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

Monday 27 May 2024

Lord in Waiting

The latest in my Nigel Tranter re-read returns chronologically to the 15th century after my Montrose excursion. The story is told through the younger brother of the Earl of Douglas, who is close enough to the action to be a suitable narrator.

The book is set during the rule of James III of Scotland. He was born on May 10, 1451, and was King of Scotland from 1460 until he died in 1488. His reign was marked by internal strife, conflicts with influential nobles, and political instability. Yes, another feeble Stewart King.

He came to the throne on August 3, 1460, following the death of his father, James II, who died in a cannon accident during the siege of Roxburgh Castle. Perhaps unsurprisingly, James III wasn't much of a soldier, a significant weakness in a medieval King. His mother, Mary of Guelders, and several noble regents governed during his minority. He married Margaret of Denmark in 1469, which brought the Orkney and Shetland Islands as part of her dowry - probably the most significant achievement of his rule.

He was known for being more interested in the arts and astrology than in governance and warfare, which alienated many of his nobles. His reliance on low-born favourites and attempts to centralise power led to frequent rebellions. Notably, he faced significant opposition from his brothers, Alexander, Duke of Albany, and John, Earl of Mar; the latter was probably murdered by him or his favourites. There was the inevitable fighting against the English, although they were otherwise occupied with the Wars of the Roses. The Lord of the Isles was also brought into submission after a campaign in the West Highlands. None of this fighting involved James in person.

Our hero, John Lord of Douglasdale, becomes the lover of James' sister, Princess Mary, who plays a significant part in the story. He does take part in all the conflicts and plots. His older brother became the somewhat more famous Archibald Bell-the-Cat. 

The story reaches a conclusion at the Battle of Suchieburn on June 11, 1488. This was a substantial clash, little known even in Scotland. The battle took place near Stirling, close to Bannockburn, between the loyalists who remained faithful to the king and the rebels led by influential nobles who rallied around Prince James, who, albeit reluctantly, was placed at the forefront of the rebellion against his father. The battle concluded with a decisive victory for the rebel forces. King James was killed some distance from the battlefield. There are several theories, but Tranter goes for him, fleeing the battle, falling off his horse, and being murdered by Lord Grey.

This is one of Tranter's better stories despite the limited material with which to work. There are plenty of plot twists, and as it's a less well-known period of history, not one, you can always guess the outcome.

Some of my 15mm Wars of the Rose figures of the period.

Sunday 26 May 2024

The Caucasus

 This is Thomas De Waal's introduction to the Caucasus region, specifically the South Caucasus, or what the Russians called the Transcaucasus. I picked this up in an Oxfam bookshop during my football travels, thinking I ought to know more about the background of current events in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. These three modern countries cover the region south of the mountains.

The author starts by describing the region, dominated by the Greater Caucasus mountain chain and the highest in Europe. There is an iconic WW2 photo of a Gebirgsjager on the highest point, Mount Elbrus. The region also has the greatest density of distinct languages anywhere on Earth. Significantly for me, it is the home of wine, reflecting that not all the area is mountainous.

While this book focuses on 20th-century history, the earlier periods are not ignored. This includes the various religions that influenced the region following invasions. The Ottoman and Persian Empires dominated the area until the Russians arrived, although the nations all had periods of independence. Peter the Great started the imperialist Russian period. Still, Catherine the Great, with her arch-imperialist Potemkin, expanded the Empire to the shores of the Black Sea and the Georgian capital of Tiflis (Tbilisi today). 

In my last post, I covered the later Russian conflicts with Persia (or, as they would have said, Iran). This has kicked off a new wargame project and further reading, of which more will be discussed in later posts. This was the equivalent of the Wild West for Russian officers who called it South Siberia.

The Soviet period was one of many contradictions, from utopian class liberation to Stalinist authoritarianism. The author points to the ways the Soviets behaved that were different from those of the Tsarist period. Stalin was, of course, a Georgian, although he only took a slight interest in the region.

The background of modern conflicts is explained in detail. The breakaway parts of Georgia (South Ossetia and Abkhazia) and the wars fought between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. There are plenty of maps and some illustrations. Overall, this book is an excellent introduction and a warm-up for more detailed reading on the Napoleonic period in particular.

While not specifically for these conflicts, I have been building some Potemkin period units in 28mm, with their distinctive headgear. This is from the North Star range. I have 36 infantry, enough for two Black Powder or three Rebels & Patriots units. Just as well as, they now appear to be out of stock. I can use my irregular Cossacks for the early period, but I picked up a couple of packs of Foundry Don Cossacks for the Napoleonic Wars.

Tuesday 14 May 2024

Diplomacy and Murder in Tehran

 I have hankered after doing the Russo-Persian Wars for a while. There were many, but the early 19th century ones offered a new opponent for my Napoleonic Russians and the Ottomans were involved as well. I was in a second-hand bookshop in York when I spotted this book by Lawrence Kelly, which didn't seem like much of a punt at £3.99. It covers the life of the writer and diplomat Alexander Griboyedov, who played a crucial role in relations with Russia in this period. He was murdered by a mob in Tehran in 1829.

The background was the  Russo-Persian War of 1804-1813, fought over territorial disputes in the South Caucasus region. The Russian Empire, expanding southwards, sought to consolidate its control over the territories in the Caucasus, including Georgia, which had been formally annexed by Russia in 1801. This move antagonised Persia, which had historical claims over the region. The war concluded with the Treaty of Gulistan, signed on October 24, 1813. The terms of the treaty heavily favoured Russia, which gained control over vast territories in the South Caucasus, including modern-day Dagestan, eastern Georgia, most of Azerbaijan, and parts of Armenia. The modern links are obvious!

Griboyedov's linguistic skills and deep understanding of Eastern cultures made him a valuable asset to the Russian Empire's diplomatic efforts in the area. He was on the staff of the Russian governor, General Yermolov, who was the main driver of Russian imperialism in the region. The Persians had a regiment of Russian deserters, and one of Griboyedov's first missions to Tehran was to negotiate their return. He also encouraged the Persians in their conflict with the Ottomans, which ended in 1823.

Griboyedov's career nearly came to a sticky end when he dabbled on the fringes of the Decembrist Revolt that aimed to overthrow the new Tsar Alexander. Several of his friends were executed, and others were exiled to Siberia. Griboyedov's most significant literary work is 'Woe from Wit', a play that satirises the Russian aristocracy and bureaucratic society. It was banned, but copies were widely circulated.

War broke out again in 1826, and Griboyedov played an active role in the conflict as an aide to the new Russian commander, General Paskievich. Initial Persian success was countered by the Russians, who captured Tabriz, forcing the Persians to sue for peace. Griboyedov negotiated the Treaty of Turkmenchay on February 21, 1828, on terms highly favourable to Russia and returned to Moscow as a hero. Russia acquired additional territories, including the Erivan (Yerevan) and Nakhchivan Khanates, solidifying its control over the South Caucasus.

Persia struggled to pay the financial indemnities under the treaty, and Griboyedov and his embassy in Tehran were slaughtered by an angry mob. As the Russians were fighting another war against the Ottomans, it was in everyone's interest to play down the incident.

The book covers all the events of the period and Griboyedov's involvement. It is very light on the military aspects of the conflicts, so further reading will be required.

So, how do we tackle this on the wargame table? Mark Conrad translated a Russian work on the Persian army of the Qajar dynasty, which was helpful. Irregular Miniatures has a decent range in 15mm. Khurasan Miniatures in the US also have a range, as do Black Hussar (they look stunning) in 28mm. It would need to be a big project to justify US postage charges to the UK, so I will settle for 15mm. As it happens, Mark Bevis is selling off his 15mm armies on eBay, so I have bought a few infantry units and ordered some cavalry from Irregular. We will see where we go from there. Famous last words from a wargamer! 

Sunday 12 May 2024

Russian Warships in the Age of Sail

 This is one of those huge wow books you love to have on your bookshelf, even if you have no interest in the Russian Navy. John Tredea and Eduard Sozaev have meticulously researched the Russian Navy from 1696 to 1860. I was fortunate to pick this up in a second-hand bookshop in York for a reasonable price, even if my arm still aches from lugging it around for the rest of the day. 

The authors start with the historical background and then explain ship types, shipyards and ordnance. Over fifty pages are devoted to Russian naval history covering the wars in the Baltic, Black Sea and Caspian Sea. There is a brief mention of the voyages of exploration that saw Russian ships establishing settlements as far away as San Francisco.

The meat of the book is a description of every ship, covering its construction, design and armament, as well as its service history. This is broken down by fleet and period. The smaller fleets in the Sea of Azov, Caspian and the Far East are also included. Captured ships are also covered along with river flotillas and auxiliaries. This is an example covering one of the Pavel class, the Patrikii.

The book is profusely illustrated with line drawings, portraits of the leading commanders and paintings of sea actions. It would have made the research for my book, The Frontier Sea, a lot easier. However, it will certainly encourage me to add to my Russian fleet for games of Black Seas.

Tuesday 7 May 2024

Jocks in the Jungle

 This was my library pick this month. Gordon Thorburn focuses on the Black Watch and the Cameronians contribution to the Chindits campaign in Burma during WW2. It probably reached my local library because the Cameronians were a local regiment here in Ayrshire. The regiment arose out of the Covenanters and one of the most radical, Richard Cameron. He died at the Battle of Airds Moss in 1680 fighting against Charles II, and the volunteers were subsequently a staunchly Protestant loyalist regiment that fought against the Jacobites. This makes it a somewhat unusual British regiment, having fought against the Crown initially. 

The author takes us through the Burma campaign's early stages and both regiments' involvement. Then up steps Orde Wingate the founder of the Chindits. Wingate's ideas on long-range penetration and guerrilla warfare were inspired by his experiences in Palestine during the Arab revolt of the 1930s. He proposed the formation of special forces units that would operate deep behind enemy lines, disrupting Japanese communications and supply lines and harassing their troops. In 1942, Wingate was allowed to put his ideas into action when he was tasked with organising a long-range penetration force to operate in Burma. This force became known as the Chindits, named after the mythical Burmese lion creatures. The force was created despite the fierce opposition of the Indian Army HQ, but he had the support of Churchill and Mountbatten.

The author takes us through the Chindit campaigns using personal testimonies from the soldiers in both regiments and the war diaries. The first operation did not go well. It did distract the Japanese, who were preparing for their offensive against India. Still, the lack of supplies and dehabilitation meant 818 of 3,000 men went missing, and only 600 recovered sufficiently to fight again. Lessons learned: the next incursion was better planned with fortress bases created that could be supplied by air, and the sick could be evacuated.

As is often the case with books like this, you remember the small details. For example, the voice boxes of the mules were cut out so that their braying didn't attract the enemy. And bandages in green because white ones attracted snipers. The classic bearded Chindit look did not apply to the Scottish regiments because the colonels wouldn't allow it. 

Wingate was the driving force of the Chindit operations, and disaster struck when his Mitchell bomber crashed in the Bishenpur Hills. There had been trouble with one of the engines, and Wingate ignored weather warnings, although other theories abound. His replacement, Major-General Lentaigne, was an experienced commander but never really bought into the concept of long-range operations. He had viewed Wingate as an upstart with crazy schemes.

The real enemy of Chindit operations was illness and disease, exacerbated by the long marches in horrendous terrain, living on inadequate rations. Incapacitation rates of 75% were typical for all the brigades involved in the last operation. The medical officer's report makes grim reading, highlighting the lack of reinforcements, the length of the campaign and class distinctions in the provision of equipment and medical evacuation. Despite all this, morale was much better than you might expect.

It is difficult to evaluate the overall impact of Chindit operations, not least because of limited data. They did disrupt Japanese operations and inflicted casualties, as well as providing a morale boost in theatre and at home. However, the strategic impact was limited, and whether the heavy losses were worthwhile is questionable. For the whole of Operation Thursday, 1,035 were killed, 2,531 wounded, and 473 missing. There were also 7,217 hospital admissions; of the remaining effectives, 50% were declared unfit for active service on their return. They were pioneers of jungle warfare and unwitting volunteers in a gigantic, disorganised, unintentional medical experiment.

My 28mm Far East models in action on the tabletop

Sunday 5 May 2024

King or Covenant: Voices from the Civil War

This book, by the period specialist David Stevenson, is a different approach to the history of the civil wars. He has taken thirteen individuals who lived through the period, looking at their writings and stories to get a different perspective. Some played significant roles, others less so, but none were the 'great men' of the period. I found this book buried in a second-hand bookshop, but copies appear to be available from other sellers.

The thirteen people range from soldiers, to gentry, lawyers, a priest and a clerk. They are somewhat self-selecting based on adequate sources but can be characterised as being from the middle ranks of society.

I naturally spent more time reading about the soldiers. Sir Andrew Melville was the first. Like many Scots, he fought in the Thirty Years' War before being tempted back to Scotland when the fighting broke out. His memoirs might suggest he was a lucky officer to have survived many near misses. However, as one of his benefactors, The Electress Sophia of Hanover, put it, he was often a 'soldier of ill-fortune', given his many wounds. Later in the wars, he joined the forces assembled by the Duke of Lorraine for an intervention. However, this was abandoned when Charles I was executed. He fought for Charles II at Worcester but was wounded and captured. However, he managed to make his way back to the continent. He ended up as a major general and, despite his many wounds, died in some comfort, at least materially.

Major Thomas Weir was a strange soldier, possibly mad, who was executed not for his soldiering but for criminal offences of incest. He was also charged with sorcery, although the court dismissed them as fanciful. Nonetheless, his reputation survived into 19th-century prose. He was an extreme covenanter, and I came across him first as Montrose's unpleasant jailer before the great man was executed himself.  

The most famous soldier in the book is Alasdair MacColla. He played an important part in several of Montrose's victories but was also missing pursuing his own feud with the Campbells when he was needed the most. He almost certainly invented the Highland Charge, which impacted the battlefield for over a century. Stevenson has written a separate book about MacColla, which points to the broader story rather than simply a lieutenant of Montrose.

The fourth soldier in this book was Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty, who played a minor military role. He certainly looks like the classic cavalier with his extravagant dress, reflecting his belief in his genius. He was a prolific writer, even though his works were often unintelligible. He fought in the failed Pluscardine rebellion and at the Battle of Worcester, where the English soldiers found a better use for his writings, which, for some reason, he took on campaign in five chests.

I enjoyed this historical approach, which differs from the traditional narrative style. There are some interesting characters here that give us a better understanding of how the civil wars impacted the middle classes.

Saturday 4 May 2024

Carronade 2024

 Today was the first of the two big Scottish wargame shows, Carronade in Falkirk. It is held in a school, with two large halls, two smaller ones, and a room for a table-based bring-and-buy.

I was running the Glasgow and District Wargaming Society's display game, so I only had a little time to spend at the trade stands or the many games. In fact, for the first time in my life, I didn't buy a thing. I had bought all the odds and ends at York, and nothing else caught my eye. I am clearly a failed wargamer!

We didn't get to play many rounds of our display game, thanks to the regular stream of visitors keen to talk about a conflict they either knew little about or knew quite a bit about, often because they served in Cyprus. The battle for the Agirda Pass makes an interesting scenario, but the mix of equipment attracted confused looks until they read the handout. I am pleased that my F-100 Super Sabre got its first kill, a T34/85 tank.

Here are some of the other games that caught my eye.

This is the Phoenix Club's take on Fulford Bridge using Midgard rules.

Dystopian Wars. I must dust my fleets down.

Delighted to see the Montrose supplements for FK&P being played in 15mm

The Gothenburger's well-travelled pirate game.

Unmistakably Pegasus Bridge.

Valour and Fortitude are used for Quatre Bras using Epic figures.

Excellent ECW cavalry scenario intercepting the Queen. Pikeman's lament.

A very engaging group of lads displaying the Battle of Kambula in the Zulu wars.

54mm ACW. Definitely a spectacle.

Tradeston club's Breitenfeld.

It's a lot of work putting on a big show like this. So, thanks to the Falkirk Club for another great day out.