Saturday 27 November 2021

Do Battles Matter?

There was an interesting exchange in October 2021’s History Today magazine, entitled ‘How Important Was the Battle of Lepanto?’ As every wargamer will know, the 450th anniversary of the battle was in October this year; hence the articles.

Most wargamers would probably answer ‘Of course Lepanto was important; it turned back the Ottoman tide and victories matter.’ On the other hand, as Geoffrey Parker notes in his article, Lepanto did not matter as the Venetians had already lost Cyprus, which was the point of the campaign in the first place.

Kate Fleet argues that Lepanto really did not change anything, as the Ottoman naval strength was not undermined and they continued operations in the Mediterranean theatre for several years, reconquering Tunis in 1574. The real factor, according to her, was the Ottoman defeat at Malta in 1565 and the turning of Ottoman resources to land warfare with Hungary and Iran. This was compounded by economic difficulties.

Kiril Petkov notes firstly that novel technology (presumably the impact of gunpowder, although this is not defined) can be decisive against sophisticated, seasoned, and formidable opponents. Further, Lepanto was perceived as being important and psychological factors are vital. The Ottomans had been thought of as irresistible. Now it was seen they could be defeated.

Finally, Roger Crowley notes that the battle was devastating to those involved but the victory did seem to go nowhere. The Ottomans replaced their fleet over 1571-2 but it was expensive and skilled men had been lost. The real upshot of this was to show that galley warfare was unsustainable; with human-powered vessels command of the sea was unwinnable. In 1580 Spain and the Ottomans disengaged; both sides were more or less bankrupt.

As wargamers, battles are important to us. As such, of course, we accrue the derision of many ‘serious’ historians who argue that really the important things are the history of ideas, economies, and history from below, the real people who went through all the traumas of life. Winning battles is a minor part of history and is largely ignored in modern historiography. From history’s point of view, battles do not matter; treaties, formalising who won, do and are worthy of study.

Well, nearly, but not quite. There is interest in battles and it is, slightly, on the increase. This is because of the movement towards ‘history from below’. Partly this is because the memoirs of ordinary soldiers are available, and their experiences can be (after a fashion) accessed. Of course, the reason they wrote was because of the extraordinary events they had been involved in, that is, in campaigns and battles.

Austin Woolrych once noted that surely who won the battles was rather important. As a consequence how they were fought and why was also important, and so the study of military history is a component of understanding who won and why. After all, if history is written by the victors, working out how and why they won is fairly important. Historians, on the whole, do not seem to be very comfortable with this as an idea. The messy business of sticking pointy sticks into people to prove some sort of point is often ignored for rather more pleasant understandings of warfare, often related to who had to money to win.

Partly the upshot of this is that military history gets denigrated and sidelined. In the pages of History Today, in interviews and book reviews often the least favourite historical genre is military history. Often it is regarded as poorly done, methodologically inadequate, and often false. That, of course, might be a consequence of the fact that historians are uncomfortable with the whole idea of chronicling military operations. The legacy of the ‘drums and trumpets’ sort of military history lives on.

Thus we land up with a circular problem. Military history is poorly done because ‘serious’ historians do not want to engage with it. Thus ‘amateur’ historians write about it and because they are not academically trained historians they make a rather poor job of it and hence the genre gets a worse name. And so on. There are, of course, some notable exceptions to this, but these seem to be the impressions and views which get propagated.

Woolrych’s view was, of course, that battles in the English Civil War, at least, did matter. Marston Moor lost Charles I the north; Naseby lost him the throne and Preston lost him his head. Even a winning draw, such as Second Newbury had its importance, as it was part of the process of creating the New Model Army under a more radical leadership determined to actually finish the war. I think it would be rather hard to argue against the fact that these battles and their consequences were important. Perhaps that is why many historians of Seventeenth-Century Britain prefer to examine the Protectorate or the Personal Rules of Charles rather than the civil war itself.

So did Lepanto matter? Geoffrey Parker probably gets it right. While Cyprus was lost and the Ottomans replaced the fleet, the loss of the fleet meant that operations could not start again from the Gulf of Lepanto in 1572. Operations against more Venetian outposts in the Adriatic were not possible, nor was an attack on Crete. And that may well have mattered. If the Ottoman navy had been intact in early 1572 the war may well have dragged on, if not hotted up. Spanish and Ottoman resources would have been poured into the Mediterranean theatre. In the former case, possibly to the detriment of operations in the north against the rebel provinces, or indeed to the 1588 Armada. We cannot, of course, know what would have happened. History is not a natural science; the experiments are not repeatable.

As wargamers, we can seek out the broader context of our battles and buy and read the better sort of military history. We can leave the less good books, such as the endless tomes on belt buckles of the Third Reich where they belong, in the remainder bin of history.

Saturday 20 November 2021

The Spin Doctor

Recent reading has made me a little sceptical of claims made by the ‘victors’ in battle. As noted recently, Oliver Cromwell was not above spinning his victories, to the extent of turning losing draws into wins and generally bigging up his role in all and every combat he took part in.

I suspect that Julius Caesar was another such spinner of the truth. As you might recall, I have been fighting my way through his first invasion of Britain. The invasion onto the beach was a close run thing but Julius finally managed to overcome the opposition. The second action was the Ancient Britons attempting to stop the Romans from collecting their corn. A lucky bow shot felled the Celtic general at an unfortunate time and Caesar managed to rescue his troops.

The third and final action is described in The Conquest of Gaul VI.35. After the hazardous extrication of his foragers, bad weather stopped military activity. The natives spent the time gathering a large force of infantry and cavalry. Julius drew up his forces in front of the camp and ‘before the engagement had lasted long the enemy were overpowered and took to flight. Julius boasts that he had acquired thirty horsemen, and the Romans pursued. The Britons then sued for peace, according to our Julius, and so the Romans sailed back to Gaul.

Forgive me for being a little suspicious, but why, after all that, did the Romans sail away? If he had been that successful why not conquer the place and have done with it? After all, the Romans had largely supplied themselves from the Celtic grain, had they not? Or is it all just a tissue of half-truths put forward by Jules to cover over an not very successful foray to the edge of the known world?

Still, the third battle was to be wargamed. A Roman force of twenty infantry bases (17 legionaries, 2 bows and a bolt shooter) against twenty Ancient Britons (3 light chariots, 3 light cavalry, 3 skirmishers and 11 tribal foot infantry). The Romans would miss their cavalry, but I did not think Caesar’s claim of having thirty and implying that they were important, at least in the pursuit phase, merited representation.

The problem Caesar has is that he has an entirely pedestrian army against one which is fifty per cent light troops and the rest heavies who can charge any of his bases that might be disrupted. He cannot afford to wait for the enemy to come to him, as they will come and slowly shoot him to bits. So he has to attack.

The picture shows our Jules doing just that, and the Celts responding with their skirmishing lines. The cavalry on the far side, and the chariots, on the near side, pelted the Romans all battle with javelins to, well, not much effect, really, but they did have a crucial role to play in the Roman defeat, as did the near side skirmishers. The Celtic skirmishers ensured that the legionaries were disrupted for critical parts of the game, just in time for them to be hit by charges from the tribal foot.

The key combats were in the left centre, where Celtic charges saw off four cohorts, and on the near side (Roman right) where the skirmishers flanked a charge and turned a recoil result into a rout. The centre-left of the Roman lines also, slightly earlier, disintegrated under the impact of the tribal foot charging cohorts which were no longer in a group with their neighbours due to heavy fire from the skirmishers.

The picture shows the disaster in the Roman centre with four cohorts making off. The fact that Jules himself with the reserve was on site led to a swirling combat with the Romans seeing off one set of tribal foot (those with the brown shaken marker, indicating they are rallying from the charge) while presenting a flank to the rallying tribal foot commanded directly by the British general, who are pursuing the cohorts they have just routed.

You can also see some rather exposed Roman archers in the centre, who are about to be charged and routed by some tribal foot and, on the near side, the British skirmishers who did for the nearest cohorts of Jules’ other legion. Caesar was later heard to describe them as ‘those flankers’. At least, it is thought that is what he said. By contacting the Roman flank as the charge went in they turned a recoil result, which the legion could have stood, into a rout.

At that point, the Romans had lost eight bases out of twenty, and their morale slumped to rout. The British were not undamaged, having lost two tribal foot bases in the centre and the right flank skirmishers to Roman archery. Slightly amusingly, these routing tribal foot and some Roman cohorts landed up running practically side by side…

And so another campaign finished, this one based on Caesar’s own account. With the exception of the final battle, it went fairly much as Julius claimed it did. It seems to me that it might have been rather tougher than his spin allowed for. As for the final wargame, well, Julius’ luck did rather abandon him; some of his rolls were unfortunate. On the other hand, his total lack of cavalry was always going to make it a tough game. He has to attack to have any chance, and that lays the legions open to disruption from the skirmishing light horse and chariots and then the disrupted cohorts being picked off in detail by charges of the tribal foot.

Having played through the games and pondered Caesar’s accounts with a bit more of a sceptical eye, I suspect that Julius was spinning his adventures a bit. After all, if he won such an emphatic victory at the end as he claimed, why did he so readily agree to terms and push off back to Gaul more or less on the same day?

Saturday 13 November 2021

Armada Abbeys – The Wrap Up

There really is little more to tell of the battle at Kildale. The English attacks went home, and Don Pedro’s tactics of defence in depth (which were forced on him by the narrowness of the terrain) did not work. Perhaps he should have put his cavalry and musketeers up front. The English used their light horse well to shield the infantry columns from artillery, and when the men with big choppers in their hands (ooh-err missis) got into the village it was all really over.

It has to be said that Don Pedro’s dice rolling was awful, and the English rolling was lucky. Nevertheless, Don Pedro was forced to retreat and, as the English army was hot on his tail and the Scots looping around via Guisborough on the longer but faster route to Whitby, the Spanish would be forced to surrender.


At the ninth wargame, therefore, I think the Armada Abbeys campaign has finished, and I suppose there is scope for some reflection. Firstly, I think, the campaign was a lot of fun, spreading as it did over the Cleveland plain and, latterly, up into the edge of the North Yorks Moors. Don Pedro fought a good fight, I think, and deserves his rioja when he gets exchanged back to Spain.

On a more global scale, of course, King James VI of Scotland will have done his claims to succeed Elizabeth as the true Protestant defender no end of good. His gamble in leaving potentially Catholic rebels in the north and marching south to aid the English succeeded in spade-loads. Having seen off his own opposition at Coldingham he then foxed Don Carlos and crossed the Tees, following that up with the beating of the second Spanish army at Northallerton.

In my mind, the Scottish musketeers were the star performers, with the artillery coming a close second. The Spanish cavalry did well, the infantry not so well. The English, once the militia had been defeated at Whitby and Guisborough on the Spanish outward march, were rather nondescript, except their light cavalry. These sorts of impressions on the wargamer’s mind bear no relation to reality, of course, but they are the way things seemed.

As for the campaign, it was a narratively formed activity. I had no map (except a reprint of a Tudor map of Yorkshire, which has very small print for North Yorkshire) and a bit of local knowledge. The conceit of the campaign was that each wargame would be played in the shadow of a dissolved abbey or another religious house. Hence we had Whitby Abbey, Guisborough Priory, Northallerton Friarage, and so on. Kildale, incidentally, did have a priory.

I long ago decided that map-based campaigns were too difficult to maintain. The problem is that the administrative load becomes too great. Even in simple campaigns, the wargamer starts to resemble a quartermaster rather than a general. Granted that professionals study logistics while amateurs study tactics, but I am, and much of the wargaming hobby is, amateur. I do not, particularly, want to run my campaign from a spreadsheet.

One way of looking at wargaming, I suppose, is that it is a means of story-telling. The plots can be fairly simple, or really convoluted. With most plots, and with most wargames, there is a beginning, a middle, and an end. Perhaps there are twists along the way – the side that seems to have won suddenly seems to have lost, but then wins in the end, that sort of thing.

In common with much story-telling, simple plots tend to get boring. Line them up and have a go, with the only outcome aimed for being the defeat of the enemy army, palls for most people after a while. Campaigns tend to be too heavyweight for many, so scenarios give more complex stories, different narrative arcs, and some different objectives. You could characterise some of them as ‘quests’ for example – intercept the convoy and capture it, or intercept the princess and carry her off to the lair. Role-playing games are often of the quest format, for example.

There are, of course, a number of other sorts of plot around. You could, if you were so inclined, describe the Armada Abbeys campaign as a sort of voyage and return, possibly in multiple characters. What did Don Pedro learn about invading foreign countries? What about King James? And so on. The very fact that I picked on these characters and outlined their responses tells me something about the plot arc that the campaign followed.

Not that the outcomes were pre-determined. At one point I did think that Don Pedro would be going into winter quarters around York and that the spring would find him marching south. Don Carlos’ loss at the Friarage put paid to that, of course, and put the Spanish on the defensive. The key action, on reflection, was the light cavalry clash at Mount Grace, which enabled the English to build a fort at the road junction which helped to destroy Don Carlos’ defeated army after Northallerton. But I did not know that when I created the action. Even stories we make up for ourselves can surprise us.

As any reader of the blog will know by now, I have a number of these campaigns on the go at any one time. Partly that is dues to the wide variety of armies for the ancient and early modern periods I have collected over the decades, and partly it is to do with the reading I do and, perhaps, a predilection for spinning yarns about them. Some campaigns never get beyond the first battle, of course, or never develop into much of a narrative. Some, like the Armada Abbeys, do.

I am not claiming that the campaign was flawless (which wargames are?) but the campaign conceits did keep the interest and focus going. I got a variety of scenarios into the wargames as well, from a beach landing to a rearguard action. And so it finishes, with Don Pedro and honoured prisoner of the English, and King James about to be named heir presumptive to the throne of England. History as it never was...

Saturday 6 November 2021

The Battle of Kildale

‘You tak the high road, ald I’ll tak the low road,

And I’ll be in Whitby afore ye.’

‘Your majesty?’

‘For heaven’s sake general. You pursue the Spanish through the hills, and I’ll go via Guisborough and cut them off from the port. Surely this strategy thing is not that difficult.’

‘I see what you mean, sire. I shall order my troops accordingly.’

‘See you on the other side, laddie.’


Finally I have nerved myself for what looks to be the final action in the Armada Abbeys campaign, which has been running a while (since January 2018, to be specific) and has involved eight battles so far, without counting the offshoot campaign in Ireland. You can catch up with the narrative of the narrative campaign from the link to the right.

A brief synopsis of the situation has Don Pedro and the invaders rocked back to Stokesley after the collapse of Don Carlos’ army at Mount Grace. Don Pedro, now faced by both an English and a Scottish army, has little choice but to retreat back towards Whitby, whence he came. He is aware, however, that the shortest route between his current position and the port is over the edge of the North Yorks Moors along the valley of the Esk.

As the conversation above suggests, the Scottish King, James VI (who is rapidly firming up his chances of succeeding Elizabeth to the English crown) is taking the lowland route through Guisborough, while the English army is directly pursuing the Spanish into the hills. Don Pedro hopes to blunt the English pursuit early and thus pass unimpeded to Whitby before the Scots bar his route.

Don Pedro made his stand at the village of Kildale, the first major defensible point going into the Moors. The village is in fact on the line of the (19th Century) Esk Valley Railway, which is certainly a scenic route to get to Whitby. In fact, the road and the railway criss-cross each other all the way across the Moors.

Be that as it may, Kildale is on a sort of plateau (sort of) in the hills, with high moors to the south and north, and a sizeable dip between it and the northern hills, where Captain Cook’s Monument is these days. This struck me as being a particularly difficult terrain to build with my limited resources. Avid readers of the blog will have noted that hills do not feature particularly strongly, or noticeably, in my wargames.

Still, not being one to be defeated (not quite) I cast around for a means of making a hill / plateau / dip / hill terrain. My desparate eyes alighted on the bookcase, and so the terrain was constructed.

The picture shows the view from behind the Spanish lines (I. e. from the west). The southern moors are marked by the rocks – these are impassible. The slope is very steep. Indeed, when such things happen, these hills are the venues for fell runs. I did consider using cat litter (Piper might have agreed to give up a little) to mark the hills but decided that such a substance and felt terrain sheets probably would not go well together.

Still, there is then a flat bit where the village is, with Kildale Manor nearest the camera, delicately screened by woods so the plebeians cannot see what the local gentry are up to. Don Pedro’s headquarters are, of course, at the manor. Then comes the dip, with St Cuthbert’s church down it. This might seem odd, but it is there and, if you approach Kildale from the east you have to look very carefully to see the top of the tower. These days the railway line cuts the church off from the rest of the village, a fact which causes funeral directors no end of bother. The church is approached by a footbridge (which may be unique in England, I have no idea; it is certainly unusual).

In the dip there is a small stream (which might be the headwaters of the Esk, I am not sure) and the ground then slopes steeply up (not quite as steeply as the southern side). Captain Cook’s monument is on the top of that bit, a bit further north. The whole field is crossed by the Cleveland Way from right to left, incidentally.

All in all the terrain is probably one of the most complex I have created, which probably does not say much for my creativity. The figures and trees are Irregular, by the way, and the buildings a mix of Leven and Baccus. The books are by Aristotle, Coplestone, Israel and Hobbes. I doubt any, except perhaps the latter, would appreciate their tomes being used in such a way.

The plan of the Spanish was to hold defensive positions around Kildale for as long as possible, counter-attacking with the cavalry, to hopefully send the English reeling back towards Stokesley and to permit the retreat towards Whitby to proceed apace with no further interference. The English plan was to hopefully overrun the Spanish positions quickly and with few casualties. After all, the campaign seems to be won and lost, so getting loads of people killed seems a poor way forward, and Her Majesty would not be pleased.

I am starting to run short of words, having waffled on about the terrain for so long. The english approach from the west, of course, and are in ‘alerted march order’, that is, the know the enemy is nearby but not exactly where they are.

After a few moves the view from the north was as above. The English are fully on the board and the borderers have disposed of the Spanish light cavalry (with some very lucky dice rolls, admittedly). They are clearly planning and assault on the village with two columns of troops, the bill and bow nearest the camera and the pike and shot pn the road. Don Pedro has moved his infantry up to the south of the village and is hoping that his artillery and skirmishers will hold the English off for long enough for their supporting musketeers to arrive.