I have been thinking recently a little about strategy. Now many people would respond to this by exclaiming ‘Thinking? You? Really?’ but I shall attempt to persevere. Wargames and wargamers, it seems to me are very good at being tactical. We know about handling pikemen and musketeers to advantage in an English Civil War game, or moving that Sherman up to blast the bunker while the infantry go in. We are quite good at all sorts of things like this. We study tactics, we consider how to make the best moves given the rule set, and so on.
It might come as a bit of a blow, then, to discover that tactics do not win wars. Tactics, of course, might win battles, and winning battles is a useful (although not actually a necessary) condition for assessing who is going to win the war (remember Phyrrus?) but a particular bit of tactics, such as fire and movement, or when to call in an artillery barrage is not necessarily going to triumph. Often, after all, keeping a force in being is sufficient not to lose the battle or campaign, rather than winning a battle.
Now I am sure that many readers (or rather, both of you) are reaching for their red pens and history books to refute me, which would be entirely fair. I am saying this in order to provoke (having admitted that no-one will comment at all, of course). But strategies really do not seem to figure much on our road maps, and I have started to wonder why.
Firstly, of course, strategies are, sort of, boring. I mean, they do not really have the same romance of an epic battle, be that ancient Greek hoplites clashing with Persians, or skirmishers plastering a stone wall with shot to keep the enemy heads down. After all, how many films major on the excitement of the generals discussing where to attack, as opposed to the attack itself? As humans, we want the action and excitement, not the planning and overall decision-making.
These thoughts came to mind while considering the Norman Conquest, as one does. The reason for that is what I have termed in my head ‘Harold’s Dilemma’. King Harold, as everyone except William of Normandy called him was perfectly well aware that there were at least two people, Duke William and Harald Hardrada of Norway who thought that they, rather than him, should be kings of England.
This then gave Harold a bit of a strategic problem. William was, obviously, going to come across the Channel. But Harald was a bit more difficult to predict. He would probably land in the north, particularly as he was allied to Harold’s brother, Tostig. On the other hand, Tostig was married to the sister of the Count of Flanders and, in May 1066, had struck the Isle of Wight and the south coast. Harold thus had to defend both the south and east coasts, and that, given even the resources of the Anglo-Saxon state, was a bit difficult.
We all know what happened, of course. Harald and Tostig did the usual Norse thing and sailed up the Humber, then entered the Ouse and captured York after defeating the local forces. Harold, reckoning that William might have missed his sailing slot before the winter storms, marched north, surprised the Norwegians and killed both Harald and Tostig. In the meantime William landed and proceeded to devastate the area around his beachhead on the south coast, forcing Harold to march south and tackle that problem.
The strategic problem for Harold was, of course, an attack on two fronts. It is quite possible that he could have dealt with either Harald and Tostig or William. Both, as it turned out, was a bit more of a problem, although he nearly managed it – Hastings was a weird battle for the time. As a wargame campaign, the question is could the wargamer representing Harold do any better?
It would certainly be easy for the Anglo-Saxons to do worse. If Harald and Tostig had been a bit more alert before Stamford Bridge Harold would have had a much harder time and could have lost. That would leave Harald facing William, and interesting scenario in its own right. On the other hand, if Harold had kept the Anglo-Saxon fleet together a little longer it might have intercepted the Normans, leaving Harold only to face the Norwegians and Tostig.
There are clearly lots of possibilities here, but the strategic problem is one which does bear consideration. I dare say that there are many other instances of a ruler with a single effective armed force facing multiple threats and having to guess which one should be dealt with first. But making that decision is a fine judgment.
We will all, probably, have seen refights and articles about Stamford Bridge and Hastings, and, possibly for those who do details, Fulford as well. So far as I recall (and I do not have extensive knowledge of wargaming in this area) I have not seen any attempt to do both. I think it might be a rather interesting exercise for the wargamer(s). Harald and William’s invasions were uncoordinated, after all, and rather dependent on wind and tide. Harold had interior lines but was on the defensive. As it turned out his militia in the north was not sufficient to deal with the Norwegians on its own.
The consideration for the Norwegians is, really, where to invade. They could have hit, at least in theory, anywhere from the Isle of Wight to Northumberland. William probably had less room to manoeuver. He had to get his troops across the Channel quickly once they had set out. A situation where Harald and Tostig held Wight while William landed in Sussex would be interesting, especially with Harold holding London with an undiminished force.
Similarly, it would be fascinating to see what happened with the Norwegians secure in York while William was unopposed in Sussex, with, perhaps, a few remaining rogue Anglo-Saxons in the offing. But this is getting far into what-ifs.
The point, really, is that wargaming tends to focus on the battle, the tactical. There are interesting scenarios to be considered at the strategic level as well. Sometime we might give these some brief consideration, but not, it seems to me all that often. Perhaps we should try to change that.