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

Sunday 28 April 2024

Convoys

My holiday reading was Roger Knight's, Convoys: The British Struggle Against Napoleonic Europe and America. My research for the HMS Ambuscade book flagged up the convoy system that gets marginal attention in the main histories. In practice, the convoy system was at the heart of British naval strategy. For most Royal Navy ships, convoy protection was their main role, defending the trade that provided the sinews of war and moving the troops to the continent and beyond.


Warship casualties on convoy duties were high. Between 1803 and 1815, 409 British warships were lost, 250 of which were wrecked or foundered. Bad weather was the main cause of these heavy losses, and the late-season Baltic convoys were the most dangerous. Convoys were organised by Admiralty clerks, who also arranged the warship protection, which was typically inadequate for the job. Both in numbers and the size of ships.

Convoys were not a new concept. The idea goes back to antiquity, but in this context, the Parliamentary navy used them to protect against Royalist privateers. Throughout these wars, privateers operated under a letter of marque, which provided the main threat. The difference in the Napoleonic Wars was the sheer scale of the operations. Convoys could consist of several hundred ships, often understaffed as the demands for crews multiplied. Sailing in a convoy was not popular with the masters of merchant ships because of the sailing discipline and the price advantage of getting goods to port first. However, it was effective and became an insurance requirement and a statutory duty for large parts of the conflict. The ships in the convoy were not always British. They would be protected if they departed or finished at a British port.

After explaining the convoy system and the ships that sailed in them, the author takes the reader through the convoy routes. Some of these are obvious, such as escorting troops and supplies to Wellington's army in Spain. Others, including the East and West Indies, provided the bullion and trade goods that paid for the war. Less well known is the importance of the Baltic, not just for the timber and hemp to build and maintain the Royal Navy ships but also for wheat. Privateers were also active along the British coast, intercepting goods like coal, which were typically moved by sea in the absence of good roads. Finally, the War of 1812 against the USA required huge convoys of troops and supplies to Canada and releasing hordes of American privateers against British ships in the West Indies and home waters.

British shipyards built 500 warships and 6,000 merchant ships during the war, plus prizes taken from enemy states. They were needed because French privateers captured 5,314 ships between 1803 and 1814. However, winter weather caused more casualties than enemy action. 61% of warship losses were due to the weather.

It is not an overstatement to say that without convoys, Britain could not have emerged victorious from the war. The significance of convoys in securing essential resources cannot be overstated. Bullion from Mexico, coffee and sugar from the tropics, and foodstuffs were crucial for financing the war and keeping the armies and population fed. Saltpetre from Bengal and sulphur from Sicily were vital for making the gunpowder that the army fought with. The importance of convoys was largely forgotten after the Napoleonic Wars, only to be reinstated in 1917 when U-Boat losses became unsustainable. In WW2, the convoy system played an equally crucial role in securing victory. 

This is an excellent read, highlighting an aspect of the Napoleonic Wars that has largely been ignored. 

Some of my Black Seas ships. 


Thursday 25 April 2024

Heeresgeschichtliches Museum

The highlight of my trip to Vienna was a visit to the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, one of the finest military museums in the world. I managed a quick visit some 20 years ago, but this is a museum that deserves plenty of time. 


The museum building was designed as the centrepiece of the Vienna Arsenal, built just outside the old fortifications after the 1848 revolution. The building is a work of art in itself, with paintings on the walls and ceilings that represent key moments in Austrian military history.



The exhibit halls take you through Austrian military history from the 17th century to 1918. The post-WW1 sections are being refurbished. The exhibits include paintings, uniforms, equipment and sculptures. The early years focus on the wars against the Ottoman Empire, with plenty of captured equipment from the 1683 siege and Prince Eugene's subsequent victories.



 The highs and lows of the 18th century and Napoleonic wars are in the first floor halls.



And the 1848 revolution.

The ground floor displays start with the conflicts of the later 19th century. The uniform guides include obscure units like these Bosnian infantry.


The WW1 section is exceptionally good. I particularly liked the collection of non-Austrian uniforms and equipment.

Serbian

Bulgarian

Romanian

Ottoman

Albanian
If you want obscure WW1 units, they have the Ukrainian Legion, the Polish Legion and others.

There is no shortage of heavy equipment as well. I have no idea how they got this massive 38cm siege howitzer into the building.


The Air Force was part of the army. I didn't realise they produced over 5,000 aircraft. Including this Albatross B.

The paintings in this section are very striking.



On a lighter note these are the war toys sold for kids in WW1.



If you have any interest in the Austrian army and can't visit the museum. Then I would highly recommend the museum guide. It is a beautiful piece of work with photos of the main exhibits. 

Wednesday 24 April 2024

Austrian Imperial Armoury

The Imperial Armoury in Vienna houses an extensive collection of arms and armour. Located within the Hofburg Palace complex, the collection includes suits of armour worn by knights, ceremonial armour of emperors and kings, and weaponry ranging from swords and firearms to cannons.

The collection is on the top floor of the Weltsmuseum. The floor below has an eclectic collection of items the Hapsburgs collected worldwide. Many were collected by Maximilian, whose travels ended up on the Mexican throne and a sticky end!

The collection is vast, so I will give a flavour. I was naturally attracted to the Ottoman equipment, which reflects the almost continuous conflict with the Hapsburgs. 






However, it is the armour collection that attracts most visitors. My absolute favourite is the Skanderbeg helm and sword.


There are also some of the strangest pieces of armour I have seen.


I assumed this was Teutonic, but the catalogue says it was made for Albert of Prankh in the 15thC.


This is the advert picture to draw you in.


One of several halls full of armour.


This is wedding armour. I pity his wife!


Not sure if he is bragging or just pleased to see his enemies!

They also have muskets and handguns.


The catalogue picks out 100 items and is a work of art in its own right. Overall, a museum not to be missed if you are in Vienna.

Tuesday 23 April 2024

The Battle of Aspern-Essling 1809

I am in Vienna this week. It is not my first visit, but my wife has never been. There are lots of Balkan links, of course, but one battlefield I have never visited is Aspern-Essling. It was fought on 21-22 May 1809, during the War of the Fifth Coalition. I wasn't originally planning to go because the volunteer museums are only open on Sundays. However, the previous day's visit had worn my wife's sprained ankle, so I got a morning pass.

Aspern and Essling were two small villages on the banks of the Danube River near Vienna. Napoleon chose this area for his river crossing, led by Marshal Jean Lannes. They initially faced stiff Austrian resistance but managed to secure a foothold on the far bank. Archduke Charles responded, launching a series of fierce counterattacks to dislodge the French from their positions. The terrain, which included marshes and small villages, posed challenges for both sides. Control of critical positions, such as the villages of Aspern and Essling, shifted repeatedly during the battle. While the battle ended inconclusively, Napoleon withdrew his forces to the original side of the Danube, conceding a rare tactical defeat.

I re-read David Chandler's battle description and brought his maps. However, this was an opportunity to try the new travel guide app Guidl. Charles Esdaile has done a guided tour of this battle, and it was very useful. The app is free, but you pay to download each tour, which is £6.99. For that, you get an overview of the battle and several audio segments you can listen to at critical points on the battlefield. You will also need Google Maps to get about. In my case, by walking and bus. The app is a bit clunky, but Charles clearly explains what happened at each spot and describes the commanders engaged.

So, I caught the train to Aspern, which is over the Danube in today's Vienna suburbs. Then, I took a bus to St Martin's Church, which was on the French left flank. This was a key strong point in the battle and has several monuments, along with a small museum.




I walked towards the old main street, which formed part of the defences. There are still some older houses, and the locals haven't forgotten NapoleonšŸ˜‚.



Next, a short bus ride takes you to Essling. First, out to the open fields of the Marchfeld, scene of Bessieres cavalry charges. The street is named after one of the Austrian commanders.



My final stop was the granary in Essling, which formed the right flank of the French position. It is the one building that survived and is easy to spot. The guide goes on to the river crossings, but I needed to head back to our flat for the afternoon museum visits.



 I have refought this battle a few times on the tabletop. It is an interesting tactical challenge, as the French need a bridgehead but are outnumbered at least four to one.

It would have been a better visit with the museums. So, if you have the option, go on a Sunday. However, walking the battlefield is still valuable, and I will enjoy the next game all the more.

The previous day, we visited the Belvedere Palace, which has the classic Napoleon crossing the Alps painting. It's historical nonsense, as he actually crossed the Alps on a mule (a realistic painting is in Liverpool's Walker Gallery), but it's a great painting. The Hofburg also has a fine statue of Archduke Charles. The Austrians do like statues; the city is littered with them.



As a postscript, I also made a quick visit to Wagram later in the week. There is a small museum (open Sundays only) in what was the Archduke's HQ. I didn't have time to walk the Austrian line down to Markgrafneusiedl, and there is no public transport.



Saturday 20 April 2024

Montrose - The Captain General

 This is the second book in Nigel Tranter's version of the Montrose story. It covers his later victories in the civil wars, including Kilsyth. Then, the defeat at Philipaugh, followed by exile and the final ill-fated campaign that led to the scaffold in Edinburgh.

As with the first book, Tranter has not overly focused on the well-known Civil War campaign. He devotes considerable space to Montrose's travels across Europe, seeking to build support for the Royalist cause. Then, the less well-known final campaign, when he landed with a core of mercenaries on Orkney and invaded the mainland. Charles II had made the fatal mistake of entering into negotiations with the Covenanter leadership, which ultimately undermined Montrose, as none of the clans would risk all on a doomed cause. Heavily outnumbered, his small force was destroyed at Carbisdale. 

The final section of the book covers his short captivity in Edinburgh and subsequent execution. This is a pretty tragic read, dealing with the sad end of a loyal servant of the Crown who had the misfortune to serve two incompetent Stewart monarchs. His reputation was recovered at the Restoration, with his arch-enemy, Archibald Campbell, taking his place in Edinburgh jail.

I have concurrently been reading Edward Cowan's biography of Montrose. Tranter has kept close to the history, and Cowan also devotes more space to Montrose's early life and later travels. Montrose had a stellar reputation as a soldier across Europe and could have commanded at least one of the major armies on the continent. He should have done!


I have several books on the classic Montrose campaigns but not a full biography. This is excellent and has broadened my knowledge and admiration for this remarkable historical figure.

My 15mm Montrose army is now finished, and I have been playing games of For King and Parliament using the new supplements.