War and simulation

Antoine Bousquet has an interesting post on War and simulation over at The Disorder of Things, based on a conference “Simulation, Exercise, Operations” at Oxford last summer. Antoine’s narrative locates the origins of military simulation in the Prussian Kriegspiel of the early nineteenth century but then argues that ‘it really comes of age with the Second World War, the early calculating machines that would become the all-purpose computer,  and the efforts to rationalise the conduct of military operations, notably in the areas of aerial bombing, military convoys, radar arrays, and so on – and which quite demonstrably yielded improved performances of those systems.’

von HILGERS War GamesThis is interesting stuff, and Patrick Crogan‘s Gameplay mode: war, simulation and technoculture (Minnesota, 2011) helps bring the story up to date; if you want to start it earlier, then Philipp von HilgersWar games: a history of war on paper (MIT, 2012; the original German title was Kriegsspiele) is the (brilliant) place to start.  But since I’m still floundering around in the trenches of the First World War, I want to draw attention to the gap in Antoine’s narrative (which reappears in von Hilgers too).

During the First World War the metricisation of the battlefield – the (in)calculability of the space of war – that I spoke about earlier also allowed for simulations of imminent operations (and there are dimensions of that metricisation, including sound ranging, that speak directly to the early attempts at what would later be called operations research too: Roy MacLeod writes of a ‘batttlefield laboratory’ on the Western Front).

So, for example, in Over the top, published in 1917, Arthur Empey describes how

‘Three weeks before the Big Push of July 1st [1916] — as the Battle of the Somme has been called — started, exact duplicates of the German trenches were dug about thirty kilo[metre]s behind our lines. The layout of the trenches were taken from aeroplane photographs submitted by the Royal Flying Corps. The trenches were correct to the foot; they showed dugouts, saps, barbed wire defences, and danger spots. Battalions that were to go over in the first waves were sent back for three days to study these trenches, engage in practice attacks, and have night maneuvers. Each man was required to make a map of the trenches and familiarise himself with the names and location of the parts his battalion was to attack…

‘These imitation trenches, or trench models, were well guarded from observation by numerous allied planes which constantly circled above them. No German aeroplane could approach within observing distance. A restricted area was maintained and no civilian was allowed within three miles, so we felt sure that we had a great surprise in store for Fritz.’

Note here the cascade from aerial photographs and maps to physical models and back to maps again – and remember, as Dick Chorley and Peter Haggett taught some us an age ago in Models in Geography, these are all models…

In Empey’s case, there was a sting in the tail:

 ‘When we took over the front line we received an awful shock. The Germans displayed signboards over the top of their trench showing the names that we had called their trenches. The signs read “Fair,” “Fact,” “Fate,” and “Fancy” and so on, according to the code names on our map. Then to rub it in, they hoisted some more signs which read, “When are you coming over?” or “Come on, we are ready, stupid English.”

Trench model

This isn’t quite what Antoine has in mind, I realise, but what today would be called ‘mission rehearsal exercises’ are surely simulations.  And in many cases, on the Western Front at least, they took the form of elaborate clay models (see above).  In Undertones of war (1928), Edmund Blunden described – with a rather different sting in the tail – how

‘… an enormous model of the German systems now considered due to Britain was open for inspection, whether from the ground or from step-ladders raised beside, and this was popular, though whether from its charm as a model or value as a military aid is uncertain.’

Here’s A.M. Burrage in War is War:

‘Our brilliant Staff has got every move in the game worked out twenty-four hours ahead. Our jumping-off place is already assigned to us, and we are to advance about five hundred yards, crossing a stream called the Paddebeeke. We are shown a clay model of the landscape, including the roads which are no longer there. We practise the method of attack every morning…’