Saturday 25 February 2023

Wargame Strategies

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.

Saturday 18 February 2023

Viking Saint

Now there are two words that are not normally associated: ‘Viking’ and ‘saint’. Vikings, after all, are usually depicted as bloodthirsty pagans, barbarians in all sense of the word, who appear out of nowhere, plunder, murder, rape, and rob, and then vanish whence they came. Oh, and they have these peculiar helmets with wings on them.

Inevitably, modern historiography has rather reduced the brutality of the Vikings. Originally, of course, they were raiders, and they did raid churches that were, after all, fairly rich. In fact, the early Viking raids did largely destroy the Christian infrastructure in the north of England in the ninth century and distinctly jeopardized Christianity in England, at least until the reign of Alfred in Wessex. But things are never quite as simple as older histories like to make out.

There are a few things to ponder. Firstly, the Norse invaders (as opposed to the early raiders) quite quickly settled and were Christianised in England (and other northern British territories). Secondly, many Vikings came as farmers, not warriors. I am not sure of the evidence, but I suspect that quite a lot of assimilation went on; certainly, some people I know hereabouts have Scandinavian blood according to those DNA tests you can buy (of, to me, unknown reliability). Thirdly the interactions of Britain with Scandinavia needs to be taken into account. Since the Normans, England has been largely focussed on north-western Europe, the southern coast of the Channel. While this was of perennial interest in the defence of England, before William (and, in fact, until at least 1086) there was as much interest in, and threat from, Scandinavia as there was from Normandy.

This brings me, by a roundabout route, to the subject of the latest book:

Carr, J., The Viking Saint: Olaf II of Norway (Barnsley, Pen & Sword, 2022).

As you can see this is a new book, which is unusual for these pages. The Estimable Mrs P saw a review of it and decided that I might like it for Christmas. She was, of course, correct.

Olaf might not be terribly well known in this country, although as a very young man, he was involved, perhaps even the key person, in Cnut’s campaigns, and he stands accused of being the Viking responsible for pulling London Bridge down. This event was possibly the origin of the ‘London Bridge is falling down’ nursery rhyme, although perhaps not, as who knows where such things come from really.

Anyway, this is a complex tale of intrigue, violence, treachery, and so on. Really, I think that we do not know how lucky we are to have had primogeniture in northern Europe for more or less a thousand years. Things have been bloody enough with it; if every passing noble thinks he could make himself king it could have been a lot worse.

Anyway, Olaf was a pagan who converted, became king of Norway through a complex web of intrigue, violence, and diplomacy, reigned for about fifteen years (1015 – 1030), and was killed in battle in his mid-thirties. He then became a saint, due to assorted miracles associated with him, and is recognised as such by Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox churches, which is a pretty good track record of a saint, especially a warrior.

His efforts at Christianising Norway had mixed results, it has to be said. He did upset a number of people, mostly those away from the coast who had received less influence from already Christian lands. He also was not the first person to try to bring Christianity to Norway, including earlier kings Hakon the Good and Olaf Tryggvason. But he did a bit more and when his body was recovered for reburial it was found to have not decomposed and, as I mentioned, there were miracles.

Actually, Olaf’s fall was not directly due to his Christianity, or his occasional habit of executing those who refused to be baptised (now, that is muscular Christianity). In fact, his reign was undermined by King Cnut, who claimed suzerainty over Norway as well as Denmark and England. The point here is that, in relative terms, Cnut was rich and his money was a persuasive argument for some more independent Norwegian nobles (of whom there were many) to abandon Olaf. The last battle, at which Olaf perished, was at Stikelestad, near Trondheim.

This is an interesting book on a subject about which I know little. The names are a bit confusing, but that is because most of the key players are called Olaf or Hakon. The geography is a bit tricky too, particularly as the borders between nations were, shall we say, a bit porous. But it is a rattling good tale, albeit without much analysis.

In wargaming terms, there are some splendid opportunities. There are a number of naval battles with dragon ships lined up against each other, followed by hand-to-hand combat on the decks. There are land battles ranging from murders and assassinations to full-scale set pieces. There is a great deal of diplomatic skulduggery. For example, Olaf was supposed to be marrying the legitimate daughter of the King of Sweden, but the latter substituted an illegitimate daughter. Olaf seems to have accepted this; the legitimate daughter, Ingegerd was married to Grand Duke Yaroslav of Novgorod and Kyiv. She died in 1050 as Saint Anna of Kyiv.

The tendrils of the Viking world spread far and wide. Olaf’s half-brother was Harald Hardrada, whose military career spread from Italy to Constantinople, much of northern Europe and, as most wargamers probably know, died at Stamford Bridge in 1066. The Normans, too, were sort of Vikings, in the same way that the inhabitants of York were. The Viking merchants, as I mentioned a couple of posts ago, ranged far and wide in northern waters, from Newfoundland to Greenland, Iceland, the British Isles and, as just noted, Baltic nations.

The scope, therefore, is enormous. There are plenty of opportunities for island landings, invasions, set-piece battles, sea battles (I know most wargamers ignore them), desperate deeds of daring do, and so on. I am nearly tempted.

Saturday 11 February 2023

Difficult Passage

‘I am sorry, but I really cannot let you pass.’

‘You permitted the Sarmatians to go through your lands.’

‘I did not. They fought their way through.’

‘Well, if you do not permit us, we shall have to fight our way through.’

‘Look at it from my position for a moment. The Romans are very unhappy about the Sarmatians. They have invaded my lands twice in retribution, and I could really use not giving them another excuse.’

‘But a little bird tells me that there is also the question of an unpaid bill between you and the Romans on your account, as well as your help to the Sarmatians in storming the Roman camp.’

‘I got the money from the Sarmatians for services rendered. I have no interest in where the money came from, it was due to me.’

‘The service rendered, though, was fighting the Romans and beating them. And it was Roman money, because they had bribed the other Sarmatians onto their side. But they changed sides.’

‘Yes, but now the Romans have come for what they regard as their money, twice.’

‘And you have beaten them, twice.’

‘So you see we are a tough army. So you do not want to fight us. You can go around my lands, you know. I’ll give you a guide.’

‘It is so much easier to go along this road, my friend. The Romans build such nice roads, so convenient for invading places, I find.’

‘Convenient for them as well, of course.’


Poor Dubolwhiskos is, of course, being invaded again. His realm seems to be the motorway from barbarian lands to invade rich Roman territory, and no-one seems willing to go around. It does lay him open to charges of collusion with the invaders. He did fight the Sarmatians under Vodkaschnapps, but the Romans still blamed him, and now it is happening again with a Germanic tribe.

The occasion for this wargame was, firstly, my recovery from a bit of a cold (“there is a lot of it around”) and also a celebration of completing my Dacian and German armies, the final 132 figures of each. So, what else should I do except revive the Sarmatian Nation campaign, with the Germans as a further complicating element? Sooner or later, Vodkaschnapps will catch up with his cousin (or brother) of the other Sarmatian tribe, and that will cause another wargame, very different from this one.

A bit of dice rolling yielded a clash in the hill country. The Germans are nearest to the camera, seeking to proceed along the road to the far edge. The river is, in fact, fordable, but that is known only to the Dacians. Dubloswhiskos’ plan was to delay and disrupt the Germans with his light troops and archers, hold any attack with his tribal foot, and then counter-attack with his reserves and the Sarmatian cataphracts.

The German plan was to sweep in the light troops and mask the archers and tribal foot while the German tribes deployed four deep, and then charge home.

A few moves in and the plans are developing. The German skirmishers on the right are giving the Dacian light horse a hard time, while the Dacian skirmishers are in some jeopardy from the German cavalry. The German foot is just starting to deploy.

I have to confess that Dacian dice rolling was awful on the day. The light horse was routed by the skirmisher bases, and the Dacian skirmishers were routed by the German cavalry, which trotted into them and thus did not pursue into the archers.

The German left developed into a bit of a stand-off between the archers and German cavalry, who were hanging around screening the tribal foot. On the other flank, the Germans were also deploying, covered by their skirmishers.

The Germans took their time before launching their right flank foot, but won the initiative just at the right point, charged through their own skirmish screen, and then routed the Dacian foot on a flukey 6-1 roll. I told you Dacian dice rolling was rubbish on the day.

Dubloswhiskos has already got his left flank reserves moving into position and they managed to countercharge the Germans in the confusion but to no avail. While they did manage to push back one of the German columns, at the end of the turn the dreaded morale roll was required. Having already lost three bases, and then adding another four, the total was, well, it was not quite a rout. Let us say that the Dacian interest in defending their land against the next wave of invaders evaporated at this point.

So a decisive victory to the invading Germanic tribe, and another failure to defend his own country by Dubloswhiskos. It was a lot tighter than you might think from the casualty list, however, and quite tense. It really came down to the question of who won the initiative on the move when the two sides were in charge range, and then a really bad Dacian roll on the charge resolution. If they had managed to hold on, the first round of combat might have been kinder to them and anyway, the Germans had committed 8 bases to beat 4, which is not really a decent rate of return.

But there is always, I suppose, the bigger picture. The Germanic tribe is now about to invade the Roman Empire proper, and we shall have to see what the Romans make of that.


‘All right, all right. I’ll let you through. But you have to fight the Romans. You’re not getting any help from me.’

‘It would seem, my friend, that we do not need any help from you.’

‘Have you fought the Romans before?’

‘No. They are just soft southerners. Why should I bother about them?’

‘They are quite a lot tougher than you seem to think. And they do not stop. If you beat them, they shrug it off and come at you again. And again.’

‘And yet even you have beaten them, my friend. We shall see. They think they are soft.’

‘That is just Latin rhetoric, you know….’

Saturday 4 February 2023

Viking Nations

The long-term reader of this blog will recall, I dare say, a riff during the lockdown and its associated life-inverting activity, about the Anglo-Norman state in England and other, related, matters. This came alongside an avowal that I was not getting into early medieval wargaming, although some of my comments do seem to have provoked some Anglo-Norman wargames among my reader.

The potter through the history of the British Isles has continued, however, although perhaps a bit more on the quiet. The latest rummaging in the remainders box pulled out the following work:

Knight, D., Viking Nations: The Development of Medieval North Atlantic Identities, Barnsley, Pen & Sword, 2016.

This is a thesis, it would seem, which has been ‘re-written’ for a less specialist audience, in my estimation. The scare quotes are because, well, the re-writing shows. In spade loads or bad editing, sentences which do not make sense or in which words and word sequences repeat, typographical errors, and incorrect references to figures, of which there are, inevitably in a work of archaeological anthropology, a lot.

In short, the work needs a great deal more cognitive effort from the reader than it ought to, and that is a great shame because there is an interesting work struggling to make itself heard above the din of proofreading gaffes and other infelicitous errors. I should just mention, I think, that I hope that the original thesis, which was presented to the University of Nottingham, had a lot fewer errors than this. While examiners are a little more laid back than they used to be, lack of clarity is a Ph.D. thesis sin still, I believe.

Still, more positively, the work attempts to summarise the archaeology of Viking sites across three zones of the North Atlantic. The first is the North Atlantic archipelagos of the Shetland and Faroe Islands, which have rather less in terms of archaeological work associated with them than the Hebrides and Orkney Islands. The second zone is Iceland, and the third is the Norse sites of Greenland and North America.

The idea that the Vikings, when they came into contact with Western Europe were basic, uncivilized, pagan barbarians can, I think, be reasonably discarded now. While the entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are, to say the least, not positive about the Vikings, and they did disrupt and destroy much of the civilized life in the North-East of England with their initial plundering raids, they quickly started to settle and assimilate with the locals, and even, within a generation or two, became Christians.

In the islands, things were a little more complex, depending on the situation. The Vikings came to settle and farm, basically. They might have taken over indigenous sites or they may not have done, depending on whether there were any. There is also the issue of the Paper, who seem to have been the pre-existing Christian hermits and priests, presumably of what we would now call the Celtic tradition. There is not much information about as to whether the Norse and the Christians clashed, co-existed or the latter converted the former. Ultimately, of course, the Christian prevailed.

It is quite interesting that the Norse in England converted quite quickly to Christianity. Guthrum, for example, was defeated by Alfred in 878, and the latter then stood sponsor to his baptism. The Norse subsequently settled in East Anglia. The main Viking states, however, Norway and Denmark, did not convert until the Eleventh Century, and, as Knight observes, this was as much to do with the formation of the states as it was anything else.

As the military aspects of the wave of Norse invasions subsided, the trading elements increased. One of the interesting things about the book is the discussion of Norse shipping and its development from a coastal raiding and trading system of light, flexible and shallow draught boats to more capacious but deeper-keeled hulls. The main propulsion method switched also from mainly rowed through rowed with auxiliary sails to mainly sailed. These latter ships used less manpower and hence the carrying capacity was greater (as there was less need for provisioning the crew) and the voyages could be more profitable.

Fewer crew meant that the wars of plunder and conquest were over, of course. But then, in Iceland and Greenland there was a lot less to conquer. Norse farming was adapted to the relatively harsh environments encountered in the North Atlantic zones, even during the relatively benign period before the Little Ice Age. Even so, farms in Greenland struggled to maintain viability. Quite a lot, it seems, was predicated on the export of walrus tusks to Europe for ivory. The re-opening of trade routes to Africa rather put paid to this trade as elephant tusks are much better for carving, and this chipped away at the sustainability of the Greenland farms.

The most useful chapters are those relating to trade and to religion, it has to be said. They are also relatively uncluttered with typographical errors, which does make them a little easier to read. The structures of Norse farms in the archaeology discussed in the three zones are interesting but do get a little repetitive, although I still do not know why the early Norse longhouses had bowed walls and the later ones went straight. Some of the other insights from archaeology are quite interesting, such as the positioning of the longhouse on a slope, with the landowner’s bed at the highest end and the animals at the lowest. The drain ran downhill, so the lowest-status farm hands had to be careful where they stood. On the other hand, they did get the benefit of the warmth from the herd.

An interesting book but, as I said, rather a flawed one, unfortunately. I know I perpetrate my fair share, and probably more than that, in my own waffling, but a little more care and attention could have raised this one from a struggle to read to something really quite worthwhile and interesting. Proofreading is boring, I grant, but it is rather necessary.