Saturday 25 April 2020

Six Armies in Korea

 ‘You know, we can’t just sit around enjoying ourselves all the time, Clemmy.’

‘Can't we?’

‘No. I’m sure it says in the warrior code somewhere that we can’t.’

‘Oh. Then what shall we do?’

‘We could fight each other.’

‘I think the Shogun would be a bit unimpressed by that. After all, he threatened to decapitate anyone who drew a sword in anger in the land.’

‘It wouldn’t be in anger, more sort of out of boredom.’

‘I’m not sure the Shogun will be willing to take the time to listen to the differences. I value having my head and shoulders connected, even if bored.’

‘Hm. Then it will have to be somewhere else. Maybe we should join the invasion force.’

‘Yes, but that would mean we had to take orders from Tango. I don’t trust him, and he doesn’t like us.’

‘Maybe we could officially unofficially join in.’


‘I mean say we’ll help and then do a bit of invading on our own. I know, we could ask Mandy to join us. He’s got some cavalry.’

‘You mean the three of us just go and invade Korea, like, on our own?’

‘Yes. I know. We can land at Eppeid. There’s a good beach there.’

‘What if there are defenders?’

Satsuma pursed his lips. ‘I know. You land directly at Eppeid. Mandy will land north of the town and I’ll land south of it. I think the ground to the north is best for cavalry. Then if you run into trouble we’ll come and help, and so on. Deal?’



I have just finished painting two DoJos from Leven Miniatures. They are, in fact, the last relics from my Christmas buildings box, and so I’m rather pleased with the lightning speed of my progress. Thus a campaign was born, or rather a return to a campaign I ran probably over 20 years ago, with three Japanese Samurai armies invading Korea, which eventually received reinforcements from Ming China and the Manchu. Thus the six armies are that of Satsuma, Mandarin and Clementine on one side, with the Koreans, Ming and Manchu on the other. Dice and prejudice will, of course, decide what happens this time – the original used a map but these days, I can’t be bothered.

The battlefield was diced for, except for the sea, beach and port, of course, and came up looking like this.

The Korean defenders rolled quite well for their alertness before the invasion, so are deployed, arquebusiers and spears to their right, archers to their left, both backed up by cavalry. They also deployed a rocket unit, on the jetty of the harbour. The general is lurking behind the town.

The buildings are a mixture of old Hovels card, Timecast and Leven, including centre back a DoJo. The jetty and orchard trees are by Irregular, and the rocky outcrops are Leven, again from the Christmas buildings box.

The Japanese arrival was dice controlled, but they landed up with a fairly even distribution across the board. The situation just before they hit the beach was as follows:

The first wave, of course, consisted of the Samurai, although it can be seen that the rockets are taking a toll on the boats nearest to them. The Korean cavalry is moving up, as well. I decided to fight them on the beaches.

The fighting on the Japanese right was confused, as they say. The cavalry hit one of the newly landed Samurai bases and routed it. The other bases, including the general, hit the Korean bows and routed two bases of them before the Korean cavalry returned and destroyed another Samurai base. On the other flank, there was a long standoff between a Samurai base and the massed gunpowder weapons of the Koreans, and a lengthy struggle between two Samurai and the Korean cavalry on that flank. The rockets, meanwhile, kept on chipping away at the Japanese floating assets, taking out two bases and their embarked troops. The left flank Korean cavalry accounted for another boat.

The end came rather messily for both sides. The left hand Samurai base saw off its cavalry opposition, while the arquebusiers finally destroyed their opposition. The second wave of the Japanese invaders staggered to the beach, landing two bases on the right and one on the left. The rightmost ashigaru were immediately destroyed by the Korean cavalry while the arquebusiers opened fire and then headed for the cover of the town. At this point the Japanese morale went to ‘withdraw’, and I stopped the game.

The Samurai bases proved themselves to be tough, really tough: plus four in combat plus an extra one for being elite. However, the army as a whole suffered from incoherence in arrival, lack of cavalry to counter the Korean mounted, and that rocket launcher which caused considerable damage to the invasion boats. As the picture shows, the only refuge for the remaining Japanese forces is the town, where they will benefit from cover and be safe from the Korean cavalry. I now have to work out what happens next.


‘Sir! Sir!’

‘This had better be important. I’m still changing my socks.’

‘I have news from Clementine, sir.’

‘Ah, excellent. He must have taken the port. We shall dine on fine fish this evening.’

‘Um, not exactly, my lord.’

‘What do you mean, “not exactly”?’

‘Well, my lord, Clementine and his army are sort of in the town…’

‘What do you mean, ‘sort of’? Either they are in the town or they are not. Which is it.’

‘Some of them are, my lord and some are, um, elsewhere. There was a Korean army defending the port. Lord Clementine and his remaining men are in the port, expecting your aid, sir.’

‘A Korean army beat Clementine?’

‘He says it was bad luck, sir. The Korean cavalry caught his men on the beach and they had some infernal war machine to sink his boats with.’

‘Excuses, excuses. Oh well, order the men to march. We’d better go and rescue him.’

Saturday 18 April 2020

Skiing Off Piste

One of the things I have, from time to time, tried to do here is to suggest that historical wargaming, as a hobby, is partly formed by history, particularly that amateur kind of reading books and pontificating about battles, campaigns and personalities. Few wargamers, I would warrant, would fail to have an opinion bout General Patton, or The Hundred Days, or how Alexander conquered the world. I may have even mentioned one or two of these topics here.

Nevertheless, a bit of reading of secondary sources, maybe watching a documentary or two or, in cases of accessible battlefields, a potter around a few non-descript fields and a visitor centre usually constitutes what passes for research in the wargame world. I can only surmise, from the mountains of Osprey and similar sorts of books that are now available that either publishing military history is a lot more popular than it used to be, or a lot cheaper. I have, after all, reviewed a few books on obscure topics here myself.

Historical wargaming, however, is not disjoint from other bits of history. Obviously, at least according to some, war is the development of politics ‘by other means’. Armies, as the ‘new’ military history observes, reflect the societies from which they spring and to which they are accountable. What is going on in a society, what people do, what their outlook on life and the world is, matters to an army.

I have, recently, started a new sort of project. It is not really aimed at anything in particular, and is not, probably, going to emerge either into the light of day (except, perhaps, here) or, likely be the subject of my next army. It is a bit far off my track for that. Nevertheless, I hope it might engage someone who is thinking a bit more deeply about how the past might have worked.

The starting point of the project was, as many such things are, a fairly simple question: what was the ‘Harrying of the North’ and what effect did it have, I suppose, specifically, on the North Riding of Yorkshire? I imagine that most reader will know what the harrying was – the destruction by William (the First / the Conqueror / the Bastard) of rebellion in the northern parts of the kingdom in 1069/70. Conventional historiography points to a level of devastation of the land that caused a great deal of depopulation, famine and general mayhem.

The first thing to do, of course, in a project of this nature, is to try to grasp the narrative flow of history. A problem with much contemporary academic history is that it ignores, or assumes knowledge of, the story. Popular history is much better – the writers of popular histories (and even semi-academic histories) tend to be much more aware that ordinary people, those without academic pretensions or without specialist knowledge, need a narrative to hang stuff on.

Fortunately, the trusty Postscript books catalogue arrived at about the time of pondering, and yielded up its goodies in a few days. Specifically, I got my hands on:

Cole, T., The Norman Conquest: William the Conqueror's Subjugation of England (Stroud: Amberley, 2016).

As I mentioned, this is not a particularly academic book, but it is reasonably recent and it tells a narrative of how the events unfolded.  It does a great deal more than that, in fact, unravelling the story back to the 950’s and pushing it through to the death of William (the Conqueror / Bastard / I – take your pick) in 1087.

Now I happen to be aware that there is some revisionism around regarding the Harrying of the North, and I was interested in how Cole handled it. Something over twenty years ago the destruction of the northern counties, specifically North Yorkshire and Durham, was questioned in academic historiography. Before that, so far as I know, people had taken the chroniclers who said that there was no-one living between York and Durham and the Domesday Book’s assertions that may manors were ‘waste’ pretty well at face value.

William’s problem in 1069 was that York kept being attacked by ‘rebels’ supported by Danish fleets. The Danes lurked in north Lincolnshire and the rebels in Holderness, apparently out of William’s reach. He negotiated the disappearance of the Danish fleet, possibly by using a large bribe and then set about destroying the north. Cole quotes Vegetius that destroying the enemy by famine, raids and terror was better than by battle and argues that this is what Bill the Bastard did. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Oderic Vitalis the whole region was devastated, stores of food and farming implements destroyed and famine set in (Cole p. 210-1). Seventeen years later whole areas of the north were either excluded from Domesday totally (Northumberland and Durham) or had large areas recorded as waste.

That is the ‘traditional’ historiographic story, but as ever, there are some doubts when the details are examined. For example, some parts of the North Riding of Yorkshire are not waste in Domesday, and actually have a higher taxable value than in the reign of Edward. Further, exactly what Domesday means by ‘waste’ is disputed; it could simply mean ‘not taxed’. County Durham and Northumberland were, possibly, outwith William’s domain at the time as well – the ownership of those counties could well have been with the Scottish crown, and was disputed for the next few hundred years. Further, detailed work on churches in the North Riding suggests that stonework was introduced at them in the eleventh century, which is not something areas of a destitute waste would be doing – stone working is expensive.

As a final thought, exactly how much damage could a smallish medieval army do in a month or two in an unknown country? Medieval armies were, of course, well known for doing the destruction thing, but villages a mile or two off the road, down obscure tracks or in dark woods or on moorland would be more likely to escape devastation. Further, some of the lands had been gifted to William’s companions. Would they really want their lands destroyed? Even if they did not know where they were, they might have looked a bit huffily at the reduction of income.

And anyway, how long of relative peace does it take for a medieval society to recover from the passage of a hostile army? Is seventeen years long enough? Breaking ploughs is one thing, but surely a medieval plough doesn’t take that long to make.

Saturday 11 April 2020

Inglorious Bastards

One of the oddities of the contemporary world is the obsession, in some parts of society at least, with Nazi Germany. We can hardly peruse a TV guide without falling across something which is related to the Second World War, its precursors and consequences. This can be, of course, either fictional or documentary (or, in some cases, of course, both). Given that the whole ghastly affair was nearly 75 years ago, it seems that the appetite for it is as strong, if not stronger, than ever.

In the March 2020 issue of History Today, four historians give their views as to why the obsession with Nazi Germany is still so intense. Perhaps the one most relevant to wargaming is the last, by Martyn Rady, whose view, so far as I can paraphrase and summarise it is that the Nazi had the best toys (six engine aircraft, the V2, the Tiger tank) and the best uniforms. He recounts an anecdote by British humourist Arthur Marshall who took the surrender of four German officers on a yacht at Flensburg on the Baltic. They were immaculately turned out and looked at Marshall, thinking ‘Whatever is this riff-raff? What went wrong? How could we have lost the war?’

Another point Rady makes is that the idea that education makes people better is subverted by the Nazis. Between 20 and 25 per cent of the most committed Nazis (SS, SD, Death’s Head units – I’m not sure what the latter were, but that is just my ignorance of the period) had PhDs from ancient German universities. They were ‘super-educated, elegantly attired mass murderers’. How this came about in a nation that produced such cultural achievements as Germany did is a mystery. After all, as Roger Moorhouse observes in another of the articles, Germany was a nation of ‘thinkers and poets’, and the Weimar Republic had 16 Nobel prizes to its name.

Given the traumatic events of the 1930s and 1940s in the world, I suppose it is reasonably explainable why there is a strong cultural memory of it, and possibly also why there are such a large quantity of representations around. Nevertheless, some parts of society take the interest to the point of obsession and, it has to be said, wargaming is part of the said obsession. I am told that sales of World War Two wargame figures is scarily healthy, and a glance around my local show suggested that the subject is as popular as ever, with approximately half of the display games being related to the subject.

I do not want to go on a rant that we shouldn’t wargame World War Two. I have indicated before, quite a while ago, that I am not sure that as a subject it is particularly wargamable (if that is a word) due to problems of scale. I can also happily concede that World War Two should be kept in the memory as an awful set of events. Too often the subject of Nazi Germany and its crimes get hijacked by political extremists for their own purposes.

Some contemporary politics works in the other direction. Elizabeth Harvey’s piece on the subject notes that the endless round of VE and VJ day celebrations, along with anniversaries of D-Day and so on cement in our minds the days when Britain faced tyranny alone, united, undaunted and fearless. As she notes this can get used to justify modern political stances, such as the dreaded B**xit. It is not, I suspect, the case only in Britain. I have not been to the United States for a while, but I do suspect that the years of the later Second World War and early Cold War are looked back upon, and possibly appropriated by some populist politicians as a golden age when America was great.

All this is a rather long way from representing World War Two on a tabletop, I concede. But action such as a wargame can carry a certain amount of cultural and conceptual meaning. By wargaming, say, a Nazi SS division, are we condoning the behaviour thereof? I hope that none of the participants in such a game would be trying to do so, but it might leave us feeling just a little uncomfortable.

If a little ethical discomfort does arise from a World War Two game, I think that is probably a good thing. One of the problems Harvey notes is that Nazi propaganda, even today, has an alarming power over our imaginations. Nazi staged spectacles from the 1930s, or even some of the ‘authentic’ war footage is framed and presented very carefully, and we often buy into it. This works both ways, of course – as the Nazis as being the embodiment of evil, as ‘fanaticised robots in uniform’ or as the purveyors of the greatest troops and tactics of the middle Twentieth Century. Neither viewpoint is, of course, entirely correct, but recognising that should enable us to think more critically about the nature of the Nazi regime, the ways it has been represented and the way which we represent it on the tabletop.

Does this matter? Well, given the normal impact of wargaming on the wider world, I think we can probably say ‘no’. But as part of a cultural wave, an element of the obsession with the Nazis and World War Two, I suspect it might matter a little bit. After all, if we, as wargamers, are part of the book-buying public which ensures that every volume regarding Nazi Germany becomes, if not an absolute bestseller then at least has sufficiently solid sales to encourage publishers to bring another such tome to the shops, then we are part of the problem.

The problem is not remembering the past, but the uses to which the past is put. As a highly-charged cultural event, the Second World War still matters. Therefore how we represent the sides on a wargame table still matters. Cries of ‘it is only a game’ are, in my view anyway, rather insufficient. Even arguments of historical accuracy are subject to question – the viewpoint that the SS were superb soldiers should be questioned, in the same way that the effectiveness of Napoleon’s Old Guard should be.

The problem here is, of course, the wargamer’s obsession with ‘Ooooh! Shiny!’ How many of you thought when the Messerschmidt Gigant was mentioned earlier ‘I wonder what that would look like as a model?’, or pondered, however briefly, what a squadron of Tigers could do on the table?

Harvey finishes her essay by advising us to reaffirm our commitment to the words of a fine modern ethicist, Indiana Jones: ‘Nazis. I hate these guys.’ How do we do that in a wargame?

Saturday 4 April 2020

The Relief of Castillo Al-Hambra

To His Majesty Ferdinand of Aragon, Commander of the joint Army of Castile and Aragon,


We offer you our greetings and congratulations after your victory, under God, over the foes obstructing your path to our rescue. After your success, sire, the enemy have intensified their efforts against us, and have now built an infernal war machine or trebuchet against our walls. Our Christian hearts are stout, sire, but we doubt the masonry will hold much longer. We are in desperate need of your assistance.

Don Miguel de Condado de Huelva

‘There is no rest for the wicked, is there?’

‘No, sire.’

‘I mean we won the battle, didn’t we?’

‘Yes, sire.’

‘But they haven’t given up, have they?’

‘No, sire.’

‘Not even a little light entertainment on the side.’

‘The Queen’s orders were most direct and explicit, sire. You were offered an amusement of martial airs.’

‘Hardly an amusement, is it? I need to be distracted, not reminded that I’m in the middle of a campaign.’

‘Some of your illustrious forebears, sire, relished the prospect of martial activity and manly prowess.’

‘I prefer to display my manly prowess in other arenas.’

‘The Queen’s orders were most direct and explicit, sire.’

‘I know, I know, order the army to march on at dawn.’


In my terms, the Castilian army was permitted but moments (i.e. a few weeks) respite before the next instalment of the Reconquista got moving. The Spanish Moors (Nasrids – nomenclature is difficult as both sides were Spanish) were still besieging the castle, and so Ferdinand had to get his army moving again. The Nasrids were not particularly keen on carrying on the siege of Castilo Al-Hambra, but as I have now finished painting some siege equipment, I did not let that stop me.

The Nasrid lines are here, together with their deployment against the Castilian attack.

The Nasrid plan was to envelop the Castilian column with skirmishers, hence the horseshoe deployment. As siege equipment, you can see the trebuchet and two catapults in the lines, and a depleted force of besiegers in the trenches and protecting the equipment.

The Castilians appeared in their corner, with only a little space to deploy. Ferdinand’s plan was to mask off the Moorish wings with his own skirmishers and smash through the centre with his gendarmes, backed up by the bulk of his infantry.

This picture shows a gratuitous close up of the trebuchet, which is a big beast, and you can see why the garrison was perturbed by its presence. Many of the troops and the siege equipment are by Irregular, the rest is Baccus except for a base of Heroics and Ros crossbowmen. The buildings I am not entirely sure about, I think some are Timecast and the others are Irregular.

It has to be admitted that Ferdinand has the hallmark of a great commander, at least according to Napoleon. He got (again) lucky. An alternative way of viewing this was that the Nasrid dice rolling, when it really mattered, was appalling. Ferdinand’s plan worked sort of smoothly. The initial contacts on the wings were sufficient to nullify any impact from the skirmishers on the advance. The charge of the gendarmes was disunited. Only one base struck home, but then the Nasrid dice gremlin kicked in and the contacted crossbowmen were routed. Not only that but the Nasrids managed to roll -5 on the morale dice, which meant that all their advancing reinforcements from the siege lines halted as the army wavered. The next base of gendarmes then struck the Nasrid spearmen and blew them away too, while the pursuit of the initial base led it to contact the trebuchet and crew and overrun that.

Ferdinand even had sufficient tempo points at this time to signal to the garrison to sally, while the Nasrids threw a further -4 on their morale to hit rout. I told you their hearts were not in it any more.

The final position is above. The Nasrid centre has been blown open by the gendarmes, who can be seen careering around in their centre and rear. The garrison is emerging from the castle and the Castilian infantry are about to start mopping up the remains – they have not even deployed in extended order as yet.

It was quite an entertaining battle. I am still working on the balance of shooting combat outcomes, having reverted to the original ones. I think they work better, although they might make shooting a little more deadly than it was. On the other hand, it does give skirmishers a reason to exist on the wargame table. Another issue raised is that of heavy cavalry charging infantry, which they can do from outside infantry firearms range. Part of me wants to say this is fine; part of me wants to give the infantry shooters a chance. But that chance could be in the tempo bidding and also in the concept of close combat which includes shooting at close range.

Or, maybe, I need a lie-down and an opportunity to stop overthinking things.


‘An army whose main tactics are ambush and skirmishing is always going to struggle defending a fixed position, sire.’

‘Are you trying to denigrate our victory?’

‘No sire, but there is here a new letter from the Queen.’

‘Oh. What does it says.’

‘Um. Much of it is highly personal, sire. Perhaps you should read it in private.’

‘Just read out the public bits.’

‘Yes, sire. Um…. “Ferdinand, I desire you….”’

‘Are you sure this isn’t a personal bit?’

‘Yes, sire. “I desire you to proceed with all alacrity to the town of Al-Hambra. After your success at the castle, the town must lie within your grasp. The demoralised enemy, having fled from you twice now, will do so again and the town will be ours. I will despatch with all due alacrity our siege train to aid you in this task. Should the enemy prove to be stubborn, I will come myself to the camp to encourage you, and reward you in the only way a dutiful wife can….” Um. It gets a bit personal again after that, sire.’

‘So now we have to go on and capture the town?’

‘Yes, sire.’

‘And still no entertainment?’

‘Not until the Queen arrives, sire.’