Saturday 30 September 2023

The Lead Speed Bump

The long-term reader of this blog (are there any?) will recall my struggles with my mountain of unpainted lead. Now, of course, we all have them, those stashes of formerly good ideas which went sour, or those extra figures we added to the order ‘just in case’. As I know from painful knowledge, these items accumulate, against our will and better judgment, and need to be hidden both from our nearest and dearest and from ourselves, unless the cry of the oppressed lead masses reach our ears or, even worse, the ears of the wargaming gods who will smite us and make us roll ones until we repent and get the brushes out.

A few years ago I decided to try to make some serious inroads into my own personal pile of unpainted soldiers. The situation was so bad it required two tables. First, the ancients:

A total of nearly 1400 figures. I already reckoned that I could paint around 1000 per year. This was going to be a long project. The early moderns were, well, not quite as bad.

A grand total, as I am sure you have worked out already, of 2534 figures, or two and a half years or so, provided, firstly, that I kept on painting and secondly, that I did not buy any extras. The second rule vanished almost immediately, however – the Muscovites above was an in-year purchase for one thing.

I have documented my struggles with reducing mount impossible over the last few years. Not too often, of course, as that would be boring and either smug or whining. Still, I have received encouragement along the way, both from the Estimable Mrs P. and also from comments on the relevant posts, for which much thanks.

In the first year, I seem to have painted 1024 figures, a good start and on target. The second year of effort showed a few more figures finished, 1105 to be exact. So I started this painting year (which runs from September to September, for reasons I do not recall) with a mere 885 figures to go. That is not quite true, of course, as the two years do not add up to the above-mentioned total. There were a few acquisitions: Anglo-Dutch War fleets, War of Spanish Succession French cavalry, and the 25+ mm figures which were not in the original counts, plus, in all probability, a few other items that escaped attention in the first count.

This year, therefore, the Table of Doom looked rather less doom-like:

Still, there are quite a few things on there, some of which I have doubts about even bothering with, such as the 6 scythed chariots and 120 Moorish infantry. I have also to confess that quite a few of these are not even manufactured anymore – the Moors have been in stock for over 20 years, as I recall.

The final(-ish) totals, however, are rather pleasing, at least to me.

The eagle-eyed reader will have already spotted that the scythed chariots did not make it to the painting table, nor did all the 25+ mm infantry, but 97.5% of the outstanding troops have been painted, based, and are ready for action. There is still a little time before the end of the painting year and I might manage the chariots yet.

I confess to being rather pleased with myself. It did seem to be an impossible task when I started, but 2992 figures later I have (very nearly) made it. What have I learned?

I suppose the first lesson is 'do not let stuff pile up like this'. It is just not a good idea. A problem I encountered was that whenever I had a chance to play a wargame I was feeling guilty for not painting. Whenever I was painting I felt I wanted to play a wargame. Thus neither playing nor painting was guilt-free. Hopefully, now, I can have some wargames without feeling I should be painting.

There is still a bit of a hump to get over – the 554 assorted plastic medieval figures, acquired years ago and in a box, still in their original cardboard boxes. I have reassured the Estimable Mrs P that I have not run out of things to paint (she likes to keep her husband occupied) and that these are there to be done. And that is true. I am sure I had a scheme for them, years ago, but it escapes me now.

Still, when all is said and done, I should ask ‘quo vadis?’. Where, exactly, is my wargaming going now the lead pile has diminished to near-negligible proportions. I could, of course, branch out into something new. The Punic Wars is one possibility, the Wars of Louis XIV before the War of Spanish Succession is another. But I am not really sure that I want to start something at this point which could be quite a large project. Another possibility is the Jacobite risings, and a further option might be the American War of Independence. While I have re-crafted the ACW for the ancient Greeks I am not sure, particularly, that I want to stray beyond the Eighteenth Century.

As far as wargaming goes I have the ACW Greeks to finish off, and another campaign brewing using Sixteenth Century South-East Asians. As readers might know, I do like to get elephants onto the wargame table from time to time. I have a pile of campaign ideas beyond these to try out as a result of reading a bit about strategy, as documented here recently. Another aspect that occurs is to use the 25+ mm figures for something approaching a skirmish and role-playing campaign game, a bit like the bits I have done for the Year of Corbie but in, maybe, a little more detail (done more carefully, you mean – Ed).

So, lots of possibilities. Of course, as a typical wargamer, my ideas run far beyond my capabilities. I could purchase another thousand figures just to make my painting record for next year stand. But I suspect that I have grown, if not wiser, then certainly older, and that will not happen. Perhaps I should just put some figures on the table and get on with some games.

Saturday 23 September 2023

Sparta’s First Attic War

It is possible that my loyal reader, having read the title, has concluded that a loft conversion is on the cards for a wargame headquarters. Not so, I have to say. The title comes from a book I have just finished:

Rahe, P. A., Sparta’s First Attic War: The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta, 478 – 446 BC

The book is part of a series on Sparta from the Persian Wars through to, well, I am not sure when it is supposed to end, but it would seem that volume four is on the start of the Peloponnesian War, down to 418 BC.

You might wonder whether the Spartans in fact had a grand strategy over this period. The book sometimes reads as an account of the period from a Spartan point of view. This in itself is a rather splendid achievement, as most of the sources, and most of the historiography, are from the point of view of Athens. For example, one of the main sources for the period, Thucydides, was an Athenian. He might have landed up an exile in Sparta, but he is still more at ease with goings on in Athens.

Still, there is a little more to the grand strategy of Sparta than just an account, against the grain, of the period between the Persian War and a sort of peace that broke out. According to Rahe, there were three main protagonists, Sparta, Athens, and Persia. The book describes what we might call Sparta’s strategic culture, the sort of mental strategic furniture that the Spartan leaders had at the time.

There were three aspects to Sparta’s strategic culture or grand strategy. The first was their own helots, the subjugated peasants of the Peloponnese who kept Spartan citizens in the style to which they had become accustomed. There was always the danger of a helot revolt, and the Spartans had to keep some of their forces available to keep an eye on them and nip any rebellions in the bud, if possible.

The second aspect of strategic thinking was the Persians. The campaigns of Marathon and Plataea had shown that control of the seas was vital to keep Hellas safe from the Persian Empire. The Athenians had set up the Delian League to ensure naval superiority. While Sparta might, in general, have disapproved of this, and also the method used to keep league members in line, they recognised that without the Athenian triremes, Greece was open to invasion by the hordes of troops at the King of King’s command.

The third aspect, which made the balancing act of Spartan strategy tricky, was the need to keep Athens in check. The Athenians, according to this account, were rather overbearing, adventurous, and risk-taking. They would do more or less anything for adventure and expansion, and that included trespassing on what the Spartans considered to be their home turf. Thus, when Argos, in the north-eastern Peloponnese allied with Athens this was a Spartan problem, as Argo was an age-old enemy of Sparta. All sorts of issues, and not a few campaigns, ensued.

There were also, of course, events. One of the key ones was an earthquake which seems to have killed a large number of Spartan citizens and left the Spartans undermanned (465/4 BC). It would seem that over 20000 Spartans were killed, and more than half of adult male Spartiates lost their lives (p. 118). This was combined with a helot revolt, which again seems to have undermined Spartan manpower, either through massacre or the dispatch of fighting forces.

The alliance of Greeks which had seen off the Persian threat at and beyond Plataea broke down on other points. The Spartans offered support to the Thasians whom the Athenians were besieging. The Athenian discovery of this pledge undermined the relationship with Sparta and further prompted a breach between the Greeks.

Examples can, and are, multiplied. The Athenian defeat in Egypt left that city denuded of manpower (as well as the Spartans) and they needed to do two things. Firstly, there was a requirement to ensure that the Persians did not regain control of the Eastern Mediterranean. This was achieved by a naval thrust at Cyprus which led to an Athenian victory at Cypriot Salamis. The King of Kings agreed to a truce.

Secondly, in order to regroup, Athens had to achieve a truce with Sparta. The land war was not going particularly well and Athens could not sustain the pace. On the other hand, the Spartan king and his advisor were thought to have the city by the throat. However, they withdrew. This seems inexplicable except in terms of the Spartan Grand Strategy outlined above: the Spartans needed the Athenian navy, and therefore could not overthrow Athens and the Delian League.

There was some bargaining. The Athenians lost a fair bit of their position on mainland Greece but kept the League and the islands. But the Spartans had survived and their shield against Persian fleets was intact.

As you might expect, there is a lot in this book, and I liked it. There are all sorts of maneuvers and battles that are only mentioned by our sources but which could form the basis for a wargame or two, or a whole campaign (or set of campaigns). The balance between the three powers and their allies is quite delicate. Some of the actions, such as the Athenian expedition to the Nile, were due to activities within the Persian Empire. Other were acts of nature, such as the Spartan earthquake. There is also an awful lot of rivalry between cities: Sparta and Argos, Athens and Aegina, Megara, and so on. As Rahe remarks, most cities were rivals with their neighbour. This gives a lot of scope, it seems to me, for a neat wargame campaign.

As you might have noticed, I like this book. Its precursors, on the Persian War and the Spartan Constitution, are on my hit list, and I think the volume down to 418 BC has just been published. There are almost endless possibilities here plus, unusually, the maps are quite useful.  

Saturday 16 September 2023

The Greek ACW

 The Greek ACW

And so to battles three and four of the American Civil War campaign, fought out with ancient Greeks. Once the purists have finished choking on their coffee, I will proceed.

As we have already noted, the Athenians (Unionists) have been successful in two defensive battles so far. The first saw them successfully resist the Spartan move up the centre of the map, and the second saw them defeat the Spartan left hook to the west of the Appalachian Mountains. As the Spartan left hook was nearly twice the strength of the Athenian defenders, that was a bit of a surprise.

Next (on the same campaign turn) the central Athenian army (Shenandoah, for ACW purists out there) attacked the Spartan central army they had just defeated. I was a little tentative about this as Athenian commander as it seems a bit of an unnecessary encounter. Both armies were rather weakened by the original battle, but the dice said a battle, and who was I to disagree?

The picture shows the action a number of moves in. The Spartans have divided their hoplites into two, the idea being to hold the two hill crests. The leftmost hoplite line is in place, the centre ones, under the command of the general, are just arriving. The Athenians, advancing from the right, have been halted by the threat of the Spartan cavalry element (the Athenians lost their cavalry in the last battle).

The cavalry were to prove crucial. They charged the Athenian hoplites and, after a struggle, blew the leftmost (nearest the camera) element away, along with its supporting light infantry and the general. This really should not have happened. The Athenian combat dice rolls were truly dire, even when they were at about +3 on the dice they still lost the combat and were eventually routed. With morale now six points down the Athenians went to a fallback situation, and so I decided to withdraw. There was not much chance of a coherent attack on the Spartan-held hills any more, and the Spartan cavalry would still have been a threat once it had rallied.

As I said, as Athenian commander I was not sure that this battle was really necessary. In a campaign what becomes more important is keeping a viable force in being, as a threat which the enemy has to maintain forces to counter. This, of course, is a major difference between a campaign and a one-off wargame, or even a set of linearly linked wargames.

Anyway, the fourth battle of the campaign was one which, if I were not a solo wargamer would probably have not been fought out at all. The two armies based on their capitals clashed, just outside the Spartan home city. This was one of the most unbalanced scenarios I have ever placed upon the wargame table: four bases of Spartan hoplites against twenty bases of Athenians. The Spartans had placed most of their strength in their trans-montane left hook, which, as we have noted, has been rather blunted. The Athenians have placed most of their strength here, with the other forces being weaker holding armies.

Still, as Spartan commander I was not going down without a fight and, as the rest of the campaign has suggested, odd things have happened. Even taking out a few Athenian bases might be something of a win for the Spartans. This raised the stakes for the Athenians, of course. Not only did they need to win the battle, but they needed to win it well, preferably without losing a base. A decisive victory, annihilating the Spartan army, would give them a great deal of strategic room to manoeuvre; in fact, most of the rest of Sparta would be at their mercy.

While on the face of it a simple, one-sided battle, the strategic requirement changed things rather and affected the Athenian tactics. While the Spartans could only assume the best defensive posture they could, some thought had to go into working out how the Athenians could not only win but actually destroy the Spartan army. This had to come about by working both the flanks and the rear. Once again, the few bases of cavalry available were crucial.

The picture shows the situation just before the end of the game. The Spartans have adopted a defensive position between the rough ground on their left and the stream to the right. While they are now under attack from the Athenian light infantry this is not actually doing any damage at all. The Athenian phalanx (12 bases) is now looming at the defenders and, perhaps more significantly, the Athenian cavalry is in their rear.

A lot now depended on the ability of the Athenian commander to coordinate his forces. The cavalry had already been stopped and then started again in their movement while the hoplites lumbered into position. Now, the phalanx had to engage the Spartans while the cavalry wrought havoc from behind. Fortunately for the Athenians, they managed this, but only just. The Spartans actually won the tempo and attacked first, but the Athenian phalanx held out. On their bound, the phalanx started to damage the Spartans and then the cavalry went in.

The result was as messy as it was predictable. Two bases of Spartans went immediately. The third held out for another turn shorn of flank support, and then routed, while the last one was falling back until struck in front and flank by hoplites and cavalry. The Spartan home army had ceased to exist.

Strategically speaking, the demise of even the weak Spartan home army is important. Most of the rest of Sparta is now open, and Sparta’s two other armies are only just a match for their covering forces, let alone a 20-base Athenian army ravaging the rear.

Of course, I now need to decide whether to continue the campaign or whether the Spartans would do the sensible thing and surrender. By capturing the Spartan capital the Athenians are 20 victory points to the good already, and I am not sure the Spartans are going to make too many strides forward in recovering. That may well be it.

Saturday 9 September 2023

Now, there is a Surprise

One of the things about wargaming, much like real life I suppose (what do you mean, wargaming isn’t real??) is its ability to surprise us, the wargamers. There is usually something in a wargame which takes us unawares. It could be the unexpected resistance of a militia unit or the sudden crumbling of the guard battalion. Some things cause great amusement, such as the failure of the pontoon bridging unit to deploy their wares over a pathetic small stream.

Sometimes, the outcome of a war game can be the cause of surprise, and this post describes one of these incidents. We are back in the American Civil War campaign, as abstracted by me and fought out using my collection of ancient Greeks. One side, the north, is ‘Athenian’, and the others, the south, are ‘Spartans’. The scare quotes are reminders that this is not a real campaign. The Spartans are more infantry-heavy, but they do not get elite status, for example.

Still, there are three routes available for both sides. One is beyond the mountains, one up the middle and the one nearer the coast is between the two capitals. At the first battle, recounted last time, the two central armies clashed, leading to a slightly unexpected victory for the Athenians.

A few moves later and I have three battles on hand. The move system, rolling for a general’s initiative, is supposed to prevent that, but here it did not. The Spartan leftmost ultra-montane army moved in on the Athenian equivalent. In the centre, the Athenian army attempted to exploit its success against the Spartans, while on the capital route, the Athenians threw their entire army at the Spartan capital.

I decided to start with the ultra-montane clash, where 19 Spartan bases, including 12 hoplites, took on 10 Athenians with a paltry 4 hoplites. It should have been a walkover, although the Athenians did manage to roll a rather natty defensive position, with a built-up area and a ridge line to defend.

A few moves in and the Spartans are moving up to overwhelm the Athenian lines. In the foreground the Spartan lights have seized the nearest hill, forcing off the Athenians and advancing on the village. If the Athenian skirmishers are really lucky, they will survive. Next across the Spartan cavalry are moving into the gap between the village and the ridge line, while the Athenian cavalry have scampered up the hill out of their way. The Spartan hoplite juggernaut is approaching crunch harassed by some Athenian light troops, who did manage to delay the Spartan rightmost column.

By this time I was counting hexes on the map, wondering how long it would take for the Athenian army on the capital route to get back to the capital, compared with how long the Spartan ultra-montane army, having proved their foes to be a mere speed-bump, would take. It turns out that I need not have worried.

The first Spartan hiccough came when the Athenian cavalry charged against their Spartan foe. Despite being outnumbered (the hill compensated) they routed one of the Spartan bases and pursued, as seen above. The rightmost Spartan hoplite column is also being harassed and has, for the moment been halted. The other two should be enough to squash the Athenians, though.

The crunch came. The two leftmost Spartan hoplite columns crashed into the thin hoplite line on the hill and forced it back. The Athenians resisted for a turn, which was crucial, before losing two bases. However, the delay allowed the Athenian cavalry to rally from pursuit and move into position to the rear of the Spartans. A charge against the central column, and a bad Spartan dice roll, meant that three Spartan hoplite bases were routed, taking the victorious base with them. The Athenian hoplite base (light blue shields) also had a hand by taking the Spartan supports in flank and forcing them back, but the cavalry did the real damage.

The Athenians, having wavered after their hoplite line was routed, it was not the Spartan turn. The Athenian cavalry pursued back to their own lines, while, eventually the rightmost Spartan column came into contact. The Athenians were prepared to flank it again, but never had the tempo point. One base, uphill, admittedly, against four in a column. There was only one way that could go, surely.

There was quite a lot of pushing back and forwards, while the leftmost Spartan column deployed into line to push across the ridge, and the Athenian peltasts attempted to distract them. The Spartans also moved up their remaining cavalry and got their skirmishers going again. Their dice rolling had, however, thoroughly deserted them. The rightmost column was routed. I kid you not. The Athenians were on 3+1 for the hill. The Spartans are on 3 + 3 for the supporting bases. It might have been a struggle, but the odds were definitely with the Spartans. The Athenians did not even get their flanking forces into play.

At this point, of course, Spartan morale cracked (having lost 9 bases to the Athenian 2) and they withdrew. The slightly stunned Athenians, who had only set out to do as much damage as they could to the Spartans and then withdraw, hopefully intact, let them go.

I suspect that this Spartan debacle was my fault. I expected the battle to be a walk-over, with the very powerful Spartan hoplites crashing through and crushing the Athenian centre. The only concession to the position being on a hill was to try to use the cavalry to get on the flank.

With hindsight, I should have spread the Spartan hoplites out a bit more, to keep the Athenians off the flanks and to provide a reserve in case of breakthroughs. The Athenian cavalry was handled more aggressively than I expected, and more successfully – a wild charge downhill to catch the Spartan cavalry, and then crashing into the rear of the phalanx. Nevertheless, the result was a surprise.

The Athenian victory also significantly changes the strategic situation. The main Spartan army, and, indeed, their strategy, has been disrupted. While the Spartan ultra-montane army still outnumbers their opponents, it will be much harder to force their way through to the road to the Athenian capital. Meanwhile, the main Athenian army of 20 bases is at the Spartan capital which is defended by 4 hoplite bases. While the Athenians have beaten twice their own number, five times might be a bit much even for the Spartans.

So, wargaming, yes, even solo wargaming, can spring some surprises. This is not the expected outcome, and I do not think I was biased in favour of the Athenians. Maybe I was overconfident as the Spartans...

Saturday 2 September 2023

Colonialism – A Moral Reckoning

As the very long tem reader of the blog might recall, so long as they have an excellent memory as well, I have a passing interest in issues of colonialism, even going so far as to wonder, vaguely, whether wargaming categorization of native troops in colonial games was, itself, colonialism. At that point, in danger of disappearing into a logical vortex, colonialism took a bit of a back burner.

However, a while ago I read this:

Biggar, N., Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning (London: William Collins, 2023).

Biggar is, of course, a quite well-known trendy righty moral philosopher and theologian, emeritus Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology the of University of Oxford. A while ago I read his in Defence of War, in which he took unfashionable views of whether warfare, in the modern world, was ever a valid response to what was going on in the world.

This book, as the background and title might suggest, tackles the anti-colonialism bent of recent years and attempt to debunk some of that movement’s key claims. Biggar is not a historian (but then, nor am I) and I think the book ran into a bit of a storm from trendy-lefty historians, as it questions some of the narratives (one might go so far as to call them tropes) of that movement.

I am not particularly committed to any side in this argument, I confess. While being a white male, my family are from poor stock and never seem to have benefited from the opportunities of imperialism. Nor do I have much time for the claims and counter-claims of ‘wokeness’, whatever the claimer might mean by that. Biggar does remark that sometimes it seems that the British Empire is targetted for anti-colonial rhetoric and demands for reparations because it is a relatively wealthy modern nation with a bit of a liberal conscience, and a significant number of people as citizens whose families came from the said colonies.

Maybe, and then again, maybe not. Topic by topic Biggar attempts to undermine the narrative of bad faith, racism, slavery, conquest, cultural and other sorts of genocide, free trade and exploitation of natural and human resources, government and nationalism and the use of violence to maintain empire. Quite a charge list, I suspect you would agree.

Does Biggar’s anti-anti-colonialism case add up?

It has to be said that some of the claims that are made by the anti-colonial academics and journalists (not to mention irrelevancies such as bloggers and twits) do seem to be rather overblown in scale, if not in the events taking place. The British Empire was as inept as the next global scale government in dealing with people and places about which it knew very little. This does not amount to racism or deliberate bad government. It may well relate to bad communications, local circumstances and general incompetence.

A bunch of bad decisions, poor decision makers and non-communicated instructions does not make an empire a necessarily bad think. Biggar observes that, in some cases at least, the citizens of some of the now independent states look back on the time of colonial rule with some fondness because it brought order and, in the form of the local white officials, people who got to know them, their culture and who could represent them to government. The book, inside its covers, has a photograph of pro-British protests in Hong Kong. Well, all right. Point made: maybe transferring from one empire to another is a bad idea.

Whether Biggar’s counter-arguments work is something I am not really competent to assess. As I said, I am not a historian and do not have access to the works he quotes from and cites. While it is true that some of the anti-colonial academics should be rather embarrassed by their overblown rhetoric, proving it to be overblown does not establish the counter-argument. 

At best, and here Biggar is probably at his strongest, or would be if he had made this point, the anti-colonial arguments need nuancing against some sort of bench-mark of international nastiness. As we continue to see in the world today, international nastiness can be very nasty indeed. The crimes of the British Empire over 200 years are probably not on the same plane as those of Nazi Germany over 12.

Of course, it is perhaps unhelpful to compare empire with empire, gruesome crime against gruesome crime. The British Empire did do some good things in the world, such as a large contribution to stopping slavery, although the timings and mechanisms are open to criticism. It also bankrupted itself in fighting international fascism, although its response to that, in trying to exploit colonies all the harder was misguided.

I think, to be fair to both sides of the rather acrimonious debate, Biggar’s case is rather unproven. It reads more like a series of counter-examples to anti-colonialism cases than anything else. It might weaken some of the anti-colonial rhetoric, but that would probably happen over time anyway as historians calm down a bit and do some real work rather than plastering social media with the iniquities of the relatively recent past.

As a side note, the book was originally to be published by Bloomsbury, who seem to have got cold feet and pulled out of the contract. The time, it seems, was not right. To be honest, this is a bit lily-livered by the publisher. The book puts forward a case to be answered and, if the intellectual left prefers to burn it in public rather than refute its claims then so much the worse for them.

I do think, however, that there can be no calculus of colonialism. It is not possible to decide whether it was a good thing (it did bring some good things) or a bad thing (it did bring bad things). We cannot balance, say, the removal of voting rights from Cape Coloureds against the restoration of financial stability in Egypt in the 1880s. That we can even have such things in the same book shows the global reach o the British Empire and the impossibility of deciding whether it was a force for good or ill in the world.