Saturday 29 August 2020

Otranto: The Battle


I mentioned before having an underemployed Ottoman army, so what better opportunity could I have to deploy it than a go at Otranto, as described a post or two ago. The lack of detail as to what happened was not going to deter me, of course. After all, I do have an ongoing Spanish Armada campaign based around the fleet landing near Whitby in North Yorkshire.

Not being one for too much historical research on what I have to admit is a bit of a side-line battle for me, I used the army lists from DBA for both the Ottoman side and the Neapolitans. They both came up looking a little odd to my mind – the Italians were gendarmes heavy while the Ottomans were azab light and only had one base of Janissaries, although the fact that a third of the army were light horse seemed reasonable.

Anyway, not having yet renovated my Renaissance galley fleets I decided that the Ottoman army would already have come ashore, and diced for their arrival side on the table. This meant that they arrived in a rather narrow pass between the sea and a stream and the walls of Otranto itself.

The photograph shows the peaceful scene. The Italian foot is within the walls of Otranto itself, while the Ottomans, doubtless cursing their scouts, approach from the gap between the stream and the sea. The relieving Neapolitan cavalry approach along the road to the right.

The buildings are Leven with I suspect some Timecast and Irregular, the troops (when you can see anyone) are my usual eclectic mix of Baccus, Irregular and, I think H&R. The walls of the enclosure in the foreground, and the fruit trees are Irregular.

Within the town are concealed three bases of crossbows and two of spears. The remaining Italian forces were five bases of gendarmes and a mounted crossbowman (and an artillery piece, on the end of the quay in Otranto. I know that Italian forces had largely concentrated on heavy cavalry in this period (because I have read Oman, like the good wargamer I am) but it does feel a bit odd.

Anyway, after a few moves everyone had arrived on the table.

The Ottoman plan was to get the light horse into action against the relieving column, while the sipahis back them up, and the following infantry and gun come through to block any sally from the town. Unfortunately, marching past the city walls, in crossbow range, has already started to disrupt the plan. While the light cavalry are unscathed, the sipahis have taken hits and are stalled in a rather embarrassing position, under fire but unable to respond.

A few moves later it has all gone rather pear-shaped for the Ottomans


While the sipahi have managed to get away from the walls, the cost has been the breaking of the Janissaries by concentrated crossbow fire from the city walls, and their rout has swept away the supporting azabs. The general messing about has cost a good deal of tempo, and so the gendarmes have had ample time to deploy and hatch a cunning plan against the akinji. The two bases of gendarmes lurking by the city walls are just about in charge distance of the line of light horse.

“And we’ll wrap it up there,” as someone says on an annoying TV advert. The charge of the flanking gendarmes has destroyed the akinji, the remnants of which are fleeing towards the camera. Along the way they have also accounted for a couple of bases of sipahi by crashing into their flanks while pursuing. The Italian infantry in the city were just about to sally forth to do battle with the infidel, but seeing the carnage before their doors and sensing a Christian victory, they decided to stay put and return to their cappuccinos.

Ottoman morale had, indeed, slumped to the lowest I recall seeing in one of my games – minus two on a zero to twelve scale. The heel of Italy had clearly been preserved.

After such a debacle, the honest wargamer has an inquest. Am I prejudiced against the Ottomans? I don’t think so – the terrain was, admittedly, against them but I did not expect the crossbow fire from the walls to be so effective. I did ponder the rights and wrongs of the routing Janissaries sweeping away their supports, but it does seem to me to be correct here. The fact that the sipahis were not properly deployed didn’t help either.

In the real life campaign the Neapolitans were heavily outnumbered and could only keep a watching brief on Otranto once the Ottomans had captured it, hoping, presumably, for something to turn up. That something did is not necessarily a tribute to their political leadership which struggled to raise much in the way of reinforcements. An organised army (or, possibly, navy) would probably have given the invaders a harder time.

So, was it a historical battle? Well, I have expressed doubts about more or less every aspect of it – the army lists, the accuracy of the landscape (I did not even Google Otranto), the Ottoman plans and, I suppose, I could further question the rules. It did not bear much resemblance to what I know about the history of the campaign. Admittedly, that is not much and it is quite likely that there is not much more to be known.

Still, it was an interesting action, if a bit of a minor and one sided one as it turned out. The best, I think, the Ottomans could have done was refuse to fight on that ground, but that was not really an option. The Ottomans are also, it seems to me, another example of an army that was usually in this time frame on the strategic offensive, but stood more frequently on the tactical defensive. Again, attempting to deploy to besiege a city is not really the time to be standing on the tactical defensive, at least, not until the army has deployed.

Saturday 22 August 2020

Hooray for Hussites

A long, long time ago, I can still remember, the way the army lists used to go….

I have finally (at least, very nearly) achieved a long held wargame ambition: to own a Hussite army. I suspect that many wargames might have a soft spot for the Hussites; they are, after all, a bunch of oddballs, an interesting anticipation of what came a lot later (e.g. the tank) and, of course, they were a bunch of peasants who seriously embarrassed the most powerful of states and rulers in Europe of the time.

I worked out recently why it was that I liked and would like to have this army. On my shelf downstairs in the snug / wargame room is a copy of George Gush’s Wargames Research Group Renaissance Rules Army Lists. While looking for something else (serendipity will out) I flipped it open and there, on the first page of the lists themselves, was a Hussite army. I bought these lists an awful long time ago. I have no idea where or when, but clearly the idea of the Hussites had never quite left me.

This happens to me from time to time. The last I remember it was a craving for armies of hoplites, assuaged a while ago by actually buying and painting a load thereof. This arose, so far as I recall, from two sources. The first was Charles Grant’s articles on the Battle of Marathon, which were in Military Modelling in the 1970s (I was extremely young at the time). The second was my first ‘real’ wargame figure, which was a 25 mm Spartan hoplite from, as I recall, a company called Asgard in Nottingham. 25 mm was way out of my budget at the time, of course, but it was a nice figure and I did paint him. He served sterling work for years as my role playing game player character figure, even though he really annoyed some of my fellow gamers by not having a weapon in his hand.

Anyway, having reacquainted myself with the idea of the Hussites, I scanned the web for books on the subject. When I last looked, fifteen years ago or more, there was very little about on the revolt or the battles. That situation has improved a little over the intervening years, but not hugely. Nevertheless, I am the owner of the Osprey on the subject and also

Verney, V., Warrior of God: Jan Zizka and the Hussite Revolution (London: Frontline, 2020).

This appears to be a 2020 reprint of a 2009 text.

I have also squirrelled through my other books. Oman has a chapter on the Hussites in his Art of War in the Middle Ages. He is not all that impressed by them, it has to be admitted, regarding them as having been lucky to be up against some rather poor commanders. It is true that the Emperor Sigismund was a far better politician than war leader, but nevertheless, you have to give Zizka some credit for finding a way for peasants to resist the charge of noble cavalry.

Oman, in fact, seems to regard the Hussite war wagon as a bit of a historical dead end. Perhaps so but, the Polish and others continued to use war wagons into the Seventeenth Century (at least). Duffy, in Siege Warfare reckons that the Muscovite gulyai-gorod might have been inspired by the Hussites (p. 171), although Oman suggests that the technology transfer was the other way.

Hall, in his Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe observes that the important thing about the Hussite war wagon laager was the density of fire available at threatened points. While Zizka recognised the usefulness of firearms, there were in fact three to four times more crossbows available in the mix (p. 112). There were also some cannon, and the whole thing seems to have resembled a small city, stoutly defended.

Of course, the main answer to the Hussites would have been either to use artillery to bombard the wagon fort until it fell apart, or not to attack it at all. Artillery was not that mobile at the time, and the fact is that the Hussites would have simply moved somewhere else before the bombards were in place. Politically, not attacking the rebel heretics was not an option either, whether or not the impetuosity of the noble classes would have really accepted it as an option. Ultimately, only Hussites could successfully fight Hussites.

The problem for the Hussites, as it was for the English in France in the later Hundred Years War, was that you have to have an enemy who is willing to attack you. Both the English armies and the Hussites were often on the strategic offensive but the classic victories of both relied on the charge of upper class knights determined to grind the faces of the peasants back into the mud where they belonged. The shock waves the defeats created across Europe were because the knights were not supposed to be defeated and killed by their social inferiors.

The problems come, of course, in trying to work out how to run wargames with these loonies. The Hussites, some of them at least, were religious fanatics; the background to the revolt is complicated and interesting and includes theological issues and nationalism. But the problem for a wargamer is to ensure that the enemy attacks, even though we sort of know what the outcome of a frontal assault on a wagon fort will be. How do we simulate the fact that the heavily armoured noble knight simply could not believe that the peasants were not just grist for his mill?

Hall reckons that the Hussite revolution and subsequent wars led to a great increase in the use of firearms in Germany, and this seems to have given a fillip to the gun trade in the south. Fear of the Hussites seems to have led to a proliferation of firearms and, presumably, gave a stimulus to the development of more effective small arms, which led to the development of the arquebus in the 1450s to 1470s.

Saturday 15 August 2020

Granddaddy Oman

I have commented before on the idea that in any scholarly community, there is a work which is the one everyone starts from. Last week I commented on Stenton’s work on Anglo-Saxon England. This week it is the turn of another ‘old school’ scholar, Sir Charles Oman.

I recently discussed, in fact, Oman’s ‘Art of War in the Sixteenth Century’, with the comment that despite complaints about it, no-one has actually managed to produce a work that replaces it, and so it is still in print, much to the chagrin of serious military historians who think that its ‘drums and trumpets’ approach gets them a bad reputation in the serious academic historian areas. It is quite likely that it does.

Still, I have recently read another of Oman’s tomes (or perhaps it is the other):

Oman, C. W. C., History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages (Uckfield: Naval and Military Press, 1924).

I managed to get this two-volume work for a decent price in the Naval and Military Press (for it is they who have published a facsimile) New Year sale, and have just about managed to finish reading it. Volume one is from 378 – 1278 AD, and Volume to covers 1278-1485. It is an interesting if slightly irritating read.

Firstly, the irritations are comparatively minor. Oman has a habit, probably widespread at the time, of referring to Muslim armies and commanders as ‘the infidel’. I am almost certain that this terminology would not be printable today, but it does suggest a certain mind-set. Again, Oman spends a great deal of time dealing with British and specifically English warfare. For a lot of the time English warfare, that is, warfare in England was neither terribly distinct from other European warfare nor terribly interesting. Of course, Edward III’s army did somewhat leap out the cupboard unexpectedly in France in the 1340s, but the arrow storm was hardly unprecedented.

So apart from the orientation to Christendom and being somewhat Anglo-centric, Oman does an interesting job. His major argument is that, in the art of war, the light horse archer was mainly dominant in the earlier part of the period. As a response to the invasion of Europe, the castle and other defences were created which blunted the effect of the lights, but also meant that the defence of fortifications became dominant over the offence, at least until effective gunpowder siege artillery came on the scene in the fifteenth century.

The other major theme running through the latter part of the period is, of course, the annoying habit of European knights of charging off in all directions. You can almost sense the author’s despair as another lot of Crusaders go down to feigned flight and overextension by the heavy cavalry. Even Richard I nearly suffered from it at Arsuf.

I mentioned before the problems I had in my rule sets of the interaction between foot and horse archers. This stems from a comment Oman makes to the effect that horse archers detest foot ones because they are outranged by them. This is, in fact, the lesson of Arsuf – the steady fire of the Crusader crossbowmen meant that the army could not be worn down by the horse archers, so Saladin had to commit the rest of the army before the Crusaders were demoralised and disorganised. That meant, of course, that the shock troops of the Crusaders got a decent crack at the Muslim (aka ‘infidel’) army.

I may have mentioned before the idea of reducing the ranges of the horse archers to bring them into range of any passing foot archer. I did try that out in a battle based around Otranto, but (if I get around to writing it up) the battle itself did not give much enlightenment. And anyway, I have changed my mind. There is a simpler answer – if foot archers are being skirmished by horse archers, they can simply shoot back for effect in their own bound. After all, the model for skirmishers is of small packets of men galloping up to the enemy and shooting. If they return to their lines looking like porcupines the rest are likely to be less enthusiastic in having another go.

Anyway, I digress (sort of). The latter part of the period saw the resurgence of infantry – the Swiss, the English and the Hussite. These exploited the propensity of the noble classes to attack them, even once the said noble classes had decided that dismounting was a good idea. This actually seems to relate to the idea that armies reflect the societies from which they come. The very idea that a commoner, possibly even a serf and certainly a peasant, could stand up to a noble was anathema to the society of the time. Famously, the Second Lateran Council attempted to ban the use of the crossbow so that peasants could not dispose of their betters.  Shooting crossbows at ‘infidels’ was, of course, permitted. Unfortunately, that led to a large number of Crusades being declared, as heretics were beyond the law in these sorts of respects. So everyone could ignore it anyway.

Is it a good book? Well, yes. I confess that I enjoyed it. It is well written and easy to follow, and in fairly small chunks, so I could pick it up and put it down easily. I confess that I did get a bit lost in the account of Bannockburn, but it was rather a lengthy chapter by comparison with some of the others. Oman also ignores the effects of naval warfare – I think he mentions the problems the English losing control of the Channel in the Hundred Years War caused them, but on the whole, I suppose there was not a great deal of strictly naval warfare going on at the time. I have also griped before about his ending of the period at 1485, although he does confess that this chops the Reconquista up. On the other hand, given his location in space and time, when else would he have given the medieval the chop?

Saturday 8 August 2020

Granddaddy Stenton

I often remark to my students, or at least I did when I could see them, that in any given subject there is one, or possibly a few, works that anyone in the field has to read. As subjects develop, someone writes the definitive study of the field up to that point, and everyone else moves from there to new stuff.

In the field of Anglo-Saxon studies, and indeed the early Norman era, the granddaddy of all studies is this one:

Stenton, F., Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971).

The above is the third edition of the volume in the Oxford History of England, and it does what it says on the tin. In over 700 pages we move from the vague ideas of whatever was going on after the end of Roman rule in England to the consolidation of Norman rule after Hastings.

Of course, Stenton (or ‘Sir Frank’) only takes the story so far. There has been a fair bit of development and research in the period since he died in 1967. The book was, in fact, finished off by his wife Doris, who was a scholar of Anglo-Saxon England in her own right. Nevertheless, if you read the footnotes and bibliographies of other scholarly works you will find Stenton there: he is unavoidable.

In that case, of course, he should have been the first author whom I read, instead of coming towards the middle of the pack. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, he was not the first to be delivered. The book being out of print meant that delivery was subject to the vagaries of Royal Mail which, in our neck of the woods, is a little hit and miss on the timing. Secondly, I admit that I was rather put off by the idea of reading seven hundred pages of a work, not all of which was necessarily relevant to my actual interest, the consequences of the Harrying of the North.

Once I set out to read the tome, I discovered how useful it was, and why it has stood the test of time so well. As with many scholars whose positions were not dependent on multiple publications in high impact journals, but who were just left to get on with producing high-quality scholarship, Stenton is comprehensive and judicious. He does not make particularly wild claims about things, and he does try very hard not to go beyond the evidence as he knew it. When he speculates, he does so explicitly, not as some wild claim in a publication to jack up his score for the looming Research Evaluation Exercise, or whatever it is to be called next time.

Stenton is comprehensive. If you want to know what sake and soke is, then the explanation is in here. If you want to know why Kent is different from the rest of the country, the basis of it is here as well. Stenton, according to modern scholarship, perhaps does err a bit. He does seem to think that William the Conqueror’s route to London can be tracked by the waste manors in the south in Domesday Book. That is quite probably not correct, but it was the weight of opinion at the time he wrote.

There is a huge amount of stuff in these pages. The expansion of the English Church and its European role in the middle of the period was something I was only vaguely aware of. The Anglo-Saxon church produced scholars of European states, such as Bede and Alcuin (who was headhunted by Charlemagne, by the way, an early form of the brain drain) as well as a large number of evangelists such as Boniface (who converted the Germans and seems, by popular acclaim anyway, to have invented the Christmas tree). The impact of the Anglo-Saxon church on European churches and monasteries should not be underestimated, although the traffic was, of course, two-way. Several bits of England, after all, needed re-Christianisation after assorted invasions. In fact, it seems that the Norse in Scandinavia and those in England were converted at roughly the same time.

As background to what I am interested in, Stenton is essential, I think. As to the Harrying of the North, he is not particularly original, reckoning on a great deal of destruction meted out by the Bastard’s army in the winter of 1069-70. More usefully, he does place this activity in a wider context of the revolts going on at the time. Given the restive nature of the English nobility to the conquerors, William strikes me here as a man in a hurry. By the time he arrived in York, his attention was going to be required elsewhere. The rebels had already been forgiven for previous misdeeds (from his perspective, at least) and he could not, according to the lights of the day, really afford to be nice about things any more. Medieval warfare included destruction and so destruction was used as a weapon of war.

One of the interesting themes that emerge is that England was conquered quickly because of a lack of castles. The Normans did not make that mistake, of course. There is hardly a part of England one can go to without bumping one’s nose into a large lump of Norman masonry. I actually have something to say about the locating of Norman castles, which is more interesting and complex than might be thought, but I need to do a bit more digging around and reading before going to press on the subject.

Anyhow, for the off-piste project (and a non-wargaming subject) Stenton is very interesting, especially as I got my second hand out of print hardback copy for £5. In terms of wargaming (which is not the focus here, but once a wargamer, always a wargamer) there is actually a great deal about military activity, particularly as it relates to state activities. There are also, especially in the bit between 1066 and 1086 a large number of possible campaign and battle scenarios, based around potential Viking invasions and rebellions within England, not exclusively by the newly oppressed English.

Saturday 1 August 2020

Rules and Rule Changes

I have been musing for a while about how wargamers treat rules. When I returned to historical wargaming after a break (the usual reasons – role-playing games, young ladies whose interest in battles was limited, getting a job and so on) I found that the terrain (so to speak) had changed. Before historical wargaming was Ancient Rules 6th edition by WRG, Renaissance rules by George Gush (also WRG, of course), Tercio and the like. After it was all DBA, DBM and the impact was spreading.

It took me a while to get my head around what was going on. This probably was not helped by my lack of interaction with other wargamers. As a long-distance commuter I could not manage a club evening, and weekends were spent doing things I could not do of an evening, such as spending time with my family. Still, slowly I got my head around what was going on and joined the DBM email list.

What was going on there rather surprised me. The content related to competitive gaming was high, which I had never encountered before, but the arguments generated over the rules and the interpretation of the rules were, shall we say, intense. This, to me, was a rather remarkable observation, but reflection upon it suggested rather strongly that it was linked to competition gaming and gamers, some of whom were trying to wring every ounce of advantage for their chosen troops that they could, despite such aspects as common sense, historical accuracy and what the rule actually said being pointed out to them.

This whole set of arguments went rather against my grain. I had never, so far as I could recall, really read any rules in such detail. I regarded (and still regard) rules as being a guideline as to what can happen on the table. If you will, a set of wargame rules is a grammar of wargaming, yielding a sort of playing field upon which the concepts of a particular wargame can be played.

I dare say that in a competitive game rules have to be much tighter, and interpretations much more closely regulated. I do recall a set of such regulations being circulated which, if I am any judge, were as long as the original rules. It does rather, in my view, point to a problem and that problem is not just my total lack of competitiveness.

The problem is that, just as a grammar can only provide guidelines, so a set of wargame rules can only provide the framework for a battle. It is impossible to write a rule set which covers every possible contingency on the table. Under pressure, it seems, from competitive gamers, DBM attempted to do so, but it was a thankless task. Changes to the rules were made, of course, each of which caused howls of rage from those who felt themselves hard done by and demands for more from those who benefitted.

Thus, when I came to write some rules myself, I rather reacted against the whole idea of comprehensive and precise rule sets. We relied on the common sense of the players and the friendly and non-competitive aspects of wargaming. These are, I think, much more widespread than the ‘rules lawyer’ approach I had encountered. That is not to say, of course, that it does not come with its own problems.

I am still a bit surprised that users of wargame rules tend to stick to what they see as the letter of the rules, rather than the spirit. As noted, a wargame rule set cannot (I think it is a logical cannot) cover every contingency and the user of the rules will have to interpolate a set of interpretations between what the rules say and what is on the table. This, of course, will vary from player to player and is usually where arguments start (an advantage for us solo players, of course). But the writers of rule sets can only go so far in specifying what happens. Even DBM, which tries to do so, lands up with convoluted sentences which say something like ‘X’s recoil from Y’s unless supported by Z’s or flee unless condition A or B pertains.’ At which point the wargamer realises X is fighting a Y and a Z and condition C applies which is not covered.

Overall, I reacted against such rules and just gave general outlines of what was to happen. This meant, of course, that the rules were deemed unsatisfactory by many who were used, perhaps, to the apparent comprehensiveness of other rule sets. So be it – we did not write Polemos for comprehensiveness or competitiveness. We did write the rules to provide what we thought was a reasonably historical game, putting the players in the position of historical generals. Whether we succeeded is, of course, a matter largely of taste.

The other point pertains to changing the rules. I have recently had reason to rethink the skirmishing rules in my Counter-Reformation rules (I am still pondering, by the way). Having recently been reading Oman, the point has recurred that horse archers went down to steady infantry archery, as the range of the latter is longer. Under the rules as they stood, horse archery skirmishing range was 4 base widths while foot archery range was 2. The horse archers were pretty well immune from foot archery.

This does not seem to be a problem in the ancients’ rules (because foot archery was not a great feature of the armies of the time, I suppose) but it does seem to be one in the later period. So I have reduced horse skirmishers range to two base widths so the archers can shoot back. On the other hand, I have reduced mounted charge ranges as well, as, as you might have seen in one of two of the Reconquista battles, the gendarmes can charge (3 base widths) and can catch unwary horse archers. So that has been reduced to 2 base widths as well.

There may well be unexpected consequences of this, which I am only just starting to explore. But the rules do seem to be fairly modular, so tinkering with one of the models should not have too much of an impact on others. But isn’t tinkering with rules more fun than arguing about them?