Sunday, November 20, 2011

“Line vs. Column," 6



“Column Tactics” Continued


J.) “Contrary to many interpretations”: 

French columns often do seem to have made significant efforts to deploy even as they were engaged. Examples may be found with two of the most famous French infantry attacks at Waterloo. Deployment under such fire was extremely hazardous, so there must be a suspicion that on occasion some commanders continued to attack in column, even though aware of its shortcomings, rather than risk stopping to maneuver. (My note: I have to disagree with P. J. H. here using the common sense applies rule, I believe he did not want to come off as anti-British as well as stated in the beginning of the article that the Peninsular view was not the main view, but then ends the article by reverting back to the Peninsula) (I personally maneuvered on the parade ground at Ft. Benning, GA in 1987 for hours in a company (battalion) size formation conducting all kinds of difficult formations, and executions without having to stop, it only took seconds when properly executed.) How do you explain the plate on the main slide showing units moving although I will admit extremely difficult under battlefield conditions, that’s why men drill so as to automatically execute without thinking
(30 seconds, or less)!)


(See column to square 1806 in video 26:30)

K.) “Terror of the Column”: 

Morale wise the effect upon the enemy of the sight of an approaching column must have been profound: the sight of masses advancing rapidly to charge either the line or the columns opposed to them, this effect is so great that often the enemy ‘gave way whenever a French column came within a certain distance of them, and the French generals never experienced much difficulty in bringing up their columns to this critical point’. Leaving aside the decision to deploy or not, it was rare that a column ever came so close to an enemy that bayonets were crossed (My note: Halt, but P.J.H. just mentioned previously in (I.) that the British always followed up with a bayonet charge, something doesn't smell right here. Maybe he should of stated the threat of a bayonet charge?), ‘a thing which has never been known, except partially, or where a dense smoke has brought troops unconsciously close upon one another…because either one or the other party has invariably given way before an actual contact has taken place…(My note: Definitely needs to be better represented on the wargames table!!!) the contest is merely a moral one –for long before they meet, one wavers… and is lost!


(Napoleonic infantry rarely crossed bayonets. This seems to contradict many rules systems where units slam into each other frequently on the battlefield. Column or line matters not, if the opposing side does not break and delivers short ranged fire.)

(See terror of column 1806 video 32:05)


1806_engl by Chretzel

L.) “Reasoning behind the column”: 

Men in column felt more secure than those in line; those at the front were reassured by the supporting troops at their rear, and those at the rear felt safe by the ranks in the front forming what amounted to a parapet to shield them from enemy musketry.

“Column Facts”

Battalions were meant to deploy in fixed widths. (Co’s & Peloton's) all French battalions used the peloton as the tactical unit, whereas the Company was an organizational unit. However, peloton's were distinctly ad-hoc and soldiers were quite frequently and regularly transferred from one peloton to another, whereas they weren't transferred from one company to another. The idea was to keep the number of men in each peloton as equal as possible. The reason for that was so that, for example, when forming column of companies (i.e. a frontage two peloton's wide) the column would have a roughly equal number of files in each rank.

French Co’s 1791-1808 3 ranks, 1808 –1815 2 ranks (Especially after 1813 due to losses in manpower)

Frontage widths were always maintained no matter how many ranks. (I.E. Plugging the gap, later ranks would merely walk forward to plug any holes occurring in the line.)

(Ex. If units were under strength;
I-----200-----I
I-----200-----I
I--50--I    The 3rd Rank were the skirmishers in may countries.


Within the battalion, men were organized into companies: nine per battalion in the French army until 1808, when a reorganization reduced it to six (one grenadier, one light, four line). In the Austrian army battalions had six companies; in the Prussian, four; and in the British, ten. Confusingly a pair of companies were often referred to as a division, so that a battalion in a “column of divisions” had a front of two companies. This had nothing to do with the higher formation of a division (which usually contained several brigades; ten or a dozen battalions), though it has been suggested –not very plausibly –that confusion over the terms was responsible for d’Erlon’s monstrous formation at Waterloo.

A battalion would form column on a front of one, or more commonly two, companies, giving it a front of around fifty to eighty men, and a depth of nine to twelve men, depending on the number and strength of the companies in the battalion. It would thus be thirty to sixty yards wide and between twelve and fifteen yards deep, when the companies were closed up for an attack, making it more a stubby line than a ‘column’. Sometimes, however, a number of battalions –perhaps a whole regiment, or even more –were deployed behind the other, greatly increasing the depth of the column while its front remained limited to two companies. Such a formation had little to recommend it, except in a defile or when the terrain otherwise compelled the advancing troops to attack on a very narrow front. Open columns, with large gaps between successive companies enabling them to swing out and deploy into line or square, were widely used for maneuvering at a distance from the enemy, even by the British; but they were not suitable for close combat, having none of the compactness and cohesion of a closed column, nor the firepower of a line.

In general the column –particularly smaller battalion columns –had many advantages. With their narrow front and without the need to maintain perfect alignment with their neighbors, they could advance far more rapidly and over much rougher ground than infantry in line. Their officers and NCO’s were concentrated so that they could more easily set their men a prominent example or maintain pressure from behind as circumstances required, while the press of comrades to front and rear must have encouraged the men, far fewer of whom were in the exposed front ranks immediately facing the enemy. The flanks of the column were far less vulnerable, for by filling the gaps between companies with officers and NCO’s, while men on the outer edge of each company faced outwards, it could quickly convert into a solid block, less secure than a properly formed square but still capable of resisting all but the most determined cavalry. Alternatively a proper square could be formed more quickly and easily from a column than from line. For all these reasons columns were ideally suited for use by poorly trained troops making an attack.

(“Tactics and the Experience of Battle in the Age of Napoleon”, Rory Muir, p. 68., 71)


Which columns were in fact used at different times and in different circumstances is not entirely clear... but we do have examples of specific names of these columns being used in accounts of certain battles.


In general however there would seem to have been a trend towards the adoption of the column of divisions rather than the column of attack because it was found to be easier to use and control.


The column formed on the centre would seem to be preferred as a formation to perform a passage of line in chequer board array. In this, the battalions in each line would have deployment intervals between them, and so would have been closer together than they are depicted in the diagram that is page on 16.



Otherwise the battalions in each line would have an interval of a battalion, or more between them! Even in chequer board array a division would still be required to maneuver as a body of troops, so it would not be done to allow battalion commanders to disregard the movements of the other battalions in their line.

Continued...