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

Tuesday 29 January 2019

Rebels and Patriots

A new set of rules from Michael Leck and Dan Mersey is a no brainer purchase, especially as the Osprey range is good value as well. There is a useful interview with Dan in this month's Wargames Illustrated.

This set builds on the mechanisms in Pikeman's Lament and the Men Who Would Be Kings, in a North American setting. It covers a very wide time period, but that doesn't matter as long you stick to historical match ups. The rules will actually work outside North America, bringing these simple rules to the Horse and Musket and 19th-century conflicts. In essence, if you want to play asymmetrical warfare then the Men Who Would Be Kings is the set to use, for everything else, these will work just fine.

You get a wider range of options with each unit type than previous rules. This provides for the wide range of conflicts and allows for some interesting matchups. For example, large, green units against small, veteran units. Shock infantry and cavalry give some extra punch, although I am not quite sure why shock cavalry has 12 models instead of the normal 6.

The game mechanisms are similar, but not the same as previous rules. Each unit has to be activated, but you don't lose the initiative if you fail - just move on to another unit. Ignoring modifiers, there is a 50% chance you will be able to move, attack, fire, skirmish etc. Not too random, although I know this does irritate some people. There are two levels of disorder before routing and units can be quite brittle. That is of course why the games play quickly. We typically play two games at a club session.

The book comes with 12 scenarios and your officer can progress or otherwise in a campaign setting. Finally, there are some starter army lists, including one of my favourite 'What-ifs' - British intervention in the ACW.

For the test game, I decided to use my 28mm South American Wars of Independence figures. In the first game, a well balanced 24 point company on each side, with infantry skirmishers, artillery and cavalry. San Martin's Argentinian forces on the right, against the Royalist Spanish.

The Argentinian Cacadores grabbed the house and caused some damage to the large Spanish line unit.

However, the story of the game was the small, green, Gaucho unit that routed two line regiments!

The second game represents two advanced guard forces, mostly cavalry with some light infantry and artillery support. I do like a Napoleonic cavalry battle!

This time the Royalist Cazadores seized the house, although they were pinned down by artillery and light infantry.

The Gauchos did well again, while the Grenaderos a Caballo destroyed the Royalist centre, as they often did during these wars.

Another great set of rules, which will get a lot of play at our club.

Saturday 26 January 2019

Baltic Crusader

Baltic Crusader by AAG Whitehead is a fast-paced work of historical fiction based on medieval Europe. I have always had an interest in the Teutonic Knights after spending an enjoyable week touring around their castles in modern-day Latvia and Estonia. I also have Teutonic wargame armies in 15mm and 28mm. So, a fictional romp around this conflict looked attractive from an author I hadn't read before.

The Hero is Eorle Wulfstan, squire to the Balliol’s of Castle Barnard in Yorkshire. The somewhat dissolute eldest son is joining the crusades in the Baltic. Our hero sleeps with his wife before they leave and when he dies in an ambush en-route, takes over his identity and command of a company of crusaders. If you are thinking a bit far-fetched for historical fiction, you would probably be right. However, it is fiction so let us just suspend credibility for a while.

After fighting in the Baltic, our hero’s company sorties to Transylvania, Bulgaria, Saxony, France, back to Yorkshire to sort out the Scots, and finally the Mongols in Hungary. If you think this sounds more like a modern parachute regiment than a medieval mercenary company, you would be right!

The best historical fiction keeps relatively close to the actual history, adding in new characters and obviously dialogue. The characters are larger than life, and their achievements may stretch credibility. It does involve some historical research, and while the author emphasises that he isn’t a historian, I’m afraid the book also falls down somewhat here.

There are very few dates given in the book, other than at the start we are told it is the 1200’s. Some of the events our hero participates in do have dates. The Mongol invasion of Central Europe was in 1241, and this is when our hero meets his end. So, we assume that the book is based in the early years of the century.

Our hero wields a longbow and commands a company, initially recruited in north-east England that is also armed with the longbow. The problem here is that the longbow was introduced in English armies by Edward I after the Welsh wars in 1276. Before that, the longbow was a Welsh weapon.

English troops ‘holidaying’ on crusade in the Baltic during the winter months did happen, so the basis for our hero’s trip is sound. However, there was no expectation that they would become Brother knights, this was just a useful source of additional manpower. The reference to the building of Marienburg Castle is more than a bit presumptuous. The castle wasn’t even started until 1274 after the Order gained control of the area – long after our hero dies.

He was sent ahead of the Teutonic Knights to defend Hungary against the Cumans, which actually happened in 1211 and King Andrew II expelled the Order in 1225. The Cumans were allied to the Bulgars (some of the time), but they are not the same people, something you might suppose from the book. 

An important character in the book is Ivan Asen II of Bulgaria. He was in Russia until 1218, when he came back to seize the throne. There is some weak evidence that Ivan was tutored by the Cumans before going to Russia after Kalojan’s death in 1207, but leading Cumans invading Hungary in 1211 is pretty unlikely. The wedding between Ivan and King Andrew’s daughter, which our hero was escorting, occurred in early 2021. The Battle of Klokotnica was in 1230, again not quite matching the author’s timeline.

I could go on, but you get the drift. A bit of historical licence is fine with a work of fiction, but I'm afraid I found myself getting irritated in most chapters. Any one of these actual historical events would be a good setting for a book. There is just no need to try and link them together.

In summary, if a breathless romp around Europe, and I don't just mean the slightly cringe-worthy sex scenes, is your thing, then this book is harmless enough. Just not for me.

Wednesday 23 January 2019

Bloody Big Balkan Battles

My wife looked at my computer screen as I opened my review copy of this book and said, 'Did they write that just for you!'. The author's Konstantinos Travlos and Chris Pringle didn't, but I get her point - few titles are more likely to get my attention.

Bloody Big Balkan Battles is a set of wargame scenarios for the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, published by Brigade Games. They are written for Chris Pringle's rule set Bloody Big Battles (BBB) but can easily be adapted for other systems. If you are not familiar with these rules, they are designed for late 19th century conflicts that were often fought on a vast scale. Armies of 100,000 men on a battlefield ten miles wide are not easily accommodated on a standard wargame table. So, Chris not just scaled down the size of units but stripped out unnecessary details into a simple, yet elegant, set of game mechanics. The basic element is a base representing 1000 to 1500 men and 1" on the table represents 150-250 metres.

I first played Chris' Warring Empires rules many years ago, and the fundamental mechanisms were adapted into Principles of War (PoW), which I played extensively. They allow games up to about Corps size, but no larger. Most of my 15mm figures for the 19th century are based for PoW, although I initially used Spearhead for the Balkan Wars. 30mm square bases work very well for BBB.

This new scenario book covers the First and Second Balkan wars, a conflict overshadowed by the First World War, yet it had an enormous significance for the Balkans - redrawing many borders and tragic consequences for whole swathes of the population. Sadly, many of the tactical lessons were not learned by the Generals who commanded armies in the early period of the Great War.

The war was started by the Balkan League, a loose alliance of Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and later Greece. The Ottoman Empire had been weakened by the war with Italy, internal revolts and the coup d'etat in 1912. The League took the opportunity to attack the Ottomans in Albania, Greece and Thrace. The Ottomans were defeated on all fronts, pushing them back to the lines of Chataldja, just 30kms from Istanbul. The peace treaty confirmed the Balkan League gains, but long-standing disputes over Macedonia resulted in a falling out, and Bulgaria attacked both Serbia and Greece. They failed to knock Serbia out of the war and interventions by Romania, and the Ottomans forced them to abandon the fight. I would recommend Richard Hall's book, The Balkan Wars, for a good overview of the conflict and Edward Ericksson, Defeat in Detail, for the Ottoman perspective.

The scenario book covers 14 of the critical battles of both wars. Each one describes the strategic and grand tactical situation, together with orbats and scenario rules. There is a map of each battle, which very clearly highlights the difficult nature of the terrain. The book concludes with a historical overview, profiles of the commanders and sources of further information and wargame figures.

Part of the battlefield from near Lahana

To test the scenarios, I decided on Kilkis-Lahana, a Second Balkan War battle between the Greek and Bulgarian armies. Not least because I have visited the battlefield, which has a small museum and a significant memorial. By visit, I mean driven around - walking is not really an option for warfare on this scale.

The Bulgarians are heavily outnumbered but hold entrenched positions. Kilkis is represented by the large church on the river nearest the camera. Lahanas is at the top of the table. I dusted down my old Spearhead hills, which show the different levels well.

This is the Greek attack on the Bulgarian right flank around Kilkis. 

And this is the attack on the other flank at Lahanas.

The Bulgarians made progress at Kilkis on the first day, but no breakthrough. Numbers told on Day 2, as they flanked the entrenched Bulgarian positions and forced them over the river.

The Bulgarian lines at Lahanas held on both days, but with their right flank exposed, General Ivanov decided to withdraw to fight another day.

The game played pretty much as I expected and the scenarios work very well. Highly recommended, not least because it reminded me what a very good set of rules these are. Now, where are those Russo-Japanese War figures?

Saturday 12 January 2019

Moscow's Game of Poker

This book looks at the Russian military intervention in Syria between 2015 and 2018. It is written and illustrated by Tom Cooper and is part of Helion's Middle East War series.

The author starts with an overview of the conflict and the reasons for Russian intervention - essentially to save the Assad regime and preserve Russian influence in the region. There are interesting sections on the geography and demography of Syria, which has an important role to play in the conflict. For example, I hadn't appreciated how mountainous and forested parts of Syria are - this is not a simple desert war.

Then a detailed chapter on the Russian units and equipment deployed in Syria. The intervention is primarily air power, operating from Hmeimem Air Base in western Syria with fighter-bombers and helicopters. Long range bombers have been deployed, mostly operating from Russia or Iran, as well as naval units. We have become used to pictures of precision bombing in recent conflicts, but for reasons of cost and technical failures, the Russian intervention has relied heavily on unguided munitions, with consequential civilian casualties.

While intervention on the ground has been limited, there were still more than a dozen Russian battalions deployed in Syria as well as specialist units such as electronic warfare brigades and missile defence groups. Three heavy artillery regiments have been deployed as well as forward observers.

The conflict is broken down into stages, which attempt to describe the complexity of the conflict. The huge number of different groups fighting on the ground and their affiliations is frankly mind-boggling. Russian intervention has largely been focused on anti-Assad forces and communities, rather than Daesh. Co-operation with the limited forces that remained loyal to Assad has been patchy, even with the Syrian Air Force. I hadn't appreciated the importance of Iranian units in propping up the regime, but they have been the most effective ground troops.

The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs and pages of colour plates, covering all the aircraft deployed by the Russians and the SyAAF. The author concludes that Russian intervention has been much less effective than the propaganda might imply.

Like so many interventions in this part of the world, it is doomed to fail because it fails to remove the principle reasons for the crisis.

Friday 4 January 2019

The Cretan War 1645-1671

The latest in the excellent Helion 'Century of the Soldier' series covers the Cretan War, fought between Venice and the Ottoman Empire for some 26 years in the 17th century.

The focus of the conflict was the Ottoman invasion of Crete, which at this time was a Venetian possession. The Ottomans wanted to protect their trade and military sea routes to the Levant, and as with Cyprus and Rhodes, they believed Crete was being used to endanger them. They landed in force in 1645 and quickly captured most of the island and a number of forts. However, the Venetians held the capital, Candia (modern Heraklion), which confusingly was also their name for the island. They continued to resist the Ottoman siege until 1669 when they surrendered.

I was familiar with the outline of this epic siege, but I didn't realise the scope of the conflict. The Venetians had the better of the sea war, winning several major engagements at the mouth of the Dardanelles. The aim was to cut off supplies to the besieging army on Crete. This was partially successful, but eventually, the Ottomans strengthened the coastal defences in the Dardanelles and found other routes, mainly the Peloponnese, to supply their army from.

There was also a smaller conflict along the Dalmatian coast on sea and land. Ottoman troops attacked Venetian towns on the coast from their bases in Bosnia and Albania, and the Venetians reciprocated. Amphibious operations took place all along the coasts of Greece, Turkey and the islands. Galleys were especially useful for this type of raiding, operating like a modern landing craft.

Ottoman armies have the usual mix of Jannisaries, Siphais and foot units from across the empire. The Venetians recruited troops from all over Europe. The bulk were recruited from Italy, but they hired whole German infantry regiments and there was a significant French expeditionary force. Technical expertise, particularly in siege operations, was imported from Europe. There was also chemical and bacteriological warfare and significant use of poisoning.

The author, Bruno Mugnai, starts by describing the troops and equipment of both sides before explaining the political context and efforts to resolve the conflict by negotiation. He then describes the war at sea and on land. This was a war of small-scale actions and sieges, with few large-scale land battles.

For the wargamer this conflict has huge potential - ideal for the popular Pikemans Lament rules. The book is full of small battle scenarios and is extensively illustrated, including colour uniform plates. There is no need to be put off by the thought of collecting exotic units, although these certainly exist. In the early part of the war, Venetian units look pretty much like European armies of the Thirty Years War and ECW. During the conflict European units started to look more like the later units in the Nine Years War and similar. Ottoman armies didn't change much during the period.

I tried this out on the tabletop with a 20 point PL skirmish in 28mm. The scenario requires the Venetian commander to capture an Ottoman convoy, replete with the slave booty of a raid before it can reach the Janissary camp.

Both sides have skirmish troops to protect the flank. Stradiots and Morlachs for the Venetians and Bosnian skirmishers for the Ottomans.

The main action is in the centre, led by the Venetian cuirassiers. The Venetians used heavy armour longer than other countries. They blasted away the Siphais, but the Tufekcis musketeers proved a tougher test.

With the Venetian horse and foot pushed back, the convoy slid into the camp guarded by the Janissary unit. Victory to the Ottomans.

This is an excellent book, which has all you need to understand the conflict and it opens up a range of new gaming possibilities. I have already ordered some French noble musketeers to bolster the Venetian ranks! A trip to Crete may also be in the offing this year!

Wednesday 2 January 2019

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year to everyone. I hope Santa brought you some nice shiny new toys, or miniatures to sit in the painting pile if you are a wargamer!

Talking of which, 2018 was not a massively productive painting year for me. My Game of Thrones project got a big boost of figures with the Song of Ice and Fire Kickstarter, but many remain to be painted. I have painted some of the Lannisters and all of House Bolton, but a few units and many characters to go. David Muir has painted several units of Stark figures, so that has helped.

My 20mm modern project was aided by using die-cast AFVs, but that still leaves the infantry. Russians, British and some generic eastern European insurgents have been done. Just some very modern Russians and bits and bobs to go.

I finished the WW2 French in 28mm for early war Bolt Action. Although they could use another infantry unit. Which reminds me, I really should keep a note of the colours I use when painting figures!

So, for 2019 some finishing off of these projects. I have some Bulgar Noble cavalry on the painting stick at present to plug a gap in that army. I was expecting to be busy painting Carnevale figures over Xmas, but I was very disappointed with these figures so they will be gathering dust. My big new project for 2019 will be the early war Yugoslavian army in 28mm. Several boxes of Warlord figures are staring at me on the painting table. I will also be expanding my units for Cruel Seas and hopefully improving my sailing skills! Other projects include the Assyrians, inspired by the British Library exhibition.

My blog post productivity was more impressive in 2018, with a record 95 posts. The number of readers has also increased significantly, so that's encouraging. The most popular posts are generally new game reviews and shows. Cruel Seas was the number one post this year. Some book reviews are also more popular than others, for reasons that are not that obvious to me. Battlefield visits are also popular, particularly Scottish ones, with Loudoun Hill, followed closely by Flodden.

On the subject of battlefields, I visited a fair few this year on my travels. The highlight was the Peloponnese with Mycenae, Mystras and the Frankish castles being particularly memorable. A work trip to Canada was also great, with the War of 1812 battlefields. My pre-retirement UK tour took in some old favourites and some new ones. I have still to negotiate the 2019 trips with the domestic authorities, but first stop will be York in February for Varpartnak.

My Balkan Military History website is doing well, with visitor figures up again. I have made a bit of effort this year to get on with the data transfer and updating from the old site. The travel and features are now done, which leaves armies and reviews. This will be the site's 22nd year, so there is a lot of content!

On the subject of anniversaries, this will be the 50th anniversary of the formation of Glasgow and District Wargaming Society. We often think of the hobby as being very new (Prussian staff college aside), so this is a big one. If you are near Glasgow on 20 January, please pop in and say hello at our Open Day.

I often take my wargaming inspiration from anniversaries. I suspect this year will feature the 75th anniversary of D-Day and other 1944 battles including Monte Cassino, Imphal, the Bulge and Market Garden.  I will cover the liberation of Belgrade and the Balkans from Nazi occupation, but it is also the 80th anniversary of the start of the war in 1939. My Yugoslavian project is primarily aimed at an interesting 'What-if', as this is the year Hitler encouraged Mussolini to deliver on his long-term project to invade Yugoslavia. Time permitting I am planning on some detailed research as well as the wargame project.

If you thought WW1 was over, this is true on the Western Front, but not elsewhere. We have the Greek-Turkish War kicking off as well as the Russian Civil War and lots of interesting campaigns in Central Asia. I can't remember much discussion of the Third Anglo-Afghan War, but the Amritsar Massacre will rightly get a lot of attention. Pancho Villa continued to be a nuisance to the USA in 1919 and Zapata dies as the Mexican revolution carried on. An excuse to dust down those figures.

Going further back, the 19's were not particularly memorable. Bolivar won liberation for Columbia in 1819 and the Great Northern War ground on in 1719. That year also featured the Battle of Glen Shiel so my new Highlanders from the Flags of War Kickstarter will have a purpose, even if historically a bit early.

My current reading is on the Cretan War, during which, in 1669, Candia surrendered. In 1519, Cortes landed in Mexico and of course the Thirty Years War ground on in 1619. For medievalists, the Hundred Years War saw the loss of Rouen to Henry V (1419) and an earlier Ottoman v Venice conflict ended in the same year. Mihail I successfully defended Wallachia against the Ottomans that year as well. There is the Livonian Crusade in 1219 and the Battles of Hab and Bremule in 1119.

I haven't managed to make as much of a dent in my reading pile as I had hoped. My retirement turned out to be more a semi-retirement, but there were some great books published in 2018, and no doubt 2019 will add to the pile. I have a number of research projects planned if time allows, but the more ambitious book projects will probably have to be put on hold for now.

So, that's me signing off 2018 and welcoming 2019. Here is wishing everyone a Happy New Year and an enjoyable hobby in the coming year. As other's have commented, hobbies are an important element of our mental good health, so try and find more time in your busy schedule this year.