Deployment of armies on the battlefield

1 The way of fighting seems illogical

To many a casual observer (like I was some years ago) the whole way of fighting in these times seems illogical. Sitting in front of the television one thinks: 'They do not take cover and are all standing in a heap!' 'How stupid, the enemy will always hit someone!' Of course the 18th century general knew more about fighting a war with the available means than the 21st century television-addict. Let's see why it was done the way it was done.

2 Why men were deployed as they were:

2.1 Soldiers stood in thight formations

As stated in the chapter about cavalry weapons, infantry wandering loose could easily by killed by cavalry. Infantry thus had to be close to each other to be able to present a solid front of bayonets. Any horse seeing such a hedge of bayonets will not charge into it (horses are that intelligent). This explains why soldiers stood in very thight formations.

2.2 soldiers did not take cover on the battlefield

On the battlefield the infantry is not lying down in cover because of the way the musket has to be loaded. If you lye down you cannot reload and return fire. (When at Waterloo Wellington's men lay on the ground this was done against artillery fire). Thus it came about that infantry battalions literally stood up to each other, firing till one of the sides lost nerve and retreated.

2.3 soldiers walked up to the enemy while being shot

Considering the range and accuracy of the musket, and the fact that shortening the distance greatly increased accuracy, it was best to open fire at a distance of about 100 feet (30 meters). For the defending infantry this required nerves, and in reality troops opened fire much earlier. For the attacker firing meant standing still to fire and to load again, giving the defender the same opportunity. Thus scenes in movies were soldiers walk upright while being shot actually depict a sensible modus operandi.

3 Depth of formations:

3.1 Soldiers in a line three or four men deep

At the time most formations were four men deep. The logic behind it is that you want a packed formation against cavalry, but also want to have maximum firepower.

The four row formation was invented for row-fire. The fourth row can safely fire over the heads of the three rows kneeling in front of it. After it has fired, the third row stands and fires, etcetera, while the fourth row is loading. (I do not see how the first rows can load when the fourth row fires).

3.2 Platoon fire

The alternative is platoon-fire with all rows firing at the same time. With men standing shoulder to shoulder three men (one kneeling) behind each other is the maximum that can fire together without damaging each other. Platoon firing had the advantage that the sight-problems caused by the powder fogs were less. In platoon fire it also makes less sense to have four rows as the fourth row cannot fire together with the first three.

4 The space units took on the battlefield

When studying accounts of battles one may sometimes want to check whether a certain number of units could indeed have fitted into a certain space. For this one can count a 650 men French battalion on 4 rows of 162 men to make a front of 324 pieds or 54 toises. This computing that one man took two pieds of space in the rank. A pied was 32.5 cm, so 324 pieds equals 105 m. For the same battalion standing of four rows the sum would be 216*2*0.325 = 140 m. It was said that the space between battalions was also 324 pieds or 105 m.

For a squadron one would count with a 150 men unit in three lines and each men taking up 3 pieds. The front of a squadron would make 3*0.325*50 = 49 m. The space between squadrons was measured as 25 toises of 6 pieds each, which is also 49 m1.

5 Notes

1) Elémens de tactique by Guillaume le Blond Paris 1758, page 245 has computations like this for the width of battalions and squadrons.