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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave

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Saturday, 28 November 2020

The Normans in Italy 1016-1194

This is a new Osprey publication in their Men-at-Arms series by Raffaele D'Amato. It covers the Normans who left Normandy to make their fortune in Italy and beyond. These were typically the younger sons who would not inherit lands at home - have horse and armour, will travel.


I was first introduced to the story of these knights in the works of that brilliant storyteller John Julius Norwich, who sadly passed away a couple of years ago. He wrote Normans in the South and followed it up with The Normans in Sicily. For many years I used a Siculo-Norman army in WAB competitions with some success. 

This book gives a brief history of the Normans in Italy, from their arrival as mercenaries and bandits to Papal recognition after the Battle of Civitate in 1053. They fought the Lombard and Byzantine rulers but also assimilated the peoples of the region. The author makes the point that there were never huge numbers of Normans, although their ferocious charge was often the decisive tactic.

There are chapters on the organisation of the Normans and their armour and weapons. They were organised into small tactical units known as conrois, typically 20-30 men. They organised the land they acquired into the feudal system, welcoming other north European troops and enfiefing locals. The Kingdom of Sicily included Muslim units and incorporated local leaders. This provided light skirmishing cavalry and fine archers, which gives this army balance. 

As usual with this series, the book is profusely illustrated with photographs and colour plates. A very useful introduction to the period.

On the subject of Normans, the latest edition of Hobilar, the journal of the Lance and Longbow Society, is a special on the Normans. There are articles on the Normans in Wales, Sicily and on crusade. It includes my own article, The Normans in the Balkans. There are also reviews of a number of recent publications on the Normans. 


My 28mm army has figures from a number of ranges. The wargamer is not short of options when it comes to these warriors.








Friday, 27 November 2020

Salvation and Catastrophe: The Greek-Turkish War, 1919-1922

The Greek-Turkish War of 1919-22 is often forgotten amongst the great conflicts of the period including the Balkan Wars and the First World War. However, it was a large-scale conflict with massive consequences for millions of ordinary people, which continue to reverberate to the present day. 

 

This major new book, edited by Konstantinos Travlos, brings together a range of academics to consider different aspects of the conflict. The book is divided into three parts, broadly covering the causes of the war, its conduct and the aftermath. This is not a purely military history of the conflict. All wars have their political and economic context, which are important in understanding the military conduct. The Greek-Turkish War was as Travlos says in his introduction, “a political war par-excellence”.



The first section covers the political causes of the war, and the leaders, Eleftherios Venizelos and Mustafa Kemal (later known as Ataturk). For Venizelos the war aims were ostensibly to achieve the Megali Idea (Great Idea), a Greek state that would include the large Greek populations within the Ottoman Empire. Although one author argues that this was a tool rather than a goal, he was driven by the need to protect the physical and economic security of Greek populations under foreign rule. Kemal’s political goals were also nationalist, rebuilding a Turkish state for Turks out of the remnants of the multinational Ottoman Empire after the First World War.

 

The trigger for the war was the decision to send a Greek army to Asia Minor in 1919. This book isn’t a narrative history of the war, so if you are not familiar with the conduct of the war, it is worth reading a potted history first. What you do get is an examination of the causes of Greece’s defeat, a war which was almost entirely financed by France, Britain and the USA. I certainly had realised by just how much and the loss of this international support after Venizelos lost the 1920 elections and the restoration of King Constantine, damaged the Greek effort along with national division. 

 

Militarily, the war started well for the Greeks when they landed in Smyrna and secured the Greek population areas. However, as Kemal reorganised the Turkish armies, the Greeks needed to destroy them to conclude the war. This meant an advance towards Ankara that resulted in extended supply lines and large areas to garrison. By September 1921, they were on the defensive which eventually collapsed under the Turkish counter-attack. This was not helped by political culling after the Greek elections on a scale that would have embarrassed Stalin! Unsurprisingly, replacing battle-hardened officers with inexperienced political placeholders didn’t do much for the effectiveness of the Greek army. This added to exhaustion, lack of supplies and high casualties eroded the morale of the conscripts.

 

These factors were exploited by the Turks, notably by the development of a strong cavalry arm, making a comeback in this conflict after WW1. They were able to wreak havoc on the Greek supply lines, while the infantry dug in and bled the Greek infantry attacks dry in front of their fortifications. When it came to the Great Offensive, the Turks were able to achieve local superiority concentrating 70% of their available strength against about 56% for the Greeks. This led to a monumental battle of encirclement and annihilation on par with the German victory at Tannenberg in 1914. At the tactical level, the chapter on the Turkish use of German assault troop doctrines (Stormtroop tactics), is particularly interesting. Ottoman troops had been trained by the Germans, and this was developed by Kemal and his commanders, although they lacked the same levels of equipment, organisation and education of NCOs.  

 

Even if you know little about this war, you have probably heard about its aftermath, the massive population exchanges. This was not unique to this conflict and had happened as a consequence of the earlier wars, albeit not on this scale. Around 360,000 Muslims of Greece went to Turkey, and 1.2 million Greek Orthodox went in the other direction. Chapters in this book explain the complexity of the issue. For example, the Turkish speaking Orthodox Karamanlis were expelled to a country they had no affiliation with and didn’t speak the language. The test, unusually for a secular nation building project was effectively religion, not language.

 

The Greek-Turkish War was one of the major aftershocks of WW1 and led to the establishment of the modern Republic of Turkey, whose leaders until the 1950s commanded armies in the war. This is a substantial tome, which takes a detailed inter-disciplinary approach to the subject. It is clearly aimed at an academic audience, and the general reader may find some the theoretical analysis a little hard going. It is also outwith the price range of most readers who may want to persuade their library to get a copy. If they do, they won’t be disappointed.  This is, without doubt, the book to read on the conflict.

 

For the wargamer, I would start with the Osprey on the war. Then move onto this book, which adds much to our understanding of the conduct of the war. There are several unusual units, but I use my Greek and Turkish armies of WW1 and some from the Balkan Wars. 15mm for rules like Bloody Big Battles, and 28mm for Bolt Action. While there was trench warfare, it also has more open battles as well as raids and small unit actions.   


Greek infantry in 28mm

 
Turkish infantry in 28mm

Saturday, 21 November 2020

The Galatians

The Galatians are one of the lesser-known peoples of the Balkans in the ancient period. This may be because they had no written history of their own when the focus was on the Greek and then Roman impact on the region. John Grainger has written a very readable new history of the Galatians which pulls together what is known about these fierce warriors.

 


The Gauls expanded from their homeland north of the Alps into northern Italy and then westwards to France and Spain, and eastwards into the northern Balkans by the fourth century BC where the Greeks called them Galatians. They appeared as a piecemeal migration involving all or part of several tribes, subjugating and assimilating the inhabitants of a wide area around modern Belgrade (Celtic Singidunum). They became known as the Scordisci, although this was still a loose grouping of tribes with no permanent central authority. The Galatians didn’t do kingship, relying on temporary leadership for their further expansion towards Greece, Thrace and later into Asia Minor.

 

They bumped into Alexander the Great during his Balkan campaigns around 335BC when an agreement was reached on spheres of interest. With the Romans pressing the Gauls in Italy and the Dacians resisting their expansion to the north, they began to expand south-eastwards towards Thrace. Alexander’s death and the subsequent wars of succession created an opportunity, which the growing Galatian population exploited. 

 

The Galatian method of warfare was the equivalent of the Scottish clans ‘Highland charge’. Very effective in open ground, but could be blocked in mountainous terrain and by cities, as they had little siege warfare experience. Later they developed a strong cavalry arm, which was probably constituted from the tribal elites while the foot increasingly came from subjugated peoples. 

 

They invaded Macedon and Greece on several occasions, and while the Greek sources called these raids, it is likely that they were also looking for new lands rather than simple plundering. After being repulsed, they establish two loose states around the Scordisci and a new state in Thrace called Tylis. The latter lasted only sixty years or so while the Scordisci were an important Balkan power for three centuries.

 

One of the surviving groups from the wars against Macedon moved into Thrace and then across into Asia Minor, which was itself divided in a period of endemic warfare. The Galatians were initially used as mercenaries, going on to establish three separate tribal groupings in central Anatolia called the Tolistobogii, Tektosages and Trokmoi. While the Greeks called them barbarians, it seems clear that they abided by the diplomatic and treaty conventions of the period. Antiochos halted their further expansion at a battle known as the Elephant victory (269 or 268BC), which the Galatians had not met before. Despite this defeat, the Galatians were still a force to be reckoned with, raiding neighbours they didn’t have treaties, still primarily for settlement purposes and being used as mercenaries. Galatian cavalry was particularly sought after.

 

By the 2nd century, they were being squeezed between the Romans and Pontus in Asia and Roman expansion in the Balkans. This weakened their control of subjugated tribes, and both states went into decline, eventually becoming Roman provinces.

 

This is an excellent narrative history of the Galatians, perfect for the general reader who wants to know more about these extraordinary warriors who were also better organised and more effective diplomats than the ‘barbarian’ tag might imply.

 

For wargamers, it is another tabletop use for those Gallic warbands supported by more cavalry. However, I wonder based on the evidence in this book, if the army lists full of impetuous heavy swordsmen is correct for the later period.


28mm Gauls from my collection



Thursday, 19 November 2020

Blucher and the War of 1812

 This week's Zoom game stuck with the War of 1812, but with a different set of rules. Sam Mustafa's Blucher is not the obvious choice as it was designed for the really big Napoleonic battles. However, there is an option to scale it down using battalions as the base unit rather than regiments or brigades. 

The set up was inspired by one of the larger battles of the war, The Battle of Lundy Lane. Even this was a pretty modest affair with two or three brigades a side. The British on the right are defending the position and are preparing to be attacked.


  The American plan was to pin the British right flank with the largely militia brigade, while the brigade of regulars supported by light dragoons and artillery turn the British left flank.

The American artillery weakened the flank and the subsequent firefight routed a British line battalion. However, British light dragoons not only plugged the gap but went on to push back the US line regiment trying to turn the flank. The Canadian militia survived both a firefight with the US rifles and a charge from the US light dragoons.

Somewhat unexpectedly, it was the American militia brigade that managed to turn the British flank, pushing back one unit, but again it was the Canadian militia that held firm. 


By this stage, the Americans had run out of attacking options with five units fatigued. Score draw to the British, but it was a damn close-run thing, as the Duke of Wellington might have said.

I haven't played Blucher for a while, and I had forgotten what an elegant game system it is. The movement trays were made for me by Warbases. 

Finally, a few pictures of the Lundy's Lane battlefield today. Sadly, it is largely built over in a busy commercial area, but the battlefield is marked in several places.





Wednesday, 18 November 2020

Fortress of Fury

This is the latest (No.7) in Matthew Harffy's Bernicia Chronicles series set in 7th century Britain. This is a good setting for historical fiction as our written sources of the period are limited. It truly is the Dark Ages, even if historians these days don't like the label.


The action takes place in the year 647, mostly in Northumbria, which at the time was split between Bernicia, north of Hadrians Wall and Deira to the south. These were Saxon kingdoms, although as always they would have incorporated earlier populations. Mostly Christian, although the church was not as yet fully established. The power to the south of the Humber was Mercia, which was a pagan kingdom dominating central England.

Our hero is Beobrand, a thegn and modest landowner in Bernicia, sworn to King Oswiu, and a famed warrior with his personal band of warriors called the Blackshields. Most of this story focuses on the invasion of Bernicia by the Mercian King Penda and his Gwynedd (Welsh) allies. The Mercians besiege the fortress of Bebbenburg (on the site of Bamburgh Castle today), yes, the same one as Bernard Cornwell's Last Kingdom series, although that is set in a later period.

I won't ruin the story, but the Mercians try a variety of ways to get into the fortress. After the siege, King Oswiu returns (he was away dallying with a mistress) and events move south to Deira.

This book has all the elements fans of Bernard Cornwell will expect to see in historical fiction. Plenty of action, interesting characters, treachery, and a bit of love interest. As with the other books in the series, it is well written and an excellent light read.

The time spent on my recent War of 1812 project has somewhat dulled my painting mojo, but I have a few Saxons left to paint, which have at least got past the priming stage. Here are some of my Saxon Fyrd efforts as inspiration for the small battles of the period, which are very playable on the wargames table.



  


Thursday, 12 November 2020

Zooming the War of 1812

 We are back to Zoom games due to the pandemic restrictions in Scotland. While this isn't as good as the real thing it does have the advantage of engaging with friends from overseas. As my current project is the War of 1812, a game with an American seemed very appropriate.

First up I needed to finish the outstanding units. These are the US line infantry from the Old Glory range. I really should do standard units first, but like most wargamers, I am drawn to the most interesting units.

I have plenty of British figures but the Canadian militia had distinctive headgear, so a pack of them will make my British army a lot more authentic.

Games over Zoom have to be kept very simple so we went for 'Rebels and Patriots' with a standard 24 point force for each side.

This was a straight-forward lineup and the Americans advanced first with the centre pushing ahead. The US artillery struck first blood, being well positioned on the hill and quickly disordered one of the British line units.


The US rifle unit with its expensive 'good shots' upgrade planned a sneaky move through the woods to flank the Canadian militia or shoot up the light dragoons. However, disaster struck with them failing their activation roll four times! I have now learned a few new American expletives from my opponent!


This left the centre cruelly exposed to British volley fire, and after a few rounds, it was game over. The rifles eventually arriving when it was all done and dusted.


A comprehensive victory for the Brits and Canada is saved for the Empire. Technically Canada didn't exist but you get the drift. Rebels and Patriots work well for this conflict but I have a fancy to try a scaled-down game of Blucher with these figures next.

A reenactor at Fort Niagara on my visit to the battlefields in 2018 





Tuesday, 10 November 2020

Hitler's New Disorder - WW2 in Yugoslavia

 This is a new paperback edition of Stevan Pavlowitch's book on The Second World War in Yugoslavia. The events before and particularly after the Axis invasion are, to put it mildly, complex. They have also been the subject of historical revisionism, particularly since the death of Tito, which makes the author's objective analysis very welcome.

The book is structured as a broad narrative history of the events, starting with the end of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and the new structure imposed by the Axis powers. This involved the dismemberment of Yugoslavia with a German-controlled residual Serbia, a puppet state of Croatia and a range of annexations of territory around the fringe.

The insurgency started almost immediately with Mihailovic's Serbian nationalist Ravna Gora Movement making early progress while Tito's communist-led partisan movement struggled to survive under Axis pressure. The fascist Croatian puppet state did its best to make it difficult for their Axis allies through the terror inflicted by the Ustase. Successive German commanders sought to replace the Ustase, recognising the problems they caused for the occupation, but Hitler rejected every request. Although it should be stressed that the Wehrmacht also committed atrocities in Yugoslavia, particularly units led by former Habsburg officers.  

Muslims in Bosnia came under pressure from all sides and even sent a plea to the Turkish National Assembly to support massive migration. They settled for a mix of self-defence groups and even joined a Muslim SS Division in order to get weapons and protect their villages. As the war progressed more joined the partisans.

The fall of Italy in 1943 mostly benefited the partisans in terms of equipment and they used that to engage in more effective resistance to the occupation. Mihailovic never had quite the same degree of control of the varied groups of chetniks, many of which tacitly, and in some cases openly, collaborated with the Germans. The Allies shifted their support to Tito when it was obvious from German intercepts that the partisans were the only real resistance. Accepting that the first priority of both factions was to destroy the other and place themselves in a position to control the post-war state. Mihailovic even admitted to his British liaison officer that he would attack the Germans only when he had dealt with the "partisans, ustashas, Muslims and Croats". That didn't leave much of the population to build a movement around!

The western Allies engaged in extensive deception operations that threatened to invade the Balkans. These were believed by most of the internal players and Hitler, even if the German army was sceptical. In the end, it was the Soviets who arrived in the Balkans, and with their support, Tito was able to secure his position as the future government. We should not forget that Yugoslavia suffered greater human and material loss than in any other European country, except Poland and the Soviet Union.

The narrative of this conflict is complex and nuanced. I have read many histories of the period and this book is one of the best explanations I have read. 

28mm partisans from my collection