Woman at WorkJust some odd thoughts, so I don't forget them



Line Vs Column?

A lot has been said about why the French failed against the British in the Peninsular. Oman accidentally started a fashion for saying that it was the British line beating the French column. That view has been exploded now (indeed Oman later modified his views in light of new evidence) since it has been realised that all armies (including the British, cf the 3rd division at Salamanca) on the whole advanced in column but deployed into line to attack. The French did develop a tactic on the massive (in terms of men deployed) battlefields of central Europe of using a mass column to make a breakthrough, but this tactic was not used in Spain where the battles were (numerically) smaller.

Nosworthy (amongst others) postulates that the French commanders lost their bearings when advancing against the British and failed to deploy until it was too late. They suggest several reasons for this:
1. The strong British skirmish lines meant that the French skirmishers never reached the main British line and were unable to orient the main body,
2. Wellington (in particular) chose positions with a reverse slope, so the attacking French were unable to see the British line until they were on top of it and it was too late to deploy.

A third reason could be the practise of the British of holding their fire and firing low - probably a consequence of being the only army which trained with live ammunition. Most continental armies, having trained only with blanks, tended to fire high and the French were no exception. To quote Surtees (speaking of Barossa) "The caps of the tall guardsmen were riddled as it were; while the greater part of the enemy's shot passed over our little fellows, who were both too near them and too low for their fire. I may remark on this subject that the French generally fire high, but here I think unusually so*;" Advancing against an army which starts firing beyond range and which fires high, it must be fairly easy to judge when the bullets are getting close above your head, which means it is time to deploy. Malcolm describes the difference between the "long melancholy whistle of the spent balls" and balls flying past "in full force, with a noise resembling the chirping of birds" (Chapter II). With the British holding their fire the French commanders had to judge their deployment "deaf" and when the British did open fire, the "aiming low" mean that the French would be hit at a greater distance than against most other armies. So if the French judged their distance visually (by experience in previous battles) they could easily find themselves in a hail of lead before deploying.

*Note: the British were attacking uphill, so the French were firing downhill. Firing downhill, it is necessary to aim lower than usual. If the French had not been taught aimed fire and just did their usual high shots they would indeed have fired higher than usual.

Lateral Communications

Another aspect is that Wellesley's defensive lines were rarely static. He thoroughly understood the principles of interior lateral communication and generally had his engineers building roads rather than fortifications. Even in the Lines of Torres Vedras the roads were built so that the regulars could be moved to repel an attack on any part of the line. The road he built along the top of Busaco Ridge is still there - the road that Hill used to bring his troops (the British right) to the support of the centre just when the French thought they'd gained the crest. So not only did French commanders have trouble locating the British line, just when they thought they'd got through another one would appear. This was part of the problem in the Battle of the Pyrennees - the commanders of the British right fell back beyond the lateral communication road so it was difficult for Wellington to re-inforce them.

Silence as a weapon

There is a well known quote from Colonel Bugeaud (a respected military writer who fought the British on the East coast of Spain in Catalonia and Valencia) describing what it felt like to attack a British line:

At about a thousand yards from the English line the men begin to get excited, and some to talk; pointing to the enemy and exchanging ideas in agitation. They hurry their march; the ranks begin to waver a little here and there, and get out of order. The English on their side remain silent; they are all standing stock-still, with ordered arms. In their impassive immobility they look as immovable as a long red-brick wall. And at the same time their imposing steadiness invariably produces a bad effect on our younger soldiers.

Very soon, as we get nearer, the ranks begin, by degrees, to get restive and noisy. Cries and shouts now come from some of the men; ejaculations of "Vive l'Empereur!" "En Avant!" "A la baionette!"

Next, under the same influence of excitement, a number of shakos are raised on the muzzles of the muskets in some of the companies. The whole march forward is quickened imperceptibly until the pace, without orders, is gradually increased to almost a run. The ranks are getting intermixed now, and confusion begins to set in at many points. Indeed, the general agitation threatens to become almost a tumult. And too, in their excitement, some of our soldiers begin firing off their muskets at random as they advance.

All the time the English line remains absolutely silent; standing yonder, calm and motionless. They stand there with ordered arms, drawn up as on parade; even when we are not three hundred yards away. To look at them they simply seem as if they ignore the storm that is about to break on their heads.


But we have not to wait much longer. The time has come!

At this moment of painful anticipation, of intense excitment, the English wall is suddenly seen to stir itself, to make a move. The redcoats, all of a sudden, all in unison, shoulder arms. We know what that means. They are making ready!


A moment later, all together up go the English muskets to the shoulder. They gleam horribly in a long row as they are levelled. The next instant - immediately a blaze flashes forth, all along, close in front of us. It has come!
Colonel Bugead quoted in Fraser "The Soldiers whom Wellington Led"

This silent controlled wall is often associated with Wellington, and it is true that he took advantage of it. But the above was written of the Anglo-French battles in Catalonia and Valencia, and it would appear from British diaries that this was a characteristicly British practice. But where did this arise? I came across the following in Heath's "Archery: A Military History"

During this time a heavy rain fell, accompanied by thunder and a very terrible eclipse of the sun; and before this rain a great flight of crows hovered in the air over all the battalions, making a loud noise; shortly afterwards it cleared up, and the sun shone very bright; but the French had it in their faces and the English on their backs. When the Genoese were somewhat in order they approached the English and set up a loud shout, in order to frighten them; but the English remained quite quiet and did not seem to attend to it. Then they set up a second shout, and advanced a little forward; the English never moved. Still they hooted a third time, advancing with their crossbows presented, and began to shoot. The English archers then advanced one step forward and shot their arrows with such force and quickness that it seemed as if it snowed. ...

This is from Jean Froissart's description of the start of the battle of Crecy in 1346. Froissart (a noted chronicler) was a near contemporary, writing soon after the event but, apart from the mention of bows and arrows, it could be a description of a Napoleonic war confrontation. It seems the British long, silent wall could be part of a very old tradition!


The strength of a regiment in battle was in it's unity. If that unity was broken - if someone broke, if some part failed a manoeuvre - then the regiment (and its component parts) were at risk. Therefore the trust and unity between the elements of the regiment was paramount - trust between the men, trust between the officers, and trust between men and officers - and anything that broke that trust was a threat to the regiment in the next battle. Despite the weird and wonderful system of selecting officers, a cowardly officer was rare in the British army. Stupidly brave was much more common so the men had confidence that their officers would at least stand with them. Tales like those from Albuera of officers grabbing muskets from the dead and standing shoulder to shoulder with the rankers in the dwindling rally points reinforced the feeling in other regiments.

This is why relatively minor crimes (like thievery) were regarded with abhorrence and severely punished. How could the men concentrate on their work if they were worrying about someone stealing from their packs? Private Wheeler found out the painful way just how seriously going AWOL while on picquet duty was regarded - once again it is a breach of trust.

It is also the element that Wellington recognized as missing from the Portuguese and Spanish armies. When the British officers and NCOs started working with the Portuguese regiments, they were initially resented by the Portuguese officers, but the men recognized the expertise they were bringing to bear and began to trust them straight away. Thus the regiments began to pull together very quickly and the Portuguese officers began to learn their jobs and became part of the process.

It is the foundation of "esprit de corps".

This sort of ties in with some thoughts I'm having about why the British officer system worked at all, let alone well, despite the crazy mixed up promotions systems.

Strengths and Casualties

It is common to find wildly varying estimates of the strengths and casualties of armies engaged in a battle. There are a number of reasons for this.

Firstly politics - the bigger the disproportion in the enemies favour the greater your victory or the more excusable your loss.

Secondly definition - arguments abound as to exactly who was involved in a battle. One side may claim to have fought the entire enemy army, while the other may claim that some divisions were too far behind the front and not involved. The fighting in Massena's retreat from Portugal did not involve all of both armies. Massena was retreating along a narrow corridor and most of the maneuvring and fighting was between Ney's 6th Corps on the French side and the Light and 3rd Divisions plus Pack's Portuguese supported by the 4th Division on the British.

Thirdly accounting - Napoleon is supposed to have called the British "a nation of shopkeepers" and when it came to their army they certainly were. Wellington received daily "morning states", a tally of the men present under arms, detached, sick or otherwise disposed, from each regiment which he passed on to Horse Guards at regular intervals and which for the most part still exist. So British numbers are fairly exact. (It's difficult to lie about numbers when they are recorded every day.) The French did the same thing, but their returns were bi-monthly. So French losses can be estimated fairly well, but assignment to closely spaced actions can be difficult, especially if a commander has a reason for fudging the figures. The Portuguese and the Spanish called for manpower returns only intermittently - once or twice a year - so their figures are very hard to estimate. Not to mention the ephemeral nature of the army and militia battalions which formed and dissolved often without official recognition.

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Last update 14/7/03