Line and column – ‘the great arguments’

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A French Regiment or Brigade in Ordre Mixte with three battalions.

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Infantry Tactics and Combat during the Napoleonic Wars.

A platoon of Imperial Guardsmen firing at will in a three-deep line. In the Reglement the first volley fired by each platoon was supposed to be simultaneous by each file, immediately followed by the next file, and so on, rolling along the platoon line. After that, everyone was supposed to fire at will at their own speed. This could vary widely, since the 1791 manual specified about 25 separate movements for loading and firing a single shot. This picture is based closely on the Reglement, with the platoon officer in his regulation place on the right flank; the men in the foreground stand straight upright with their feet correctly placed at right-angles, and the men of the second rank pass back their muskets to be reloaded by the third rank – an image perhaps more faithful to the regulations than to actual practice. Note also the man firing from the second rank over the left shoulder of his comrade – biting open a cartridge – in the front rank. Another perhaps idealized detail is the careful aim taken by individual soldiers, in an age when men got little target practice, and the battle-lines were blinded by powdersmoke.

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However, the most heated tactical debates to be sparked by the Seven Years’ War were centred on how the ‘heavy’ infantry should fight, and these would tellingly become known as ‘les grandes querelles’. During the early part of the 18th century, the conventional wisdom had been that infantry should conduct both its approach march and then its combat action in lines three deep. This arrangement had the advantage of maximizing the continuous frontage that could be occupied on the battlefield, since, with a density of three men per 22 inches – each touching elbows with his neighbours – an army of 60,000 men could occupy a frontage of no less than 13km, or a little over 8 miles. Even allowing for a second or reserve line, the frontage would be 6.5km or almost 4.5 miles – which is still a major piece of real estate. A second, and possibly even more important advantage of the line formation was that, at least in theory, every soldier would be able to fire his musket or point his bayonet in a meaningful way.

In practice the third rank, and to some extent the second rank too, tended to find it somewhat difficult to fire or stab ‘through’ the front rank, and there were some reports of nasty injuries being inflicted on the latter. Nevertheless, it was normally deemed best to stick to three ranks rather than two (let alone one, although a few examples of both may be found in Napoleonic times), since the extra men in rear would provide moral support to the men in front, as well as physical file-fillers who could step forward to plug gaps in the event of heavy casualties. The ‘solidity’ of a three-deep line was deemed to be especially required when there was a serious threat from cavalry.

The line was thus the ‘classic’ or conventional formation for infantry, and it implied a battle based on firepower. Yet the disadvantage was that it was always difficult to keep a line in position unless a long time was spent in checking and re-checking its alignments. The task of maintaining every man in place over a 6-mile frontage was daunting indeed, and trebly so if they were all expected to move forwards, backwards or sideways in step with one another. Such a line was a formation that might potentially develop the highest firepower; but it was also a staff officer’s nightmare, and no one could ever claim that it offered high tactical mobility.

These advantages and disadvantages were dissected in great detail in the course of les grandes querelles, especially once an alternative approach – in the form of a ‘column’ attack – had been put forward by a number of writers such as Louis-Pierre de Puysegur, Jean-Charles de Folard, Franc;ois:Jean de Menil-Durand, and then Joly de Maizeroy. These writers suggested that the infantry should fight in columns, to exploit the supposed shock effect of a concentrated mass attack. Columns were much easier to manoeuvre than lines, particularly over broken ground; and there was also a Widespread belief that they were good for maintaining the morale of shaky troops, who would gain confidence by the close proximity of so many of their comrades.

The opponents of columns, such as Count Hippolyte de Guibert and the Chevalier Tronc;on du Coudray, were quick to reply that they were far more vulnerable to artillery fire. A cannonball could theoretically knock down only one file of three men in a line, whereas there would be many more men per file in a column; a deep column might well suffer a dozen men hit by each accurate round. This whole question of vulnerability to artillery was extensively debated, with the partisans of the column pointing out that lines were exceptionally vulnerable to enfilades and even, to some extent, to grape and canister. On the whole, however, the balance of opinion was that it was more dangerous to fight in columns than in lines when facing an opponent with powerful artillery.

Various different types of column were suggested, ranging from a dense formation of a whole Division of 6,400 men with a frontage of 80 files and a depth of 80 ranks, to what would come to be called the ‘column of attack’ or column by divisions, consisting of a battalion of 912 men with a frontage of about 76 files and a depth of 12 ranks. During the wars of 1792-1815 not only would all the theoretical types of column be seen on actual battlefields, but many new types would be invented or improvised. Some of the ‘monstrous’ columns would contain many more troops than the notional 6,400 of a Division, whereas some battalion columns of attack might turn out to contain as few as 200 men, on a frontage of less than 33 and a depth of just 6 ranks. It could be argued that the latter layout was only slightly deeper than a regulation line, and it was certainly a very far cry from the heavy sledgehammer formations imagined by De Puysegur and his followers.

Despite all these complexities and ambiguities, the key point at issue in les grandes querelles seemed to be a clear choice between the column (l’ordre profond) and the line (l’ordre mince). At first the debate was confined to pamphlets and memoranda; but in 1778 it was extended to a series of trials, with 30,000 real soldiers manoeuvring against each other at the camp of Vaussieux, near Bayeux in Normandy, commanded by the free-thinking Marshal the Duke of Broglie. The results of the trials were ambiguous and bitterly contested, but at least the believers in the line were forced to admit that columns could often have an important role, as a formation for troops waiting in reserve or advancing rapidly into the front line. Once arrived in or near the front line, however, there remained a great deal of scepticism that columns were best for a firefight: they made big targets, and could develop only a small proportion of their own firepower.

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