The Cycle of Battle

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The Battle of Blenheim, 1704 – Original Painting by Graham Turner Ref: GT133

Battles usually start when both sides agree to fight. Sometimes there can be a ritual to them. The Battle of the Spurs (1513) resembled the fights of the New Guinea Stone Age tribesmen, where many insults are exchanged, and perhaps a few spears and arrows are thrown, until someone gets hurt and the proceedings end. If one side withdrew there could be no battle. For instance, on the morning of 4 May 1704 at Dursburg Hill, Sergeant Millner remembered that the French advanced, but after coming within allied cannon range pulled back. The two sides stood staring at each other until four o’clock, when the enemy withdrew, ‘leaving us the Honour of the day,’ the sergeant bragged.

As both sides approached each other they would send out scouts, usually cavalry, to discover the other’s position and strength, and a good site for engaging him. Once the sides had implicitly agreed on a place, they had to draw up their forces in what was known as the ‘close order battlefield’. This compact area, usually a mile wide and a mile deep, revealed itself slowly, as each side deliberately arranged their positions. The process could be agonizingly slow. At Ramillies on 11 May 1706 the allied scouts were sent out at one in the morning. Two hours later the main body marched off in a heavy fog, which cleared at about ten to reveal the enemy. At noon cannon opened sporadic fire, which by two in the afternoon had become fairly sustained. At three the infantry advanced, pausing frequently to dress their lines, to ensure they were straight. Fighting continued until just before sunset (9.19 p.m.), when the enemy was routed. It took twenty hours to arrange the forces for Malplaquet (11 September 1709). The night before that engagement the English and French camped so close to each other that they had many frequent and friendly communications. ‘But at last each man being called to his respective post,’ remembered Sergeant Millner, ‘our commerce was turned to and swallowed up and drowned in Blood.’ George Hamilton, earl of Orkney, thought that ‘it really was a noble sight to see so many different bodies marching’ into battle at Malplaquet. Colonel Blackadder thought Malplaquet ‘the most deliberate, solemn and well-ordered battle I ever saw’. Every man was in his place and boldly advanced with speed, resolution and a cheerfulness that showed confidence in victory. ‘I never had such a pleasant day in all my life,’ concluded Blackadder about an action in which 35 per cent of the participants died or were wounded.

Few soldiers possessed such sangfroid. As they waited for battle to begin, men would have to relieve themselves as they remained within their positions, because it was too risky to let them break ranks to nip behind a convenient bush. Officers might try to steel their men with a pep-talk. ‘Gentlemen you are come this day to fight … for … your king, your religion, your country,’ Viscount Dundee told his troops before Killiecrankie (1689), adding that he expected them to behave ‘like true Scotsmen’. Waiting men might smoke or talk, tell jokes, or sleep or eat—all good means of calming nerves. Alcohol was another way of doing so. Donald MacBane greatly appreciated the dram he was served before Malplaquet. Most were very tired. Before the Battle of Roundway Down (1643), Captain Edward Harley had not slept in a bed for twelve days. Before the fighting began at Culloden fifteen hundred Highlanders were reported ‘nodding with sleep in the ranks’. Often men had no food. Henry Fowler had not eaten for forty-eight hours before the Battle of Selby (1644), while the London Trained Bands were so hungry that halfway through the assault on Basing House they paused to loot a barn containing vittles: as they stuffed and drank themselves silly, they were massacred. Before Malplaquet the Cameronians had had nothing to eat for five days. Nonetheless they went into action cheerfully singing psalms.

Infantry were the key: they were the ‘Queen of Battles’, not just because before mass artillery and air power they tended to decide battles, but because there were so many of them. Foot soldiers were easier to recruit and draft, and cheaper to equip and train than were cavalry or artillery.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the normal practice was to line up the infantry, several ranks deep in the centre of the formation, with cavalry on the flanks and artillery scattered throughout between infantry battalions. Infantry consisted of pikemen and musketeers. Heavily armoured pikemen would hold their sixteen-foot iron-tipped weapons out, with the end clamped to the earth by a boot. The pikemen’s job was to protect the musketeers from cavalry as they reloaded their slow-firing weapons. Matchlock muskets, which used a glowing match cord to light the charge, were especially dangerous, since the cord could ignite the bandoleers of gunpowder charges that musketeers hung around their chests, burning them alive. In the early seventeenth century the musket, or harquebus, was so heavy that it required a forked stand on which to rest the barrel as it was pointed at the enemy. As muskets got lighter, and cheaper, the proportion of musketeers to pikemen increased from a third to two thirds.

Once lined up facing each other, the infantry opened fire, supported by slow-firing light cannon, whose balls were lucky to kill a man or two. Infantry fire was ponderous (and the pikemen could not fire at all), so first volleys produced few casualties, even though the wound that a heavy, slow-moving musket ball inflicted was appalling, with an exit hole perhaps a foot in diameter. After a few desultory rounds, one or, rarely, both lines would advance. As they came into contact, in what was known as a ‘push of pike’, the pikemen did not impale each other like suicidal hedgehogs, but lifted their weapons up, and drew their swords. Musketmen reversed their weapons, turning them into clubs. Matchlocks were so slow and inaccurate that it has been suggested they were far more lethal as cudgels than as muskets.

In a huge heaving, screaming, smoke-filled, acrid, broiling, bloody scrum the two ranks of infantry hacked and slammed each other. They did not break into small groups independent of each other (as films often suggest), but remained within their ranks. In this ghastly experience they were helped by a disposition common to many animals who, when frightened, tend to ‘incline much to crowd in upon another’, as the earl of Castlehaven, a veteran of the Irish and French wars, noted in 1680. In the Arte of Warre (1591) William Garrard reported that in combat ranks of infantry could press so hard upon each other that it was impossible for a wounded or dead soldier to fall down. Today bunching together is dangerous, for it allows a single shell to kill many. In the early modern period this tendency to keep together was used so men would stay in ranks and lines, supporting each other as a unit. To survive units had to remain united: they must not become a mob. The purpose of hand to hand combat was to disintegrate an enemy formation, turning it into a mob of individuals to be killed at will. ‘Whatsoever may cause fear in your enemy, ought not to be omitted by you,’ advised Roger Boyle in his Treatise on the Art of War (1677). ‘Fear is truly said to be a Betrayer of that Succor which reason also might afford.’ In other words, Boyle urged creating ‘a panic fear’.