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Manzikert re-fought

In 1071 the East Roman Emperor Romanus IV gathered a huge army with the intent of breaking the growing power of the Seljuk Turks. Muhammad Ibn Dawud Çağrı, know as ‘Alp Arslan’ (strong as a lion) was forced to retreat when the Byzantines (as the East Romans are now called) cut his lines of communication. The two armies converged on Manzikert. All the odds were stacked in the favour of the Byzantines. They had the initiative, they outnumbered the Turks, and they had the advantage of position. That all did not go according to plan is now well known. I wanted to see how it might play out on the games table.

As one of our regular group has raised a Seljuk army I dusted off my old school Byzantines and yesterday we refought the battle.

As the Byzantines advanced their only clue to the Seljuk positions were clouds of dust indicating possible Turcoman light cavalry units that screened the main body of Turkish army. Some of the dust clouds were dummies. When the Byzantines came within bow range the actual units were revealed and dummies removed. We liked the look of the dust clouds so much that even after all the Turcoman units had been deployed we kept them scattered around the table.

The initial skirmishes were not that successful for the Turks. Although they managed to inflict some casualties on the enemy, the Byzantines pressed forward vigorously. One of the Turcoman commanders was killed and another was driven off when the Byzantine Emperor himself led a charge against him.

The Turcoman tribesmen apparently driven off the field, the Byzantines surged forward only to see their path blocked by the Ghulams of the Turkish main body. The Turks concentrated all their heavy cavalry on their right, resulting in a fierce prolonged melee with Nikephoros Byrennios wing on the Byzantine left.

With the Turkish left wide open Theodosius Alyates (commanding the Byzantine right) surged forward. A die roll decided that he would make for the Seljuk camp rather than swing around to support Nikephoros.

The substantial Byzantine reserve, led by Andronikos Dukas, moved forward at a snail’s pace. It did not help that Andronikos was not particularly loyal to the Emperor. He did nothing to intervene as a large body of Turcomans, that had previously moved off table, reappeared in the rear of the Emperor’s contingent. This forced the Emperor to turn his Armenians around to face the threat and they took heavy casualties from volleys of Turkish arrows.

It was up to the Emperor himself to move in to reinforce the critical engagement on his left. So, together with the Varangian guard, he charged the enemy, taking a light wound in the process.

As the battle was heating up on the Byzantine left, Theodosius Alyates took the Turkish camp. Wisely the camp commander came to an arrangement with the Byzantine general. He offered refreshments and presents as the battle raged in the distance.

The intervention by the Emperor and the Varangians briefly shored up the Byzantine left but then Sultan Alp Arslan’s elite Ghulams joined the fray. Worn down, the Byzantine line began to crumble.

As the Turks surged forward the Varangians stood their ground. They fought to the death to protect the Emperor before he too fell on the field of battle.

So it was a clear victory for the Turks. Andronikos, commanding the Byzantine reserve could also claim victory as, with his contingent completely in tact, he could return to Constantinople to put his cousin on the throne (as happened historically). Theodosius also came out of the battle in a good position. After taking the Turkish camp with the Sultan’s treasure and harem he would have been in a very strong negotiating position.

It was a great game which flowed back and forth and could have swung either way. We used Comitatus rules with some scenario-specific adaptions to allow a degree of hidden and off-table movement for the Turks. I was very pleased the way the game unfolded and the outcome remained unclear until the very end when the Roman Emperor fell fighting alongside the Varangians and his Hetaeria. I intend to put the scenario up on my Website before too long and the game should be featured in a future issue of Wargames Illustrated.

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