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.’