The beginnings of chess set pieces lie in military folklore and an examination of the modern game of chess shows parallels with the strategy of war.
It seems likely that even a modern senior military officer would easily see how battles often take on the guise of a lethal game of chess. For this reason it seems appropriate that some of the best chess sets for sale have the theme of famous historical battles.
A good example would be the battle of Culloden, fought on 16 April 1746 as the culmination of the Jacobite rebellion of the Highland Scots against the English king.
The Highland army was led by Prince Charles Edward Stuart (‘Bonny Prince Charlie’) who had arrived in Scotland from France the year before with the promise that he could break Scotland away from the union with England. Of course this would involve Prince Charles himself becoming king.
The battle thus took place with a background of two royal houses: that of Hanover and the Stuarts. Two men played out strategy: Prince Charles Stuart and the English commander, William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland the son of King George II.
Sadly for the Highland hopes, Cumberland was clearly the better player of his chess set pieces as he was experienced in war having fought with his army on the continent during the previous three years. Although he could be harsh, Cumberland was well liked by his hardened troops and his influence had ensured his men had the best equipment available.
Prince Charles was not at all experienced in strategy, not even that of the best chess set. He did have the use of Lord George Murray however. Murray had been in the army since 1712 and was an experienced rebel having already been a prisoner of the English and then escaping to the continent for a number of years.
The enthusiasm and passion of the rebels had produced results previously. The Highland army had driven deep into England as far as Derby (only 100 miles from London) and had caused panic in the capital. However stretched supply lines and rumours of an advancing army caused the Jacobites to turn for home.
The English army had faced the Jacobites previously, most notably at the Battle of Falkirk in January 1746. This battle finished unsatisfactorily for the English and in a slightly confusing manner for the Jacobites. Following this messy defeat, the English commander, Lieutenant General Henry Hawley, was removed from his position and replaced by the Duke of Cumberland.
This is when the campaign changed direction.
Immediately Cumberland took his army north from its base in Edinburgh to Aberdeen. He took the coastal route in order to ensure his troops could be resupplied from the sea. Arriving unmolested in Aberdeen, the Hanoverian army halted in the town for some weeks, taking advantage of the rest for some intensive training, particularly in the use of the bayonet. This is the first recorded instance of such formal training taking place.
At this point it is worth pointing out that although the romantic telling of the Jacobite rebellion story (originating with the Victorians) has the armies neatly divided into the English and the Scots and Catholic versus Protestant, this was not the case. The English army contained a large number of lowland Scots who were happy to pursue their own long-running feuds against the highlanders and this partly explains the ferocity of the battle and the aftermath. Equally there were some Presbyterian Scots in the Highland army. Some regular Scots, Irish and French soldiers completed the Highland army’s numbers.
However his army was comprised, Prince Charles had them scurrying around Scotland while the English were in Aberdeen, making raids on key targets and harrying the enemy.
Sadly the Highland army was not as well founded as their opposition. Many of the highlanders missed their homes and had been slipping away since the battle of Falkirk and the army that remained suffered from poor organisation and internal feuds. Supplies were short and so rations were restricted.
Dissent between senior officers was a constant feature and Prince Charles was not able to resolve disputes. Charles’ adjutant chose the battlefield on a stretch of open moorland despite protests from Lord George Murray and others.
The Hanoverian army arrived in Nairn to the northeast of the Highlanders and on 15 April 1746 they celebrated the Duke of Cumberland’s birthday. The Highland army attempted an attack on their opponents that night to catch them unawares.
Once again bad planning thwarted the Highlanders and they got lost in the bogs and darkness. At no stage did they get near to Nairn and finally had to retreat to Culloden as dawn broke, hungry and exhausted.
By contrast the Hanoverian army was well fed and rested and awoke early the next day and set off for Culloden. An advance party including Campbell highlanders found the Highland army and the alarm was raised.
The Highland army numbering some 5000 men lined up across the moor with the few guns they had in the centre and on the flanks.
At around noon, the Duke’s army of 8000 appeared on the moor. They had marched ten miles and arrived in perfect formation to halt 300 metres from the rebel lines. One regiment of foot took up position behind a wall set at right angles to the field of battle and prepared to fire into the flanks of the advancing Jacobites. It was yet another failure of rebels’ senior officers that they did not heed Lord George Murray’s warning about the strategic role of this wall.
The Hanoverian guns, placed among and behind the front lines, began to bombard the Jacobite army. Charles expected Cumberland to order a charge but this did not happen. Charles dithered as the guns ripped holes in his army and their morale.
At last he ordered his army to charge and most did, although the MacDonald clan on the left flank refused. The brave highlanders presented a fearsome sight as they ran but they were undone by the choice of battlefield. The Clan Chattan encountered boggy ground and had to veer right to avoid it. This made them cross in front of their compatriots and forced them all towards the wall running alongside. The Hanoverian regiment behind the wall duly fired into the charging rebels and inflicted terrible casualties.
Many of the Highlanders reached the enemy positions and terrible hand-to-hand fighting took place. In a strategy worthy of the best player of chess set pieces, Cumberland had kept back reserves and he now committed these to shooting the rebels who made it through the lines of redcoats. Dragoons finally chased off the Jacobites who retreated past the guns behind the wall again.
Prince Charles had seen enough and rode away.
Around 200 Hanoverian soldiers lost their lives, compared to around 1000 of the Jacobites.
The battle of Culloden was played out as if using chess set pieces and the better strategist won. The battle had a major effect on the history of Scotland thereafter.
Next time you pick up your chess set pieces, you might reflect on how great strategy has changed history.