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….