Friday, November 18, 2011

“Line vs. Column," Redux (Napoleonic Tactics)

It's been almost two years since I first released the DRAFT version of this study.  Due to an arsonist I lost my home and almost all of my wargaming collection. So in honor of the upcoming two year anniversary I've decided to re-release an updated version. 

There are still probable numerous errors as information is constantly being updated to date. Please feel free to share/comment on any errors, comments or information that you feel would help. Cheers & Enjoy!


Line vs. Column” (Napoleonic Tactics for Dummies) Actually myself!!!!!!
By: Chris Maine

“How this all came about!”

        I've been interested in "Napoleonic Tactics" for over thirty years, rapidly approaching forty, and although I must admit that when I started at age six, I knew far less than I think I know now. I’ve found lately that there’s always more room to learn. However, after “chasing the Dragon” (You know you never catch it!) on the column & line debate for years, I’d finally succumbed to the realization that once again I needed to re-educate myself on this topic in order to understand how it was that “Napoleonic Tactics” truly worked.

        I’ve been wargaming for years, and thought I had a pretty good handle on things, until I dropped out of the community for a while due to military and family obligations (25 yrs). Although I’ve attended the East Coast conventions for years, I usually got to tied up with selling in the Flea Market area and gradually drifted away from my basic love for wargaming the Napoleonic Era. So recently I decided to try and go back to the basics and to try to find like-minded individuals that are, or were, currently still interested in the period and to see what rules it was that they were now using and why?

        Therefore, I decided to start a new Yahoo Group where I could share all the things I’ve accumulated over the past thirty-odd years, and hopefully continue to learn a little more about this fascinating period of military history. And so Les Grognards (The Grumbler’s) was born. I felt it was an appropriately named title as I had gotten disheartened with some of the other sites & forum's that I used to visit quite regularly, and all the so called “forum etiquette” that's required that stifled really genuine debate.

        It was a specific post on the site that started me questioning myself as to what it was, in fact, that I thought I already knew about Napoleonic Tactics. Famous Message # 773 and my response #950.

        #773 Re: Writings on the Napoleonic Era!

        I don't need much teasing Chris... I was intrigued by Major Heinrich Wundenberg`s account there; of his battalion, " light troops advanced in loose order at the head of the column." How was that done... in loose files, open order, or an extended order and what were the size and frontage of the column? Do you have any more detail on this please? Regards, Mike

        And so wondering what the answer was to Mike’s query was myself? I started on my search to go back once again and try and rediscover the basics of Napoleonic Tactics, or to once again try to relearn what it was that I thought I had already learned once before. 

Thanks Mike!!!

      I want to start off here first with some definitions taken from contemporary sources of the time (By individuals who served, lived, & wrote during this era).

      First a definition of the types of various troops which will hope to somewhat help define their role! I'll start with "Infantry" first and then later move on to Cavalry;

"Infantry Definitions"

"Infantry" (Infanterie, Fr.) = This term being little understood to it's derivation, and having by some writers been either erroneously interpreted or erroneously traced, we think it our duty to give the best, and we presume, the only correct explanation of the word. In so doing we should be thankful to one of the most acute observers in life, and one of the closest reasoners, were we to omit acknowledging, that we have been favoured by the ingenious and learned author of the diversions of Purley, with the following account of its derivation. 

Johnson generally states, that Infantry are foot soldiers belonging to the army; and the compilers of other dictionaries with assimilating the term Infantry to the name of a Spanish Princess, who marched at the head of a body of Spaniards on foot and defeated the Moors. She was called Infanta. Our learned friend, on the contrary, traces the source to genuine etymology, and grounds his opinion on the best authorities. His first root is from the Greek phe-mi, Latin fa-ri, participle Fans--- Inf fans; Italian, Infante, by abridgment Fante; Infanteriaby abridgment Fanteria; French Infanterie; English Infantry.

It is still in French and English a common expression to soldiers. The French word Fantassin which signifies a foot soldier, is manifestly derived from Fante.

"Light Infantry" = An active strong body of men, selected from the aggregate of battalion companies, and made up of the most promising of troops that are occasionally enlisted. 

When the light infantry companies are in line with their battalions, they are to form and act in every respect as a company of the battalion, but when otherwise disposed of, they may loosen their files to six inches.

The open order of Light Infantry is usually two feet between each file.

The files may be extended from Right, Left or Center; in executing it, each front rank man must carefully take his distance from the man next to him on that side from which the extension is made: the Rear rank men conform to the movement of their file leaders.

When Light Infantrymen fire in extended order, it is to be a standing rule that the two men of the same file are never unloaded together; for which purpose as soon as the Front rank man has fired, he is to slip round the Left or the Rear rank man, who will take a short pace forward, and put himself in the others place, whom he is to protect while loading.

The extended order of Light infantry varies according to circumstances and situations. They may sometimes loosen their files to three times the distance. But the general rule is to allow convenient intervals for the Rear rank men to slip by, and return after they have fired.

All movements of Light Infantry except when firing, advancing, or retreating are to be in quick time.

The Officer commanding the company will be on the Right, covered by a Sergeant; the next on the Left also covered by a Sergeant. The youngest Officer in the Rear. In extended order the post of the Officers and Sergeants is always in the Rear at equal distances.

In marching by files the Officer commanding leads: by divisions each Officer leads one. The Supernumerary Officer, if there be one, is in both cases with the Officer commanding, ready to obey any directions he may receive from him.

The arms of Light Infantry in general will be carried sloped, and with the bayonets fixed. Flanking or Advance parties, however, or parties in particular situations, may carry them trailed, and without bayonets, for the purpose of taking a more cool and deliberate aim.

When the Light Infantry is order to cover the line to the front, the divisions will move from their inner flanks round the flanks of the battalions, and when at the distance of fifty paces, the leading flanks will wheel towards each other, so as to meet opposite the center of the battalion, opening their files gradually from the rear, so as to cover the whole extant of the battalion.

The files are not to wait for any word of command, but to halt and front themselves. In this position, and in all positions of extended order, the post of the Officer commanding is in the rear of the center, and the movements are to be regulated by the company belonging to the battalion, which governs those of the line. For a fuller explanation of Light company maneuvers, see page 273 to page 281 of the Infantry Regulations.

Light Infantry men, like Hussars, are frequently detached to act as scouts on the flanks, in the front, or with the Rear guard of the body of troops to which they belong. They then acquire the appellation of skirmishers, and being previously told off for that specific duty, they advance and form in the front in rank entire; which is effected by each man from the rear rank placing himself on the left of his file leader. The rank entire may be resorted to for various purposes during the movements of one or more battalions, since it may serve not only to cover them from the enemies observation, but in some cases, especially in foggy weather, will itself appear a larger body than it really is. Too much attention can not be given to the organization of Light Troops on foot. They are very properly called the eye's of the Army, and ought always be considered as indispensably necessary.

"Line Infantry" =

Eye Catching Article

        “Military Illustrated Magazine" #136, “Napoleon’s Columns in Action” What Actually happened when "column met line?”, Philip J. Haythornthwaite,  pg's. 18-23. 

        I don’t know exactly why I picked up this magazine and never really read it, or perhaps I did read it over quickly, but then forgot about it with the quick passage of time. However, I had successfully squirreled it away and was later to come to realize that it actually was a pretty ground breaking and eye awakening article for me on helping me finally understand the somewhat convoluted and popularly discussed topic of "column vs. line." I’m not plagiarizing, but attempting to share information with those who hold a common interest in this ongoing although sometimes misinformed debate! Though most of the text is the same as in the original article. Some of the wording and content have been changed for the sake of clarity for myself. If there are any objections to any of the material presented, I will immediately remove it! Any mistakes & misrepresentations are mine alone!!!

Chris Maine

My addiction!

“Revelations from Above: The previously mentioned article”

A.) William Napier's view of unsuccessful attacks by French columns…... Along with “Wellington’s” famous declaration “He moved forward in the same Old style (in columns), and was driven off in the same (by line)” have resulted in today's commonly long held "line vs. column" view point

B.) Much information used in this debate looks at information from the Peninsula War –because much data is readily accessible in English, and it was because of the offensive use of the column by the French that caused it to have greater prominence in the common perceptional view.

C.) It should, however, be remembered that the subject is much greater than the Peninsula War, and that both line & columns were used in action by all armies involved in the Napoleonic Era.

D.) In fact, the word column is deceptive, as it described one formation used throughout the period by all armies. Actually, it can be described by many deployments, from a “column of march” no wider than a road upon which troops are moving, to be various “columns of attack," to densely –packed bodies of troops like the Austrian “masse” and immense formations like that organized by Marshal Macdonald at Wagram. (My Note: Common sense needs to be applied when researching!)

E.) “Column of Attack”: Maneuver or attack used on the battlefield, mainly because it was simple to move a compact body of troops more quickly with less disorganization than if maneuvering or marching in line. Columns were used for maneuver by all armies.

        The “column of attack” used on the battlefield was considerably different from a “column of march” used on the road in which the depth was very much greater than the frontage.
(My note: See numerous examples).

        The column for maneuver or combat “column of attack” commonly had a frontage of one company (See examples),with other companies of the battalion arrayed in order behind it, or with half the depth and frontage of two companies, styled a “column of divisions” (See example) (or in British service, sometimes grand divisions), a division in this instance meaning a tactical unit of two companies.

        With each company arrayed in three ranks, and with a six company battalion (As decreed for the French infantry in 1808, prior to 1808 it was eight companies), given a theoretical strength of about 120 rank-and-file per company, a “column of divisions” would have a frontage of 80 men and a depth of 9, a “column of companies” (peloton) with one company frontage would have a frontage of 40 men and a depth of 18 (excluding any deployed as skirmishers, when the depth would reduce accordingly).

        With companies of two ranks in the later years, (or in the case of under strength Bn’s), the frontage would be even greater to the depth. The term “closed column” often encountered in contemporary accounts, described a formation in which the companies followed each other in close proximity, as usually adopted in combat, without the standard maneuvering distance between them.

“Peloton en ordre de bataille (en colonne d’attaque)”

The frontage of one company, two peloton's in column.
(c) Emmanuel Roy-Créé à l'aide de Populus.Modifié en dernier lieu le 26.06.2007

        The column for maneuver or combat “column of attack” commonly had a frontage of one company, with other companies of the battalion arrayed in order behind it.

        The tactical unit is not the company, it is the platoon (peloton). The company is the administrative entity, while the platoon is the tactical one.

        In an ideal situation, each platoon will be formed from exactly one company. But very often, within a battalion, the companies don’t have the same strength, because of casualties or of recruitment contingencies. Which would be source of problems if the companies were used as such on the field, because to be able to perform its various manoeuvres and formations, it is important for the battalion that all its platoons are of equal strength, in the purpose of symmetry.

        In other words, it means that if the 1st company numbers 120 men and the 2nd company only 100, the first platoon will be formed with 110 men from the 1st company, while the second will be made up of the 100 men of the 2nd company, plus 10 men from the 1st company, so the two platoons will maneuver with 110 men each.

        However the 10 men of the 1st company who maneuver with the 2nd platoon, these men are not transferred to the 2nd company, and at the end of the day, they will go back to the 1st company.

“Column of Attack”

French battalion of 600 men in Double Company Column

(c) Nigel P. Marsh, Carnage & Glory II, 05/Aug/2009



  1. Hello grunbler
    I to loved napoleonic wargaming and read the battle accounts lapping up the accounts of great cavalry charges and infantry assaults. But I became disillusioned with the rules that were used to help reproduce that. The trouble is its history so your opponant knows all the right tatics and its just the luck of the dice which makes the victory, they know the mistakes commanders made. For instance what napoleonic wargame rules would allow you to produce Murat's brave but foolish cavalry charge at the Russian infantry at the battle of Eylau which if produced in wargame form would not be reproduced as the player commanding the Russian side would just form squares with his Infantry standard tatics for infantry vs cavalry. That was why i was fasinated by the period to try a reproduce the storming of the pratzen heights or turning a route into a victory at Marengo but your opponant knows the the mistakes thoes commanders made, they have read the same books and the luck of the dice is always going to fail you when you need to make thoes big plays because dice always average out. Maybe that's why Napoleon when he was promoting generals and he was being told how brave or tactically aware he was he askes "Yes, but is he lucky"

    1. John, that's why I play C&G II where fatigue and morale and what you do to your units matters! Yet due to the FOG OF WAR you as the player have no real idea of your units status unless you ask, or are the GM. GM's discretion whether to release or not. But in the end all this leads to Battle fatigue = stress that a unit would actually encounter on a battlefield. There is no other system that I've ever played that represents this aspect so wonderfully. I highly recommend you try them. There's also a Yahoo group where questions can be asked and answered. I believe it may give you what you're looking for and which mentioned above in your post. Give it a try you won't be disappointed. Cheers,