Saturday 23 February 2019

Models and Myths

Another sort of historiography that concerns Elton (see last week’s post) is ideology. We find, for example, historians that are committed to, say, a Marxist interpretation of the English Civil War, and no quantity of evidence will dissuade them from that viewpoint. Thus, the fact that a fair number of MPs ultimately supported the King cuts no ice with them as they see the victory of Parliament as the triumph of the bourgeoisie, the lawyers and merchant classes. As an interpretation, of course, this does hold some water, but it is certainly not something to die on the barricades over, to say the least.

Broad interpretations of evidence are useful but dangerous, I think. In my own, home, subject of physics a lot of effort is put into deciding where and when a model is considered accurate, when a set of approximations work and when they do not. This is a lot trickier than it sounds, and the results are often surprising. Sometimes a model breaks down before it is expected to. My minor claim to physics fame (and it is minor, believe me) is evidence that the usual models, used in the usual circumstances, do not work. On the other hand, part of that same set of models still works when it should not, by the basic approximations made in constructing the model. There are reasons for this, and I could drone on and on about it for hours, but I will spare you that. The point is that models, even of our own construction, are not quite a simple as we might like to think.

I have, on this blog, form over discussing models, as my gentle reader with a long memory (or a handy click on the archive) will recall. A set of wargame rules is, I think, in essence, a set of interacting models, in the same way that a physics theory encompassing a range of phenomena, is also a set of models. We have to make models to render any of this tractable. In physics, the models and approximations made in creating them have to be tested against experimental evidence. This, in fact, is what physicists spend much of their time doing.

A model, then, is not the original, the thing modelled. If the model were, it would be the thing modelled and not a model of it. The Bohr model of the atom is not an atom, but a tool for thinking about and working with atoms. A set of wargame rules for a battle in a given period is not a battle in a given period, but a tool for thinking about the battle. Of course, both atomic model and wargame rule set need other things to work as models, such as experimental data, historical accounts of battles in the period, mathematical paraphernalia, toy soldiers and a situation.

In atomic physics, the situation is usually a set of boundary conditions which, once you have solved the differential equations, specify that solution to the physical conditions. In wargaming, the situation is given by a scenario, even if the wargame is a ‘pick up’ game, in that the two sides are placed on the table and the generals merely try to defeat each other. This is a scenario, albeit a very simple one; its physics parallel would be something like a single isolated hydrogen atom. This is something easy to understand (insofar as quantum mechanics is ever easy) but rather more difficult to find in real life (which, if you think about it, is probably a good thing).

Now, you may well be starting to think ‘Hang on a minute, I’m not a modeller and definitely not a physicist. What has this to do with me?’ I hope that the point is fairly clear, but if it is not I will labour it here. The point is that our language and the way that we approach solving problems is mediated by models and their linguistic cousins metaphors. I am not saying, although some people do come close to claiming, that language consists of metaphors in various states of decay, but I am claiming that models and metaphors are an important part of how we approach (let alone solve) problems.

A non-wargaming example of this is my car. A while ago, it developed the modern engine management system equivalent of a misfire. When I got the bill (a painful event) the readout of the exhaust reading had four dots on it, written by hand in biro. I puzzled over this and then realised what it was. The engineer had been working out the order of the piston firing. The four dots were his model of it. Through this, and sophisticated electronics, the problem was solved.

The problem is that within physics (and, I dare say, the other sciences) the limitations of models are known. People still use the Bohr model even though it is known not to be particularly accurate. Electrons do not jump from orbit to orbit. Nevertheless, in some circumstances, it is a handy model to keep in mind, even though other, more accurate models are available. In historical wargaming, the limits of the models are probably not known, or at least, not known terribly well. Thus we can and do run into problems.

For example, I am considering what to do about the Mughal army pictured a week or two ago. I, as a Westerner, know comparatively little about Indian warfare in the era of interest. I could simply pick up a set of rules that cover the period and place and use that – DBR for example. The rules would work, but here we come back to the ideological problem I started with. The issue is that Mughal warfare may not fit into the set of models the rules create.

I do know, for example, that the DBR model set does not work for seventeenth-century warfare because of the arrangement of pike and shot bases which is permitted but unhistorical. I can modify that, of course (and did, mentally at least) and carry on. But do the rules work for Mughal warfare? I have little idea (although I will try to find out). But the model set is in some ways an ideology, suggesting that all early modern warfare fits into this box, even the bits that don’t.

 Lopping off bits of reality that don’t fit is exactly what Marxist historians of the ECW stand accused of doing. I am fairly sure that as wargamers it is something we should avoid.

Saturday 16 February 2019

Two Sorts of Historical Distortion

I vaguely mentioned before the break that G. R. Elton had some fairly swingeing things to say about historiographical distortion. In fact, he had about seven groups of people from whom, he thought, historical study must be rescued. Rather than just list all seven, most of which do not apply, I think, to wargamers in general, I thought I would concentrate on the two which could. I have not read Elton, you understand. The information here comes from this very useful book; the section on Elton is to be found on pages 68 – 76.

Hughes-Warrington, M., Fifty Key Thinkers on History (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015).

The first group Elton thinks create problematic historiography are amateurs. These view the past from the outside, as something strange and wonderful. They struggle to separate the extraordinary and the ordinary and so struggle to formulate appropriate historical questions, judge history on its own terms, and are prone to sentimentalise the whole thing. This, it seems to me, is a lot of where wargaming is at present, and it works two ways.

The first way is that wargamers, by their very nature, are amateur historians. I am aware, I think, of two professional historians who are wargamers, but mostly wargamers are not historians and their interests, in fact, diverge from historiography. Wargamers want details about weapons, units, deployment and numbers. Historians want to know what armies and their uses tell us about the past. These two aims might run in parallel but wargamers, in fact, want information that history cannot (and methodologically, will not) supply.

The second way is that wargamers, often, sentimentalise both history and their own memories of wargames. I am sure you have encountered the things I am talking about here. For example, the Armada Campaign I occasionally get around to running a bit of consciously ignores all of the general nastiness associated with sixteenth-century warfare: disease, casual cruelty, religious conflict, famine and the general nastiness of individuals and countries fighting for their existence. Most wargames ignore these sorts of things: I have never heard of a World War Two game depicting an SS unit desperately holding off advancing allies in 1945 so their engineers can blow up the ovens in the local concentration camp. We tend to gloss over this sort of thing, and a good job too for the general sanity of the wargaming community.

So history is coloured into a rather more attractive pastel shade of nicer history, but so too are those games in the past. We might look in awe (as I do) at those games shown in Grant’s The Wargame, or be amazed at the detail and scale of Tony Bath’s wargames campaigns, and we may well come to the conclusion that wargames in the past were better than those in the present. Further, our own wargames in the past may well assume a similar tinge. I recall, very fondly, a campaign set in Lincolnshire in the English Civil War where I did the whole recruitment, deployment and map movement thing, fought out the battles and even had a handwritten campaign newspaper – in fact, I think there were two, one for each side. Years later, I tried it again and it really didn’t work. Was it better? I am not sure that the earlier one was, but I did have a bit more time to play it out. Perhaps that counts.

The second sort of historiography that Elton is concerned about that I think might apply to wargaming, is those who support their own myths with history. Myths (in their technical sense of providing a narrative to agree on) are comforting, but they are not history. A recent example would be the arguments over the First World War, in the British case the ‘lions led by donkeys’ myth. Elton notes that the revisions of, for example, Irish and Nazi history are dangerous, both in terms of promoting terrorism and also in perpetuating ideologies which are repugnant.  There are too many people around, Elton suggests, who use history to justify their own views and the present situation (or their desired changes thereto) for historians to be comfortable with simply doing history for its own sake. Historians need to seek the truth, even if there is no solace from doing so.

Wargamers have a peculiar predilection for holding on to myths. Of course, most of their myths are not politically dangerous; the view that Alexander the Great was great because he conquered the whole of the known world is unlikely to promote an ideology that invading Turkey and then Afghanistan is a great foreign policy for Greece to follow. But even assuming that Alexander the Great was great because he conquered the known world is to beg rather a lot of questions relating to our views about warfare, conquest, colonialism and so on. Never questioning these assumptions might be dangerous.

These myths, of course, are part of the wider culture that the societies which wargamers live in put forward. I noted last time our tendency to view the history of China through the lens of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: all Chinese governments are corrupt, weak and ineffective. In fact this is a colonialist view, if not downright imperialist. Viewed from a Chinese perspective, things look rather different. The myths persist, however, and can inform our wargaming as well as our countries’ foreign and economic policies.

What, then, can be done? I am not thinking that all wargamers should become qualified historians (perish the thought) but that some critical reflection is appropriate to the wargamer. This perhaps applies more specifically to rule writers and scenario creators who want to claim some historical verisimilitude. The question should arise, for example, of what did Rourke’s Drift look like to the Zulus? What choices did the high command of the British army face in early 1916 while the battle of the Somme was being planned?

Many wargamers, of course, do take these broader approaches, which I think is a good thing. But the myths persist, and it is surely our role as responsible citizens to keep on challenging them.

Saturday 9 February 2019

Go East Young Man

As I mentioned, the striving at present is based around a quest for world wargaming in the early modern period. The reason for this is the rise of world history, which gives us some interesting comparisons to the rather well-worn topics in European history of the period, particularly, in military history that of the gunpowder revolution (or not).

The quest has been much aided by my former self, who created armies for most of the major protagonists in the DBR army lists before he learnt better. These were based around 100 AP ‘condensed scale’ forces, although it is admitted in one of the lists that a 100 AP Inca army cannot be described as small. In fact, I seem to recall that painting a seemingly interminable tide of Inca ‘hordes’ was what finished the project finally anyway.

Still, the project requires rebasing my armies from the original thin (and now, after two house moves, bent) card to more substantial plastic card bases. Neatly, this avoids repainting the armies, on the whole, although last week’s Mughals had to have their infantry redone. I think that I was rapidly expanding them to fight a 1618-Something battle, and a goodly number of infantry had been based without trousers (oo-er missus) or at least with metallic trews. That took a bit of rectifying as there are, as the photograph last week might have suggested, a lot of Indian infantry.

This week we move a bit north and rather east, to Tibet and China. First, the Tibetans; I confess I had forgotten that I had these until I started going through the storage containers. The figures are Irregular and are, I suspect, based around earlier figures for the period when Tibet was a bit of a local power and not formed of competing states. I also have a complimentary batch of Mongols, but no photograph.

The main Tibetan strength is in their cavalry, aided and abetted by some archers, slingers and hordes. I have no idea how they actually perform in action.

Next up, or rather across, are the Ming. Again, Irregular figures; I cannot say that I am that much of a fan of them, but there is nothing else for the period that is even close. Even then, the array here is rather cobbled together from Colonial and Medieval or Ancient ranges. I have, in most cases, forgotten which specific figures go for what. Still, any army with rocket launchers is a fun army to me, and this one packs two such fearsome beasts.

While the Ming deploy more gunpowder firepower, the main infantry strength seems to be in bows. This adds grist to the idea that the only advantage muskets have over bows is that the former requires less training initially before sending the solider out with a potentially deadly weapon.

I mentioned before the problem in historiography of assuming the answer and then looking for evidence for it. The Ming, and China generally, is a good case in point. Our views of the history of the place are rather constrained by the spectacles we view it through, and that tends to be the colonial defeats inflicted on the state in the late nineteenth century and the collapse of the government in the early to mid-twentieth. In fact, occasional disasters notwithstanding, the Manchu state of the later seventeenth century and into the eighteenth was an effective and expansionist one.

The collapse of the Ming state, as well as the collapse of the nineteenth century Manchu state, were largely due to what I suppose can be described as ‘imperial overstretch’. The Ming were dealing with the Manchu invasion as well as a peasant insurrection, and these were, more or less, at opposite sides of the country. China is big. The threats could not be contained by the government and it collapsed, fairly slowly, as generals and officials had to choose which side had the mandate of heaven.

In a similar way, the colonial demands and forces were matched by those internal stresses within China known as the Boxer rebellions. The state could not simply deal with both at the same time, and the result was the collapse of the government. Given this sort of history, perhaps the current attitude of China to both its coast and internal dissent is hardly surprising. We could, incidentally, also argue that current US policy (such as it is) is that of a cultural and economic (although not territorial) empire attempting to protect an overstretched domain.

Anyway, the history of China does give wargamers a nice leg up, because the Boxers were traditionalists and so the colonial ranges have, in their Boxer troops, suitable figures for earlier times. The Boxers, of course, had the misfortune of coming up against regular Western troops with modern firepower. I won’t go into details but they did not win.

Anyway, last up for cobbled together Eastern armies are the Manchu.

These are slightly more cavalry heavy than the Ming, and deploy some light horse, but they are basically similar with bows and muskets deploying the firepower. After not very long in China, the Manchu started to assimilate Chinese troops into their armies as technologists and specialists and, ultimately I suppose, became more Chinese than the Chinese.

Again, the troops in the picture are Irregular, cobbled together from various ranges. The original Manchu seem to have been sort of Mongols, so some of the horse archers are Mongol figures. One of the light horse bases also seems to a Mongols, while the others are, as I recall, Manchu light cavalry from the colonial range. Again, I have little idea which figure codes are which.

You might notice that there are no heavier weapons in the above armies. This was entirely deliberate. 100 AP in DBR does not give a lot of wriggle room when it comes to artillery, so there were none in the armies. As this was a campaign game, rulers could elect to raise a train of 100 AP of heavy weapons and guards, basically the non-compulsory troops from the lists. As I recall, a siege train could also be raised, and for an army in an adjoining territory, an extra 50 AP was added for the first, 25 for the second and so on. Thus I landed up with a rather large battle in India and had to rapidly expand the army.

Anyway, next up in my world expansion are the Koreans and Samurai, of whom (the Samurai) I seem to have vast numbers.

Saturday 2 February 2019

A Passage to India

In my pursuit of world wargaming, we have arrived at what is often known as ‘The Subcontinent’.

Of course, the Indians include both Mughal and other Indian types, both Muslim and Hindu. If you look carefully at the rather crummy picture above, you will see camel guns, rockets, elephants and naked fanatic swordsmen as well as more conventional cavalry, musketeers and assorted hordes.

I am naturally cheating slightly because the rear ranks in the photograph are composed of Baccus Classical Indians, while the front ranks are Irregular, mostly, I think, colonial types. The purist may well shudder, but most societies are fairly traditional, and an elephant or a man with a big sword is fairly standard across the ages. Indeed, Eraly (whose book I am about to talk about) calls seventeenth century India ‘medieval’. This is not standard Western historiographical speak, of course, but then India is not a standard Western historiographical entity.

There is not a great deal written in English about sixteenth and seventeenth-century Indian warfare. That is a slightly bold statement which does need modifying by things I have not yet read (or, in truth, been able to afford) but Gommans’ 1999 article refers to

Irvine, W., The Army of the Indian Moghuls: Its Organisation and Administration (Tonbridge: Pallas Armata, 1903).
Nicolle, D., McBride, A., Mughal India 1504-1761 (London: Osprey, 1993).

Now, I hope I am the last person to detract from older works or Ospreys, and other material is available, but it does kind of indicate a bit of a paucity of available material for the wargamer.

Still, Gommans’ point is that gunpowder caused two military revolutions in India in the period 1000 – 1850. The first was artillery which changed siege warfare. Fortresses multiplied as a consequence of gunpowder artillery, rather than, as in Europe, declined. This was due to particular political and logistical circumstances, but the trace italienne was superfluous. The Mughals, famously, deployed both artillery and musket infantry on the battlefield. The artillery was even less manoeuvrable than European specimens and, probably, were less effective as Indian gunpowder does not appear to have been granulated.

Indian infantry seems to have been rather ineffective. The matchlock-men were not deployed on the European manner, but often, in the Mughal case, behind a line of chained wagons, to give protection from armoured cavalry which even muskets struggled to be effective against. Indian warfare, Gommans argues, remained a bow and heavy cavalry activity, until 1750 at least.

The article I have been referring to is this:

Gommans, J., 'Warhorse and Gunpowder in India C. 1000 - 1850', in Black, J. (ed.), War in the Early Modern World 1450 - 1815 (London: UCL Press, 1999), 105-127.

Gommans has published a book, I suspect as a development of the chapter, called ‘Mughal Warfare’ but I have not read it yet, while there is another scholarly-looking book by de la Garza called ‘The Mughal Empire at War’. However, I have not read either yet and, at academic press prices, it might be some time before I do. They are on my wishlist, but, in becoming a world wargamer, so is quite a lot else.

One of the things that are a problem with history is that often academic writings become thematic. The two works just referred to seem to be the case, interested in whether there was a military revolution in India in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and not giving the reader much of a narrative frame to hang the themes on. It is not easy to find narratives of India, at least ones that go beyond wearing colonial spectacles and interpreting everything in terms of what came later. However, I have, serendipitously, come across a useful work, referred to earlier:

Eraly, A., The Mughal Throne: The Saga of India's Great Emperors (London: Weidenfield and Nicholson, 2003).

This book is supposed to be the third of four in a series of the history of India, although the first published. It relates the history of the Mughal Emperors in India, Babur, Humayuan, Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurungzeb. The early part is focussed on North India and the struggles to get the Mughal Empire established. In case you are wondering, Humayuan managed to lose most of what Babur won, but, more by luck than judgment, got it back.

The wargaming point to be made here is that, as with many empires, the Mughals had to keep expanding. They were not natural administrators and, Eraly complains, the fabulous wealth of the Mughal Emperors was built on the back of poverty-stricken Hindu peasants. Under Akbar, there was a chance of obtaining prosperous stability, but that was lost under his successors and the whole lot collapsed under Aurungzeb. There are, therefore, lots of battles which a wargame could indulge in, between some nicely exotic armies.

Perhaps the most interesting campaigns are the civil wars between an emperor’s sons. By the seventeenth century, everyone had realised that there was only one emperor, and so on the death of the last one his sons fought to work out who the successor should be. This led to enormous, destructive and debilitating civil war, most famously the one leading to the succession of Aurungzeb. It was a case of last man standing becomes the emperor properly. The other sons lost their lives one way or another.

I suspect that the Indian subcontinent is under-represented in wargaming terms, at least before the colonial era properly kicked off. Eraly notes, slightly bitterly, that the Indians had done such a good job of destroying their own political institutions by 1700 or so that the subcontinent stood wide open to an external power, which happened to be the British. That, along with the lack of documentation of the battles and campaigns in English at least, surely gives us a good opportunity for some wargames for which the firepower of disciplined colonial troops is not an issue.

There are a few issues, of course. The sheer size of Indian armies (although not necessarily their effectiveness) is a bit of an issue, and working out some proper rules without assuming that all Indian troops are colonial cannon-fodder might be a problem. But we should try.