Saturday 26 February 2022

The Ship of the Line

Once again, I am flogging an unpopular horse: not only am I about to launch forth (yes, pun intended) about matters nautical, but also about tactics and doctrine in late Seventeenth Century naval affairs. As someone once said to me ‘Can’t you just put the toys on the table?’

Maybe, but painting has stalled a bit at the moment. Don’t be too hard on me, I have managed over 500 little men since October or thereabout. While that is small fry compared to some who knock out 3000 figures a year, or even 80 Red Indians in an afternoon, it is good going by my standards. I have got a bit bogged down with the last two regiments of ECW foot, however.

I have also been reading, and I would like to quote part of a paper that I found (don’t worry, I will give the reference afterwards. I teach far too much research ethics (and these days, research integrity) to want to stand accused of plagiarism).

To illustrate this point, imagine a typical late-seventeenth-century engagement fought ashore. To the usual complications of battle, add the following: restrict the movement of units from either army within 35 [degrees] of the direction of the wind; only allow units, be they infantry, cavalry, or artillery, to discharge their fire weapons to the flanks, but not to their front or rear; forbid the movement of mounted staff officers between the commander-in-chief and his subordinates; and then fight the battle during a prolonged earthquake, forcing soldiers to operate their weapons as the ground heaves to and fro, with hard-pressed artillerymen timing their shots to coincide with the roll of the ground beneath their feet. This was the face of battle at sea!

Palmer, M. A. J. (1997). The 'Military Revolution' Afloat: The Era of the Anglo-Dutch Wars and the Transition to Modern Warfare. War in History, 4(2), 123-149, p. 124.

This is Dr Palmer’s description, obviously enough, of a late Seventeenth Century naval battle. Perhaps the first thing to do is to wonder at how, exactly, two navies managed to clash at sea, even more so than we might wonder at land battles.

Still, Palmer’s paper sits in the tradition of military revolutions, although I am not sure that it has been particularly picked up upon in more recent historiography. There have been, of course, over naval military revolutions suggested, perhaps the most influential has been the evolution of the race-built galleon in the English navy of the late Sixteenth Century (and hence the defeat of the Spanish Armada). Nevertheless, Palmer has identified, it seems to me, a particular point in history when things did change, albeit not completely and, perhaps, not a decisively as we might like to think.

The moment occurred in March 1653 when the Generals-at-Sea of the English fleet issues fighting instructions. Up to that point ships had a general requirement to stay near and support the admiral of the squadron they had been assigned to, but not much more than that. This led to rather messy, indecisive engagements where ships could be heavily damaged (particularly the squadron flagship) if the others in the squadron were not in support, either deliberately or by accident.

The general group tactics had, Palmer observes, another impact, in that only the ships at the outer edges of the group had a clear field of fire. The rest of the squadron had to wait its turn or possibly could never bring its guns to bear without the risk of hitting a friendly ship. This was reasonably inefficient, of course, but then the tactics were suited to boarding, where an enemy ship could be overwhelmed by a gaggle of vessels, boarded and captured. Failing that, it could simply be pounded to bits by fire from all directions.

The Generals-at-Sea, as the British Admirals were known (I am not sure if they count as English or British at this point – the Commonwealth had conquered Scotland, after all), were, Palmer notes, practical men and used to battles, if not sea battles. They noted this and clearly were pondering how to win sea battles more effectively. The Breakthrough seems to have come at the Battle of Portland in February 1653. The notable point for the purpose here, Palmer argues, is the initial assault by Tromp on 20-24 English men-of-war from the rather disordered fleet. The Dutch were upwind (to windward) of the English and need not have fought, but the English squadron was a bit isolated and Tromp had 80 warships.

You might have expected an easy Dutch win, but this was not the case. The English ships seem to have formed a line and subjected the Dutch to fierce gunfire, according to one account of five or six ships at a time. It seems likely that the defensive fire of the English ships forced the Dutch to give way and hence they did not manage to isolate and board anyone, from somewhere around 9 AM to 4 in the afternoon, when the rest of the English fleet appeared.

The implication of the number of ships firing at the Dutch vessels, Palmer notes, is that they had clear fields of fire. Thus, they were deployed in line. This was not the first time linear tactics had been employed. The Dutch had done so in a defensive action at Dunkirk in 1639, although their attack on the Spanish fleet at the Downs a bit later that year was in the ‘pell-mell’ style.

So, this was hardly an innovation (indeed, I seem to recall the English fleet attacking the Armada had done so in lines) but the point is what happened next. The doctrine of the English fleet became to sail in line (hence ‘ship of the line’) and they won the rest of the battles in the war. In order to control a line of ships, rather than a closer group, new doctrines had to be developed, which eventually became the flag signalling system of the Eighteenth Century.

Now, you cannot really say that naval wargaming is not interest and does not have much potential, can you?

Saturday 19 February 2022

The Devil’s Book

One of the puzzles for the student, amateur or professional, of the outbreak of the English Civil War is how people chose sides. At least, I have this puzzle; it is possible that others do. On the other hand, I cannot for the life of me work out how people choose sides today except on pragmatic grounds. I suppose I line up with W. C. Fields, who is reputed to have said that he never voted for anyone, he always voted against.

Anyway, I have been reading an interesting book:

Dougall, A. (2011). The Devil's Book: Charles I, the Book of Sports and Puritanism in Tudor and Early Stuart England. Exeter: Exeter University Press.

You might well wonder what this has to do with wargaming, and the link is, of course, though choosing sides. The story is a complex one, and adds to, although it does not solve, our understanding of the political and religious stakes in the 1630s, that is, the context in which people, mostly the minor gentry, chose sides.

If you have read anything much about the outbreak of the civil wars you have probably heard of the Book of Sports, or King’s Book. This was a document (actually it is not very long, and is reproduced in Dougall’s tome) first issued by James I in 1618, regulating what could be done on a Sunday aside from divine worship. James, being a rather sensible and peaceable (perhaps lazy) monarch, did not enforce the declaration, which was first discussed on his return from Scotland in 1617, and was first a local, Lancashire, set of rules.

As Dougall points out, there was a twofold process at work in regulating Sunday entertainments (assuming that attendance at church s not an entertainment, of course). Firstly, justices of the peace and other local and county officials were concerned that some of the entertainments could lead to public order problems. It is pretty much the same as today, of course: people drink a bit too much and get involved in punch ups. There were also accusations that such activities as dancing, maypole dancing and Morris dancing lead to sexual offences and illegitimate children, although as Dougall observes, there is no demographic evidence for this.

The other aspect of the process was the rise of Puritanism. This was a development from the Reformation of the mid-Sixteenth Century and the settlement of the Elizabethan church. There were those who thought that the Church of England had not gone far enough in reforming itself, and these people gradually emerged as Puritans. As part of this an argument developed over attitudes to the Sabbath, that is whether everything which was not to do with the divine was banned on a Sunday or whether some things were allowed, provided they did not interfere with church services.

 On the whole, Puritans were on the side of only permitting activities to do with the divine. Bishops were more open to other activities provided they did not stop people going to church. The minor gentry were in favour of controls on what was allowed on public order ground, as the minor gentry, of course, made up the Justices of the Peace and other officials.

It all got a bit complicated, of course. Theologically, the debate was around the application of the Fourth Commandment (‘Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord you God; you shall not do any work…’ (Exodus 20:8-11 NRSV)). Whether this rule from the Old Testament law applied, or perhaps rather, how it applied, mattered. Read literally, it meant that nothing except business to do with the Lord was permitted, and that is how the Puritans who wrote on the subject presented it. Others reckoned that the incarnation of Jesus had set aside the Old Testament law and thus the church, which had after all moved the sabbath day from Saturday to Sunday, could decide what was and was not permitted.

The common people, that is, most people, enjoyed their traditional activities, most of which included drinking, dancing, and other things such as bear baiting, bull baiting and cock fighting. Some JPs worried that banning all other activities would simply land up with people drinking more, and hence fighting and fornicating. Neither of those activities can be done while dancing, at least. Dougall also notes that animal cruelty was not really an issue at the time.

Charles I, as we know, was not quite a subtle as his father, and reissued the Book after some problems were reported in Somerset relating to public order. Some JPs wanted to ban all activities aside from divine worship, not all of them for Puritan reasons. But people generally and the King in particular were averse to banning common entertainments and reissued the Book of Sports and enforced it, or at least tried to. As Dougall notes, enforcement was patchy, even where Puritan clergy who opposed it refused to read it. There are some amusing anecdotes as to how some clergy avoided reading it in church as they were supposed to, including one who got a church warden to read it while standing behind him with his fingers in his ears.

Controversy raged, of course. Dougall’s main point is that it was the Puritans who were innovating here, not that they were returning to a medieval view of Sundays. Thus, he suggests, an individual’s attitude to the Book of Spots is as good a guide as any as to which side they lined up on in 1642. As he notes, there were exceptions. Some who opposed to Book of Sports became Royalists, some who did not fought for Parliament. As with so many things, a sweeping generalisation is precisely that. But perhaps the Book of Sports indicated where gentry sympathies lay.

An interesting book on the background to the English Civil War. Perhaps we can start our campaigns in the future with a game of football and the local magistrate trying to break it up, with disastrous results…

Saturday 12 February 2022

Tudor and Stuart Seafarers

This year, so far, seems to be the years of less popular wargames. I suppose it is a reaction to all this populist politics going on around the world at the moment. Alternatively, it could be something along the lines of ‘when the going gets tough, the less tough play fantasy games’.

Be that as it may, I have been reading again, after the pleas of the Estimable Mrs P to read something normal and easy another maritime work.

Davey, J. (Ed.) (2018). Tudor & Stuart Seafarers: The Emergence of a Maritime Nation, 1485 - 1707. London: Adlard Coles.

This tome was produced by the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich to celebrate the opening of their new gallery devoted to the same topic. And very interesting it is too.

I suppose the book is a little bit more of a coffee table book than those I normally read. It is extensively illustrated, mostly from the NMM’s own collections, by paintings and objects related to the chapters. As is often the case with coffee table books, the chapters themselves are interesting being contributed by experts in their field and giving brief overviews of what, I imagine, is the current state of play in the topics.

You get a fairly wide range of subjects, as you would expect from such a work, and a fair bit is related to military activities. After all, as it is pointed out in one of the chapters, the naval dockyards were the biggest industrial complexes of the Tudor and Stuart reigns, and soaked up a large quantity of national income, particularly at times of crisis and war.

At the start of the period the English were pretty well coastal sailors. Henry VII did not go to sea much after landing in Wales, and Henry VIII, even though he did start a navy, was more interested in recovering France than in the intercontinental travels of the Spanish and Portuguese. The first chapter, by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto discusses English responses to the explorations, and the expeditions of Cabot and other, mostly from Bristol. Geography was against them, however, and the North-West passage did not exist.

The turn to the sea occurred after mid-century, with the likes of Frobisher, Hawkins and Drake. This was partly a response to the Spanish empire and its riches, and also to the defence of the Protestant cause, which was threatened by the might of Spain. This takes us to the breakdown of relations between Elizabeth and Phillip II and the Spanish Armada. The take on the Armada is interesting, as in the historiography of the period, British naval superiority was deemed to have started then, and in the iconography it certainly did (the last chapter is on art and the maritime world, and a very fine chapter it is too).

It could hardly be said that English or British naval superiority was established by the end of the Sixteenth Century, however. Navies need constant investment, and the Tudor polity had a great deal of difficulty raising money, and was also under strategic pressure. The navy ensured superiority of mobility and logistics in Ireland and France, and communications with the Low Countries and the Dutch.

After the end of the Spanish (etc) wars, the navy might have been relatively neglected, although James I appointed his son, Prince Henry as Lord High Admiral and Prince Royal was launched, as a prestige status symbol. There are chapters on navigation, which remarks on how the requirements of finding your way at sea improved the status of mathematics at universities, building naval ships (by J. D. Davies) and early (and disastrous) attempts at colonizing North America.

After the Armada chapter, most wargamers with a naval interest would probably turn to the chapter on the Anglo-Dutch Wars, but the chapter on the British Civil Wars (by Elaine Murphy) is most interesting. She points out that while the Royal Navy was almost totally Parliamentary at the start of the First Civil War, the Royalists gained a navy through capturing ports, particularly Bristol, and, more significantly, the Irish Confederacy also raised a navy, leading to a three way naval struggle in the Irish Sea and Channel between naval vessels and privateers. She also observes that the last royalist strongholds in Ireland, England and Scotland fell to naval offensives (in Ireland not until 1653).

The Anglo-Dutch Wars get a chapter, of course, along with a good collection of pictures as naval painting was taking off at the time. Rebecca Ridal gives a good summary of the actions and campaigns, while noting that the wars were largely unnecessary and whoever won was not really sure what, if anything, had been won. It was also a bit embarrassing for the restored Charles II as it was noted that the Commonwealth regime had won its Dutch War while the monarchy had, to put things at their most polite, drawn its wars.

There is a chapter on life at sea, which observes that while seafaring was dangerous, it was also quite well paid, as long as you did not rely on the government paying you as a sailor. There is another chapter on Stuart pirates, which notes that the ‘Golden Age’ of piracy in the early Eighteenth Century was preceded by lots of activity which shaded from privateering to outright piracy and all stations between. Finally, as noted, there is a chapter on art and the maritime world which discusses how the iconography of the sea and battle changed, starting (more or less) with the Armada portrait of Elizabeth I, through to the images of the battles of the Anglo-Dutch Wars which we all know.

Overall, this is a very good, very nicely produced and well-illustrated book. It is chock full of understanding of the naval world of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries and should give any wargamer who picks it up and reads it (or just looks at the pictures) plenty of ideas and enthusiasm to get their feet wet, or at least dibble their toes in the world of naval wargaming.


Saturday 5 February 2022

The Siege of Corbie

 ‘What is going on here?’

‘Sorry, sire. The wheel came off the gun.’

‘How did that happen?’

‘Rutting, sire.’

‘Can’t Don Sancho sort it out? He is an engineer; they’re supposed to be good at that sort of thing.’

‘I’m afraid Don Sancho is not with us, sire.’

‘What do you mean? He set off with us. Where is he now?’

‘Um. He said he had some unfinished business to attend to back in the last village sire. Something about laying his marshal’s baton in a convenient place.’

‘What?’ Don Pedro sighed. ‘He was getting a bit friendly with the bar maid in the alehouse last night, that was all.’

‘Perhaps we are back to the rutting, sire.’

‘Let us not go there, captain, if you don’t mind. This is a family-oriented blog, after all. Anyway, get the gun off the road and we’ll carry on. Not much else can go wrong, can it?’

There was a distant rumble.

‘What was that?’ There was a cloud of dust in the distance.

‘It would seem, sire, that part of the walls of the town have collapsed.’

‘Oh. So, it is not just me that is having a bad day, then?’


I confess that when I first read about the year of Corbie and the putative Anglo-French treaty that was mooted around the same time, my first impulse was to drag out of storage my old 28 mm Redoubt musketeer figures and to Flashing Blades role play the moving of the signed treaty from Paris to London in the teeth of opposition by Spanish agents, French factions, and English pro-Hapsburg courtiers. It still might happen, I did run across the figures last week and did seriously consider having a look.

Flashing Blades, incidentally, is my all-time favourite role-playing game. I think I have mentioned it before on the blog, but a long time ago. It is, of course, set in the Seventeenth Century France that should have been, not the one that was, and was the only game which reduced the players to uncontrollable giggles. I fondly remember the swordfights on the roof of a galloping carriage and also the ultimate role-playing game question and answer:

‘Why is there a harpsichord at the top of the stairs?’

‘So you can push it down on people chasing you, of course.’

Anyway, on with the wargame campaign and to the siege of Corbie, which was the aim of Don Pedro and his merry men. The game was of the approach and siege of the town. Fortunately, Wikipaedia turned up a diagram of Corbie in the early 1630s.

As you can see, it is pretty well done out with a trace italienne, which was my first question. The second question was how to represent it on the table, and the third was how to besiege it.

After due consideration, Don Pedro decided to approach from the bottom right of the picture above, where there was a blank bit of wall with a gate to the south and only a ravelin and a bastion sticking out.

The result is above. I know it does not look much like the above, but we do need some artistic licence with these sorts of thing (my artistic licence does have an endorsement, admittedly). The Wikipaedia article on the siege (in French) suggested that the town was undermanned, around 1500 defenders against 10000 Spanish.

A good number of moves in, the situation was like this:

Don Pedro’s army is on the table and the gap in the line of march was caused by the collapse of the siege gun carriage, as noted in the introduction. To the right you can see the repaired damage to the wall of Corbie. This was all controlled by my card-driven siege rules, even though the formal siege had not opened. This threw up events, such as mining operations, which were discarded, and also events which had to be incorporated in the narrative, such as the loss of the gun, the loss of an engineer and the collapse of the walls. It all adds to the fun.

A few moves later and the French redoubt on the left blew up, through, presumably, a carelessly handled magazine, and then the forward-facing gun on the bastion was disabled. The whole idea of letting these cards stand was that the French were not expecting the invasion and the defences of Corbie would have been somewhat neglected.

At this point the French morale collapsed. Damage to the forward defences and the loss of two-thirds of their firepower was never going to encourage the heavily outnumbered defenders anyway, and this was compounded by some bad dice rolling. So far, so historical.

Siege wargames, like naval wargames, are a bit of a wargame primadonna. We all know they happened but mostly we do not play them, given, presumably, that they are boring. As recent rule sets of World War One have perhaps suggested, in fact what we need are decent, fast playing rules and a suitable level of abstract thinking as to what is going on on the table. Gun carriages did collapse, as did town walls with no good reason (except neglect). I am not saying that my rules are any good, but they are fast play and entertaining, and the action kept me occupied for a couple of mornings.

The troops are mainly Irregular except the Spanish cavalry and the red-coated Spanish infantry at the rear of Don Pedro’s column. These are Baccus, and the infantry are newly painted. This was their first sojourn onto the table. The defensive guns are by Langton, as are the crews, and the buildings are an eclectic mix of Irregular, Baccus and Leven. The walls too are a mix of Baccus and Irregular.


‘Another victory, sire.’

‘Yes. Now we will just have annoyed the French king a bit more than we had before.’

‘Maybe he will just see sense and re-open the road to Italy.’

‘I may be an optimist, captain, but I do live in the real world.’