Saturday 27 February 2021

The War of All Against All

A few years ago, in those halcyon pre-COVID days when there were wargame shows to go to, I saw a game with a map of western Europe and a few bases of what turned out to be World War One figures thereupon. Slightly closer inspection revealed that it was a game of the opening campaigns of the war, starting in 1914. The scale seemed to be one infantry base to a corps, and one cavalry base to a division. It seemed to be rather a nice idea, although I did feel that the map left something to be desired (not that I could do anything better, of course).

Many years ago now, when the world was still young and I had the time, I wrote an article for Miniature Wargames about using DBR (what can I say? I was young and naive) for running DBA style campaigns. For reasons which slightly escape me, I wrote it about using circa 1700 100 army point strong armies and, after some frantic painting, ran the campaign. I don’t recall much about it except that the Swedes won, and that it was quite fun.

Eventually, these two things coalesced in my addled brain. As I have mentioned, for many years a 100 AP army box of Baccus Poles has languished in my unpainted lead pile. This is not that they were unwanted, it is just that they never got to the top. My entire ancients army collection was painted before they got a look in. However, once my rebasing project got to the Great Northern War, I discovered that I had Saxons, Danes (more or less), Swedes and Russians, with the Poles, as mentioned, grey and still in their box.

Nevertheless, an idea came to me that, as the armies were between 11 and 14 bases strong, I could get them all on my table without it looking too cramped (I am not a fan of overcrowded wargame tables, as my loyal reader might recall). The drawback was, of course, that I would need to paint the Poles.

I am not a fast or good painter, but eventually (and interrupted by a bout of illness) I managed to paint 96 Polish wargame figures and 8 Danes. The latter were because the DBR points system was such that in the original the Danes only got 11 bases, so they obtained an extra base of foot to make them up to 12.

My plan (insofar as it existed) was for five villages, one for each side. A review of figures and terrain, particularly buildings, revealed some interesting things and a total lack of Russian style housing. Now I could have waited until I had purchased and painted some Russian building, but life is only so long, so I did the standard wargamer’s trick of improvising. The sensitive and cultured wargamer may wish to look away now.

This is the opening of ‘The Entire Great Northern War in an Afternoon’. To orientate you, the near table edge is the west, and you can see the Danes to the left and the Saxons to the right. Beyond, in the middle, are the Poles holding the town and the cathedral. The cathedral is, in fact, the spiritual center of the kingdom (which might be Poland, I’m not sure), and whoever holds it can anoint their own candidate as king there. In the distance to the right are the Russians and to the left are the Swedes.

Now, of course, I really could not leave it there. I had to introduce complexities, namely a points system for determining the winners and losers. Firstly, the army routing an opponent’s base would gain 1 point, while having a base routed loses 2. Losing the general loses 3 points. Holding the cathedral at the end of the game gains 10. Finally, each army has its own aims aside from the cathedral. The Swedes gain 5 points if they hold Russia or Denmark. The Russians gain 5 if they hold Sweden or Poland. The Danes gain 5 if they hold Sweden. The Saxons gain 5 if they hold Denmark or Poland, while the Poles gain 5 if they hold Saxony.

By my standards, this is quite a big battle, with 66 bases and 5 generals on the table. The rules used were my own WotCR rules, available from the link to the right, lightly modified to penalise mounted dragoons and permit Swedish infantry to charge (the famous Ga Pa tactics).

All the figures are Baccus, some of them very old, the rest quite old. I was warned when I got the reinforcements for the Danes that the figures had been redesigned since I obtained the originals. I thought for a moment and then observed that, in fact, they had probably been redesigned twice since the mid-to-late nineties. The buildings are an eclectic mix of very old Baccus, card Hovels, and Leven. The trees are Irregular and the hedges are my normal bocage from Narberth Designs, a long-defunct (I think – I’d be delighted to know they were still going) company. The cathedral is actually St Davids (go on, you recognised it, didn’t you?), a card model obtained from the place itself before even any of the figures were bought. I made it (as I recall it was really fiddly; don’t judge the assembly too harshly) and then didn’t know what to do with it; it is a bit under scale, admittedly (but then Leven’s houses are “smaller footprint”: it makes a lot of sense given the gap between ground scale and figure scale), but I eventually based it on foam and it was ready for battle if I could find a suitable role for it. And here it is, as the central target in the GNW.

So, what happened, I hear you cry (do I?). Well, I’ve nearly run out of words for this week, and I’m not a great fan of dumps of pictures showing the wargame with no narrative, so I’ll leave you with a picture of the situation after the first few moves.

Saturday 20 February 2021

Another Small Town in Bohemia


‘Are you all right Jaz?’

‘Why are they hiding in there? Come out, you cowards, and fight like heretics!’

‘We’re besieging them, Jaz. They’ll come out when they are ready.’

‘And why are we at the back? We should be at the front, ready for the heretic cowards.’

‘We are ready for them, Jaz. It is just that we are the reserve. First, we let the bombards do the talking. Then we either storm the town or we fight them in front of us, there.’

‘I wish they’d get on with it.’

‘Have patience, Jaz. Rome wasn’t burnt in a day.’


Here, as they say, I go again. Or rather, the pangs of slight conscience over the deployment of the besieging Hussites in the last installment but one of the Hooray for Hussites campaign. As you might recall, the Hussite war wagons were deployed on the flanks and failed to do any damage when the German crusaders broke out and over-ran the siege lines.

So, having staved off the pursuing crusaders in the last game (see the Hooray for Hussites campaign page to the right) what else was there for me to do aside from have another go? One of my favourite pictures from the last game is the one of the Hussite bombards opening up on the Leven castle walls; it just makes me smile in fond remembrance. Funny how some wargames do that, and others do not.

Anyway, the set up is similar to the last time, but without the relieving army. The German crusaders are holed up in the town, besieged by Jaz and her Hussite hordes. Actually, that is not the case: Jaz, fortunately for the rebellion, is not (yet) the general. The Germans are about the breakout.

After a move or two, the situation begins to clarify. The Germans are split into two columns, headed by dismounted knights, aiming for the weak points in the siege lines, that is, the bombards themselves. The Hussite wagons, this time, are drawn up behind the siege lines to prevent disastrous breakthroughs, as happened last time.

The figures are a mix of Irregular and Heroics and Ros. The siege trenches are very old Baccus and the buildings and castle are Leven. Somewhere in the town are some more very old Baccus hovels, I think.

The bombards again proved rather effective at delaying, but not stopping, the crusaders. This might even be historical. In the 1450s the French cannon managed to slow down, but not stop, English attacks at Castillon, and the technology had advanced by then. The Knights overran the bombard positions but then had to deal with the supporting Hussite war-flail wielders. The right-hand column, led by the general, caused their foes to retreat behind the wagon line; the Hussites opposing the left column held on.

In the end, it went a bit pear shaped for the Germans. The left hand column was stalled by Hussite flail wielders, while the right hand crashed into the leftmost Hussite war wagon, lead by the general. However, when the war wagon recoiled the knights, the general had to roll for harm and managed a six, which mean that he was hors de combat. Without the coordination which the general could have supplied the Germans withdrew. I would not have the tempo points to deploy the columns to tackle the war wagon line and the other wandering Hussite bases, both horse and foot, although you can see that the German crossbowmen, in the distance, have seriously damaged the Hussite mounted crossbowmen.

On the whole, the action proceeded pretty well as I expected. Experience has shown that the war wagons are tough but brittle, but the Germans only had a round or two of combat against them to find out. The loss of the general was, as in several other games with my rules, crucial. Tempo bids are halved under such circumstances, and in a rule set designed to keep tempo, and hence available moves, low, that can mean that the whole army loses it way and can do no more than piecemeal attacks and defend itself.

The Germans can, of course, rationalise the action as a successful raid on the trenches, overrunning the siege artillery and hence delaying the progress of the besiegers. However, I think I now need to rethink their tactics. In the rearguard action game, the mounted knights did a decent job against the war wagon line. Further, the Germans (and Hungarians) do have some firepower, which tends not to be used as the knights insist on having a go first. So the answer might be along the lines of keeping to knights mounted and letting the infantry – pike (spears) mainly – assault the siege lines and wagons while trying to get the cavalry around the flanks. Not losing the general would be an idea as well, but on the whole, I do feel that any assault on the war wagons needs the +1 on the dice that having the general attached gives.

Still, it was nice to get the Hussites out again, and I seem to be getting the hang of handling them. They are such a different army to deal with, even when there are only twelve bases on the table. The Crusaders, while losing quite historically, do need a bit more thought in their tactics. Part of the problem is that historically the knights did not do the most tactically astute things. But part of the problem could also be the tactics that I use. I’ll have to try again, I think.



‘They can’t hear you, Jaz.’

‘They’ve run away! Heretic cowards!’

‘That was a bit close, Jaz.’

‘I got the general! With a stone! Weee, bonk! Right between the eyes.’

‘I’ll get you a drink to celebrate.’

‘The stone was guided by the Holy Spirit.’

‘It was a bit like some consecrated host I’ve been given. Totally solid. Here.’

‘Thanks. Cheers. To victory!’

‘To victory.’

Saturday 13 February 2021

Yellow Broom

 As they say, you learn something new every day, at least if you are looking. It was only recently that I found out that the Latin name for Yellow Broom, the plant, is planta genista and that it was the heraldic device of Geoffrey of Anjou (1113-51). So, you might ask, what?

Geoffrey of Anjou was the founder of the line of Kings of England (and a few other places) from 1154 to 1485, the Plantagenets.

Wilson, D. (2014). The Plantagenets: The Kings that Made Britain. London: Quercus.

In my quest to find out what happened next (or, indeed, next next in this case, after the Anarchy), I have read the above, and interesting it was as well for someone who only has a smattering of medieval history.

I do have a few quibbles, however, mainly with the title. For example, while self-evidently, from the geography, the Kings of England had influence over Wales, Scotland and Ireland, to claim that the Plantagenets ‘made Britain’ is a bit of a stretch. Or, maybe, it is simply that unwholesome aspect of English thinking that equates England with Britain. I am not sure; the influence of the Plantagenet kings on the rest of the British Isles seems to have been fairly destructive.

The other quibble with the title is that, at the end of the book, the author concedes that ordinary people had a hand in making Britain, or England. Rioting peasants, people pursuing justice and demanding their cases be heard in the King’s Courts where they had a better chance (and it might be a bit cheaper), people trying to trade and conduct commerce and so on all had, perhaps, as large, if not larger, had in the making of England than assorted kings did.

Anyway, what we have here is a straightforward traditional history of the Kings of England from Henry II to Richard III. For reasons I have never understood the Plantagenets still have the ability to make otherwise seeming sensible and rational people all misty-eyed, declaring them to be the rightful rulers of England and decrying the Tudors (however spelt) for being usurpers, murderers and so on. Far be it from me to question these views, but I really do not understand them at all. The fact seems to be that the only right which was acquired by anyone from William the Conqueror through to Richard III was by judicious (or less so) applications of violence. Your right and true ruler of England came about by how hard you hit anyone who opposed you.

I dare say that most wargamers can cite the kings and battles of the period, and talk about the changes in warfare and the loss of the Norman possessions, Gascony and other places along the way. I will not bore my reader by reciting these bits of history, which are, so far as I can tell, as well covered here as in any general history of the same period. I will focus on a few points that are of interest.

The author draws an interesting parallel between Charles I and Edward II (p 123). Both, he observes, inherited the crown because an older brother had died, both defied parliaments, both asserted the power and dignity of the monarchy, both were humiliated in war with the Scots, both had disastrous court favourites, provoked civil war, were imprisoned by their own people and died violently in their forties. As someone who started this whole history and wargaming stuff from the English Civil War, it was bound to catch my attention, wasn’t it?

I suppose that the parallels pretty well start and stop with the paragraph. Certainly, Wilson does not extend his discussion of it, although I suppose it could be extended. But the differences are significant as well. Charles possibly comes out of the comparison as a slightly bigger chump than Edward. After all, Charles could be accused of starting a war with the Scots, while Edward really only continued it (badly) having inherited the conflict and instability from his father. Edward also really upset his wife who invaded, while Henrietta Maria remained loyal. I suppose that parallels like that should not be pushed too hard.

The other thing to notice is both depressing and encouraging. Indeed, I had a similar experience reading Parker (Parker, G. (2013). Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century. Yale: Yale University Press). On the whole, kings were rubbish at ruling people. They were really only interested in themselves, their own power, honour and line. They cared about as much for the good of their people as most of the people would have cared for the rats that spread plague about the place. One of the things that I have found from reading history (and Sumption’s books on the Hundred Years War are similar) is how awful most rulers are at ruling for the common good. It is hard to find in this book or any of the others a ruler who actually gave a toss about the commoners.

That, it seems to me, is depressing. But also slightly encouraging, in the sense that however rubbish the rulers were at ruling, and however little they cared about their people, somehow the people persevered, and showed great humanity to each other, if not to their rulers. The same applies to the nobility as well: they were far too concerned with tier own honour and power, money and grandness, to actually care for their tenants. It was only when they fell out with another noble and needed to show good lordship that they actually paid attention.

For today, of course, it can hardly be said that the political scene in the Western world, at least, is studded with talent. A quick look at politics in, say Britain and the United States suggests that the bigger incompetent you are, the better you will do at the polls, at least once and possibly more than that. But still the hope of the human race goes on, in spite of, not because of, our rulers.

Saturday 6 February 2021

Bastard’s Sons

 I recall, many years ago, my teenage school class being reduced to giggles by our teacher’s comment that William the Conqueror was a bastard. Not only that but one of my classmates, apparently, wrote one of Bill’s descriptors in capital letters thereafter. Of such things school history is made, I suppose.

I have been reading again, although a bit of a return from the mid-twelfth century to the eleventh:

James, J. (2020). The Bastard's Sons: Robert, William and Henry of Normandy. Stroud: Amberley.

This is a similar book, admittedly, to Cole, T. (2018). After the Conquest: The Divided Realm 1066 - 1135. Stroud: Amberley, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, and it is by the same publisher, which surprised me a bit. It is a little more focussed, I suppose, as it covers the conflict between BtB’s sons up to the defeat of Robert at Tinchebrai, which confirmed Henry on the throne of England and as Duke of Normandy.

As we already know, the route from William’s expiry in 1087 and the establishment of Henry as Henry I was not exactly a straightforward one. The inheritance of the eldest son to the whole patrimony was not exactly settled, and often realms fell apart on the death of the father. The Anglo-Norman empire was no different, and William I might well have recognized that there were going to be problems. Not only were his sons going to fight over who got what, but other rulers around Normandy, and the assorted kings of Wales and the King of Scotland were going to be interested and see what they could gain from the goings on.

I accordance with accepted practice, it seems, Robert, William’s eldest son was more or less in a state of permanent rebellion against his father from 1078. There was a confusing sequence of rebellions, treaties, making ups, conferences, treachery, sieges and fleeing to other rulers that seems to have characterized kingship in these periods. A great deal depended on paying homage to a particular overlord, but this does seem to have been, in fact, a rather flexible concept, at least given that it seems to have been something renewable.

James is a bit more sympathetic to Robert than Cole is. While much historiography reckons that Robert was more or less forced to go on crusade by military defeat, as his brothers were strangling Normandy, James argues, possibly quite successfully, that in fact, Robert could go on crusade because Normandy was as quiet and lacking in rebellions and external threats, at least by the standards of Normandy, at the time.

Robert, of course, was one of the leaders of the First Crusade and was present. And leading, at the siege of Antioch and capture of Jerusalem. He then returned home in a fairly leisurely way, although to be fair, there were not many other ways to travel from the Holy Land to Northern Europe at the time. He also collected a wife along the way, Sibylla of Conversano, in Apulia. James notes that on his return to Normandy in 1100 he does not seem to have been particularly interested in fighting and expanding his realm; perhaps acquiring a wife and what he had seen on crusade, both positive and negative, had mellowed and exhausted his belligerence.

Be that as it may, the political and personal world had changed. William II, King of England and his brother, had been killed in a hunting accident. Exactly how much of an accident it was will never be known, of course. As with most medieval monarchs, there were plenty of people, not just his brothers, who might profit from the death of the king. The emphasis is on the ‘might’, inevitably. It seems that the monarchs and high born nobles of the time were serious political gamblers, with military potential to back it up, but the possibility of dying along the way.

James is fairly sympathetic to William II, as well. It might be reasonable to speculate that he was assassinated because he was being a bit too successful for a brother, a rival or his nobility. Despite a few crises, he had weathered the normal storms that a medieval monarch had to. The negative view of him might be due to bias from the chroniclers, as he fell out with church leaders. Nevertheless, he did manage to stabilize the Welsh border (more or less) and the frontiers of Normandy (again, more or less). However, conflicts with the church were never going to get you a positive press by the monks who chronicled the times.

Overall the book is a good complement to Cole’s work. It takes a different view of events, as I have tried to suggest, and, within the limits of the information we have to hand, the account it gives of events is reasonable. On the other hand, so is Cole’s account, which is, perhaps a bit more hostile to William II and regards Robert, Duke of Normandy, as a good soldier but a bit of a political loser.

On the last point, I cannot but help ponder whether Robert really was a loser. Inheriting Normandy when he did was a bit of a poor hand. England was much wealthier and centralized and, while it did have its rebellions, they were nothing like the internal and external threats to Normandy. Perhaps BtB gave Robert Normandy because he was the best warrior. Even so, according to the lights of the time, Robert might be regarded as a winner. He had, after all, held on to his patrimony for a long time, gone on crusade and visited Jerusalem, which would ensure his salvation, married a beautiful and intelligent (by all accounts) foreign bride, and then lived for twenty-six years in luxurious retirement, leaving the almost impossible job of ruling both Normandy and England to his younger brother.

On that basis, is it really possible to call Robert the loser of the family? If, as most history suggests, the gain power is to win, he was. But perhaps there is a lot more to life than just becoming ruler of the world.