Saturday 13 June 2020

Two Book Challenge

Doing the rounds a bit is a challenge to name the two books, one fiction and one non-fiction that have informed your wargaming the most. As the reader might be aware, I’m not great at reading fiction, but I can certainly go with the non-fiction part of the challenge. Further refinements have been to describe three books, and to do two books from different periods. As someone who wargames in two disparate periods, I’ll go for the latter.

The first set of books is for the early modern period and the first of those is the grandfather of them all:

Oman, C. W. C. (1937) A History of the Art of War in the Sixteenth Century, Greenhill, London.

Oman, of course, gets widely criticised by more modern military history and by some amateurs (guilty as charged) but you really cannot ignore him. He did do the leg work, he read the sources, he constructed narratives and tells us what happened. Yes, his work might be a bit ‘drums and trumpets’. Yes, he was a Victorian with Whiggish historical views that progress was a good thing. But if you want to know what happened tactically you need to start with Oman.

Oman does, of course, get picked up on some of the detail. This is rather inevitable in the seventy-odd years since he wrote. As I noted a few weeks ago he misses the importance of the Spanish Reconquista. He is also a bit dismissive of Machiavelli’s views of the utility of gunpowder (hence the idea of the Whig view of history – Oman was actually a Conservative MP 1919 – 1935, but I don’t think that affects his views of progress). Perhaps a bigger fault is that he does not seem to think that anything very interesting was going on in Elizabethan England, at least militarily. While he discusses the decline of the longbow and assorted Elizabethan expeditions abroad, he relegates the Irish wars to a series of distressing incidents and seems to think that Elizabeth, had she wished to, could have raised and maintained a standing army.

As noted, Oman gets rather widely criticised, and some historians wonder why he is still in print and still read. This is usually dismissed as being the military history reading public only being interested in battles and campaigns, and there might be some degree of truth in that. However, there is also the possibility that no-one since Oman has even tried a synthesis of the breadth of his work and elegance of his writing. Things have changed, yes, interests have changed and the methods of analysis have evolved. We might be more interested now in what the composition of an army tells us about government, society, finance and so on. But armies are designed to fight and only be examining how they fought can some of the other elements be brought into close relationship.

The second book for the early modern period has to be this one:

Parker, G. (1988) The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500 - 1800, Cambridge, CUP.

Again, this is a book of wide (global) scope here and has created a great deal of argument and genteel controversy since it was first published. A rarity among history books it ran quite quickly to a second edition. The work re-ignited the whole set of arguments about how western nations came to rule the world, in particular, how the largely ignorable, squabbling counties of the far west of the Eurasian continent suddenly (well, over the course of three centuries) stood on the brink of global empires.

Parker’s thesis, that the expansion of the west was due to efficient gunpowder weapon usage, particularly on board ships, and the trace italienne fortifications enabling small forces equipped with cannons to stand siege by large forces with less sophisticated weaponry has been widely criticised. If you put such a thesis out there, you expect such. I am not sure that it has been refuted except in detail. Naturally in a work of such scope details escape the author. Like Oman, as I noted a while ago, Parker rather neglects the development of siege tactics under the Catholic Monarchs in Spain. Questions also arise, in my mind at least, as to how the Portuguese and Spanish navies managed to rule the world and then, in popular history at least, go down so easily to the English (and mostly the Dutch) at the end of the Sixteenth and into the Seventeenth Centuries.

The idea of the military revolution in early modern Europe was not original to Parker, but he did change the terms of the debate and made it ‘mainstream’. The implications of his ideas are large for the concepts of state formation in the period. The new fortifications were expensive, requiring deep pockets to build and maintain. To garrison and besiege them required ever-larger armies and these too were more expensive. The rulers, therefore, needed to control their populations more closely and tax them more heavily. The consequence of this was that the modern state, with all its bureaucracy, came into being, and parts of the world, such as the Ottoman and Mughal spheres, along with China and Africa, which did not go along this trajectory, were ripe for colonisation in the Nineteenth Century.

Of course, there are a number of books which should also be read by the aspiring early modern wargamer. I have managed to avoid anything on the English Civil War, which got me into ‘serious’ wargaming. There are regional studies as well, some of which I have discussed on the blog. Following on from Parker, the essays in

Rogers, C. J. ed. (1995) The Military Revolution Debate: Readings on the Military Transformation of Early Modern Europe, Oxford, Westview.

move the discussion along. Parker’s recent work:

Parker, G. (2013) Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century, Yale, Yale University Press.

is excellent and depressing but lacks the military detail most wargamers crave.

Still, I have probably said enough so far. I might get around to the ancients sometime soon.


  1. Very interesting post. I've never read either. Maybe I should. I would struggle to pick a single book (or even two), fact or fiction that have informed my wargaming. Too many to choose from.

    1. Oh, indeed. But it is a bit like desert Island Discs - part of the fun is trying to whittle down the list of must haves to an acceptable number.

    2. Ah! I’ll have to imagine preparing to sit with Lauren Laverne.

    3. I wonder if anyone ever chose some dice and wargame figures for their luxury.

  2. Thanks, good stuff. I had a go at this, too - it was a suggestion from Alan aka Tradgardmastare.
    The Oman is a future 'retirement project' for me, I think!

    1. I knew I picked it up from somewhere. Oman is an easy read and as he is mainly narrative, you can pick him up and read a paragraph or two and then come back later.

  3. I have read both of them - both brilliant books. Oman is still a must read because no-one has written an equivalent book in scope and depth: I think a sufficiently polyglot historian could manage it since there is better access to wider source material now. As you mentioned in an a previous post, there is much to re-assess in Parker but his basic point seems to stand.

    1. Agreed on Oman. But it is not the sort of historiography that will win you many prizes (or professorships in the academy) these days, and that why it isn't done, I think.

      Parker is provocative (and meant to be). It is hard to undermine his basic thesis but his position on the basic trajectory of colonialism might be a bit iffy - the Europeans were after loot and trade rather than settlement, in the main (possibly the Spanish are an exception). Whether trade, setting up of factories, defending them and so on mean eventually getting involved in local politics and wars is a bit of a moot point.