Fire and Shock

By the beginning of the eighteenth century there appeared to be two approaches to fire tactics for infantry; one stressed firepower, the other shock, the charge with the bayonet. The first method was a case of controlled volleying, in either battalion or company form, or by alternate ranks, three at a time, with the aim of reducing the enemy’s numbers. The purpose of the firepower tactic was to batter the opponents’ will to stand their ground or crush their attempt to attack by launching a continuous fusillade of fire by each of the three ranks firing in turn. By the nineteenth century the firing line became two ranks.

The three ranks of the British Army during the early part of the eighteenth century would ‘lock up’ the files in the ranks for firing. The front rank would kneel down, the second rank would move slightly to its right and the third rank would move half a pace to its right making each file in echelon with the firelocks of the two rear ranks levelled through the file intervals.

On the command ‘make ready’ (present your firelocks), then (give) ‘fire’ the firing would be continuous with each rank firing in turn, setting up a constant fusillade of fire. A battalion could divide its fire by firing volleys from each company or division in turn, with those who had fired having time to reload.

Battle of Mollwitz / Roechling / 1895 1st Silesian War 1740-42 / Battle of Mollwitz 10 April 1741 (Prussia led by Frederick the Great defeats the Austrians led by Neipperg).

The second method was considered the most economical: firing one volley and then, with bayonets fixed, charging the enemy in a rapid advance to put fear into them and cause them to panic and flee, thus winning the ground. Battles were in the end a case of winning ground and holding it. This second method was the basis of Frederick the Great’s tactic of ‘Fire and Shock’. Infantry shock tactics were planned to put fear into the enemy. It was intended that it should not end in a hand-to-hand, bayonet-to-bayonet melee. It was not meant to end in actual contact but to crush the defenders’ resolve to stand their ground and induce them to break their ranks and retreat in panic before the attackers got too close. But there was a case where there was fierce contact and that was at the Battle of Culloden where James Wolfe instructed his men on how they should, with bayonets, repel the fearsome clansmen as they hurled themselves in their Highland charge. The clansmen carried a targe, or shield, in their left hand covering mainly the left part of their chest. Their broadswords were held aloft in their right hands, leaving the right side of the chest exposed. So he told the men to thrust their bayonets not at the man to the front but at the man to his right, who was partly exposed.

The master exponent of warfare in Europe in the eighteenth century was Frederick the Great, King of Prussia or, as known by his troops, ‘der Alte Fritz (Old Fritz)’. In 1748 he argued that the advance was likely to stall if attacking infantry stopped to fire. This was fatal as Frederick the Great said, ‘It is not the number of enemies we kill which gives the victory but the ground which we gain. To win a battle you must advance proudly and in good order claiming ground all the time.’

Frederick II (The Great), King of Prussia, formed a small but very successful army and created the Kingdom of Prussia out of the small state of Brandenburg. He did this in a series of battles with the basic principal of winning territory economically and holding it without incurring too many casualties and without causing unnecessary damage; he did not want to take territory that was ruined. The battles were fought for the most part on the great plain of northern Europe, which at that time was less encumbered and ideal for wide sweeping manoeuvres. The Prussian tactics were successful until they confronted the Revolutionary Army of the new French Republic.

With all the musket’s faults exposed it was Frederick who created his tactics of ‘fire and shock’. The general practice in the latter part of the seventeenth century into the eighteenth was for the attacking force to start by preparing a plan of attack. Bearing in mind the limited means of communication during this period, which was left almost entirely to the services of aides de camp, once battle started it had its own momentum and it would be very difficult to change the plan during the course of the battle. However, it is known that Napoleon had with him on campaign a mobile version of semaphore apparatus.

But Frederick realized that, if he could train his troops to react quickly to new orders during a battle, he could with judicious moves outmanoeuvre the enemy. For this reason constant drill was carried out and by the introduction of cadence marching in the early eighteenth century he could parade them onto the battlefield doing the ‘lock step’, better known as the goose step.

The system of fire and shock as developed by Frederick’s infantry precluded the major use of light troops such as the Feldjäger Corps, but after Frederick’s defeat at Kolin he saw the necessity for skirmishers and raised a company of jägers. After the Battle of Mollwitz he also realized the need for light troops. By the Second Silesian War he was able to meet the Austrians with their Grenz troops. As Scharnhorst said, ‘The present war against the French Republic reminded us of the principal that one should always try to regulate one’s disposition according to the enemy’s methods.’ Jägers were of little practical use in Frederick’s tactics, so they amounted to few in number and, because they were armed with rifles that took longer to load, they could not contribute to the overall system of rapid fire. As the short rifle could not be fitted with a bayonet the jägers carried short swords for personal protection. When Ezekiel Baker designed his rifle, based on a German design, he adapted the sword, or spadroon, to be fitted as a long bayonet giving the Baker rifle the same length as a musket with a fixed bayonet. In the Rifle regiments the bayonet is still referred to as a sword, with the order to fix swords.

The key to Frederick’s system was its harsh iron discipline and drill practised on the drill fields of Potsdam to make the men totally obedient so that every soldier behaved as one man. It was to instil into his troops or, one could say, programme them, to react to orders with speed and without question to perform their complicated evolutions and bring to bear as many muskets as possible on the enemy and deliver a wall of lead shot in the form of rolling volleys, all at great speed. Their will and steadfastness would eventually crush the weaker will of the enemy. These complicated evolutions were executed automatically in the din of battle to the sound of the drum when commands were smothered by the crescendo of cannon fire and everyone disappeared in clouds of smoke. When asked if he would prefer his soldiers to be thinking soldiers, Frederick said ‘If my soldiers began to think, not one would remain in the ranks.’

So long as both sides adhered to the established formations and manoeuvres of the eighteenth century there was no practical need for arms of greater precision. The rifle was expensive to manufacture, required greater training and had the disadvantage that it took longer to load. It was for these reasons that Napoleon banned the use of rifles. He was himself a poor shot with a hunting rifle, injuring a marshal when out hunting. It was accepted that you took your chance in battle; the ritual of the system was that some considered it against the accepted tenets and rules of warfare to deliberately pick off individuals which was seen as ungentlemanly.

Most European armies were impressed by the show of powder, pomp and pipe-clay, and the successes of Frederick’s regiments; many followed his system, hoping that it would also give them victories. One firm believer in all that was Prussian was David Dundas, the Adjutant General, who made visits to Potsdam, to witness training, and to Silesia to watch the manoeuvres of Frederick’s troops. He was impressed at the Prussian troops executing their manual drills and manoeuvres, impressive in their massed ranks, resplendent in their uniforms, marching dutifully, or robotically, into position with the balance step or lock step. But behind the spectacle of parades, bands, colours and pomp was a military structure that was harsh, brutal and dehumanising. He was also very critical of the concept, and use, of light infantry as it went against all the rules of Fredrician tactics, the proof being that the army of Prussia was the most successful in Europe, or had been up to 1806.

In 1788 Dundas produced his drill manual The Principles of military Movements, a modified version reduced to eighteen movements, based on the Fredrician tactics of the Prussian General von Salden’s Elements of Tactics. Dundas emphasized the importance of the pivot man; in all the wheeling and counter wheeling, the pivot man became vital to the smoothness of the operation, and consequently Dundas had the cognomen of ‘Old Pivot’.

Controlled Firing

Once the battalion had been deployed into the firing line a system of close fire control was applied. It was imperative that fire discipline was observed. It was the repetitive manual drills that embedded into the men the automatic response to fire orders. The premature firing off induced by tension and fear could encourage others to follow and destroy the controlled fire pattern. There were two different systems. At the beginning of the eighteenth century it was known as ‘platoon firing’, or firing by ‘chequer’, which was much used by Marlborough’s regiments and was in common use until the 1750s. This was replaced by a system known as ‘alternate firing’, which continued until the turn of the nineteenth century and was easier to execute than ‘platoon fire’; but both required intensive training before they could function in any action. ‘Alternate fire’ consisted of fire given by companies, platoons, or other divisions going from right and left alternatively towards the centre of the battalion line; ‘platoon fire’ consisted of fire given by platoons grouped into three ‘firings’, all the platoons in each shooting together according to a prearranged sequence.

‘Alternate fire’ was officially adopted with the publication of the new Regulations in 1764, although those battalions who were well trained were already practising it. Such a regiment was the 20th Foot, whose commanding officer was Lieutenant Colonel James Wolfe.

Wolfe was a first-class officer who trained his troops well according to the current regulations, but at the same time he thought ‘alternate fire’ far more practical than the current regulation ‘platoon fire’, the ‘impracticable chequer’ as he described it and so he taught both in the 20th.

Wolfe issued a regimental order in January 1755 which stated:

As the alternative fire by platoon or devisions [sic], or by companies is the most simple, plain and easy, and used by the best disciplined troops in Europe (i.e. the Prussians), we are at all times to imitate them in that respect … (and otherwise) to conform to the established discipline, and to practise all those things that are required at the reviews, to which the knowledge of other matters be no hindrance.

Not all commanding officers were as thorough as James Wolfe. Many did not observe the contemporary practices and follow the standard drill manual, which was rarely referred to, so drill was left very much to the fancy of each commanding officer. It was not always possible to assemble three regiments together to form a brigade for a field day or a mock battle; these could not take place until the commanding officers agreed beforehand to a common form of drill, as each regiment could be practising its own version.

Wolfe pointed out that officers should inform the soldiers of their platoons, before the action begins, where they were to direct their fire; and they were to take good aim to destroy their adversaries. Furthermore, ‘There is no necessity for firing very fast; a cool well levelled fire, with pieces carefully loaded, is much more destructive and formidable than the quickest fire in confusion.’ There were some particulars in relation to firearms that soldiers should know:

One is, the quantity of powder that throws a ball out of a musket in the truest direction to the mark, and to the greatest distance; a matter of experience and practice will best discover; soldiers are apt to imagine that a great quantity of powder has the best effect, which is a capital error. The size of the cartridge with ball is another material consideration, because when the musket grows hot with repeated firing, a ball too near the calibre of the musket will not go down without great force, and the danger of firing the piece when the ball is not rammed well home is well known (i.e. the musket will blow up); the soldiers should be informed that no other force in ramming down a charge is necessary than to collect the powder and place the ball close upon it. If the ball is rammed too hard upon the powder, a great part of it will not take fire and consequently the shot will be of so much less force.

Eighteenth-century drill books illustrated the positions of the soldiers in the manual drills. None of the illustrations of the soldiers at the ‘present’ and ‘fire’ positions show them actually taking aim along the barrel; the soldier is usually shown with his head held erect. Also, none of the front rank men in the kneeling position are shown supporting the weight of the musket to steady the aim by placing the elbow on the knee. None of the Land Pattern muskets were fitted with sights except the light infantry musket. They could use the bayonet lug as a guide, but this would be obscured if the bayonet were fitted. It was probably thought that taking aim after the first discharge was unnecessary as all would be shrouded in clouds of powder smoke and would be unable to see a thing.

As the eighteenth century progressed the British Army was gaining confidence in its standing as an army built on Marlborough’s successes during the War of the Spanish Succession against the forces of Louis XIV, confident in its prowess to bear arms and face all known enemies; proud of its reputation as a master of the delivery of firepower equal to all in Europe, especially the French. But the French were once again contesting Britain’s interests, although not in Europe. In 1754 disturbing despatches from Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie of Virginia had reached King George II.