Wednesday 28 April 2021

Elizabeth’s French Wars

Those of us who have been knocking around the early modern arena will be aware that, for a monarch of distinctly pacifist leanings, Elizabeth I was involved in rather a depressing number of wars. For a start, there were wars in Scotland, against the Catholics and French. According to something I vaguely remember having read, it was this activity that convinced her that wars were simply a matter of wasted money and wasted blood.

Still, wars continued, rather unabated. Quite a lot of people would probably blame the religious wars created by the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. Modern propensities are to downgrade religion to something that is individualised and personal, rather than of national significance. Thus religion is a matter for which individuals are willing to die for and kill for, but is not a matter of national concern, at least in the liberal West.

Religion, in the sense of Protestant and Roman Catholic in early modern Europe, was a matter of national concern, but it was not the only matter. Elizabeth, after all, is also famous for the settlement of the Church of England, which attempted to keep as many of her people on board with the national church as possible. However, England did also have strategic concerns which were issues from the earliest times right up to today. Those concerns are with respect to the balance of power in Europe.

The major concern of Elizabeth’s time was who controlled the southern shores of the English Channel. This was not quite as it is today: the Dutch were in revolt, Antwerp was dubious, Calais had, of course, recently been lost to France and the French monarchy was doing one of its spectacular falling apart jobs to which it seemed frequently to succumb. Added to that was the increasing power of Spain and its attempts to suppress the Dutch revolt, French involvement in Scotland and the assorted outbreaks of civil war in France (again, religion was a factor, but over-mighty subjects was another), and Elizabeth and her ministers faced a strategic crisis.

I have been reading this:

Heap, W. (2019). Elizabeth's French Wars 1562-1598. London: Unicorn.

It is a worthwhile book but is a bit oddly written. I suspect it has at its origin the academic work of the author, and it makes certain assumptions which, even for an aficionado of the times, are a little less than valid. In particular, it does not give a potted history of the French Wars of Religion, which makes life a little tricky for those of us whose understanding of the trajectory comes from Oman. But after a while, you get used to the thematic chapter structure and realize that the reader’s ignorance of what was going on is matched, more or less, by the monarchs and ministers of the period.

The book is a very interesting one, but it does not really go too far into the motives for Elizabeth getting involved in the internal affairs of France. Yes, there was religion, but there was also the fear of Spain in alliance with a newly united and Catholic France just across the Channel. In the thousand years or so of England being a reasonably united country trouble had usually brewed from Normandy or the Low Countries, often mediated through the French polity. Keeping the balance of power in Western Europe was a major factor in English foreign policy for centuries.

The book focuses on English reasons for intervening, how the intervention was achieved, what happened during the three main periods of English intervention (1562-3, 1589-94, and 1596-7), and the war at sea. The life of the soldiers is discussed and the issues arising after Henri negotiated a peace with the rebels and Spain. The English view of things is also discussed.

The conclusions are quite interesting as well. Something which I was vaguely aware of, but which always seems to be rather dismissed in the standard histories are the English subsidies to assorted German generals to intervene in France. These were usually defeated, and so are rather overlooked. However, Heap makes the interesting point that, even though they usually ended in retreat or defeat at the hands of the Leaguers, their principal effect was to divert French Catholic armies from elsewhere. The Germans usually invaded Lorraine, which was key homeland territory for the Guise, and had to be defended. This gave the Huguenots or, later, the Royal army under Henri IV, a much freer hand in the rest of France. Defeat on the battlefield did not necessarily mean strategic disaster.

The book is also extremely well illustrated with contemporary maps, prints, and portraits. In fact, it is one of the best things about it, although that does not mean that the rest of the book is at all bad. The plates of sieges (and most of the war, from the English perspective, at least, consisted of sieges) are inspiring to someone who recently finished painting a star fort.

Another point Heap makes which I suspect is important is about the relative strengths of the fleets. The Royal Navy commanded the Channel. The French navy did not exist meaningfully in northern waters, and the Spanish navy had too many other things to be doing. English armies were operating in northern France, not French armies in southern England. English supplies were being landed (sometimes in significant quantities) in French ports. The navy gave English intervention significant flexibility, although it did have the limitation that English commanders were reluctant to move far from their supply bases on the coast.

In a short epilogue, Heap suggests that Anglo-French rivalry continued into the Nineteenth Century, and has not fully subsided today. He draws a parallel between Henri IV’s refusal to repay Elizabeth’s loans and De Gaulle’s refusal to use France’s gold reserves to pay for World War Two. Perhaps. I did expect some sort of apocalyptic Brexit related rant from the author, but, fortunately, the reader is spared that, although the issue, that of the balance of power in Europe and the relationship of the UK to the Continent is still a live one, I suppose.

Saturday 24 April 2021

Fields of Death

I have already mentioned that I am not keen on the title of this book, and nor do I find the front cover attractive, being a skull in a Greek helmet. It probably is not the author’s fault, however. I have run afoul of editors and publishers and their decisions before. Anyway, I have been reading ancients again:

Evans, R. (2013). Fields of Death: Retracing Ancient Battlefields. Barnsley: Pen & Sword.

This is the companion to Fields of Battle, which I wrote about a week or two ago. I would call it a sequel, except that it was published earlier.

In form it is similar to the other book. This time you get five different campaigns: Sybaris (510 BC), Syracuse (415-3 BC), Motya (397 BC), Aquae Sextiae and Vercellae (102-1 BC), and Alexandria (47 BC). It is not really a wargamer’s book. In fact, a review of it on Amazon makes it fairly clear that it does not do the standard sort of ‘battles’ take on things. Evans is more interested in the texts which give us our knowledge of the activities of the armies and how they are interpreted.

There are a number of key issues going on, in my judgment. Firstly, often the authors of our text do not know the land over which the campaigns are fought out. They tend to make things up, therefore, to help the narrative flow or to fudge over their ignorance (and, to be fair, the ignorance of their sources as well). Interpretations on these sorts of things matter.

Secondly, there are issues of who the author was writing for. If you have heard of the siege of Motya you are doing well in your reading of ancient sources. I had not heard of it and indeed, Evans’ conclusion is that it was a very minor action exaggerated by the sources to glorify Dionysius they tyrant of Syracuse, the dominant power in Sicily at the time. Evans observes that a lot of the account of the siege looks suspiciously like that of Alexander’s siege of Tyre – both were off the coast, for example. The author of the account of Motya, Diodorus, would have had access to accounts of Tyre, and wrote in Rome, while the other author who discusses Motya, Timaeus, was a Greek writing in Athens. Neither seem to have known much about the terrain around Motya, and both give Dionysius a siege train, which is unlikely as such engines only came about in the mid-fourth century; the Athenians at Syracuse did not possess such object less than twenty years before Motya.

The third point to consider is the nature of the texts themselves. A common trope within ancient authors is hubris followed by nemesis. Overconfident states, generals and armies get their comeuppance. Thus the Athenian siege of Syracuse is described, roughly, as madness. Overconfidence in taking out a potential ally of the Spartans lead to Athenian disaster from which they never really recovered, hence, due to manpower and money losses, let alone the loss of face, they lost the Peloponnesian war.

Similarly, the Germans at the turn of the first century BC also had some easy victories over Roman and other troops, but then became overconfident and were beaten by Marius. This is quite an interesting episode strategically, really, as it seems that the Germans really intended a two pronged attack on the Po Valley, from both east and west. The possibilities of this going wrong were immense, of course, and it duly did misfire. Marius was able to defeat each invasion in detail.

Perhaps the oddest set of actions describe are those of Caesar in Alexandria. The thing here is that most accounts focus on the relationship between Caesar and Cleopatra. The modern mindset is very much obsessed by sex, and this is projected back onto the past. The actual fighting does not get that much of a look in in most accounts. Caesar’s position was a lot more parlous than the accounts (mostly written by the man himself, although the Alexandrian War was written by a supporter) suggest, and he needed a relief column commanded by Mithridates of Pergamum to get him out of the siege and defeat the Ptolmemites (or at least that faction not allied with Cleopatra), although the fighting seems to have been fairly desultory. The interest (or oddity) here is that Evans uses the relief of Kimberley and Mafeking as a comparison, arguing that they too were cavalry led relief operations (the railways not being usable, apparently – I am not well versed in the Boer War). Mithridates needed to gather some infantry along the way, incidentally. Josephus, in his account, emphasises the actions of Jewish infantry, although the more contemporary account hardly mentions them. It just shows that accounts should not be taken at face value.

Overall, another interesting book. Everyone seems to be trying to give accounts of their heroes in the mould of Alexander of Macedon. Mithridates and Antipater are both cast this way in the accounts of Alexandria. Who the hero was depended on the author. As I have mentioned before a problem with a wargamer’s reading of the text is that we look for things other than the actual meaning and use of the text by its author and original readers. As modern readers we want the numbers of troops, units, deployments and so on. We are never going to get them. Alternatively, of course, we would like extended sex scenes between Caesar and Cleopatra. For those we have to turn to Hollywood, I suppose (although Carry on Cleo might be the best option).

The other thing is, of course, what do I do with the book as a wargamer. I think, probably, that I might excavate my Marian Romans and the Gauls and Germans and give them a run out. And, of course, I will also need my Roman marching fort. For all the wargamer readings of the text, it does seem that the Marian Roman army did dig a lot of forts.


Wednesday 21 April 2021

The Greatest Knight

I have been reading this:

Asbridge, T. (2015). The Greatest Knight. London: Simon and Schuster.

So, who was this greatest knight? The answer is in the subtitle, which I think, over-claims the subject’s influence:

The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power Behind Five English Thrones.

The book is certainly about William Marshal, and he did live through the reigns of five English kings: Stephen, Henry II, Richard I, John and Henry III. Given that he was born in around 1147, it is a bit of a stretch to argue that he was a power behind Stephen’s throne (Stephen died in 1154, just after not hanging William). Still, authors are rarely responsible for the overall titles of books, and you could argue that William was significant in the life of Henry the Young King, Henry II’s oldest son, who predeceased Henry II.

We know a fair bit about William Marshal because his son had a life written about him, composed, apparently, in medieval French verse. This was unknown until 1860 when it was sold at auction to a private collector and disappeared for another twenty years when it was verified as a (the only surviving copy of) the life.

As I noted, William first arrived in the public domain at the age of about five, when he was a hostage for his father’s good behaviour, in the hands of King Stephen. His grandfather, Gilbert Gifford, it seems, had arrived from France with the Normans, whether with the Conqueror or shortly afterwards is not known. He was the royal muster-marshal and held land in Wiltshire. His son, John, seems to have been involved in the civil war, known as the Anarchy on the side of the Empress. John’s second marriage to Sybil, sister of Earl Patrick of Salisbury led to William and his elder brother John.

As a younger son of a minor noble and royal functionary William was probably viewed as rather expendable. Hence being sent as a hostage for good behaviour to the opposition and, thus, being threatened with hanging when that good behaviour was not forthcoming. The threat must have made a bit of an impression on the lad, though.

By the time he died, of course, William was a large landowner in England, Wales and Ireland, Earl of Pembroke, and Protector of the Nation. He had also fought and defeated, by a mix of force, diplomacy, politics and being trusted by more or less everyone at some level, the French invasion and civil war that occurred just after the death of King John. At the age of 70 or so, he had commanded the English / Royalist / Henrician faction at the Battle of Lincoln, and had also been more or less guiding the country when the reinforcements for the French were defeated at the Battle of Sandwich. William watched this one from the shore – I wonder whether he had a picnic while doing so…

Anyway, William worked his way up from being an undistinguished squire, through the tournament circuit, to being part of the household of first, Henry the Young King, then Henry II (as a household knight, he had a chance to kill Richard the Lionheart while covering the King’s retreat. He unhorsed him instead (which had the same effect – Henry got away). After Henry II’s death, he made it up with Richard (he was getting a reputation for loyalty, having been one of the last knights to remain with Henry the Younger) and was part of his household as well.

In the meantime, he had also gone on crusade (as a pledge he had been given by Henry the Young King, who had taken the cross but died before going anywhere) and avoided getting involved with the Second Crusade which landed up in disaster at the Horns of Hattin. He did not go on crusade with Richard but fought with him in Normandy once Richard got back (and had been ransomed). He charted a careful course during the attempted usurpation of John and even managed to stay in John’s good books for the early part of the realm. This, it seems to me, was quite an achievement.

In the meantime, he had married his ward, Isabel of Clare, who brought with her huge tracts of land in Wales, including Chepstow Castle and Pembroke Castle, and large slabs of Leinster in Ireland. In part William managed to ride out the problems of John’s later reign by staying in Ireland, but inevitably got sucked into the crisis of 1215 which finished up a Runnymede. He was also with John as the latter started to undermine Magna Carta.

On John’s death, William decided on loyalty to the child king Henry II and, as noted, led the resistance and victory over the French / ‘rebel’ side. It was the government of the young Henry which issued and re-issued Magna Carta, making it the important foundation document of the English legal system that it is regarded as today.

An interesting career for a Twelfth-Century knight, then. He certainly lived much longer than most people of the era (Isabel died a year after him, in 1220, ages in her forties). The book, possibly to pad it out a bit, possibly to add much-needed context, has a fair number of asides on such things as tournaments (which were not genteel jousts, but played for keeps or at least ransoms), the politics of households (not families – the households of kings and senior nobility), assorted characters both great and small, and so on.

It was definitely worth reading and will stay on my shelf. Biographies of knights, particularly early ones like William Marshal, are rather few and far between. Was he the ‘greatest knight’? The depends on what you mean. He seems to have been loyal to his masters, which stood him in good stead in the end and had a fair eye to the main chance of accumulating money and land. He does not seem to have had any mistresses and his marriage to Isabel seems to have been happy. On the other hand, chivalry was only just being invented during his lifetime, so perhaps we should not hold him to the behaviour requirements of a later age.

Saturday 17 April 2021

Flibbertigibbets and Flip-Floppers

 I have refrained (read: not got around to) declaring a plan for this year. Perhaps that is due to the uncertainty of the world generally, with most of us hovering somewhere between hope and fear and, often, it seems to me, both at the same time. Perhaps it is due to my own incipient wargamer-ness, that is, most wargamers I read do not fix on a single period, set of armies or anything of the sort. In short, most wargamers are flibbertigibbets, which is a great word which does not get used enough.

Now by comparison with some wargamers I suspect I might count as a paragon of focus, in time frame if not in geographical area. Most of my armies are for the period usually classified as ‘ancients’, in my case Rome and Greece, including Alexander and the successors but not (yet) the Punic Wars, and ‘early modern’, in my case from 1420 – 1700. I am, so far, resisting the Anglo-Normans, in spite of reading a fair bit about them in the last year or so.

You might quite rightly object that two periods, both running over centuries, is hardly a focus. I would have to agree, but it is still rather fewer than many wargamers whose blogs I read. This is not meant as a criticism, by the way. Many wargamers are well-read and highly informed about the many periods they game in, often more so than in my periods than I am who claim to focus.

Still, having done an inventory of my lead pile, I decided to swear off buying any more soldiers and declared this year to be the year of terrain, of buildings at least. I have hinted at a target for the trenches earlier, and indeed a Vauban style fortification is wending its way through my painting system as I type. Actually, the fort is finished; I’ve still got some ruins to base, and then there is the problem of cannon. Even a modest star fortification must have had great numbers of cannons, at least in theory, and so must the besiegers. Still, progress, while slow, has not yet stalled.

The other hint which you may have picked up from recent posts is of Russian buildings. The Russians, in particular in their churches, have a rather distinctive style, unless you are close to the Baltic where there is a bit more western influence. A Russian village is, therefore, wending its way towards me (hopefully). Having looked back at my Colonel Cranium campaign (see the link to the right), I pondered the resources I have to do Muscovite armies seriously. The Poles I can nick stuff for from the GNW Polish army – the haiducks, pancerni and hussars seem not to have changed that much. Both Poles and Russians can, of course, hire mercenaries (usually from Germany), and the Ottomans can acquire reinforcements from the Moguls and other further eastern armies I possess. But the Muscovites are a bit thin on the ground because Peter reformed the army along western lines when he came to the throne, so I cannot really pinch elements from my GNW army.

I confess I hesitated; I am not sure I really want to paint a whole load of Muscovites, but the acquisition of a book about them from the Naval & Military Press and a sympathetic hearing from the Estimable Mrs P on the subject, who examined my Muscovite resources and declared them inadequate, gave me a bit of backbone. I remember painting the original, small, Muscovite army, and a painful process it was, as I had no idea as to what colours they were to be, how to organise them (I was following DBR army lists at the time) and the whole was a rather dismal and rushed experience.

Still, the flip (or flop) in my resolution occurred. I now have a fairly large Muscovite army to paint. I am not a keen painter, as I keep saying, but that does not seem to stop me buying soldiers. The whole point of focussing on terrain was that I find buildings a lot easier to paint than soldiers, and you can see some progress. On the other hand, I did find the 96 Poles of the GNW army a pain by the end, but you do get a bit of a fillip from actually finishing an army. Insofar as an army is ever finished, of course.

The other thing I do like is flexibility in my resources. I like to be able to deploy two armies, as the ancients doubling project shows. While I usually limit myself to 12 to twenty-four bases per army, I do like to be able to deploy more should I need to. I maintain a cordial dislike of crowded tables and really lengthy games – the GNW refight over 3 sessions was about my limit – but I do like to know I can deploy all the troops, waggons, guns and buildings I might need to anything the campaigns might throw at me. I suspect my original rush to paint Muscovites was due to my 1618-Something campaign, trying to get an army for every nation that might have got involved.

And so, here I am again. Another grey army to paint. I think my techniques have improved over the last twenty-five years of so. I suspect that the pain of painting has subsided a bit. I hope so. On the first point, I have learnt a lot about how to paint soldiers quickly and, in fact, more nicely than before. I hope this will be the case and stand me in good stead for what I expect will be a large number of cavalry. I have also learnt to limit expectations and paint in smallish batches. This might not be as productive as larger quantities, but at least some progress is seen towards finishing the whole. I shall also try to ignore all the other armies I have in grey store clamouring to be done.

So, there you are. The collapse of a resolution and the rejoining of this wargamer to the ranks of the flibbertigibbets and weak-willed flip-floppers.

Wednesday 14 April 2021

The World of the Galloglass

 Next up (or down) in my book pile is this one:

Duffy, S. (Ed.) (2007). The World of the Galloglass: Kings, Warlords and Warriors in Ireland and Scotland 1200 - 1600. Dublin: Four Courts.

This is an edited book of conference proceedings, the first conference of the series of which The English Isles was the second. This conference perhaps had a bit of a narrower scope than the later one, encompassing mostly Ireland and Scotland; England and Wales only get walk-on parts.

Still, it is a worthwhile text for those of us interested in the outer reaches of the (aspirational) first English Empire. The editor, Sean Duffy kicks off the book by examining the ‘prehistory’ of the galloglass – the first mention of the word in an Irish annal is from 1290, where it means ‘warrior from Innse Gall’, the place being the Hebrides. More usually, the term means ‘foreign warrior’, or at least it is interpreted as such. They were almost certainly around before 1290.

The point Duffy makes is that there were strong political and military links between Ireland and the Hebrides and West Highlands at least a century before 1290. Often these were sea-bourne raids, using ships from the west of Scotland, Dublin or the Isle of Man. The often fragmentary and confusing (if not downright contradictory) reports in annals and the like give a few glimpses of the military aid, raids and alliances (often with marriages to boot) between various war-lords, kings, and families of the north-western seaboard of the British Isles.

Another fascinating wargamer-related article is on the Manx navy between 1079 and 1265. The Manx fleet was a substantial navy and could (and did) dominate the Irish Sea coasts and the rulers held a substantial far-flung maritime empire across Ireland (at times), the Isle of Man and the Scottish Isles. This is a rather neglected area of medieval history, often falling between the cracks of British, Irish and Scandinavian history. For that matter, it is a highly neglected wargaming era; so far as I know no manufacturer, in any scale makes a Manx or West Highland galley, which were fairly idiosyncratic, so far as can be inferred from the rather thin evidence.

Nevertheless, Manx naval activity spread from Anglesey to Caithness, and military aid could flow along the sea lanes to the allies and kinsmen of the Manx kings. The size of the navy is also fairly impressive – 80 ships and 53 ships are fairly reliably attested. There are, of course, plenty of unanswered (and, given the sources, probably unanswerable) questions, along the lines of the construction and manning of the vessels. The Isle of Man was fairly well populated and wealthy, but even so, a fleet of 100 – 200 vessels would drain a considerable chunk of manpower from any medieval polity, at least of a moderate size.

Still, the Manx navy was a force to be reckoned with. English kings negotiated with the Kings of Man and the Isles, at least from 1205, presumably to gain access to the naval resources of the kingdom, and they were used for coastguard activities. It should be noted that the English were heavily involved in Ireland by this time, and so would need at least the acquiescence of the Manx king to move troops and supplies from Pembroke and Chester to Ireland.

Two other essays are of note to me. The first is about James V of Scotland and Ireland. As is well known, Henry VIII of England led an early form of Brexit from the Roman Catholic world in the 1530s. The reasons for this are complicated, but James V, his nephew, remained a loyal son of the Church, and conditions on the Anglo-Scottish border deteriorated. As the Scots looked to France for aid, the relations between the two countries fluctuated as European war and diplomacy varied.

In the meantime, James started to improve relations with the Scottish lords (at least nominally) in the Western Isles and hence in the northern part of Ireland. Scots started to settle there, a move which was not welcomed by the English King, who was trying to reach a compromise with the native Irish rather than conquer them (a probably impossible task). Manipulations and attempts to curb the power of semi-autonomous Irish lords led to rebellion; pleas for aid from Scotland and Europe did not produce any result and the revolt was crushed. The complications of Irish affairs, the links with Scotland, England and Europe should give any wargame with an imagination plenty of scope for mini-campaigns and general skulduggery.

There are other interesting essays in the collection, ranging from bardic poetry to the arms and armour of West Highland warriors, but the last one I want to mention is the final essay, which focuses on the succession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne. Mostly we think, I suspect, that it was pretty well a done deal ahead of schedule and that, if not, Elizabeth stated before her death that her successor should be James. This, indeed, seems to be something of a fabrication by the Jacobite party at the English court. Indeed, Edwards suggests that the ailing queen was basically left alone to die while her councilors sorted out the succession.

Looking behind the propaganda of the ‘Happy Union’ of the crowns, however, a different tale emerges. There were around a dozen potential claimants to the throne, four of whom were possibly genuine contenders. Lady Arabella Stuart had as good a claim as James (although she was female), and was English born and bred. An alternative was Archduchess Isabella, co-ruler of the Low Countries who was descended from a John of Gaunt. If Phillip II of Spain had pushed her case and united with the hard-line English Catholics things could have been different. Isabella was personally disinterested in the cause, but when did that stop international politics?

There were a number of English noble contenders as well. Edward Seymour, Lord Beauchamp, son and heir of the Earl of Hertford and Katharine Grey, sister of Lady Jane. According to Henry VIII’s will he should have succeeded, although the English government had declared him illegitimate in 1561.

The list of possible contenders goes on. The Earl of Derby was another possibility but had a poorer claim than Arabella Stuart or Beauchamp. Finally, there was the de la Pole claim. The Earl of Huntingdon, George Hastings, had arranged the marriage of his grandson and heir to a daughter of the Derby family. There were plenty of possibilities.

As Elizabeth lay dying, James assembled forces on the frontier. He received assurances from London and pleas not to invade as it would provoke resistance. The English council supported his claims and, along with 26000 trained bands, were able to eliminate any resistance themselves. The other issue, of course, was the English army in Ireland, recently victorious. This remained loyal to the crown (and was being disbanded in part), but could have been a problem. As it was, the succession evolved as planned. But it was not quite as straightforward as history would have us believe, and could be an interesting set of scenarios for a campaign.

Saturday 10 April 2021

From Marathon to Marathon

Clearly, your author is suffering from a problem with titles. I have never really managed titles very well. Polemos: SPQR was not my name for the rules; I think they were PM: Ancients until I noticed that they were for Romans. Even my latest project, some simplified ancients rules have the stunning title ‘Ancients Rules’. I confess that their naval companion, ‘Are you sure they should be black?’ is a little more original, but that arose while painting the fleets. The question is rhetorical; the answer is ‘yes’.

The reason for the title is, of course, the new rules, which are roughed out and, obviously need testing. Now naturally I am breaking most of my rule-writing rules here. Aside from a degree of self-plagiarism from both SPQR and the Age of Alexander rules, I am aiming for a set of rules which will be fairly comprehensive across both Greeks and Romans. I have had harsh things to say in the past about such rules, and so I suppose I will need to justify myself.

I think the justification is in the fact that the new rules have troop types such as ‘Persian Foot’ and ‘Hoplite’, not just some sort of ‘spearmen’ or ‘swordsmen like legionaries’. That may not, of course, last, but we shall have to see. The core mechanisms are recognisably Polemos, as filtered through my ‘Wars of the Counter-Reformation’ rules and SPQR, updated with some new ideas and with more of a concentration on game flow.

As I said, I need a playtest subject and, having just read a bit on Marathon, I went for that. I confess, it is a favourite battle and has been the subject of endless speculation. As Whatley argued many years ago, actually working out what happened at Marathon or any ancient battle is impossible:

Whatley, N. (1964). On the Possibility of Reconstructing Marathon and Other Ancient Battles. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 84, 119-139.

Still, I did my research, and re-read the relevant bit of Herodotus, which admittedly did not take long (6.111-4, if you are interested). There are some points for confusion, however – the numbers and location of the Persian cavalry, the orientation of the armies with respect to the sea, Persian surprise at the lack of Athenian cavalry and light troops (archers), and so on. All of which adds to the speculation, of course.

One of the first wargame articles I ever read was by Charles Grant and about Marathon. A lot later I realised that he had simplified it rather, but he went for the deployment at right angles to the sea. He also added two units of Greek skirmishers and had two units of Persian horse deployed to their left rear, near the sea. I sort of followed suit.

The Greeks consist of 20 hoplite bases, arranged with 4 bases in the centre and 8 each on the wings. I actually determined that they would all already have ‘advance’ orders under the rules, or they would never get going. The Athenians seem to have had a rather diffuse command structure, so perhaps I should have given each section a general. The Persians consist of 19 bases of Persian Infantry, 3 hoplite bases (Ionian Greeks) 1 light horse and 1 cavalry base. My idea for them was to stand off and blast the Greeks with archery fire, and bring the cavalry into action to hit the weaker Greek centre.

Herodotus says (possibly his most reliable statement of the whole narrative) ‘They fought in the battle at Marathon a long time’. It is usually a tough fight (Marathon is one of the battles I keep coming back to) and this was no exception.

In the picture Persian archery has stalled the Greek centre and much of the left-wing. The extreme Greek left however has got into contact and routed their opposite numbers (seen fleeing, extreme left). On the Greek right the Persians are being pushed back and are starting to collapse, while the Persian cavalry is being ineffective and the Persian general is deploying the reserve Ionians to shore up the right.

It did not last much longer than that. The Persian left fled and with that the army collapsed. The Greeks were not without damage, however, as one of the centre bases also routed which, on a bad army morale roll, caused the Greeks to waver.

I think that the rules stood up reasonably well. Of course, I have a lot of notes to add, most significantly a turn sequence, which I kept forgetting, a few more combat modifiers and clarification to the pursuit rules. In real life, of course, the Greeks defeated the Persian wings and then turned on the centre, leading to confused fighting by the Persian ships and camp. The upshot above would probably be something similar, as the Greek left was rallying to turn on the rest of the Persian right-wing, and the Greek right could assault the Persian centre. The army morale rules at least saved me from fighting out the blood-bath.

The Persian cavalry was satisfyingly useless – there are arguments as to whether they should be there at all. Also, I suspect that the orientations of the armies with respect to the sea are fairly irrelevant, except insofar as to assume that the Persians were not so incompetent as to fight with their backs to it. The other thing about Marathon is that because it is a fairly short battle, it can be re-fought with variations, as Phil Sabin suggests. Evans’ suggestion that the Athenians had both light troops and cavalry might be one such experiment to try, although I doubt it would change a lot. Once the hoplites are in contact, the Persian foot does not have, on average, much of a chance. In the rules, the hoplites get 3, plus one for advancing and one for rear support, and a few overlaps, against the Persian Infantry 2 plus one for rear support. I have not even included here the effect of the Athenians advancing ‘at the double’; they do not seem to need to really. If the Greeks had had a few more tempo points, the centre could have closed as well.

Still, Marathon does provide endless interest. As I recall in Grant’s re-fight the Greeks won as well. In fact, I cannot recall a Marathon when the Persians have won. Sabin reckons that the key issue is the number of Persian infantry, and I confess that that would seem likely. I will have to try, but I think I would need to paint more Persians first.

Wednesday 7 April 2021

The English Isles

Inevitably, I have been reading again, and the current set of blog posts are an attempt to catch up. This one should be skipped by wargamers with no interest in the history behind the games, particularly pertaining to the British Isles. Nevertheless, I found it interesting, so much so that I have brought (but not read) the previous book in the conference series.

The book in question is this:

Duffy, S., & Foran, S. (Eds.). (2013). The English Isles: Cultural Transmission and Political Conflict in Britain and Ireland 1100-1500. Dublin: Four Courts.

I can feel the interest plummeting already, of course. This is an edited book of papers from a conference about what happened to the British Isles after the Norman Conquest of England. That is, how did the Anglo-Normans push out into Wales, Scotland and Ireland?

As any wargamer knows, I suspect, the Anglo-Normans did invade Wales and Ireland, albeit at different times and with different results. One of the interesting arguments in the book is that while we might expect some cultural imperialism from the Normans, lording it over their Celtic foes when defeated, in fact there is evidence that the flow was two way. Instead of the Norman overlords replacing local Celtic saints in Wales, for example (J. R. Davies’ article, the second chapter), the dedications of the churches remained more or less the same. Granted new foundations might be named after acceptable Roman saints (those accredited by Rome, I mean) as might new settlements, but the Celtic saints, or those deriving from Anglo-Saxon influence were kept on. Cultural transmission was two way.

Again, on the transmission front, Anglo-Norman lords could and did marry the daughters of local worthies. This seems to have been the case in Wales but rather less in Ireland. This process, essentially producing Anglo-Norman-Walsh children led to a ‘both and’ sort of culture rather than the replacement of one by the other. In Ireland the Anglo-Normans tended to remain within their own system and not take local for wives, but there were some who did and there were also Irish lords who became ‘anglicized’, that is, they adopted some aspects of Anglo-Norman culture. This was not done just because the Anglo-Normans were the winners – they were not.

What seems to have happened is that the Irish took what seemed to be useful to them and used it. Thus they could pick up ‘Norman’ weaponry and use it. F. V. Veach notes that just using a Norman sword does not make you Anglo-Irish. There is a slightly amusing (serious history does not go in for many jokes) where three daughters of an Irish lord who sued in 1260 for possession of their father’s land under English law, because Irish law did not allow for an inheritance to be passed through the female line. Firstly, they must have obtained the right to use English law (which was not a given). Secondly, another interesting point arises, in that English law only recognised the rights of the youngest daughter because the other two were born before the parents were betrothed. Neither Canon nor Irish law recognised a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children, it seems, but English law did.

Scotland, of course, followed a different path. While there were a lot of invasions, arguments and a few battles between the Anglo-Norman state (later England) and Scotland, the Scots did their own bit of acculturation by importing a few bits of Norman culture – such as abbeys, which did a great deal to anglicise or, perhaps more strictly, Europeanise, the Scottish polity and nobility. While the north and west were still Gaelic, the south and east became more like England, as did the reach of the writ of the king. Of course, the kings of Scotland could still cause trouble for the English and, for the matter of that, the Irish as well. In some senses the Scots traded cultural assimilation of an increase in royal power.

There are some interesting suggestions in the book David Broun suggests that, perhaps, for a brief moment the English monarch could have established a sort of ‘high-kingship’ over the whole set of British Isles. This foundered, it seems, on the issue of the Scottish monarch’s homage for Scotland. Often Scottish kings held land in England for which homage was, of course, required, but that was not the issue. Henry III was wise enough not to press the issue, but Edward I of course did, to the extremes. Scottish social, legal and cultural convergence with England, due to the influence of the church and kings, did not make Scotland a second England, nor did it unite the two realms, at least until the accession of James VI and I in 1603. Scotland had a core area in the south-east, as did England. While England had much greater resources, they were never sufficient to conquer Scotland. Scotland stayed different, if only in the existence of the Celtic fringes which gave shelter to fugitives and freedom fighters from English conquest of the core areas.

One of the things to emerge from the book, and a few other bits of reading I have done, is the fluidity of movement between the west of Scotland and Ireland. The final chapter of the book discusses the Lordship of the Isles, which was suppressed in 1493. Was the Lord of the Isles practically an independent monarch? Did some of them aspire to be so, and did they intervene in Ireland to gain the resources to keep the Isles independent? Furthermore, they had a good go at becoming Earls of Ross, which landed them in the centre of a lot of Scottish politics and conflict. The answers are unproven; there is too little contemporary evidence around, it seems to be able to tell. Most of what was written about the rituals of the Lordship of the Isles (which would allow a determination of these sorts of aspirations) is early modern, and thus seems to be based on a little fact, and a lot of wishful thinking.

So, a fascinating book for those among us who read history, as opposed to campaign and battle reports. But even so, there are a few hints and interesting wargame campaigns: the Lordship of the Isles, the invasions of Ireland, multiple Welsh revolts and so on. The possibilities are endless.

Saturday 3 April 2021

Fields of Battle

Every once in a while I pick up a book that makes me think ‘Oh, I should wargame that.’


Evans, R. (2015). Fields of Battle: Retracing Ancient Battlefields. Barnsley: Pen and Sword.

as one such book. On the face of it, it is rather unprepossessing. The rear cover states that it discusses the Ionian Revolt, Marathon, Thermopylae, Ilerda, and the battles of Bedriacum and so it does. What, you might well ask, do we need another book on these battles for? And, perhaps, a bit more pointedly, Why did I buy it?

My loyal reader will know that I read a lot and that I am a cheapskate. I bought it because it was in last year’s Naval and Military Press sale, for only a very few pounds, and I got it along with Oman’s Medieval Warfare books. It has sat on my shelf (to be fair I did read the introduction) for a year or so before I got around to it, perhaps slightly provoked by a general level of dissatisfaction with the flow of my ancients rules, as noted before.

It is an interesting book and a fairly easy read. It is sort of along the lines of an academic work, but the details are hidden in the endnotes and the bibliography is not that long. It is a bit ‘back to the sources’ sort of thing, based on re-reading Herodotus, Caesar , and Tacitus. That, of course, is never a bad thing, but it does not really suggest anything new or groundbreaking is about to emerge.

Evans’ focus is, in fact, on logistics. The first two chapters focus on the expansion of the Persian Empire first into Asia Minor, the revolt of the Ionian cities being a response, perhaps, to the smack of firm government and, even more so, to the demands of the Empire for resources in men, money and material for Darius’ adventures further north. Next, of course, the Persians advanced into the Greek islands, culminating with landing on Euboea and on mainland Greece itself. The defeat at Marathon, Evans suggests, was not severe for the Persians, more a temporary check for a force that was at the edge of its supply chain across the sea.

Evans does assume that the reader has something of a grasp of the detail of the wars, the battles of which he discusses. The account of the Persian invasion of Greece stops before Plataea and Salamis, and it is assumed that you know what happened. Of course, there are plenty of books out there that tell you, but perhaps, given the interest of the book, supplying the remaining Persian army in Greece post-Salamis would have been an interesting theme.

There are some interesting items along the way. Evans, despite what he says about the endless speculation and theories relating to how Marathon was fought, adds his own, relating to the presence of Greek cavalry and light troops. He has an ingenious (or it sounds like one to me) solution to the explicit statement in Herodotus to the effect that the Athenians did not have either present. There is also an interesting discussion of why the Spartans, who did know about the possibility of being outflanked stayed at Thermopylae. It is also pleasing to me to see how much weight Evans gives to naval matters, discussing the battle of Lade (494 BC) and the action at Artemesium (480 BC) as well as activities on land.

There is a bit of sea work in the account of Ilerda and Massila as well. Now actually, in my dim and distant past as a globe-trotting scientist, I have sat at a cafe in Marseilles harbour, and very nice it was too. So I do know that it is by the sea and, in order to besiege it, the Caesarians had to blockade the port as well, which they duly did. Caesar himself was busy winning in Spain, the important point that Evans wants to make is that he beat the Pompeians without fighting a major action. He did this by exploiting their mistakes (they left their forces too far apart) and by attacking their logistics. Eventually, the Pompeians were forced to attempt to leave Ilerda and march for safety. As they were outnumbered in cavalry, they failed and were forced to negotiate a surrender. The capture of Hispania and of Massila freed Caesar to concentrate on Pompey himself in the east, with consequences we all know about.

Finally, Evans has a go at the Year of the Four Emperors, and the clashes between the assorted sides along the Po valley. Again, he assumes a degree of familiarity with the events, of which I have a vague grasp but no more than that. The first battle of Bedriacum was more of a skirmish, although it persuaded Emperor Otho to commit suicide. The second battle was a lot more interesting, fought at night between the Flavian army and that of Vitellius. The latter had omitted to create a chain of command, which led to a degree of confusion and, quite likely, to them losing the battle. Again, the activities of the fleet, at Ravenna, and declared for Vespasian was important, although the Vitellian fleet raiding southern Gaul had little impact. The field at Bedriacum was very cut up and rather exposed, which would make it an interesting one to model, with lots of drainage ditches.

So, a good book, but not without some grumbles. The maps are (as usual) inadequate and do not list all the places discussed in the text. There are quite a few typos, suggesting inadequate proofreading and the references to the plates (black and white photos) are often confusing or incorrect, again suggesting that no-one really checked before printing. Still, these are only grumbles.

Fields of Battle is, in fact, a companion volume to Fields of Death. I confess I do not like the title of the first work but, on the strength of the second volume, it is on order. In the meantime, I think I might need to paint some Greek cavalry for Marathon.