Long ago, when the mighty Brontosaurus still roamed the earth, I went to an infants school in a small satellite town in south west London. There, at lunchtimes, we used to play a game of war. This thrilling game began with two kids linking arms and skipping through the playground, chanting, ‘Who wants a game of war? War! Who wants a game of war? War! Who wants a game’- and so on, and so on. Kids would link arms with a boy (more rarely a girl) on either end, until finally a long, tenticular line waved its way across the playground. And that was it. Nobody actually ever played war. The tenticular arm would swing around until everyone got bored and went off to play football. We weren’t a very bellicose bunch, to be honest. So much for the imaginations of children.
Why am I mentioning this? Well, a better planned Game of War is in the news this week. It’s not the same game, of course. This war game dates back to 1890, when British school playgrounds really were school playgrounds, and a game of war probably meant boys setting up a maxim gun near the girl’s toilets.
‘The Game of War’ was a military strategy game, based on an original German model known as ‘Kriegspiel’. It was invented as a form of training for late Victorian army officers, and a version of it from around 1890 was on sale at Bonhams Auction House on Monday. As you can see, it’s quite a box, containing incredibly detailed maps and slate playing pieces for either army– and costing between £1500 and £2000 it’s a touch more expensive than a box of Monopoly. Using it, British officers perfected their military strategems and tactics in advance of war.
Or so they thought. In the event of war, the game was rather less useful than intended. As is well known, the First World War– on the Western Front, at least– was for the greatest part of four years a long seige of trenches, utilising machine gun emplacements, gas attacks, tanks and massive artillery shelling on a scale never before seen. The much-expected “war of movement”– that is, the rapid offensive or defensive movement across territory by cavalry or infantry, as at the Battle of Gheluvelt— was only seen at the very beginning and end of war. The Game of War only had six machine gun units for its entire gameplay. The officers who played the game were preparing for a war that would never take place.
At the end of the ninteenth century, military planners were looking backwards. They saw the comprehensive Prussian victory against France in 1870, where German troops finally occupied Paris, and imagined that the future promised the same. This retrospective attitude to war is reflected in some of the poetry at the beginning of the First World War: ‘The Volunteer’ by Herbert Asquith, for example, imagines a City clerk fantasizing about the picture book victories of Roman legionaries and medieval knights. Bored, he daydreams:
Thinking that so his days would drift away
With no lance broken in life’s tournament:
Yet ever ’twixt the books and his bright eyes
The gleaming eagles of the legions came,
And horsemen, charging under phantom skies,
Went thundering past beneath the oriflamme.
Asquith’s clerk, of course, decides to volunteer and is killed– lying “content”, as the poet proclaims, “with that last high hour, in which he lived and died”. Asquith wants the lesson to be that no matter how contemptible your job– and there is a patronising stink to his picture of the suburban commuter class– you too can live the glittering dream of knightly chivalry and imperial conquest. The remarkable complacency of the kind of culture that produced Herbert Asquith– and it’s too, too relaxed attitude to death– finds a mirror in the strategic unreadiness of the armies of the First World War. It is unfair to use 20/20 hindsight to criticise those who could not see what the future was to bring, but it is hard not to judge harshly the backwards-looking, even nostalgic perspective of certain members of the officer class before the First World War.
Was anyone looking ahead, anticipating the dread forms that modern technological warfare would bring? Well, in literature, certainly. Way back in 1879 Jules Verne wrote a today neglected (because pretty dire) novel called The Begum’s Fortune in which the inhabitants of a German city, Stahlstadt, build a new weapon to fire at a Utopian French City, Frankville. It is a form of artillery shell containing carbon dioxide that, when fired in a spread, will suffocate and freeze all beneath the barrage. Verne had been paying attention to the successful use of German artillery during the Franco-Prussian war; but his anticipation of the use of gas in the Great War was cannily accurate.
The second writer to grasp the shape of things to come was Verne’s contemporary and close competitor for the title, ‘Father of Science Fiction’: H.G. Wells. Wells, in a visionary 1903 short story called The Land Ironclads, imagined an armoured vehicle that would later come to be called the tank. His great imaginative leap was to wonder if heavily plated battleships (‘Ironclads’) could be imagined fighting, somehow, on land: only the battle of Cambrai in 1917 would bring his fantasy into reality.
And it is Wells, with his playful and aggressive imagination, that brings us back to the Game of War. For it was Wells who was the first man to bring the world of Kriegspiel into the living room, with his 1913 game book, ‘Little Wars’. Wells famously loved games– visits to his house in Sandgate inevitably meant playing them, whether the visitors were adults or children. There’s a line to be drawn from Kriegspiel to the Game of War to ‘Little Wars’, all the way to today’s computer games, like ‘Call of Duty’. War games are some of the oldest games there are: and I suppose, on some deep level, there might be something frightening about having them in our living rooms. Yet war games are about playing imaginatively with the highest stakes possible, but without the terrible consequences that actual war brings. It is The Game of War as an officer training tool, however, that shows the tricky middle ground between imaginative play and war: where a lack of imagination has profound consequences in not little, but Great Wars.