Saturday 24 November 2018

Settled Dust

It has been, as I am sure you might have noticed, the ‘season of remembrance’. It has also been, as most people cannot have failed to have been informed, the centenary of the end of the First World War, at least in the sense that the shooting stopped. Quite a few wargamer blogs that I follow noted the event, which is a good thing. But the whole has set me pondering, which is often a bad thing.

Still, an awful lot of energy has gone into the commemoration of events of the First World War, even though many of them have been kind of obvious ones: the start, the Somme, Passchendaele and the end, although the start of the battle of Amiens did get a mention. Quite a few other major events were downgraded or ignored quite widely, such as Jutland and the Russian Revolution. Interestingly, my hometown has a war memorial which commemorates its fallen from 1914 b- 1919. I recall being told at school it was because the local regiment had been sent to Archangel after the end of hostilities to intervene in the Russian Civil War in favour of the Whites.

A local village here has big signs us ‘XY Remembers’, together with fairly large numbers of knitted poppies. I might be a bit sensitive to language, and a bit of a pedant, but it did make me wonder ‘Remembers what?’ After all, no-one actually remembers fighting in the First World War any more. A great deal has been made of the last Tommies who died recently. But the point is that few people will actually remember the fact of the war at all. Anyone who does will be well over a hundred years old themselves.

History does not quite work in the same way as popular remembrance does. While most of the country is ‘remembering’ the fallen, the ‘heroes who died so we may be free’, history is wondering exactly what all this meant and means. After all, there was a piece on the BBC News website recently observing that the evening of Armistice Day was the occasion of a big fancy dress party in the Albert Hall. The generation which had survived that war wanted to celebrate still being alive. The piece also noted that around 88% of British troops were not killed in the war. It was only with the darkening of political and economic clouds at the end of the 1920’s that the event became more sombre.

As I am sure you are aware, there are various strands of historiography about the start, course and end of the First World War. An article in November’s History Today (Boff, J. 1918: Year of Victory and Defeat, History Today November 2018, 68, 11, 24-35) notes that Operation Michae was probably the second biggest German mistake of the war. Ludendorff did not have clearly defined political and strategic aims, and therefore, at any defeat for the allies was unlikely to break the Anglo-French Alliance; further, significant US reinforcements were arriving.

Incidentally, the biggest German mistake of the war is usually noted as starting it in the first place. The Schlieffen plan was not going to work as the timetable for the German right was never going to work against any but practically zero resistance. Germany did not have to go to war. The fact that it did is usually put down to a sort of bone-headedness and over-optimism in German High Command from the Kaiser downwards.  On the other hand, I think Niall Ferguson argues that economically Germany had to go to war or risk being out-produced by the Western powers.  

Anyway, Boff’s point is that by November 1918 the German army had been defeated on the battlefield. The stab in the back theory was politically useful in the 1920’s and 1930’s but is historically untenable. The British army, in particular, had learnt how to conduct modern warfare and, with increasing technological and numerical advantages, could out think and outpunch the Germans, switching axes of attack when the German reinforcements arrived, maintaining surprise and momentum. Incidentally, no-one I have seen has mentioned what I thought was the crucial bit of the 100 days campaign, which was the severing of the German north-south railway line, at which point German divisions north of the point of disruption were out of supply and forced to surrender. Maybe I imagined it.

Anyway, the point is that, probably beyond historians and wargamers, the myths of the First World War are entrenched in our minds. Lions led by donkeys, Oh What a Lovely War and the war poetry of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon et al have seen to the ‘fact’ that all the Tommies mown down in their thousands are heroes, all the generals are idiots, and the whole class system of the British is shown for the folly that it was.

Boff argues that the British army had learnt to fight a modern war, and also to learn as it did so. Logistics was solid; commanders and subordinates experienced and permitted to get on with the job. Morale was high. Britain worked well with her allies, both internationally and within the Empire. British politicians had a good idea of what the war was for and the necessary outcomes: Germany must be defeated. This sort of political realism seems sadly lacking today. It was also, according to Boff, lacking on the German side. Starting the war was a mistake. Continuing it after the 1914 defeat on the Marne was another. The 1918 spring offensives were nothing but the forlorn hope of a country down to its last reserves of manpower, material and ideas.

In 1918 the British army played a key role in defeating, on a continental battlefield, an enemy who had set the military standards since the mid-nineteenth century. This was achieved by Britain, the Empire, and France, in alliance with others, but it was, on the whole, British power that was being projected around the world to pick off German allies and isolate and defeat the Kaiser. This, we do not seem to remember. Maybe we should start and maybe, after that, we might learn something about Britain, Europe and the world.

Saturday 17 November 2018

Saving The World

The more astute among you may have noted that there has been an eerie silence hanging around the fortifications of Chateau Polemarch in the last few weeks. There have been no snide remarks about scales other than God’s own. No bafflement expressed as to how rules actually work. No pointless and poor photographs of made up battles or pseudo-narratives of what is purported to be going on.

Now I cannot, of course, go into details about the reasons for this silence. It is not that I have no ideas for posts (all right, who shouted ‘Shame’?), but I have, of course, been off saving the world. Your mild-mannered correspondent is, in real life, a superhero who has been off saving the world for the last fortnight or so. The desperate deeds of daring do which it entailed have not, alas, been widely reported in the press, but would make a very fine scenario for my favourite role-playing games of all time, Flashing Blades.

You might think that the world doesn’t seem any better, or more saved than it did two weeks ago, but let me assure you that, if it were not for my intervention things would be a lot worse. That’s the problem with being a superhero, of course. No-one notices unless you don’t do it. And no-one thanks you if you do. I might get on and establish universal peace, harmony and prosperity, along with the rule of law, but I confess to being a little tired now, and so really it is for someone else to add the finishing touches. You will have my full support.


Actually, in all honesty, I have just not been very well. Nothing exciting, no blue light rushes to Accident and Emergency, no cruel nurses ordering me out of bed or anything. Just a series of enervating colds which have made ordinary life hard enough to sustain and knocked writing, hobbies and more or less everything else out of the frame. Still, I am now recovering and, superhero activities aside, normal life is slowly beginning to reassert itself. This includes writing annoying blog posts, so here goes.


In September’s History Today (68, 9, 36-41) is an interesting article by Robert Crowcroft ‘A Tiger in the Grass: The Case for Applied History.’ This is an article, I suspect, designed to provoke, but I did find it interesting and wondered about its application to wargaming. I probably do not have room here to discuss those implications, but they might be worth a think about.

Crowcroft’s point is that history is not useless, although it cannot be applied blindly to today’s situations. It is, however, the only repository of what works and what does not that we have. While the problems we face now are not the problems people faced in the past, there is continuity as well as change. He could have quoted (I think) Mark Twain who said something along the lines of ‘History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.’

History can inform decisions, but it is not a predictive science. The only predictive sciences around are the physical ones, and even then the predictions are of a limited kind and not really much to use anyone outside the limited scope of the science. Crowcroft notes that of all modern statesmen the one to use history the most to inform decision making was Henry Kissinger, who held a doctorate in the subject. Crowcroft notes that ‘a Kissinger is almost unthinkable today.’ I think he means that someone in a position of great power who is informed by the past is unthinkable. After all, the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Kissinger made Tom Lehrer give up comedy, stating that satire could not compete with what was going on in the world.

History, according to Crowcroft’s argument, is ‘policy-relevant’. He also notes that of all institutions that operate in modern liberal democracies, it is the armed forces that consistently apply history. They study past battles and campaigns to prepare for the future. So long as they remember that each war is different, and the next one is not going to be like the last, all is relatively well. History is not a set of recipes to obtain a given outcome. It can only be reasoned from.

And so, of course, to wargaming. As an amateur who would be rejected as an applicant to the military for many different reasons, I doubt if my interest in history and wargaming will bear any weight. But history does give us a few hints as to what might be going on militarily. For example, Montgomery is famous for the quote: ‘There are three laws of warfare. I forget the first two, but the third is “Don’t start a land war in Asia”’. History from Herodotus on validates that law, I think. Sabre rattling in the Pacific today may not be the most helpful attitude.

Secondly, geography does not change all that much, and human nature changes rather less than that. While what is considered strategically important might change depending on the context and circumstances (would anyone defend Thermopylae today?), pinch points still exist and their defence is to be considered. All this, of course, depends on decisions on both sides not simply to drop a tactical nuclear weapon on the pinch point in question, although considerations of holding the moral high ground may well still have an influence.

So, history can, and should, alert us to both the change and the continuity of warfare. In my fevered state, the only pondering about wargaming I have managed has been to read through the old DBM and DBR army lists. I could go on and on about army lists and their use and abuse, but I’ll not here. The purpose behind it was to consider a comment I read recently (before I was struck down by the lurgy) to the end that an army is a reflection of the society from which it comes. I think this is broadly true, although there are exceptions and, often, when those exceptions are found the army and its society can become unstable. Perhaps an example would be the later Roman Empire.