Friday, 27 February 2015


Bishop Munschrugge drops the despatches from General Von Rumpfler. His head sinks and he begins gently to knock it against the table-top.
'Bugger' *thunk*, 'bugger' *thunk*, 'bugger' *thunk*, 'bugger' *thunk*, 'sod it' *thunk*, 'bugger' *thunk*.
'Is it good news?' Graf Deckscluder asks hopefully.
The Bishop raises his head, his wig now perched precariously askew.
'No, my good Graf, it is not. Von Rumpfler's army has been defeated and is now retreating back towards Falkensteinburg. Moreover ...', the Bishop waggles his finger at Graf Decksluder, interrupting the Graf's attempt to speak, ' ... I do not think that any exercise of maritime power in the littoral environment is likely to reverse the outcome.'
The Graf closes his mouth, and sits back disappointed.

The Nabstrian cabinet receives reports that
King Wilhelm is unhappy
Burgravial Treasurer Werner von Frerkingheil stands suddenly and addresses the assembled council.
'Dammit! We cannot have another defeat: we must win the battle of the narratives; we must triumph in the influence campaign! We must ensure that all of Europe believes that we have won a great victory!'
Munschrugge shakes his head vigorously, his wig twirling: 'Good Treasurer - our army is retreating.'
Frerkingheil looks triumphant: 'Only in a geographical sense, my lord.'
'Is there any other sense?'
'Metaphysically, my lord, I think that we could say that the good general von Rumpfler is advancing towards Falkensteinburg. And the dogs of Saukopf are falling back from their capital city of Pfeildorf.'
Munchrugge seems unconvinced, but Frerkingheil continues:
'This defeat is, I should say, a blessing in disguise.'
Munschrugge sighs: 'Hmm, well, if so, I have to say, it's a very good disguise because I can't see how this helps us at all.'
'We can spin this into a victory!' says the Treasurer.
'Spin it?' says Munschrugge wearily, 'It'll require more than spin: it'll need cartwheels, handstands and a very special kind of trampolining if we are to sell our current predicament as a success. The Burgrave really isn't going to be very happy.'
Frerkingheil nods excitedly. 'It provides an opportunity to test some alternative instruments of statecraft. I've already been doing some preliminary work in the realms of propaganda. Count: let them into our plan.'

The aged Count Leopold von Beckwurz, Minister for Treacle and Public Education,* stands unsteadily.
'Gentlemen. We need time to re-organise our army; time to train them; time to equip them with new muskets and uniforms. Time also, perhaps, for a new approach to this war. To gain that time we must exploit the power of the printed word! Behold, the first step in our new literary offensive!'
'I have a bad feeling about this,' mutters Graf Decksluder, doodling a three-deck ship of the line with his quill, and writing the words 'all mine' underneath.
With a flourish, Count Beckwurz produces from his coat a slim volume.
'Here, honoured gentlemen, is the first weapon in our new offensive against the Wilhelmites: a set of verses parodying the limp-witted Prince of Saukopf-Bachscuttel.
Munschrugge seems to perk up at this. 'Yes, that just might have some impact if it were written by a skilled, witty, and highly intelligent word-smith.'
'Er', says Count Beckwurz.
Munschrugge's eyes narrows: 'So, you engaged the services of Voltaire, yes?'
'I extended to him an invitation', replies von Beckwurz.
'He extended to me a finger'.
'And then you obtained the services of, say, Jean Jacques Rousseau?'
'Er, no'
'Laurence Stern?'
'Henry Fielding?'
'So basically, you haven't got a skilled writer.'
'No, not really'.
'So, in fact, you probably just asked someone that you knew.'
'In fact, you probably wrote it yourself, didn't you.'
'Basically, yes.'

Munschrugge takes a deep breathe 'Fine, marvellous; let's take a look at it: get copies for everyone.'
The script is distributed. Munchrugge reads it resignedly. His compatriots also look at it, most moving their fingers slowly along each line, silently mouthing the words.
Graf Decksluder is the first to speak.
'Well, ah, it's very moving, but I can't help thinking that we need something with a little more emphasis on creating a narrative structure to this war in which our Burgravate embodies strong moral qualities, whereas our enemies are portrayed as ethically compromised; and also at the same time, rather less use of bottom jokes.'
Count Beckwurz bridles: 'Well, what changes do you suggest?'
'Well, it's just ... well, here, you see', the Graf points to the third line', perhaps a better tone would be created by the use of the word 'blunder' rather than 'chunder'. Or here, perhaps 'tardy' rather than 'lardy'. And I must insist that we find some more appropriate words that rhyme with 'luck' and 'anchor'.
Munschrugge steps in: 'So, what - you intend to distribute this throughout the Burgravate?'
'Indeed, good Bishop,' replies Count Beckwurz enthusiastically, 'it will be read from one side of Mittelheim to another.'
Munschrugge makes a face: 'It will be read. Really? Tell me: what is the literacy rate amongst the peasantry?'
'Not high,' chips in the Graf.
'But our treacle stocks have never been higher', interrupts von Frerkingheil defensively.
'So', says Bishop Munschrugge, 'What would an average peasant do with a volume such as this?'
'Light a fire', laughs another counsellor.
'So actually,' says Munchrugge, 'what we'll be distributing are ...'
'Firelighters', admits Count Beckwurz.
'Precisely,' says the Bishop: 'Any other ideas for this new enterprise?'

A peasant poetry reading gets out of hand
Momentarily nonplussed, Count Beckwurz quickly rallies. 'Indeed yes', he says. The Count then describes a second line of operation. He has taken on the services of an expert artist, Osker Siber, who has been tasked with working on a whole range of scurrilous wood cuts, lampooning the Burgravate's enemies. 'Here is the first', announces the Count, grandly. At a nod from the Count, a servant begins to distribute copies of the woodcut. There is a moments silence as the assembled councillors review the work.
The Count explains: 'It is a picture of donkey, which is labelled 'Prince Rupprecht': the message is that Prince Rupprecht is a donkey'.
'Yes: a subtly subversive image,' says Munschrugge.
There is another silence.
'Hmmmm,' says Graf Decksluder, 'this donkey doesn't look right. I thought donkey's looked like horses. This one looks odd.'
'Yes' says Baron Friedrich, Minister for Corsets and Public Transport, 'it hasn't got any udders.'
Nabstrian peasants celebrate wildly after news of
von Rumpfler's latest victory
Freidrich's compatriots stare at him. 'Donkeys don't have udders', says Graf Decksluder.
Freidrich looks perplexed - 'Then what is it that my wife has been milking?'
Decksluder chokes on a gulp of wine, and there is an embarrassed silence.
'Well', pipes up another councillor, 'it's got a bushy tail, and large ears. Actually, this donkey looks a bit like, you know, a dog or something.'
Graf Decksluder nods: 'Actually, I think this is a picture of a fox.'
Munchsrugge, sighs: 'So, what this woodcut actually says is that Prince Rupprecht of Saukopf-Bachscuttel is a fox. We are implying, therefore, either that (a) he is wily and cunning, or that (b) he is a saucy minx that we should like to take out for some dancing and a light supper.'
'They do say he has nice ankles', says Friedrich.
Graf Decksluder winces, and tunelessly whistles a sea shanty to fill the icy silence that follows.

Bishop Munschrugge stands slowly. 'Gentlemen, I fear that your influence campaigns and Siber attacks will not have the decisive effects now required. I have decided on a plan of action to recommend to the Burgrave: this is what we're going to do ....'

* This post in the Burgrave's government combines two purviews; responsibility for managing the Burgravate's treacle supplies, and the education of the poor. The budget for the former is considerably larger than for the latter.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Hansel and Gretel!

Wherein the army of the Burgravate of Nabstria, under the command of General Heironymous von Rumpfler, encounters the forces of the Palatinate of Saukopf-Bachscuttel, under the command of General Barry-Eylund.

General Graf Redmond von Barry-Eylund stands in front of his staff officers, wearing a silk dressing gown, cap comforter, scarf and slippers. Though there is a faintly regal air about the way the sixty-two year old carries himself, it is fair to say that his manner of dress means that he probably won't be bringing sexy back. Not that that would worry Barry-Eylund at the moment; for at this point in time he is berating the officers of his commissary department. The Graf's attempts to make a secret flank march against the Nabstrian army have been ruined. Instead, the Nabstrian army has managed to surprise the Bachscuttel forces in the vicinity of the small villages of Hansel and Gretel; led there, thanks to a Bachscuttel bakery malfunction, by a conspicuous trail of breadcrumbs. 

(Below) Having been out-scouted and forced onto the defence, Graf Barry-Eylund assesses his options. The Nabstrian army, he knows, has suffered heavily at the battle of Zorninhaf, and contains many conscripts; but it also has a good proportion now of elite soldiers. With both Bachscuttel flanks anchored on problematic terrain, the General guesses that the Nabstrians may try for a brutal frontal assault, elite troops to the fore, utilizing the advantages of their lethal volleys. On this basis, he places his irregulars where they can do the least harm, garrisoning the village of Gretel: they have explicit orders not to touch anything sharp, run with scissors, or to bugger about in their usual manner. He deploys most of his musketeers in two lines, with his guns distributed between the regiments so that they can add their canister to the expected duel of musketry. Three regiments are placed in reserve columns in case of emergencies. With no room in his centre for his Horse, and not wanting to isolate them beyond the stream on the left, Barry-Eylund places his cavalry on his right: they are ordered into march columns to maximise their flexibility.

General von Rumpfler, though, has things other than a frontal assault on his mind: his mistress, the lovely Nora Hindquarters, has been used as the bait in a cunning ruse designed to capture King Wilhelm and perhaps end the war. But the whole underhand plot has left a bad taste in the General's mouth: though not quite as bad a taste, it has to be said, as the one that afflicted Ms Hindquarters. Sighing, von Rumpfler turns his attention to the coming battle. With his troops well-versed in cadenced drill, the wily fellow believes that he has the advantage of manoeuverability - but where can this advantage best be brought to bear? Scanning the Bachscuttel lines with his telescope, he spies on the left within the village of Gretel, the tell-tale signs of looting, drinking, random street violence, and rampant sock-puppetry that can speak only of the presence of irregular troops. The village looks rather vulnerable to a well coordinated attack with regular infantry. The left, then! It will be the left! If the General can get some stout Nabstrian Grenadiers to the village of Gretel, then they will surely be able to oust the irregulars with a combination of fire and bayonet. Then, the onus will be on Bachscuttel to take the vital village back! But, having wedged themselves in so tightly to their defences, von Rumpfler judges accurately that such an enterprise is likely to be very difficult for his enemy.

(Above) So, von Rumpfler hurriedly issues his orders. His light infantry and cavalry are likely to be auxiliary elements to this plan, so he deploys them on his right wing. All of his infantry, five regiments of elites, one of mercenary Zentans, and four of conscripts, are deployed into march columns: the elite are deployed furthest to the left. Von Rumpfler's plan: a rapid advance against the Bachscuttel flank with the elite troops: then, he will deploy them into line utilising cadence step; then, these troops will destroy or drive off the cavalry; and then they will launch a quick assault on Gretel. Von Rumpfler signals to his aides; the trumpets sound, and with a loud 'Huzzah!' the Nabstrian army advances!

Watching the advance with interest are two fellows in black cloaks: one has a scythe and the other a very commodious lunch box. After the casualties at Zorninhaf and Grosse Varnische, Death has decided to get to this encounter extra early. Famine eats a second breakfast and watches whilst the Grim Reaper does some limbering up. It is surely going to be a busy day.

(Above) With excellent precision, Nabstria's infantry regiments stride past the wood, bearing down upon the weak Bachscuttel wing. To their right, von Rumpfler begins to form up the remainder of his army at right angles to the Bachscuttel line. This will give his artillery a clear field of fire. It is becoming clear to Barry-Eylund that the village of Gretel is the main objective of the Nabstrian attack: the remainder of von Rumpfler's forces are clearly being deployed to protect this elite flank attack. The Nabstrian advance is rapid; luckily, with his horse in column, Barry-Eylund is able to move them swiftly out of the way, and they pass down through his centre. Two thoughts now worry the Graf: can he get supporting troops to Gretel quickly enough; and, even if he can, will the garrison of irregulars be up to a fight with the Nabstrian elites?

Meanwhile, in Gretel, some of the few literate irregulars are fighting over a large sheet of parchment, marked with symbols, that that they have found in the village.
'Give us a go of your tea towel,' says one.
'It's not a tea towel', says another: 'it's a map.'
'No it ain't', says yet another, 'it's a sock. '
The others look at him: 'It's not a sock - how can it be a sock? There's nowhere to put your foot.'
'What does it do?' an interested onlooker asks.
'It shows you where you are.'
'But I know where I am - I'm here.'
'Yes, yes, but what if you don't know where 'here' is.'
The soldier pauses: 'Clever, clever: well, put it on then, and tell us where we are.'
'I'm not sure: which way up should it be?'
'Are we near that marsh over there?' one says.
They look non-plussed 'There's no marsh marked on this sock.'

(Above) Indeed, approaching Gretel, the Nabstrian advance suddenly grinds to a halt at the sudden appearance of an expanse of unexpected bog. 'Jupiter's kneecaps', groans von Rumpfler wearily: 'why is nothing ever marked on my fricking map?'

(Above, top) The unexpected marsh is a disaster for the Nabstrian advance. Four regiments try and circumnavigate the stinky obstacle: but it all takes time, and it condemns the elite infantry to attack on a one regiment frontage. Still hoping to push the irregulars out of Gretel, though, the fifth regiment is ordered to fix bayonets, head across the marsh, and give the irregulars some cold steel. (Below, top) As the Nabstrians try and manoeuvre around the marsh, Barry-Eylund has plenty of time to seal the gap on his flank: he pushes forwards his two guards regiments: the Tchokolet-Feyer Garde (Red and yellow flag), and the Milchfrau Lieb Garde (white flag). Soon, the lead Nabstrian regiment is engaged in an extended firefight with the Feyer Garde.

(Above) In the interim, the irregulars pepper the marsh-bound Nabstrians unsuccessfully with musket fire, who, being in the water, cannot reply. 'I know the way! I know the way' shouts one of the irregulars, who seems to have some soggy paper wrapped around his feet. Round after round, the irregulars throw their fire at the increasingly depressed Nabstrians in front of them. Round after round, the effects are negligible: smoke, some deaf toads, and, as they stand forlornly in the water, some increasingly wrinkled Nabstrian toes.

(Above) For the remainder of the Bachscuttel army, the battle proves to be very restful. There are a couple of casualties, inevitably, as a few of the musketeers shoot or stab themselves accidentally. And there is a messy incident mid-morning when one of the cannoneers tries to check how full one of his powder-barrels might be by peering in with a lighted taper. But in general, for the new recruits to Barry-Eylund's force, it is clear that war is hardly the bestial, terrifying experience that they had been led to believe. War, it appears, consists mainly of some light aerobic exercise, as one deploys into formation; and then a leisurely afternoon, eating snacks and listening to the artillerymen making jokes about the length of their barrels. Contrary to wider opinion, it is clear that what the world needs is more war, which would certainly improve the cardio-vascular health of the population at large, as well as providing a relaxing opportunity to socialise with friends.

(Above) Equally, the remainder of the Nabstrian army remains defiantly immobile. The unit of Zentan mercenaries provides a stiffening to what is otherwise a collection of ill-trained conscripts. But the conscripts remain well out of range of the Bachscuttel battle-line. The day passes slowly, punctuated with some fist-fights and word games. With little activity exhibited by the main Bachscuttel battle-line to their left (if one excludes an explosion in the morning, which goes off with a loud 'whump!'), the conscripts spend the day largely unconcerned, except, perhaps, from some mild alarm caused by the stiffening of the Zentans.

For the two black-cloaked observers, the battle proves to be a gigantic anti-climax: there is really nothing to do. As the hours pass by, Death and Famine try a game of 'I spy', but it's no fun: all Death can see is decay, dust, despair, the ever dwindling of the human life-force, draining away like specks of dust in the hour-glass of time. None of which is massively useful when trying to guess the word 'tree': Famine is also rubbish, since most of what he spies with his little eyes can be covered by the words 'sandwich', 'cake' or 'fritters'.

Near Gretel, the very, very long musketry duel continues. But with only a single regiment on each side, there is no decisive result: with both Generals nearby, every incidence of musketry related disorder is quickly remedied by some rallying. The entire battle becomes focused on this single encounter.

Von Rumpfler realises that the battle is slipping from his grasp - his forward momentum has gone, but a withdrawal will take forever. Perhaps now is the time for the bayonet charge through the marsh against Gretel? But, surveying the situation, von Rumpler realises that this is unlikely to work -the marsh-bound Nabstrian regiment has suffered badly: giving up on their muskets, the irregulars have resorted to attacking the elites with insults and bad language, some of which have been very hurtful. Between this, the progressive shrinkage in their uniforms, and a critical shortage in flotation aids, this is a Nabstrian bayonet charge doomed to defeat. (Above, top) Finally, trying to break the dead-lock, von Rumpfler orders his lead regiment forward in a desperate bayonet attack against the Bachscuttel guards- but the Nabstrians' hearts aren't really in it and it turns out that they really are worse than a Tchokolet Feyer Garde. The latter remain in good order, and the attack is easily driven off. Exhausted, and with many other better things to do, the Nabstrian regiment quits the field.

Nearby, the two fellows in cloaks seem to have given up entirely on the battle. 'Blimey, I'm hungry:' Famine seems to be eyeing in a calculating fashion an object in the grass. Death looks more closely and then recoils. Famine picks up the remains of an arm, which seems to have a lighted taper clasped tight in its hand.
'You can't eat that!' says Death, appalled.
 'Oooh, you're right' says Famine, and removes the taper - 'it could have stuck in my throat or something.'

(Below, top) Another Nabstrian regiment moves up and exchanges volleys with the Bachscuttel Guards. In a manoeuvre that is a little too clever by half, Barry-Eylund decides not to rally the Feyer Garde, but instead to retire the regiment back through its sister Guard regiment in a perfect display of retrograde action, presenting the Nabstrians with a new and entirely fresh adversary. In Mittelheim warfare, though, attempts at being clever seldom go unpunished.

(Below, top) And so, predictably, confusion strikes the Bachscuttel line. Interpreting the order 'fall back behind the Milchfrau Lieb Garde and then rally' to mean 'fall back behind the Milchfrau Lieb Garde and then bugger everything up by advancing back through them again, distributing disorders like confetti and raising my blood pressure', the Feyer Garde hokey-cokey their way 'in out, in out' before 'shaking it all about' back where they started, but in a more knackered condition. This could be von Rumpler's chance! A good volley could sweep away the Feyer Garde, a result that might open up an angle that would allow some musketry to brought to bear on the irregulars. If the irregulars can be driven off, then the regiment in the marsh might be able to move forward, and then, well, who knows - or dares to dream?

This is all, of course, a fantasy, and the crucial Nabstrian volley has all the vigour in it of a Russian corruption investigation. Under the watchful eye of their General, the Feyer Garde dress their ranks and they are quickly returned to order. Soon, both sides are back to their musketry duel, although in truth, dueling banjos would probably be likely to deliver a more decisive result. In Gretel, the irregulars join in the fun, dropping comedy anvils on one another.

Nearby, Death has toppled over. With a hurt tone in his voice he berates his tubby companion, who seems to be squatting over a small pile of bones, licking his lips.
'Gimme it back!', says Death.
'Give what back?' says Famine innocently.
'My leg! You just stole my leg!'
'No I didn't. You must be mistaken.'
'I saw you do it, you malevolent miscreant!'
'It could be someone else's leg.'
'It's still got my britches attached to it.'
'Oooh, yes: you've got me there. But, you know - you're sort of magic- you'll grow another.'
'It's the principle', says Death wearily. 'And I need my trousers back: this is undignified.'

Across the battlefield, drums and trumpets sound, signalling the retreat of the Nabstrian army. Von Rumpfler has concluded that a decisive breakthrough cannot be made, and he judges that it is best to quit the field in good order. Graf Barry-Eylund allows the withdrawal to continue unmolested: his army is poorly deployed to commence any sort of counter-attack. Besides, most of his attention must now be applied to dealing with the complaints of the inhabitants of Gretel, and getting his light troops to put their trousers back on. Issuing from the village is a ragged line of irregular infantry carrying an array of very chubby local lasses over their shoulders: as it transpires, they are, quite literally, bringing booty back.

Meanwhile, Death, finally, has had enough - there is really no work to do here, and he is being menaced by a corpulent cannibal with a large appetite and short attention span. Hefting his scythe, Death disappears off to Moravia in a puff of smoke and a hollow 'pop!' Alone, Famine sits on the grass; in the distance he can hear the sounds of birds, the occasional volley of musketry, and the clang of anvils. He whistles tunelessly for a while, and then stuffs the end of his cloak into his mouth. After a few chews he spits it out and then gazes hungrily at his forearm.

As the day draws to a close, Barry-Eylund stands with his staff, watching the last of the Nabstrian troops disappear into the distance. The Graf ostentatiously takes in a large lungful of air.
'Smell that air, men: remember it - that's the smell of victory'.
'To be honest, Sir', pipes up one of his staff officers, 'I thought that victory might smell a bit better'.
The Graf nods: 'That's the irregulars - they'll be downwind in a minute'.
As Barry-Eylund orders out his cavalry picquets, the Nabstrians trudge sadly back towards the frontier. Another victory for the Wilhelmites!