Saturday, 27 July 2019

Crossing the Tees

The story so far…..

Those of you with long memories may recall the Abbeys Campaign. This started with a surprisingly easy landing for a breakaway group of ships and soldiers from the Spanish Armada just north of Whitby. In essence, the English militia ran away. Having thus taken the port, Don Pedro and his army advanced inland, meeting up with the local militia army at Guisborough and, with the aid of some defections from the non-trained band part, overcoming the opposition.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, news of the landing alarmed James VI, who determined to advance south and assist his protestant sister and her kingdom. Not all in Scotland or on his council agreed, however, but the king brushed past the objections at Coldingham. Meanwhile the English navy failed to prevent reinforcements, led by Don Pedro’s friend Don Carlo from landing at Whitby. They have advanced inland and made contact with Don Pedro, and been deployed at Yarm, the first inland bridge over the River Tees. Their object is to prevent the Scots from crossing and joining with the English army which is concentrating at York.

Now, as they say, read on….


‘What do you mean there is another bridge? I know there is, but its miles away.’

‘Sire, I mean that there is one closer. The Piercebridge is the third bridge over the river, not the second.’

‘And where is the new second bridge?’

‘A league or two upstream, sire. At a place called, um, Croft.’

Another man entered the room. ‘Don Carlo! Don Carlo, sire!’

‘I am not deaf, man. What is it?’

‘The Scots, sire! They are on the move!’

‘I am still not deaf man, but if you continue shouting that won’t last long. Which way are they going?’

‘West, my lord. Um. Upstream.’

‘Order the army to march, cavalry first.’


And so was the fifth battle of the Abbeys campaign narrated into life. The initial thought was a ‘race for the bridge’ scenario, and so dice were rolled to see how much of a start the Scots had. Poor Scottish rolling (or Spanish organisation, it depends on how you look at it) meant that King James’ boys had only one move start over Don Carlo. Further, I had decided, slightly to my consternation, that after the Scottish cavalry which would seize the bridge and village of Croft would come the Scottish artillery. The idea was to deploy them north of the river, just beyond Neasham Abbey, to disrupt the Spanish march. King James, of course, was known as a canny operator who managed to survive Scottish politics for many years, before tackling England. He, of course, did rather better than his son, who landed up being separated from his head.

The initial dispositions are below.

The river is the Tees (obviously) and it is unfordable at this point. The village is Croft itself and the church represents Neasham Abbey. As you might recall, one of the conceits of the narrative campaign is that all the battles take place near dissolved religious foundations.

The Scots are to the north (left) and enter by the road past Neasham. The Spanish are to the right on the southern road. On the back table, the armies are set up in march order. The Scottish cavalry has just appeared on the table, along with King James himself.

In reality, the Tees loops rather a lot more than my table-top river does, but I will not permit that to worry me. The King’s plan worked like clockwork, and the end dispositions are here.

This view is taken from behind the Spanish lines and neatly shows the problems of the action as pertaining to Don Carlos and his men. The Scottish cavalry, with a move’s advantage, crossed the bridge and seized Croft, while the Scottish guns deployed by the river and opened fire. Some good (or lucky) shooting disrupted the rear of Don Carlos’ army. The extra bit of road which Don Carlos’ men had to traverse to get to Croft meant that the Scottish infantry arrived first and, as seen, lined the edge of the village, outnumbering the remains of Don Carlos’ infantry. Meanwhile, the Scottish borderers skirmished their way into ascendency over the Spanish cavalry.

At this point I, as Spanish commander, was faced with a dilemma. In a one-off wargame, I may well have attacked, trusting in the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune to swing in my direction. On the other hand I did not much fancy attacking a village lined with plenty of musketeers, with cannon fire coming in from the flank and a hefty dose of pikemen arriving to back up the shot. Plus my infantry was, at least at present outnumbered, and the cavalry was taking casualties from skirmishers.

There was also the campaign situation to recall. The Scots had crossed the river, and therefore the role of Don Carlos’ army was no longer relevant, his brief had been to prevent that. Rather than waste his men in a rather futile attack on a village, where his men would be both outnumbered and outgunned, he decided to fall back.

So, the question for the assembled company is ‘Did Don Carlos choose the right course of action?’


‘Carlos! Good to see you again my friend, but what are you doing here?’

‘I bring bad news, sire.’

‘You look glum, my friend.’

‘I am afraid that the Scots are across the river, sire. There was another bridge which I knew nothing of until they were practically there.’

‘Your army?’

‘We fell back, sire, rather than take pointless casualties. The army is near the county town place, Northallerton.’ There was a pause. ‘Are you going to sack me?’

‘Sack you? No, my friend. You did the right thing. An army in being is better than one lying bleeding on the ground. But we need to do some thinking. The English are prepared to strike north, and now the Scots are nearby. You are here and I am at Stokesley. Our options are narrowing, my friend. How about a drink?'

Saturday, 20 July 2019

Against the Grain

Those of you with long memories might remember some grumblings here about colonialism, and the potential colonialism of wargaming. What I seem to have meant by that was that we lump all these non-Europeans into a similar sort of category. Thus, possibly, in some rule sets African tribes look similar to Siberians and Aztecs. As noted recently, these armies seldom evolve very much, by these same rule sets. Occasionally they might grow firearms units, of course, or even ships armed with cannons, but that is only under the influence of those colonial powers who brought enlightenment to the natives.

I exaggerate, of course, but possibly not as much as we might be comfortable with. There is also the problem, allied to all this, that history has a tendency to be written by victors and, in the world of colonialism from the beginning to the end, this tends to be the ‘white man’. The expression is chosen carefully, for both the whiteness and the maleness of the person chronicling the period and place is, in general, significant. This has implications for how we (in the broadest sense) understand history.

As you might imagine, I have not come up with this on my own. I have been reading some historical theory (more of that another time, perhaps) part of which has been this book:

Majumdar, R. (2010). Writing Postcolonial History. London, Bloomsbury Academic.

Postcolonial history, according to Majumdar, arose from dissatisfactions with the historiography which arose during and after the processes of decolonisation. Before decolonisation (roughly speaking the period from 1950-1970, but the time frame varies according to point of view and geography) history was dominated by the European viewpoint, as put forward by the white male writer. Thus, civilisation was brought to the unenlightened masses by such things as the rifle, machine gun, railway, international trade, education and so on. In some places, even educated (in the Western system) natives were permitted to work in the lower echelons of the governmental system (overseen by reliable people, of course: white males) in the pious hope that they may, someday in the future, be able to run the affairs of the colony for themselves. This would, presumably, have to be overseen by the colonial power, and anyway, for a lot of nationalists at the time, seemed to be an ever-receding target.

Decolonisation, in the British part of the world anyway, was a consequence of World War Two and impending bankruptcy. Historiography immediately post-decolonisation tended to become anti-colonial and nationalist. Local historians bemoaned the arresting of indigenous development, culture and society by the alien impositions (while, it has to be said, often benefitting from them themselves in university posts). It was not too long, however, before a reaction to this reaction started, and this is known as post-colonialism; its historical outworking is postcolonial history.

Postcolonial history defines itself (as far as anything of this nature is defined) as against anti-colonial history. It notes that colonialism had a great impact on the colonised, but also had some impact on the coloniser and the metropolitan colonial power, and sets out to chart this sort of relationship. The relative power of the colony and metropole might well be different, but postcolonial history argues that the colonised were not wholly powerless, and could often succeed against the coloniser.

As history is, usually, both recorded and written by the more powerful, the postcolonial historian has to work a bit harder to obtain their materials. This means that they have to read against the grain of historical records and texts to recover the agency of the colonised. Once this is done, in some cases a startling new history of the country can emerge, one where the (after all, heavily outnumbered) colonists had to tread carefully to negotiate their sometimes fragile (or non-existent) power.

A lot of postcolonial history focusses on India, but I thought I would try to draw some attention to another case where the historical records have to be read against the grain. This is Ross Hassig’s account of the conquest of Mexico, where he re-reads the accounts (which are mostly by Europeans) to reconstruct what was really happening in the early sixteenth century in Central America:

Hassig, R., 'War, Politics and the Conquest of Mexico', in Black, J. (ed.), War in the Early Modern World 1450 - 1815 (London: UCL Press, 1999), 207-235.

Hassig notes that there are two narratives of the conquest. The first is the triumph, against overwhelming odds, of the brave white man against a barbarian, bloodthirsty, pagan empire. This is the story we get from a surface reading of the texts we have available, the overwhelming majority of which are Spanish. Hassig notes that many of the reports sent back to Spain have elements of self-serving bias; the conquistadors were attempting to justify their new found wealth and power.

The second narrative emerges when we read against the grain. For example, Cortes took a detour on his way to Tenochtitlan, to Cholollan, where he conducted a massacre. Hassig notes that the Spanish had no reason to go there, so why did they bother? The answer is that Cholollan had recently deserted the Tlaxcallan alliance, and the massacre eliminated the ruling elite. Tlaxcalla could now control the selection of a new king. This event also led to Cortes overestimating his significance in Central America.

Similarly, Hassig observes that tens of thousands of Indian allies joined five hundred Spanish in the siege of Tenochtitlan, and thousands of canoes joined the thirteen brigantines on the lake. Who then had the most significant force? Who was really in control here?

Of course, many other factors – famine, disease and the Spanish view of what they were doing – played a part as well. But for wargaming the important part is that the Spanish numbers were never more than one per cent of the total. They were shock troops, regarded as expendable by the Tlaxcallans, who could break the enemy line and leave it exposed to exploitation by the Tlaxcallan forces. Hassig suggests that both sides recognised this and sought an alliance as a result.

So, postcolonial history should be a part of wargaming historiography. I am currently rebasing my Aztec forces, but I think that I will need to write my own set of rules as in most that I have seen the Spanish are massively over-represented in both numbers and effectiveness.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Circa Cerignola

The next approximate battle in the Italian Wars should be, of course, Fornovo. But Fornovo is first, probably somewhat beyond my current abilities, and second, it was rather a complex battle and not one in which the rapidly changing Spanish forces were involved.

Let me, therefore, fast forward to Cerignola (28th April 1503) for my next trick. The Spanish were behind some entrenchment, armed with pikes, firearms, crossbows and cannon. The French had gendarmes, Swiss pikes and their skirmishing crossbowmen, which seem to have been mainly around to make up the numbers. The Spanish jinites were deployed in front of the entrenchments, and seem to have obscured the view of the French and Swiss. On the other hand, neither the French nor the Swiss seemed to be much in the mood for scouting; they did have light horse, but they don’t seem to have been used. The Spanish men-at-arms were held in reserve.

So far as I can establish (which may not be far, of course) the Spanish had 700 men-at-arms, 800 jinites, 1000 arquebusiers, 2000 Landsknechts and 1000 ‘other’ foot, along with 20 cannon. The French had 650 gendarmes, 1100 light horse, 3500 Swiss and 2500 – 3500 French infantry, along with 40 cannon which did not arrive in time for the battle (probably a good thing for the Spanish).

Here, I hit a rule development. Normally (in DBR and, indeed, in Polemos: SPQR) skirmishers are regarded as being rather few in number. If you regard the French infantry as being mostly skirmishing crossbowmen, then at 75 men per base, you get between 33 and 47 bases. This is rather a lot of bases and would take up a large quantity of table room. My view of skirmishers has evolved, and so I have incorporated them in the normal 1:500 ratio which I try to use for foot (1:250 for the horse, by the way). Those of you with long, long memories will recall that the model for skirmishing is a base unit with small groups sent out to discharge their weapons. The base marks the location of the base unit. I can thus reduce the number of French infantry to a more reasonable 5 bases of skirmishing crossbows.

The forces on the table are, therefore:
Spanish: 3 men-at-arms, 3 jinites, 2 arquebusiers, 4 pike, 2 ‘others’, which I am interpreting as a crossbow base and a sword and buckler base. They also have 2 cannon bases.
French: 3 gendarmes, 4 light horse (a mix of mounted crossbows and stradoit), 7 Swiss pike and 5 skirmishing crossbows or pike for the French infantry.

The set up is shown in the photograph.

The Spanish are to the left, behind their entrenchments, at the foot of a vine-strewn hill, upon which the cannon are placed. The jinites are in front of the entrenchments, nervously eyeing the gendarmes and Swiss. The French light horse and crossbowmen bring up the rear.

From behind Spanish lines, it looked like this.

One of the Spanish cannons is the out of focus blob to the right, and you can see the line of jinites in front of the French and Swiss. Behind them are the rest of the French army, who turned out not to be particularly interested in the proceedings.

In the real battle, the French gendarmes and the Swiss simply charged and the gendarmes discovered the ditch and bank first. Under heavy fire, Nemours attempted to find a way across and was killed by an arquebus ball. The Swiss arrived and did little better. Once the French and Swiss were bogged down, Cordoba ordered a counter-attack and they fled.

In my battle, things were slightly different, but only a bit. The French gendarmes managed to hit the jinites without being disrupted by the skirmishing and swept them away. However, they then found that cavalry against manned entrenchments only goes one way. They did, very briefly, gain a slight hold on the top, having forced back the Spanish sword and buckler men, but it didn’t last. Turning left, the gendarmes sought a way around (a bit late, you might think). Nemours survived, but the gendarmes were hit in the flank by the Spanish men-at-arms and routed, including the general who, this time, seems to have perished at the point of a lance (I’m sure that is more honourable than a musket ball).

The Swiss then attacked and fared rather worse. In fact, their approach was disrupted by the cannons on the hill and some of them never got into action. In these rules, it seems, cannon are rarely decisive but often disruptive. The Spanish were on the receiving end of this in the Guisborough fight in the Armada campaign, you might remember.

The end of the battle looked like this.

The remaining French gendarmes are all fleeing, while the Swiss are either routing, halted under fire or being ‘staggered’ by cannons. The French crossbowmen and light horse have not really been ordered to do much, due to the general being too busy charging and then incapacitated.

So, once again, history roughly repeated itself. It did get me wondering, however, about bias and, indeed, whether the battle was even possibly winnable for the French in its original form. Waiting for the next day and their cannon to arrive would probably have been a favourite option. Alternatively, working around the flanks could have worked. As Spanish commander, I was a little concerned about all those skirmishing light horse, especially after most of my jinites had been dispersed.

I suppose that cavalry against manned entrenchments, especially when the entrenched side have firearms and crossbows (the rules do not, at present, distinguish) was never going to be an easy match up, and nor were Swiss against the same thing. The historical outcome probably speaks volumes about the usefulness or otherwise of chivalry and rash bravery against ranged weapons in prepared positions, but then that is a lesson which many nations have had to learn the hard way.

I was, however, quite pleased with the rules and how they worked. The next battle is, of course, Garigliano, but that is a sprawling, complex battle. Having tested the rules in two semi-historical battles now, I might try a different time and part of the world.

Saturday, 6 July 2019


 As noted last time, I have a wide variety of early modern armies to choose from as a result of the rebasing project. Given my predilection these days not to simply conduct ‘line both sides up and charge’ types of battles, I feel the need for some narratives to push the stories of the campaigns along. Each set of armies, therefore, need a theme, a running story like the Armada campaign (the next battle for which is on the cards, sometime) or young Alexander’s adventures.

The sad fact is that I am all out of stories at the moment. My reading lately has been a bit too lacking in military themes for my own comfort, perhaps, but I really cannot, at present, connect with any ideas that I might have come up with. For example, I thought about redoing my Invasion of Korea campaign from many years ago, but that might entail buying and reading at least one book on the topic, and I have a shelfful to get through already. Indeed, I and the Estimable Mrs P. have agreed to a three-month moratorium on purchasing books while we tackle our backlogs.

Being, therefore, thrown back upon my resources as a historical wargamer, and in the light of reading about Isabella of Castile, I pondered a narrative about the Granada campaign, but I could not get excited about that.  But something about the Spanish intrigued me, so I dusted off my trusty Oman and started to read. Slowly a battle came to mind, a historical one at that. I would try my hand at Seminaria.

I dare say that I do not need to introduce the battle to my audience, but I’m not going to let that stop me. This was, more or less, the first action of the Italian Wars and was heavily lost by the Neapolitans and their allies, the Spanish. Oman has about half a page on the battle. I consulted Peter Sides’ ‘Renaissance Battles Volume I’ but discovered, I’m afraid, a bit of a dog’s breakfast. Sides, it seems, was led astray by the DBR lists for the army. Oman’s account definitely refers to jinites; Sides’ Spanish have no such thing, at least that I could find.

Wikipedia (purists may shudder, but it can be fairly reliable when all else fails) reckoned up the forces involved more accurately (perhaps; as is often the case, the sources are unclear) but still left a lot of wriggle room for exactly how many Neapolitan militia were present, and how many French (as opposed to Swiss) infantry were there. I have commented before that historians tend not to worry overmuch about such holes in the data, but wargamers do.

The numbers, according to Wikipedia consisted of 600 lances for the Spanish (careful; this does not mean men at arms), 1500 sword and buckler men, 3500 sailors, 6000 Calabrians and an unknown number of Neapolitans. All of this was less men left in garrison. The French had 400 gendarmes, 800 light horse, 800 Swiss pikes and an unknown number of French infantry. The armies both deployed with a centre and a wing of horse, which faced each other. I have no idea why the other wing was not similarly en-horsed. It might have been terrain, but the sources only mention a stream between the lines.

Anyway, some desperate counting of bases of figures and working out a few bits of ratios led me to the following orders of battle:

Spanish – Neapolitan: 2 jinites, 3 sword and buckler, 7 crossbowmen (sailors), 4 crossbowmen (Neapolitan), 8 militia (Neapolitan / Calabrian).

French: 2 gendarmes, 2 mounted crossbow, 4 Swiss pikes, 10 crossbowmen, 1 stradoit, 2 pikes (French). The gendarmes and Swiss are elite.

I confess I have no real idea as to how these map onto reality (hence the title of the post), but then, no-one else will either. It is also slightly juggled with to fit my resources, especially in crossbowmen. All the crossbows, incidentally, count as skirmishers. The Spanish sailors are deployed as crossbowmen largely because of a comment in McNeil about the adaption of crossbows on Spanish and Portuguese ships of the time.

Anyway, the deployment looked like this:

The Spanish / Neapolitans are to the right, the French to the left. The French were to attack with the gendarmes and Swiss (on their left). The Spanish were hoping to disrupt enough with their crossbowmen before contact was made, and to entertain the gendarmes with the jinites (on their far right). As one of the reasons the Spanish – Neapolitans lost seems to have been that the militia interpreted the backwards, skirmishing, behaviour of the jinites as fleeing, and followed suit, each time a Spanish base moved backwards the militia were to roll two dice, one positive and one negative. On a negative result, they fled.

The end game is here:

With the exception of one shaken base of crossbowmen, the Spanish centre is fleeing. Remarkably, the militia are still holding firm, but as the French have not bothered to attack them, perhaps this is less of a surprise. On the other hand, they survived a lot of matched rolls. The skirmishing crossbowmen managed to inflict precisely no damage on the Swiss except for a slightly disruptive halt result (which is why the fourth Swiss base is behind the rest). The jinites have done their job, but it has not helped the rest of the army. The Spanish – Neapolitan morale was still good, but it was clear they had lost.

So, this turned into a splendid, historical result. Seminaria was Gonzalo de Cordoba’s (aka ‘the Great Captain) ‘most disastrous’ battle and caused a rethink of the Spanish military. Certainly, the Spanish had little reply to elite Swiss pike here.

So, what next?


‘Sire, we have lost, and lost badly.’

‘I did notice.’

‘Those northern barbarians are wild men, sire.’

‘Agreed. We need to do something about that.’

‘Do you have an idea, sire?’

‘Yes. We need to change things, clearly. I sense…’ Sudden thunder rumbled from a clear blue Italian sky. ‘I sense a military revolution coming on.’