Welcome to my blog!

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
or on Mastodon @balkandave@mastodon.scot, or Threads @davewatson1683

Thursday 27 April 2017

Eirik Bloodaxe

My latest reading has been Gareth William's book on the Viking ruler, 'Eirik Bloodaxe'. Not quite sure why I picked up this modest volume - I blame Last Kingdom!

Eirik was the son of Harold Finehair, the first king of a united Norway in the early 10th century. The Vikings really knew how to do nicknames! Needless to say Eirik lived up to his by killing several of his brothers. Although the sagas tell us that he was also a rather weak and henpecked husband. Eirik Henpecked doesn't have quite the same ring to it!

The author picks through what we know about Erik's life and times. Relying quite a bit on the sagas, supplemented from other sources. All are bit after his death. He appears to have briefly inherited his father's throne, after killing off a couple of brothers, but was usurped by his half-brother Haakon.

The story then goes that he came to England and ruled Northumbria, not once, but twice. There are those who are not convinced it was the same Eirik, but this author on balance thinks it was. He either died in battle, possibly at Stainmore, or was assassinated. The saga battle version reads better.

Either way, it's a good story, one that Bernard Cornwell could do really well.

As edges swing,
Blades cut men down
Erik the king
Earns his renown

(Egils saga)

I'll finish with some gratuitous Viking eye candy from my 28mm army.

Friday 21 April 2017

Romanian Army of the Russo-Turkish War 1877

My Easter wargame project was to add some Romanian units to the 1877 Russo-Turkish War project in 28mm. 

Following the failure of Russian assaults at the 2nd Battle of Plevna, Prince Charles of Romania responded to Russian pleas for assistance by concentrating an army of 30,000 infantry, 4,500 cavalry and 126 guns at Plevna.

There were two types of infantry regiments, Line and Dorobanz (territorial). Brigades usually had one Line and two Dorobanz regiments of two battalions each. In addition each division of two brigades had a rifle (chasseur) battalion and an artillery regiment of six, six gun batteries (5 field and 1 horse). Battalions numbered about 750 effectives in four companies.

Most line regiments were equipped with the excellent American Peabody rifle, although most Dorobanz regiments still had the Dreyse needle-gun. The artillery were equipped with the latest 4pdr and 9pdr Krupp steel guns. The cavalry consisted of  regular (Rossiori) hussar regiments and territorial (Calarashi) regiments. Each regiment had four squadrons of 125 men each.

There are uniform details and colour plates in the Osprey MAA 277 as well as Ray Lucas's articles in 'Miniature Wargames' 20&21. However, the plates reflect the dress regulations and in practice there appears to have been considerable variation. In particular between Line and Dorobanz uniforms. Photographs I have seen in the National Military Museum, Bucharest, show Dorobanz with kepis and some regulars with the old 1860's frock coat. In summer a wide variety of  uniform adaptations were adopted by officers and men.

The figures are from the Outpost Miniatures range in 28mm. 

First up line infantry, although they could also be Dorobanz.

Then the Dorobanz, reserve infantry.

And finally the Chasseurs.

For the skirmish game below I used The Men Who Would be Kings rules. I will also use them for games of Sharp Practice 2.

Tuesday 18 April 2017

Anchialos 917 - To The Strongest

This August is the 11th centenary of the decisive Bulgarian victory over the Byzantines at the Battle of Anchialos 917, near the modern town of Pomorie on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. OK, maybe not a centenary as memorable as the Somme, but to the Balkan enthusiast these things matter!

The infant Byzantine emperor was due to marry a Bulgarian princess, but the power behind the throne was his mother Zoe, who led a palace coup to oust the regent. She repudiated the marriage plans and this provoked Symeon into war.

Bulgarian troops ravaged Thrace and Byzantium adopted their normal practice of seeking allies by sending envoys to the Serbs, Magyars and Pechenegs. The Pechenegs did come south, but either because of failed negotiations with the divided Byzantine leadership, or counter moves by the Bulgarians, they withdrew. This left the Byzantines to face Symeon alone.

The Byzantine fleet landed an army led by Leo Phocas at Anchialos. Symeon kept his army in the mountains overlooking the landing.

The course of the battle is unclear, but it appears that the Byzantines started well, forcing the Bulgarian right wing back to the hills. However, the Byzantines became disorganised, possibly because of a rumour that Phocas had been killed. Symeon rallied his cavalry and counter attacked, supported by an infantry advance. This brought the Byzantine advance to a halt and then a disorderly retreat.

Phocas himself managed to escape to the coast, but his army was not so fortunate. It was reported some 70 years later that the skulls and bones of the fallen could still be seen strewn across the battlefield.

I refought the battle using Simon Miller's, To The Strongest rules. I used the minimum size in 15mm (50mm squares) as my armies for this period are not large. I have been meaning to use these rules again since Xmas, when some posh crackers produced two packs of small 40mm x 50mm playing cards - just the job!.

For more on the battle have a look at my feature article at Balkan Military History.

Saturday 15 April 2017

Ukraine - The Gates of Europe

When a country hits the news, you can be sure someone will bash out a quick history book. Sadly, the haste often shows in the research and readability of the tome.

Ukraine has been in the news following the Russian invasion of the Crimea and the Russian backed civil war in the East of the country. Serhii Plokhy published 'The Gates of Europe' a year after the invasion, but this book shows no sign of being a hasty publication. It is a scholarly, yet readable history of this troubled country.

Writing a history of a country that has only recently been an independent state, is something of a challenge. How far do you stretch the boundaries to fully understand the influences on the core area you are writing about? This is particularly challenging with the Ukraine, a country that has often been torn apart from all points of the compass.

The ancient history starts with the Pontic steppe and its early contact with Greek settlements on the Black Sea coast. The Slavs filtered their way into it, before the Vikings morphed into the Rus. The influence of Byzantium was always strong and it brought the Orthodox rite to the area, although the western parts of Ukraine soon came under Catholic, or Uniate, influence.

The Mongols tramped over Ukraine as elsewhere, before the tide receded and both Muscovy and the Poles pushed back. Ukraine was the border area, settled by the Cossacks, as a challenge to Tartar raiding. It is the Cossacks who probably define Ukraine and appear on the symbols of statehood to this day. Initially as part of Poland, but following the Great Revolt, they moved gradually into the Russian sphere of influence. Yes, I also struggled to get Tony Curtis and Yul Brynner in the film Taras Bulba out of my mind!

The Hetmanate was arguably the first independent Ukraine, but it eventually got partitioned between Russia and Poland - then Austria-Hungary as Poland collapsed. It shortly became an independent state after the First World War, before being swallowed up into the Soviet Union. Finally, voting for independence in 1991.

I have Cossack units in so many wargame armies. From the renaissance to WW2. However, it is early Cossacks that represent the swagger and character the best. Most of us think of mounted Cossacks, but in this period they were more likely to be found on foot, or in boats. These are in my view the very best Cossacks ever produced, from the Wargame Foundry range.

My current favourite set of rules is Pikeman's Lament, ideal for the small battle actions the Cossacks specialised in. Here are a couple of games - firstly ambushing a Russian convoy and then attacking a village held by Polish troops. The Cossacks came off worse in both games - a bit like the real Ukraine throughout history.

 Russian Boyars lead a convoy guarded by Streltsy out of the village

But the Cossacks are waiting!

Then game two against the Poles.

Tuesday 11 April 2017

1848 - on to the tabletop

The first stage of my 1848 Hungarian Revolution project is now completed and the forces have skirmished on the tabletop.

First up we have the Grenadiers. The Austrian army of this period was unusual in that it had no guard units. However, there were 20 independent Grenadier battalions.

Then we have the backbone of the army, the 58 line regiments. However, they rated fairly low in the pecking order of military service and many units, outwith Italy and the Military Border, were constantly understrength. Financial constraints meant men were sent on unpaid leave after initial training, only to be recalled for manoeuvres and emergencies.

Strategy, tactics and equipment largely dated from the Napoleonic period. The exception was infantry muskets. Starting in 1835, first line units received percussion pill-lock conversions and specialist percussion rifles were issued to the Jagers. This model was further improved in 1842. However, financial constraints meant that ammunition for training was limited to 20 rounds a year for line units. A single round cost the equivalent of a day's ration. This meant marksmanship was poor and very little realistic field training was undertaken.

Foreign volunteers were an important source of manpower for the Hungarian army. In particular, many Poles crossed the border from Russian occupied Poland. They formed a Polish Legion.

The Hungarian army struggled to equip all its units and this meant many fought with obsolete weapons, some purchased abroad and others locally manufactured.  They also captured weapons from Austrian stocks.

With all the current Steve Barber range completed, it's time to get them onto the tabletop. This is a skirmish project (famous last words!) so I decided to use the Skirmish Kings version of 'The Men Who Would Be Kings' rules. Essentially this means half strength units, while retaining the normal rules. I made the Hungarian militia units and the Polish Legion irregular with obsolete rifles, while the Austrians are all regular.

I choose a simple skirmish scenario over a stream. First blood to the revolution as they swept away the Austrians.

Initial positions

 Austrian Jagers attack the Poles who gain cover in the woods.

Honved units storm across the river.

Saturday 8 April 2017

Rome's Gothic Wars

Not a new book (published in 2008), but I picked up a copy of Michael Kulikowski's 'Rome's Gothic Wars' in a London bookshop recently.

There is a lot of academic controversy over the origins of Goth's, before they impinged on the Roman Empire. I have previously read Wolfram's heavyweight tome 'History of the Goths' and older studies by Bradley and Hodgkin. Kulikowski takes the general reader through these debates, exploring the very limited sources. The only conclusion anyone can reasonably draw is that we don't know.

Once they come into contact with the Romans in the 4th century the story becomes somewhat clearer. The early wars, including Constantine's Gothic wars are not well documented, but Constantine certainly defeated some Gothic tribes in 332. One of the challenges is that the Romans didn't overly worry about differentiating between the various barbarian tribes as they viewed them. Added to which, the Goths were themselves made up of a number of tribes.

These early defeats did not significantly weaken the Goths and they participated in several of the internal conflicts within the Empire. Matters changed when they arrived on the banks Danube in 376, it is thought because of pressure from the Huns and Alans, although again sources are limited. The subsequent imperial mismanagement of their admission to the Empire is well known and led to the disastrous Roman defeat at Adrianople.

After this the Goths became an integral part of the story of the later Roman Empire. Culminating in Alaric's sack of Rome in 410. The Goths then found a permanent home and continued to play an important role on the Empire's borders.

This is easily the most readable book on the Goths I have read. Not least because it is the most concise, and none the worse for that!

The Goths are a straightforward army to use on the wargames table. A decent infantry base with archery support, coupled with the offensive arm of effective cavalry. Here are some from my 15mm collection.

Saturday 1 April 2017

Imperial War Museum

A work meeting in London this week took me within walking distance of the Imperial War Museum (IWM). It would have been rude not to visit, especially as I haven't been there since the upgrading for the First World War Centenary.

The IWM was established in 1917, but moved to its current site in Lambeth in 1936. I had forgotten that the building used to be part of the Bethlem Hospital or 'Bedlam' - very appropriate for a war museum!

The upgrade is most obvious in the new atrium, but as you go round it is now very much the modern style of museum, with interactive displays, much closer to the IWM North style in Manchester. My first visit was on a school trip and in those days it was much more about exhibits in glass display cases.  While they fascinated me, I doubt the many school kids in the museum when I visited this week would have been impressed.

That's not to say there aren't eye catching exhibits. This LRDG truck caught my eye in the WW2 gallery.

Then this Mitsubishi Zero fighter, or whats left of it.

And this German 88m flak gun. Apparently Britain's army was so short of equipment after Dunkirk in 1940 that 18 of IWM's artillery pieces were returned to military service. This '88' looks pretty impressive even by today's standards.

The museum has three main galleries covering WW1, WW2 and post war conflicts. In addition there are a number of special exhibitions. At present one covering the Holocaust and another covering the stories of those awarded the Victoria Cross and George Cross.

It's certainly changed a lot since my first schoolboy visit, but still very much worth a look.