my uncle Toby

I wrote ages ago about Little Wars, the first published wargame, authored by H.G. Wells. Since then, I’ve come across a considerably earlier ancestor.

In Laurence Sterne’s serial novel Tristram Shandy, Tristram’s uncle Toby is a captain in the British army; having been invalided out by injury, he spends his interminable convalescence and quite a lot of his income on his Hobby-Horse, military geekery. Originally this is because he finds it hard to explain his war stories without knowing his way around all the complicated terminology of fortifications, but rapidly he finds himself spending all his time poring over maps of fortified cities and trying to teach himself ballistics. Then his manservant, Corporal Trim, suggests that there’s a patch of ground on the estate where they could construct a model of a fortified city.

Toby is presented as the simple-hearted, commonsensical foil to Tristram’s flamboyantly intellectual father; he is a bachelor and more or less clueless about women. He is unable to carry on conversation for very long without bringing up a military anecdote or analogy, however inappropriate. This forms a staple of the book’s light comedy.

Toby and Trim never get to the point where they fight speculative battles, quite. They follow newspaper reports of sieges in the War of Spanish Succession, plot out fortifications and siege-lines accordingly, knock down bits of their model as appropriate; they spend a lot of energy on getting their models right, down to smoke effects for the cannon and little model gatehouses. They speculate on occasion about what one should do in such-and-such a situation, whether the French would run or the order in which the fortifications of Calais should be destroyed. When the Peace of Utrecht comes along they are distraught at being robbed of their entertainment, and Toby gets prickly when this is pointed out. You really just want to pat the poor fellow on the shoulder while slipping some polyhedral dice into his pocket.

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