Saturday, 22 September 2007


Infantry Tactics and Combat
Application of tactics in combat demanded skilled soldiers. Infantrymen were trained to practice several movements for firing their musket. Concentration of infantry firepower was essential due to the poor accuracy of the smoothbore musket. In combat the ratio of musket fire was one to three shots per minute. This depended on the quality of the weapon, the amount of training the soldier had received and the time he actually took for aiming when in combat. Light infantry could fire four shots a minute. Both the French and Russian infantry fired in three ranks. The French infantry also applied a system of firing in two ranks because fire from the third rank was found impractical when troops wore backpacks. When firing the men were packed so close that they had to struggle for space in order to load, aim and fire. In combat an infantry firefight usually sucked in nearby battalions, even without the consent of officers. For this reason it was important to have troops in reserve. Concentrated firing at a high rate produced massive clouds of smoke. This smoke sometimes was very dense, thereby obscuring almost all vision. Firefights usually lasted only a few minutes. The first salvo fired at close range caused the greatest damage and after this one side usually had enough and withdrew.

For close combat soldies were instructed to use the bayonet. During the Napoleonic wars there were many bayonet attacks. It was most effective against enemy troops that were busy deploying. Both Russian and French infantry frequently used the bayonet. There were some differences in regulations between them, but basically it was done to weaken the enemy both physically and emotionally before real contact was made. Actual bayonet fighting between soldiers took place in house to house fighting, in woods, gardens or broken terrain, and in fighting over redoubts. Bayonet fights in open field between large bodies of troops were rare. In bayonet charges troops advanced either with or without making noise, both in order to intimidate and confuse the enemy. In most cases the unit that was under a bayonet attack would withdraw from its position. Bayonet wounds were often inflicted during pursuit or during a flank attack. Grenadiers proved better suited for assault with the bayonet than other infantry types because they were tall, strong, battle-hardened and very disciplined soldiers.

During battle it was often impossible for all men to hear their officer’s vocal commands. Therefore every infantry company had musicians. These musicians, especially drummers, mastered a lot of rhythmic commands and the infantry was trained to act in accordance. Cornets (horn blowers) performed that role in many light infantry regiments and companies of the Grand Army but in 1812 these frequently had drummers too.
Infantry regiments also carried flags. These were primarily a testimony for the ‘esprit de corps’, but also served as recognition points when on the battlefield and as rallying points for the men after engagements. These flags were the soul of the regiment and the loss of a flag to the enemy was considered a disgrace. For this reason Flags were not always carried along into battle.

The infantry was trained to operate in several formations: line, column, square and skirmish formation. In these formations companies, battalions, regiments, brigades and even divisions manoeuvred, advanced and fought. The basic tactical unit was the battalion. Distance between battalions allowed for deployment from one formation to another. In practice small intervals were essential to maintain cohesion. Intervals between battalions in the front and second line were larger. When one of the front line battalions was beaten or broken by enemy infantry another battalion from the second line would counterattack. In many cases a beaten or broken battalion fled towards or through the second line and caused disorder. Furthermore, the sight of fleeing friendly troops could have a great negative effect on morale of the men.

Advance in line formation was applied when covering a short distance over open and easy going terrain. Only highly trained troops were capable of keeping line formation in battle. In 1812 most infantry of both Russian and Grande Army advanced in column. The column enabled infantry units to manoeuvre rapidly and to go over all kinds of terrain in various speeds. There existed several variants of the column, but basically these are the closed column and the attack column. When advancing under enemy fire the best formation was the attack column. Once within striking distance of the enemy line the column closed up and attacked with the bayonet. This was frequently done because column formation lessened the available firepower allowing only the front ranks to use their muskets effectively. With bayonets fixed and using shock power of the compact formation an attacking column it could waver or even punch through the enemy line. But advancing columns were vulnerable when under artillery fire. In order to minimise casualties it could speed up and sometimes take cover by having the men lie down. Only the officers remained standing. At Borodino some French troops used the so-called mixed order (l’ordre mixte), that is a combined formation of several infantry battalions formed up in line and some in column. This provided both shock and fire power.

Infantry formed square when under (the threat of) a cavalry attack. Well-trained and experienced infantry needed shorter time to form a square than troops of lesser quality. The square could either be a hollow or closed formation. The closed square formation is in fact the closed column having the men on the sides and rear turn to face outwards. A hollow square is a formation where the infantrymen formed the walls of a bastion, standing shoulder to shoulder, presenting bayonets. It had an open centre that was occupied by just a few men. Forming a closed square was easier than forming a hollow square. A formation in square was able to manoeuvre, but in practice this was quite difficult. The bigger the square the more firepower it could provide. Besides large squares proved almost unbreakable. Squares provided a relative safe place against cavalry. The men fired at the attacking cavalry when at about five to ten metres distance in order to prevent enemy horses falling dead or wounded between their ranks. A horse could cause a gap in square. Infantry in square fired deadly volleys at close range. Usually there were more horses killed and wounded than cavalrymen.
Squares were sometimes strengthened by artillery. A single square could be provided with a cannon on each corner. When more troops were in square formation in the same area guns were placed either in front of or between squares.

Skirmish formations usually went ahead or along the flanks of larger bodies of troops. These formations were known as skirmish lines. A skirmish line was formed either to harass enemy troops or as a protection of own forces when under enemy attack. The main purpose of skirmishing was to disrupt enemy formations by causing casualties before the main impact or to lure the opposing infantry into a premature attack. Skirmishers acted in pairs. They used terrain features and buildings as cover, and targeting primarily on enemy officers, musicians, gunners, and skirmishers.

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