Rocky Reads for #Wargame – Do wargames pursue a lost cause? Thoughts after reading Longstreet at Gettysburg: A Critical Reassessment by Cory M. Pfarr (McFarland & Co. Inc., 2019)

In his book Longstreet at Gettysburg: A Critical Reassessment (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2019) author Cory M. Pfarr doesn’t simply try to retell the story of the Battle of Gettysburg from the perspective of Lieutenant General James Longstreet but instead he addresses Longstreet’s critics. As Pfarr writes in the Prologue:

This book significantly addresses Longstreet critics and historians who wrote about Gettysburg prior to 1965 because those parties largely created the biased and often misinterpreted source material used by many modern historians. In most cases, pre-1965 critic or historian references are juxtaposed against modern historian claims, and often both assertions are found to be tainted with similar Lost Cause falsehoods that have stood the test of time with little or no supporting evidence. In other words, it was deemed not to be prudent, or actually possible, to discuss modern historians’ treatment of Longstreet’s Gettysburg performance without also discussing older critics and historians. With that said, the main focus of this work is certainly on how old, erroneous Lost Cause claims about Longstreet at Gettysburg persist into many modern historians’ accounts.

Longstreet at Gettysburg, “Prologue: Abandoned by History,” p. 15

While Cory Pfarr focuses on the critics and historians who pilloried or otherwise studied Longstreet in Longstreet at Gettysburg, the reader gets a master class in narrative deconstruction. How did Longstreet go from being described by Robert E. Lee himself as “my old war horse” to singularly being blamed for the loss at Gettysburg because he supposedly disobeyed orders? The critics are many and the writing by historians prolific. Pfarr helps us discover that Longstreet was victimized by a groupthink narrative that was repeated and reinforced from one book to another. As Harold M. Knudsen writes in the Forward, “Audiences were trained to believe what writers said was gospel, rather than educated to examine the true records” (p. 1).

Lost Cause Wargaming?

Reading Longstreet at Gettysburg challenged many narratives in my mind that coexist with wargames. Even before reading Pfarr’s book, I never fully bought into the Lost Cause claims that General Robert E. Lee was an infallible man. Nor did I buy the narrative that Gettysburg was the singularly most important battle of the American Civil War and the high-water mark of the Confederacy. But somewhere deep in my mind those narratives had been heard, and maybe even reinforced through playing wargames. After all, who doesn’t want to play a Gettysburg wargame and upend history with a win as the Confederates?

Most importantly, wargames are opportunities for players to interact with history. I can read a history book on the Battle of Gettysburg and (maybe) passively learn something. If we were to describe reading books in terms of John Boyd’s famous OODA Loop, books allow us to Observe and Orient only. However, it is a far different learning experience to actively command the forces on the field of battle that day (even if they are only tiny cardboard chits), make decisions, and experience the outcome. In effect, the learning process from playing a wargame makes us go through all portions of the OODA Loop—Observe-Orient-Decide-Act. But for the outcomes of wargames to be fully understood you must understand the underpinnings—and especially any biases— of the game design and narrative. All of which means you need to evaluate the game.

The underlying message in Longstreet at Gettysburg is that one should not blindly accept the “historical record.” This caution applies equally to a book or a wargame. Wargame designers may consciously (or even unconsciously) use game mechanisms or a narrative that perpetuates myths rather than critically analyzing them and evaluating if they are truly appropriate for that wargame.

Mythbusting Narratives

Take for example a piece I wrote earlier this year in “History to #Wargame – My Kursk Kampaign – Part 3 Tactical Choices.” While reading books by David Glantz and Lawrence Christopher on the Battle of Kursk, I played Frank Chadwick’s Blood & Thunder: Tactical Combat on the Eastern Front (GDW, 1993) and encountered a particular scenario:

According to the scenario set-up information, this engagement portrays an attack by advance elements of the Liebstandarte SS Adolph Hitler Division against the defending Soviet 170th and 181st Tank Brigades of the 18th Tank Corps starting around 1000 hours. The scenario points out this important part of the battle, “The intensity of the fighting is summed up in a single incident: one of the KVs of the Soviet 395th Tank Battalion, damaged and burning, rammed a Tiger tank at full speed, destroying both vehicles in the resulting explosion.”

Problem is I can’t find this event in either the Glantz or Lawrence book.

Glantz doesn’t go down to the battalion level, but reports that the 170th Tank Brigade on July 12, “lost its commander and as many as thirty of its sixty tanks” (p. 189). The types of tanks lost are not specified, nor is the loss of a KV-1 against a Tiger called out. Lawrence recounts the battles of the 170th Tank Brigade on pages 314-319 and notes that by noon (Moscow time) it, “had lost 60% of its tanks, its brigade commander had burned to death in his tank, and one battalion commander was mortally wounded” (p. 316). Lawrence notes the 170th Tank Brigade consisted of T-34 and T-70 tanks; no KV-1s were assigned to it. It was not until later in the day that battles against Tiger tanks were fought, and then it was elements of the 181st Tank Brigade against Tigers likely from the Totenkopf SS Panzer Regiment. Lawrence does point to data that the Adolph Hitler SS Division was down one (1) Panzer VI (Tiger) by July 13 (p. 341), but also shows that the only KV-1s on the battlefield, a single track in the XXIX Tank Corps and another single track in the 1529th Heavy SP Artillery Regiment, both were operational at the end of July 12 (p. 342).

History to #Wargame – My Kursk Kampaign – Part 3 Tactical Choices”

This example touches on just one of many myths in wargaming. The problem is we, as wargamers, don’t always know the assumptions or biases of a designer or what myths the game may be built on—or even perpetuating. I mean, do you know of any World War II tactical armored combat game that doesn’t make the German Tiger tank neigh-invincible? Those wargames perpetuate a myth, much like games will award “elite” unit status to the (always) white-on-black Waffen SS units. Sometimes the status is earned, but just as often (arguably more often) it is simply not true.

Critical Reassessment

Surprisingly, Longstreet at Gettysburg is the first book to take on Longstreet’s critics in any sort of comprehensive manner. Through Pfarr’s analysis of Longstreet, I see a different view of Gettysburg. In turn, I then ask myself if there is any good single wargame title that “gets it right.” This is not to say that a game that is “wrong” is not worth playing; I’m just saying that before one makes any judgements on history they should be aware of the biases of the history, game mechanisms, and maybe even the designer.

Maybe the wargame community needs to look at ourselves again and ensure that our games are not perpetuating myths or misrepresenting history and if they are, understand why and make sure that is the right decision.

#RockyReads for #Wargame – The Battle of Kursk by David M. Glantz and Jonathan M. House (University of Kansas Press, 1999)

BLUF

The Battle of Kursk by David Glantz and Jonathan House presents an opposing view of Kursk as compared to classic German perspectives thanks to the availability of Russian archive sources. It is maybe best viewed as “the other side of the story” to oppose classical German accounts like F.W. von Mellenthin’s Panzer Battles (Ballantine Books, 1971).

…and Now, the Rest of the Story

When I was growing up my neighbor was a representative of Ballantine Books. Knowing I was a huge military history fan he would throw boxes (and I mean boxes) of paperback books over the fence to me. Some copies were advance reader editions, some were first prints, and more than a few had the front covers torn off. It didn’t matter to me as I read them all. As I was also a budding wargamer with my first game, Panzer by Jim Day from Yaquinto Publishing (1979) I really paid attention to the World War II books. One particular title I remember is Panzer Battles by F.W. von Mellenthin. Indeed, books like Panzer Battles written by German officers after the end of the war shaped much of the “view” of the Eastern Front not just for me but for many readers and historians throughout the Cold War. However, once the Wall fell, some western historians like David Glantz gained access to Russian archives to discover what they had to say. The result was a “new” view of the Ostkreig (East War) and significant engagements like the Battle of Kursk.

In The Battle of Kursk, Glantz and House take aim at the “mythology” of the namesake battle:

German generals who participated in the violent struggle wrote memoirs that concentrated primarily on assessing political and military blame for the unprecedented German defeat, whereas Soviet general placed the battle within the context of the inexorable Soviet march to victory. Single volumes, too, have tackled the task of describing the immense battle….

Yet the sheer drama of the battle juxtaposed against the limited quantities of exploited Soviet source materials has given rise to a certain mythology that has surrounded the battle. This mythology has accepted the German framework and defintion of the battle and maintains that it took place from 5 to 23 July 1943. In doing so, it ignores the essential Soviet framework for Kursk, which placed the defensive battle in the Kursk salient within the proper context of the Soviets’ two-month-long Kursk Strategic Offensive Operation.

The Battle of Kursk, Preface p. xi

Reading The Battle of Kursk

The Battle of Kursk turned out to be a bit more difficult to read than I expected. First, it took me some time to get used to the methodology Glantz uses to refer to units. Soviet units are referred to by unit designation (5th Tank Corps in text, 5 TC on maps) whereas German units are often referred to using Roman numerals (XXXXVIIIth Panzer Corps) or by name (Totenkopf). This can get real challenging when looking on the maps when you have 2/2 PzGrenR in 2 SSPzGrenR of the SSAH PzGrenD of II SSPzC under 4 PzA (whew). Add to that the fact the maps have subdued backgrounds making reading locations difficult – at best.

Second, though presented as a single volume overview of the Battle of Kursk, the book The Battle of Kursk devolves into a very in-depth play-by-play description of the engagements at or around Prokhorovka on 12 July. That is, in-depth at least from the Soviet point of view as German viewpoints are less used to describe the action.

If I have one criticism of The Battle of Kursk it is the poor maps. Yes, there are maps int he book but they are gray-scale and difficult to read. When the narrative of the battle gets the most involved the maps seem to be the least helpful. Personally, a good map can be a work of art and a useful map is worth many words. Alas, the maps force one to depend on the narrative alone vice both working to help each other.

At the end of the day, The Battle of Kursk is a very emotional book. Emotional in that it tries so hard to show the Soviet perspective that it becomes maybe a bit too one-sided; that is, Glantz tries so hard to show that the Soviets have a viewpoint that the vast majority of the book becomes that viewpoint and the German side drops off (is ignored?) in places. In The Battle of Kursk, Glantz certainly destroys the German mythology of the battle, but I am unconvinced that in doing so he doesn’t accidentally creates a counter-myth.

Wargame Application

Strategic

The first few and later chapters of The Battle of Kursk present the strategic situation. As such, they are very useful for studying the battle using games like Trevor Bender’s The Battle for Kursk: The Tigers are Burning, 1943 (RBM Studios, 2020). Indeed, I had my Battle for Kursk map out while reading The Battle of Kursk to help me better visualize the strategic situation.

Operational

I don’t have any real operational-scale wargames on the Battle of Kursk so I couldn’t game out any using the book. [I have now preordered The Eastern Front Operational Battles Quad from Compass Games so that problem is solved!] That said, The Battle of Kursk piqued my interest in the logistics of tank repair and replacement on the Eastern Front. Not all tanks destroyed in battle stay destroyed, and not all tanks were lost to battle damage. This is a point that often gets lost in lower-level tactical games.

Tactical

I have several tactical wargames on that can depict battles in and around Kursk. What I found most interesting about the battle while reading The Battle of Kursk is that, regardless of the game system used, the impact of terrain and weather is far greater than most games give credit to. Indeed, while titles like Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel 3rd Edition (Academy Games, 2018) and Panzer by Jim Day (GMT Games, 2012+) are good tactical armored games, they might actually be too small-scale for this battle. I actually found another title in my collection, Blood & Thunder: Tactical Combat on the Eastern Front by Frank Chadwick from GDW (1993) a slightly better fit as it uses 250m hexes and platoon-level units vice 100m/hex and individual tanks and squads.

Citation

Glantz, David M. & Jonathan M. House, The Battle of Kursk, Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1999.