Issue: 26

Moving Rapidly in the General Direction of Away...
or, "Marines, we are leaving (but don't tell the L.t.)"
by Mary Gentle

Actually, it was a remark in David Brewer's excellent article on personal armour in Ragnarok 19 that started this train of thought edging out of the station, but the Fog of War series further fuelled it. The remark in question was "the best reason for considering arms and armour in gratuitous detail is to make games more 'realistic'". David Manley, as regards 'fog' (or as von Clausewitz used to call it - the fact that during 95% of wartime, one doesn't know what the **** is going on - I translate loosely from the German), shows this realism adapted to rules to produce a wonderfully lifelike command scenario.

And it occurred to me that wargame morale rules don't weight desertion anything like heavily enough. Do commanders (players) seriously consider all the factors causing it when issuing orders?

Enter Stage Left: the campaign for more realism. Someone else is going to have to do the rules details: I don't have that kind of mind (please refrain from the obvious comments...), but there are a number of things that should be factored in to give a lively appreciation on the games table of how likely your army is to turn into a distinct absence of the same.

Physical Trauma:

I hesitate to raise this, since I doubt anything can be done except subsume it into morale levels, but it is worth mentioning for a commander/player to bear in mind. Given the profile of the hobby (mostly young to middle-aged males in the last quarter of the 20th century) most wargames are being played not only by people who have not seen combat, but (because of our medical system) most probably have not seen a person die, whether peacefully or in extreme pain, have not witnessed the effects of physical trauma as regards injuries, or come close to dying themselves. There are going to be exceptions (in particular I'm thinking of RTA statistics), but compared to previous generations we separate ourselves from dying. It makes a difference.

There are some interesting statistics from Napoleonic-period surgeons, reporting many of the wounds that they saw were from flying body parts striking other combatants, so that they were often called upon to remove human teeth and bone fragments from these wounds. The human head weighs 10-12 lbs. It wasn't unusual for the head of a man killed by artillery to strike and kill the man next to him. Grotesque, yes, even funny if you have a gallows sense of humour, but now you're going to stand in a square to receive artillery or below decks for a first rates broadside... or are you? (Short xenophobic but accurate answer: Yes, if you're British; No, if you're French or Spanish).


An example: Frederick the Great was known for never using skirmishers. Not that they weren't tactically useful - they were. It was just that being a skirmisher was a license to desert. He was of the opinion that any soldier more than two hundred yards from the main body of men was off, outta there, and heading for them thar hills. Most of the time he was right. That certainly cramps your tactical style - without skirmishers, you're left asking "The enemy is where, exactly?". No answer, came the stern reply.


One of the usual ways of stopping your men deserting is to make sure you conscript troops and send them to fight in countries that aren't theirs. They don't speak the language, the locals don't like living off the land (aka, nicking, burning anything not nailed down), so that troops have got nowhere to go. This doesn't stop all of them going, but a fair proportion should reckon they're better off in the army. Philip of Spain followed this theory when he sent 16th century Spanish troops into the Netherlands. Regrettably, he failed to pay his troops on so many occasions that mutinying became almost the regular way for them to get their back wages (after the mutineer ringleaders were hanged, of course). Spain then went bankrupt three times...

It does have its inherent difficulties. Napoleon returning from Moscow was, despite his men being in foreign, hostile and inclement (to say the least) territory, losing the Grand Armee to desertion at a phenomenal rate. On the retreat from Moscow you don't need enemy forces.


Medieval period warfare was undertaken only secondarily for political advantage and primarily for plunder. The king needs to dish out rewards, so do his vassals, and so on down. Otherwise feudalism fails to function (The Other great Middle Ages game for getting plunder ie. land to dish out, was inheritance: hence political manoeuvring... leading to and from warfare). Other historical periods don't have looting as their prime motive, but it's always up there in the top three. The danger is ever-present that, by halfway through a battle, never mind a campaign, your army has entirely lost interest. It is off lifting anything it can get, since it's got it, it doesn't want to risk it by fighting. This explains why many of the military laws against looting are so severe. It doesn't have anything to do with protecting civilians/property - just with maintaining the mission objective.

In terms of rules, your troops will fight differently according to whether, say, hey know they have the legal right to ravage the city the enemy is defending. On the other hand, the commander will behave differently if he knows that once they get there he hasn't a hope in hell of stopping them razing it to the ground. Utter destruction of property is rarely the command aim of warfare, it turns your army into a mob that may be dangerous - to you...

With Friends Like These:

An army is always something of a self-discarding organisation. Even the development of a professional officer corps in the Western Europe has only slowed down this process. A pre-19th century army, at least, is a body of human beings with a dispersal imperative, held together by coercion, esprit, cooperation and a few prematurely white-haired, paranoid, twitching maniacs (she said feelingly) with the conviction that they could officer this mob wonderfully if only they knew what was going on.


In Martin Middlebrook's The First Day of the Somme there is an account of battle police shooting on the spot two underage soldiers who refused to go over the top. This is also a constant. Battle police kept squares in order at Waterloo. Is there a rules system that requires a commander to field this troop type? Even the best-trained soldiers seem to need to know that, if they run away, their side will shoot them, whereas the enemy only might...

Refusal to Fire:

Some interesting research from WWII and after shows that, among infantry, only a small proportion of soldiers are actually firing their weapons during battle. And generally, it's always the same people that do. It appears that an awful lot of infantry move as required, keep their heads down, and don't shoot the enemy on the grounds that (a) then they'll know where I am, (b) maybe they won't shoot me if I don't shoot at them, and (c) they didn't ask to be in this damn war either. I don't know if there is an equivalent for shock warfare. It must be more difficult to stare vaguely into the middle distance during a line attack and pretend you haven't realised the enemy are there.

This is the famous five per cent again, which comes from a whole slew of research areas, but boils down to a rules of thumb: in any given situation, one person in twenty will feel obliged to do some-thing about it, while the other nineteen sit happily with their thumbs up their back-sides, awaiting leader-ship. I first ran across this in the context of WWII German POW camps sorting out the one-in-twenty, and then having no trouble with the rest. I'd really like to disprove this statistic...

Fantasy Warfare with Real Live Pieces:

A sideline on the subject and a kind of late reply to Alaric about tactic in Live Role Play. The tactics of the Gathering, the August Bank Holiday fantasy event that has between two and three thousand players, and has a mass battle on the Monday, have in the past been worked out in each side's commanders meetings late on the Sunday night, and while walking the terrain early Monday morning. Being military advisor to one side's battle commander means I was one of the main voices responsible for that side's '92-'94 battle plans.

Resulting "battlefield experience" leads me to say that shock warfare is subject to battlefield refusal (the bit in Grunts with Ashnak throwing people back into the line-fight was me at Sumerfest '89). Magic-users seem equivalent to missile weapon users. By and large victory goes to the side that's better disciplined and better informed. However, this is a game in which logistics plays no part, "fallen pieces" don't stay dead or off the battlefield, and combat itself is incredibly sanitised. Most players won't run from a pretend death - even so, there are some that do.

I doubt therefore that the tactics for winning LRP fantasy battles resemble real war, although two of the three significant Big Three certainly do function (morale, terrain, but not logistics). One of these days I'd love to hear what Alaric thought was happening during those battles, and I'll tell him how the command group thought it was going! By the way Alaric, what side were you on?

End of sidebar - back to some factors that may encourage the soldier to be somewhere else, doing something else (anything else).

Just War Principles:

Contrary to some people's opinion, the Just War tradition does not mean saying, hey, it's just war...

How many wargamers can actually quote the international laws under which warfare can take place, and what is and what isn't legal in actual combat? To be a bit more historical, under what circumstances does one become justified in entering battle, or refusing it? A soldier is required to refuse illegal orders: how does this happen in practise?

This may be a roundabout way of approaching a subject that again gets subsumed into morale rules, the tension between what a commander knows he or she should do tactically to win a given battle, and what ethics and the legal code demand. Certainly this is going to affect the way one sets out to play a game. My favourite examples again come from the medieval period.

Paradoxes of Defence:

One of the main principles of the Just War tradition is that of Non-Combatant Immunity. These days the line is even more blurred, but the medieval and Renaissance division was sharper between soldier and civilian. So you have the town besieged. By rights, you should offer the civilians free passage out, because as non-combatants it is not right that they should suffer the effects of your bombardment and blockade. Tactically, the longer they stay in there, the more food and water they will consume, and the more pressure they will put on the city commander to surrender. What do you do, and how will your army react?

Henry V had a neat answer to this one: when a city commander threw the civilians out, Henry refused to let them leave the surrounding ditch outside the walls, or feed them. He let them hand their starving babies up to be baptised - and the passed them straight back down again to die. The British expeditionary force thought this was fine. If you can get your head around the logic of this, you're halfway to understanding 15th century war.

My second favourite is generally known as "the child of the Saracen". You've taken the town, slaying its defenders. You are faced with women and children. Knowing that the children will grow up to prosecute the same war you are currently fighting, do you let them live? In ten years time they could be slicing your intestines out. Or do you face butchering innocent, non-combatant eight year olds? What do you think your forces want to do?

We're Outta Here, We're History:

What this scrap-bag of thoughts will do, I hope, is generate discussion on some aspects of the battles and campaigns that weigh more heavily in real life than on the wargames table. I haven't touched on some of the military-political levels - for example, your local commander want to win a battle, as king you don't want him to because it will make him powerful enough to challenge you. Or, from a different period, warfare in the nuclear age is increasingly specialised in terms of technology, so your higher ranks are going to enter the political arena on behalf of national strategic policy and their cut of the defence budget, since they're the only ones who can advise on these arcane weapons systems. And who knows why they're telling you what they're telling you? Or, as S E Finer once put it, the wonder isn't that the military ever overturn a civilian government, the wonder is that they ever obey it in the first place...

This shambling discourse started off as a comparatively simple thought: wargames rules don't play proper attention to the tendency of soldiers to desert. Not to the size and constancy of the problem, certainly. Most pre-20th century army sizes run on the principle of filling the bath-tub with two taps while the water is running out of the plug-hole. I wanted to consider this in some of the gratuitous and welcome detail David Brewer gave to armour. I wish this was half as well argued!

Then I started thinking about the sheer bloody-mindedness of reality as opposed to the wargames table; about how hard it is to keep infantry fighting forces together (naval and air operations are somewhat different), and what factors the utterly essential aspect of morale actually has to fight against.

Or, as Falstaff says, "Honour? Who hath it? He that died a' Wednesday!", and you can see his point. War involves people doing what doesn't come naturally. It is natural to hide under the nearest bush, or run like ****, and a surprising number of combatants don't accept that this is counter-productive. On the other side of the fence, it may be, for example, natural not to train your infantry very much because arming the peasantry, might mean they come after you...

But having thrown out a scattershot of ideas, and left us tap-dancing through the minefield of strategy as opposed to tactics, there I think I'll leave it. I really would like to know how tabletop rules could accommodate some of these factors. The more they can, the less we're just playing with toy soldiers.