Saturday 28 March 2020

The Battle of the Friarage

‘Do you know where we are Jock?’

‘Somewhere near Northallerton, Jimmy.’

‘More specifically, though Jock. These fields here.’

‘They are just fields, Jimmy. Nothing to worry about. Just fields.

‘But this is where the battle of the Standard took place, Jimmy.’

‘The what?’

‘The battle of the Standard.’

‘What was that?’

‘It was a terrible defeat for the Scots by the English. The Archbishop of York came with the Holy Host and routed and killed us and we fled home.’

‘They can’t have killed us and we fled. It has got to be one or the other.’

‘But we were fighting the Host. You know, the bread and wine.’

‘Don’t be daft, Jock. You can’t fight bread and wine.’

‘But what if these Spanish have got it? We’re doomed.’


Another week, another try at the Northallerton battle which frustrated me a bit ago. I decided to set out the same terrain (at least, as near as I could get it) but modify the deployment. Both armies this time deployed to the west of the town, rather than in the original, more easterly positions.

 After the contretemps last time, both cavalries were furthest west. King James deployed his infantry with pikes opposite the Spanish demi-lancers and his own cavalry further right. Don Carlos deployed more tightly. He was, after all, fighting a defensive battle. He lined the town and the immediate area west with infantry, hoping that his main strike force, the cavalry, would see off the enemy foot. James ordered his left flank foot only to demonstrate against the enemy, hoping his advantage on the right would pay off.

The following photograph shows the ‘crisis’ of the battle, with the Scottish horse running rampant.

The Spanish demi-lancers had charged the Scottish pikes, but the latter had held them (impressive Scottish dice rolling, really), and then recoiled them the next close combat round. The infantry to the left of the pike had, with impressive shooting, shaken the Spanish gendarmes and they refused to charge the musketeers in front of them. Further damage was being caused by the rest of the Scottish foot on their opponents, too. On the left, James’ troops are withdrawing in the face of an aggressive advance by the Spanish, hoping that they won’t run out of table before the lancers hit home.

The recoiled Spanish demi-lancers were then hit in the flank by the Scottish cavalry and swept away. The Scots went on to hit the shaken lancers and disposed of them as well and then took out a base of arquebusiers. At this point, Spanish morale cracked and the army went to withdraw mode.

 The photograph shows the final positions west of Northallerton, showing the shaken Spanish infantry of the first line. Don Carlos, intelligently, moved his pike reserve across to his left before the crisis hit, and they will form the rearguard. The only road even slightly open to the Spanish is the one back across east towards the North Yorkshire Moors.  As you might recall, the combined Scottish and English light cavalry have taken the bridge there, and the English have been digging in, so Don Carlos’ men are not out of the woods yet.

The Spanish figures, incidentally, are Irregular, while the Scots are Baccus, except for the gun (which banged away all afternoon with no effect) and King James himself. The Irregular figures are mainly from the Italian Wars, with arquebus and pike also from the mid-Sixteenth century range. I think I mentioned last time the houses and castle being a mix of Leven, Baccus and Village Green.

I also think I need to do something about my roads, rivers and streams. They are made from Fun Foam, which is very easy to work with. The banks are glued and flocked with chinchilla dust and then painted, while the water is painted mocha (no, really) colour and then varnished several times. However, as you can see, the strips tend to curl up a bit in storage. I have two ideas in mind. First, I can remake them using my original plan, which was to glue a strip of green foam to each side for the banks. I tried this out and rejected it, originally, because it made the roadsides about the same height as a musketeer. Maybe, in retrospect, this is not such a bad thing. I did this with a few bits of road when I started and the examples are still flat. I think part of it was wondering if I could get the banks to align with the rivers and road on, say, bends.

The other idea is to use magnetic base on the undersides of the foam, to keep it flat in storage and, possibly, to add a bit of heft to the strips to stop them sliding about. I am a bit concerned, however, that the foam will simply sag between the strips of magnetic base.

I am still musing on that one. As an alternative, I suppose I could buy some of these latex roads and rivers you see about, but they always seem a bit pricy to me.


From Don Carlos, Count of Toure Rojo, to Don Pedro, Count of Vino Soro.

Sir, I regret to inform you that the Scots attacked our position in the town of Northallerton, and have forced me to retreat along the road to Ellerbeck. I cannot retreat to the south because the English army is in Thirsk to my rear, and west would be to take us towards the hills and further from your succour.

I beg you, sir, to come with all your strength towards Eller Beck and there meet with my men who have suffered so much from these wild northern hordes. I fear that the English fort at the bridge will make things difficult for my army unless you are there to aid us.

In haste from Northallerton, at the sign of the Golden Lion

Don Carlos.

Saturday 21 March 2020

The Hellenistic Economy and Society

I have been pondering posting about this book for a while, because most people will presume that it has nothing to do with wargaming, and when a post on a blog about wargaming appears to have nothing to do with wargaming, then the readership drops. Not, I hasten to add, that I mind particularly, but it does depress my Monday mornings a bit to see seven or eight reads. Celebrity in wargaming blogs is a rare commodity, anyhow.

Still, I have read, and will write about here, this book:

Rostovtzeff, M., Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World (Oxford: Clarendon, 1941).

This is, in fact, a three-volume work which I picked up reasonably cheaply, just out of interest, you know how it is. It turned out to be really interesting, not least because the author must have led a more interesting life than you expect a classical scholar to have. He was Professor of Latin at St Petersburg between 1898 and 1918, and Professor of Ancient History at Yale between 1925 and 1944. As he was born in 1870 and died in 1952 I presume he retired from Yale, rather than got caught up in any Cold War purges.

The first thing a wargamer often says, when confronted with something that is not a military history, is ‘why should I care?’ Well, it is a sort of reasonable question, but if we are historical wargamers, we are partially committed to history as a whole, not just those parts of it that go ‘Bang’ or ‘Twang’. States cannot, after all, put armies in the field unless they can pay for them, and so the economy of the state matters a great deal in military history. Furthermore, if we accept that an army is a reflection of the society it comes from, then knowing something about the society might help us in determining what the army looked like.

There are a few cases in point in this book. For example (I am not going to quote page numbers, because the chances of me finding the references are small, the first two volumes contain around 1300 pages of text) the Ptolemaic Egyptian army changed during the Hellenistic period from one based around Greeks and Macedonians to one based around Egyptians. The reasons for this were both internal and external. The Ptolemies tried to keep Egypt isolated from the rest of the Hellenistic world politically and economically. Of course, they could not do this totally, but when they lost control of the Aegean they lost a lot of trading possibilities with the rest of the Mediterranean world. Hence they turned even more inwards and started to give cleruchs to people of Egyptian stock, albeit Hellenised ones.

The distinction between Egyptian and Greek or Macedonian hence became blurred. In order to get on in life, the Egyptian needed to learn Greek, which was the language of government and politics. It also became the language of the law for those who adopted Greek customs. Hence, eventually, the Ptolemaic army became manned by Hellenised Egyptians.

For another example, the Romans appeared in the Eastern Mediterranean around the time of the end of the Punic Wars, as any wargamer will know. The gradual takeover of the Eastern World was largely engineered by money lenders and merchants; the Romans wanted Greek goods and products. The Romans grew so powerful, however, that they could make and break states. Delos was, for a while, the key clearinghouse for goods going from east to west. Rhodes, too, was influential until the Romans fell out with it. Similarly, the destinations of caravans from the East could be determined by politics and warfare in Syria and Asia Minor. Ports could rise and fall on the outcome of a battle.

Finally, you might have wondered where the idea for the Sarmatian verses Dacian bash a few weeks ago came from.  It was, in fact, from this book where, the author notes, the Roman governor of Macedonia had constant problems in defending the province from marauding tribes from the north in the First Century BC. I happen to know that this was also the case in the First Century AD. Both Julius Caesar and Trajan planned expeditions into Dacia, the latter, of course succeeding. The problem was then, of course, that Dacia had to be defended from those tribes beyond its frontier, and so the Imperial game went on.

There are also other interesting snippets. I mean, wouldn’t you be interested to know that blown glass first appeared in the First Century BC, probably having been invented in Syria. This has, admittedly, limited wargaming interest, but it is something more widely interesting than most wargame speak, and might suggest to non-wargaming friends and family that we are not totally weird and can hold a normal conversation from time to time.

I am not sufficiently well up in the demise of the Hellenistic world to know whether Rostovtzeff’s claim that the Eastern Empires went down after almost constant wars in the second and first centuries. The lands (and most of the economy relied upon agriculture) were devastated and exhausted. Some parts of Greece were depopulated and the peasantry everywhere was demoralised. The last fights against Roman hegemony destroyed any vestiges of independent states or democratically run cities. Writing presumably in the 1930s, having experienced the First World War and its aftermath, the linkage between economic devastation, loss of democracy in any form, and warfare must have been very clear.

The plus side of the Pax Romana, of course, is that an imposed peace is better than no peace at all. The economy can recover if people are willing to put some work in, and that they can be reasonably assured that such work will be rewarded. Whether such circumstances really prevailed in the Roman world is a whole different subject. Rostovtzeff did, in fact, write an economic and social history of the Roman World (in but two volumes) but I have not read it. Perhaps when I retire.

Saturday 14 March 2020

Post Truth Historical Wargaming

In February’s History Today, Suzannah Lipscomb wonders how we can study history in a world where post-truth politics poses an ‘existential threat’ to the study of the past. The public sphere, politics, the media, social media and so on seems to be perfectly comfortable with being lied to, knowing about it and not caring. ‘Alternative facts’, misinformation, barefaced denial of the evidence and avoidance of scrutiny all contribute to a world where it seems often that the politician with the biggest lie wins.

If this becomes the norm (and some people would say it already has) then history is in trouble. If everything becomes subjective, then only my own experience can count for anything and the search for objective truth in history is made impossible. Hence, because I have not experienced, say, Auschwitz, I can deny it happened, its importance and its relevance. Where facts are not counted and there is no standard of truth, then anything will go.

If there is no truth, Lipscomb argues, then there is no such thing as a lie. Postmodernism may well have taught us that objective truth is hard, even impossible, to reach because we are only human, but the extension of that to the claim that there is no truth at all is fallacious and harmful. We can know something about what is true, and, I think, plenty about what is not true. Nevertheless, the indifference, or worse, to the truth is harmful, nihilistic and leaves us with a whole bunch of narcissists as politicians and public intellectuals.

As it happens, I am not quite as apocalyptic on this as Lipscomb is. Truth still matters in many spheres of life. Politics might have moved on from being truthful, but medicine, for example, has not. Few people would want the answer to the question “Doctor, what is wrong with me?” to be “What would you like it to be?” Few businesses would thrive if the customer decided what they were willing to pay. There would be many more road traffic accidents if each individual decided which side of the road they were going to drive on.

Nevertheless, truth is in trouble, and historical truth perhaps particularly so. In the editorial in the same issue of History Today, the decline of interest in history is lamented. The problem is, of course, that if we as a society do not know how we got to where we are today, then we are at the mercy of people who are willing to make it up. George Orwell was alarmingly close to the modern condition when he wrote ‘He who controls the past controls the present; he who controls the present controls the future.’ You will recall, I am sure, that in 1984, the past is entirely re-written.

If historical truth is in trouble, is historical wargaming? Sometimes the decline of the hobby is lamented, with fewer youngsters joining in. The overall decline of interest in military history is probably not helping this, although I believe that books on the World Wars sell particularly well, especially anything on Hitler’s Germany (which in itself is a bit worrying).

I think historical wargaming can, possibly, help. After all, wargamers are used to drawing the distinction between what is true, historically, and what is not. I can (and did) set up a representation of the Battle of Seminaria, but I know that my representation of it is not like the battle itself, except in a few particulars. Given that I know that, that I am aware that some stuff has to be invented to get the battle onto the table at all, then I can work with both the historical objective facts, so far as they are known, and with the representations, in rules and models and game, of a non-objective set of events.

This possibly sounds a bit like Phil Sabin’s ideas of wargaming historical battles to see what range of outcomes might be reasonable. This idea struggles, it seems, to gain traction in academic history, possibly because not many professional historians like military history and because a lot of modelling and a lot of assumptions have to be made in order for a simulation to be produced. The more assumptions you have to make, the further from objective fact you probably are.

Despite this, historical wargaming can attract people towards history. As someone once said to me, on finding out that I am a wargamer, there is a pageant of history to engage with, the colour, the valour and so on. All right, some parts of history, particularly military history, are squalid, gruesome and downright nasty, but at the same time, there is the acknowledgement that these events did happen. It is an objective fact, for example, that a pike was a long, pointy stick used for warding off cavalry and stabbing people (or at least, threatening to stab people) with.

The historian C. V. Wedgewood once published a book of essays entitled ‘History and Hope’. It has been years since I read it, but as I recall, the basic idea was that reading history can enable us to see that progress, real progress in the lives of ordinary people, is possible. Examining history, with all its difficulties and flaws, can encourage us to persevere in otherwise unpromising circumstances. Human life expectancy has risen over the last hundred years or so because of basic improvements in people’s lives: sanitation, clean water supply, decent housing, and education. Medical advances, such as antibiotics do, of course, help, but they are not, so far as I know, the determining factor. The rise of tuberculosis in the Western World should be a source of embarrassment to us all.

So if history can be hopeful, so can historical wargaming. The key idea is, I suppose, that battles are dramatic, and drama is interesting. Presenting the drama of history to the public, even via blogs and games, enables that drama to exist in the public sphere. And within the wargame, of course, there is often a kernel of objective, historical truth.

Saturday 7 March 2020

The Game Fights Back

‘Are you out of your mind?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean – look at it. This deployment. I would never do that. I’m not sending my men to suicide.’

‘I’m the boss; you are a six-millimetre general. You will do as I say.’


‘You don’t have a lot of choice.’

‘I agree with him!’

‘Don’t you think you should keep out of this, Don Carlos?’

‘No. Have you seen the deployment you have foisted on me?’

‘Of course, I set your troops out, remember. And got you out of the box too.’

‘But look at it. My main strike force is the cavalry and you’ve deployed them at the back of the right flank, behind the infantry. And my left flank is in the air. I think you are mad.’

‘I am the wargamer, you are model generals. You will do as I say.’

‘But you are asking me to send my men up narrow lanes lined with hedges into a hail of fire. There are much better deployments than this. There is a socking great hill over there, just right for the artillery. Can’t we….?’

‘It is no good, James. He has deployed and you know he can be obstinate. I’ll tell you what, what happens in this battle does not count, OK? We’ll just go through the motions and then forget about it. Maybe he’ll learn.’

‘And maybe he won’t. He’s not given us enough room to manoeuvre, you know.’

‘Look, throughout history generals have not been given enough room to deploy just as they wanted…’

‘But here there is sufficient room. You have just ignored it, you wargamer numpty.’

‘Can we get on with the game now?’

‘We both wish to register our protests.’

‘All right, all right. Noted. Now let me start rolling the dice….’


I do not know if this has happened to anyone else. I am, of course, referring to the Battle of the Friarage, in Northallerton, part of the Armada Abbeys campaign. The Scots are advancing south to hopefully force Don Carlos’ Spanish out of the town. I set the terrain up, and thought it was very nice, and deployed the armies. Something seemed a bit wrong, but I over-rode the quibbles and set to. But that something niggled away at me, and eventually I abandoned the battle. The dialogue above suggests at least one of the problems (although I do not, in real life as opposed to the blogosphere, argue with my toy soldiers. Not yet, anyway.)

My usual approach to such quibbles is to declare what happens on the table stays on the table. That is, even if I change the wargame rules, decide that I did something wrong in the execution of the game, or that it was the wrong game, the result still stands. But there was something else here, and I am not sure what it was.

The picture shows a drone’s eye view of the field and initial deployments. The Scots are at the bottom of the picture, cavalry and gun to the left, infantry in the centre and light cavalry to the right. The Spanish are of course at the top, infantry at the front and, as Don Carlos noted, cavalry behind them on their right. The Spanish skirmishers are to the left.

Northallerton Castle is at the top right and the road to the right of the picture loops around Mount Pleasant, a bit of a hill. The stream is fordable. The ecclesiastical edifice to the left of Northallerton is the Friarage, while the one in town is All Souls. The Scots are Baccus figures, the Spanish are Irregular, as are the trees. The castle is, I think, from the long-defunct Village Green, some of the buildings from Baccus’ long-defunct resin range, the rest from Leven.

As I said, I looked at the deployment of both sides and did not like it. But, ignoring the advice of my generals, I ploughed on. The Spanish redeployed their right-hand infantry through Northallerton to the left. The Scots advanced up the ‘tunnels’ made by the hedges. The Scottish lights made short work of the Spanish foot skirmishers but, while they kept hitting the light horse, they inflicted little damage, even refusing the charge them when they were shaken and outnumbered.

By the time contact was made I was really unhappy with the game. Neither side was particularly winning, although the Spanish cavalry was looking menacing for the Scots horse and gun. A lot would depend on who won the tempo in the next turn or two, and whether the Scottish artillery could disrupt the Spanish cavalry.

By this time I more or less gave up and admitted that I had messed up the deployment for both sides. I tried to justify myself by arguing that in real life mis-deployments were quite frequent and that soldiers just had to get on with it. But to no avail. I had lost heart. The lack of narrative for the start of the battle and the poor deployment by an addled wargamer had spoilt the whole thing. I decided I had to break my cardinal rule, and stop the battle. I debated whether to allow King James to withdraw with dignity, but he spluttered a bit into his beard while Don Carlos shrugged in that expressive way that only our Latin cousins can manage.

Back into the box went the troops. To be fair, I kept them in their deployment rather than storage boxes (I have a system where, because these troops come from ECW, Italian Wars and the Scottish ECW boxes, I assemble the armies beforehand in an otherwise empty box). I debated whether to leave the terrain set up; as I noted before, I quite liked that aspect, but common sense prevailed and it, too was cleared away. Ho-hum.

So, the game, or my lack of perceptive deployment, rather spoiled everything. Is it just me, or is this a common experience?