Chestnut Lodge Wargames Group

Numbers, Perceptions and War… The Importance of How Units *Think* They Are Doing vs Reality


Or “Wow, That Was Close Fred….Fred?….”

I have been doing quite a lot of intense reading on the ACW over the last few years, and it has increasingly struck me that many accounts of combat describe units either “…trading destructive volleys for an hour or two…” (inflicting significant casualties), or suddenly breaking in surprise at the first reverse (and then just as often recovering). This is *irrespective* of their green/veteran status?!

Well, FWIW I now believe that the common thread in these peculiar results is (partly) down to the unit’s *perception* of how things are going, or what the last exchange of fire did, rather than (directly) equating to the actual damage sustained. This is not achieved, for me, by the usual ‘morale throw’.

In game, terms, my prototype ACW brigade-level toy soldier rules for multi-corps actions now use the combat results (bucket of d6s but with a judicial reading of runes based on number distribution as well as high/low scores). I am using the most common score rolled (or ‘mode’) to set this ‘perception level’ as the bar for the subsequent morale test (by-the-by, the combat roll also includes key ‘special events’ like a commander being hit, ammo depletion etc etc). The unit experience is of course still a major factor in how it then responds, plus casualties etc, but this ‘perception level’ gives the kind of unpredictability which I’m after, and is achieved via the same roll, just read in different orientations…

I have started to use this mechanism – on paper of course, where my gaming exists now – in some skirmish games as well, and am even thinking of using it in a ‘general officer simulator’ style of game which seeks to reflect how the cmdr *thinks* things are going, even to the extent of ‘forgetting’ about certain units, leaving some without orders, not speaking to that guy who insulted my wife 8yrs ago (even if he does command the entire Right Wing)etc; all the usual. And anyone thinking this is fanciful stuff needs to read about Jeb Stuart and the Gettysburg campaign. He ‘sidelined’ two of his best but closest rival subordinates to border/support roles as he thought this would be The Last Campaign and stood a good chance of being the closing chapter in the history books. So he took at least two ‘also rans’ in their places with the inevitable results…….

It would also not be too difficult to see the impact of such a dimension on ‘public reaction’ back home, assuming of course you are in a period when that mattered (and depending on how wide ‘the public’ was, I suppose). To illustrate this, I would argue that the TET Offensive in VietNam 1968 was most successful in finally swinging the bulk of US home opinion away from support for the war – certainly it was a total f***-up for the North Vietnamese on the ground as they lost virtually 100% of their deep-cover agents, vast numbers of mainforce and local guerrillas, and substantial numbers of regulars + equipment.

Anyways, the modelling on paper has (almost) been fun; hope the idea has some merit for other developers, plus apologies if it is “…just that system we’ve done before…” in another guise.

  1. Hi Pete, I had the same discussions with myself when designing my Op Crusader megagame. I discovered that in the opening tank clashes the Brits thought they had inflicted heavy losses and suffered almost none. The impression was 180 degrees wrong – they even had a totally wrong impression of their own losses. Most of the DAK losses in Crusader came from the stand of 5 SA Inf Bde but as it was totally destroyed (apart from the usual survivors who didn’t know anything) no-one knew what had happened. I decided that if the LUs reported such real-life impressions to the teams then there would be a player mutiny so I rejected the idea. It is a difficult problem in any era.
    Re ACW did you see the TV programme about the Hornets Nest at Shiloh which it is thought couldn’t have happened as the terrain did not allow it. It seems it may have been constructed by survivors of green units post war, reporting their first impressions of battle. Doubtless there is even more scholarship now.


    • Brian Cameron

      Interesting thoughts Peter. I’ve been looking at the Indian Mutiny, the War of 1812 (in Canada) and the American War of Indpendence this year. It’s interesting how often one comes across comments about ‘devastating volleys’ and ‘heavy fire’ but then you look at the reported casualties and realise that 7 dead and 13 wounded out of 300 men doesn’t seem to correspond with the description. Clearly there’s often a significant difference between the perception and the reality with the perception being much more important. There are interesting comments from the AWI of how it was better to be advancing: not only did troops still feel that progress was being made but they were leaving the dead and wounded behind and no longer standing among them.

      I’d also suggest that leadership at the officer level is crucial; often a unit is slowed/disrupted by the loss of a senior officer, or most of the officers. There seems to be little of the typical wargame response of a unit retreating, more a loss of forward impetus from a lack of orders. And interesting, one case of a unit surging forward to revenge their fallen colonel.

      I think there’s a lot of potential for eg civil wars, where there’s little in the way of a regular establishment, to have all the units of a single ‘quality’. Those units who do well build confidence in themselves and become beter quality. The real variable seems to be the leadership ability of the officers and generals. For the latter I’m wondering about a system where they have a limited supply of ‘stirring speeches’ with which they can attempt to encourage their men at crucial moments. Should the fight still go against the unit, then the men lose confidence and the officer’s leadership is reduced. And the converse could apply.


  2. Peter Merritt

    One of my favourite ‘game’ memories is a Napoleon in Italy battle by Bernie at National Army Museum… Battle was fought amongst dense vineyards (10ft high). We as French had been trounced on every sector (by Austrians, no less [ said it was early]), so I did the only thing left; I ordered the band to play Marsellaise & ‘General Advance’ (normal signal for winners). The three Austrian cmdrs then *assumed* that, although their bit was a stunning success, the other two – out of sight – must have lost, so better retreat then…. The language when they finally compared notes during the retreat was shocking…… 🙂

  3. Peter Merritt

    Should say that I copied the idea from somewhere in history but can’t remember quite where now…

  4. provisionalwing

    Per (I think David Parrott but embroidered by my memory) Richelieu upbraided his general(s) for losing battles when he had paid for a larger army than their opponents. The general(s) noted he paid for a number of troops, but they never received them all because of dead pays, corruption, SOPs, etc etc So for much of the Pre-Industrial period one might believe it will cost X florins, or take Z weeks, and the distance to Rubovia is Y miles. But the actual turnout will be more in every case. My initial sketch for Henry IX has King Charles using a bigger dice to get his “final” cost than his brother would have. And of course Charles liked to add a more complex plan that others might have.

  5. Peter Merritt

    Andy will will recall all the discussions about Normandy games – one Brit commander (Horrocks?) saying how he preferred ‘trained, green’ units after a while, *because* they didn’t know better and would tackle things which ‘veterans’ – like 51st Highland – would rightly baulk at (“…so, ah, 50% casualties are ok, then?….”).

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