British Army Firepower in the mid-eighteenth century I

Horse Guard and Horse Grenadier Guard.

Lord Ligonier

Major-General Sir Charles Howard

British regiment of foot: Battle of Lauffeldt 21st June 1747 in the War of the Austrian Succession: picture by Richard Simkin.

When writing about the tactics and doctrine of the British Army in the mid-eighteenth century modern historians invariably turn to Humphrey Bland’s A Treatise of Military Discipline. Houlding describes it as being of ‘commanding influence in the army’. In the preface Humphrey Bland laid out his aims and his reasons for writing. He pointed out that there had been nothing written on the art of war by a British author for fifty years. He went on to say that as there were then so few old officers with experience of war he felt it necessary to write what he knew of military matters for those ‘who are yet to learn’. Bland’s Military Discipline was thus a statement of how things were at the time of writing. It contained nothing that would be considered innovative by his fellow officers; if anything it looked backwards. It was also very comprehensive, which probably explains its widespread appeal at the time and its endurance. For the historian it allows developments since the War of the Spanish Succession to be identified.

Brigadier General Richard Kane’s book was not published until after his death. The writer of the preface says of Kane: ‘With great Contempt he read some Books, which pretended to Teach the whole Military Art; and often assured his Friends, that those mean Performances provoked him, to attempt something on the same Subject, which, if not perfect, might be free from those gross Errors and glaring Absurdities, which abound in them.’ This may be a reference to Bland’s Military Discipline; indeed it is difficult to think that it could refer to anything else for the simple reason, as Bland himself said, that there were no other books. Kane himself is also scathing of the 1728 regulations. After quoting its title in full he called it a ‘poor performance’.

Kane is particularly adamant concerning the division of a battalion into four grand divisions. This is, he wrote, ‘the Groundwork of all our Performances, of which our Martinet gives but a faint Idea’. Although Bland wrote initially of dividing a battalion into three grand divisions he also wrote of four when it came to how to form a square. The 1728 regulations contain no mention at all of forming grand divisions, which makes it seem likely that Kane’s ‘Martinet’ is a reference to the official regulations. These were drawn up by a committee of very senior and distinguished officers and approved by the king, George II, who took a great interest in his army. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that Kane’s ideas were not published until after his death.

Kane was also flexible in the number of platoons to be formed by a battalion. His preferred number was sixteen hat platoons in addition to the grenadiers, but he also wrote that twelve was possible for a weak battalion, particularly one on a reduced peacetime establishment. He divided the platoons into three firings but as he considered it ‘absolutely necessary’ to have a reserve he held the front rank as a reserve or fourth firing, leaving the second and rear ranks to carry out the firings. The front ranks of the two central platoons, however, were not reserved, but were to fire with the rest of their platoons. This was so that the battalion commander, out in front of the battalion, had somewhere safe to stand when the reserve fired.

Kane insisted that all the platoons of a firing should fire together and not one at a time, according to their order in a firing, which he describes as normal practice at reviews: ‘they are not to keep popping by single Platoons.’ He required the full weight of six platoons’ fire to be delivered together. Kane described how the simultaneous firing of six platoons scattered along a battalion frontage could be achieved by the battalion commander making use of drum beats to transmit commands. The platoon officers and sergeants were simply to ensure their men acted as ordered by the battalion commander. In particular he mentioned ensuring that the soldiers ‘level well their Arms, so that their Fire may have Effect on the Enemy’. Kane does seem to suggest that extended firefights might be necessary; describing the battalion going through its firings, he wrote: ‘And thus the Colonel continues his Firings standing, without Intermission between them.’ If the enemy were not broken by that fire he wrote that the battalion should be advanced closer by the commander who then ‘continues his Firings as fast as he can, until he obliges them to give Way’.

Like Bland, Kane writes that infantry in line fighting cavalry should fire by platoons, but in contrast to Bland Kane wrote that when in square each side of the square was to fire by ranks. Unfortunately he did not explain his reasons for his preference. Kane also completely omits any mention of the bayonet in attack or defence. Another officer writing in 1744 deliberately omits anything on firings, writing that they ‘have long ago been very clearly and fully laid down by Mr. Bland’, but mentions firing by ranks as one way of firing. Despite the comprehensive nature of Bland it would seem that there was still a considerable amount of variety of opinion over the details of how a battalion of infantry should fight. This was not helped by the brevity of the 1728 regulations, which would have left officers with no alternative but to consult Bland on the finer points of drill. What is clear is that the underlying principal of close-range firing by platoons organised into firings and the subsequent assault with the bayonet against infantry, if necessary, was still the basis of the way British infantry intended to fight.

A further change to the process of loading and firing made its first appearance in the 1740 edition of the 1728 regulations. Until then, officially at least, muskets had been primed from a small flask before a cartridge was opened and loaded into the barrel. The 1740 edition allowed for the musket to be primed direct from a cartridge, thus saving valuable seconds in the loading process. During the mid-eighteenth century wooden ramrods were gradually replaced by steel ramrods and despite some early problems with them bending or being too brittle and breaking they also seem to have speeded up the rate of fire. Houlding suggests that these changes, combined with the platoon exercise, increased the rate of fire of the infantry from two to three rounds a minute.

While Kane probably wrote his book around 1730 it was not published until 1745 and, although he shed a little light on the way British infantry were intended to fight, it was with Bland and the 1728 regulations to guide them that they embarked upon the War of the Austrian Succession.

La Fausille’s manuscript, written around 1750–2, contained a considerable amount of information that cast light upon the battlefield practices of British infantry during the War of the Austrian Succession in a manner that a theoretical drill book could not. Not least he identifies the French contribution to British success. He first emphasised the importance of preventing ‘the men from throwing away their Fire to no purpose, or at too great a distance, as our men, being then Novices, did at the Battle of Dettingen’, explaining that the first discharge of fire in a battle is the one that does the greatest execution as it was properly loaded. As well as happening at Dettingen he added that long-range fire almost happened again at Fontenoy. He then stated that ‘the French generally begin to Fire at a great distance.’ Amherst, later to be commander-in-chief in North America recorded that at Fontenoy the French opened fire at ‘about 80 yards distance’. Citing Laffeldt as an example, La Fausille described how the British infantry continued to advance, ignoring the French fire; the French then hurried to reload, doing so without using the ramrod, but simply dropping the open cartridge into the musket and then banging the butt on the ground to get the cartridge and ball to drop into the breech. The effect of loading in this manner, now commonly referred to as tap-loading, is that the balls do not travel far or with any great force – in fact, if the ball lodges in the barrel some way short of the breech, it can result in the barrel bursting. La Fausille added, ‘this Preserved many of our men at the Battle of Laffelt.’ He then described how they advanced against the French, ignoring their fire, until they came up to the hedge and ditch in front of the French. The British then fired and ‘leaping in among them immediately after it, thus struck them with such a terror, that they gave way’. He made the observation that British battalions were able to attack in this manner three times and lost fewer men than allied battalions who tried to rely entirely upon firepower to defeat the French.

La Fausille observed that once an engagement had begun the pressure of combat ‘rarely affords the men time to Prime, Load and Ram down their Cartridge properly’. That tap-loading was a common practice in British infantry regiments was clear from his advice on what to do after an enemy had been broken. First the battalion was to be put in order and then it was to ‘fresh Prime, Load or Ram down the charge of such as are Loaded’. Ramming tap-loaded charges and freshly priming muskets would have ensured that the battalion’s next fire was as effective as any first fire: it was effectively starting again.

Bland also wrote about tap-loading in his manual, reinforcing that it was a common practice. He advised that loading quickly was facilitated by ensuring that the cartridges were made so that after being placed in the barrel a thump on the ground with the butt end of the musket would make them drop to the breech. Like La Fausille he did not greatly approve of it and listed his objections. First, if the barrel was dirty, the cartridge could stick part way down, risking the barrel bursting. Secondly the paper of the cartridge could get between the powder and the touch-hole. Thirdly, the power of the shot could be greatly reduced so that ‘the Ball will either drop within two or three Yards, or not have Force enough to do much Execution.’ He added that if the men ‘are not press’d too close by the Enemy, the Ramming down of the Cartridge should not be omitted in Service’.

Despite Bland’s objections there are clear indications in order books that tap-loading was not only acceptable, but was planned for in the preparation of ammunition. An order of February 1743 to the British Army in Europe instructed that if any unit had balls too big for their muskets they were to hammer them ‘on every side, to reduce them to such a size as they may go easily down in a Cartridge, allowing for the fouling of a piece by often firing’. It would appear that, while the dangers of tap-loading and the benefits of properly loaded muskets were well understood, at short range the benefit of an increase in the speed of loading, and thus the rate of fire, outweighed any loss in effectiveness. Loading without using the rammer could have shortened the loading time by as much as half. This meant that the well-loaded first shots of the firings could be fired with shorter intervals between each firing as the first firing to fire would have reloaded in half the usual time. This would have increased the intensity of the firing and thus its effect on an enemy.

The first battle of the war, Dettingen, 1743, was also the last occasion upon which British troops were commanded in the field by their monarch, in this case George II. The British with their Hanoverian and Austrian allies were outmanoeuvred by the French and found themselves trapped between the river Main and forest-covered hills with the French in front, behind and across the river. Fortunately, errors by the French gave the British and their allies a chance to fight their way out when the French force blocking their march launched an unnecessary attack.

It is generally stated that the platoon firing of the infantry pretty much fell apart with every man firing in his own time, despite which the British and their allies were able to achieve a notable victory over the French. The main source for this assertion is a letter from Lieutenant Colonel Russell of the Guards in letters to his wife.

That the Austrians also behaved well is also true; that except one of their battalions which fired only once by platoons, they all fired as irregular as we did; that the English infantry behaved like heroes, and as they were the major part of the action, to them the honour of the day was due; that they were under no command by way of Hide Park firing, but that the whole three ranks made a running fire of their own accord, and at the same time with great judgement and skill, stooping all as low as they could, making almost every ball take place is true; that the enemy when expecting our fire, dropped down, which our own men perceiving, waited till they got up before they would fire, as a confirmation of their coolness as well as bravery, is very certain; that the French fired in the same manner, I mean like a running fire, without waiting for words of command, and that Lord Stair did often say he had seen many a battle and never saw the infantry engage in any other manner is as true.

Russell is clearly stating that the British infantry did not fire by platoons as practised in Hyde Park. The London-based Guards’ regiments drilled in Hyde Park and the term Hyde Park became synonymous with doing things strictly according to regulations. In another letter Russell wrote: ‘our men and their regimental officers gained the day; not in the manner of Hyde Park discipline, but our foot almost kneeled down by whole ranks, and so fired upon ’em a constant running fire.’ He goes on to say that each man fired as an individual, and that Lord Stair stated that was what always happened in a battle. The extent to which this sweeping statement, which could be read as applying solely to the French, can be relied upon is open to question. Lord Stair had been the army’s commander-in-chief until his position was usurped when George II took personal command and there is little doubt that Stair was sulking. Similarly Russell was in no mood to pay compliments to the line battalions as the Guards had been with the rearguard of the army and saw no action. In fact Russell wrote to his wife that his view of the battle was from a hill two miles away. More reliable are the accounts of those in the infantry who were directly involved, including a young James Wolfe with Duroure’s regiment. He is clear on the point that his battalion and several others opened fire at far too great a range. Colonel Duroure, acting as adjutant general, wrote that the British infantry fired ‘not by Platoons but with perpetual Volleys from Right to Left, loading almost as fast as they fired without ceasing, so that the French were forced to retreat’. La Fausille described how, once some battalions began to fire, firing broke out right along the line of British infantry even though in places the French were even out of cannon shot. He also recounted how, when a battalion commander asked a general whether he should order his battalion to fire by platoons or ranks the general advised him to keep his men in good order, try to hold their fire to a very close range and he would be delighted to see either fire by platoon or ranks as he ‘never did yet but on a Field day or at a Review’. However, at least one British infantry battalion seems to have managed to fire correctly, by platoons, in firings. An officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers described how they advanced to within sixty paces of the French before firing:

Our people imitated their predecessors in the late war gloriously, marching in close order, as firm as a wall, and did not fire till we came within sixty paces, and still kept advancing; so that when we had soon closed with the Enemy, they had not retreated: for when the smoak blew off a little, instead of being among their living we found the dead in heaps by us; and the second fire turned them to the right about, and upon a long trot.

This describes the battalion continuing to advance after giving the first firing and on emerging from the smoke of their fire finding the French had taken heavy casualties. The battalion’s second firing then caused the enemy to run. This feat was then repeated against three other French regiments, including a Guard’s regiment that retreated before the fusiliers could fire. This officer was clear in his views about the reasons for the success of his regiment, emphasising the importance of getting close to the enemy before firing: ‘What preserved us was keeping close order, and advancing near the enemy ere we fir’d. Several that popp’d at one hundred paces lost more of their men, and did less execution, for the French will stand fire at that distance, tho’ ’tis plain they cannot look men in the face.’

In his official report Colonel Duroure not only gave his account of what happened, but also made mention of how the infantry had been ordered to fight. It was ‘judged that the whole fire had been given without Orders, against the Directions to preserve ours, and first to receive the Enemy’s, then giving ours and charging with Bayonets’. A clear statement that if Dettingen had been won by firepower alone that had not been the intention.

At Dettingen the French cavalry enjoyed an initial success against the British infantry. The French Household cavalry broke through the first line of British infantry, but did not cause it to retreat. Rather the words of Bland about the superiority of infantry over cavalry were vindicated when the grenadier company of Huske’s 32nd, in the second line, held off the cavalry while the battalion finished forming. Then, trapped between the first and second line of infantry, the cavalry were shot to pieces.

For events at Fontenoy in 1745 there is a French account of cavalry attacking British infantry. ‘Our Cavalry, which advanced before them immediately, could not sustain the terrible Fire made by that Line of Infantry . . . Several of our Squadrons rallied, but were again repuls’d by the prodigious Fire of the Enemy’s Infantry.’69 Although Fontenoy was a defeat for the allied army under the Duke of Cumberland the British infantry more than held their own against both French cavalry and infantry.

Following Dettingen the infantry had trained hard in their battalion firings, as shown by an order of 1 December 1744: ‘The Regt which fired ball against the wall of ye Capuchin’s near the Nonnen Bosh, are to do so no more, but to find some other place, if they have occasion to fire anymore.’ Whilst not a great deal of detail of the infantry battle at Fontenoy has come down to us, the notable exception to this is the firefight between the British and French Guards early on in the battle, when the benefits of such training were clear. Three battalions of British Guards were on the right of the first line of the British infantry attacking the French position. In an incident immortalised by Voltaire they came face to face with the French Guards, the Swiss Guards and the Regiment Courten. According to Voltaire, Lord Hay, a captain in the First Guards, stepped forwards and invited the French to fire first. A French officer responded, saying that they never fired first. The truth, as related by Lord Hay, was more prosaic. He saluted the French, toasted them from his hip flask and told the French he hoped they would not swim the nearby Scheldt as they had the Main at Dettingen, a reference to their rout at that battle. It is unclear who did fire first. Voltaire suggests that the French infantry were so stunned by the British fire that they did not fire at all. An account in a British newspaper stated that the French fired first. Whether they fired first or second the effect of the British fire was devastating. Voltaire says that the fire was by platoons and it seems most likely that the Guards fired twice by firings at a range of less than thirty yards. The total strength of the three guard’s battalions at Fontenoy was approximately 1,970 rank and file, meaning that the French received approximately 3,900 rounds of musket fire. Voltaire records this fire as causing a total of 912 killed and wounded, giving the Guards a hit rate of about 23 per cent. By contrast the three battalions of Guards suffered a total of 736 killed and wounded for the whole battle.

British participation in the War of the Austrian Succession was interrupted by the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 when Prince Charles Edward Stuart, with French support, landed in Scotland and raised a Scottish army to attempt to recover the Crown for his father. The eyewitness descriptions of combat that survive from that domestic affair allow a far more detailed analysis of how the British infantry fought than has so far been possible. From the beginning it was recognised that the threat posed by Highland forces was quite different from that of conventional European forces. Their tactics had been described by Lieutenant General Hugh Mackay who had been beaten by them at Killiekrankie.

Their way of fighting is to divide themselves by clans, the chief or principal man being at their heads, with some distance to distinguish betwixt them. They come on slowly till they be within distance of firing, which, because they keep no rank or file, doth ordinarily little harm. When their fire is over, they throw away their firelocks, and everyone drawing a long broad sword, with his targe (such as have them) on his left hand, they fall a running toward the enemy.

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