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

Friday 31 December 2021

Memoirs of a Janissary

 One of the challenges for someone with my interest in the Balkans is my poor language skills. For that reason, I am very grateful to those who translate books or write in English, even when that isn't their first language. My latest reading is the translation of the memoirs of a Turkish Janissary, Konstantin Mihailovic, by Benjamin Stolz. He translated the oldest Czech text of his memoirs.

Mihailovic served during the reign of Sultan Mehmet II (1451-81), known as the Conqueror, following his capture of Constantinople in 1453. Despite the title, it seems likely that he was an auxiliary attached to the Janissaries for around eight years between 1455 and 1463. Despite some inconsistencies in his story, the gist of his description is accurate and could only have come from someone who observed the institution and events from close up.

The Janissaries were created by Sultan Murat I as an elite infantry corps, the name being a derivation of the Turkish words yeni cheri, or 'new troops'. It was the creation of this elite infantry base that is credited with many of the Ottoman victories, and is arguably one of the reasons for their success, compared with other Turkic tribes of the period. In this period, they were recruited through the devshirme, a levy of Christian youths taken to Istanbul, converted to Islam and trained as Janissaries or other court officials. Some achieved the highest ranks in the empire, including the grand vizier. Serbs, like Mihailovic, were a popular source of recruits.

His memoirs give us limited information about the man himself. He may have been a miner either from Ostrovica or Novo Brdo. As he claims to have been at the siege of Constantinople, he was likely a member of the Serbian contingent sent by Despot Murad Brankovic. He describes the campaigns he took part in, which included Trebizond, Wallachia (against Vlad Dracul) and Bosnia. His story ends when he was left with a garrison of Janissaries in the Bosnian fortress of Zvecaj. 

The most interesting part of the book is not these campaigns but rather his description of the Ottoman institutions he saw or was told about. As such, it is an important primary source, even allowing for his polemic against the 'heathen' Turks and Islam generally. He wrote his memoirs later in life when the Ottomans were perceived as a wider threat to Europe.  The text is a bit disjointed in places and isn't an easy read. However, the editor (Svat Soucek) has provided extensive notes that explain the context and corrects the obvious errors. 

Bow armed Janissaries of this period. Old Glory figures, if I remember correctly.

Tuesday 28 December 2021

The Ottomans: Khans, Caesar's and Caliphs

New books on the Ottomans are a bit like buses - you don't get one for a while and then several come at once! This is Marc David Baer's take on the Ottomans. This isn't a traditional narrative history. Instead, chronological chapters on rulers are followed by thematic ones addressing cultural issues, maritime power attitudes to women, Jews and eunuchs in dynastic politics. It is also a retelling of the story with a focus on the links between East and West - part of the history of Europe.

The Ottomans were not a Turkish empire. Like the Roman Empire, it was a multiethnic, multilingual, multiracial, multireligious empire that stretched across Europe, Africa, and Asia. In fact, the early Sultans viewed themselves as the successors of the Romans. The Ottomans called their Southeastern European provinces Rûmeli (land of the Romans). Baer argues that the way we remember the past would look quite different if we instead referred to both the Byzantines and the Ottomans as Romans, which is how they viewed themselves. 

The Ottoman expansion has traditionally been regarded as a religious conflict between Islam and Christianity. However, while this was used as a strategy, there was only limited attempts at conversion (although the 200,000 youths into Janissaries might disagree!), and the Ottomans tolerated most religions. Ottoman religious tolerance was based on Islamic precedent already introduced to Europe in eighth-century Muslim Spain and nomadic, pre-Islamic steppe practice. While full toleration did not exist in medieval Christian Europe, it did exist in medieval Islamic Europe, including in Ottoman domains.

Those watching the Turkish TV series Ertugrul will be surprised to read that Ertugrul and his sons were not connected to the Seljuks. The links to the Mongols were just a strong as Turkic tribes fought on both sides. Good history, but perhaps not so gripping TV viewing!

Baer asks the big question, how did the Ottomans succeed, out of all those competing tribes and states? He argues by luck and by material, economic, and social factors. But above all, the policies of Murad I, who established Janissaries (introducing infantry tactics) and fratricide as a succession policy. Ottoman tolerance of diversity meant creating an empire that was built upon the maintenance of hierarchies and difference, thereby ensuring the dynasty's greatness and the subject peoples' subordination. They were particularly adept at forging alliances with Islamic and Christian states.

He also places the Ottomans as part of the Renaissance, arguing that the European Renaissance had its roots in Islamic Spain and the Arab world. The Renaissance raised Western Europe to the cultural level of Muslim-majority societies by incorporating the achievements of Eurasian, especially Islamic societies. It was a global, not simply a European phenomenon. 

This book has many other challenges to conventional wisdom about the Ottomans. Not all of which will be welcomed as part of the current Turkish government's rediscovery of them. In particular, the chapter on the Armenian genocide. Like the Nazis, record-keeping means we can estimate that out of a population of one and a half million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1914, 650,000 to 800,000 had been annihilated by 1916. Although I hadn't fully appreciated the ideological underpinning of the massacres, other than remembering Hitler's admiration for those who implemented the policy. Most of the Ottoman (CUP) ideologues also met an early death.

Chapters on the role of women, the Jews and the Kurds (who aided the Armenian genocide) all open up interesting links that I hadn't fully appreciated. The cultural ties are also intriguing. From Swedish meatballs to Turkish coffee (despite efforts to rename it), Ottoman systems, architecture, language, and much more can still be seen across Europe. While like the Ertugrul series, nostalgia sells, painful aspects of the Ottoman past remain and have proven more challenging to confront.

Finally, Baer returns to a critical theme. The Ottoman story is an inseparable part of Europe's story. As much as they were Asian, as much as they had a unique political organisation, the Ottomans were the inheritors of Rome.

This isn't always an easy read, but it is an important contribution to our understanding of the Ottomans.

I probably have Ottoman armies of every period in multiple scales. But let's have some Janissaries, as Baer argues their introduction made a critical difference.

Thursday 23 December 2021

Greek Cypriot National Guard 1974

I have made more progress with the Cyprus 1974 project in 20mm. I now have some opponents for the Turkish Armed forces in the Greek Cypriot National Guard (EF). This should mean some tabletop action over the holidays, so watch the Twitter feed.

The National Guard was formed after independence. It was meant to be a mixed Greek and Turkish force, but that quickly broke down as inter-communal violence broke out, and the Turkish minority was forced into enclaves, defended by their own militia, the TNT. In March 1964, the new National Guard was established, and conscription was introduced in June. Initially, the National Guard was equipped with former British weapons and improvised vehicles, but they were quickly supplemented by equipment from Greece. Later the Soviet Union provided some weapons from Warsaw Pact stocks.

By 1974, the National Guard had a regular standing force of around 12,000 men backed up by a reserve of 20 battalions, of which about 10,000 younger reservists could be mobilised quickly. It was commanded by Greek officers, and as the coup demonstrated, was controlled by the military junta in Athens. In addition, there was a much smaller separate armed police force controlled by President Makarios. 

The headquarters was in Nicosia, organised into five Tactical Commands spread across the island. Each command typically had two or three regular infantry battalions, double that number of reserve battalions, and support weapons. Three regular commando battalions were based in Nicosia, plus a reserve commando battalion. The Artillery Command was also based in Nicosia, although batteries were usually distributed around the island. It was equipped with 25pdr and 100mm field guns, 57mm ATGs, 75mm mountain guns and 40mm AA guns. Finally, the Armoured Command had a tank battalion (T35/85s), a mechanised infantry battalion (BTR-152 APC) and an armoured reconnaissance battalion (Marmon-Herrington AC). Again these were generally parcelled out across the north of the island where the Turkish landings were anticipated. National Guard battalions were significantly smaller than their Turkish Army counterparts, typically 350-400 soldiers.

The battlegroups formed by the National Guard works quite well for the modern Bolt Action rules I use. So far, I have painted the T34/85, BTR-152 and Marmon Herrington armoured cars. While these were outdated by 1974, they actually performed reasonably well. The tank battalion (23 EMA) had two tank companies, each of 16 T34/85s and an assault company of six BTR-152s.

The armoured reconnaissance battalion had three companies, each of 12 armoured cars and an assault company of seven APCs.

From photos, it appears that the reserve battalion infantry had a mix of khaki and light green uniforms or just civilian clothes. It is often difficult to differentiate between the EOKA B fighters and the National Guard. The primary infantry anti-tank weapon was the recoilless rifle. I used a mix of figures from several ranges, with helmets, berets and bareheaded to represent these troops.

The regular mechanised infantry appears to be more uniformed in a khaki uniform with shorts. These look like WW2 desert British, although with less webbing and kit. I used the Dixon range because they are excellent sculpts for 20mm. The mechanised infantry battalion (286 MTP) had three companies, each with 8 BTR-152s. Plus two RCL (106mm and 57mm) and one 81mm mortar platoon.

That's it for now. I still plan to do a commando squad when the figures arrive. 

Tuesday 21 December 2021

The Rise of the Turkish Defense Industry

 This book will probably not make the general reader's Xmas list as it's a bit specialist. However, following my research for the Cyrpus 1974 project, I was interested to see how the story developed. Ayse Özer's book is just the job.

In 1964, the Turkish Government was warned off intervening in Cyprus by what has become known as the Johnson Letter. The US President was reminding the Turks that US-supplied equipment was only to be used for NATO purposes. After 1964, the US also refused to supply amphibious warfare equipment, so the Turks started their own shipbuilding for smaller landing craft and adapted foreign purchases for the larger ships like LSTs.

After the 1974 intervention, the Greek lobby in Congress successfully imposed a broader arms embargo that provided another spur for the Turks to develop their own defence industry. However, this didn't really take off before 2000 due to internal factors, and as Özer highlights, it was driven by other factors following the lifting of the US embargo.

The US embargo was a stern reminder that Turkey would not be protected if it did not own the means, particularly when its allies are not on the same foreign policy page. This was not limited to Cyprus. Turkish policy following the Arab Spring, the invasion of Iraq and the Syrian Civil War all highlighted differences. For example, the US armed the Kurds as the most effective fighters on the ground against ISIS, which would be greeted with horror by the Turkish military. Greece had been providing logistical support to the PKK since the 1990s, whereas the Turks regard them as terrorists. In addition, all the nations in the region were engaged in an arms race that Turkey could not ignore once its own policy started to face eastwards rather than solely to the west.

Even strategic partnerships with other countries have clashed with Turkish policy. Israel no longer provides weapons and technology unconditionally as it did in the 1990s, and western states have pulled projects due to human rights abuses in Turkey. For example, the new Turkish Main Battle Tank (Altay) is 95% Turkish supplied, but the power pack comes from abroad and cannot be exported to countries the EU regards as an undesirable end-user.

The current Turkish Government's 2023 Vision statement envisages Turkey designing and producing all of its military defence needs. If achievable, this would free Turkey from outside pressure and is viewed as part of building the economy. A concept known as Military Keynesianism, where military spending grows the domestic economy, providing skilled jobs. Turkey also aims to be a significant arms exporter through this policy. They also argue that military technology can drive innovation in the civil sector. For example, using military control systems in buses. As Turkey's overall GDP increased during the period studied, this doesn't appear to have a serious impact on social expenditure, a common issue for countries with high defence spending. Whether this can be maintained in the current economic crisis, remain to be seen.

This book probably won't appeal to the general reader, but it's a reasonably concise read and met my needs perfectly.

The last addition to my modern Turkish army in 6mm was these Turkish ACV 15 armoured infantry fighting vehicles. As seen on our news screens, deployed in Syria. They are a licensed version of the US AICV.

Saturday 18 December 2021

Waking the Bear

 The is the first I have read in the Helion Wargames series, covering the Great Northern War and the Turkish campaigns by Mark Shearwood. Obviously, the Turkish campaign is my primary reason for buying this. 

This book clarifies that the Great Northern War was much more than simply Sweden v Russia - Narva, Poltava, etc. It encompassed all the Baltic states, and many European nations were drawn in. This is covered in the chapter summarising the various campaigns. My favourite was the Russian-Ottoman Campaign of 1711, when the Ottomans trapped Peter the Great on the Pruth River. Another Helion publication Peter the Great Humbled covers this campaign in detail.

The longest chapter covers the armies of the conflicts. Just an overview of the organisation and tactics, illustrated with very nice eye candy in the form of 28mm figures. The troop types and uniforms give a flavour of the period with line drawings. The wargame pictures show you the colours. This is followed by painting and basing guides and a scenario. 

Some people have said that these books are expensive for 120 pages. However, this is a full-colour publication on high-quality paper. Not just a few colour pages in the centre that you might get in other books. They introduce the period and give you everything you need to get started.

GDWS did a display game on the Pruth River battle at the Albanich show in 2010. It didn't feel that long ago when I assembled the troops for this. This book reminds me that you can use Swedish troops in an Ottoman army of the period. I can feel a wee extension coming on!

Wednesday 15 December 2021

The Komnene Dynasty

 This is John Carr's study of Byzantium's struggle for survival 1057-1185. The Komnene dynasty lasted 128 turbulent years. The emperors were a mixed bag, and they all faced external challenges from the east and the west. And it wouldn't be Byzantine Empire without internal power struggles.

The name comes from the Thracian town of Komne, now in modern Turkey, although they had extensive landholdings in Anatolia. These lands formed the basis of their military strength, making them one of the great military families of the empire. The empire had to face assaults from the Turks in their eastern provinces and the Normans and Latins coming from the west. They also had to manage the First and Second Crusades that brought them into contact with some of the more rapacious elements of the European states.

Carr takes the reader chronologically through the different emperors, starting with the founder of the dynasty, Issac I. He was a military usurper who deposed Michael VI, a reasonably bloodless coup by Byzantine standards. We then get several fairly forgettable emperors until the main event, Alexios. He rebuilt the army after the disaster of Manzikert and demonstrated all the famed Byzantine diplomatic skills of playing their enemies off against each other and often incorporating them. Byzantine armies would include Norman knights and Pecheneg and Turkic horse archers. There is a chapter on the Varangian Guard, including Viking and Saxon adventurers. The recent University of Edinburgh supplement for Lion Rampant, Vikings in the Sun, covers this well.

We know quite a bit about Alexios because of his spin doctor daughter Anna. But even she is a bit light on why Alexios faced so many internal revolts. It was probably due to the need to maintain high military expenditure through taxation and centralising the state and army, depriving the military families of much of their power.

After Alexios, the Turks become a more significant challenge. Not yet the Ottomans, although the early foundations of that empire started during this period. Manuel I had to deal with the Second Crusade, and he made the big mistake of neglecting the navy. The empire's strength had been built on its strong trading position at Constantinople, but this required a strong fleet to protect the city and the trade routes. This failure culminated in the city's sacking during the Fourth Crusade, which is just outside this period. His death after a 37-year reign marked the beginning of the end. Endless wars and the onerous taxation to pay for the mercenaries who made up the build of the army, took their toll.

The bloodstained finale was the reign of Andronikos I. A man who would make any character from Game of Thrones look tame. It was mercifully short but exceptionally bloody. The dynasty had a twilight in Trebizond for some 250 years after the Latins captured Constantinople until the Ottomans finished the job.

I struggled a bit with this book initially, but that might be more to do with the less gripping story of the early Komnenes. However, Alexios' rule is always worth the telling, and I warmed to this version when we reached that period.

Onto the tabletop. I decided on Alexios against the Normans - a great story in its own right. Using To the Strongest! rules on the reduced size bases. I collected these armies in 28mm for a GDWS display game back in 2005. It didn't go well for Alexios. His right-wing didn't move for two moves allowing the Normans to storm across the table, while the Byzantine centre was left isolated. Such was the fate of a Byzantine emperor!

Monday 13 December 2021

Lord of the Isles

 I was looking forward to reaching the latest in my chronological re-read of Nigel Tranter's novels. The 12th-century story of Somerled, Lord of the Isles, is one of those cases where history is better than fiction. Even allowing for limited sources. The western seaboard of Scotland is one of the finest places on earth, which only adds to the story.

Somerled was probably born in Ireland, where his father lived in exile. He was lent Irish troops to make a bid to recover his father's lands in Argyll. These included part of the mainland and the southern islands of the Hebrides. Most of this area was occupied by Vikings. He liberated the area island by island, picking off the disparate Viking hosts and building his strength.

In Tranter's story, he eventually reached as far north as Skye and Arran in the south. He married the daughter of Olaf of Man. When that king's son became an unpopular ruler, he supported the rebels and agreed to his son, Dugall, becoming King of Man. He was related to the old Celtic royal line but generally avoided plots to unseat the Kings of Scotland. Tranter has him as a supporter of King David, being present at the Battle of the Standard, although the evidence for this is weak. He may only have sent mercenary forces. 

He was probably in conflict with David's successor, King Malcolm, who was not one of Scotland's finest. The isles were always semi-detached from Scotland, more concerned with the Viking threat from Norway, Orkney and Ireland. The military strength was based on ships, and Somerled could field more than 100 ships when required. These would be a mix of captured Viking longships and the smaller birlinns used in the isles. 

Somerled died in 1164 at the Battle of Renfrew, sometimes called Bargarran. He led a sizeable seaborne invasion for unclear reasons. Bargarran is the site of Glasgow Airport today. His death is equally contested history. Some sources say he died in the battle, others by treachery the night before. Tranter goes for treachery and the assassin's knife. His kingdom was split amongst his sons, whose descendants are genetically liked to some of the most famous Scottish clans. Most notably, Clan Donald.

Glasgow and District Wargaming Society gamed this battle for its Open Day in 2011. The area was pretty boggy in the 12th-century, probably why Somerled chose it, to minimise the impact of Norman cavalry on his lightly armed troops.

Friday 10 December 2021

Scotland and the Greek Revolution

 The 200th anniversary of the start of the Greek Revolution hasn't been marked by many events in the UK. This is perhaps surprising given the role played by the Philhellenes, substantial loans and the decisive intervention at Navarino

One exception is the University of Edinburgh's Leventis Exhibition, which covers the links between Scotland and the revolution. Scots played a significant role in the Philhellene movement, and Edinburgh, in particular, had strong ties to classical Greece. It was known as 'The Athens of the North', not least because of the architecture.

The exhibition comprises historic books, drawings and photographs from the University's Centre for Research Collections, complemented by loans from institutions in Greece, Scotland and England. It's only a small gallery, but it is worth a look if you are in Edinburgh.

Of course, the interest in classical Greece had its downsides, such as removing the Elgin Marbles to the British Museum. In my view, it is long past the time when these should be returned, particularly given the fine museum on the site in Athens today.

Books at the exhibition reflect the 19th century and earlier links.

19th-century passports looked very different from their modern counterparts!

The exhibition explains the links between Scotland and Greece and includes a short video. You can download the excellent exhibition catalogue here.

I have Greek and Ottoman armies in 15mm. I struggle to resist starting in 28mm, although I have dabbled with the Steve Barber and Old Mans Creations ranges. The revolution went on for many years, so there is still time!

Monday 6 December 2021

The Teutonic Knights

I was considering what medieval army to take to the club on Sunday for a game of To the Strongest! Then, I remembered that I had recently scanned my pre-digital photos of a tour of the Teutonic Knights castles in the Baltic States in 1994. 

I went in the summer, which unusually wasn't the campaign season for the Teutonic Knights. Iced over rivers and lakes made the winter a better option. This picture of the Sigulda region gives a good impression of the terrain.

 And the local castle.

There weren't many tourist signs back in 1994, so finding castles was a bit of a challenge. You usually just look up, but many Teutonic Knight castles were on river edges. Turaida is an exception to this rule, but again the terrain won't have changed much.

This is Bauska castle in modern-day Latvia. It was built by the Livonian branch of the Teutonic Order. Unfortunately, it was blown up by the Russians during the Great Northern War.

 This is Cesis Castle in Latvia, one of the better-preserved castles. This one was blown up by the defenders being besieged by Ivan the Terrible. Well, you might consider this as the lesser of two evils!

Koknese Castle is a good example of a riverside castle. I remember driving into many a Soviet housing scheme trying to find this one. Much to the bemusement of the locals!

This is the Bishops Castle, which was also blown up by the retreating Russians in the GNW. They must have used a lot of powder doing this.

I finished the tour in the Estonian capital Tallinn, which has magnificent city walls. This tower is called Pik Hermann.

This one is called Neitstorn.

As for the tabletop battle, my mother warned me against playing card games, and she was right. One unit of knights bounced out of a flank attack, another failed three rallies on the trot and my Livonian horse archers, far from galloping around the flanks of the more static HYW French, dawdled without firing a shot. There was more, but you get the drift.

A nice open flank for the Ritterbruder

My brother knights are Hinchcliffe models, still very serviceable 40+ years on.

The crossbowmen didn't hit much all day. Under the old WAB army lists, you had the option of a unit of longbowmen to reflect the crusading tourists from England. I could have used them against the Grimaldi Genoese below.

Saturday 4 December 2021

Western Desert Model Show

 It seemed slightly incongruous to go to the Western Desert Recce Group's model show on an industrial estate in Blantyre on this dreich Scottish Saturday. It's not my hobby, but I have never visited this group's base and starved of shows for the past couple of years; I will grasp at any straw!

The group are reenactors who specialise in the vehicles of the Middle East campaigns in both world wars.

They have a small collection of vehicles, some of which I have seen at events around Scotland.

Several local model clubs turned up to display their work, and very impressive it was too. Here are just a few that caught my eye.

Several local model shops also had stalls. Unfortunately, I am pretty useless when it comes to assembling kits, but I couldn't resist this Croatian Me 109 that will, sometime, be strafing my partisans. 

I also picked up a book full of colour plates of modern Turkish and Arab AFVs. Just the job.

Overall, it was a friendly wee show and well worth the effort.