Saturday 25 September 2021

Little Braddock on the Down

You might have picked up that I am something of a sceptic when it comes to formations in wargames. For example, I do not really believe that the Persian ‘Sparabara’ formation was used much on the battlefield. It is a nice idea on the parade ground and doubtless looked very impressive. But as a practical field formation, I have my doubts. Similarly, I suspect that the classic ‘tercio’ formation of the Seventeenth Century was similarly a parade ground arrangement. I doubt that sensible Spanish commanders would relegate half their firepower to the back of a formation unless they really were in danger of being surrounded.

These formations are, I think, more a result of artistic representation than practical battle deployment. After all, if we went with the Bayeux Tapestry, we would have a fairly odd notion of the Battle of Hastings and the formations used, not to mention an even more confused account of the narrative than we already have. Useful as art is, it can easily lead us astray.

A comment in, I think, in Wanklyn, M. (2014), Decisive Battles of the English Civil War (Barnsley: Pen and Sword), is to the effect that we are heavily influenced by the conventional assumptions about deployment in the English Civil War as well. The assumption is that armies deployed with two wings of horse and a centre of foot. Which is, of course, perfectly true of many of the battles. It can, however, have some odd effects, most notably with respect the the left-wing of Essex’s army at First Newbury, which seems to have spent the entire battle enjoying the water meadows by the River Kennett. Wanklyn makes the entirely reasonable suggestion that the Parliamentarian left wing horse was not, in fact, on the left, but attacked in the centre; Essex, for all his faults as a general, was not stupid enough to waste half his cavalry on riverside picnics while the rest of the army was in danger of defeat, cut off from its home base.

I digress, but only a bit. Somewhere out there in the blogosphere there used to be a blog called ‘Going Back to the English Civil War’, and that is what I have done. For some reason, I have avoided the ECW, which was my first ‘proper’ wargame period. In fact, I dug out my 15 mm Peter Laing ECW collection recently, and then carefully put them away again. Nevertheless, the seed was planted, and I have gently meandered my way back to the Seventeenth Century and the ECW in particular.

I suspect that part of the reason for my reluctance was the experience of ECW battles with DBR (which was not, in my opinion, of the best) and my experience of writing ECW rules (which was fine, but a bit of hard work). Memories have faded and I was flicking through my sources looking for something to try out. Ages ago I considered Braddock Down (19th January 1643), but rejected it because of insufficient hedges in my collection. That has now been corrected, and after plenty of um-ing and ah-ing, I pinched the orders of battle and deployment from Julian Lander’s first book of ECW battles and got on with it, using my own rules.

The picture is taken from behind the left flanks of the Parliamentarians, led by Sir Patrick Ruthven. The road to Liskeard is just visible behind their centre-right. Ruthven had five bases of cavalry, ten of shot, five of pike, and a gun coming up from Liskeard, for a total of 21 bases. Hopton had six cavalry, eight shot, eight pike a dragoon base and a gun, for a total of 24 bases.

So far as I can tell, there is no good description of Braddock Down as a battle. In reality, the Parliamentarians seem to have shot off a volley and then run for it. A re-fight is unlikely to produce that result at least. Furthermore, Lander has gone for the conventional deployment of horse and foot on both sides, which may, or may not, be accurate. Additionally, under DBR, the pike and shot are not integrated (something that PM: ECW tried to fix), so the deployment is of blocks of pike and of shot separately, although the very brief account of the battle I have found does credit Grenville’s Cornish pike with the decisive charge.

So, what happened?

The final dispositions are above. The Royalists have pretty well destroyed the Parliamentarian centre, the pike fleeing back up the road, some shot have just been routed on the centre-left and the remaining Parliamentarian pike are looking a bit isolated. The royal centre is now stalled in front of the commanded musketeers in the road protected by the hedge. On the flanks, the royalist horse have been superior but not dominant. On the royal right, Hopton is about to dispose of the rest of Ruthven’s horse, while on the left most of the Parliamentarian horse has routed apart from that under Ruthven himself which has just routed some royal horse.

Nevertheless, the Parliamentarian morale has just dropped to ‘withdraw’, and so Hopton and the Cornish have won. I had forgotten how much fun an ECW battle can be, having been a bit dubious about the mirror fighting aspects of the period. The problem is that rules have a tendency to exaggerate the differences between the side. In DBR the Cornish pike are automatically Pk(S) and the royal horse are Pi(F). There is no evidence to speak of that that was the case at Braddock Down – it is retro-fitting from later battles. So in my rules, unless there are exceptional reasons for it, all troops are the same. Thus fighting a mirror image is potentially more of a problem.

In this case, however, the Parliamentary deployment given by Lander was more of a problem. If Ruthven had lined the hedges and not deployed in front of them the royalists might have had more difficulty. The commanded shot behind the lane are also a bit of a puzzle, as is how the routing Parliamentary foot got ridden down by their own cavalry.

Still, a good time was had by all (it was a solo game, of course) and I am now hatching plans to increase further my stock of ECW infantry, as I ran out. If you look closely some of the Parliamentary pikemen are, in fact, Swiss.

Saturday 18 September 2021

Aztec Agency

It might have escaped your notice with everything else going on (it certainly nearly escaped mine) but August 2021 was the five hundredth anniversary of the fall of Tenochtitlan, to, well, to whom is the interesting question. The other interesting question is why there has been so little made of the event, which had worldwide implications. The celebrations in Mexico have been muted, to say the least, and that is not just because of a certain pandemic.

Specifically, the Aztecs surrendered on 13th August 1521. The winners were the Spanish under Cortes and a great alliance of other Mexica. The alliance had different aims from those of Cortes, of course. For them, the point was the removal of their vassal status under Aztec conquest and rule. Cortes aimed to plunder and, ultimately, to conquer. As Hassig pointed out a fair time ago, it was the disunity of the Mexica that caused their downfall, not really any technological advantage deployed by the Spanish.

That is not to say that the Spanish did not have a technological edge, of course. In fact, they had a literal edge with steels swords, not to mention gunpowder weapons, crossbows, and cavalry. But technology can be overcome. The Aztecs, for example, learned to run in a zig-zag fashion to avoid musket balls, and Cortes had to be careful in his handling of the cavalry because they could still get cut off and killed by Aztec fighters.

An article in August’s History Today reminds us of all this. It goes a bit further, arguing that the Aztecs and other Indians had agency in the conflict. That is, while the popular narrative gives all the credit to Cortes and the conquistadors, in fact, a lot of the running was made by the Indians, some of whom swapped sides when they saw the opportunity of getting rid of Aztec rule. It goes a bit further, observing that Monteuczoma perhaps invited the Spanish to Tenochtitlan because he worked out that they would be more easily destroyed in the city than in open battle. The Spanish nearly disastrous flight from the city in mid-1520 shows that he was probably right.

During the retreat from Tenochtitlan Cortez lost 860 Spanish and over 1000 Tlaxcalan allies, along with his cannon, many crossbows and so on. He also lost a huge amount of face and could not be sure that the Tlaxcalans and other allies would not switch back to the Aztecs. As it happened they did not, and they returned to the offensive with the Spaniards as a kind of crack assault troops. Cortes was a gambler, and his campaign was technically illegal. If it went wrong and he survived and got back to Spain he would be in trouble.

There is, of course, a lot more to say. The ‘Spanish’ conquest of the Aztecs is a classic case of post-colonial revisionism. Moctezuma was neither stupid nor cowardly. He did have a plan for handling the invaders (the Aztecs called them ‘bandits’, which is not far from the truth, and often killed them by striking the back of the head, which is how criminals were executed in Tenochtitlan). Other interesting bits and pieces arise: Malintzin (Cortes’ translator and concubine) is often portrayed as a traitor to the Aztecs, but she was from a coastal tribe, probably kidnapped by the Aztecs and sold as a slave to the Maya who gave her to Cortes. She was not betraying her people, she might well have had her own reasons for acting against them.

I could go on. Examples of the colonial treatment of the conquest can be multiplied. But perhaps it is best understood as an indigenous civil war in which the Spanish were involved, perhaps as partial catalysts and certainly as key troops. However, without tens of thousands of indigenous allies, the Spanish would simply have vanished in the interior, probably cut off in Tenochtitlan, and starved to death. We can also note that the allies simply saw themselves as transferring allegiance from the Aztecs to the Spanish king (who was conveniently far distant); post-conquest they sent a steady flow of petitions to the king and his council. The indigenous people adapted to the new political situation.

In wargaming terms, this gives us some real problems. Older, pre-post-colonial wargames, could pitch a smaller Spanish army with a few native allies against hordes of Aztecs who could be mown down by brave western technology. There is an element of truth here, of course, and the over-representation of the Spanish on the table could be rationalized by the disproportionate effects of their weaponry.

A post-colonial representation would be of Aztecs against an alliance of rebellious vassals, with a few Spanish added in. So far as I can tell the Spanish never amounted to much over 1500 effectives and very few of them were cavalry. In terms of my wargame rules of 1 base to around 500 men, that would be three bases and an insufficient number of cavalry to be represented.

However, the Spanish cavalry was effective. They could open holes in the Aztec units that other troops could exploit, as in the retreat from Tenochtitlan described by Hassig. Muskets and crossbows could also open holes but these could be closed more easily by the Aztecs. The cavalry disrupted in a way that the firepower did not.

Probably the answer in wargame terms is to allow the Spanish to be a special troop type, conquistador, which has assorted abilities to shoot, charge and defend at an advantage. They would, however, be present in limited numbers, one to three bases, and vulnerable as usually to being surrounded, which is what the Aztecs often tried to do.

It would also be best to see the conquest in a campaign context, with shifting native alliances. No-one likes being a vassal, particularly, and the indigenous people were alarmed by the growing power of the Aztec empire, even though is was a different sort of empire from the emerging European idea of one.

And now I have some ideas. I will see if anything comes of them.

Saturday 11 September 2021

In Tibet

A long time ago I think I mentioned, in the midst of the rebasing project, that I had discovered a DBR army’s worth of Tibetans. They were rebased, briefly admired, and put in a box along with the Mongols, Ming and Manchu.

You might wonder why I have an early modern Tibetan army. It is, indeed, a good question and I can only plead either insanity of a completist mindset that was determined to create an army for every DBR army list nation. Insanity seems to most sensible choice.

Anyway, I have them and I suspect that they have never actually been on the wargame table. It was clearly time to change that and a ‘low stakes’ wargame hoved into sight. For this one, I had no particular narrative in mind and simply rolled the dice for the terrain, noting that Tibet does not have an awful lot of terrain features except hills.

The opponents were to be the Mongols, for no better reason than they were next door in the box. I think that historically the Mongols and Tibetans had a few punch-ups, but don’t quote me on that. It seems rather a long way on the map from Mongolia to Tibet. I could have used the Chinese, but I do not wish to come to the attention of the agencies of the Chinese state, so stuck to the Mongols. The latter have been on the table before, a long time ago, in one of the very few face-to-face wargames I have played. The figures, incidentally, are all Irregular.

The terrain rolling gave me a scenario: ‘The Battle of the Yeouch River’. There are hills and a ford which is the key strategic objective for both sides. The Mongols arrived first and seized the advantage, and the ford, assisted by being an all cavalry army. I was a bit nervous of the Tibetan's deployment because over half the infantry were rather feeble militia. Still, I had a steep hill and the deployment looked like this.

The Mongols are at the top, the lights on the Tibetan side of the river, the heavies about to ford it. The Tibetans have just arrived, planning to hold the hill (the front slope of which is steep) on their baseline while the cavalry sweep the Mongol lights away and the archers contribute some firepower. It did not quite work out like that.

The picture shows part of the way through the action. What has actually happened is that the heavy cavalry on both sides, or part of it, is clashing by the river. Both generals are involved. The Mongol lights, which were supposed to be shooting up the Tibetan infantry, have only just deployed and discovered that as the hill on which said Tibetans are deployed is steep, they cannot actually get to them directly.

I suppose it is worth noting here that the model of skirmishing is small groups rushing forward, firing their weapons at close range and then retiring to the main body and letting someone else have a go. Thus, in the model, even though the range of light horse skirmishing is four base widths, the leftmost Mongol light horse are not in range of the Tibetan militia. I blame poor staff officers, myself.

The gap between the hill and the river got quite crowded with a swirling cavalry contest. You might wonder why the Mongol heavies are on green bases while everyone else has a base which, in a dim light, could pass for desert sand. The answer is that I pinched the Mongol heavy cavalry from the Chinese Ming, as I do not have sufficient Mongol heavies to make up the numbers (due, I think to the DBR points system rating the Mongol lights are expensive). The advantage was that I could tell who was Tibetan and who was a Mongol, anyway.

The cavalry battle raged while the Mongol lights tried to figure out what to do. Eventually, the Tibetan luck ran out and their general went down, rolling a 6 on a recoil (5 or 6 to be lost) and being unlucky, while the Mongol general rolled a 3 on a 4, 5, or 6 recoil shaken and was lucky.

Even though the Tibetans were leaderless, they fought on a bit and took out another Mongol cavalry base, reducing the Mongols to ‘fall back’ morale. Without a general, however, there was not much more they could do and as the Mongols reorganised and brought their lights forward, aiming to outflank the militia on the hill and use a more amenable slope for their operations, I, as acting Tibetan general decided that a withdrawal was the best option. The only alternative was to be slowly shot to pieces by the Mongol light cavalry.

I think that the game shows how dependent armies are on the leadership of the general. I did consider a rule permitting a new general to be appointed if the original one is lost, but actually, in the real world, armies often collapsed upon the death or perceived death, or the leader. This was not just an Eastern phenomenon, however: consider what happened at Lutzen (OK, the Swedes wavered and the next commander in the chain took over) or Marston Moor while Rupert hid in the bean field.

I think the answer is that Lutzen and Marston Moor were both, in my system, big battles where there would be more than one commander, so the loss of one command stand would not be so devastating, although it would be inconvenient. On the other hand, loss of generals, or even perceived loss of generals (such as, out of period, William at Hastings) could cause wavering, command problems and require the leader to expose themselves (ooh-er missis) to prove that they were still there.

So I think, on balance, that the risk to leaders section will stay, even though often these wargames are decided by the loss of one or other generals. It seems to make historical sense, and I can, as demonstrated, rationalise away those occasions where it did not happen to be quite so devastating.

Saturday 4 September 2021

Two More Marathons

Now, do not worry. Your correspondent has not suddenly started to move from couch potato to 26 miles without any training, but has returned to the battle of fascination (we all have one as wargamers, I fancy), Marathon 490 BC. I reported on a rather easy Greek win a week or two ago, and a slightly tougher one in April.

I have since refined the Persian deployment and had another go. Give my rules give the Persian infantry (which are a specific troop type) +1 for a supporting rank, and given that the tactics of trying to disrupt the Greek line by having a single line of Persians failed, I tried the doubled-up version.

The Greek deployment is the same – eight bases on the flanks, four in the centre, while the Persians are two deep, as seen, with a reserve of Ionian hoplites and the cavalry arriving the the right rear.

The plan was that the Persians should have a better chance of shooting some gasps in the Greek advance and then a slightly more equal opportunity in the subsequent melee. It sort of worked out like that, but not as much as I thought it would. The battle proceeded much as the last one, in fact, except that the Greeks did get a bit more raggedy on the way in to contact.

The picture shows the final positions, just as the Persians broke. You can see an encouraging number of Persians on the field, but a closer look would reveal that a fair number of them are routing. On the other hand, you can also see that the Persian left has done a reasonable job in delaying and disrupting the Greek right (the sea is nearest the camera, by the way), and the Persian centre is by no means defeated (which is right, proper and historical). However, the Persian right is a mess, even though the cavalry have done their job and delayed the far left of the Greeks.

Pondering the results, I came to the conclusion that the Greek assault was just too violent. The hoplites start at a base three, plus one for being two-deep (in the wings, anyway) and plus one for advancing into contact (the Greeks do not seem to need to have special charge rules here). The Persians are on a base of two. They might get a few added plus ones of overlaps, but still are a basic two against four, which does not add to the longevity of the line if they cannot disrupt the incoming Greeks. In archery, the Persians are at three against three. Perhaps I just roll badly for them.

Still, nothing ventured. I decided to give Persian infantry the extra plus one for being two deep in melee, and added some extra infantry (pace Sabin, who reckons that the number of Persian infantry is decisive in determining the outcome) and set up again.

This time, the Persian line being slightly extended, and you can see the sea. The eagle-eyed among you will note the extra base of Ionian hoplites in the Persian reserve, and an extra base of Persian infantry, making all the Persians two deep.

The game is slowly approaching the long, hard struggle that Herodotus reports. The extra for the two-deep Persians helps in starting to hold the Greek impact, but only a bit.

The slightly fuzzy picture shows the end of the game. You can see that the Persian right has held this time (and even routed some Greeks), and the centre has not done too badly either, but the left has collapsed, as have the cavalry on the far right, which got caught by the hoplites. The Greek right, nearest the sea, is now turning in, in the approved manner, and the Persians are committing the reserves to try to shore up their centre left.

It was, as I mentioned, a bit of a tougher fight for the Greeks, but they still won quite handily. Obviously the Persians need yet more infantry, or a complete tactical rethink, to win this one.

This has been an interesting set of battle and play tests. Marathon seems to be a tough one for the Persians to win, largely because they are automatically on the back foot, relying on archery to disrupt and delay the Greeks, rather than advancing themselves. This seems to be a reasonable tactic, it is just that when they get caught in melee, they are at a disadvantage. They need to get a bit lucky to disrupt the Greeks sufficiently to give the Persians an edge in close combat, and they cannot guarantee to obtain that all along the line. Therefore they will cave in somewhere, and that will be exploited by the Greeks.

The Persian tactics are reasonable ones, that is, their normal enemy were similar foes to themselves with lots of mounted troops, and massed archery was a decent response to that. The Greeks were probably the first massed armoured infantry force they met. Even the Persian Immortals do not seem to have been as heavily armoured as the hoplites, and remember, we are not talking about medieval bows here; an arrow that could puncture plate armour is a very different animal than a fifth-century BC projectile.

Still, it does make you wonder if Marathon is ever winnable by the Persians. I can, and probably will, add even more infantry to their line and see when they can at least hold the Greek centre adequately. Another idea which occurs is to put the Ionians in the front line to hold their compatriots at least somewhere. The Persian cavalry it seems can delay but not defeat the hoplites, at least in the numbers that were present at Marathon. Another base or two of horse would not seem to be going to make that much of a difference.

Either that, or the Persian archery needs to get luckier. But has anyone ever re-fought Marathon and managed a Persian win?