Thursday, 2 August 2012

Story Telling

Narrative gaming is a term that gets bandied about a lot these days.

The term is divisive,  but then narratives generally are.

The narrative that has interested me is the story surrounding Barbarossa, particularly the events surrounding the battles of Kiev and the retreat from Moscow. These events are in a sense intertwined, and the accepted wisdom is that the delay caused by diverting the armour of Army Group Centre to support the battles around Kiev, eventually led to the defeat at the gates of Moscow.

The problem with this narrative is that it makes the assumption that a) the outcome of the battles around Kiev would have gone as wildly in the German's favour as they did with the extra support from Army Group Centre, and b) that they are drawing on an older narrative, namely Napoleon's campaign of 1812.

What is completely overlooked is that the campaign of 1812 was largely unopposed, this was not the case in 1941 - indeed the massive haul of prisoners resulting from the Kiev encirclement was because the Soviets refused to follow the historical example and continued to press the advancing Germans. Though there is an historical parallel that is overlooked. Namely the massed use of cavalry, which in both cases led to a massive problems of supply, which in turn led to problems covering the retreat when the rigors of winter set in.

Something that should also be considered is that all of this needs to be considered in the light of the debates of the 1920's and 30's regarding the use of tanks. The German invasion of the Soviet Union, while on the face of it a success for the proponents of mechanised warfare, highlighted it's deficiencies just as clearly.

What got me thinking about this issue was the narrative of the battle of Moscow.

This is often told from a purely technical standpoint. Zhukov held the T34s in reserve, they had wider tracks that allowed them to operate in the conditions, and supported by the fresh Siberian divisions the superior armour and guns drove back the Germans.

The problem I have with this narrative that it is a figleaf, to mask the problems of supply that the largely infantry based German army had. The German army in the following year was able to overcome the technical issues of the T34, and indeed it is impossible to believe that they had not faced the tank earlier int he campaign. Yet for some reason the tank proved beyond their capabilities in the battle for Moscow.

Of course the issue is something that appeals to wargamers. As a wargame is generally set in a geographically insignificant area of land (perhaps at most representing 10 square miles), and it is only natural for the gamer to pick up on narratives that reinforce their selection of the 'best' units.

But it becomes particularly problematic when gamers pic up on these narratives, filter them through the abstraction of a wargame, and then try to use the muscle memory of their gaming experience to argue historical points.

Of particular interest to me is this newsreel from 1942 about the Russian offensive against Kharkov prior to the German summer offensive that would lead to Stalingrad. 
What interests me is the emphasis placed in the commentary on Germany's allies. Which is theme that comes up again and again when reading histories of the period, but is something that for whatever reason is seemingly ignored.

If you consider the political situation in the Balkans and Southern Europe, the decision to send the armour of Army Group Centre to support the Kiev operation takes on a different significance.

But then there is also a narrative that has it that the Western Allies could not have won without the Russians, which is perhaps true in terms of man power, but that man power would not have done much without the boots, copper, rolling stock, tanks, planes, oil, chemicals, etc supplied by the Western Allies. Nor indeed would the Russians have lasted long had it not been for the British and Commonwealth troops fighting in North Africa to protect the Persian Gulf and keeping the diplomatic pressure on the Turks not to throw their weight against their traditional enemy in the Caucasus.


No comments:

Post a Comment