Wargame Thoughts and Commentary

Imaginary Combat Actions

I have been wargaming for over 50 years. I have played boardgames and miniature games in all periods, and in all environments air, sea and land. I have read hundreds of history books over those years, and parts of a few hundred more. I’ve played a wide range of wargame rules and can’t help noticing the similarities often outweigh the differences, especially in what is granted to be a given, an accepted fact, an unchallengeable truth. But as I read accounts told by participants in history’s events, and read the tales told in many a battle account, I began to wonder if some things are true, or at least, is what is being illustrated in the wargame on the table exactly what the wargamer thinks it is? Here are a few to chew on:

1. Were “real” ranges ever as long as found on wargame fire tables? Did cannister actually shoot farther than generally allowed in Wargames? Our wargame tables look like billiard tables more often than not and in no way show the undulations that are so typical of open ground that are large enough to conceal whole regiments , if not divisions. from fire. Walk any battlefield and note the 6-12 foot undulations. Add to this trees, structures, and plateaus and the theoretical ranges of most weaponry was seldom, if ever, used. I think it could be halved and not do history any harm. As weaponry improved trajectories grew flatter, rate of fire went up,and independent fire became more the norm, all of which made weaponry more deadly, but range improvement as a big factor-not so much for infantry.

Even Artillery, without any sort of spotters or the communications to support them, never could use most of its range. In fact, it wasn’t until the explosive charge in the shell was no longer black powder, but cordite or better that artillery could use its long range bombardment to great effect, and then only as area fire until communications and spotting were possible. The later black powder rifled artillery actually lost some effect as its cannister round grew smaller and therefore less effective.

Cannister was the killer and often used out to 600 yards or more, but it was limited in supply and discouraged at longer ranges, not because of a lesser effect, but to encourage the use of round shot! By the later Horse and Musket period the effect of shell and shrapnel and an increased ability to fire those ammunitions from a rifled gun finally eliminated the true cannister round.

2. Did Melees ever occur except in darkness, foul weather, or by accident? Of course, one can find examples where troops supposedly went hand to hand, but the occasions were rare and usually had some unique aspect. The general course of action was that one side simply started to retire under the attack, and possibly broke and ran. Bayonet and pistol deaths were so rare that they are an asterisk on the statistics in Bodart. The vast majority of deaths were from musketry. The safest place in most armies in battle was the cavalry, and sword deaths were always a surprise. Are wargames really illustrating very short range fire and threat followed by one side retiring or routing, and not actual contact?

3. Did an Emergency Square ever actually exist? Of course not! You either made it or you didn’t. The only reason “Emergency Squares” exist is to get around the restrictions imposed by the IGO-UGO turn construct, and illustrate nothing that actually existed in the real world.

4. Did cavalry ever melee with infantry? I ask this for several reasons. Firstly, horse will not willingly run into, jump into, or even step on human beings immediately to their front-let alone if these people are firing weapons at them! In the 18th Century, the professional infantry of that period could often repel cavalry in line, simply because they wouldn’t run and the cavalry that did survive their musketry would not contact them, but retire under fire. Now, to be sure, if the infantry broke, then in pursuit the horse could get among them and wreak havoc, but that is hardly a frontal charge! But the infantry has to break before contact, as badly drilled and poor morale infantry may well do. The increased use of the square against cavalry in the Napoleonic period had more to do with not leaving the infantry a clear direction to run while in square, and the cavalry, therefore, since their horses would not contact the infantry, had nothing to do but go around or retire.

5. Did columns move faster than line-or were they both theoretically moving at the same rate, except dress and order slowed the line down? This is a conceptual problem. Most games start by stipulating some rate of movement in line as the “base move” and then award some generic form of the column of divisions, battalions, etc a movement bonus of say 1.25-1.5X. Is it not more accurate to say that all formations and drill were done at the same stated rate for an army and were identical-EXCEPT that a line was slowed down by the needs of dress and order-especially in anything but drill ground terrain? That is, the line was a poor movement formation, not that the column was a great one-just less prone to disruption and delay by even modest terrain, structures, etc. Some of the delay in the rougher terrains by troops deployed in line would also be caused by repeated deployments and redeployments to avoid certain terrain obstacles.

6. Other than the night before, and perhaps at the commencement of battle ,were written orders the exception rather than the rule, and were they seldom tactical orders? This one is my pet hobby-horse! Many a wargame has written orders, often of a highly tactical nature, on a turn by turn basis. Was that common or even typical? I can find little evidence that generals during battle ever did more than a few terse, and usually quite encompassing, written orders, and that the bulk of orders given were oral, often passed down by a chain of aides, and, even, there not usually a tactical order, but an operational one. “ Advance on X”, “Launch your attack!” “ I need reinforcements!” Etc. How that was done and the tactical use of particular regiments was strictly at the discretion of the sub-commander. In few cases, even up to the Franco-Prussian War was the written order during battle the common means of command-it often was a repeated oral command, at best accompanied by a brief few sentences on paper. They were also, after the commencement of the battle, few and far between.

7. Is a general advance as often seen in most wargames a truly ahistorical event-other than at the end of battle as a pursuit? Many wargames see the advance of the entire front-from board edge to board edge on one and possibly both sides. Did this ever really happen? Surely a victorious army could launch a general pursuit as Wellington did at Waterloo, but even this was rare. In no case do we see many occasions when during battle a whole army did a general advance. Typically one focal point was the site of the day’s fighting, with a few designated divisions or a corp charged with the role of attacking while others awaited that outcome. Choosing the exact location of that attack was the chore of the commanding general. The bulk of any army on attack or defense was in a waiting mode with little activity or fire occurring. Look at the Battle of Gettysburg, Waterloo, or Gravelotte for confirmation. The day or days of battle of battle can be broken up into phases that each feature a specific attack at a discrete point on the enemy position and the defense of that point. Even when multiple attacks were attempted-such as the series of rebel attacks on the second day at Gettysburg, they were seldom simultaneous, usually separated by several hours of time at a minimum.

And, yet, in the interest in “getting everybody involved,” many a wargame, especially at conventions, encourage this general attack to occur. It may be the most unrealistic recurring trait in many wargames.

So, what do you think, were these common wargame perceptions and rule effects-real or just widely accepted balderdash?