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.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Honourable War


‘In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem’
2 Samuel 11:1 (NRSV)

King David is, of course, the hero of the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible, depending on taste and political correctness). And yet, somehow, in those two sentences, there is a mood of criticism. Even more so, in fact, when one reads the rest of that chapter and the next one. But I will leave that as an exercise for the reader.

The point here, is that the king was expected to go to war, in the springtime, presumably after the planting had been done for the growing season and men were available for warfare. In the world view of 2 Samuel, whenever it was written, edited, polished and finalised, kings go to war.  In that, it seems, they are a little like wargamers. The rationality of the battle does not matter. The point is to have a battle.

I mentioned last time that I was rereading, a bit, a book about the origins of war in early modern Europe. I have actually started on a chapter, specifically Steven Gunn’s ‘The French Wars of Henry VIII (p. 28-51). I have not finished it yet (that would be expecting too much, especially for an amateur commentator to actually finish reading something) but it has thrown up a number of interesting things.

As a wargamer, I sometimes think that Henry VIII is a bit underrated, a bit under used. His was an interesting reign for all sorts of reasons, both militarily and otherwise. Normally, of course, he is seem as something of a transition figure, between the medieval world of his father and the end of the Wars of the Roses and the modern world of the England of the Protestant reformation and beyond, with exciting things like the Armada and the beginnings of Empire.

Another view places Henry and England on the periphery, a bit player and observer in the Hapsburg-Valois wars of the early sixteenth century. The main issues were Milan, Naples and the expansion of France to the north and east. This was only going to bring conflict with the Hapsburgs, and that intensified when Charles V ascended the throne of Spain as well as the Holy Roman Empire. England did not have to participate in these wars, and yet she did.

We can of course adduce evidence of economic ties between England and the Low Countries to suggest that Henry made war in the best interests of the country. Customs duties relied heavily on the sale of cloth at Antwerp, and Henry’s revenue relied heavily on customs dues. It has to be said that, while these links rather tied Henry’s hands internationally, they did not determine his policy.

Henry spent quite a lot of his reign at war with France, and there were reasons for this. Firstly, it was because it was rather easy to motivate the English into fighting the French. In a world of generally little travel, strangers were treated with deep suspicion and the French were historical enemies. Poems about Agincourt were written; chronicles of the Hundred Years War were translated. The French were a ‘natural’ enemy.

The King also liked war. He liked the gadgets, and spent on artillery and fortifications. More than that, he liked the honour of war. Honour was interpreted in martial terms. The rhetoric of foreign policy war suffused with war. It has to be noted that honour rarely was found to conflict with common sense, but honouring oneself was pride. Honour had to be validated by others, and in this case Henry’s honour was dependent on the views of other monarchs and princes in Europe.

Battle was the ultimate test of honour and chivalry. Indeed, it has been argued that chivalry was the greatest cause of pitched battles between 1450 and 1530. English armies in France appeared to be rather aimless, wandering the countryside seeking to bring the French to battle. While defying the enemy without riposte was a reasonable way of obtaining honour, it was not the same as winning a battle. A siege was better, but Henry never managed to be present at a major battle and, by some measures, was inclined to be a little unhappy with subordinated who won major victories while he was otherwise occupied.

Policy was generally aligned towards the king’s honour. When it was not, the king was a bit uncomfortable. Handing a propaganda coup to an enemy by breaking an oath was not a great idea, of course. On the other hand, various claims could be ignored until they were found to be useful. The historic claim of the English crown upon the French was along these lines. To modern eyes the claim looks flexible, or a diplomatic ploy. It would seem that Henry did take it more seriously, at least when it suited him. He was not, for example, going to give it up. The French paid him a pension over it; he viewed this as a sort of rent for his rightful inheritance until he saw fit to claim it.

Such claims meant that attention had to be paid to the past. Henry VIII seems to have paid a great deal of attention to the activities of Henry V. There were lots of parallels, even if some of them, for instance being the son of a usurper, would not have pleased either monarch if it had been pointed out. The claim to the French crown was based on both honour and history. Henry v was moved by justice and right. Henry VIII was not going to do less, even if the claims were not pressed for the moment.


While, at some level, therefore, kings simply go to war, the reality is a lot more complex. Revenue, history, honour, justice and the inclination of both nobility and commoner as to their enemies also play a part. The inclinations of the monarch are significant, but not to the point of overriding everything else. Elizabeth I, after all, was a fairly pacific monarch, but towards the end of her reign was involved in a rather wide-ranging war. For the early modern state, forming as it was during the sixteenth century, war was the most complex and expensive activity it engaged in. 

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Ideas and Wars

I suspect it may be true that underlying a lot of what I write here is that warfare, and hence wargaming in different eras, is at least in part a function of the ideas which are prevalent in the era we are attempting to represent. Thus, for example, what we might call geometric war, a warfare dominated by fortifications of a given type, is a function, in part, of the rise of geometry and mathematics generally associated with the renaissance. The sort of thing that could be undertaken by someone with an understanding of abstract geometry was not the same as that of someone who worked with pieces of charcoal and string. The idea gave a different form of warfare.

This is not to say, of course, that the ideas dominated warfare. There were plenty of hold-outs, as it were. Henry VIII’s fortifications on the south coast of England were not geometric. The towers were round and, as packed with earth, probably would have been fairly effective. Again, a lot depends on function. As costal forts they were conceived to be artillery platforms, not to stand sieges necessarily. Nevertheless, Henry’s daughter Elizabeth had Berwick upon Tweed fortified in the continental manner, and, of course, moaned about the cost.

Beyond this form of reasonably practical response, warfare is a bit about ideas, at least. I have mentioned the effect of religion on the ways in which people and nations go to war. It is often said that religions cause wars, and this is rather unfair. Religion is often viewed by its protagonists and propagandists as being the reason for war. Thus, to quote Jeremy Black ‘The Seven Years’ War was widely portrayed in propaganda as a religious conflict, a development that was in keeping with the stress on religious animosity in the domestic publications of several states.’ (Black, J., ‘Introduction’, in Black, J., (ed) The Origins of War in Early Modern Europe, (1987, Edinburgh, John Donald) p 6). Immediately, however, he notes that alliances did not conform to confessional lines. Religious animosity should not be exaggerated to be the causus belli.

Religious belief, however, can determine to some extent, how states interfere with other states internal issues (think the Protestant minority in early modern France, for example; cases can be multiplied) and also how the wars were fought. While, often, Thucydides’ dictum that things in war go from bad to worse (I paraphrase wildly) it is also true that religion can mitigate the worst effects of warfare and, of course, provide some comfort for those whose lives are on the line. Religious propaganda and activities can also be used. In the years of the American Revolutionary Wars Britain held days of national fast and humiliation because of the ‘just and necessary Measure of Force which we are obliged to use against our rebellious subjects’. There is not much ‘holy Jesus meek and mild’ going on here, admittedly.

The point with the days of fast, of course, is that we see an alignment of the religious and the political. I am not too well up in the history of the later eighteenth century, but the language is that of the divine right of kings, and also of the ideas of just war that were floating around. As any rebellion against duly appointed authority was also a sin, then the war, provided the force used was proportionate, was just. I dare say propaganda on the other side was just as infused with religion, no matter exactly what the religious beliefs of the founding fathers was.

It is, then, I think, as mistake to suppose that the ideas around in society did not have an impact on warfare. It would be a similar sort of error to imagine that the converse was not true. For example, the horrors of trench warfare in 1914-18 led to a major rethink of, at least, Protestant theology, through the work of Karl Barth. These ideas, this rethinking, is still being argued over in theological circles today, and have some resonances with debates over warfare and society even now. Similarly, I think we could argue, the philosophy of Heidegger was, in part, a response to the First World War and the turmoil in Germany which followed it. I am not meaning to get involved in the ‘was Heidegger a Nazi’ debate, just suggesting that the context of the thinking going on was important.

There is, of course, as Terry Pratchett put it, a rake lurking in the grass here. That rake is our own context, that of us as amateur historians and wargamers. We interpret the past in a particular way. It, of us, is not imbued with the Spirit of God, of divine providence or similar things, as it would have been for most of the participants and early interpreters.  We live in an age of ‘scientific’, or at least, critical history. Things happen for, we argue, human reasons and, as such, they should be understandable and interpretable by human reason. Stuff was going on which the participants may have had little or no idea about; they may have associated that with divine providence or whatever, but we, we suppose, can know better. The point is that doing that is disrespectful to that past and those people. We rip their ideas and views out of context and disregard some of them.


Thus, I think, that while we can and do wargame while disregarding the views and opinions of the past, we really should not. Motives are, and were always, mixed, of course. We can say that the Romans were a very religious people, so long as the gods did what they wanted. That may be true, at least in part, put it does suggest a rather later, Enlightenment level categorization. The Romans, so far as I know, did not really draw a distinction between the gods and what they want and the people of Rome and what was best for them. It is simply a different view of religion from that of today. To force the Romans into post-Enlightenment categories is, at least, to distort and misrepresent the past in some way. We can and should not rule out self-interest, of course, but that is not separated from the religious world view and context of the time.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

After Thermopylae

I have often thought that wargamers are something of a race apart, a bit different from the rest of humanity. I have a suspicion that this can be proved in a fairly simple way. In his book ‘After Thermopylae’ (Oxford:  OUP, 2013) Paul Cartledge suggests that most of the population have never heard of Plataea. Most people, he thinks, have heard of Marathon, Thermopylae, and Salamis, but the fourth battle is a Cinderella.

Even as I read that comment, I had a mental reservation. I reckon, with a reasonable degree of certainty that most wargamers will have heard of Plataea. After all, as I recall, it is a battle discussed in Charles Grant’s The Ancient Wargame, and I recall some rather nice pictures of hoplites in the book. Cartledge also commends the Osprey on Plataea as been a good, popular, military history book, based on decent scholarship. Again, if I am any sort of judge, quite a lot of wargamers will be aware of that item.

So what is the point of Cartledge’s book? It is subtitled ‘The Oath of Plataea and the End of the Persian Wars’. The Oath of Plataea, for those of you who, like me, had not encountered it before, is found as an inscription on an ancient Greek monument dug up in the 1930’s. It purports to be an oath, sworn by the Hellene alliance before the battle of Plataea, that they will live in peace and harmony together afterwards and not go to war with each other. This, of course, refers specifically to Athens and Sparta, but includes other states, and specifically excludes Greek cities like Thebes which Medeized.

Now, of course, most of you will have spotted the mealy mouthed word ‘purports’ in the paragraph above. The question has to be asked about the authenticity of the item. That it is old, ancient Greek and of interest is not in dispute. What is in dispute is its relation to the battle of Plataea. That is, there is no account of an oath taken before Plataea in the written records. While there are two references to such an oath, they date from the 330’s BC, not from 480 / 479 BC. The question is, therefore, around the context of the writing of such an oath.

Hence we land up with a bit of an excursion into Greek history. What had happened between the defeat of the Persian army in 479 BC and the 330’s? Quite a lot, of course. The Athenian-Spartan war, known as the Peloponnesian war, was fought in the end of the fifth century, for one thing, leading to the defeat of Athens and the dismantling of the Delian league. Further wars occurred in the early part of the next century, with Athens, Sparta and Thebes disputing hegemony over the Greek world. There was, of course, always Persian money at the disposal of one side of another. In fact, the victor of the war was usually the one subsidised by the Persians. In this sense we can argue that, military results to the contrary, the Persians won the Greek and Persian Wars.

So, what happened in the immediate context of the stone with the oath inscribed? At Chaeronea in 338 BC the forces of Phillip of Macedon defeated the Greek alliance. Athens was among the defeated, although Phillip did not, at least immediately and in principle, dismantle the Athenian democracy.  The oath, viewed in this context, is a hearkening back to the glory days of Hellenism (itself an invented concept; Greeks did not usually view themselves as Hellenes but as Athenians, Spartans, Thebans and so on) when everyone was united against a common foe. We all do it – the Battle of Britain, Waterloo, and so on are pointed to as important parts of who a nation ‘is’.

Further to that context, there is another one, which Cartledge suggests is the reason that Plataea is less well known than the other battles. Plataea was, on the whole, a Spartan victory. The overall commander of the alliance was Spartan, and the biggest number of hoplites at the battle were Spartans. Thermopylae was, of course, a glorious defeat of the Spartans, and that could be accepted within Athenians historiography, such as it was at the time. Salamis and Marathon were, of course, Athenian victories. At Marathon the Spartans, as is well known, turned up late. Salamis was the vindication of the new Athenian policy of creating a trireme navy. The Athenians were less keen on Plataea because the Spartans won it, although to be fair to Herodotus, he did admit the fact.

The point, of course, should be becoming fairly familiar to regular readers of this blog. History is what we make of it, and what we want to make of it. The Athenians used the history of the Greek and Persian Wars to make a point around 150 years later. That point was that the Athenians and Spartans, if they had remained united, would have seen off the Macedonians. Further points are also made, about the Spartan destruction of Plataea the city, which went against a treaty, and the Thebans relationship with Sparta, Plataea (which they persuaded the Spartans to destroy) and the Persians. The fact that the Macedonians also destroyed Thebes is part of this narrative as well.

There is a further point, of course, in that the Plataeans provided around 1000 hoplites to the Athenians at Marathon. Once Plataea was destroyed, the Athenians in fact created a special class of citizen for them. Again, this is a reference point within the inscription on the oath of Plataea. Again it is something to do with rubbing everyone else’s nose in breaking oaths.

As a final point, we should not ignore the religious aspects. This was an oath, and it was sworn on the gods. Oath breakers would be punished by the gods. That punishment would be destructive; Greek gods were not, so far as I can tell, particularly subtle creatures, and oath breakers who had sworn that if they broke the oath they would be smitten were, usually, smitten. The oath, at the end of the day, was a religious document. The modern idea of separating the realm of the gods and the realm of men and nature would have been incomprehensible to the Greeks.


I hope that I have done a degree of justice to Cartledge’s book, which I enjoyed and found most interesting. But I think the point to take from it is two-fold. Firstly, historical documents need to be read in context, and it takes some detective work to find that context. Secondly, as I have just mentioned, and as I have been banging on about here a bit, even though our culture would discount the religious aspects (as I nearly did above – did you notice?) such an approach simply would not have made sense in the historical context. In short, if we disregard religion in history we will never make sense of it.