An army I’d probably never build

By Rob Morgan

A little while ago, I wrote a few lines about Charlemagne on the table-top, and alongside that particular Osprey title on my bookshelves was another well written David Nicolle Osprey Men-at-Arms with the inevitably magnificent Angus McBride plates. Number 222, published in 1990, is “The Age of Tamerlane.” This note is in part a review of that, in part a few thoughts on the astonishingly complex medieval world in wargaming.

It’s useful to record that Tamerlane (also known as Tamburlane, or Timur the Lame), was born in 1336, about the time the 100 Years War started, and his dynasty collapsed around 1494, a little after the time Columbus got to the Americas and the Wars of the Rose ended.

This Osprey is complex in some ways. The time-line lists warlords, princes and battles that weren’t familiar to me 15 years ago, which is when I bought the book for £1.99 in the Oxfam shop, and still aren’t now! Nicolle describes the career of a conqueror of vast tracts of land from Mongolia to Turkey and the Holy Land, leading almost unbeatable forces, and inflicting amazing savagery on scores of states and kingdoms. He and his Timurid forces were of Mongol origin, but were even more rigidly controlled.

The description of his world is followed by an account of Tamburlane’s army, of its organisation and strategy and tactics. Remarkably, this Osprey contains a section rarely found in the series, “The uses of terror.” Hm? An account of the siege warfare practised is very readable, but I was disappointed that Tamburlane seems not to have possessed gunpowder weapons in his lifetime, though some arrived later.

Like so many medieval Asian rulers’ military establishments, Tamburlane’s failed with his death. Though fragmented, the “empire” lingered on, but slipped away from conquest and from power. There’s a short note on the use of elephants after 1400, which was a significant change in military tactics, but, this late, Nicolle makes no mention of guns, a pity. The next section “Foes of the Timurids” deals with two powerful enemies, the Ottomans and Mamluks. Nicolle refers to the Osprey Men-at-Arms 140, on the former and he provides a general account of conflict, rather than of specific battles or even campaigns. The book ends with some notes on weapons and armour and a reading list in French and English which would take some unearthing and indeed some enthusiasm to read. There are gaps, well, some major aspects missing from the description of what must have been one of the world’s most effective, and ferocious army systems, and when you read Nicolle’s text you’ll see what I mean. The title’s worth examining, but ultimately you’ll ask yourself would you build a Timurid army, and as a deeper question, does this title give you enough information to recreate this army on the table top?

This is an unusual title of course, and was a subject covered quite early on in the Osprey series. The line drawings and illustrations are on the whole rather less than inspiring, but of course Angus’ eight colour plates make up for a lot! Both Tamburlane’s armies and some of his many enemies are dealt with, and that’s where to start — well, the only place really!

The plates are lovely. And though there are only three foot soldiers portrayed, the cavalry, which was Tamburlane’s strength, is represented by nine figures. The enemies of the Timurids feature on three of them and so give the chance of providing light forces for smaller actions. Possibly.

I looked at the usual option turned to by seasoned wargamers, the plastic figures, first of all. The impression in this Osprey follows the Mongol Road, big, swift moving mounted armies, long distances and quick battles. At least that’s how I read this part of the world in this period of history. The easiest way to create the Timurid army of Tamburlane is to select figures from the ranges of Mongol armies. By select, I mean follow Angus’ plates, of course. Sadly, in 20mm plastic there are few packs around. Strelets pack MO28 is one of the best, 48 dismounted Mongols of which around 10 to 20 will be of use, but there are no levies or peasant infantry types in this pack. I searched in vain. Zvezda’s Mongol pack 8003 has 10 infantry and one is a splendid charging spearman; you get four of them! Italeri’s Mongols are all cavalry, many cataphract, which is good news, and Zvezda’s Golden Horde is a very attractive group of horsemen, and early in the period.

A better bet, though more expensive, is 15mm in metal. Museum Miniatures makes a Timurid Army, 96 pieces, and not cheap! However, you can add to this from careful selection of figures in the 15mm Mongol and Asian ranges of Donnington, and Essex and especially Irregular Miniatures. That’s the best way to acquire this army, I suspect, though infantry will always be a problem, and for early gunpowder weapons or siege equipment you’ll need some imagination. Camels are needed too, well, apart from transport. The description of warfare in the Osprey suggests that these armies were used to large campaigns and substantial battles, and raids. So perhaps the best option might be Irregular’s smaller scales, 6mm seems ideal (well, as ideal as I’d be prepared to go), using a cross section of figures from the Dark Ages range and the Samurai & Asian range (no, not the Samurai!). That would give a decent sized army for a big sweeping raid across the steppes, butt as always with those scales, lacks the character of the individual figure.

Finally, I did enjoy reading this Osprey title, as always the pairing of this artist and writer provides a sparkling read, but at the end of the day, would I venture in Tamburlane’s wake? No, I don’t think so. Mind you, I have no doubt that out there among the readership there’s someone with a decent Timurid army, waiting to invade China or march to Constantinople or Damascus, or even bathe its feet in the Mediterranean. If so, I’d love to read about it.

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