Saturday 8 October 2022

Source for the Goose

It is all right. I have not lost my remaining marbles, I really do mean ‘source’. I have banged on before, I am sure, about the historical wargamer’s use of sources to inform their rules, army lists, and games. On the whole, I fear many wargamers, and not a few writers of popular history, are guilty of rather naive reading of what sources we have.

I am not saying that I am much better, of course. We have to treat our sources for warfare with respect. Whoever they were they probably had better access to information than we do. But that does not mean we should treat everything they say with unquestioning belief. As I am sure I have mentioned before, as wargamers we like some sort of firm knowledge about what happened, who was there, and in what numbers, and that information is rarely available to us.

The spark for this little rant has been starting Eleanor Parker’s new tome, which is titled ‘Conquered’, and is about the last generation of children born in Anglo-Saxon England, that is before the Norman conquest. Her argument is along the lines that what we have in the lives of heroes and saints, and the chroniclers, tell us rather more about the times of the writer rather than the times of the written about.

I suspect that this is rather generally true. After all, I think it is acknowledged that Tacitus, for example, rather wrote up the strength, virility, and vitality of the barbarians to contrast them with the effete, wealthy, and lazy Romans of his day. When a half-decent general arrived and put some discipline and backbone into the legions they put the enemy to flight with no problem at all. But the decent Roman commanders incurred the wrath of the useless and incompetent Emperors and were recalled, dismissed, and if they were lucky never commanded again. That is really making a point about the Emperors and those in Rome, not particularly about the commanders, perhaps.

Therefore, we have to be very careful with the sources that we read in order to glean anything about what happened in battles, campaigns, and politics of any particular time. We might think that an ancient source, or one contemporaneous with events, would be the most reliable. But that might be untrue; the source might be the most biased possible. Granted such sources can rarely change the outcomes of events, but they can emphasize or de-emphasize them, and distort the relations between actors in the story and events. As has been noted in popular psychology, people rarely distort the events, but they do distort their relation to the event (consider the difference between ‘The gun went off and he was hit’ and ‘I shot him’).

As the attentive reader of the blog might be aware, I dabble in little or no wargaming after about 1720 or so. The sources, even for events in the Seventeenth Century, can be a little dubious, not to say downright contradictory. I have little idea whether things improved after that. It is possible that they did, but I suspect that confidently bandied around paper strengths might have only a passing relationship with the truth. As a place to start they might be all right, but as soon as a battalion started to march my guess is that it started to lose strength.

Even if no one actually physically deserted or got sick, most armies were depleted by going on a campaign. The lines of communication had to be protected. Places of importance needed garrisons. Other strongholds which had not been captured needed masking and blockading, and so on. More and more people would be needed to bring forward supplies, and all these other forces, rather than the main army, would also need provisioning, reinforcement, and munitions. It all adds up to what I have heard about the modern army, which suggested that for 10,000 men at the sharp end, 40,000 are needed to keep it going. I have no idea if that is correct or not, but it does sound plausible.

The argument is that sources are rather unreliable, and anyway present the viewpoint of the author and the sources they may be drawing upon. A case in point from Parker’s book is Hereward the ‘Wake’, the well-known Anglo-Saxon rebel, exile, freedom fighter, and, well, more or less anything else the sources want to make of him. Some authors want to make him an exemplar of all that was and is (at the time of writing) good about Anglo-Saxon culture. Some blame him for pillaging Peterborough Monastery. The earliest source, the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, does not really say a huge amount about him, but he became popular, so much so that a radio station based in Peterborough was named after him in the 1980s.

The point is that we can read the sources about Hereward naively, and construct a pleasing wargame or three from the events. The attack of Peterborough, the skirmishes, and the siege of Ely along with lengthy bouts of amphibious warfare. That is fine and is what (some) of the sources tell us. But they also tell us other things, and Hereward is a more ambiguous figure that we might like. Or, in other words, he is a bit more real than we would like, or that fit into our games.

I suppose this feeds into my musings about narrative recently. The Hereward tales are rattling good ones, with plots that probably fit within the ‘taking on the monster’ genre. Hereward, unjustly deprived of his inheritance by the invaders who murdered his younger brother, takes revenge by raising the locals in rebellion and defies the might of the Conqueror from his Fenland fastness, outfighting and outwitting the Normans until the end. At that point he either makes his peace with the king, having established the right of Anglo-Saxons to exist culturally and as landholders, or he dies gloriously in battle against his perfidious assailants, or, in the earliest versions, he simply disappears, back to the obscurity from which the authors plucked him. I have no idea of what really happened, but there are some good wargames in there somewhere.


  1. Interesting post. The record seems to improve towards the end of the C18, probably a side of effect of more developed bureaucracy. Not saying there aren't some gross distortions in there - Napoleon was much more interested in psychological effect than accuracy in his claims and some of his Marshals followed him; and indeed WW2 is full of examples of the most optimistic claims - but there are ways of disentangling it all which aren't present earlier.

    1. Thank you. It does seem quite likely that the decline of the military entrepreneur and the rise of the state bureaucracy meant that there is more of a paper trail to follow. But in spite of all the tracking, there are still unknowns. Which gives the wargamer a bit of room for manoeuvre...