19.

The question of whether Alexander III of Macedon was great or not is one I want to leave aside here; I will probably come back to it in due course. But the interest here is in wargaming, and I note that I do now have a variety of wargame armies for the classical period which are hanging around not doing all that much. This seems to me to be a shame, especially, as I noted a few posts ago, I now have a perfectly adequate table for 20 base armies, even roughly doubled ones and a more recent penchant for narrative campaigns.

By a narrative campaign, I mean one which is basically storytelling with dice. My Armada campaign (which is ongoing, in case you are worrying about Don Pedro and his men) is one such. I have no rules for the campaign – it is all made up as I go along. There are no messengers, logistics, particular anxieties about communications and politics and so on. All of these things, in my experience, slow a wargame campaign down and eventually bring it to a stop.

As examples, I can refer to the various campaigns I have mentioned on this blog. 1618-Something eventually became bogged down in accountancy and communicating with players in a big game. Fuzigore got bogged down because I was trying to keep records of who had fallen out with whom. Greece 360 BC got bogged down because while I was engrossed in a mini-campaign of the Persians trying to clear an island of its piratical inhabitants (who had some Athenian support, but the Athenians were trying very hard to avoid admitting that they were there) I forgot about all the communications, alliances and timetables for raising troops that were going on.

The upshot of all this is that while I very much like the idea of connected wargames, campaigns and so on, the whole Tony Bath is not for me.  I am sure that there are some people who like the idea of spending an afternoon working out the accounts for each state in their game, but it is not for me. I have to cut my wargame coat to match the cloth I have, which is a disinterest in minutiae.

Nevertheless, I do like verisimilitude. Some of the recent posts have tried to indicate that the Abbeys Campaign is a realistic one, in the sense that it was not beyond the boundaries of possibility to have happened. The troops are not entirely fantasy (although the adequate painting of them by yours truly is more a result of hope than reality). The tensions which the activities of the sides uncover are, at least to some extent and with a broad brush-stroke while not examining history too closely, correct for the times. In short, as a story, I can claim ‘It might have happened’.

Now, this is where we switch back to all those classical armies and the opening quote from Curtius Rufus. The words are from book ten, which as I am sure you all know, is towards the end. Alexander III is about to pop his clogs, and we all know what happened then: the successors fell out among themselves. But what if history had taken a marginally different course?

The possibilities are, of course, boundless, but I will take a slightly conservative one. Alexander had ranged across the eastern part of the known world. The quote from Curtius suggests he was about to turn west, first target Carthage. What would have happened if his son, Alexander IV, had been a bit older (at the time of Alexander III’s death he was minus three months)?
The generals looked sternly at the young man. The only woman in the room smiled at him encouragingly ‘Go on Alex,’ she said, ‘tell them’.

Alexander unfolded the square of papyrus. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is my father’s will.’ The older men looked expectantly at him. ‘He says that the empire is to be held together by me as his successor, with your support. And he also says that we, together and in unity, are to carry out his plans, which he sets out under his seal.’

‘What are his plans?’

‘We are to capture Carthage and then establish a port at the Pillars of Hercules. And then we are to capture Spain and the Greek cities of the coast.’

‘What about the barbarian lands?’

‘There is no mention of them, but I suppose that he would expect us to found cities in the regions, as he did in India.’

‘What then? We will have conquered the world.’

‘Only when we can walk from Alexandria to Eprius both ways around the sea may we rest.’

‘You are not your father, lad.’

‘No, Perdiccas, I am not. But I am my father’s son and none may deny it. This is his will, and I intend, with you, to execute it.’

And so there you have another start to a campaign, a fairly simple one, the aim being only world domination. The first action, I imagine, is going to be a naval landing outside Carthage, or maybe a full blown naval battle as the invasion force attempt to land. As with all campaigns, a decisive defeat for the Macedonians will spell the end of it. The only other thing I have to work out is how to include my Indian armies.