A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Friday, 28 October 2011

Things with Wheels

Here are the first two completed vehicles from the current surge of activity.

The ox cart, previously photographed in bits, now complete - S-Range Minifigs with Hinton Hunt driver. I was going to caption this picture Moo!, since my son and I, both being silly, always shout this whenever we see cattle, or even pictures of cattle, but it occurs to me that in this case the noise of the animals would be drowned out by the screech of the wooden axles.

More S-Range, with a driver recruited from the very last of the spare NapoleoN infantry fusiliers. Jean-Marie appears to be wondering how those two little horses can pull that dirty big pontoon cart. Well, they can - so there you have it. And not only that, but his uniform is correct as well (according to my consultancy support team of Ray Roussel, De Vries and Knoetel & Elting). Thank you, chaps.

My next two efforts will be a Portuguese howitzer and limber, pulled by mules (see Alexander Dickson, vol.2, page ........), which should be fun, plus a British caisson. One small piece of bad news for the caisson is that the Lamming draught horses I was going to use seem to be a bit big. Well, maybe they're not strictly too big, but they make all the other horses look small, which is the same thing. Rethink required - by the way, if anyone has spares of the old S-Range or Alberken or Minifig 20mm artillery horses like the ones shown attached to the pontoon, please just let me know - I can use any number of these.

One final discovery today is that my wizard wheeze of putting steel paper on the underside of the bases of the carts and magnetic material on the floor of a box file to hold them firmly does not look promising. The carts are too heavy. I may as well save the expense and not bother with the magnetic sheet. Curses. Back to the laboratory.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Drivers' Uniforms - any ideas?

True to my word, I am busily assembling and painting carts and caissons and suchlike - not very many of them, it is true, but by my normal standards 2 or 3 is a rush. This morning's effort is a French pontoon wagon, and I find that I am unsure how to paint the driver. This driver is on foot, so he could even be an actual pontonnier or engineering chap helping out by steering the horses.

I think class distinction would insist that the driver is, in fact, a specialist driver, so I am down to a shortlist of 3 possibilities, thus:

(1) pontoons are Engineering, which comes under the Artillery, so he can be an artillery driver, with grey-blue coat, faced dark blue.

(2) no they aren't - Engineering is a distinct department, and I believe that Engineering drivers wore pale grey faced black.

(3) or he could just be a general transport driver - grey-blue faced chestnut brown - this is my least favoured option, since I think these fellows really drove supply wagons and similar, and would not be allowed to go near anything as technical as a pontoon.

One of these? - something else? I'd welcome some guidance on this - left to myself, I think I'd go for (2) above, but I really don't know.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Qualiticast - Size Comparison

I find myself a bit hot-&-cold on the subject of Qualiticast. Sometimes I am very enthusiastic, then I'm not so sure. No doubt about the lovely sculpting or the casting (unsurpassed in 20mm, in my experience) - the figures are little treasures, but the sizes can be a problem for me. Some figures I have obtained - especially cavalry - are a bit small to match my armies. In particular, the hats on some examples are small, and this is always a favourite hobbyhorse of mine when it comes to judging size compatibility. At other times they are perfect for my (23-24mm man-size) armies, and I am left none the wiser.

Recently I was so impressed by a load of Qualiticast British riflemen that I was moved to add a 3rd battalion of the 95th to my British army. This is certainly 1, and possibly 2 battalions more than I ever intended to have. The Qualiticast boys will form a battalion of their own because, though they will be fine alongside Higgins and Hinton Hunt figures in adjacent units, the Rifles figures are just a bit small to mix completely comfortably with other brands within the same unit.

On the other hand, the "Qually" (invent your own jargon) Spanish guerillas I have are an excellent match for my other troops - no problem at all. The mystery lingers.

Today I received a couple of Qualiticast French light infantry command figures via eBay (which, you may recall, I do not do any more), and I've provided a side-by-side comparison scan with a Les Higgins figure in the middle. Perfect - they will mix without any problems, and will accordingly go to the painter so mixed.

I am obviously happy about this, and am left to accept that figures will have to be judged individually. As I have said before, real armies contained big men and small men, but the big men were not equipped with bigger hats or longer muskets!

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

A Time for Transport

What follows is not in any way a suggestion as to how anyone else should organise the building of a wargames army - far from it - it might be an example of how not to go about it. This is simply a brief illustration of how I have done it myself. I could no doubt have done it better, or in ways which I would have found easier.

I have a number of boxes in which I keep my figures for painting. To the casual observer it may look like chaos, but there is a kind of mad system at work. At the very bottom of the food chain, heaps of spares and things-which-might-come-in-useful are just bagged into approximately generic lots ("Scruby horses", "Broken Higgins for Heads" etc) and kept in shoe boxes somewhere up on the top shelf in my den/office. Things which have been sorted into potential units go into small, labelled plastic freezer-packs - "Garde de Paris - need colonel" etc. These packs live in a couple of boxes of the sort which used to hold bulk copier paper, and these are labelled, respectively, "Skirmishers, Command, Infantry & Odd Bits" and "Artillery & Cavalry", and kept on a lower shelf.

These last two are the boxes which used to cause me some stress. The bags on the top shelf were so informal that I had only an approximate idea what was in there - rootling through them from time to time was quite an adventure. By the time stuff was sorted into the freezer packs I could see exactly how much I had still to paint - exactly which units would have been fighting on the tabletop if it were not for my awful laziness. As my liking for painting complete units tailed off, and especially at times when I was tired or under pressure elsewhere, this bit of the hobby began to irk me quite seriously!

Since then I have discovered the advantages of contracting out the paintwork to professionals, and I now happily maintain a final box, which is "Projects in Hand", where units get their final fettling before being shipped off for painting. I do, of course, still do a fair amount of painting myself, but these days I pick and choose what I am going to do - a special general with a silly hat and a big nose is fun, 22 identical fusiliers is less so. A lot of this is down to my ageing eyeballs.

I'd rather not examine just why or when the lead mountain stopped being a hobby and become something of a threat - it probably had a lot to do with what was going on in my life at various times - it may even have something to do with noticing that I was getting older faster than I was painting, and that I probably would never get to finish my planned armies. Who can say? - whatever, it's OK now. Even if the Grand Plan keeps changing and sprouting heads, I am no longer afraid! I can go into the office cupboard without flinching...

I am almost getting to the point of this post. The contents of the "Artillery & Cavalry" box have gradually evolved. Because fighting units have always had priority for precious painting time, things like limbers and ammunition carts have kept falling back down the queue. There was a potential worsening of this situation with the arrival of the Commands & Colors rules, since limbers are not really needed. Well, I've made a decision - last night I sat down and worked through that box, and actually counted how many horses and drivers I am short of for a full complement of limbers, and labelled up the boxes. There will be a lot of limbers, also some caissons, a couple of pontoon wagons, some supply carts (mostly ox-drawn) and a mule train. There is also a general's carriage. The intention - and it has survived to this morning, so it might be serious - is that, while the production of infantry units and so on continues, it is time to get working on the vehicles.

There's some excellent raw material in the freezer packs - limbers from the exquisite old Hinchliffe 20mm range and from Lamming, Lamming caissons, S-Range Minifigs wagons and carts, oxen and mules by Jacklex, and horses by all sorts of people, but all vintage stuff. I also have a number of boxes of Italeri, HaT and Zvezda equipment, all of which is certainly very good, but my intention is to use metal as far as possible - exclusively if I can. Shortage of drivers is problematic - a fair amount of conversion work will be needed, and some people are going to be quite surprised to find themselves in the Corps of Transport after all this time. For reasons of space and stinginess, I use 2-horse teams for foot artillery and all wagons - normally with a driver on foot. I find that a mounted driver on a 2-horse team looks a little odd, and draws attention to the unrealistic number of horses. My horse artillery have 4-horse teams and mounted drivers. Such limbers as do already exist in finished form use Hinton Hunt horses and Hinchliffe equipment, so the pedigree is good thus far.

My standard base size for foot artillery teams on the march is 45mm x 110mm including the gun. The horse artillery base size isn't fixed yet, but I'd like to keep it as small as possible. The guns themselves require a decision. I've always assumed that I should keep the cannons loose, so they can be deployed with the gun crews for action as required. This has a pleasing, Old School feel about it - actually bringing the guns into action. There are two reasons why this is not a great idea:

(1) My artillery batteries have 2 gun crews, but only a single representative limber

(2) However hard I try to remember to keep everything horizontal, the loose-mounted guns always finish up falling on the floor, which is bad all round.

Thus - since I have enough guns to do it - my current idea is that I'll glue cannons permanently into position behind the limbers. I can use some of the cannon which I don't like as much (or which are a bit flimsy) for this job - Rose, Hinton Hunt, the odd Kennington etc - and concentate the Hinchliffe and NapoleoN equipment for the gun crews. Commands & Colors rules have batteries with a strength of 3 "blocks" (sub-units), so I hope to be able eventually to use a standard unit of 2 deployed guns + 1 limber as my 3 "blocks".

How to get them painted? I think I might quite enjoy painting wagons and so on, but lots of draught horses sounds like a job for a painter. Some of the limbers start life as a small cloud of bits, so some assembly is necessary before painting. My first thought on this was to assemble complete units, mount them on MDF bases and send them off for painting. I've gone off this idea a bit because the inner sides of the horses would be hard to paint well without the involvement of trained fleas, and because fully assembled units would be heavy and fragile in the post. I think that shipping out packs of unattached horses for painting and building up the units when they come back would be better. I have come to believe that almost anything is possible, using superglue for component assembly, PVA for gluing onto bases, and touch-up and copious matt acrylic varnish to cover up the proverbial multitude of sins.

I'm not sure how quickly this will progress, but at least I now know my enemy - I have counted the horses and drivers...   If I pick away at this, and do limbers and transport vehicles as opportunity arises, I can keep it moving without holding anything up - the battles don't actually need limbers. Which, now I come to think of it, is exactly the sort of thinking that got me to my present position.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Hooptedoodle #35 - The Reluctant Boy Racer

Normally, I drive a big pickup. I have a Mitsubishi L200 diesel, with double cab and a hard-top on the back. It is quite economical for its size, has a useful carrying capacity for work, for general haulage and my musical activities and - most importantly - the ground clearance and the 4WD mean that we can reliably negotiate the farm tracks and country roads in bad weather. In the snows of last Winter, there were a number of days when my son would not have got to school without it. I don't do a big mileage, so I am not prostrated with guilt about the environment.

These trucks are normally very reliable, so it has been a big disappointment that it has been causing me problems this year. A couple of head-gasket changes have failed to cure bubbling in the cooling system - the first one was expensive and didn't work. The second was done under guarantee, but that hasn't worked either, so now I am looking at fitting a new cylinder head, since the old one appears to have become porous. So much for the infallibility of Japanese engineering.

No point in griping about it - I need the vehicle back on the road, and it is no use as it is, so I'd better find the money and shut up. I've been pretty lucky with cars over the years, so I guess these things balance out. As is usual in a rural area, the garage has kindly lent me a car while my own is off the road. These loan cars tend to be something which is too scruffy to sell quickly - the last one was a very potent Honda which someone had evidently been breeding pigs in. This time I have a 12-year-old Ford Escort 16v. Interesting. It has that low, boy-racer line of its day, very silly plastic wheels and a completely cosmetic wing on the back which serves chiefly to obstruct the rear view. Now, I missed out on the boy racer phase - I didn't learn to drive until I was in my thirties - so this should be an interesting experience, you would think.

I can't really complain - it gets me about, but it reminds me of another world of motoring which I don't normally identify with. It is a commonplace in small towns on Saturday night that the young dudes cruise up and down the High Street in pimped up small cars. Frequently a Renault Clio - yellow is good - with an enormous exhaust tailpipe. The exhaust has to be loud, of course, to still be intimidating over the dunga-dunga music on the hi-fi. When I still used to pay attention, these guys usually seemed to have very thin necks, sticking-out ears and white tee-shirts, though I suspect that, basically, they were just young and that was how young dudes looked at the time.

Well, in its day the Escort 16v must have been fairly mean on the street, with that vicious-looking air intake. I had forgotten how hard you have to drive a small car to get it to go, not helped by a clutch which has seen much better days - at least I hope it has. Unlike my normal lofty perch, I seem to drive along almost lying prone, vainly attempting to see through entirely the wrong bit of my varifocals, which is a major compromise to the boy-racer thing. Lorries suddenly have absolutely enormous wheels. The mileage isn't very high, and the engine seems to be in good shape but - 16 valves or not - you are very lucky to get up a hill in 5th without having to change down. It isn't even particularly economical. Its pulling power brings to mind a phrase involving the skins of rice puddings - I guess cars have improved since 1999. I also find that fellows in big Audis tend to sit immediately behind my rear bumper and try to hustle me along in a way which I am not used to. My only possible response is to turn the radio up full and cultivate a very bad attitude. I'm working on the sticking-out ears.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

My Peninsular War Spanish Armies (3) - Voluntarios & Guerrilleros

Another hefty parcel arrived from David the Painter. This time, Royal Mail had done it some violence, and a little salvage work was required to repair the damage - no problem in the end.

The shipment included my Lanceros de Castilla and some more guerrilla infantry. As a result, the "irregular" parts of the Spanish Nationalist army are now pretty much complete - which doesn't mean they will not get reinforcements later, of course...

The term "irregular" is a difficult one to apply to the Spanish army, since a lot of volunteer and militia units were included in the regular army in 1810, but here they all are, for a start - Volunteers on the left, Guerrilla troops on the right. Some of these units have appeared in this blog before, as they arrived back from the painter.

Voluntarios - light troops to the front

Don Julian Sanchez and both regiments of his Lanceros de Castilla - still to be fitted with red lance pennons (a job for a quiet evening)

Volunteer artillery

Guerrilleros - four small infantry units, with cavalry at the rear

My next proposed CCN battle should bring all these chaps into confrontation with, amongst others, the untried Pommeranians...

Other Newbies

The main content of the parcel back from David the Painter this weekend was the various Spaniards featured in another Post. Also present, however, were a "converged" battalion of French line Grenadiers [Les Higgins, with Kennington and NapoleoN command figures]...

...and Colonel Otto, Graf Kleinwinkel, who commands the small Pommeranian cavalry brigade [yes, he was once the Prince of Orange, courtesy of Kennington, with a horse swap].

Young Otto has been described by the King of Sweden as "a very good partner for whist". His continuing adventures will, I hope, be chronicled here shortly.

Monday, 17 October 2011

An Unpractised Eye

I've been very busy for the last few weeks, partly because I've been in the process of selling a small publishing business which had begun to take up too much of my time. Selling is easy, but handing it over in such a manner that it continues to function is not unlike changing the engine in your car while it is going along. Tricky. I'm still involved a bit in supporting and answering questions, but things are starting to quieten down.

A number of people have warned me that I am going to have to make serious arrangements for something else to fill my days - I don't see that as a problem. I'll be able to get back to hillwalking and cycling, spend more time with my family, get the garden under better control and keep an eye on my other business interests. Oh - and there's wargaming, of course. I could do a lot more of that.

Manor Water from Cademuir Hill

On Saturday, I spent the day with three former work colleagues, walking over Cademuir Hill and thence along the Tweed near Peebles. We had intended to go to Killiecrankie, but the weather forecast was not good for Perthshire. On the walk, conversation turned to the Killiecrankie battlefield, and had any of us ever seen it, and from there we went on to battlefields in general that any of us might have visited. One of our number was lucky enough to have been to Austerlitz a few months ago, so he was far and away the star expert. I mentioned that I enjoyed visiting Culloden (of which more in a moment), and I also owned up to the fact that I have a real struggle to visualise actual battlefields from the ground. It turned out that this appeared to be something of a difficulty for all of us, and I got to thinking about why that should be.

Postcard from Austerlitz

I am very comfortable with maps, and I have spent very many hours reading campaign atlases and looking down on miniature battlefields from the infamous helicopter height. In the real world of fresh air, I also do a fair amount of walking in the hills, I live in an area which is heavily agricultural (I have a view across to the Lammermuirs from my bedroom), and I used to take part in competitive cross-country running, so I am pretty good at looking at a distant object and estimating how far away it is. I would regard my spacial awareness as pretty good, in fact. Maybe it is the two-dimensional nature of a battlefield which complicates things, but if someone puts me on an observation post with a guidebook in my hand - even a telescope - then things get out of proportion quickly. I can see the near distance and understand it - no problem. Then that very slight elongated bump over there is actually a significant ridge, and is 2 miles away. Is it? - it doesn't look it. Then that other bump which looks about the same distance away is actually the famous such-and-such heights, and that is 4 miles away, and in the undiscernible space between these two smudges on the horizon there were 40,000-odd men on the Great Day.

Erm - Dunbar battlefield?

Well, I can imagine what 40,000 men might look like, and I'll accept, as an act of faith, that this is where it all happened, but to me the map in the guide doesn't seem an awful lot like what I'm looking at. Suddenly, you begin to understand why there used to be official guidelines of how far away troops were when you could distinguish horses, when you could see their faces etc. It always seemed over-helpful to have such an instruction, but it makes more sense now. Visualisation is not helped, either, by later additions to the battlefield - the Lion Mound at Waterloo, a motel at Manassas, a modern housing estate at Bannockburn, the cement works which dwarfs everything at Dunbar, the motorway at Vitoria. However, my difficulties seem to boil down to two main things:

(1) Battlefields are big and convoluted - they are not football fields

(2) I am not used to assessing the lie of the land in this way, and am very much aware that it is a difficult skill.

I have to presume that the generals of history were trained in this stuff, and were rather good at it. I followed with great interest the series of battlefield visits which featured on thistlebarrow's blog , and make no secret of the fact that I would like to do more of this sort of thing myself, but I have a little education to think about first.

A very long time ago I visited Flodden Field in Northumberland, and found that it was just a piece of farmland that went up and down a bit, with a monument - I hadn't prepared for the trip, so knew little about it, and at that time I couldn't find anything very helpful in the way of visitor guides (though I believe it is very good now). Culloden was different. Since they cleared the trees off the battlefield (planted after the battle, to avoid the place being preserved as a Jacobite shrine), this is a marvellous place to visit. It also is small enough to make sense to me. Knowledgeable guides in appropriate highland dress will walk you around the field in the rough order of events, so you get to walk up the area covered by the Highlanders' charge, stand where the Hanoverian line was (checking out the position of the various units), look at the wall which enfiladed the highland troops etc. It is all really very clear, even to a klutz like me. That is all very well at Culloden, but I would not be confident about Austerlitz, though I am assured it is a fantastic place to visit.

Leanach Cottage, at Culloden

I talked to the Austerlitz man (who has also seen a lot of the ACW historical sites) about my half-baked dream of doing a leisurely battlefields and beer trip down the Danube, following Napoleon's 1809 campaign. Now that the pesky publishing business is gone, I might actually have a chance to do it, and we agreed that maybe we could go, while our legs, hearts and livers are still up to it.

We also agreed that we'd have a fair amount of homework to do first, to get the best of it.

Friday, 14 October 2011

The Peninsular War - Trainspotters' Guides

I have a lot of records - on paper - which I've been collecting and revising since the 1970s, in my efforts to make sense of detailed Orders of Battle for the Peninsular War. In the days before the Nafziger collection was available, all we had was the material in the appendices in the back of Oman's History, plus odd clues in Martinien's casualty tables and various memoirs. Some of my paperwork is so old it is foolscap size (which is old, believe me), and typed with an old sit-up-and-beg typewriter, and then there's all the scrawled annotations - how come the 3rd squadron was at Leipzig, then? - and are these from Franceschi's brigade?

Beyond my interest in the narrative of the campaign and the battles, I have always wanted to understand the composition of the armies - especially the French armies, which traditionally are not covered well in British works - and, in particular, how these things evolved. Who was where, when, and why did things change? I've found this fascinating but - until fairly recently - frustratingly hard to get a handle on. The nuts and bolts stuff, apparently, is not regarded as a big seller!

Nowadays I have an original copy of Martinien (plus a computer database built from the data), and I also have the Nafziger papers, and there are online sources such as Richard Darnault's website which is very good but incomplete. A small but significant step forward for me was Stuart Reid's excellent little Osprey book about Wellington's army, which filled in a lot of gaps, and I hoped that someone would produce something similar for the French in the Peninsula.

Mike Oliver and Richard Partridge covered some of this in their very useful Napoleonic Army Handbook - The French Army and Her Allies [the French army was female?] - but it covers too much ground to allow for great detail. Digby Smith's Napoleon's Regiments is interesting, but it contains a lot of random bits and pieces, much of it anecdotal, rather lacks a systematic approach and it does not cover the foreign regiments.

I've waited some time for the retailers to get some actual stock, but I finally have Robert Burnham's super new Charging Against Wellington, published by Frontline Books (an offshoot of Pen & Sword?) and I am so happy I have had to lie down for a while to get over it. It is your actual full nuts-&-bolts history of the French cavalry in the Peninsula. The campaign narrative is deliberately concise, exactly because there are any number of such narratives out there, and to leave plenty of space for the tables and the regimental details. Some of the material is familiar from the Napoleon Series website (which is entirely understandable, given that Robert is the main man there), but is expanded, and there is a wealth of things I have never seen before.

I am not going to attempt a critical review - not here, anyway. The book contains sections on

* Details of the organisation of the French cavalry from 1807 to 1814, who was where, in which command, and how this developed. This includes units (in part or completely) being withdrawn or transferred, cadres being sent back to raise new squadrons, strengths. It also includes details of the composition of provisional units, escadrons de marche and so on.

* Biographies of all cavalry generals involved. These do not seem to be just the usual translations of Georges Six, and they offer critical assessment where it is considered due. A number of favourites of mine are included, including the bold Vital-Joachim Chamorin, who was killed at Campo Mayor at the head of his 26th Dragoons, never to know that he had been promoted to General de Brigade less than 3 weeks earlier [no Internet in them days...]

* Full details of all the regiments involved - the colonels, the engagements, losses, a record of where they were and who they served under. This includes provisional units and foreign regiments, though not King Joseph's Spanish forces.

If I were to find fault, it is only to comment that it would have been nice if the book could have provided a few more portraits, but that is really getting picky, and is mainly because I would like to know what a few of the middling fellows looked like - Curto, for example. I am so delighted that all I need now is for the guys at Napoleon Series to start work on the infantry volume!

You will gather that I am well pleased with the book, and recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who is interested; it is not what everyone is looking for, and it will almost certainly get some criticism in Amazon customer reviews because there is too much detail about the units (Stuart Reid's book did), but that is precisely why it exists. This is one for the trainspotters, like me, and not the least of its merits is that it sets a precedent and a standard which, one hopes, will make such works more common in future. Thank you, Robert, ever so much - a little more light is shed.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Hooptedoodle #34 - The Otto Effect

With my mind still churning over the contents of my gentle rant from yesterday, I was reminded of Otto. Otto worked for me for a while, around 20 years ago, and he was a marvel, in his own way - one of the smartest guys I ever met, but troubled by a lack of natural understanding of what it was he was required to do. It wasn't that he lacked commonsense, it was more that his commonsense was different from other people's. After some initial rattling around, we got on very well and became good friends. Oh, and his name, of course, is not Otto.

At that time I was in charge of an analysis group in a big private company, and Otto came to me with something of a bad rep, regarded as remarkably bright, but a bit awkward and lacking in patience, and often argumentative. I found him to be very personable, and the first job I got him to do for me was to investigate some training courses - the company needed a particular form of (potentially expensive) specialist IT training which we had not used before. I asked Otto to spend a month researching what suitable courses were on the market, check them out, travelling to see the suppliers and their facilities as necessary, and report back to me with his recommendations. This, you will observe, was long before the internet got going.

Otto seemed puzzled by this, and asked a lot of questions. He took a lot of detailed notes and eventually, with something very close to a shrug, set about his task. After a month of impressive industry, he reported back on the appropriate day, and placed in front of me a pile of paper which was so high that we could not see each other over the top of it. What he had done was to identify, vet and scrutinise all possible suppliers and courses, collate and document the results very thoroughly, and present the whole lot for my perusal. In other words, he had collected together and organised all the information so that I could read it, from scratch, and decide what to do, and it would probably take me at least a month just to read it. This is how he had been required to work by his previous boss. I was far too lazy to cope with this. I said that, after a month's work and all that reading and meeting people, he was now one of the country's leading experts on this kind of training course, and what I really needed him to do was to trim the heap down to what he thought were the best options (and two would be a good number, though three would be acceptable), and make his recommendations, with reasons and costs and all that. I might disagree with him, and I might ask him some tricky questions, and there might be some more stuff to find out, but I had no particular reason to doubt his judgement. I would take the rap if we screwed up, but the most helpful thing would be for him to tell me what he thought we should do.

Otto was dumfounded. His first reaction was that somehow I was shirking my responsibility, but then he was pleased to be trusted, and we got on really well after that. Now I hasten to emphasise that I am not offering this story as an example of my own wisdom or management skill (I was rather too nerdy to be a good manager, I think), but in some ways it typifies for me the difference between having a mass of information available and knowing what to do. Now I come to think about it, this has been something of a recurrent theme in my hooptedoodles over the last year, so I guess I must feel strongly about it.

The Otto effect is everywhere. My SatNav will tell me that I am expected to reach my destination at 11:22am, and exactly how fast I am travelling, but I have no idea where I will be in 5 minutes' time. The internet will retrieve frightening amounts of references - mostly incompetent, of course - for any word I care to type into Google - it is a start, but I still have a lot of work to do to get anything useful out of this, and most of that work consists of rejecting things. If I stay permanently connected to my iPhone it will tell me a few things I need to know and an unspeakable amount of crap, which I do not. Information is useful, but it is not knowledge. Knowledge contains big slices of judgement and understanding. I am very uncomfortable about the zillions of high school kids (and university students, and journalists, and historians) who copy and paste great tracts of someone else's output into their project folder. They are going through the motions. They know nothing, and their teachers, alarmingly, cannot put them straight because increasingly they operate in the same way.

Otto has been automated to nightmare proportions. The internet will happily rush away and retrieve shed-loads of stuff for you, simply by recognising strings of characters embedded in text. How dumb is that? What are you going to do next? If you are going to apply your own judgement to filter this stuff, to what extent will you be relying on skills that you developed before the internet appeared - skills which are beginning to die out?

The relevance to yesterday's posting? Merely that stuffing historical accounts with references is just another example of giving far too much information. No-one is going to check them all out. However painstakingly they have been researched and noted, they are mostly evidence of going through the motions. Otto is alive and well.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

History as Entertainment - Mixed Messages?

If you do not get to see British TV then the first section of this may be rather meaningless, but the ideas are probably more significant than the actual instances of shows. I must also point out that to some extent I am in the same situation, since I watch very little broadcast TV. I like to watch live football (that's soccer, if there is any ambiguity) but, since I refuse on principle to pay money to that nice Mr Murdoch's empire, and since his cable channel seems to own all live football now, I don't get to see much of that either. I do enjoy films and other DVD items, however.

My son (who is 9) and I have recently been working our way through the box set of DVDs of Simon Schama's History of Britain, produced by the mighty BBC, and I think it is very good. The BBC mostly do these things well, as long as the director doesn't get distracted, and as long as the budget holds up. Schama's series was broadcast around 2000-02, and - though I was aware of it - I saw none of it at the time. Anyway, it is vigorous, loud, and entertainingly in-your-face. Original music is by John Harle, which can't be bad, and the photography is what you would expect. And then there is Schama.

Schama is that hottest of BBC properties, a scholar with charisma. His academic credentials are inescapable, he has a very strong presence, to be sure, maybe even spiced with a dignified touch of Essex laddishness, and he presents his story and his viewpoint firmly - with due emphasis on the blood and guts. I find it a little hard to warm to him - a fact which will not disturb Dr Schama at all, I realise - and I wondered why I had some reservations about him. He comes across as rather deadpan - it may be his script, but he is reading it to camera, and it is not at all conversational. This is a man who is used to delivering his stuff in lecture halls, and that may be an environment in which he is more natural. Later, of course, I realised that he has the appalling handicap of reminding me strongly - in voice and appearance - of a headmaster I had, who was a brilliant man encumbered with the most irritating personality. Yes - I know this is a digression - I am handling it....

Anyway - the point of all this is that the whole idea is that Dr Schama is telling us a story - he is setting out for us, entertainingly, what he thinks happened. They did this, on this date, for these reasons, and this is what happened as a result, and this is what I think about it, and this is the consequence today. The classic format for recounting history - by the fireside, in the pub, in the camp. I know about this subject, it's a good story, and I will tell it to you. This is also why Schama has been accused of dumbing down the shows, which says more about his accusers than anything else. Popular history on TV (and elsewhere) is intended as entertainment (duh?), otherwise no-one would watch it. All those poor wannabe intellectuals who did one term of European history as part of their aborted Open University course should calm down a bit, and watch an expert, humbly, and learn something. If it is the wrong show for them, don't watch it. Hey! - simple.

And this got me right back into thinking about previous discussions on this blog and elsewhere about styles and fashions in written history. I am a big fan of Sir Charles Oman's A History of the Peninsular War, which was written a long time ago, to be sure, and which comes in for a lot of criticism now because it is a product of its day, and does not conform to contemporary standards of how history should be written. At the moment, because I am trying to pin down some details of the activities of that most wispy, shape-changing thing, the Spanish Army, I have been referring to a number of books simultaneously - including Vol.6 of Oman and a couple of Charles Esdaile's excellent, more recent, books. The contrast in style is very obvious, and I cannot really find fault with any of them. Oman (who I imagine had a fine, resonant voice, for some reason) will tell you something to the effect that Napier thinks that ABC happened, but he is completely wrong, misled by his political views, and it is obvious from exchanges between Wellington and Giron at this time that DEF, therefore I am pretty certain that GHI is the truth of the matter. So there you have it - let's move on. Esdaile will have numbered references for everything, cross-referenced to his bibliography. This is how it is done now. By the 15th, force JKL was in position at MNO[31]. If you flip to the references section, you will find that [31] says ibid. If you follow the trails back you will find that Prof Esdaile is making a point, but it is not just his opinion, it is taken directly from a paper by a Colonel Gomez written in 1863. Now there's unshakeable evidence. Just the facts, ma'am - just the facts.

Just a doggone minute. Where did Gomez get his version from? Is it cross-referenced? Does all this go back to some tablet of stone? In fact, isn't it possible that Oman also read Gomez' paper, but didn't mention the fact? The current style of not-dumbed-down popular history is in some ways reflective of the whole politically-correct, don't-blame-me culture in which we live. I shall express an opinion, but I shall claim it is impartial because it is not my opinion, I got it from that person over there (on page 231, to be exact). Fair enough, but there are double standards at work here as well. Random example - a quote from Esdaile's splendid Fighting Napoleon - Guerrillas, Bandits & Adventurers in Spain 1808-14:

"In Spain. as we have seen, the Patriot authorities made great efforts to swing the populace behind the struggle against Napoleon. But, as Linda Colley has shown in her seminal work Britons, modern nationalism depends on the completion of a series of social processes, including historical acculturalisation, urbanisation, the collapse of rural insularity and the spread of popular literacy.[85]" - and [85], as you would expect, points faithfully to a reference in Ms Colley's book.

Erm - OK. No real problem with that. The identification of Colley's work as seminal sounds dangerously close to a personal opinion. The whole reference may even be of debatable relevance, though you can bet your boots it will be accurately recorded in the bibliog. But - you know what, Prof Esdaile? - if you believe something to be the case, just say so. I'm not really interested in most of the references - apart from anything else, they may add only an illusory layer of accuracy, and I am certainly not going to reassemble all your sources to reconstruct my own version of events. Give us a break, just tell us the story. If there is a doubt, we may get hold of someone else's version, to see what they think. Just go for it.

With every possible respect to the modern writers, I find old Sir Charles Oman, in his waistcoat and his study, a more engaging prospect.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

CCN - a belated afterthought

This post is primarily one for us CCN nerds, so may be of even less interest than usual to anyone who is not an enthusiast...

Back in July, I did a short write-up of an encounter battle fought using Commands & Colors (CCN) rules. The scenario was a bit of an experiment, and gave an entertaining, if lengthy, game. I am thinking about running another such game, so have been re-reading the scenario add-on rules from that occasion, and I can see the need for a small-but-significant change.

In the original, after an initial deployment allowance on the first turn, the scenario rules required units and leaders to come onto the field only as cued by the play of the CCN Command Cards, which works fine (though it makes the game very challenging). This section of the scenario rules stated:

First move (French first) – place up to 4 units/leaders on the field, anywhere up to 5 hexes from your own baseline, but not within 2 hexes of the enemy.

Thereafter – units may only be brought onto the table as a result of activation by Command Card play. Leaders may not arrive already attached to a unit. Infantry may not arrive in square.

With the benefit of hindsight (and 3 months later, this is real history), the bit about Leaders not being attached on arrival was a bad mistake. Given a limited allocation of arrivals, since the Command Cards seldom do one any favours, we should not have been surprised to find that, given a straight choice between bringing on a Leader or a fighting unit, a stressed general would almost invariably go for a unit. The Leaders thus arrived late or never, and the lack of them distorted the game a little.

In future plays of this type of scenario, I'll change it so that Leaders are allowed to arrive already attached to units, which means they move free, without the expenditure of a separate order (as a passenger, almost!) until such time as they get a specific order to leave the unit. This simplifies the game a little, but should give a little more sense to the action.

Monday, 3 October 2011

More Generals

I am very partial to the Miniature Figurines 20mm OPC celebrity figures. I don't have many, but they are fine chaps. The casting detail is a bit approximate, but they are vigorous, pleasing sculpts, and - apart from potential bending of the rear ankles (fetlocks?) of Ney's rearing horse, they are robust and very practical. Clive very kindly sent me Thomas Picton, whom I have rebased and who has now replaced my (later) S-Range version.

Sir Thomas

Since I had the tools and the brushes out, I also painted up the Napoleon figure from the same MF20 series - this came through eBay a little while ago, and had so many coats of paint that I failed to recognise who it was (how embarrassing is that?). After some sessions in the bleach, he has now been painted as Joseph Napoleon. This is only slightly outrageous - I am happy to assume that there was an uncanny family resemblance, and there is a mounted Joseph in Strelets set 048 which looks pretty much like a smartly dressed Napoleon. For preference, I would have liked my new Joseph to have epaulettes, but he is the King, for goodness sake, so he can wear what he likes. I had also thought of giving him a new head, with a less identifiable hat, but I don't much like hacking about with rare old figures, so he obviously gets his headgear from the family supplier. His sidekick is another eBay recruit - pretty much as I got it - just a wash and some varnish. This figure is Hinton Hunt's Marshal Soult (FN357), but it is not painted in Soult's colonel-general's uniform colours, so in my army this is some illustrious member of Joe's staff - maybe Marshal Jourdan, or General Hugo, if it matters.

King Joseph with support - "So let's get this straight - the cavalry are the ones on the horses?"

In passing, you will note my colour coding for generals' bases - division commanders have a white border, and army commanders are in a 2-man group with a border in the "national" colour - thus Wellington and his ADC have a red border, French army commanders blue (as shown), and I am pondering what to do with the forthcoming Spanish C-in-C - yellow? The borders are really just to help in spotting the fellows on a busy battlefield but, like a lot of features of my collection, this simple convention has become a house rule in its own right!

I have a number of generals being worked on at the moment. The arrival of a mounted Joseph is a slight embarrassment, since I was also contemplating having a Joseph on foot (also Napoleon, though this time a Qualiticast one), standing with his carriage - anyone got a 20mm scale chamber pot for Vitoria? I'm sure that Musket Miniatures must make one - they make everything else.

I also have a lovely set of French staff (on foot), by Qualiticast, to be painted. This is down the queue a bit. I had a painted French staff group before, and they never got on the battlefield, so in some irritation I sold them after about 10 years. Groundhog Day coming up.

Speaking of generals, I like the look of the new Zvezda Set 8080 - French Napoleonic HQ Staff. If I could find a use for them (and - let's face it - if I didn't have such an unreasonable reluctance to use plastics), I would buy the set just for the ADC mounting his horse.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Unky and the Sniper

Great Uncle Alf, my mum's uncle, has been dead for 40 years at the very least. My recollection of him is just snatches - I remember he was a life-long chain-smoker, which meant that whenever he laughed everything collapsed into an evil, bubbling spasm of coughing. I also recall that he still rode an old double-knocker Norton at an age when most of his contemporaries just sat by the fire. He talked a lot, but didn't say much - mostly nervous guffaws and small stuff. My cousin and I, as young lads, knew that he had had a pretty hard time in WW2, and we used to ply him with sherry at the family Christmas get-togethers at my Nan's, to get him to tell us about his adventures. Again, there wasn't much, but there were occasional glimpses of Hell which seemed to contrast strangely with Unky's normal role as an elderly buffoon, and they fascinated us.

A fitter with Liverpool Corporation Trams before the war, Unky seems to have been an Army Staff driver in France early in the War, but later was in the REME. We got some fragmented tales about removing the remains of the crews of disabled tanks with a hosepipe, which produced appropriate standing-up of the hair (we were about 12, after all). He also told a few eye-witness stories of the evacuation from Dunkirk, which didn't seem to correspond with the John Mills movie - we got a few details about officers using their pistols to commandeer boats, British soldiers shooting at each other in the general panic to get off the beach - things like that. Unky and his great mate Sefty finally managed to board a small steam cruiser, which was immediately hit by a bomb (from a Stuka, he said), and sank in minutes - but they simply stepped onto another small boat which was alongside and were taken back to England without further incident. Unky used to tell these stories without any emotion at all - I believe that he did not have the imagination to tell us much apart from the truth. The most emotional he would get was reminiscing about the generals' staff cars being burned at Dunkirk to avoid them falling into enemy hands - as a born mechanic, Unky was far more upset by the demise of classy cars than by the butchery of the troops - or so it seemed.

This all came to mind because I have been reading a book about snipers. Unky had a sniper story. After D-Day, his unit was camped for a while near the edge of a small wood in France, and a German sniper in the wood caused them a lot of problems. They all used to fire back, blindly, whenever shots came in, but they were mechanics, and didn't really know what they were doing (Unky's own words), and after a while the sniper would start up again. After a couple of days, the company cook was killed - and this was just too much. Since a mass advance into the wood might have been a bit like a duck shoot, it was decided that a couple of volunteers should go around to the far side of the wood, and prowl through, trying to spot the sniper and take him by surprise. Though he could not remember how it came to pass, Unky found to his astonishment that he was one of the volunteers, and spent an interesting hour creeping through the wood, praying that he would not find anything. He said that he had a very clear idea of what kind of a physical specimen the sniper was likely to be - capable of breaking him in half with his bare hands - and what an ill-matched struggle might result from this adventure. As he said, "I was walking through the wood, stumbling over things, and I felt as if I had great big target rings painted on my f***ing back!".

He found nothing, and there was no further firing, so the next day they did send a big gang in, and they found the sniper, dead, in some bushes. Presumably some lucky return shot had hit him - he had obviously been dead when Unky went in, but, of course, he wasn't to know. He just spent the rest of his life mentioning it occasionally at Christmas, if we kept the sherry coming.

Poor old Unky. I still get a shudder when I think about it.