Prof. Philip A.G. Sabin‘s recent book Simulating War (2012) makes a powerful argument for the usefulness of wargaming both an educational tool and as a method of historical inquiry. Little did we know, however, that Phil apparently had been making the same arguments more than a century ago, writing as an anonymous contributor to the 15 November 1890 edition of The Saturday Review. (Click the image above for a link to the original piece.)
After suggesting a possible alternative explanation for Edward IV’s successful march to London from the North during the Wars of the Roses, the unnamed scholarly author reveals that these insights were generated from a wargame of the events leading up to the Battle of Barnet:
Where then and on whose tables was the campaign of Barnet fought anew? Of whom was the smoke not of battle that curled round the umpire’s head as he passed to and fro between the armies of York and Lancaster and with masterful finger ruled the issues of their moves? We may not reveal the time and place but it was in no garrison or orderly room nor were the players men of war. It was in a peaceful seat of learning they were scholars historians men of books even clerks in orders are believed to have been among them on this or other like occasions.
One of the vulgar errors not dead yet is the notion that type of a successful student is a pale faced creature poring books with midnight oil Increase of common sense students will soon have deprived this notion of such in fact as it ever had. All steady workers know that except the rarest cases midnight oil is the most wasteful form of expense. Oil was burnt by this party within reasonable hours but it illuminated no solitary and silent work. The maps with red and blue pieces and counters the pieces for player’s troops the counters for the more or less vaguely enemy were the centre of eager discussion and expectation. A spectator privileged to visit both rooms and boards might inwardly chuckle not without instruction on each party’s conjectures of the enemy’s strength mid position and their from the fact.
Sounding just like an 1890s version of Phil on the subject, he then stresses the efficacy of wargaming as a form of experiential historical learning:
And this kind of historical interest may well we should think he used as a regular and valuable adjunct to the teaching history in our Universities and even in public schools. A man who has followed a Kriegspiel over the ground of some commander’s campaigns and has heard the umpire point his commendation and criticism by reference to the actual course of on the same ground will have both a tighter and more intelligent grasp of the story than if he had merely read it in a book looking now and then at a map when the text ceased to intelligible otherwise or perchance not even having a map look at. But this it may be said requires more time than common way of reading history. Quite so learning well takes more time than learning it superficially but the difference in result is not a mere difference of less or more it the difference between knowledge which may be of great and a pretence of knowledge which must be worthless .
The article goes on to argue that wargaming might also help scholars to retain sight of the critical role that generalship can play in the outcome of military operations:
Another consideration is perhaps not too farfetched to bring the Kriegspiel table. At present we are at the height of a reaction against “drum and trumpet” history as JR Green called it. The modern historian loves to trace the secular growth of social forces and to allow as little as possible to individual genius or to anything else in the nature of things and man that is outside the principal movement. Is it not possible to carry this reaction too far ? Certainly there are great days in history when no valour or genius can fight against the stars in their courses. We may admit that Napoleon could not have restored a durable French empire if he had won at Waterloo. Perhaps Athens must have broken herself later on Carthage or Home if she had not broken herself on Syracuse. But after all considerable issues are sometimes decided for a generation or more by fighting and the conditions of a decisive fight may be such as to make the issue very doubtful beforehand and then individual qualities even far short of the superiority that exceptional genius gives will tell in the balance. Who can say what flag would now float over Quebec if Wolfe had not devised his master stroke as an almost desperate venture. Would the flying Mede have fled if Darius or Xerxes had commanded the services of a Hannibal? Or what would have been the terms of the Treaty of Frankfort if certain of the French leaders on the Loire in the winter of 1870 had been, we will not say abler men, but ten years younger? Or as in our case where would the White Rose of York have been Warwick bad been a little more active and Clarence a little less fortunate? The business of history is to generalize that which can be generalized and if drum and trumpet history means the crude statement of military results without appreciation of the military reasons or conditions the fault is common enough to deserve strict reprobation. But it is to be corrected by understanding the military side of history not by ignoring it. History cannot be reduced to social formulas and any historian who flatters himself that he has completely his history will find out too late that it has been formulized the cost of ceasing to live.
Phil notes (on page 57 of Simulating War) that variation in wargames outcomes “is a very salutary corrective to conventional historical accounts that often give little or no sense of contingency, as if what happened was somehow ‘bound’ to happen.” Or, as the mysterious (time-traveling?) contributor to The Saturday Review opines (p. 558):
It is a note of heretical pravity or at least of temerarious levity to speak of chances in history nowadays. But it may be allowed that Kriegspiel has chances.
We have our suspicions. PAXsims readers visiting the Department of War Studies at King’s College London are well advised to keep a sharp eye out for one of these:
SOURCE: The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art, Volume 70 (1890), via Google eBooks.