Saturday 28 December 2019

Logistical Geography

As is widely known, France was the country to beat in the late Seventeenth Century. The policy of Louis XIV, the Sun King, was to aim for European hegemony, and France was a sufficiently centralised and powerful nation to achieve such hegemony. This idea, of course, needs nuancing. After all, France did not actually achieve such a dominant position in Europe, and it needs rather more of an explanation than the growing commercial power of Britain, the existing commercial power of the Dutch, the brilliance of Marlborough and Eugene, the un-beat-ability of William of Orange and so on.

There is a theory in strategic geography (hence the link to the post on that subject a week or two ago) that there is a ‘heartland’ which makes certain states unbeatable in war. This, in my view, links to Paul Kennedy’s idea of ‘flank’ powers, Britain and Russia, in the early modern period. The idea is that there is a centre of power and resource in a nation or state which is untouchable by their enemies and, hence, renders the power in question incapable of being knocked out by military campaigning.

Further to this, there is the idea of logistic geography, by which is meant that supply line from this resource heartland to campaign theatres are fairly straightforward. Military resources, such as gunpowder, food, fodder, cannon, and siege materials and so on, can be transferred to the front with reasonable alacrity. While the demands of warfare might stretch these lines, in general, they hold and are sufficiently effective to supply the needs of the armies in the field.

France is often held to be such a state in the early modern period. Spain, as I have discussed recently, was not such a state. None of her possessions as a composite monarchy were either that safe from external intervention or resource centres. Thus, while many Spanish soldiers came from Italy, her possessions there were vulnerable to French intervention. Similarly, Catalonia was vulnerable to France, as were her Rhineland possessions and the Spanish Road to the equally vulnerable Low Countries. Her naval power, of course, had declined considerably, and her overseas possessions were being penetrated by British and Dutch merchants.

By contrast, France is often held to be the winner strategically. She could intervene, using internal lines of communication, in any of the vulnerable Spanish territories. Yet France did not seem to exploit these advantages to their full, despite Louis XIV’s ambitions and direction.

As you might have guessed by now, I have been reading an interesting piece of work on this subject:

Rowlands, G., 'Moving Mars: The Logistical Geography of Louis XIV’s France', French History 25, no. 4 (2011), 492-514.

Rowlands makes the case that France was not in such a great position as might be thought. Firstly, after the chaos of the Thirty Years War and the impact of the early Enlightenment, few states wanted their armies to live off the land. This meant that supply had to be ensured from the homeland, and magazines needed to be established and protected at points where access to both supply areas in the rear and theatres of operation were accessible.

Rowlands argues that France did not have a strategic heartland where the resources for war could be mobilized and distributed to the fronts. France had multiple resource centres – around Paris, the Lyonnais, the area between Rochefort and Lorient, and southern Provence (p. 497). Communications between these areas (which were rich in different resources) could be difficult. The Massif Central was a geographical problem, roads, in general, could be poor, France’s rivers generally run in unhelpful directions to move munitions to the theatres, the regions were poorly integrated and France suffered from local particularism, perhaps a little more substantially than Britain and the Dutch.  

In addition to this, French ministers, including the King, at least early in the reign, seemed rather blasé about the difficulties. They seemed to have adopted the view that they ordered things to be done in the King’s name, and it would be so. It took a while for a magazine structure to be grafted onto the hodgepodge system that had evolved. This partially solved the problems in the north, with Lille and Metz. In the south, however, neglect and lack of investment caused problems on the Italian front. The depots were inadequate and, at least in part, in the wrong place. At times there was inadequate storage for the gathered supplies. At others, the demands of the army went un-met. The south-west was even worse, actually often being supplied and supported by the depots (such as they were) in the south-east. France was geared to war in the north and north east, not the south (p. 507).

Delivery systems were another problem. The state could not supply vehicles and animals in sufficient numbers for the requirements, and so private contractors were required. These too had problems in acquiring vehicles and animals, and, indeed, boats on rivers which did run in helpful directions. The locations of arsenals were also a problem, as they were compromises between places of production and the requirements of the operational armies, and so transport was required over long distances both from production areas to arsenals and thence to the theatres of operation.

France, then, at this time was a ‘lumbering giant’ (p. 509) rather than a supple, flexible and nimble strategic power. There were chronic problems with supply and manufacture of munitions. The Franche-Comte was a vital supply source for iron, but it supplied not only the Italian front but Spain as well. Unsurprisingly, there were transportation delays due to distance, weather and competing demands from different fronts. Gunpowder was another problem, with at one point 300,000 pounds being sent from the north to the south by road. Rowlands estimates that this took 500 carts months to deliver, indicating a severe supply crisis (and I wonder as to the quality of the received product).

France, then, was by no means an integrated logistical entity. Perhaps, given the problems of geography, production and supply, it could never have been, but the high command never really seems to have appreciated the problems nor acted to adjust strategy to compensate for them.  Defensive warfare could be conducted effectively when armies were supported by their magazines. Small, incremental, offensive operations were achievable, but major offensives, as envisaged by Louis XIV were beyond the state’s capacity.

Maybe the giant of the Grand Siècle was not quite so imposing after all.

Saturday 21 December 2019

Last Christmas....

... I gave you some rules....
This Christmas, I'll do it again....

Last year, it was the Polemos: Age of Alexander rules, this it is my 'Wars of the Counter-Reformation' rules, which have been in use for a while, but not properly written up. Probably you need to use them with Polemos: SPQR in mind, if not available to make up for all the things I've assumed by not stated (you can only do so much in 4 pages, after all).

The PM: AOA rules are available from the link on the rules page, and in due course, WotCR will be there as well. As a bonus, there is a one page set of naval rules as well, which I used for the action off Scarborough.

I discovered that JWH had asked some questions about these rules about six months ago, and I had not noticed. Apologies for that. The answers are that while skirmishers have gone to 500 foot and 250 horse, nothing else has really changed in terms of base size. The model is of a core unit of blokes standing around while small groups run forward, shoot and then run back. You can base skirmishers on double-depth bases if you like, to get a bit more action going as a sort of diorama.

And with that, I wish you a Merry Christmas.

Saturday 14 December 2019

The Action at Mount Grace

‘Sir, there is a message from Don Carlos.’

‘Excellent. Show the messenger in.’

The man entered the hostelry. ‘Well?’

‘Don Carlos wishes you to know, sir, that his light horse will start moving at dawn. They will meet your men at the bridge.’

‘Very well. Captain Huelgo, order your men to leave at dawn.’

I have been tinkering a bit with the pages of the blog, and so you can catch up with the story of the Armada abbeys campaign so far from the link to the right. Don Pedro, you will recall (at least, having read the summary) is in Stokesley, Don Carlos in Northallerton. The Scots, having crossed the River Tees, are now based in Yarm, while the English have advanced from York to Thirsk.

The near-crossroads at Mount Grace Priory is, therefore, crucial (pun intended). The road from Stokesley (the modern A172) crosses the modern A19 (a dual carriageway but, apparently, on the same line as the old road) and then the A684 goes off to Northallerton. By my reckoning, there is around a mile from the first to the last-mentioned turns.

This is my realisation of the terrain.

The road from Yarm comes in from the top left, hence from the north and the Scots. The road next to it is from Stokesley and hence Don Pedro’s Spanish arrive from that direction. The road to the far right is the one from Thirsk, along which the English advance, leaving the road nearest the camera to Don Carlos’ troops. To the left is the manor farm of Mount Grace Priory, which is up the wooded hills just off the top of the picture. The hamlet nearest the camera, with the field, is Ellerbeck, and the Eller beck flows under the bridge.

Somewhere in Don Featherstone’s Solo Wargaming there is a piece about the clashes of cavalry scouts. He observes that a face to face wargamer would just roll a dice to see who out-scouted whom, while a solo wargamer can set up the action, use lots of figures even if they were not all the correct ones for the period, and generally enjoy an all cavalry affair. So I decided to try it out.

As you might know by now, both the Spanish and the English and Scots have light cavalry. The Spanish are mounted arquebusiers, the Anglo-Scots are, of course, Borderers. A quick count of my resources showed that I have eleven of the former, something like nine Irregular English light horse and three Baccus Scottish lights. As I mentioned a while ago, this action was delayed while three extra Scottish bases were painted.

My fevered imagination ran something thus:

‘Who are they, Jock?’

‘I dunno, Jimmy. I think they are newly painted recruits.’

‘We’re going to lose this one, you know, Jock.’

Anyway, the first troops on the table were Don Carlos’ Spanish (plus a jinite, to make up the numbers). They aimed to cross the bridge before anyone else arrived, and they very nearly made it.

The Spanish are just crossing the Eller beck and the English have just arrived and managed to deploy their first rank in skirmish order. As you can see from the markers, the Spanish are disordered by the crossing and have just been recoiled by some effective English skirmishing.

Things got worse for Don Carlos’ men as their front rank base was subsequently routed by alarmingly efficient English activity. The Spanish withdrew and deployed along the line of the stream, and the flank was reduced to a nervous waiting game.

The Scots and Don Pedro’s Spanish arrived on the same move and both sides had reserved sufficient tempo points to permit them to deploy. This led to a further exchange of skirmishing and the Spanish came off worse. However, they sent their second line south behind the Manor Farm forcing the Scots to counter with movement of their own second line. Meanwhile, in the south, the Spanish from Northallerton advanced to the stream and skirmished across, in the hope of disrupting to English sufficiently to let their comrades from the north make a decisive move.

Alas, it was not to be. The Spanish on the stream came under withering attack from the English second line (carefully moved forward just as the first line was wilting) and lost two, and then another, base. In the north, the Spanish first line from Stokesley suffered the same fate. Spanish morale sank and their flying column (such as it was) stalled. The Spanish lost another base to Scottish skirmishing and the Spanish morale sank to ‘withdraw’, so that is what they did. Extricating the light horse by the Manor Farm might have proved tricky, given the slope and woods off the table on that side, but not impossible and the Scots let them go.

The result of the combat is, of course, that the crossroads and bridge are firmly in Anglo-Scottish hands, and the Spanish are now split. I suppose something dramatic is likely to be required by Don Pedro to rectify the situation, but I need to consider exactly what.


‘The English have the bridge?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And they have the crossroads?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Oh dear.’

‘Yes, sir.

‘Do you say anything aside from ‘yes, sir’?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Enough.’ The man left.

‘Don Carlos, sir.’

‘Carlos! How on earth did you get here?’

Carlos indicated his boots. ‘I came the muddy way, over the hills. It was fine for a few, but no path to move troops.’


‘Thank you. I take it you have heard the news?’

‘I have. What are we to do? What are the English doing now?’

‘Well, from the top, they seem to be building a fort by the bridge.’

‘Really? How interesting.’

‘These Protestants do a lot of digging.’

‘It is our only route south, of course. With a decent fortification they could seriously damage our plans to get to York for the autumn.’

‘Yes, the Christmas market may well be over by the time we arrive.’


Saturday 7 December 2019

Strategic Geography

In Camelot, as like as not,
My story doth begin.
Of castle walls, and marble halls,
And the king that dwelt therein.
His height was high, unto the sky,
Or so the sage did tell.
His sword was long, his arm was strong,
And his name was Eskimo Nell.
                          I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again (BBC, sometime in the 1960s, I think).

You may very well be concerned for my mental wellbeing after an outburst like that, and you might have good reason for it. However, the reason for the above fanfare (if such it be) is that I have completed a bit of a project, viz:

Behold, a rather nice (in my opinion) castle. As you may note, the object itself is modular, allowing an assortment of configurations. It will also double as town walls, I think, and the plan is to add a bit more verisimilitude to my Reconquista games. After all, mostly the latter part of the Reconquista was, as I mentioned a while ago, sieges and raids, and I recently bemoaned my lack of decent town walls.

The castle parts are from Leven Miniatures, and very nice they are too, delivered incredibly quickly (I think five days from order to delivery, and that was partly over a weekend) and painted by my own inept hand. Buildings are a lot easier to paint than little men. My usual colour count for a unit of little men is ten different paints applied, excluding basing and undercoat. Above you can see five, including basing and undercoat. It has only taken me a fortnight or so to paint them, as well, which is probably record time for me.

You might be wondering about the title of the post, when all I seem to want to do is show off my new castle (although that is not a phrase many of us can use often). But I do have a reason, and that reason is a paper I have recently read, as a bit of a follow up to the book on the British brigade in the Spanish-Portuguese war of the 1660’s:

White, L., 'Strategic Geography and the Spanish Habsburg Monarchy's Failure to Recover Portugal, 1640-1668', The Journal of Military History 71, no. 2 (2007), 373-409.

The main question White asks is ‘why did Spain, which after all conquered Portugal very easily in 1580, fail to recapture the country between 1640 and 1670?’ This is, after all, a reasonably good question, and the sort of comparative question that historians (and some wargamers, perhaps) like to ask.

There are, of course, a number of differences between Alba’s invasion and the later efforts. The first one is that in the 1640’s Spain was suffering from ‘imperial overstretch’. There were rebellions in Portugal, Catalonia and Naples. Castile was suffering from depopulation and drought. She was at war with France, which had multiple fronts in Catalonia, northern Italy and the Low Countries, and was also involved in the Thirty Years War against Protestants in Germany and against the Dutch with the tail end of the Eighty Years War. This also entailed a world-wide conflict, or at least attempting to defend Spanish (and Portuguese) possessions overseas from the said Dutch and, occasionally, English raiders, corsairs and, in the 1650’s English ships (Jamaica was captured in 1656, remember).

Another difference, however, was the strategic geography. Alba marched with fifteen days supplies and met the fleet off the Tagus, which he then crossed (with nautical assistance) to capture Lisbon, upon which resistance largely ceased. The Spanish fleet in the seventeenth century was not there, and probably was not capable of behaving in this way. Indeed, in the revolt of Portugal it was Dutch and English ships off the Tagus, not Spanish. This had a serious impact on the campaigns.

The point here is that the Spanish, once they had stopped being defensive after 1660 when most of the other wars were over had to go overland. There are three viable invasion routes of Portugal: one from Ciudad Rodrigo; two from Badajoz, one south through Evora (Alba’s route), the other more northerly to the Tagus and then down the river. These routes were determined by water, fodder and availability of roads.

The campaigning seasons were short. Inland, the frontier got very hot during the summer and very wet in the winter. Two brief campaign seasons were all that was available. Offensive operations had to be confined to these windows. A siege of a strategically important fortress, such as Elvas on the southern corridors, had to be accomplished quickly, or it would certainly fail. Furthermore, bridges of stone were few and far between in the rivers which bisect the region (and many of the valleys were steep). The lack of fodder also meant that cavalry, in particular, had to be widely dispersed in the ‘off’ seasons. Gathering the troops for an invasion thus took more of the short time available.

The final, perhaps decisive, difference with the 1580’s was the fact that the Portuguese, early in the war while Spain’s attention was elsewhere, had fortified the main strategic locations. On the southern route, there were Elvas and Estremoz, in the latest (trace italienne) style. Taking these fortresses was vital if the Spanish were to secure their lines of communication along decent roads, and hence remain in supply. Yet the capture of these fortresses would have taken longer than the campaigning season permitted unless some other factor had turned up. Bypassing them and capturing other places (as happened with Evora and Arronches) was not really an option. In the first case, the road was back through the uncaptured Evora and hence the Spanish had to decamp rapidly (and lost the subsequent battle); in the latter case, the only supply road was inadequate.

Hence, the link back to my castle. Strategy is often determined by geography, and that entails a consideration of the art of the possible, given the conditions. A strategically placed fortress can, as in the case of Portugal, tip the balance one way or the other.

But now I ‘need’ some earthworks….

Saturday 30 November 2019

Democracy and Proper Drains

Think of what our Nation stands for,
Books from Boots' and country lanes,
Free speech, free passes, class distinction,
Democracy and proper drains.
Lord, put beneath Thy special care
One-eighty-nine Cadogan Square.
From ‘In Westminster Abbey’ by John Betjeman

You might think that The Polemarch has gone totally mad (to quote Sir Hiss from Disney’s Robin Hood). You might be right. As I write this democracy, in any modern, Western, liberal reading of the word, is under threat. Sadly, that threat seems to be from within, from people (voters, politicians and journalists) who do not seem to realise how democracy is supposed to work. Now, we might decide to forgive the voters, but the politicians and journalists who fail to accept that they cannot do what they want to do at the expense of the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and basic honesty probably cannot, and almost certainly should not be forgiven, especially if they have studied PPE, which many of them have (hint: PPE = Politics, Philosophy and Economics).

Anyway, the polemic is over. I have reverted to something safe, the reading of classical history. Or rather, as it turns out, not so safe at all:

Mitchell, T. N., Democracy's Beginning: The Athens Story (Yale: Yale University Press, 2015).

Mitchell starts by noting that after a high point sometime soon after 1989, democracy has been plunging into deficit as world leaders start to tighten up control over who votes for what, whether that is directly, by, for example, shooting people who vote the wrong way, or indirectly, by taking over news feeds and pumping out what is politely called ‘disinformation’ to people, who turn out to be a great deal more credulous than modern education should really allow.

But what is this thing called democracy and why should it matter? Some of the answers, at least, lie buried in Athens of the fifth and fourth centuries BC, the Athens of the Persian Wars, Peloponnesian War and subsequent activities down to conquest by the Macedonians. The first thing I noted about this is that the adage that democracies do not start wars is untrue. For much of this time, Athens was bellicose and got into conflicts that it did not need to.

The second thing I noticed about this (and this saves the post from being a rant about lack of democracy, and injects some wargame related content) is that it was requirements for military activity that drove the democracy, at least in part. The semi-wealthy citizens were required for hoplite service. The less wealthy than that, in Athens, provided rowers for the fleet. Athens had, by the time of the assorted wars, very much become a naval power. The whole strategy against Sparta was to hunker down behind the defensive walls of Athens and the long walls to Piraeus and send the fleet out to strike at Spartan interests around the Mediterranean.

The upshot of this was that the lower (citizen) classes gained political influence. They were needed, not for taxes to fund the military expeditions, but for manpower. With manpower requirements comes a degree of political influence and autonomy. Athens evolved (the early process is not exactly clear) into a direct democracy where any citizen (who were of course men, not women, foreign or slaves) had an equal vote. Indeed, the state paid for citizens to attend the Assembly and to be members of juries, at least for most of the duration of the democracy.

The problem was, of course, that occasionally people get mad ideas in their heads, such that one more push in the war will see success. They, therefore, reject perfectly reasonable terms offered by the other side, believing that they can do better. Alternatively, Mitchell suggests, they get lead astray by demagogues into backing perfectly lunatic schemes such as the Athenian campaigns against Syracuse, which were never going to work. Not only that, but the expedition was reinforced when it was already pretty much a disaster, leading to a further loss of men and money.

Here, the account starts to sound startlingly modern. The voters are led astray by the elite who have their own agendas. It all ended in disaster with oligarchic revolts, abject surrender and a reign of terror, not to mention occupation. If the Spartans had not been relatively benign in victory, Athens would not have risen again.

Athens, however, did rise again and, again, became a power in the Greek world. This was largely due to the fact that the citizen body remembered how democracy worked and established a post-war constitution with some fairly swingeing checks and balances against any individual making a bid for tyranny. That, however, did not stop warfare. The fleet rowers and hoplites still remembered Athens’ imperial glory (and also, probably, the money which built the famous buildings around the Agora). They still aimed for it. A few victories and draws were followed by assorted disasters, culminating in the rejection of terms from Macedonia and collapse. A revolt after the death of Alexander also failed and the democracy in any meaningful sense was at an end.

I could now start to moralise about the condition of democracy in the world, or in my own country. I could, but I will not because I have only just over a hundred words left, and because I do try to keep politics out of the blog. A few lessons for wargaming can be gleaned, however.

The first idea is that the Athenian forces were not hired hands or mercenaries. They were citizen soldiers, engaged in the democracy of their day. Offices in Athens rotated around the citizens and many were decided upon by lot. The upshot is that many citizens knew how the democracy we supposed to work and were willing to fight for it enthusiastically, both in the Assembly, the courts and on the fields and seas of battle. While they were not as well trained, perhaps, as Spartans, they knew what they were fighting for and loved what they knew.

The second lesson is, I suppose, the old one that just because everyone does a stupid thing (or votes for it) it does not make it any less a stupid thing. But now I am heading back towards modern politics and, anyway, I have run out of words.

Saturday 23 November 2019

The Last Ironsides

Imagine the scenario: you are a new, young king just arrived in your kingdom courtesy of a sort of revolution against the former republic. You have been invited back by senior officers in the army, but are painfully aware that many of the rank and file and junior officers are republicans and, worse, religious radicals. The country as a whole is deeply unsettled economically, religiously, in terms of taxation and governance, and you are not sure whom you can trust. The army is owed large quantities of back pay and the government is nearly bankrupt. Your overriding problem is which of your mistresses you are going to sleep with tonight and which of the available women in your new court (which is most of them) you are going to bed tomorrow. You need to disband, or at least stop not paying, most of the army. Plus you need to reward or find employment for loyal officers and men who stuck by you in the dark years.  What do you do?

In case you have not already twigged (and I am sure my loyal reader has) these were the problems facing one Charles Stuart upon arrival in England in 1660. The army, at that time, was, of course, intensely political and a religious force, in an era when the two could hardly be separated. It was also very good, alarmingly so for a peaceable soul whose overriding interests seemed to be keeping his throne and having a good time.

Charles II’s solution was varied. Some of the army was maintained and transferred into a sort of standing army, although he could not use those terms. Some of it was straightaway (or nearly so, Stuart government was never that quick) disbanded. He married a Portuguese princess and some of it was sent off to Bombay and some to Tangiers to take possession of dowry acquisitions. And some, around three thousand, were sent to fight in the Portuguese war against Spain.

As you might have guessed by now, I have been reading about fairly obscure campaigns again:

Riley, J., The Last Ironsides: The English Expedition to Portugal 1662 - 1668 (Solihull: Helion, 2014).

The author of this one comes with decent credentials, both military (as a senior officer in the British army) and as a military historian (the foreword is by John Childs), and it is a decent, although not a flawless book.

Let me get the quibbles out of the way first. I do not believe that the Spanish tercio company after 1636 ‘consisted of 200 men with eleven officers and staff, thirty musketeers, sixty arquebusiers – mounted infantry or dragoons armed with a lighter weapon than the musketeers – sixty-five armoured pikemen and thirty-four unarmoured pikemen’ (p. 25). That is, I do not think that the arquebusiers were mounted, and I suspect that the pike to shot ratio was not as high as the numbers suggest, even though the reference given is to Parker’s The Spanish Road. It hardly matters; as I said, it is a bit of a quibble, but, as with a PhD thesis, an early mistake like that makes the reader a little more sceptical of the rest of the text and read a bit more critically. There are a few other repetitions and similar mistakes that a thorough proof-reading or copy edit could have removed.

Still, I shall stop grumbling and concentrate on the book’s strengths. It does a good job, as an old-style ‘drums and trumpets’ military history, of telling the story of the British brigade sent to Portugal in 1662, and what happened to it when Spain recognised Portuguese independence in 1668. While wargamers might be aware of the existence of the war (as I was) by reading DBR army lists, there has been, up until this book, nothing at all available on the subject.

Not only has there been nothing to read, the book also does a good job explaining the battles (two of them: Ameixial, 1663 and Montes Claros 1665) campaigns and sieges of the war, at least as far as the British brigade was concerned. Other activities are mentioned, one of which involved the Spanish mistaking red-coated Portuguese troops for English and panicking because they had a fearsome reputation.

Given that the book is written by a professional military commander, it is hardly a surprise that quite a lot of attention is given to logistics. One of the reasons that the war dragged on so long (it started in 1640, after all) was that the terrain and weather were terrible. Spain is full of hills and steep valleys. The weather is wet in winter, making the streams and rivers torrents, and hot in summer, drying up the watercourses and rendering the terrain parched with no fodder for horses. Campaigning was limited to spring and autumn, therefore, and there was not much time to achieve anything.

The other problem, of course, was that Portugal was poor and Spain was distracted by other rebellions and the war against France. Indeed, the French also supplied a brigade for the Portuguese army, and the Dutch provided (along with the Royal Navy) seaborne support. This became a bit complex towards the end of the war when Louis XIV invaded the Netherlands and, of course, the UK went to war with the Dutch in the mid-1660s.

The war did come to an end, more through exhaustion of the principle parties, Anglo-French mediation and the growing realisation that a decisive end to the conflict was not going to happen. Both Portugal and Spain still had global commitments, and nearly thirty years of warfare, no matter how desultory, is plenty for any country. Some of the British troops were shipped back to England and disbanded or absorbed into other formations. Some were sent to Tangiers which, the author states, amounted to a death sentence. Of the three thousand or so sent, only about five hundred made it back to England.

A very interesting book, but it is clearly not the whole story of even the latter part of the war. The book is good, has good maps and illustrations (although the author does note that contemporary battle plans are almost useless), and even maps of deployments and movements in the field actions. Now Baccus have put out a ‘Wars of the Sun King’ range I am rather tempted….

Saturday 16 November 2019

The Fall of Calais

I realise that the regular reader of this blog is not used to large swathes of wargaming happening. There is a reason for this, in that a major project has been completed and so I have a bit of time on my hands. This, incidentally, is the explanation for the posting hiatus earlier in the year. Sometime I might get around the explaining what was going on, but be it has now sort of finished.

Anyway, the blog is more famous for not having pictures of beautifully painted soldiers (it still does not, of course) or lengthy accounts of battles. I did bung up the occasional account, but that was more, and still is, to keep track of the various narrative campaign games that I have started, rather than to edify or entertain humanity, or even the wargaming, blog following, parts thereof.

The blog, if it is known at all, is better known for being a record of what I have been reading, particularly in terms of postmodern, postcolonial historiography and, occasionally, attempting to relate that to wargaming. Whether this is successful I am not sure. In my thousand words or so limit of the posts, there is only so much you can say about complex issues. But that has never stopped me before, so I suppose it never will.

Anyway, the title event of this post is something usually relegated to the footnotes of history texts, the loss of Calais by the English in 1558. Calais was, of course, the last outpost of the land in France captured during the Hundred Years War and had been a significant trading post and entry point into Europe for English merchants and armies for a long time. The garrison, as one of the few permanent military features of the English government, had a disproportionate effect on some events in the Wars of the Roses. Further, Henry VIII had used it as a launch point for his campaigns in France.

The French decided to have a go at Calais in the winter of 1557, to avenge their defeat by the Anglo-Spanish army at St Quentin. The English knew of the offensive by 22nd December but the government took no decisive action in reinforcing or resupplying the port. The place surrendered on 7th January, followed by Guines on 20th, the latter having put up a more stalwart defence than the town itself.

There was, in fact, much enthusiasm in England for the relief of Calais, and the defence of Guines suggests that a reinforced garrison might have put up more of a fight. But English inactivity and bad weather in the Channel prevented any action and the Duke of Guise commanded the French with brilliance and determination, as well as being in a hurry (it was, after all, winter).

History treats the fall of Calais as a bit of a footnote, as I mentioned. It is overshadowed by events in England, France and the Low Countries. In England, Mary Tudor’s death led to the removal of the Spanish alliance, and her half-sister Elizabeth ascending the throne, with the consequent unsettling of the nation and need not to engage in wars overseas. The death of Henry II of France led to a fair bit of chaos in that country, while the Low Countries were affected by a wave of Protestant preaching, iconoclasm, repression and rebellion.

I have been reading an essay about reactions to the fall of Calais:

Grummitt, D., 'Three Narratives of the Fall of Calais in 1558: Explaining Defeat in Tudor England', in Bellis, J. and Slater, L. (eds.), Representing War and Violence 1250 - 1600 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2016), 178-190.

This is, of course, the same book which I referred to a few posts ago, and this essay is one of the reasons for reading it, of course.

English writers had a range of responses to the fall of Calais. The early ones suggested treason. The commander of Calais, Lord Wentworth was tried for treason, among other crimes and acquitted in 1559. Popular views suggested that the real reason for the fall of Calais was the government – that of Mary Tudor. Of course, this was tied up with the religious question in England. The Marian regime was Catholic and therefore suspect to many, including incoming officials and those keen to curry favour with it. The neglect of Calais became an analogy for the rule of Mary, to the latter’s disadvantage.

Once the dust had, as it were, settled, other views came to the fore. In, perhaps, a typically English manner, the courage of the defeated was celebrated. Initial apathy to recapturing the town was replaced by celebration of the prowess of the defenders. Elizabethan narratives celebrated the prowess of English arms. Lord Grey, defender of Guines, was given command of the expedition into Scotland which resulted in the fiasco at Leith. A defence of his military prowess at Calais, therefore, was fitting in the 1560s.

Finally, in the later Elizabethan period, rational explanation of the events came to the fore. This was the era of the ‘military revolution’. Guise was cast as the exemplar renaissance general. The actions of besieged and besiegers were analysed according to the best military advice available.

The ways the campaign and defeat were written about give us varying views and the differences between them yield aspects of the culture in which they were written. The explanations of defeat vary. The fall of Calais, Grummitt argues, should not be dismissed lightly, and the resulting texts are not simply anti-Marian diatribes. Religion, cowardice and neglect coexist in the accounts.

As wargamers, of course, we can take the accounts and turn them into games. But which parts of the accounts do we take? What aspects are wargame-able? Do we focus on the military neglect of Calais, the bravery of the defenders or the brilliance of the French command? With varying accounts of the process of the fall of Calais, how can we possibly construct something that is in any was ‘historical’?

And now, of course, I have just shored up the blog’s reputation as a forum for postmodern wargaming.

Saturday 9 November 2019

Steal a Camel for a Day

'Tell Mohammed here that we’ll arrive on the beach at dawn. He’d better be there or I will not be a happy man.’

‘How do you know his name is Mohammed, sir?’ The translator shifted uneasily.

‘They all are, aren’t they?’

‘Um. Actually, no, sir, they are not.’ The translator smiled wanly. ‘This one happens to be.’

‘Then tell him to be on the beach at dawn in two days’ time.’

There was a brief exchange. ‘He will be there, he says, sir. And you will help him to track down Honest Ahmed at the market.’


‘Honest Ahmed, purveyor of fine second-hand camels.’ There was more conversation. ‘He says he bought a racing camel from this fellow at the last market, but it turned out to be lame and he wants his money back.’

‘OK. Fine, We’ll help him find Honest Ahmed if he’ll help us capture the town.’


Ranging once more across the world, I felt an urge for something involving camels. A bit of a ponder led me to the Portuguese adventures in the Gulf of Persia, and an amphibious operation. You might think I quite like opposed landings, and I think you would be right. Have some model rowing boats, will attempt a landing, after all.

After a bit of dice rolling, some further consideration, some quick terrain making and a bit of improvisation, the following table was set up.

The Portuguese arrive from the sea (obviously, really). The Omani militia defenders of the town are deployed in front of it. The original terrain called for an orchard with enclosures in the foreground, and two areas of rough going, one by the town and one near the shore. I am a bit lacking in such features and so they were transformed, in my wargamer’s eye, to a market place and a palm grove. Near enough, I reckoned.

The armies were sort of straightforward, and sort of not. The Portuguese have lots of shipborne troops, by the time frame I am aiming for (sort of late sixteenth century) there consisted of shot and sword and buckler type troops. They are, of course, light in cavalry. Given the Omanis have a fair bit, I decided on some Bedouin allies for the Portuguese, whose aim is to do some shopping in the market, while the Portuguese aim for the town. The Portuguese arrive in two waves of five bases each – the first five are shot, the second wave consists of four swords and buckers and one shot. The Bedouin are a light camel and a light horse base.

The Omanis were straightforward. Four bases of militia types (tribal foot in my rules) form the initial defences of the town. Another eight bases will be approaching from the near table corner to see off the threat. The Omanis have some cavalry, more tribal foot, a guard base and a shot base. After what happened last time with reinforcements, both sides have to roll only a five or six for their help to appear.

Somewhere about the middle of the game, the picture shows that, with all the inevitability of my dice rolling capabilities, both sides rolled a six for their allies in the first move. The Portuguese allied Bedouin arrived and set off for the market, where, at the extreme right of the photo, you can see that they have arrived and are hunting for Honest Ahmed. The Omani cavalry (and obligatory light camel base) have advanced to contain the Portuguese, while their infantry toil up in the hot morning sun. The Portuguese second wave has just largely arrived, although the nearest shoreline base is part of the first wave that had difficulty disembarking (rolling sixes again).

This picture shows the end game, or near it. Both generals are down, which has meant that there are few tempo points to go around. The Omanis have broken through the Portuguese centre, while the Portuguese have routed most of the Omani cavalry (with good shooting) and are staving off, and probably slowly defeating, the Omani left. Another move or two saw the Portuguese break the base in contact on their left, while the Omani centre rallied from its pursuit. The Portuguese Bedouin allies, having obtained their refund from Honest Ahmed, are pottering back around the town to see how things stand and decide whether to intervene.

By this point, both sides were pretty well fought out, so a sort of draw was declared. The Portuguese had been repulsed, or at least held off, while the Bedouin had obtained their objective. Perhaps if they had acted as allies, rather than simply pursued their own goal, things might have been different. Then again, perhaps not.



‘Sir, this gentleman is a doctor. Mohammed sent him.’

‘What is his name?’

‘Erm. Mohammed, sir. As well. Mohammed said he was a good doctor and does not kill too many of his patients.’

‘The sword that did this is over there.’

There was a pause. ‘The doctor will just bandage your arm and then treat the weapon, if it is what you wish.’

‘Of course, it is. How am I going to get healed unless he does the weapon salve thing? What does he think I am, stupid?’

‘He says would it be all right to remove the weapon so he can treat it at home?’

‘As long as I get better. This arm really hurts. And I had to belt the general one to get the weapon.’

‘He says that will be fine. Now, just let him apply a light bandage and he will be on his way. He will present his bill when you are recovered.’

‘I’m going to have to go on another raid then to raise the cash to pay it, you realise that?’

‘The doctor says perhaps you could do some trading. It is safer.’

‘Like Honest Ahmed?’

‘Honest Ahmed, sir, is only down on money, not on blood. But Emir Mohammed has offered you and the men employment, as he fears that there may be some retribution for his own, um, camel trading.’

The doctor bowed and left, carrying the sword. ‘Well, we can’t let old Mohammed down, can we?’

Saturday 2 November 2019

Rebellious Bash

 ‘They are over there?’

‘Yes, sir. They are across the river, on the other side of that hill.’

‘Are they definitely rebelling against the king?’

‘Yes, sir. They say that the king’s father returned the kingdom to their leader’s father, and therefore they own no allegiance to the new king.’

‘So they will fight? We are representatives of King Alexander IV.’

‘They will fight, sir.’

‘Yet the king is at the other end of the world, has been defeated in battle and may, in fact, be deceased.’

‘I believe that to be the case, sir.’

‘We must fight these rebels in the name of the king.’

‘But if the king is deceased, sir, or, um, unavoidably detained at the other end of the world?’

‘Then we shall have to see. Order the advance.’

‘Yes, sir.’


This is, in fact, the next battle in the Alexander IV campaign. I decided to do something different. With Alexander, after his defeat in North Africa, partying in Ibiza, some bits of his father’s empire are a little restive. Not that Alexander III really conquered them to any great extent, it has to be admitted. He just seems to have liked battles and victories. Anyway, the next bash is some rebellious Indians against a possibly loyal early successor army, from the Asiatic provinces.

This was a bit alarmingly like a ‘line ‘em up and kill them’ sort of battle, but there is a little more context than that. Anyway, the rather dark photograph shows the Indians to the left and the Macedonians to the right. With all the bravado you would expect from the Macedonian officers at this time, they have crossed the river on their baseline, occupying the steep hill with their light troops. This has had the effect of splitting the phalanx, however, which might not be a good thing.

The Indians have large quantities of archers, some elephants (including the general) and some cavalry. The archers furthest from the camera are on a hill. The numerate and sharp-eyed among you will notice that I have cut the number of bases to 12 for this one, for reasons of time. I expected a fairly slow battle as the Indians attempted to shoot up the Macedonians, and the Macedonians attempted to turn the Indian flanks.

The critical point of the game is below. At least, I think it was critical.

The Macedonian ‘Companion’ cavalry on their right have turned across the supporting flank, firstly to avoid charging up a hill against massed archery (which seemed like a good idea) and secondly to attempt to charge the Indian cavalry, which is a bit more sedentary and was thus, expected to be a decent target. Unfortunately, the Companions turned into bow range of the archers on the hill and lost their orders and the Indian cavalry advanced on them (not charging) and (on a slightly fluky dice roll, admittedly) routed them. There went the main Macedonian strike force.

The consequence of this was that the Indians could control the battle. The Macedonians tried to assert control of the centre by sending their light troops down the hill, but these got severely stomped by the elephants, while the phalanxes were stalled and disrupted by the archers. The end game was thus:

You can see here that the Macedonian light troops have pretty well evaporated, while the phalanxes are in pieces, that is, operating as single bases rather than groups. This makes them much, much harder to do anything with. At this point, being five bases down and shot to bits (the nearest phalanx base is probably not much longer for the battle), the Macedonians conceded.

What could I have done differently? Well, the terrain was against the Macedonian side, the steep hill split their forces. I should probably have ignored it and deployed on one side or the other, with the phalangites in one block covered by the skirmishers. The hill could have been held quite adequately by the peltasts. Committing the Companions early, and losing them, was also a problem.

On the other hand it was quite clear that I, as Indian commander, was quite concerned about engaging anything at all with my bowmen except at extreme range. Thus I had to rely on lucky dice rolls and the elephants. The cavalry I was not too sure about; they look nice but felt not that effective. I am still unsure about how the Indian army really functioned. I shall have to go back to Arrian, I suppose.

As a wargame it was interesting enough, although I did feel that the elephants needed souping up a bit. The Indian plan worked, to stand off and shoot, but with eight out of twelve bases archers what else could they do, really? As the opener for a campaign, of course, it went well.


‘Sir, there is an envoy from the, um, rebels.’

‘Really? Show him in. Translator!’

The translator materialised, and there was a lengthy exchange.


‘Sir, he says that he is willing to establish the river as the border between you and him.’

‘Me? I’m not the ruler.’

‘He says that if you agree, the king will give you the hand of his daughter, his only child, two thousand archers, whose effectiveness you saw this day, fifty elephants, and as much land west of the river as you can win and hold.’

‘Spear won land?’

‘Spear won land, sir. It will be yours by conquest.’

‘Hm. An interesting offer, by Zeus.’

‘Further, he says that when your union with the princess is blessed by children, they shall be heirs to his land too. The king will go east, and you will go west. Between you, you will fulfil the ambition of your late liege lord, King Alexander, to conquer the known world and beyond.’

‘That was certainly his ambition, yes. And his son seems not to be making the most of his opportunities to further King Alexander’s aims.’

The envoy bowed as this was translated. ‘He says that you and the king are in accord. His troops and the princess will be with you here in a week. Farewell.’

Saturday 26 October 2019

Representing War

I suppose, upon thinking about it, a wargame is a representation of war. It is not, thankfully, war itself. As is often noted, there are no plastic or metal wargame widows and orphans, no horribly mutilated wounded to be tended and treated, not the destruction of the built environment or crops, no refugees, and so on.

Further, I admit that I get slightly uncomfortable when there are such things. For example, a realistic portrayal of the 1940 blitzkrieg in Western Europe would have to consider carefully the impact of terror bombing cities and the resultant waves of refugees blocking the advance of allied forces. While it might make an interesting game, I am not sure that I would really want to play a wargame which had rules for creating such terrified people and for them inhibiting the movement of armed forces. Perhaps I just do not like reality in this case.

For another example, perhaps slightly less heavily charged than World War Two, how about rules for pushing armies back into already devastated regions so they starve and become combat ineffective? It was certainly a known and used strategy in the Thirty Years War, but do I want to wargame it, even at an abstract, campaign level?

I am not particularly wishing to develop this post into another meander through the ethics of wargaming, but wargaming does point up the sort of tension that a recent book I have read suggests happens in other contexts. The tension is between the romance and heroism of war, and the nasty side effects of death, destruction and general mayhem. The book asks how writers of an earlier age confronted the tension:

Bellis, J. and L. Slater, Eds. (2016). Representing War and Violence 1250 - 1600. Woodbridge, Boydell.

This is a collection of essays by an assortment of historians, art historians, and literature, which asks the basic question: how were war and violence represented in broadly medieval writing and art? As the editors' note (p. 3), the terms ‘war’ and ‘violence’ were ambivalent, connoting something glorious, epic, just and noble, while also being fallen, unchristian, hideous and brutal. Ideas of chivalry conjured romanticised notions of exceptional nobility, bravery, courtesy and ethical scrupulousness. But, as the first essay observes (Richard Kaeuper, p. 23 – 38) chivalrous behaviour was a class thing. A chivalrous knight may not assault a noble lady, but a passing peasant girl might be considered fair game. Further, even if the chivalrous knight did not do the rape, pillage, murder and loot thing himself, the people who did were under his command.

The fact seems to be that warfare and violence has an emotional register, both to the medieval authors of chronicles and their illustrators, and also between us and them. The medievals, after all, were of one mind concerning Christianity and its tenets, while we are not. The ideal of a just war, therefore, exercised them in a slightly different way from the manner in which it exercises (or should exercise) our leaders today.

The nub of the problem is here:

The so-called artistic representation of the sheer physical pain of people beaten to the ground by rifle-butts contains, however remotely, the power to elicit enjoyment out of it… When genocide becomes part of the cultural heritage in the themes of committed literature, it becomes easier to play along with the culture which gave birth to murder.

Hard words there, I think, from Theodore Adorno. On the other hand, it can also be observed that witnesses of extreme war and violence often find meaning in it in translated, dramatic, mythic forms, even to the point of the experience being in some way redemptive.  While this refers to twentieth-century suffering, we can wonder if the tension, if not its resolution applied to a medieval framework (p. 8)? Often suffering and torture was represented as Christian martyrdom, but not always. Whether this still makes sense to us is, of course, moot.

Were representations designed to thrill audiences, to titillate them, or to leave them unmoved? Of course, we cannot answer that question; we cannot probe the mind of a medieval author or artist. War can give life to an author’s work, no matter how much they might criticise the existence of violence, the manner of its conduct and the outworking thereof. Even not writing about war can be about war: think of the ‘war and society’ historiography I have discussed before. War, violence, campaigns and battles are, broadly speaking, expunged. But does not this act itself somehow violently exclude the reasons men were brought together in the first place?

There is such a paradox in wargaming generally. However much we abstract a wargame away from reality, we do still represent it. Even by not representing it (and, usually, we do not) it is still present in our games. I have given up (as you may have noticed) using casualty markers in my games, preferring blank markers without dead and wounded figures on them. I suppose this is to remove my game, my hobby, even further from the implied violence which is being modelled. Adding dead or dying figures to my table seems to do nothing for its accuracy or playability as a game, merely drawing attention to the violence and destruction of human life. I do not, really, want to turn that into a game.

My wargames, therefore, retreat (the term is probably used advisedly) into the ‘glorious’ end of the representation debate. My armies are well controlled, well provisioned, never run riot or loot or pillage. Any violence they indulge in is regrettable but necessary, carried out not because they enjoy it but because it is a duty. The necessary chopping bits off other people, or shooting at them with lethal weapons is abstracted away and ignored. But it is implicit.

On the other hand, I am not going to stop wargaming. What, after all, would I do instead? Chess is an abstraction of war. Monopoly is about the violence of capitalism. Even Patience has men waving swords around, and, of course, a violently implied hierarchy (which places males above females, as well). What is a good liberal to do?

Saturday 19 October 2019

Aztec Affair

I have been waffling on about Aztecs for a while, and, yes, a photograph of all of them is in the pipeline (see below). Not being one for big parades, really, I have started an Aztec campaign. The rules are the ones I wrote up for Miniature Wargames many years ago (I’m not sure when – around about 2000 AD seems to be the best guess).

Of course, back in the day, there were no blogs to record the campaign battles, nor did I have a digital camera suitable for doing so. But I did have a lot of Aztecs, as I have mentioned. Anyway, the campaign was playing card-based. Essentially, the player moved their army to another city and drew a card and determined whether the city would submit or fight. If a fight was decided upon, allies for the enemy city were determined, and I had to decide whether to fight or not. Not fighting had consequences of losing credibility in the eyes of my nobles, but then losing a battle was worse. There were also random events such has unexpected submissions, rebellions and invasions.

The introduction to the article reads as follows:

You are Itzcoatl, newly elected king of the island city of Tenochtitlan, ruler of the Aztecs. As such, you are technically vassal to Azacapotzalco, the capital of the Tepanec Empire. However, the empire has just been usurped by Maxtlatl, and now is a good time to claim independence and aim for empire yourself.

There are, I think, twelve campaign turns, each with a move and a random event possibility (they do not always happen). The wargame rules used are DBA (actually, second edition). The first turn started with a random event, which was a Chichimec invasion. Funnily enough, the first campaign all those years ago had a Chichimec battle first off.

Still, aside from having déjà vu all over again, here are the starting positions.

 I have to offer suitable apologies, of course, for the unexpected late summer sun on the near portion of the table. I am sure it will not happen again. Anyway, my brave Aztecs are to the right and the upstart dog people (for that, apparently, is what Chichimec means) to the left. The Chichimec are mostly psiloi.

The playing cards, incidentally, are ambush markers. If one of my bases approaches within a move of the relevant terrain marker, the card is turned over and, if it is a picture card, an ambushing force is discovered and diced for. On one occasion in the original campaign, I took on a foe, which turned out to consist of 24 bases, with 11 of my own. I lost, as you might imagine. The village in the foreground did have a card, but that has already been ‘sprung’ by the detachment of psiloi deployed for the purpose, and no ambush was discovered.

Appearances to the contrary, the Chichimec are a tough foe in DBA when facing a Mexica army. The latter consists of 6 auxilia (the Aztec militia), three blades (suit wearers) and three psiloi (youth skirmishers). The problem for the Aztec player, as I (re-)discovered is that auxilia can defeat psiloi in combat, but not finish them off. The worst outcome for the psiloi is a flee result, which does nothing for actually winning the battle.

After a few moves, I got the hang of this, and moved my suit-wearers into the centre of the action, slaughtering a few Chichimec skirmishers and just about nudging over the line for a victory. My error in the first place cost me some time (I only just managed victory in the number of turns set out in the campaign rules: 10) and then, of course, the curse of the dice struck and even the blades had a hard time beating psiloi. Still, I did win, at the cost of a militia base.

As you can see, the right had become a rather complicated skirmish, with little advantage to either side, and the left had gone my way, enabling my left-wing skirmishers to turn in and help the centre.

As that was a random event, the next move was mine and I attacked a city which, sadly, in spite of my exalted status as a proven battle winner decided to resist, called in allies and the battlefield consisted of large quantities of ambush-friendly terrain. I am still not sure whether to attack and risk casualties or withdraw and take the penalty to my personal rating.

And now, the moment I am sure you have all been waiting for, the completion of the rebasing project for these Aztecs. At great personal cost and extreme risk, behold:

To appropriate a well-known quote from a film: ‘Aztecs, sir. Fhasands of them.’

Well, not quite thousands, anyway. By my reckoning, there are 934 figures above. Yes, that is nine-hundred and thirty-four figures. And there are thirteen buildings. Or, looked at another way, one hundred and thirty-eight bases of troops and fifty singly mounted officers (and the same thirteen buildings, of course). According to my calculations, I could conduct five and three-quarters simultaneous DBA wargames with this lot. Weird, eh?

Skirmishers to the fore both bow and sling armed, followed by archers. The masses are militia bases, with suit bearers and the single officers behind them, then generals and porters.

This is a closer view of the officers, generals and suit wearers. You might wonder what the hordes of singly mounted officers are for, as they have no role at all in DBA, and it is a valid question. But I do have a plan for developing some more Mexica flavoured rules which includes suit wearers (as they were the professional soldiers and officered the militia) both indicating order status (as per my usual Polemos rules) and also being able to indulge in single combat with other singly mounted officers to disrupt the order status of enemy units. Admittedly, I have not worked out the details, yet, but you can see the plan with the militia units who have officers from the suit wearers on their bases already (usually, it seems, in red; don’t ask me why).

The other thing you can see is a large number of porter units. These were vital in Central America as there were no draft animals or wheels, but will take a little more thinking about.

Now, I think I need a little lie-down, a stiff drink, and to think about something other than Aztecs. Mind you, I am still rebasing the Wars of Spanish Succession and Great Northern War armies and I have not started the Inca yet…