Infantry 1800-1815

(part 1)

  • Morale.
  • Columns and lines in battle.
  • Acknowledgement and sources .

  • Bavarian grenadier of the guard
    in his awesome outfit

    In 1809 at Aspern-Essling the Emperor rode in front
    of the advancing masses of French infantry.
    Behind him marched with drawn sword the stalwart Lannes.
    Then Napoleon raised his hat and brandished it toward the Austrians.
    The French masses wildly rocked with enthusiasm:
    hundreds were shouting Vive l'Empereur! and singing their war songs.
    They feverishly attached their bayonets to muskets
    and sped up their advance disregarding the artillery fire.


    The Greek mercenary Xenophon claimed that neither numbers nor strength brouyght victory in war: "Whichever army goes into battle stronger in soul, their enemies generally cannot withstand them." Maurice de Saxe wrote: "The human heart is the starting point in all matters pertaining to war". According to Lord Moran who studied the minds of English soldiers in WW I stated that "There seemed to be 4 degrees of courage and 4 orders of men measured by that standard. Men who did not feel fear, men who felt fear but didn't show it; men who felt fear and showed it but did their job; men who felt fear, showed it and shirked. Others claim that all animals and humans feel fear. Napoleon said: "Morale makes up 3/4 of the game; the relative balance of manpower accounts only for the remaining quarter."
    There is no such thing as getting used to combat. According to "Neurosis in War" most soldiers on approaching the firing line displayed uneasiness and apprehension by restlessness, irritability, artificial jocularity or silence and withdrawal, or even by unusual prespiration, diarrhea and desire for action or distraction. Every moment of battle imposes a strain so great that man will break down in direct relation to the intensity and duration of their exposure. Just as average ammunition wagon wear out after a certain number of miles, it appears that the doughboy wore out too. During World War 2 the average point at which the breakdown occured to have been in the region of 8 months of aggregate combat days (based on survey among medical personnel and experienced unit commanders).
    The soldiers reached their peak of effectiveness after the first 3 months of combat.
    The British policy was withdrawing infantrymen from the line for a 4 day rest at the end of 12 days or less. American soldiers in Italy were usually kept in line without relief for 20-30 days.
    During Napoleonic Wars the average campaign on main theater of war (Central Europe) lasted several months allowing the men to rest for several months in garrisons, camps and occupied cities. The rest was very important for morale and fighting efficiency of troops and allowed many veterans to avoid the physical exhaustion, combat fatigue and nervous breakdown. (Napoleon's veterans of Old Guard were usually kept in reserve and beyond effective range of fire. Only on few occassions they actually fought.)
    Combat fatigue occured the most in situations where the defenders were subjected to long and constant artillery bombardement (Borodino, Leipzig, Eylau). In more fluid tactical situations (Austerlitz, Jena, Friedland, Brienne) combat fatigue didn't occure with the same incidence. Even in retreat or in the case of heavy casualties the combat fatigue was not as heavy as after being subjected to heavy and long artillery bombardement.
    According to surveys done during World War 2 the veterans claimed to have been less afraid the more often they went into action. They were more skilled in the art of surviving on the battlefield and therefore tended to be more willing than nonveterans to go into combat.
    Old or young the soldier experienced similar feelings before action.
    In August 1813 at the Battle of Katzbach Prussian general Blucher rode along the front of his men and addressed them. He explained "his deliberate act of permitting the French to cross the Katzbach so that he could strike them and throw them into the river" and harangued his infantry to ignore the rain and attack with bayonet. The lads cheered up and were ready for action.
    Motivated by a desire to liberate their homeland troops were a formidable foe. In 1813 at Hagelberg the Ist Battalion of 3rd 'Kurmark' Landwehr Regiment screened by 250 skirmishers taken from IVth Battalion advanced against French infantry protected by a wall and houses. The attackers, Landwehr skirmishers, received a massive musketry but continued to advance. They stormed forward and over the wall despite heavy casualties. The troopers of IIIrd Battalion of 19th Line Infantry Regiment were attacked among the houses by skirmishers and the entire column of Ist Battalion of 3rd 'Kurmark' Landwehr Regiment. According to Quistorp (Nord Armee, Vol I) after a hot bayonet fight among the houses the French withdrew.
    But at Kulm, in the same year, 3 battalions of 10th 'Silesian' Landwehr Regiment and supported by artillery broke and fled before the 12 battalions of French infantry (6 btns. of GdB Revest's brigade and 6 of GdB Quiot's brigade) were able to close with them. [The Landwehr was supported by 11th Reserve Infantry Regiment and the French by small troop of cavalry.] The Landwehr seeing the pounded by artillery but still advancing French fled in panick. They ran to the rear and disordered battalion of 2nd 'Silesian' Infantry Regiment. The only excuse for the Landwehr was the fact that it was their first combat.

    Columns and lines in battle.

    There were several methods to increase the morale of infantry. One was placing the cavalry behind infantry as did Wellington at Waterloo and many other generals elsewhere, or to deployed the infantry in 2 or 3 lines and reserves. In 1806 at Jena Napoleon ordered his battalions (600-1.000 men each) to deploy in two lines with no more than 250 paces between the lines (see below).

    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
    Battalions of the first line.

    less than 250 paces

    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
    Battalions of the second line.

    In 1813 at Dennewitz general Krafft deployed his Prussian brigade in 2 lines: the battalions of the first line were deployed in line, and the battalions of the second line stood in columns 300-400 paces behind the first.
    Infantry battalions spend most of the time on the battlefield in columns with full or half intervals. Of course if the artillery fire was heavy these columns rater would deploy into lines.
    If any of the battalions of first line was broken the battalions from the second line would attack the enemy from the flanks. But quite often the broken battalion of first line run toward the second line and disordered them. Also the sight of own troops fleeing in panic was enough for the nerves of troops in the second line. For example at Wagram the Austrian 47th Vogelsang Infantry Regiment broke and fled toward the second line. The fleeing soldiers disordered those in second line and together run to the rear before artillery halted the pursuing French infantry.
    In 1813 at Dennewitz two battalions of Prussian Landwehr (IInd and IIIrd Battalion of 2nd 'Kurmark' Landwehr Regiment) expended their ammunition in a firefight and fell back disordering the troops in second line. Only one battalion of 2nd 'Kurmark' held its ground and resisted the enemy. Major Kaminski commanded this brave battalion but was wounded and his troopers moved back behind line of skirmishers.
    When there is no second line supporting the first line the fight is a risky one even for stubborn troops. At Borodino the Russian infantry adwanced in close columns (in "dense masses" according to de Segur) and was hit by French cannonballs. The missiles made wide and long holes in the dense formations, and cries of pain and horror were heard. The columns halted for a moment before their officers and NCOs put some order in the ranks. The French artillery redoubled their fire. The columns kept coming in slow but steady pace until canister shattered their front ranks. The leading officers and grenadiers fell down killed or wounded and the columns again halted. The French poured canister after canister at them. Finally the attackers broke and fled but not before another attempt to restore the order was made. There was no second line to counterattack or support the broken columns and the Russians were forced to abandon that area.

    According to the regulations the minimum distance between battalions was the distance of a platoon (company), regardless if the battalions were in a line of continous battalion-columns by divisions or not. Usually the distance between battalions was such that they had space to deploy from narrow and deep columns to thin and long lines.

    Lines were mainly for firefight, squares were against cavalry and (compact) attack columns for rapid attacks. The so-called colonnes serres par division was a column formed by 3 divisions (6 companies) at close intervals (serres) or at a distance of 3 feet between the companies.
    The infantry also prefered marching in columns as much as possible. It was the simplest of all formations and the fastest to advance.
    The columns were defficient in firepower, only the troopers in the first 2-3 ranks could use their muskets effectively. The strength of columns was in the threat of the bayonets and the shock power. Every man close at hand was an aid in helping the individual soldier choke down the fear which might otherwise have stopped him. The column was also an excellent device for bringing men more rapidly into action. The column would be deployed into line at the right moment and then open fire at the enemy.
    Sometimes the French columns were hidden behind a hill (Lannes at Austerlitz) or kept inside the woods out of harm's way (Ney at Friedland). Some of the battalion columns at Friedland and Ligny laid down in tall grass or wheat-fields to avoid artillery fire. The 3 regiments of Vistula Legion at Borodino were ordered to drop flat on the ground instead of standing under heavy cannonade. Only their officers remained standing according to Kirkor after Heinrich von Brandt.
    In 1809 at Wagram entire Austrian j�ger battalion took cover in a drainage ditch 100 paces in front of a village. Mass of 2.000 men was sheltered behind the earthen dike surrounding the village. The 47th Inf. Reg. laid down on the ground, safe from artillery fire and waitning for the French to come. When enemy's columns of infantry marched toward this village the j�gers rose up and delivered a deadly salvo at close range. In the safety of dry moat around the tower near Neusiedel, general Radetzky kept hundreds of his white-clad infantrymen.
    In 1812 at Borodino several Westphalian battalion stood in close columns near the Shevardino Redoubt when Russian grenades exploded over their heads and cannonballs ploughed deep holes. At the instant entire columns flung themselves down flat "on their stromachs". They stayed in this position for some time before were ordered to march.
    In 1813 at the battle of Katzbach (today Kaczawa River in Poland), 6.000-7.000 Prussian infantrymen and landwehr of 7th Brigade lay quietly behind the heights near Christianhohe, watching the 8th Brigade fight and waitinng for their turn to enter the combat.
    In 1815 at Ligny approx. 24-36 battalions of Prussian infantry were deployed in the dead ground and several battalions were in tall crops and were unvisible to enemy's eyes.

    Typically French columns and lines were supported by numerous skirmishers. According to Davout's regulations issued in 1811, the skirmishers were 100-200 paces in front of their battalions operating in pairs.
    The lines and columns seems to be to feed the skirmish lines or to break down into skirmish lines themselves. The skirmihers were able to inflict casualties, cause some disorder and conceal what the remaining infantry troops was going to do.

    Two types of battalion columns (French infantry battalion of 6 companies in 1808-1815):

    Decree of 1808 stated that when the grenadier and voltigeur companies are detached from their parent battalion, the battalion would act by platoons (each company constituting a "platoon").
    This type of column has a narrow front and it takes slightly longer time to form than the column below. But because of its narrow front is easier to manauver and pass through a narrow space, especially in a wooded and/or hilly terrain or in the cities and towns. For example the Austrian village of Aspern comprised 2 parallel streets, each wide enough to permit a full "platoon" to deploy.




    Decree of 1808 stated that when the grenadier and voltigeur companies are were present, the battalion would act by divisions (two companies constituting a "division").
    This type of column was THE most commonly used during Napoleonic wars by the French infantry. It takes shorter time to form which is important factor on the battlefield. It also has wider front which allows to bring faster and more muskets into action if needed.

    Sometimes the columns advanced to within musket range before starting to deploy into line. It was not a good thing. Before the deployment could be finished the battalion was put into disorder and men started to flee. The best situation was to deploy from column into line beyond effective range of musket fire as did the 57e Ligne in 1809 at Teugen. When the French 3e Ligne fell back under Austrian volleys, its troopers rallied and formed behind the advancing 3 battalion-size compact columns of 57e Ligne (one of the best Napoleonic troops). The 57e brushed the enemy away and descended into a hollow ground, then climbed again and showed up in front of Austrian main line of infantry. It was quite great distance between the Austrians and 57e when the white coats opened artillery and musket fire. Roundshots and canister hit the 3 advancing columns as they continued their advance.
    But the enemy was not intimidated by the advancing columns and held its ground.
    The French soon deployed from the sensitive to artillery fire 9-ranks deep columns into into a thin 3-rank deep line to respond with their own musketry. The line marched forward, stopping to fire "every 25 paces". The musket fire of the Austrians was getting thicker and thicker and the 57e halted. Both sides were now firing as fast as they could and the 3e Ligne joined the fight. As it went on and on the French 10e Legere appeared on Austrian flank. This sudden action, this surprise, and not the lenghty firefight broke the spirit of the enemy who abandoned his position.
    Only well-trained and very disciplined infantry could march and deploy while under fire. The majority of raw troops go into action the first time haltingly and gropingly, as if they were lost at night. The veterans march boldly. In 1805 at Austerlitz French infantry formed in columns advanced with great coolness and at slow pace. The Russian infantry fired at long range but the French continued their march until they were 100 paces away from the enemy. The attackers halted and opened fire, then "formed in several lines" and rapidly moved forward.

    For the final advance (if the enemy didn't flee earlier) and for firefight the best formation was line. Below: French battalion of 6 companies formed in line:

    . . . . .

    The line was 3 ranks deep and had been standard during the XVIII Century but lost popularity after the French triumphs with columns during the Revolutionary Wars. The difficulty with advancing lines was their sensitivity to terrain, distance and order. A line of 2 battalions on a battlefield would be halting to dress more frequently than 1 battalion. The line of each company bowing in the middle as they marched and in extreme circumstances break completely in half. Thus commanders used lines only for short distances and over open terrain with no serious obstacles.
    According to Friederich, Herbstfeldzuges Vol. I, in August 1813 at Hagelberg several battalions of Prussian reserve infantry and Landwehr advanced against French guns and infantry placed on Wind Mill Height. The first line of the attackers consisted of battalion of 3rd Landwehr Regiment and battalion of 1st Reserve Infantry Regiment. They were 200 paces away from the French infantry when orders were issued to attack with cold steel. The Prussians passed through the skirmish chain and deployed into line to exchange fire. The French line held their ground and opened rapid musket fire. After 3 minutes of musketry the Landwehr battalion had enough and hastily withdrew, "carrying the other battalions back with them." The French line triumphantly advanced forward.
    In 1813 at Kulm the Russian grenadier division led by GL Raievski (the hero of Borodino) marched against 4.000 French infantrymen deployed between Horka and Schandau. The French were ready and waiting. The Russian grenadiers advanced and exchanged volley after volley with the enemy. Then out of a sudden the French stopped firing and threw down their muskets, very many surrendered and others fled. It was discovered that the French exhausted their ammunition during the firefight.
    At Dennewitz (1813) Ney attacked with infantry, artillery and cavalry. In the head marched numerous skirmishers, behind them battalion columns of French and Italian infantry drawn from Morand and Fontanelli divisions. These masses were supported by cavalry and artillery.
    Ney advanced to within 80 paces of the lines of Prussian infantry (4th 'East Prussian' Infantry and 5th Reserve Infantry Regiment, and in the rear stood 3rd 'East Prussian' Landwehr Regiment and soon joined the firefight). The French and Italians deployed into lines and an incredible musketry began. Approx. in the same time 2 squadrons of Prussian Death's Head Hussars Regiment (1st Leib) attacked and halted the French cavalry while Prussian artillery poured canister after canister into the French. Ney's troops were beaten back.

    Sometimes the battalion didn't deploy from column to line in the last stages of attack but instead used the so called attack column. The NCOs would tight the ranks up for the quick attack, with only 2-3 paces between companies. The moral impulse is stronger as one feels better supported from behind. But the officers had less control over such column than over a column with intervals. [The officers and NCOs who were normally behind the 3rd ranks took positions on the sides and between the companies.]
    The attack column (or assault column) was used only when:

  • the enemy line or column was wavering and its fire was chaotic
  • the threat of enemy cavalry was very imminent and there was little time to form square
  • required the greatest speed of attack. It moved faster than any of the columns with intervals and much faster than square and line.
  • if a village or wood or redoubt had to be attacked

    The very compact column was formed for attack as the man wants company and in his hour of greatest danger his herd instinct drives him toward his fellows. The compact column was a source of comfort to the individuals to be close to another man, it made danger more endurable. But the officers having limited control over such tight formation become virtually powerless when it came to changing the direction of attack. Such column moved easily only forward, according to the impulses and threat. When artillery hit this column the casualties were very heavy, and the troopers usually either broke into run or slowed down or even halted. If they broke into run it meant their fighting spirit was high but they turned into disordered and screaming horde. If the enemy held his ground the disordered horde was easily defeated. If they slowned down their advance and halted they could still deploy into line and lessen the casualties from artillery. But often they halted and then retreated or fled.
    Wounded or dead horses and men, weapons on the ground, etc. were obstacles for this compact column and often caused the troops to break the order. The compact column changed into disordered horde again. If the enemy's infantry stood in line and was at least of average bravery the horde was easily repulsed.
    Thus this is not surpising that Napoleon said: "Columns don't break through lines. Unless with superior artillery."
    Therefore Napoleon concentrated his guns and cannonaded selected points in enemy's line. Weakened by artillery fire the lines were often wavering at the sight of quickly advancing, compact and noisy columns. In such case the rapidity of attack was important.
    In 1813 at the battle of Katzbach GdD Brayer deployed his 8 battalions (of several provisional regiments) on "the crest of a hill" and waited for the Prussians to come. The attackers deployed 15 guns and bombarded his right wing while two infantry columns supported by 12 guns advanced forward. Brayer's men held their ground until the Prussians came within musketry range and fired canister. It was too much for the defenders and they withdrew while the Prussian infantrymen (with fixed bayonets) advanced forward.

    Below , attack column of French infantry:


    The size of the column was not as decisive as some may think. There were cases where smaller column defeated a larger column.
    One of the important things was the morale of the men forming the head of the column. It could be easily broken by canister fire and by enemy's sharpshooters. Canister and musket-balls most often struck the the front ranks and not those behind them or the ones in the rear of column. But if a roundshot hit the column it killed/wounded up to dozen men at once demoralizing tens of others as they were "elbow-to-elbow". The casualties in column made far greater impression on the troopers and communicated itself through far more rapidly than on troopers in long lines where additionally the officers and NCOs had better control.
    Also surprise played a big role on battlefield - this factor is often forgotten. One general said that surprised troops are half defeated.

    If the troopers in front rank of advancing column (9, 12 or 18 ranks deep) halted and opened fire, the entire column halted too. Once halted, even if there has been no damage, the majority of troops never moves as strongly or as willingly again. After 3 or 4 such delays, men become morally spent, all impetus is lost and the attack might better off be called off for the day. A battalion, advancing boldly, maybe brought in check because its commander was hit and fell of his horse just in front of the column.
    When the column halted within fire range the officers usually attempted to deploy it into line so all troopers can fire their muskets. But more often than not the lads in the rear of column refused to leave the perceived safety. Instead they huddled behind the front-rankers and even some individuals dropped on the ground as if they were hit by a sack full of bricks. Each man wants to stay where he is. Usually such tangled mass of troopers took one volley after another before rapidly falling back. To get them going again as a group, a commander must expose himself to the point of suicide. But the men are in a moral slump and if their commander is hit they will break and flee.
    In 1813 the young French infantry was ordered by Napoleon to exercise over and over deploying from column into line. The head of the column had to open fire while the rest of the column had to deploy quickly.
    If the head of column was formed of brave veterans they advanced against enemy regardless of the casualties and crossed their bayonets with the enemy while the rear of the column formed of unexperienced troopers was either marching far behind or not following their brave comrades at all. The rear-rankers didn't see the enemy but they "imagined" the dangers. Robert Jackson wrote: "On the battlefield the real enemy is fear and not the bayonet or bullet".
    How true.
    A relatively good solution was to keep the veterans and bravest in the rear of column and led by a forceful officer. They did "the pushing" otherwise many of the men will not go. The weak ones always know that they will be able to offer some kind of excuse for their own failure. According to one source, in 1809 at Wagram out of 12.000-18.000 men under MacDonald's command advancing against enemy only 3.000 reached the Austrian positions, 6.000-9.000 were lightly or seriously wounded or killed, and several thousands dropped on the ground as if they were hit. Once the danger passed they either joined their battalions or fled. Such things took place virtually in every battle and in majority of attacks. The problem is that officers didn't like to mention such things if they happened in their regiment or division.
    The stragglers were a serious problem especially when there were more young and untrained recruits. For example at Wagram by mid-afternoon were 12.000 French and Saxon stragglers milling about Raasdorf !
    Often generals wanted to prohibit these things to happen and posted elite troops in the rear of column. Sense of being elite could foster a greater sense of courage and devotion to duty. The grenadiers were also seasoned troopers. In this formation the cowards had to march in the head of the column and not to hide behind the brave. But it worked only in limited way, it was just the other side of the same coin.
    According to Captain Bonnet at Borodino his battalion was deployed into line and waited for the enemy. The Russians came in a deep column and covered by skirmishers. The French immediately marched forward without firing a single shot. Such resolve communicated quickly and impressed the enemy. The men in the head of Russian column hesitated, wavered and halted. The rest of the column halted too. The French line continued its advance despite being hit by cannonballs and canister but the Russian column broke and fled without any attempt to deploy into line and fire at the French.
    Not always the French infantry deployed in line made such great moral impression on the enemy. For example at Aspern (1809) the French 26e Legere deployed into line on the outskirt of a village and delivered a powerful volley at the addvancing Austrian column. The Austrians "neither broke nor turned to confront" the French, instead they kept marching toward Aspern !

    Acknowledgement and sources :

    Brent Nosworthy - "With Musket, Cannon and Sword: Battle Tactics of Napoleon and His Enemies"
    Gunther E. Rothenberg - "The Napoleonic Wars (History of Warfare)"
    John R. Elting - "Swords Around a Throne: Napoleon's Grand Armee"
    Brent Nosworthy - "The Anatomy of Victory"
    Chandler - "The Campaigns of Napoleon"
    Arnold - "Napoleon Conquers Austria"
    Muir - "Tactics and the Experience of Battle in the Age of Napoleon"
    Lord Moran - "The Anathomy of Courage"
    Esposito, Elting - "A Military History..."

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