English Civil War Tactics I

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English Civil War Tactics I

The commanders on both sides during the Great Civil War were fully aware of the military in European warfare and adapted them to English circumstances and then modified them in the light of experience. Our objective is to ascertain the extent to which tactical developments on their own were responsible for Parliament’s victory and the king’s defeat.

As Parliament had control of the royal arsenals and the ironworks of the Weald of Kent, it was able to equip its armies with large numbers of good quality cannon from the start of the war. The Earl of Essex, for example, took at least thirty-seven with him on the Edgehill campaign and lost forty-two at Lostwithiel. The king lagged behind initially, but by the time of the Gloucester campaign he too had a formidable train of artillery. However, on the battlefield the generals were never able to lure enemy forces into a position in which they could pound them into submission using the concentrated fire of their cannon. Thus artillery on its own was no more a winner of battles in the Great Civil War than elsewhere in Europe at the time, and this is reflected in contemporary comment. Cannon `caused more terror than execution’, opined one Parliamentary commander, and in the words of another seventeenth-century writer, `great artillery seldom or never hurts’. As for killing power, a Royalist officer at the first battle of Newbury commented on the rareness of the sight of six dead enemy infantrymen, whose heads had been taken off by a single round.

Bombardments by heavy cannon preceded the battles of Edgehill and Marston Moor and the second battle of Newbury, but they had no positive impact on the outcome of any of them. Indeed, it could be argued that Waller’s decision to spend up to an hour bombarding the western flank of the Royalist position at Speen before attacking brought nightfall that much closer and possibly saved the king’s army from being overwhelmed. At the first battle of Newbury a preliminary bombardment would have been counter-productive, as Essex wanted to conceal his troop movements from the enemy for as long as possible. At Naseby, on the other hand, the generals on both sides decided that an initial softening up by the heavy cannon was not needed. After the battle, a Parliamentarian wrote that `the ordnance began to play, but that [as] at Marston Moor and other places it was but a loss of time’, while the Royalists did not deign to reply, so anxious were they for the fighting to begin (although afterwards Lord Digby described this as a stupid mistake in an attempt to discredit Prince Rupert). Only at Langport was cannon fire of some significance. A bombardment by Fairfax’s artillery train knocked out two cannons guarding the top of a lane along which he intended the New Model Army cavalry to charge.

The most interesting use of artillery in a major engagement in the Great Civil War was at the first battle of Newbury, where, for the first and only time, both sides were able to use roads and tracks to move light and heavy cannon quite rapidly into the central part of the battlefield once the fighting had begun. Indeed, if Essex had not been able to establish an artillery position defending the northeast corner of Wash Common, his vanguard might have been unable to repulse the massed Royalist assaults on their position and been pushed back in defeat into the valley of the Kennet. The battle also provides the first example in the war of small artillery pieces operating with infantry and cavalry units in the Swedish manner. The red regiment of the London trained bands, for example, suffered badly from the artillery fire that accompanied Royalist cavalry attacks and could do nothing about it because its own field pieces were slow to arrive, while several small cannons were lost at the top end of Wash common when one of Essex’s infantry regiments retreated. Similarly, at Cheriton, Waller used light cannon to reinforce the mixed force of infantry and cavalry that he had moved into Cheriton wood and its surroundings to outflank the Royalist advance guard, but they were not flexible enough to defend it when Hopton altered the direction of his attack. Later, however, assaults by the Royalist cavalry brigades on the centre of Sir William Waller’s position seem to have been blunted in part by artillery fire; and at the end of the day it was Waller’s bringing forward of his cannon to bombard the hill to which the enemy had retreated that caused their final withdrawal. However, the length of time it took to move the cannon to their new position gave Forth and Hopton the breathing space in which to plan a structured and, in the event, very successful withdrawal.

Infantry tactics drew heavily on continental models. At Edgehill, after a heated discussion, the king’s generals decided to draw up in the Swedish manner rather than the Dutch. However, at that stage in the war, their musketeers cannot have acquired sufficient training and experience for all six ranks to fire a simultaneous volley. On the other hand, requiring them to rotate firing by rank in the Dutch manner may have caused even greater confusion. Another possible reason for preferring the Swedish model was that muskets were in short supply in some of the king’s regiments, and the Swedish formation incorporated a higher ratio of pikemen to musketeers (although for a quite different reason). However, the five large battalions thus formed were incapable of giving one another supporting fire once the fighting started, as the two second-line battalions moved forward to fill the gaps between the three to their front, thus creating one continuous line. The Earl of Essex drew up his infantry in three large bodies, each containing about 3,000 men, an antiquated type of formation, which also probably reflected a lack of confidence in his foot soldiers’ level of training. However, half an hour after the fighting began, what was left of his infantry also formed up in a line, and, to the amazement of the future King James II, the musketeers of both sides spent the rest of the encounter firing almost continuously at one another in the open rather than taking cover.

Thereafter, Royalist and Parliamentary generals showed considerable flexibility in fitting their tactics to the landscape and considerable expertise in moving battalions around during the course of a battle, particularly in encounter-type engagements like Cropredy Bridge, where armies did not have the time or the space to draw up in the orthodox cavalry-infantry-cavalry formation. From the start, however, the Parliamentary field armies proved more competent in combining infantry and cavalry units in the continental manner to destroy parts of the opposing army. Sir William Balfour and the Earl of Essex showed the way at Edgehill with the attack on Sir Nicholas Byron’s brigade. A similar process can be seen at work in the destruction of Prince Rupert’s regiment of foot at Naseby, and on a much larger scale at Marston Moor, where the cavalry and infantry of the Eastern Association army combined with some Scottish cavalry and dragoons in the closing stages of the battle to destroy the Royalist infantry that remained in the field. But combined operations did not always work. Balfour’s attack on the Royalist left wing at the second battle of Newbury, for example, although initially successful, was repulsed with heavy losses before night fell.

The king’s commanders, on the other hand, tended to show greater imagination in the use of the infantry on its own. Commanded parties of musketeers were used as shock troops in battles as well as during the course of campaigns, at first unsuccessfully, as in the initial attack on Round Hill during the first battle of Newbury, but later with much greater success, as in the Newark and Severn valley campaigns in March and June 1644 and in the capture of Cheriton Wood. However, the most effective use of musketeers on their own in the entire war was by Fairfax at Langport, where the battle was won as much by the efforts of Rainsborough’s men driving back the Royalist foot opposing them from hedge to hedge and then breaking into the ranks of the Earl of Cleveland’s brigade of horse, as by the more spectacular eruption of three troops of New Model cavalry into the midst of Goring’s army. Evidence of the skill of the king’s infantry after two years of war can be seen in the successful defence of Shaw House by Sir George Lisle’s brigade against overwhelming numbers during the second battle of Newbury. The king’s veteran infantry have also been praised for their performance in the opening stages of the battle of Naseby, where they pushed back the first line of the opposing foot, which outnumbered them, inflicting heavy casualties. However, the veterans would not have been able to win the battle by their own efforts had the cavalry engagements on the wings taken longer to resolve. When they came unexpectedly upon a second line of enemy infantry, their attack faltered. But there were battles in the Great Civil War that were won by the infantry. The engagement at Nantwich in January 1644 between Lord Byron’s troops and a scratch force of northerners led by Sir Thomas Fairfax was decided almost entirely by a series of infantry engagements in a countryside dominated by small fields and watercourses where cavalry were at an obvious disadvantage. At Cheriton, however, Waller’s infantry managed to win a major encounter in more open country when the Parliamentarians pushed the outnumbered Royalist foot back relentlessly on the right wing and on the left, bypassing the cavalry of both sides caught up in a vast melée in the centre of the battlefield.

In the Great Civil War, the cavalry of both sides were very largely harquebusiers like those of Gustavus Adolphus, although other types do occur. At Edgehill, the charges of Essex’s lifeguard, the jeunesse dorée of the Parliamentary army mounted on the best horses, showed what cuirassiers could do if given the opportunity to play to their strengths, that is short periods of violent activity interspersed with long periods for rest and recovery. On the other hand, the experience of Sir Arthur Haselrig’s `lobsters’ at Roundway Down in July 1643 showed that cuirassiers were as easily routed as the rest of Parliament’s horse at the time, and although the regiment performed better at Cheriton, it was not incorporated into the New Model Army in 1645. Indeed, by the last year of the war, neither side had any more than the odd troop of cuirassiers still in arms.

There were no lancers in the English field armies, but the Scottish army contained several regiments armed with lances, which played an important, possibly crucial, role in the allied victory at Marston Moor. However, they were certainly not heavy cavalry, as they were mounted on ponies and can have worn only a small amount of body armour. It was well understood at the time that they could not stand up to harquebusiers in equal combat, which explains why they were in the reserve line, and also why the Scots quickly abandoned the lance when they acquired decent-sized horses in any numbers.

Both sides employed dragoons in considerable numbers at the start of the war, but as time passed those regiments that survived tended to be converted into infantry or cavalry units. There was a single regiment of dragoons in the New Model Army, whose colonel claimed they performed well at Naseby, but there were no Royalist dragoons in the main field army in 1645. Prince Rupert seems even to have lost interest in his own regiment, which remained in the west of England with George Goring.

However, the two sides diverged in the ways in which they used cavalry on the battlefield. In none of the major battles did the Parliamentarians station a cavalry reserve of any size behind the army, or station any horse in the centre as direct support for the infantry. Instead, the reserves formed up behind the two wings in every major battle in open country. At Edgehill, the fact that Balfour’s and Stapleton’s troops acted as a form of central reserve was probably an illusion. Insofar as the former were concerned, it was probably an accident that they were where they were at the start of the battle, whereas the latter may have been kept out of the way because of their poor performance at Powick bridge. The king’s generals, on the other hand, failed to win a decisive victory at Edgehill because they kept all their horse on the wings, with the result that the reserve squadrons in the second line ignored their orders to remain where they were and chased after the victorious first line of horse. That mistake was never made again. At Roundway Down, Lord Wilmot and Prince Maurice kept their reserves in the rear and used them to very good effect to stop a counter-charge. At the first battle of Newbury, there was plenty of cavalry action in which the horse were sometimes substituted for infantry in assaults on enemy positions, but the Royalist horse was not drawn up in the orthodox manner, that is flanking the infantry, because of the shape of the Parliamentary attack. Insofar as there was a cavalry reserve, it was stationed on the green as a precaution against the enemy left wing attempting to break through defences in the Kennet valley. However, at Marston Moor Prince Rupert adopted a more thorough-going Swedish model, that is strong forces on both wings but a single cavalry brigade in the centre with the infantry and another placed in reserve behind the army with the prince’s lifeguard of horse, which could be used wherever it was needed on the battlefield. Despite the Royalist defeat, the way in which the cavalry had been deployed must have been regarded as a success, as the cavalry were to have drawn up in a very similar manner in the battle that never happened, the third battle of Newbury. At Naseby, Rupert went a stage further with the reserve in the third line increased to almost 1,000 men and the brigade stationed among the infantry in a support role split up into two or three divisions. In his diary, the prince gives only the haziest indication as to why he used so complex a formation, but whatever the plan it failed completely, as he was not present when the reserve was brought into action. Against his orders, its components were fed into the battle in penny numbers and, unlike at Marston Moor, it did not succeed even temporarily in stemming the enemy advance.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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