Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Another New Year is Coming

Tattered and bleeding the old year limps towards its inevitable doom.  As the last few gasping breaths rattle from the old year's throat and I start feeling about in my pockets for change for the ferryman the new year is getting ready.  It's trainers are rubbing down their charging, lacing up its gloves and whispering last minute words of advice and encouragement into its ear.
"You've got this kid," they rasp.  "You're young, you're hungry, you've got the skills.  When you're done no one will even remember 2014."

It's got to be admitted that 2014 was a rather forgettable year.  That is it was a year full of things we'd rather forget.  Airliners showed a remarkable inability to stay in the sky, Russia showed a remarkable inability to stay within its borders and the United States and its allies showed a remarkable inability to realise that you don't win wars with airpower alone.  On the positive side of things I wasn't personally involved in any of the above so I suppose from my perspective things could have been worse.

We celebrate the new year as a time of renewal.  At least I assume that's why we do it.  I can't think of any other reason to pick a particular date and say, "right, this is the reset button.  Now we start again.  We can put all of our worries behind us."  To my way of thinking putting your worries behind you simply means that you can't keep an eye on them any more which isn't likely to be particularly helpful in the long run.

The other thing that I don't quite understand is the idea of the new year as a form of renewal.  Granted, it is simply an arbitrary point that we can measure our calendar from but the whole point of measuring time is to help us work out how much of it we have left.  Essentially a new year is an age marker.  With each new year we are unconsciously acknowledging that everything; you, me, western civilisation and the universe in general is officially a little closer to death.  Each new year brings us closer the point when we won't have any left at all.  And for some reason this prompts us to set off fireworks.  Some might say it is a magnificent denial of mortality but I think it's more likely to be that people do not think particularly clearly.

But for all that there is no point raging against the dying of the light.  The light will die anyway and ultimately there will be no one left to care.  So why not have a party?  It isn't as though you're going to be able to do it after you're dead.  We could wait for a genuine reason to have a party rather than simply labelling a date as significant for no particular reason but if we wait for a genuine reason that might never come either.  So on balance I think I'm in favour of new years celebrations.  There are fireworks and people running around and generally having a good time.  Either that or its an airstrike.  With the exception of the good time part it would be a little difficult to tell the difference.

So, on that basis I wish everybody a happy new year.  Now, I'm going to bed.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Birthday Greetings #46

Happy birthday to Titus, Roman Emperor.  Titus was the elder son of the emperor Vespasian who emerged on top of the somewhat chaotic series of insurrections and revolts that became known as the Year of the Four Emperors.  Vespasian was the last of the four and the only one with shelf life.  It has been suggested that one of the reasons Vespasian was popular enough not to get killed was that he had a couple of adult sons who could take over after he was gone thus providing a certain level of stability to regime change in the empire.

There is a suggestion that Titus toyed with the idea of bringing on that regime change a little earlier than his father might have expected but in the end he was (or appeared to be) his father's loyal deputy.  Titus had been close to the centres of power for a while.  Titus was actually dining with Britannicus, the son of the emperor Claudius, when he (Britannicus) was poisoned.  Despite this brush with political reality he followed in his fathers footsteps with a civil and military career (the Romans didn't really distinguish between the two) and also practiced as a lawyer for a while. 

Vespasian was in Judea dealing with the Jewish revolt when Nero committed suicide and would be emperors started crawling out of the woodwork.  When Vespasian put his name forward for the top job Titus did a lot of the diplomatic work to persuade neighbouring governors to support him and when Vespasian travelled to Rome he left the Jewish revoltto be dealt with by Titus.

Titus crushed the Jewish revolt with spectacular brutality culminating in the destruction of the Jewish temple of Jerusalem and the hideous death of thousands of Jews (although to be fair the Jews also caused the hideous death of thousands of Jews in various fits of internal bickering).  After which Titus returned to Rome to join his father in a triumph pausing only to pick up a beautiful Jewish princess named Berenice along the way.  This caused him some difficulty as the last beautiful member of middle eastern royalty that the Romans had experience of was Cleopatra and they were definitely not going to go down that path again.  Eventually Titus had to get rid of her.

In Rome Vespasian placed the security of the city (and command of the Praetorian Guard) in Titus's hands.  Titus proved to be a ruthless commander not overly concerned with legal niceties before torturing or beating people to death.  He served essentially as Vespasian's hatchet man taking care of the dirty, messy parts of imperial rule while Vespasian managed to look magisterially above such things.

His role as imperial enforcer, combined with his dalliance with Berenice and his association with the least pleasant parts of his father's reign (taxes, policing, internal security) meant that when Vespasian died he was possibly one of the least popular people to rise to an imperial throne.  The senate was also annoyed as he'd killed a couple of them and nobody asked them if they minded if he took the job.

Once in charge he underwent what appears to be a complete personality transplant.  Most emperors started out popular and wound up hated.  Titus did it the other way round.  What's more he managed to do it in two short years and despite the fact that his reign was marked by disasters.

Vesuvius erupted during his reign burying Pompeii and Herculaneum (nobody ever seems to remember Herculaneum), a massive fire broke out in Rome and the region was also hit with a bout of plague.  Titus laboured tirelessly to bring aid to those affected by the disasters (although one suspects that after the first shock he didn't have to do much for the people of Pompeii or Herculaneum) and set standards for mild yet efficient rule.  He abolished treason trials, cut down on the number of informers and when a possible conspiracy was uncovered he took the unusual step of completely ignoring it.  In addition to this he completed the Flavian amphitheatre started by his father (we call it the Colosseum) which provided an immeasurable boost to modern Italy's tourism and post card industries.

By the time the new amphitheatre had been officially opened with a series of games it was obvious that Titus was ill.  He died at the family home after a little over two years as emperor.  Illness was the official excuse although there was a dark rumour that his younger brother Domitian poisoned him.  This could be just projecting Domitian's subsequent behaviour back in time to account for the death of a beloved emperor at the age of just forty one.  And despite his earlier reputation and behaviour Titus was loved and seems to have earned it by his behaviour as emperor.  Although I'm prepared to bet that no one was taking opinion polls in Judea.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Dear God, Not Another Silly After Action Report

In June 1941 Nazi Germany dropped in on the Soviet Union for a surprise visit.  Being polite the Germans brought everything they thought they'd need; tanks, guns, stukas so that the Soviets wouldn't have to go to any trouble.  Despite these efforts the results were pretty much what you would expect when one murderous totalitarian regime visits another.  A couple of ill chosen comments about the parlour decorations and it was on.

A month later and the town of Shklov was front and centre for the onrushing Nazi juggernaut.  However Shklov proved to be a tough nut to crack.  It was defended by Red Army officer cadets colloquially known as "Stalin's Scholars" (because "future purge victims" doesn't roll off the tongue as easily in Russian).  After a couple of failed attempts the Germans told their regular infantry to take five and dialled in some crack troops from the Grossdeutschland regiment.  This is ASL Scenario T4; Shklovs Labors Lost which also gives you an impression of exactly what counts as a sense of humour amongst ASL players.

This was my first online game playing VASL and I've got to admit I'm a fan.  My opponent, Ivan Kent, took the defending Russians while I took command of the Grossdeutschland attackers.  My assault force consisted of a pair of early model StuG self propelled guns, nine elite squads of infantry, a pair of medium machine guns, four light machine guns and three highly skilled officers including a mighty 10-3.  To hold me off Ivan had seven elite squads of his own, a first line half squad for some reason, a heavy machine gun, medium machine gun, light machine gun and an antitank rifle.  Leadership was provided by a well indoctrinated 10-0 commissar and, to take the blame if it all went wrong, his own 10-3 officer.  That's a 10-3 leader each, surely such formidable figures would take a prominent part in the action (answer; "No!")

Our troops set up virtually on top of each other.  I had to capture five stone buildings, Ivan would win if he could keep a single one of them.  Ivan set his troops up with delaying forces in the forward buildings and flanks while keeping a reserve of squads plus both leaders and the hmg in what he obviously intended to be his last stand location.  My plan, such as it was, was to deal with the defence in bites.  Flanking units would try and sidle to the sides (ugly alliteration I know) while my main firepower hit his forward defences.  The StuGs would try and help things along by plastering likely locations with smoke.  Below is the map of our set up.

As  you can see I have a huge death stack (two squads, both mmgs, 10-3) preparing to punish whatever it can see (not much) while other forces lurk nearby to rush building N5 when its safe to do so.  Smaller forces of a couple of squads each with a few lmgs are assigned to the flanks.  The StuG to the north is positioned to make smoke immediately while the southern one is detailed to roll nervously forward to position itself to smoke out the rear buildings next turn.

The game started with a bang.  Specifically the bang of my northern StuG commander hitting his gunner over the head when the man admits that he's left his smoke rounds in his other tank.  So, no smoke in the north.  The StuG did its best with high explosive but solid stone walls prevented any harm.  Fortunately my kill stack wreaked great execution, smashing his lmg position and clearing the road (as long as I kept away from the mmg).  Making use of smoke grenades my assault forces inched out into the road in one of the most circumspect advances in history.  To the north my flankers edged carefully forward, nosing towards his flank guards.  In the south my guys simply charged forward.  Ivan's defending squad broke their commander and pinned a half squad but a squad survived to plunge into close combat.  Defensive fire in the north broke one of my assault squads but the remainder tiptoed into the building and tried to look like wainscoting.

With his forward defenses threatened Ivan tried to take out some of my guys in his turn without result but my return fire took down the other squad he had in the building.  Meanwhile the close combat in the south raged on.  Ivan had lost a half squad in my first attack but evened it up in his own close combat phase so two halfsquads were now locked in melee.  His mmg pinned one of my halfsquads but then broke which was a relief.

With the forward building in hand I spent a turn moving my erstwhile kill stack forward and rolling my northern StuG round to hit the north of his rear defence building.  For some reason known only to myself my southern StuG attempted to take out the mmg unit with high explosive rather than shrouding it in smoke or firing on the large (and obviously hmg heavy) stack right in front of it.  Ivan in his turn slaughtered my guys in close combat in the south leaving us with a half squad each in the building since my other half squad went off on an ill advised and, as it turned out, abortive flanking move on the mmg unit.  Trying to take out one of my flankers in the north merely exposed his own flank protection unit and I cheerfully smashed it.

Turn 3 started with another bang followed by a sharp crack.  Specifically it was the bang of my smokeless StuG trying another HE shot at defenders in a stone building, this time it worked with a roll of four and his concealment was stripped with ROF promising good things for my second shot.  The sharp crack was a reminder that four was Ivan's sniper number.  A single shot rang out and my 10-3 went down in a heap.  No decent little hole through the head for him, rather it was a dreadful sucking chest wound that left him to drown in his own blood.  The soldiers with him gave inexpressive Teutonic shrugs, muttered the German equivalent of c'est la guerre and moved on.  The southern StuG having regained sanity dropped a smoke shell (yes I got one) on his hmg position while the surviving bits in the southern building advanced once again into close combat with his atr toting halfsquad; who promptly ambushed them, withdrew from melee and positioned themselves perfectly to shoot my southern StuG in the rear with the atr the next turn.

This he achieved with a critical hit which had shreds of armour plate (and armour crew) flying in all directions.  He then moved the halfsquad under the wreck presumably in an attempt to reinforce his beleaguered comrades.  This was unwise as outside the protection of stone walls I finally managed to kill him.  Ivan repaired his mmg but spoiled the effect by breaking it again almost immediately.  Meanwhile I had taken advantage of my northern StuG's battering of his position to ease some squads into his rear building.  Suddenly Ivan was reduced to three units, a squad and commissar (hiding under a concealment counter), the 10-3 with a squad and hmg plus a squad manning a now broken mmg to the south.  The hmg squad seemed to be a little out of position so I focused on killing the commissar squad through the simple expedient of pouring so many bodies into close combat that it couldn't help but die although it didn't do it immediately causing me more than a little sweat.  Meanwhile other forces headed south towards the hmg squad, who promptly broke one of them to remind me that I should really check lines of sight before moving in front of an hmg squad commanded by a 10-3 leader.

Still, I could see the writing on the wall.  Taking a deep breath I plunged into the smoke.  With stone walls and the smoke I figured I stood at least a chance of surviving even pointblank shots and I would be well positioned to advance into close combat if I survived.  Ivan gave me a 20+2 shot as I came in, I survived.  The melee was still raging to the north but I had the endgame in sight now.  I poured pointblank fire into his hmg hex, breaking and wounding his leader and breaking the squad.  Sending my surviving StuG south to the mmg position I sleazed him in place and poured troops south.  Finally killing his forces in the north I got 2-1 odds against his mmg position in the south and wiped them out as well.  Which left Ivan with nothing but his broken, wounded 10-3 leader.  The 10-0 commissar had died in close combat like a man, entrenching tool in hand and a prayer to Stalin on his lips.  The army officer finished the game curled up weeping in a pool of his own urine begging not to be killed.  Obviously the Red Army needs a little more political instruction.

So victory to me and much thanks to Ivan for his guidance over the vagaries of VASL and his good natured patience as I misdirected stacks, dropped support weapons and continually forgot that he couldn't actually see the unit I was pointing at with my finger.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Tumbleweeds, Lost Souls and a New Wall Unit

I am the proud owner of a new set of bookshelves.  Indeed, its actually an entire wall unit which I have acquired courtesy of the generosity of my family and the skill of my father who built it.  For the first time in living memory I have more bookshelf space than I have books.  I also have pretty solid evidence that I am never moving for the rest of my life as you would have to demolish my apartment to get the furniture out.

Yet as I gaze fondly at my new wall unit I find myself a trifle vexed.  Don't misunderstand me, I am delighted with my wall unit.  Words can't express how pleased I am with it. PLEASED PLEASED PLEASED!!!  But still I am vexed.   As I look around at the bookshelves which dot my apartment I see yawing gaps where books should be.  This offends my sense of order.  It will come as a great surprise to many (quite possibly to every) that I possess a sense of order.  Permit me to clarify; I have a highly specific sense of order.

Within the ocean of chaos that is my apartment small pockets of near maniacal order float like icebergs to doom the unwary.  The unsuspecting guest, having dropped their coat on the dining table and settled down on the floor with a coffee cup of red wine is rather stunned to be ordered to replace the book they have been browsing in exactly the place they got it from rather than the shelf below.  This is despite the fact that they had to move a battered teddy bear and a half melted candle in order to access the book in the first place.

The gaps in my bookcases vex me and there are only so many stuffed animals and melted candles I can use to cover them up.  Like missing teeth in a cheery smile they haunt me and remind me that something isn't right.  I must buy more books.  These dark patches must be filled and my apartment returned to a more pleasing equilibrium.  It will be difficult, has taken out a restraining order against me and, oh yes, I can't afford it.  Nevertheless it must be done.  Until I have filled up the space and restored balance to my universe I will not rest easy in my bed.  My eye will be forever drawn to those parts of the bookshelves that are unaccountably bare of books, I imagine small tumbleweeds blowing across the shelves (actually, that part is true.  Dusting is not part of my sense of order).  Like an abandoned city I can't help thinking of lost souls haunting the newly desolate shelves.

Worst of all I will feel obliged to apologise to every visitor who enters for the appearance of my bookshelves despite the fact that they are more likely to be disturbed by the sucking noise they hear when they try and walk on my carpet.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Birthday Greetings #45

Happy birthday to Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor.  Francis wasn't a Habsburg but he was Habsburg adjacent having married the daughter of the Habsburg emperor Charles VI.  Charles was a deeply mediocre emperor in many ways and perhaps his greatest error was his failure to produce sons.  In those male centric times the absence of an heir with a penis essentially ended your dynasty.  Fortunately for Charles his daughter Maria Theresia proved to be a highly capable ruler.  Fortunately for Maria Theresia her husband Francis didn't get in her way.

Francis was the heir to the Duchy of Lorraine which was technically part of the Holy Roman Empire.  Unfortunately for Francis it was specifically very close to France.  The ruling family of Lorraine had been loyal servants of the empire for years and Charles had long intended Francis to marry Maria Theresia but Francis had expected to come to the marriage with at least a duchy in hand.  Unfortunately Charles got into a quite ridiculous war over the succession to the Polish crown and as a result of this the Duchy of Lorraine was given to France (which still has it) and Francis was without a territory to rule.  Charles soothed him by making him Duke of Tuscany and making the marriage to Maria Theresia conditional on Francis signing away his rights to Lorraine.  With a start like that it surprising that the marriage was as successful as it was.

As husband to be to Charles' heir Francis was given a series of high ranking administrative and military jobs and managed to bungle all of them.  At this point Charles died and the absence of a male Habsburg made itself felt.  By ancient law the crown of the Holy Roman Empire could only go to a man and there were no male Habsburgs left.  Technically this shouldn't have mattered too much as the Habsburg's real power lay in the territories they ruled directly but without the lustre of the imperial crown about them and with a woman in charge (and possessed of a husband of proven incompetence) the great powers of Europe cheerfully invaded Habsburg territories looking to rip off bits for themselves.  The imperial crown itself fell to the Prince Elector of Bavaria (who was backed by France).

Maria Theresia proved herself equal to the challenge.  In a series of wars she managed to beat back the invaders (except Prussia who collared Silesia) and establish herself within her hereditary lands.  As for Francis?  Well he was there.  He had learned to let his wife do the heavy lifting and essentially acted as a kind of secretary for her, giving advice when needed (rarely) and support always.  With her position solidified, her prestige restored and the Bavarian emperor safely dead (nobody had really taken him seriously) Maria Theresia managed to strongarm the German electors into electing her husband as Holy Roman Emperor.  She didn't actually attend the coronation herself, aware that everyone looked on Francis as a mere cipher she stayed away so he could have one day in the sun by himself.

The cares of the empire sat pretty lightly on Francis' shoulders.  By this time the powers of the emperor were so truncated there wasn't that much for him to do.  He continued on acting as assistant and advisor to Maria Theresia.  They had sixteen children which is astonishing.  What is more astonishing is he was a serial adulterer as well.  It's a good thing he didn't have much to do as emperor because I doubt if he could have found the time.  It's also surprising he didn't die of dehydration.

When he did die it turned out that he had spent a lot of his spare time in business.  He left an absolute fortune to the Austrian treasury and people were a little startled to discover that through his discreet advice the empire was actually in the best financial position it had been in for centuries.  This is perhaps the greatest way he differed from his Habsburg in-laws.  None of them showed much skill with money except when it came to borrowing and spending it.  Whatever talent it was that he possessed it seemed highly specific as it doesn't seem to have been passed down to any of his heirs.

Technically after the death of Charles VI the Habsburg line was extinct and the dynasty that replaced it was that of Habsburg-Lorraine. Nobody really took that seriously even when Francis was alive.  Nowadays only pedantic genealogists even bother to try.