Saturday, 15 July 2017

Danger! Books at Work

Many wargamers, I should think, realise that reading books is dangerous. Not, I suppose, dangerous per se. There are more dangerous hobbies than wargaming or reading, or even reading and wargaming together. Base jumping, I believe, has the highest fatality rate of any hobby. Similarly, sky diving, parascending, white water swimming and all of these things are fairly risky to life and limb. Wargaming risks are trivial by comparison.

Nevertheless, reading books is, I submit, dangerous to wargamers, or at least their mental health, bank balances and the size of their unpainted lead mountain. I have just encountered a case in point. For me, the trigger was Charles Carlton’s This Seat of Mars (Yale, YUP, 2011). This is a discussion of war and the British Isles 1485 – 1746.

Those of you who are avid readers of this blog (are there any of you?) will recognise that I have a split wargaming personality. Part of me is an ancients wargamer, never happier than when flinging a pike phalanx against the bunch of legionaries to see what happens. Part of me also is a ‘renaissance’ wargamer, which is a terrible term for the period in question, but which happens, roughly, to be covered by Carlton’s book.

I have read another of Carlton’s works, a long time ago, ‘Going to the Wars’, which was about the experience of war in the English Civil Wars. Historiographically, Carlton is following John Keegan’s ‘Face of Battle’ lead, and trying to understand, from the evidence, what it was like to go to war at a given time. Adrian Goldsworthy does a similar sort of thing for the Romans in ‘The Roman Army at War 100 BC – 200 AD’ (Oxford, Clarendon, 1996). In fact, it is rather hard to find in military history at the moment, a historian who is not doing something like that.

Going to the Wars, however, was not my favourite book on the ECW, and I do not have a copy. This is probably a bit unfortunate, but the problem I have with Carlton’s work is that there are occasional mistakes and errors in it, which bother me. These are not typos or grammatical errors, but mistakes of fact, and it seems to me that if errors of this kind are made in areas which I do know about, then what errors in areas I do not know about are getting past me?

I cannot recall the particular problem in Going to the Wars, but I do have an example from This Seat of Mars. On page 126 Carlton states ‘Charles dispatched Prince Rupert to capture Newark so as to secure his lines of communication with his northern army under the earl of Newcastle’. This, of course, is referring to the situation in early 1644. The problem I have with this is that it is incorrect: Newark was already held by the Royalists, and was under siege. Rupert was dispatched to raise the siege to secure the line of communication north, and even then, he did not use it to raise the siege of York but went via Lancashire.

Now, I am probably being pedantic and picky, and certainly should not write the whole book off because of one, probably fairly minor, error of fact. But the problem is that I find them fairly consistently in Carlton’s books, or at least the two I have read. It undermines my confidence in what I read, which is a pity.

That said, I do like Carlton’s book, although some of the things he tries to do are, he admits, speculative at best and pure guesswork at worst. Such activities, like trying to estimate the number of dead in the various wars in the time frame, are worthy but unlikely to be anywhere near to right ball park. The point he makes, however, is that the number of dead in the British Civil Wars was almost certainly higher as a proportion of the population, that in the First World War. Yes, you read that right: the ECW (and the other bits) was more traumatic to the population than WW1.

This was particularly true in Scotland, and even more so in Ireland. The extremely rough estimates of the dead from 1641 – 1660 in Ireland are truly alarming. Mind you, the estimates from the Williamite wars are fairly eye-watering as well. Of course, many of the casualties are from disease and starvation, but even so, the depopulation of all three countries (and one principality) is shocking.

The thing that caught my imagination, however, was not the ECW and its colleague wars, but the wars of Elizabeth I. These are not usually particularly noticed by, well, anyone, really. We know a bit about the Armada, and possibly we are aware of Elizabeth’s Irish Wars, but overall, as Oman says somewhere, the second half of the sixteenth century was boring for warfare in England. Not much happened, there was little innovation and hardly any action.

Carlton demurs, and points to a range of evidence that Oman was wrong. Actually, he tries to overturn a range of historiography (mostly from the 1950’s and 1960’s) which pointed to Elizabethan armies being corrupt, inefficient and ineffective. He argues that, in fact, the Elizabethan militias were a lot more effective than they are usually given credit for, and the armies were not corrupt and inefficient. The Elizabethan state was poor and debt ridden. Elizabeth’s policies had to take account of this. For the Armada, for example, the trained bands (an Elizabethan innovation) were raised and then dismissed as the fleet passed their counties by. This saved a lot of money, but also still provided for a coastal defence force which would have been reinforced by the trained bands from neighbouring counties if the Armada had landed.



So, now I am interested. It helped, of course, that I could find a number of the works that Carlton refers to already on my shelves. I also have a range of already painted figures for the period. They need rebasing, admittedly, but they are extant, and chopping bases up and gluing them on has already started. Like I really need another project….

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Are You Sure They Should Be Black? Revision 1

Well, as vaguely threatened, I have revised my 1:3600 ancient galley rules. They are below.

Not that I imagine anyone will be particularly interested. Whenever I post about something naval the pave views crash. That probably says more about the interests of wargamers than anything else.

1 Models: The models are based on consistently sized bases, I use 20 mm by 10 mm, but I doubt it matters too much.

2 Ship types: the types of ship available are penteconter, trireme, quinquereme, hexereme and merchant. Penteconters are size 1, triremes and merchants are size 2, quinquereme and bigger are size 3.

3 Seamanship: each vessel will have a seamanship rating ranging from 1-6. This reflects the abilities of the captain and crew to manoeuver the vessel both in and out of combat. 1 is ‘which end of this thing goes in the water?’ and 6 is ‘Oxford and Cambridge boat race? Pah! Amateurs.’ If you want to assign seamanship randomly, it is best to use an average ide. The Athenians can get a +1 to this, because they practiced.

4 Formation: Ships can either be on their own or in formation. In a formation, the ships are in edge to edge base contact. The seamanship for a formation is the seamanship of the lead vessel of the formation which is usually the flagship.

5 Movement: Movement is at the rate of the slowest ship in the formation. Normal movement for an independent ship is three base depths (so, 60 mm in my basing system). Movement in formation is 2 base depths.

6 Formation Changes: Ships usually proceeded in line ahead, and then turned to line abreast for combat. This takes one command point to achieve. No ship may move more than its normal independent ship movement to achieve this.

7 Manoeuvre: ships not in formation can move in any direction is they have sufficient room. Formations may turn by wheeling; the inner ship remains stationary except for changing face, the outer ship moves its maximum distance towards the required direction, and the rest conform to that movement.

8 Combat: combat is by matched seamanship rolls. Each side adds to their seamanship a D6, and adjusts for tactical factors. In single ship combat the loser is rammed. In formation combat the loser’s formation is disrupted and the victor’s ships can close in and fight at an initial advantage. Transport ships cannot ram, but may defend themselves.

9 Tactical Factors: +1 having a larger formation; -1 facing more than one group (unless you have more than one group); -1 single ship facing a group; +1 per size difference between attacker and defender vessel (see #2); +2 victorious formation closing in; +2 ramming from the flank.

10 Outcomes: losers in ship to ship combat are rammed. Rammed ships are removed. Place markers where the ships are sunk, as ancient ships rarely sank except in rough weather; rammed ships were usually submerged. Ships may not cross locations where ships have been rammed and sunk. Victors will need to withdraw at least one base depth before resuming normal movement.

11 Command: each side receives 1D6 command points. An individual ship or formation costs 1 command point to start or stop movement. Each side may bid up to their total command points to obtain the first move in the turn. A turn consists of the movement of both sides and any combat.

12 Terrain: most ancient battles were fought near shorelines. Ships and formations next to shore lines (within one move of them) must make seamanship rolls (one per turn) to avoid running aground. Formations failing seamanship rolls are broken up and next turn the ships must roll individually. Individual ships failing seamanship rolls run aground and are stuck until a seamanship roll is successful; for each turn stuck, a 1 rolled on 1D6 indicates the ship is holed and it must be removed.

13 Reforming: formations may reform (or form ex nihilo) if all ships in the potential formation are not in combat. A formation takes 2 command points per ship to form. An individual ship may join a formation for 2 command points.


Saturday, 1 July 2017

Battles I Have Known

It has recently been a little quiet around here. This is for two reasons, at least, two that I am prepared to admit publicly. Firstly, as I mentioned, I now have a semi-permanent wargame set-up, and have, therefore, been playing a few wargames. One of these has been the first outing for my ancient galleys and, hence, the first outing for my ancient naval rules. They worked quite nicely, if rather bloodily. Or at least, lots of rowers got wet. Ancient galleys tended not to sink, just fill up with water, so ancient rowers, who were not slaves in general, but well paid professionals at least in Athens, and could swim, generally survived unless the seas were rough. This of course was assisted by the fact that most naval battles took place fairly close to land.

An interesting aspect of this is that the sea battle was fought in the context of my 360 BC campaign, and the fleets were the Persians against a bunch of pirates, with a couple of Athenian galleys supporting them. This is a bit awkward in context, because the Athenians have just agreed to a treaty with the Persians, and used their army to bully the Corinthians into repudiating their newly signed treaty with the Persians. It could all get a bit interesting. Furthermore, I now have a campaign within my campaign as the Persians, having achieved their aim in the sea battle of being able to land their expeditionary force on the island, now face a land battle.

The second reason for the relative silence on the blog is that I have been on a road trip. As we chose one of the hottest days in decades to start this, it had its moments of considering that we were mad. Of wargaming relevance, however, was the number of battle sites we drove past. I have probably missed a few along the way, but these are the ones I noted along the way or just off:

The Battle of the Standard
Halidon Hill
Flodden
Doon Hill
Pinkie
Prestonpans

The interested reader can, of course, take note of where I started to take records, and, roughly speaking, where we were going.

The point I want to make is that history is all around us, if we only stop and take note. Stopping to take note is not something that modern society is particularly good at. It takes time, effort, knowledge, understanding and interest, all of which seem to be in short supply these days. It is far easier to rush on, to take in the next sight, or look at the next army in the lists and by the relevant Osprey.

In wargaming too we hurry along, for the next fad is waiting. We slosh the coffee in, not waiting to smell it. This presumably is how coffee shops can get away with selling such terrible coffee. The world waits for us, but it has to be mediated by a screen. I do see students doing the cartoon thing of walking into stuff and people because their attention is no their phones.

The problem here, in terms of wargaming, is that we only paddle in the shallow end of history. Yet interpretation is vital. After all, if Scotland were not Scotland with its history and culture, there would be no independence issue. That there is an issue is because over the centuries Scotland has been framed as an idea, a construct, a meaning, a nation. It is, to pinch Benedict Anderson’s phrase, an imagined community.

Granted the border is marked, but actually the grass is no different on either side. Nothing changes but everything changes; the change is in our heads. So, for example, I might paint the most wonderfully accurate figures for Thai armies of the 1490’s, and I might fight wargame after wargame with them, against historic foes with historic outcomes, and I will probably enjoy them, as I like wargaming. But for me the battles have little meaning. In context, this does not matter. I can create the meaning for myself – a narrative, an account of winning and losing. Is this not enough?

I suspect a Thai would attach different and perhaps deeper meanings to the wargames and armies. After all, Australia attaches a rather different meaning to Gallipoli than historians of the First World War do, or historians of, say, Canada. Foundational myths (in the technical sense of myth) are important.

Historiography gives interpretations of events. These are meanings of which the actors may well have been ignorant. Some actors do act self-consciously, of course, and attempt, in a sense, to impose their own interpretations on events. But history has the last word, or, at least, a series of last words.

Except in wargames, battles are rarely simple in start or end. The meaning of a battle is freighted with context, fraught with issues other than winning or losing. The English won at Pinkie but did not win the war. Anglo-Scottish hostility only really assuaged after the Scottish reformation, although English damage and destruction to the Scottish church and polity has some influence over events. However, the Scots becoming Protestant was the catalyst for improving relations.


I can, and have, wargamed Pinkie. It is an interesting battle. It has a naval contingent, a still largely medieval army facing a semi-modernised one, and desperate charges of men-at-arms against pike blocks. Its meanings are multiple, of course. There are questions of modernisation, nationality, state building, international relations and power, religion, winning and losing, chance, necessity and all manner of other factors. But which do we own? Which do we care about? And if we do, why do we care about them?

Saturday, 17 June 2017

The Nomadic Wargamer

For someone who has been a wargamer since teenage years (and that is getting a fair while ago) my set up has always been rather nomadic. My first ‘proper’ wargames were fought on my parents circular dining room table.  Looking back, the geometry made for an interesting wargame, as the flanks were all fairly secure.

My gaming became slightly less nomadic when I was bought a six foot by four foot wargames table, which would sit snugly on the kitchen table. This was used for a number of years both for my fifteen millimetre English Civil War and medieval battles, and also as the main table for my A level years role playing games group. University, of course, put a stop to all that. Gaming, in particular role playing, became entirely nomadic once again.

Life went on, and ‘settling down’ occurred. However, this was in a tiny flat, and so the rekindled wargame hobby had to fit in. the armies were of six millimetre soldiers now, and small in base numbers at that. While the variety grew, the numbers of bases that could be placed on the table remained small. My foray into DBR allowed armies from around the world to be collected and painted, but the size was limited to one hundred point armies. Mostly, wargames were fought out on a two foot square coffee table.

That is not to say that wargames, and definitely enjoyable wargames, did not happen. One of my favourites was the rise of the Aztec Empire game, where the player had to go out and conquer the surrounding cities. I devised a random system, using cards, for the opposition, and a points system to see if the terror of the Aztecs made cities submit before the army got there. It worked very nicely, and I had a large number of wargames as a result. The system eventually beat me. My fear points were dropping and I needed a spectacular victory, so the emperor attached himself to a base of Jaguar knights. Unfortunately, they were taken in flank by some recalcitrant subjects, and my empire collapsed.

However, age is taking its toll, and I no longer feel able to bend over a coffee table for such lengthy periods, nor to carry boxes of soldiers and terrain up and down stairs. The desk here in my ‘study’ has been performing the work of a wargame table as well, but work (I have an unenlightened employer  whose policy on staff working from home takes some believing, especially given their loudly proclaimed green credentials, lack of car parking spaces and desperate efforts to look like a right on institution. However, in some cases, as this week when my car decided it needed a trip to the local hotel / garage, my line manager takes pity) and study sometimes covers it with books and papers to the extent that its surface vanishes and if I covered it with my wargame cloth I could be fighting in the Himalayas.
After some frustration and a real dearth of wargames, I decided a different solution was required. Now, all my more recent bases of toy soldiers have a bit of magnetic strip underneath, so they remain secure in their boxes while being sorted out and dropped. I therefore possess a fair number of bits of steel paper and a spare cork notice board. One morning, therefore, I spent some time working out if the steel paper would stick to the cork, and how many pieces I would need to cover it.

I was just wondering how I was going to cut the steel paper neatly enough for it to be acceptable as a playing surface when the Estimable Mrs P. returned. She does take an interest in what I have been doing and so, over a nice cup of coffee I explained the problem and showed her my projected solution. It has the advantage, I explained, that I could pick the board up and store it without the soldiers falling off.

Now, I should explain that we have, at least temporarily, gone up in the world since our one bedroomed flat. We currently live in a rather large four bedroom detached house in a highly desirable village location. I should add that we do not own it, just in case anyone thinks that we are worth burgling. Nevertheless, with just the two of us (and the cat) there is a fair amount of room, much of which is taken up with stuff we have not got around to throwing away.

The Estimable Mrs P was not too impressed by my solution to the wargame problem, I confess, and I was a little disappointed at that point. However, she had a far better idea. One of the downstairs rooms is hardly used, except for the storage of our collection of home-made wine and our more presentable books.  Why not, she suggested, get a table and set up the wargame operation in there?

Some head scratching and measurement ensued and despite my protestations over the expense the process of setting the room up has begun. We pondered the nature of the table for some time, and finally decided (prompted in my case by a comment in the introduction, I think, to DBA) that a card table would be just the ticket. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that it has to be a ‘nice’ one and a rickety plastic one from Amazon was not acceptable.

The question of storage was solved by moving a semi-redundant wardrobe downstairs, which has plenty of room for the boxes of soldiers and terrain, and for the cloths (I have three – green, sand and blue). An unused wall mounted bookshelf has been located for installation for the storage of rules and my small collection of directly wargame related items.

The table itself arrived yesterday. It is about eighty centimetres square and fits in the room very nicely. After some tests, I have discovered that the width will accommodate twenty bases of my armies side by side. As even wargamers rarely line their toys up shoulder to shoulder across the board, this is fine, and of course the depth means that waggon trains and camps are required features, rather than conveniently being left off table.


And so here I am, nearly, at least, no longer a nomadic wargamer. The next week or so should see the finishing touches applied and the armies and other bits transferred. The painting operation will, I think, remain here – I don’t want to paint on a card table. But now I should be able to wargame without too much sweat and too many tears.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

The Languages of Wargaming

For my sins, which must be very many, I have been doing a little reading on deconstruction. As I am sure that you all know, deconstruction is broadly associated with the French thinker Derrida. Despite Derrida’s claims to the contrary, it is true that deconstruction has become a major tool of literary criticism, and its influence has been a bit limited elsewhere. Partly, I think, this is because Derrida was French, and therefore widely ignored in Anglo-American philosophy. Further, I think, it is because he draws on a philosophical tradition which was (at least) not widely understood (or translated) in that Anglo-American tradition. Thirdly, it seems, a common understanding of deconstruction is that it, in fact, lands you up precisely where you were before, just more confused and with no map of where to go.

Those warning shots fired, I propose to consider what a simple (and simplistic – I am trying to avoid reading Derrida) approach to the languages involved in wargaming through a form of deconstruction might look like. Of course, in the confines of a blog post I can only hint at some of the issues, but I hope it might give an interesting view on some of the knotty problems that do lie beneath the surface of wargaming.

Firstly, we have to ask what sorts of language are there being used in a ‘wargame discourse’ (an ugly term, but I cannot think of a better one)? Off hand, I can identify three main ones: history, rules and narrative. Now, even in deconstruction these language do not need to be in competition, but the aim of deconstructing them is to see what power claims might be being made through privileging one or the other.

So first, we have history. Historical wargaming, obviously, and, I submit, other forms of wargaming not so obviously, are all reliant in some form on history. As I have said endlessly here, we, as wargamers, read a historical text, and we read it in a certain way. We are not too worried if, for example, the Marquis of Montrose started to write dodgy poetry at times of stress in his generalship. We simply want to know what he did, how good he was, how many men he had and how they were armed and organised. Nevertheless, there is a way in which the historical discourse controls wargaming. We privilege the language of history, because that is what happened and, therefore, in a wargame, that is what should happen.

Secondly, we have the language of the rule set. Each is different, of course, although they tend to overlap. The rule set discourse consists of things like definitions of units, ranges, time frames and so on, and defines the interactions between these things. Thus you can get a discourse of wargaming which has almost entirely abandoned, at least on the surface, any semblance of historical discourse. Thus we can hear (and I have heard it)  “My irregular knights(I) will charge your Reg Ps(S)”. This is, of course, gibberish to anyone who does not also speak the language of the rules. It is also nonsense to anyone who is speaking a historical language. Irregular Kn(I) are, in fact, say, chariots. Within the model and discourse of the rules this nomenclature might make perfectly good sense, but not outside it. In this way we can see that different discourses within the wargame can compete. The rule set discourse language can, for some wargamers, out compete the historical discourse. Perhaps, in those circumstances, a historical wargame is no longer being played, as such.

Thirdly, there is the narrative language, that of the game itself. As I noted before, often this is formed in play by a series of speech-acts and actions – ‘My chariots will charge your skirmishers’. The outcomes, determined by the language and model of the rules, then determine the next set of speech-acts and actions. The wargame continues, with interconnected speech-acts and actions, until the end, the whole forming a narrative. The precise form of the narrative varies, of course. It can be informed by either of the other two languages. Usually they do not mix – we rarely get ‘My Kn(I) charge your skirmishers’. Perhaps our narratives actually reveal which of the other two discourses we are using, which we are thinking in terms of.

Deconstruction is not really used to make any advance. Part of its function is to reveal hidden ideological and political biases. Thus feminists can use deconstruction to reveal underlying male biases in our language and hence, since it is thought that language determines much of our thinking, underlying patriarchy in our thinking and thus in the structures of society.

My aims here are rather more modest than that, but I do think that there is an interest in stopping and considering that wargaming we see about us and the sorts of discourses involved. The discourses I have outlined are not, of course, exclusive, and the weight we give to them will, of course, very from time to time and game to game. I think, though, we can see how broadly wargames vary.

Firstly, you have the gamer that switches readily from one period to another without really worrying about any historical discourse associated with a given game. The game is the important thing. Such a player will be using the rules – narrative theme of the discourses of wargaming I have suggested above. Similarly, I suspect (although there will always be exceptions of course) tournament gamers will tend to land up in this strand.


Naturally, we can all land up as gaiter-button counters, and this might put us into the realm of the historical discourse, although often it simply lands us in a different world, that of pedantry and not being able to see the wood for the trees. Nevertheless, a second type of gamer we do see is the historical-narrative type, for whom the historical verisimilitude is more important than the exact execution of the rules. As regular readers of the blog might infer, I would tend to place myself in this category. What about you?

Saturday, 3 June 2017

The Western Design

I have just finished reading June’s History Today. I know that it is still May (or it was at time of writing), but that seems to be part and parcel of the wacky world of magazine publication. Anyway, there are a number of articles which I, at least, find interesting, although mostly they are nothing to do with wargaming or warfare. Two, however, stand out. One article is on the Spanish fiasco at Djerba in 1560. The other is on the English fiasco in the Caribbean in 1654. Perhaps it is only me that noticed the links between the two. At least, they are both related to islands and amphibious warfare.

Anyway, I might come back to Djerba, but for the moment I want to consider Cromwell’s Western Design. This, the author (Carla Gardina Pestana) has been largely forgotten. I suspect, as with the comment of Plataea a few weeks ago, the response might be ‘Not by wargamers it hasn’t.’ Perhaps. I have heard of it, but maybe that is because I have been reading about the English Civil War and its aftermath since I was a teenager, and that is a fair number of years ago now.

I am not wholly convinced that the Western Design is forgotten. Antonia Fraser’s massive ‘Cromwell, Our Chief of Men’ devotes 16 pages to the expedition’s conception, dispatch and outcome for which, in a book covering the great man’s whole life (admittedly over 700 pages long), ‘forgotten’ does not seem to be the correct adjective. S. R. Gardiner’s History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate has a chapter and a bit on it, while even Clarendon devotes a few paragraphs to the expedition.  I have on my shelf 'The Western Design: An Account of Cromwell's Expedition to the Caribbean', by S.A.G. Taylor (1965: Institute of Jamaica and Jamaica Historical Society). A bit old, but it does not suggest the Western Design is totally forgotten. That said, the author does suggest there are many reasons why the Design has been largely ignored. Firstly, it was reckoned a failure. The aim was the seizure of Hispaniola, from where it was beaten off, rather too easily, perhaps, by an outnumbered and ill-equipped Spanish force.

The seizing of Jamaica is usually viewed, therefore, as a consolation prize, and the incarceration of Penn and Venables upon their return to England in the Tower of London is regarded as just punishment from a government which expected much, much more. Further, there is the vexed question of both the guerrilla war with the remnant of the population of Jamaica and the fact that, in the next century, Jamaica turned into the major port of destination for the slave trade. The accomplishment of the Western Design is tainted by this issue, although it certainly was not on anyone’s mind at the time.

Gardiner reckons the expiation to be a significant one, on the basis that it was the first move of the British government (for it was British, even though by conquest rather than agreement) to assert, forcefully, sovereignty of the seas. It was also a double expedition against Spain. At nearly the same time Blake set off with another fleet to attack Spain itself. Given that Charles I’s government could barely sustain a few ships at sea each summer, this in itself is a remarkable achievement.

The major change that Pestana sees in the Western Design is not control of the seas, but that it was the first state sponsored attempt at colonial expansion. Previously, efforts had been carried out by private individuals, perhaps operating as a company and under licence from the government. Some plantations survived and even thrived, some did not. For the Western Design massive state resources were employed. Jamaica, the prize, was a state possession. Clarendon records that Cromwell, after the disappointment of the results, acted quickly to reinforce the island.

Pestana also notes that the seizure of Jamaicia, and the attempt on Hispaniola, marked a change in geo-politics. A wider war with Spain was prosecuted and shifted its focus from the West Indies to Europe. This continued in the Caribbean until 1670 when a peace was signed whereby Spain recognised the English colonies in the Americas. Further, of course, other foreign powers followed, including France. Pestana observes that the Caribbean could be termed the cockpit of Europe as a result of this. European wars were fought out there, as well as in the manoeuvring of armies on the Continent.

Aside from the fact that Pestana ignores Blake’s fleet, she does raise some interesting views about the Western Design and its aftermath. From a wargaming point of view, of course, it presents a wonderful opportunity to employ often under used forces from the ‘New Model Army’ in an unusual and unfamiliar place. It also should focus our interest on logistics and on the often under-valued role of the Navy in early modern warfare.

After 1655 warfare in the Caribbean became much more complex as state fought state. Often, due to communication delays wars were fought there after peace in Europe, or before war officially broke out anywhere. Again, as I think Tony Bath suggests in setting up a Wargame Campaign the possibilities are large in this area. Future governments might have been less interested in foreign escapades and not sent reinforcements. Ships might be deployed to the Caribbean and then sent on elsewhere. The possibilities for an astute wargamer to run an unusual campaign are great.

Finally, of course, there are significant opportunities for a degree of role playing. As with many early modern (and, for that matter, more recent) colonial adventures, the decisions that mattered were the people on the ground. If it was convenient to them, they could claim that there was ‘No Peace beyond the Line’ and carry on raiding. Further there were also significant ‘irregular’ forces around, in the shape of buccaneer (or pirate – it depends on your point of view) forces who lived off prizes and illegal trading with the Spanish (this could be illegal on both sides, of course). While fiction, Dudley Pope’s ‘Corsair’ series sets up some nice small scale actions for us.

So: Forgotten? Not by wargamers or, at least, upon reading this post, hopefully someone will decide that it is interesting. Pestana, incidentally, as a book entitled The English Conquest of Jamaica: Cromwell’s Bid for Empire (Belknap) out this year. Mr Amazon says it was published in April.



Saturday, 27 May 2017

Giving the Past Its Due

History is in a constant state of revision. One of the things I try to explain to people is that if they read a text, firstly, that text remains and can be re-read, and secondly, that when they do re-read the text, they will approach it with different questions and, thus, find different things in that text.

History is similar, I think. A historian, whether amateur or professional, approaches the subject of interest with a set of questions. These questions are framed by the current context of the historian. Thus, for example, there is far more interest in Greek homosexuality now than there was in, say, the Victorian era. This is not because the nature of ancient Greek sex and sexuality has changed over the past century or so. How could it? But our perceptions, our questions have altered. Homosexuality is now much more visible in society and thus a historian is more likely to approach an ancient society with a modern concern in mind.

I have noted before that wargamers approach history with a set of questions in mind. They want to know about units, tactics, generals, strength and make up of forces and so on. I have also noted that often a wargamer has to turn away from the historical sources disappointed. The required information simply does not exist. The wargamer is reduced to plausible guess work and, possibly, imagination. Where historians can stop and admit ignorance, the placing of wargame figures on a table requires something definite.

I suppose the key word is ‘plausible’. What actually counts is what was likely. How many hoplites was such and such a city likely to be able to deploy? What was the likely role of twenty-thousand lightly armed Arucarians? And so on. Even modern warfare is not immune from that sort of question. Often the much lauded tables of organisation are ideal, the hopes and dreams of administrators, rather than relating in any but a general way to boots on the ground.

History, of course, takes its twists and turns. We know, for example, in general turns of the relationship between England and Scotland from, say, medieval times. We can find in the reigns of Edward I, Edward II and Edward III various relations of power between the two nations, including military power. We can trace this further through history, via the Auld Alliance of France and Scotland and the vary relations between the three nations, to the Scottish Reformation and, perhaps, the only really welcome intervention of the English north of the border (at least by part of the nation).

History, however, has a habit of not stopping. We can describe the state of the border in Elizabethan times, and how it was fairly brutally pacified under James VI and I, although that bit is usually relegated to a foot note in history. We can also regard the intertwined political, national and religious webs of the British Civil Wars of mid-century, which led to the military defeat of the Scots. Interestingly, the concept of the Scottish nation was not defeated in anyone’s head. Various local, national and international states of affairs had combined to bring about, say Dunbar.

Again, history was it is known about today can focus in. there has been a fair fuss recently over the discovery of a load of bodies in Durham which have been identified as Scots, prisoners of war after the defeat at Dunbar. They were being moved south; the war, after all, was still going. Things being as it were they were interred in Durham where cold, poor food and disease killed many. They were buried.

Recently, the location of the burials was discovered, although my colleague, who was brought up around Durham observed that most of the locals knew they were there.  But, to me somewhat bizarrely, an argument started as to where they should be re-interred. Some argued for Durham, where they had died. Some, however, wanted the bones returned to Scotland. I think this really was rejected on practical grounds. Where in Scotland would the bones be returned to? After all, Leslie’s army at Dunbar was national.

The interest is, of course, in the mere fact of the argument at all. Somehow this discovery matters, and it must matter on the grounds of what is happening now. That is recent political developments makes an argument over 350 (or so) year old skeletons viable, and it can be undertaken by serious people. Somehow, we find in this, that history does matter, even though most people (including my colleague) express bafflement as to why this particular argument is being had.

And so it loops around to wargaming, historical wargaming in particular, but not exclusively. We represent something, say from the past. And yet that representation of the past is framed by our understanding of the present, by the questions we ask. Those questions are, perhaps, answered by history as it is written now, and also maybe by history as it was written then. There is not, cannot be, a complete answer, however. The written history of now and the history of then cannot completely overlap. Our knowledge is always incomplete; our worldview is always rather different.

I do not exempt science fiction or fantasy games from the above, because they are still representations of something framed by the present. Often, if you dig deeply enough, you will find issues of the present embedded in science fiction and fantasy. Lord of the Rings and A Canticle for Leibowitz , for example, probably would not have been written but for the experience of World War Two. Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy is an interesting pivot between the fall of the Roman Empire and the concerns of post-war America. And so on.

Our wargames, with their emphasis on facts and knowledge of the numbers, arms and organisations of the armies of the past, present or future (or some completely different place and time) do show, therefore, some of the issues which our culture – technological, bureaucratic, controlling, deterministic with acknowledged limits – has.


Maybe an interesting question is whether we could imagine a different sort of wargaming, freed from some of these concerns.