Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Followers: 39 Reasons To Be A Happy Blogger #3

Well, since I've started to celebrate my followers, I've picked up a new one every week, so let's keep going!Newly enlisted #39 is Peter, who blogs at Comes Britanniae and Oldhammer Fantasy Battle  (yes, that's an interest in Arthurian warfare, but also fantasy and Napoleonics).Welcome Peter, hope we can inspire you on reentry from your hiatus.

and continue the countdown to my most loyal followers:

#24 Jim Duncan, wargamer. Blogs about Ancients, SciFi, WWII, with an special interest in Too Fat Lardies rules.

#23 Michael Peterson, aka the Mad Padre, with a great interest in Platoon Forward (a campaign system for WWII skirmish games), which I awarded one of my five Liebster Awards.

#22 Barks, an Australian blogger with an interest in colonial, ancients and fantasy warfare. Plus some Ameritrash boardgaming

#21 Sidney Roundwood. Roundwood´s World is a nice combination of eye candy (WWI French Verdun project) and great insights into participation games.

#20 Aaron, (taken from his blog roll) is an avid miniature wargamers with a wide interest.

#19 Christopher, aka Axebreaker. Blogs at Bunker Hill about ACW, Dark Ages and 18th century wargaming (and more). Nice brushwork as well..

#18 Sapper Joe, blogs at  ...Wargaming Toys. With some interesting insights into wars of decolonisation, modern and pulp miniatures and cheap kindle books(!).

#17 MiniMike, who shares his Ministories but especially the eye candy.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

An Age of Tough Commanders?

After my extensive post yesterday, I wondered if perhaps the burden of command was heavier in the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars than in the 18th century in Western Europe and later in the 19th century.  Like yesterday, I´m inviting you to think with me here.

More than in the previous and following ages was Napoleonic (and revolutionary) leadership based on the physical courage and stamina of the men involved. This had much to do with the changing social and political conditions where merit and ability became more important than pedigree and court favouritism. General officers were not expected to just direct the battle from the rear, but to intervene tactically and inspire their men by example.

This is most evident in the case of the French marshals, despite Napoleon´s political considerations in his selection. But it is unlikely that Blücher could have risen to such high status in an earlier of later age. He loathed politics and with boorish manners he was unlikely to gain favour in court. Only his ability, popularity and drive and the desperate state of Prussia  in early 1813 secured his return to command .

It would appear to me, but this is something I need to back up at some point, that the average age of general officers in Napoleonic armies (with that of the coalition forces following behind the French at a respectful distance) was considerably lower than before and even after. The physical requirements and selection criteria for promotion on merit probably both worked to this end, although of course Blücher is the odd one out in this case.

In the later age, with armies growing even larger and availability of comfort increasing, field commanders were less exposed to the fighting and moved with greater ease. Long distances could be traversed by train and later motorised transport. And although general officers kept getting killed, this was more often the result of distant artillery and air bombardment than of exposure in the front line.

It seems that Eisenhower suffered stress mostly from the office politics of his staff  and the quarrels of his subordinates. Generals leading their men into battle became rare, like Rommel (who incidentally also wrote many letters to his wife relating his health problems). In that sense, he was one of the last heirs of the Napoleonic legacy.

Would you agree=

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Blücher, or the Burden of Command

Reading Roger Parkinson´s biography of Marshal Blücher I was confronted, more than in other military biographies, by the physical and emotional strain of military life, and command in particular. It may be Parkinson's inclusion of many fragments of Blücher's letters to his wife, in which he is very frank about his ailments and condition, that pointed this to me so strongly. 

What I want to do in the following, is to sketch the elements of physical and emotional hardships to which the Hussar General and his contemporaries were exposed. This is probably not a complete list and I would appreciate if any reader would use the comment section to provide further suggestions and examples.

Throughout the book you get a good idea of how tough it was to be a commander in the Napoleonic age. The challenges were physical and mental, and sometime both at the same time. The marshal is also a good example of how commanders dealt with the stress.

The Physical

Campaigning was hard business. Commanders were expected to travel long distances on horseback on the march and on the battlefield. This was also not particularly comfortable, with bad roads and lots of cross country riding, so it helped to be an experienced rider. Since this was the fastest and most flexible mode of transport, commanders only reluctantly switched to carriages. Blücher did this only when he was not fit enough to travel on horseback, but never in battle.

Apart from travel, commanders spent time on administrative duties although Blücher was happy to leave that to his staff. Correspondence with other general officers and political could not be delegated as easily.

Although for officers accommodation was often much better than for the rank and file, there are a number of instances where even the Prussian commander in chief slept on the field wrapped in a cloak. Because of the amount of travel and other duties in a day, sleep was mostly short and night were often broken with urgent messages. Most letters to the home front contained some reference to tiredness.

In these conditions and with full exposure to the weather, it is not surprising that illness was a regular feature of campaign life, and Blücher caught a few bad ones in addition to some recurring ailments. When worn out he would often complain of inflammation of his eyes, which reduced his sight. After the victorious battle of Laon, the marshal's health failed completely and he was unable to exert effective command for weeks.

The Mental

Command was draining emotionally as much as physically. The responsibility for the lives of so many and the political consequences of failures were high. Throughout the campaigns of 1813 to 1815, Blücher was driven by his memory of the humiliation of 1806 and the near dissolution of the Prussian state as a result. Knowing the ability of Napoleon to bounce back from defeat, he drove as hard as possible to make the most of his victories by hot pursuit and keeping pressure to keep his enemy off balance.

Responsibility became personal when it led to the loss of close colleagues, friends and relatives. Blücher was deeply shaken by the death of his friend and chief of staff Scharnhorst.

Leadership also included overcoming opposition from your own side. Corps commanders Yorck and Langeron posed considerable challenges to Blücher's authority. Differences of opinion would mix with conflicts of character to ruin plans and paralyse operations. Blücher's letters to his wife are full of frustrations over missed opportunities and misinterpreted communications.

But superiors could prove as troublesome as  subordinates. Monarchs intervened in campaigns out of political considerations, reducing the freedom of the field commander. The 1813-1814 campaigns were particular examples of this due to the presence of the monarchs in the theatre of operations. Blücher was so disappointed in the lenient terms of the Paris peace treaty in 1814 that he offered the King his resignation. This soured his relationship with his old friends Gneisenau and Hardenberg in the early stages of the Waterloo campaign.

High command could be a very lonely place. Although the Prussian marshal was relatively open and friendly with his staff, French marshals were known to be withdrawn and reluctant to share information and privacy with their subordinates. Ney, who had been a fairly approachable general, changed to a more reticent nature when he became a marshal and often dined alone. The deepest emotions could often only be shared with close relatives. Blücher, Ney and Davout poured out their hearts to their wives in their letters, but saw them very seldomly.

Where The Twain Meet

But the biggest and most traumatic element of command was combat. With the importance of example and intervention on the battlefield, commanders often exposed themselves in the front lines to rally retreating troops, to react to enemy moves and to lead attacks. Cannon balls would reach furthest, but generals were often close enough to the front to be within musket range or even get tangled up in melee.

Considering the state of battlefield surgery and medicine, getting wounded was life treathening even if not immediately lethal. So it was proved by Blücher's chief of staff Scharnhorst, who died in June 1813 of a neglected wound.

As a cavalry commander, Blücher would often lead its charges. In one such instance at the close of the battle of Ligny, his horse was wounded by a musket ball, and fell upon him. The quick reaction of his adjudant Nostitz prevented his capture by French cavaly, but his fall left him unconscious for several hours and he only came to in the nick of time to direct the Prussian army towards Wavre, rather than Liège.

At Lützen (or Groß Görschen as the Prussians would argue), a musket ball grazed his back as he led yet another cavalry charge. This superficial wound made horse riding most uncomfortable, with the wound occasionally opening again.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the old hussar was in his element in this environment and his staff often had to urge him to be more cautious. So physical courage should be considered a necessary condition for a field command. It was so much part of the officer ethos that I have found very few examples from this age admitting fear. If officers talked about disgust or emotion, it was mainly over exceptionally brutal behaviour, such as after storming of cities.

But the case of Blücher's son Franz is a good illustration of the mental impact of a physical wound. Blücher junior was wounded by a blow to the head (probably at the battle of Dresden) and captured by the French. Although he returned to active service after his liberation from a French hospital in the autumn of 1813, he later developed a mental condition (post traumatic stress disorder?) which led to his institutionalisation until his death. This was a cause for much grief to his father.

Release Or Breakdown

Even though most of these men can be considered experienced campaigners who had seen it all, it is clear that the trauma and stress was too big to shrug off. So they found release in alcohol, gambling, dancing and sex. The field marshal was very fond of the first three (even raking up such debts in his later years that he needed to ask his monarch to help out) but I have found no reference to the latter. Given the common occurrence of mistresses and prostitutes in this period among his colleagues, I think it unlikely that Blücher would not have joined in the fun.

Sometimes even that was not enough. Wellington, prime example of the Etonian stiff upper lip, was moved to tears after Waterloo. But it could get worse...

It seems that the iron will of the marshal sometime pushed him over the edge. His most celebrated mental breakdown occurred in the years after Jena and Auerstädt, when he was sidelined as commander in Pommerania while he saw Prussia constantly humiliated by Napoleon. He developed hallucinations and even claimed that he was pregnant with an elephant. This condition lasted for several months.

The story of Blücher´s physical collapse in March 1814 also shows how precarious the hierarchy was. Hallucinating and blinded by infected eyes, he was restricted to bed and incapable of command. When Gneisenau started to issue orders in the absence of the chief, experienced but troublesome corps commander Yorck almost immediately handed in is resignation and could only be recalled by waking Blücher temporarily from his hallucinations.

Gneisenau, although a great chief of staff, seemed paralysed by the responsibility and the senior corps commander, French émigré in Russian service, Count Langeron also stepped back. The decision was therefor made to keep the patient in nominal command until he recovered. But the army was effectively immobilised for almost two weeks.

And by the summer of 1815, the old marshal finally had had his fill of warfare, as he wrote in a letter to his wife. He longed for home, his wife and quiet.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Followers: 38 Reasons to be a Happy Blogger #2

Nice! Another new follower:

#38 Phyllion, a gaming magpie, with a steady brush and an interest in ancient Greek warfare..

When I did a post on my latest followers last week, I realised I hadn't done that for my longest and truest believers. So let me introduce you to:

#32 James Brewerton, not content with just one blog, but needs three. Also involved in bloggers for charity and BlogCon.


#31 Edwin King from the Thoughts of a Depressive Diplomatist blog. If you don't like dead bishops (how can you not like them?) there's shiny medals and interesting reviews.

#30 Jan-Willem van der Pijl, aka Pijlie. A shining beacon for participation games in the Netherlands and all round good lad.

#29 Hankesslinger. Also not a blogger, so can´t say much more.

#28 Michael Awdry, who doesn't restrict himself to 28mm Victorian Warfare to provide eye candy

#27 Schrumpfkopf, for your interest in German liberation wars and Westfalia miniatures. He´d be mad with my crappy painted Minifigs 15mm Saxons

#25 and #26 Pugglemonster aka SP aka Pete S aka SPPprojectblog. Obviously someone with multiple personality disorder, and probably the butterfly interest to go with it. No less welcome!

If you feel my short introduction is selling you short to the rest of the world, please chip in and I'll update your bio.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

650 Pages of Annoying Your Audience

Spare me the lame attempts at humour based on national stereotypes. Even if they claim to aim for the opposite. Stephen Clarke´s 1000 Years Of Annoying The French is the kind of book that makes you weep for the insult to the trees felled to print it on.

A bore of a book
I read the part on the Napoleonic Wars to see how it is dished up to a modern British audience. It includes the studied Anglo-Saxon arrogance you'd expect and duly repeats the Nelson mythology. Surprisingly, it gives Napoleon quite some credit for his civil reforms while noting his misogynist streak in law making. It even notices that Waterloo couldn't have been won without the Prussians and that there were Dutch and Germans present.

It is in fact too even handed and serious. This light weight history of Anglo-French relations lacks the consistent wit of 1066 And All That. Had it displayed over the top jingoism at least you could have laughed at that. But adding the odd French bon mot doesn't make up for satire. I honestly recorded only one audible snigger. And it had better been restricted to 200 hundred pages.

It was about this annoying

Somebody please shout out and deliver me of this. Postage is on me.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Napoleon and his Marshals by Macdonell

This book is very well written: the story flows, with anecdotes sprinkled liberally but always in the service of the characterisation of the marshals. Those characterisations are masterful and bring to life men from two centuries ago, although maybe not always free from Macdonells preconceptions.

We follow the story of France’s military elite from the divisional commanders of the Army of Italy awaiting their new, unknown chief in 1795 to the death of Marmont in 1852. Short flash backs introduce the new characters as they appear on stage: their often humble backgrounds, early military careers and their rise to prominence and relation to Napoleon.

Macdonell makes two more exceptions from the description of military campaigns. The first is the story of the coup of Brumaire1799 and the second of the failed 1804 coup against Napoleon and his creation of the marshalate. To Macdonell these events were closely related.

The French revolutionary army was highly politicised, and republican and Jacobin factions competed with those that put more emphasis on return to order. This power struggle was behind the coups, and Napoleon’s creation of the marshalate was an attempt to reconcile those factions and bind them to his regime. The 1804 coup provided him with the opportunity to found a monarchy and dynasty but also removed credible alternatives for the opposition to rally around, like Moreau and Bernadotte.

In that way the list of marshals reflects Napoleon’s desire: old revolutionary heroes like Kellermann and Sérurier, Jacobins from the Army of the Rhine like Jourdan and Augereau, and his own supporters from Egypt (Davout), Italy (Berthier) and his younger days (Murat). Even Bernadotte was welcomed back.

As a whole the marshals performed their task loyally and dutifully, but their loyalty was to Napoleon, or France, not to each other. They showed inordinate egoism and ambition instead of collegiality and this proved a dangerous weakness when the master was absent, as in Spain, or unwilling to enforce cooperation, as in Russia.

Year of birth of the marshals,
most were older than Napoleon

But to Macdonell, that lack of moderation was not what brought down the Empire. He paints the decline after 1807 in gloomy colours as talented young commanders like Lasalle, Montbrun and Lannes die fighting for it. The opposition to Napoleon’s attack on Russia is described in detail and even more so the psychological effect of that campaign on for example Ney, Oudinot and Davout.

By 1813, the lust for glory and belief in the genius of the chief was no longer driving the marshals, but rather duty and loyalty. And in the end their lack of faith in the military and political judgement of the emperor led to his downfall a year later.

Even some of his oldest friends, like Marmont, switched their allegiance to the Bourbons. Others watched from the fence as he returned from Elba, professing their allegiance to France rather than the empire. Mortier dutifully escorted King Louis on his flight to the border, then returned to serve the emperor. Ney went from “I’ll bring him back in a cage” to command at Waterloo.

With so few loyal supporters left, Napoleon was forced to place his best commanders, Davout and Soult, in Paris and his headquarters. If not the deciding factor in his final defeat, it was at least critical.

A lesser book would have spent more pages on Napoleon, but Macdonell resists that temptation and focuses on the motivations and interrelations of the marshals. Their many feuds and occasional friendships. Of course, there is more to say about the marshalate as the apex of a new military aristocracy, and its diplomatic and political role.  A present day researcher might take a more systematic approach to this subject.  

Then again, this book was written eighty years ago and it shows in many other ways. For example when Macdonell reassures us that although there is no bibliography, the reader should trust that every detail is backed up by a source. But it is hard to find a better book to read by the fireside and imagine yourself just for a second next to Ney as he guards the rear of the Grande Armée, musket in hand, against the swarming cossacks in the cold and snow.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Rear Guard Action

This seems to be what I will be doing in my spare time for the next year and a half. Me, and my buddy who just finished a biography of William, Prince of Orange, later to be king. He's awesome with archives. He's awesome in writing. I was honoured to be asked by him to cooperate on a book.

The idea is that we don't just write the next account of Waterloo, although that hasn't been done in Dutch for quite some time. My buddy brings along a mastery of the political, cultural and social history of the period, both in the Netherlands and Europe. I bring my military and economic interests. Together we can make something special happen.

We have a publisher. We have a rough deadline. We have a rough planning and a rough outline..

For me this is and incredibly exciting idea. A once in a lifetime opportunity and somebody who will kick my butt and keep me on track.

This will require an unprecedented amount of self control and focus on my part. It will probably mean me taking unpaid leave for a few months.

So it also should mean I will be posting here less. And it should mean that when I post, I will not be all over the place, and more about Waterloo than before. Life could be worse for you.

In this rear guard action, there's an opportunity for a counter attack. And I'm taking it.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Followers: 37 Reasons to be a Happy Blogger

I feel I've been very fortunate this last couple of weeks since the holidays.  Not only did I attract lots of hits (by my standards) but even more rewarding, lots of comments. And a few more followers. And I appreciate followers the more because as the first few, you are not merely threading the beaten path with the flock, no, you are followers of your own volition.

So, welcome:

#37 Gary Amos, from Happy Valley. Briton with eclectic taste in historical wargaming

#36 Rob Hingley from Captain's Blog. Canadian miniature wargamer who makes British eclectics look picky

#35 Mike from Mike's Wargame Blog. Miniature wargamer with preference for Napoleonics and 15mm

#34 Clint, who doesn't admit to having a weblog. Good comments!

#33 Grigork from The Megalomaniac. Another eclectic Briton, even dabbles in SciFi and Fantasy

and thanks to the Thoughts of a Depressive Diplomatist blog for his generous words. If you don't like dead bishops (how can you not like them?) maybe you are still in time for his prize draw.

I haven't done this for my first 32 followers yet, but I will make up for that sometime soon.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Four Men in a Balloon: Featherstone, Gygax, Reiswitz and Barker

In yesterday's post I made a reference to Gary Gygax, major Von Reiswitz and Phil Barker. I'll explain, as promised.

More about this below...
As I discovered megagaming in 1993 I also came into contact with Chestnut Lodge Wargames Group in London and became a loyal but not very active member. But at least I get my copy of the club magazine, Military Muddling with reports on design sessions and I occasionally go to meetings, like the annual picnic or games weekend.

At the games weekend there's two days of game design sessions, with the evenings available for after dinner games. One of the few times I was around (in 1996) it was a good session of Four Men in a Balloon, where all the passengers had to make their case not to be the one thrown out this round. In this case the passengers were Don Featherstone, Gary Gygax, major Von Reiswitz and Phil Barker arguing their value to the wargaming hobby. And I represented the latter.

Phil was the second to be released after the major, but in the end Gary Gygax survived rather than Don Featherstone. It was something to do with polearms, I believe. I think that is a good indication of the mindset at Chestnut Lodge, with a heavy emphasis on role playing even in a miniatures game.

The guys even autographed my copy!

But the best after dinner game was the bard competition we had afterwards. The idea was that we were given an episode of the life of Harald Hardrada and then turn this into Nordic poetry, so with lots of alliteration, reference to mythical animals etc. Jonathan Pickles put up a copy of Snorri Sturluson's King Harald's Saga for the winner and that proved to be me.

I never read the full story, but it is obvious that Harald was a bit of a poser. He traveled around much of the known world, but always seemed to get into trouble and be forced to move on rather in a hurry. In the end he lost the battle of Stamford Bridge against Harold Godwinson a few weeks before the latter was beaten  by William of Normandy, later known as the Conqueror, at Hastings.

Harald's predicaments were of course part of the amusement, as the ´bards´ had to gloss over these inconveniences and portray them in a more positive light. In most cases I opted for outright lies rather than spinning the evidence. I suspect that my reward was more out of kindness to the foreigner who had come so far to join in the proceedings than on the basis of my superior poetic skills in a second language.

But coming back to yesterday´s theme it is interesting that although my memory is hazy, these games I remember much better than many regular miniature games. Just like I remember the Peasant´s Crusade game that Graham Hockley put on that weekend, which was a string of grown men weaving around a playground à la Polonaise, with every break in the chain signifying losses to the expedition. You can imagine that once we´d crossed a few obstacles our chances of ever reaching Jerusalem, let alone ´liberating´ it, were null.

That´s the power of fun for you.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

A Change of the Guard

It's all very tempting to look back these days. There was 100 years of H.G. Wells' Little Wars, then Willem Schoppen, the ´Dutch Donald Featherstone´ was taken into hospital and then The Donald himself passed away. It feels like the end of an era.

Welsh Guards (Wargaming Miscellany: Bob Cordery)

Given the massive outpooring of reminiscences in the blogosphere, it feels like in a sense we are now paying our last respects to the last wargaming pioneers. Wells who made the transition from an officers' teaching tool to a civilian's game, Featherstone who popularised it in the Anglo-Saxon world, Schoppen who popularised it in the Netherlands.

Look at the sense of novelty and pioneering this old hand describes in his memories of wargaming in the 1950s and 60s. Or read Achtung Schweinhund by Harry Pearson for a more elaborate depiction of those years. There is a recent spate of books on wargaming, boardgaming and roleplaying history. But of course, the pioneering era ended some decades ago already. Don Featherstone has already been 'succeeded' by others.

Okay, no Featherstone, but I do have some gamer cred

I just found out I actually have no book by Featherstone at all! I always took him as an icon whose designs had been surpassed by new generations of writers like Bruce Quarry and Stuart Asquith, of whom I have several books each.

Starting wargaming with Hinchliffe miniatures, I was then totally overwhelmed by Foundry's Franco-Prussian range. Just like Magic: the Gathering was a watershed in terms of visual appeal and gaming tension. I remember coming back from a games show and teaching all my friends how to play the next week and then buying them all starter packs the week after that.

Willem Schoppen and his wife from a Dutch popular
science magazine in the early 1980s

To me, Willem Schoppen and his Boutique La Grande Armée are natural points of reference, but they are meaningless to most Dutch gamers of my age and younger. Donald Featherstone means nothing to tens of thousands of kids in GW stores worldwide, and neither does Gary Gygax, Von Reiswitz or Phil Barker (I'll share that story with you tomorrow). And they don't have to. Just like you don't need to have heard the Beatles to appreciate One Direction or to have read Marx to appreciate Lenin's writing.

And now there's discussion of a Golden Age in wargaming and boardgaming and on the other hand one of 'the hobby's dying out'. Lots of new stuff is happening. In terms of boardgaming the mechanical revolution has passed from the German/euro style games to wargames and Ameritrash. In wargaming the revolution is now mostly in highly thematic skirmishing rules after a period of highly formated competition rules. And design and marketing have received a welcome energy by crowdfunding schemes in the middle of a general crisis for gaming companies.

But as ever, there is a process of creative destruction going on. The success of Too Fat Lardies, Bolt Action and Flames of War will mean the quiet disappearance of other rule sets, just as Avalon Hill was eaten up by Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast, Peter Laing and Minifigs have become memories of the past. Hinchliffe was sold to Skytrex and now Skytrex itself has gone into administration. Those that see only growth, just don't notice all that we leave behind.

There are counter movements though, like the one sparked by the Little Wars anniversary. I see a dozen gamers with a sense of nostalgia buying up their 54mm toy soldiers and playing Old Skool on their brittle knees in the garden again. I guess there is an age between 13 and 50 where you feel too serious about this kind of thing, just like you feel to serious to play monsters battles with Play-Doh. Wrong!

Grown Men (Hail! Hail! Freedonia: Jim Wallman)

Maybe we all just got old

And maybe that is what people yearn for the most when they hanker back to the good old days of Wells and Featherstone. A period when they were young, when it seemed the whole world was still there to explore and map and everybody was enjoying it. It all became more complicated with time. Wargaming became work, with lots of accounting and legal prose. Maybe as the world was mapped and better understood, players lost the freshness and joy in arguments over rules, regimental lace and the intricate mechanisms of phalanx combat.

We need to find back, bring back and/or keep alive that sheer fun of the game. I used to get up early to get to the club in time to play four games of Napoleonics for a club competition. I played 24 hour RPGs marathons. It was the best thing I could think of doing then and even though life now gets in the way much of the time, it still is one of the few ways of spending my time now totally engrossed, immersed, occupied and happy.

If you want to honour your heroes, if you want to keep this hobby alive but you worry about the fact that we can't get the youngsters in anymore, or if you just want an opponent for your dust covered Royalists, do it by playing. With anyone, anywhere, in any way possible, because mechanisms and realism and correct painting schemes don't matter. Just play that game with the same intent and joy as you played when you were playing with the Don.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Saying Goodbye To Seth

I'm going to go through all the blogs I follow on Feedly and cast out as many as I can (a quarter would be nice).

The first on my list is Seth Godin's blog. Not because it's crap, it isn't. On the contrary, it has been an inspiration over the past few years as I was wondering about what I wanted to do with my life. One of his most important lessons (which I haven't fully internalised yet) is to get going. To start and set off without fear of failure. Now I realise that I must throw of some of the weight of stuff I look at so as to spend more time creating. I'm sure Seth will understand and support my decision.

 I will throw out a few other things work related, where watching should turn to doing as well. The problem is that these days I have this list of blog posts I feel I need to take some time for to read at ease. And this just adds up because I never find the time, the list becomes endless and I just feel guilty.

My best salute to the blogs I'm throwing out is to mention them here so you can check them out. They are all valuable in their own right, but I need to create room and I'm not radical enough to just ignore all blogs, deactivate facebook and twitter. Besides, I still want to communicate with people. More than ever.

Front Towards Enemy (aka Miah´s Tannhauser blog). Previously dedicated to FFG's Tannhauser, but now includes reviews of new Dust (Tactics), Heroes of Normandie and Zombicide products. But it is best for its high quality self-designed stuff, like customised Zombicide survivors and map tiles.

Savage Tales. All things pulp. Nice

2D6. A boardgaming blog with the focus on euro games, but with wargames and some Ameritrash as well.

Lonely Gamers. These guys have such beautifully painted minis: ACW, Napoleonics, Samurai, and the most wonderful colonial.

Opinionated Gamers. The old Boardgaming News site, without the news (which was acquired by Boardgamegeek.com). These guys, with the exception of Matt Carlson, all prefer euros over my beloved Ameritrash.

Military Obituaries. A tradition in the Daily Telegraph. Well written, often interesting people or interesting views on small actions in war.

Senchus. Author Tim Clarkson's blog on Dark Age Scotland.

Plastic Zombie. About zombies, obviously. Just much more creative about it than most other zombie lovers.

Civil War Horror. I'm a fan of Sean McLachlan's military history writing, like his Osprey books on western gunfights and the Battle of Adowa (1896 - Italians vs Ethiopians). He´s also a travel and fiction writer.

Korosho. This is self protection. This guy is a great designer of fantasy/scifi/nearfuture miniatures, with occassionally brilliant posts about the quality differences in 3d printing. So far I've managed to resist the temptation. I don't know how much longer I can hold out.

The Arabist. Some of the most original reporting on and from the Middle East. Puts most western pundits to shame.

Mark Mardell. I've followed Mark Mardell since he was BBC correspondent in Brussels, clearly disecting the behind the scenes issues in the EU. Now in the US.

Bruce Schneier. He's done great stuff on internet security, the surveillance state and how our society deals with non-conformist behaviour, often with a link military issues. That link is to a review of his great book Liars & Outliers.

Steve Buttry. An evangelist on using digital means in journalism. He's obviously ahead of most of the pack that still clings to paper. Good for suggestions on software and digital approach, as well as journalism in general.

Presentation Zen. A blog that looks at presenting from a bit more distance. I go there for inspiration when I have to make a presentation, and from this guy I took the useful rule: NO BULLET POINTS. There's always an image that conveys that point better. I've also learned to make presentations shorter (if you can bring your message in 15 minutes, you can do it in 5).

Sunday, 1 September 2013

The Siege of Hamburg, Sideshow of the Fall of Napoleon

Die Eisfestung by Gabriele Hoffmann is a nice piece of history writing in accessible German. It fits in well with the other very readable history books that German publisher Piper provides to a broad audience. As far as I can see with few concessions to the thoroughness of the research involved. Sadly the only illustrations in the book are two very informative maps.

Hoffmann first sketches the revolt in Hamburg and the French recapture in Spring 1813, followed the French work on the fortifications and the tribute imposed on the inhabitants during the Summer and Autumn. This part of the book also sets the scene by introducing the main characters like Davout and several more and less important inhabitants of the city.

The book paints a reasonably positive picture of Davout. His devotion to his wife and children is only matched by that to Napoleon. The marshal puts his talents and iron will at the service of the Emperor and everything in its path, including his family, is shoved aside.  “Die Geschichte seiner grossen Militärkarriere is auch die Geschichte ihrer Geburten”, Hoffmann writes pointedly.

Similarly, any obstacle to the execution of his orders is overcome. In 1813 Davout is more determined than ever, trying to regain the favour of Napoleon after his fall from grace in the wake of the Russian debâcle. The only reason the marshal sees for leniency in dealing with the rebellious Hamburgers is that it will induce some of them to return to the city and increase their contribution to the overall goal. But as the allied troops under Benningsen close the ring around Hamburg, Davout does not hesitate to burn the outlying garden houses of the inhabitants to clear the field of fire for the defenders. He also throws the young men and the poor out of the city as he does not trust them or wish to feed them.

For the inhabitants the last year under French rule is tough. The embargo with England has destroyed much of the trade and the only employment is on the French constructions. With the French unforgiving in their effort to control the city, it loses much of its vibrancy. As the siege is laid in late December, the only reason to stay is to protect property against the French and looters. Only 55,000 of the over 100,000 inhabitants remain in the city, next to some 40,000 French, Italian, Dutch and German soldiers.

Many Hamburgers therefore experience the siege from outside the walls of their hometown. Soldiers from the Hanseatic League and rebel leaders that have retreated with the Russians in Spring 1813, wives and children of rich Hamburgers that were sent out of town during the Autumn. They all depend on networks of kinship and trade relations for housing and nourishment in Danish Holstein, liberated Mecklenburg or far off London. It is their correspondence with relations in the city that provides Hoffmann with much of her understanding of what the siege meant for civilians.

Map of the defenses of Hamburg in 1813/14
The siege itself is not particularly exciting. The freezing cold poses problems for the defenders as the main defense work, water, loses its function as an obstacle. Nevertheless, Davout´s engineers come up with creative solutions, using horse dung and ice to create new defences. Although Benningsen executes a number of attacks, he seems content to keep Europe's most talented tactician inside Hamburg with equal numbers.

This is apparently also how Napoleon saw the situation. A letter that never reached Davout the Emperor lambasts him for his inactivity against a weaker enemy. Together with similar complaints of several senior officers of Davout´s corps during the Autumn campaign, this paints an interesting contrast to the marshal´s martial prowess in the previous years. Although nobody could question his continued devotion to duty and skill as an organiser of troops, it is remarkable that after returning from Russia, he never again fought a major battle. Hoffmann slyly suggests that this may have to do with traumatic experiences in 1812.

Despite the ever worsening news from France - first invasion, then defeat and abdication - Davout is determined to hold out for his master. The loyal commander will not depend on the rumours spread by his enemies for his decisions and awaits official instructions, which don't arrive until late April. It then also becomes apparent that the Bourbons and the allies have come to a peaceful agreement and the French can leave Hamburg undefeated.

Hamburg quickly returns to its former self as inhabitants come home and merchant ships arrive from all over the world. Some refugees have even found their new partner in exile. For many, this also signals the end of their correspondence or private notes as they turn to rebuilding their lives. 

Despite his successful defense, Davout returns to France in disgrace, amid recriminations over his treatment of the population and the requisition of all bullion in the Hamburg bank. Although he now at last has time to devote to his family it is too late to see his son Jules, who was born and died during the siege. A year later the marshal will take centre stage for one final act in his tragic relationship with the man he has devoted his life to.