The Napoleonic Skirmish Line

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RAVA – The 95th rifles defending the sand pit – Waterloo 1815.

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Voltigeurs de la Garde (1811-1815); part of la Jeune Garde (Young Guard)

Although the different infantry battalion formations absorbed the majority of an army’s manpower, a successful outcome in battle depended on the cooperation between these mass formations and a minority of selected troops trained in individual combat. Even when deployed on the front line, an infantry battalion was never in direct contact with the enemy for very long. Most of the troops stood in formation, crowded together shoulder to shoulder; the noncommissioned officers strove to maintain proper alignment; in the midst of the ranks, the banners fluttered overhead; but only at critical moments did the battalion receive the order to advance with fixed bayonets while the drums beat the charge. Even the occasions when the troops fired their weapons—all together and at an officer’s command—were relatively rare; an infantryman carried a leather pouch that contained, at the most, fifty or sixty cartridges, enough for thirty minutes of sustained fire. The emphasis that infantry training placed on developing the ability to shoot as rapidly as possible shows that the combat was expected to be brief and decisive.

Only a small number of men were actually in contact with the enemy throughout the battle, maintaining a constant if irregular fire. These soldiers, trained to fight in pairs and in open order, moved ahead of the main body and started the firefight as soon as they spotted the enemy’s forward lookouts. During the latter part of the eighteenth century, the use of these skirmishers had become more and more general; they complemented the lines of infantry deployed in close formation and maneuvered in cadence by officers. In the French military, the number of such soldiers, known as tirailleurs, was steadily increased, so much so that they contributed heavily to the great victories of the revolutionary and Napoleonic armies. By the time of Waterloo, all European armies had so thoroughly integrated tirailleurs that their use was virtually automatic. Every line battalion present on the battlefield had a company of men, known as the light company, trained to perform this role. In the case of the German armies, each battalion had at least one squad of selected marksmen, the Scharfschutzen, or sharpshooters. Agility and quickness were the chief physical qualities required of such soldiers; they were usually chosen from among those who happened to be both short in stature and crack shots.

These shooters or skirmishers were armed with the same smoothbore muskets as the line soldiers used, except that the skirmishers were trained to use them better. The British army had begun to introduce into some units the use of flintlock muskets with rifled barrels, which had far superior range and accuracy. These weapons were called Baker rifles, and they were carried by the battalions of the Ninety-fifth Rifles, an entire, elite regiment trained to fight in open order, and also by the light infantry of the King’s German Legion. The French tirailleurs all used the ordinary 17mm caliber musket, which was decidedly more accurate and manageable than the standard-issue British musket, the 18 caliber familiarly known as “Brown Bess,” to say nothing of the heavy 19 caliber musket carried by the Prussians. Speaking of the French, a British officer observed that “their fine, long, light firelocks, with a small bore are more efficient for skirmishing than our abominably clumsy machine,” and he added that the Brown Bess too often displayed defects of manufacture. British soldiers, he said, “might be seen creeping about to get hold of the firelocks of the killed and wounded, to try if the locks were better than theirs, and dashing the worst to the ground as if in a rage with it.”

Armed with rifled muskets or, more often, with smoothbores, the skirmishers awaited the signal to advance. When the officers blew their whistles, the men moved forward and formed the army’s outpost line. Wellington’s entire front was covered by a line of skirmishers a few hundred meters forward of the main positions. These men held their ground as best they could all day long, except when the approach of enemy cavalry or an advance in force by enemy infantry compelled them to withdraw to the nearest friendly formation. Similarly, every French attack was preceded by a thick chain of tirailleurs, who tried to beat the Allied skirmishers in a firefight and force them to evacuate the no-man’s-land between the armies.

If skirmishers got the upper hand and advanced so far that the defensive battalions were in range, they began peppering the serried ranks with isolated, well-aimed shots designed to fray the nerves of men standing in a packed and unmoving mass and, if possible, to pick one of their higher officers off his horse, thus softening up the defenders before the real attack came. Artillery batteries, too, provided an ideal target for the shooters; when they drew within range of a battery, they would aim for the gunners or, at least, for the horses. Seldom could a battery commander allow himself to waste precious ammunition firing at such elusive targets; it was indispensable, therefore, to cover the batteries also with a screen of skirmishers solid enough to prevent those of the enemy from getting too near the guns.

This form of combat ate up skirmishers fairly quickly. The light companies were not adequate to their task, not even when they were reinforced, as was common practice in critical moments, by all the soldiers in the battalion who were distinguished for marksmanship. The first tactical problem that all armies tried to solve, therefore, was how to reinforce their skirmishers. The solution most widely adopted was to establish entire units trained to operate in open order and for that reason called light infantry; when judiciously placed, these battalions could support a line of skirmishers along an entire front, continually sending in men to replace the fallen or demoralized. The Prussians—whose infantry battalions had no light company, only a squad of Scharfschutzen—went so far as to furnish each of their line regiments with a battalion of light infantry, known as fusiliers, so that in the Prussian infantry regiments the ratio of fusiliers to musketeers was one to two.

In addition, the Prussian army experimented with the even more drastic practice of training a third of all the men in their line battalions to fight as skirmishers. When continental infantry deployed in line to fire or to advance, the troops were normally disposed in three ranks; when necessary, the men in the third rank, where there was the greatest difficulty in firing effectively anyway, employed as reinforcements for the line of skirmishers. Although this measure could hardly be applied with insufficiently trained troops—those of the Landwehr (militia), for example—it nevertheless allowed the Prussian army of 1815 to attain a significant degree of tactical flexibility, covering its battalions with swarms of skirmishers even more numerous than the French.

Despite their exposure, the skirmishers did not bear the brunt of the fighting alone. Throughout the battle, until they ran out of ammunition, the big guns of both armies kept up a constant fire aimed at any available and appealing target, chiefly presented by the battalions of infantry and the regiments of cavalry drawn up in formation about a thousand yards away. Furthermore, the skirmishers, whenever they could, directed their fire against the formed-up troops, upon whom they could inflict considerable damage, officers being the targets of choice. When the commander in chief decided that the enemy troops in a certain sector had been sufficiently worn down by the firefight and that the time had come to seek a decisive breakthrough, the line infantry was ordered to move out, marching in step, and such an advance—in the open, under fire—was absolutely the worst moment for the soldiers, the time when they risked the greatest number of casualties. But it remains generally true that the persistent battle, the one that burned like wet powder all along the front, marking the line of contact between the two armies with an irregular series of gunshots and puffs of white smoke, was carried on by the skirmishers. Even Dundas’s manual of arms acknowledged that the light infantry had “become the principal feature” of the British army, and this affirmation would have sounded even more self-evident to a French or Prussian officer.

Considering the effectiveness of the tirailleurs, one could ask why the whole infantry was not used in this way, and why instead most of the men were kept in closed order and maneuvered mechanically, according to the prescriptions laid down in the manual of arms. One answer is that innovations take hold only gradually, meeting stiff opposition before at last unequivocally establishing themselves: not until 1914 did the armies of Europe, by then carrying firearms incomparably more potent than those of Napoleon’s day, realize the necessity of deploying all their troops in open order instead of closed formations. And yet the use of skirmishers with a battalion in formation fairly close behind them presented concrete advantages. Not every soldier had the intelligence necessary for operating with a degree of individual autonomy; most troops were kept under much better control if they were marching shoulder to shoulder and responding to their officers’ rote commands. Furthermore, given that it took twice as long to train a good skirmisher as a regular infantryman, there was not enough time to prepare all the recruits for open-order combat. Not coincidentally perhaps the most significant difference between regular troops and militia was that the latter, precisely because it was insufficiently trained, was nearly or completely useless as light infantry.

In addition, the close-order formation packed an undeniable moral wallop. The fire of several hundred men discharging their weapons all together on command had more of an impact, physical and psychological, than the individual fire of the skirmishers, even though theirs was much more accurate; and that multitude, marching to the attack with bayonets fixed and drummers beating the cadence, produced a shock effect—primarily psychological in this case—that no general could do without. The skirmishers themselves would not have fought without the reassuring certainty that the battalion was formed up behind them, offering a shelter they could run to in case of danger, especially if the rumble of hooves and the ring of sabers unsheathed announced the approach of enemy cavalry, for skirmishers dispersed about the countryside were certain to be massacred if cavalry took them by surprise.

For their part, the light infantry units, accustomed to individual initiative and much more thoroughly trained in marksmanship than the line infantry, were the troops best adapted to defending or attacking fortified positions, where it wasn’t possible to deploy the men in the formations recommended in the manual. As we shall see, the fights around Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte essentially involved light infantry, engaged in furious hand-to-hand combat in the gardens and orchards of the two farms, and inside the buildings themselves; not by chance had both Wellington and Napoleon from the start assigned the bulk of their light battalions to these two sectors, even at the cost of exposing other parts of their lines by stripping away indispensable skirmishers.

Understanding the grammar, as it were, of Napoleonic warfare provides insights into what happened on the battlefield at Waterloo, starting at noon on that June 18, when Reille’s artillery opened fire on the enemy troops deployed on the high ground behind the chateau of Hougoumont, and his infantry columns, preceded by a host of skirmishers, started marching toward the farm, toward the hedges and ditches that marked the limits of its orchard and wood.

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