Sunday, August 24, 2014

Back to Fontenoy

The English portion of the Allied army breaches the French line. Note how the similarity of some uniforms on both sides makes it a bit difficult to tell which unit is on which side.  Many troops get shaken in the process.  Note the disordered Allied units at the top of the pic.  They ran away from the English forcing the French to bring up fresh troops.
Note:  This is an update on my play of a wargame I set up back in May.

There is a word for how military units moved around on the field of battle in the mid-18th century, at the dawn of modern warfare.  Clunky. But the clunkiness was worth it.  The advantage of lining up a formation of infantry firing muskets about 100 yards or less distance from the enemy was significant.  Linear infantry tactics ultimately dominated the battlefield until the machine gun became common and the tank was invented.

But let's review a bit of military history for a moment to understand why a clunky line of muskets was such a revolution in warfare.  To simplify things, for centuries there was an ebb and flow of competition between military systems involving infantry (such as the Roman Legion) and cavalry (such as the Mongolian Kheshig).  There were periods of time when (due to weapons and tactics) the infantry dominated battlefields and periods of time when (due to weapons and tactics) the cavalry was more dominant.

That dynamic began to change when the musket was invented. Generals placed a bayonet on each musket and this rendered the pike irrelevant. Infantry could now fire a metal ball at the enemy (which more often than not did not hit the intended target) and then advance or defend with the bayonet at close quarters.  Linear formations had already been effectively advanced by Gustavus Adolphus at the Battle of Breitenfeld (1631). The flintlock musket improved the firepower of linear infantry as exhibited by the Duke of Marlborough at the Battle of Blenheim (1704).

It was discovered that if you spread these muskets out in a line using well-drilled infantry you could effectively fire volleys of metal balls into the enemy, maximizing your firepower to inflict greater damage and chaos.  Then you could more readily advance and use the bayonet in the resulting melee. Cavalry continued to be a powerful force on the field but its impact was somewhat mitigated by the fact that these infantry muskets could fire and kill or disrupt many of the charging horses before they arrived.  The infantry's bayonets then could be used just like pikes to create chaos among the horses and drain the punch from the charge.  Cavalry was really most effective when attacking the flanks of the linear infantry or employed when the infantry was already exhausted.

As I said this is a greatly simplified explanation but it is accurate in the broad historical sense. So this brings us back to clunkiness.  Even well-drilled infantry was a challenge to maneuver into position on the battlefield.  To change the formation of hundreds, if not thousands, of troops from, say, a march column into a fighting line was no easy task. To move from one flank of the field to the other took a lot of precious time.  It required officers to signal the proper commands at the proper time and the infantry to collectively turn certain ways at certain times.  All performed with hand signals and a lot of yelling.

When you add the chaos of battle to the equation, smoke from gunfire, terrain  issues, men wounded and dying, you can see how clunky things could get. The BAR gaming system, as reflected in my game of Fontenoy, does a wonderful, if fairly complicated, job of depicting the clunkiness and the chaos of warfare during this time.

Board wargames are usually played on maps printed with hexagons.  In BAR (Battles of the Age of Reason) which way you position the top of the counter (playing piece) represents the unit's "front" facing.  The central problem with maneuvering linear infantry was telling them when to match and how fast to march and when to stop marching and how far to turn their facing left of right or to the rear.  BAR reflects this by making certain shifts in facing cost a varying number of a counter's movement points each turn.  A turn in BAR represents 20 minutes of time and each hex in my Fontenoy game represents 100 yards of historical terrain.

In addition to Line formation, an infantry counter can be in Column for maneuver, Square for defending against cavalry charges, Skirmish for advanced fire, or General Order for times of regrouping, negotiating difficult terrain, or defending inside a fort.  Changing from one to the other requires a command from a leader and, depending upon the situation, it might be more difficult to change formation some times (many commands require a roll of dice to see if they succeed). It costs movement points to change formation and facing. These costs vary depending upon the training that the particular army has received, which is different for each army.

For example, in Fontenoy it costs English units 1 movement point to change from March Column to Line formation if they want to face left.  It costs these same units 2 points to do the same formation change if they want to face right.  This reflects their training and tactical philosophy. French units, on the other hand, pay as much as 3 or 4 movement points to accomplish the same formation change. That is because in terms of training and philosophy they are clunkier to move around.

Fontenoy has five different nationalities represented in the game.  The French are opposed by a mixed Allied army of English, Dutch, Austrian, and Hanoverian troops.  Each of these have different characteristics reflected in the game-specific rules.  Overall the English troops are the best but there are not that many of them compared with everyone else. And even though the French are clunkier to move around they start already positioned behind fortifications and really don't have to move that much.

I am playing the historic battle scenario (the game comes with all sorts of variations to try).  So that means the armies have already maneuvered into their historic positions and are ready to fight.  The Allied army under the Duke of Cumberland must attack the fortified French army under Maurice de Saxe around Fontenoy.

Besides movement characteristics there are other factors involved in the game including leadership ratings, strength points, multipliers for firing strength depending upon range among other things, and - perhaps most importantly - morale. Each counter has a specific morale rating.  There are designated times when the player must roll dice and compare that result to that counter's morale rating.

This might cause any number of things.  At worst the unit may rout and run away until some leader can stack in the same hex with it and rally it.  Or it might mean that a charge or attack does not happen because the troops involved simply became too unmanageable for that particular 20-minute turn.  Or the charge may take place as intended. So, in the BAR system, as with many other realistic wargame systems, the player does not have absolute control over everything.  Like real army commanders of this time period, certain variables come into play and you are often forced to change your strategy due to all sorts of changing circumstances.

This is the chaos of battle and BAR reflects it just as well as the clunkiness of maneuver. A 20-minute turn takes place in phases.  The first part of each turn consists of checking the state of your army's morale modified by how many casualties you have taken and how disorganized your troops are.  Next, you determine which player gets to move.  BAR has a randomized activation which means that one side does not move all their troops followed by the other side.  Instead, as in real combat, the sequence is mixed with one player activating one command and then possibly activating another or, depending upon die rolls, the other player may get to activate one command in response.  It is not an all or nothing turn sequence which tends to keep the player for both sides highly engaged in the game.

The basic combat phases progress through fire combat then unit movement then close combat. Essentially, this reflects the tactics of the period where lined infantry would fire a volley or two then advance upon the enemy and attempt to melee them using bayonets and sheer force.  Also, in the close combat segment, cavalry units may attempt to charge or counter charge other cavalry and have wild melees of swirling cavalry or attempt to crush the infantry with an effective horse charge.  After all of this is concluded then each player gets to attempt to rally any shaken or routed troops using the abilities of his various leaders.

Even though there are numerous die rolls and rules to remember a game turn plays fairly quickly.  If there is only a little combat involved you can complete a 20-minute turn in a game the size of Fontenoy in about that much real time. Things bog down considerably, however, when cavalry get involved.  The cavalry rules in BAR are almost a game within a game and require significantly more die rolls, especially if the other side's cavalry manages to countercharge the charging cavalry.

That is an iffy proposition reflecting the fact that leaders had to rather spontaneously ready their clunky cavalry to respond to a charge that they usually did not know was coming. Whether it works or not depends on the quality of your cavalry morale and upon the modifiers of the leaders.  It is all up to the dice but the end result is an unpredictable, often surprising combat - or not - that makes this system so much fun to play since the battle "story" unfolds based upon your decisions as a player but, even more so, upon the random nature of the leadership and forces represented.

With some historical context and basic overview of BAR out of the way here are just a few general notes on my gameplay of Fontenoy so far.  Overall, the Allied army units possess better morale than the French army.  This basically means they can accomplish more maneuvers and take more punishment than the French.  But the Allied army suffers from lesser cohesion since it represents four different nationalities (English, Dutch, Hanoverian, and Austrian).  It also does not have as many quality leaders so the French are a bit more consistent in terms of leadership.  Plus it is also hampered but the fact that, while the English are the best troops on the map, the Dutch troops are unpredictable due to special rules which render them almost worthless offensively.

Finally, the French have the advantage of being on the defensive and many of their troops are positioned behind fortifications.  The effects of the fortifications are not insurmountable but, in my play, as the fine English troops attacked the town of Fontenoy, the fortifications slowed them down and caused them to take heavy casualties.  The Duke of Cumberland managed to breach the French line in a couple of places, driving de Saxe's forces back here and there.  But when the English tried to follow through with their success the French cavalry charged the shaken and slightly disorganized English infantry.  This is where cavalry was still strong in spite of linear muskets. The English leaders busied themselves preventing a full rout of the English line. Meanwhile, the French brought up reserves and recaptured the few areas lost.
The aftermath of the charge by the French cavalry.  The Duke of Cumberland retreated with minimal disorder behind his artillery. The French cavalry are disordered by their own attack. Cavalry units always suffer disorganization from the effects of a charge. The French units forming out of the frame at the top now could follow through with an attack of their own but probably won't. The Allied artillery is formidable against troops of mediocre morale.
The question now is will the French risk a full counterattack while the best part of Cumberland's Allied army is trying to regroup?  I think not as the Allied army has retreated to their starting positions behind their artillery.  The French morale probably cannot stand up to the heavy fire of the artillery at close range.  At this point the battle is a bloody stalemate.  It will be interesting to see what happens next.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Iraq as Our Humanity

During my spiritual journey I have encountered and deeply sampled perspectives that elevate our humanity as something basically good and that the word "humane" can be almost universally applied across human expressions of experience and human cultures.  Ultimately, I am skeptical of such positivism and find such perspectives hopeful to the point of absurdity.  I have told many friends and acquaintances through the years that there is no inherent reason humanity will not become a bunch of badass Klingons.  People look at me funny when I say that.

Witness the emergence of the Islamic State within the unstable borders of Syria and Iraq by a militant culture known popularly in the current news cycle as ISIS.  The foothold ISIS established in Syria in 2013 has allowed them to spread into much of Iraq in 2014.  They have successfully carved a unified but diplomatically unrecognized state inside these other two recognized countries.

Having been denied an audacious attempt to capture Baghdad, ISIS has since captured Iraq's largest dam.  They are now pressing hard against the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, having captured the large city of Mosul earlier this year. They are what most cultures would see as primitive in terms of their abject violence and brutality.  But, as of this post, they are winning.

From the beginning ISIS has committed atrocities against anyone not part of their radical brand of Islam - primarily Shia Muslims and Christians. (I want to stress ISIS does not reflect the views of mainstream Islam.  They should not be used as a basis for critiquing Islam as a whole).  Their seizure of Mosul led to ISIS ransacking within that city, destroying businesses and terrorizing neighborhoods.

Suddenly last week it became evident that ISIS was killing and possibly beheading large numbers of anyone outside their strict faith.  This has led to the displacement of more than 40,000 Christians and other minorities in the region which created an immediate humanitarian crisis as these displaced people were without food, water, and medical supplies.

Ultimately, this prompted President Obama to order an air campaign against ISIS in northern Iraq late last week in an attempt to prevent a genocidal situation from occurring. Obama has stated that this will be an extended campaign that may last for months. This reveals the magnitude of what has, until now, developed unabated.  It will take weeks to fix this mess.  Initial strikes hit ISIS mortar and artillery positions as well as some of their supply chain in hopes of disrupting their effectiveness in attacking these thousands of displaced human beings.

My assumption is the campaign is an attempt to take out the heavy firepower and disrupt the ammunition supplies of this radical group so that Kurdish forces can effectively attack the group. Since no western country seems willing to put troops back on the ground in Iraq, a country the US officially withdrew from in 2011, it will ultimately fall to the fragile Iraqi Army to do something about the situation.  Unfortunately, that army lacks the "heart" to fight ISIS insurgents. Specifically, the Iraqi 2nd Division crumbled in the fighting for Mosul. Which is the most fundamental reason for renewed American intervention.

This reminds me of the late-period of the Vietnam War when US air power remained to support the ARVN on the ground. We all know how that turned out.  On the other hand, more recently the French were successful combating insurgents in Mali; though that effort demanded French ground forces ultimately be committed after weeks of air strikes.  

Some claim this effort will not work.  Perhaps it won't.  It certainly won't if the local Kurdish forces and the national Iraqi Army fail to create a cohesive force to resist and control ISIS forces. We have no will power to go back to Iraq a third time.  

ISIS knows this so this particular fact may be the greatest strength ISIS has.  They know if they hunker down and hold their gains no one is capable of driving them away.  US air power can severely weaken them but at some point someone must attack these militants and push them away from Baghdad and out of the Mosul region.  The longer that takes to happen, the less likely it will ever happen and this state within as state will have, shockingly, won itself a war. Will genocide follow despite of our air power?

More fundamentally, ISIS is probably "inhumane" as a culture but they are, even in their neurotic madness, as human as you and me. These men are living what is, for them, the highest form of religious life creating a caliphate. This is humanity.  The killing, the retaliation, the fleeing in fear, the desperate attempt to save these people. This is, all of it, all-too-human.  Goodness has a lot of competition in the chambers of the human heart.

Late Notes: Kurdish and Iraqi forces (mostly Kurdish I think) retake the Mosul Dam thanks to support from US air strikes. Meanwhile, the Pentagon claims the threat by ISIS is "beyond anything we have seen" before.  The Islamic State poses an almost unparalleled threat to global oil supplies.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Optimum Awesomeness in August

Fresh-picked basil from our garden, homemade wheat bread with raisins and walnuts, a fresh tomato from Jennifer's dad's garden and aged goat cheese. Optimum awesomeness for fresh taste on my property as late summer approaches. Some sliced beets and a tray of the bread slices in the background. Turbo yummy stuff.