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"Makeup of (eg) a Waterloo British infantry square" Topic

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4th Cuirassier01 Mar 2010 5:08 a.m. PST

OK this is a diorama question for which I seek the help and crowd wisdom of the TMP massive.

Infantry squares were in either three or four ranks AIUI (ignoring Austrian masses). In a four-rank Waterloo-era British square, what were the stances adopted from front to back?

Was it two ranks kneeling, two standing? Was it one kneeling, three standing? If so, how were muskets held, in order to create the famous 'thicket of bayonets'? You'd have the kneeling guys with musket butts on the ground, I suppose, and presumably the second rank would have theirs levelled around hip height. But how did the third and fourth ranks hold theirs? Were the fourth ranks even part of the 'thicket'?

Officers presumably were not in the ranks, as they'd get picked off, and the misses would also hit those around them correct? What about sergeants and other NCOs? Were they in the ranks too or behind them?

How were the corners of a square configured? The guy in the front corner position had the worst spot in the world, right?

Riflemen had sword bayonets supposedly so that they could form square along with musket-armed troops. Are there any instances of their doing so? Eg at Waterloo, Adam's brigade was light infantry and rifles. The light infantry formed squares and repulsed the French carabinier brigade, but where were the riflemen while this was happening? Did they gather inside the nearest square and then exit quickly to engage the French skirmishers, or did they take stations in the actual faces of a square so they could try to pick off targets?

Was it possible to shoot from the inside of a square outwards?

Is it generally the case that the dead would be chucked out of the square and the wounded drawn inside?

How close would sword cavalry have got to a square?

Lots of questions, but despite reading in this period for 30-odd years, I can't recall having come across the answers, except for the last couple where the answers are often at odds.

Musketier Supporting Member of TMP01 Mar 2010 5:32 a.m. PST

Others will be along presently with answers on your main question, but as for the Rifles, Adam's 2nd battalion did indeed spend the day of Waterloo in close order, forming square or line as required. This may be due to the fact that he had a surfeit of Rifles: there were two companies of the 3rd battalion of the 95th also attached to him, which performed skirmishing duties for the brigade.

Pity the French cavalry officers leading from the front against a square of riflemen! (For yes it was possible for the rear rank(s) of square to fire at the attackers).

My source is a very detailed booklet, "Rifles at Waterloo"; will post details when I get home tonight.

Supercilius Maximus Supporting Member of TMP01 Mar 2010 6:29 a.m. PST

I think four ranks for British; three, or occasionally six, for foreigners.

Front two ranks kneeling, presenting their bayonets; third rank most likely ditto; they and the fourth rank did most all of the shooting, the front two generally reserving their fire for either personal protection (eg against a lancer) or for really desperate situations.

Officers and sergeants would stand on the inside, ensuring that gaps were quickly filled, stopping people "leaving early", and directing local firing at targets of opportunity.

I seem to recall reading somewhere that only the eight centre companies were normally used to form the square. The light company (and any attached riflemen) roamed around the inside picking off enemy officers etc, whilst the grenadier company reinforced the corners, which were the most vulnerable spot (and were indeed the "short straw" as it was often the place the cavalry tried to shoot their way through – occasionally the corners were blocked off with an artillery piece I think). There's a painting by Lady Butler of the square of a line regiment at Waterloo that shows the corner arrangement quite well.

As casualties mounted, the square would necessarily shrink and space considerations alone would dictate that the dead were removed (they would also form an extra barrier to the enemy) and the wounded brought in to the middle, where the colours and music would stand.

As to how close cavalry would get, the answer is as close as their horses would go. One British ranker (kneeling in the front rank) recalled a French trooper walkng his horse up to him and aiming a cut at his head, which he could not avoid. He shut his eyes anticipating the blow, and when he opened them again, one of the men in the rear ranks had shot the trooper. Obviously, lancers had a longer reach – I think there was even a report of French lancers at Waterloo throwing their lances spear-like at the redcoats.

4th Cuirassier01 Mar 2010 6:44 a.m. PST

Thanks Musketier, that's useful.

I've done the maths a bit on squares. Even if one considers a large battalion like the 1st/52nd (of 1,038 men, per Siborne), it would have been small inside. There'd have been maybe 960 men in the faces which is 240 per side; which is 64 in the front row of each, but only 56 in the back row allowing for the angles.

56 men on a frontage of 22" would enclose a space about a hundred feet on a side. A more normally-sized battalion of 500 men would have enclosed a space only 44 feet square. With colour parties and wounded inside there'd have been little space for skirmishers to shelter so I was wondering if they filled out the square.

You're right, having a bunch or rifle-armed dead shots in the square you were up against cannot have been fun.

4th Cuirassier01 Mar 2010 6:46 a.m. PST

And ditto Supercilius (posts crossed).

Taking the elite companies out of the faces would shrink its size to 52 files wide on the outside and 44 on the inside, which is 80 feet. Would that have been done with a light battalion where all ten companies were light?

Also, Siborne says that in the Allied squares "the front ranks [were] kneeling, and the second at the charge – thus forming a chevaux de frise over which the rear ranks were ready to fire".

This is what I'm having trouble envisaging: how you could fire over two guys standing up in front of you.

Grizwald Inactive Member01 Mar 2010 7:19 a.m. PST

"This is what I'm having trouble envisaging: how you could fire over two guys standing up in front of you."

Front rank kneeling, second rank also kneeling, with files locked (i.e. in the spaces between the guys in the front rank). Third rank standing, fourth rank standing with files locked.

No-one needs to fire over two guys standing in front of them.

Martin Rapier01 Mar 2010 7:21 a.m. PST

Yes, lock the files to fire (ie they interleave).

Garde de Paris01 Mar 2010 8:12 a.m. PST

The rear ranks would be firing upward at mounted me, so not likely to find the two kneeling ranks an obstacle or obstruction.


Lord Hill01 Mar 2010 8:49 a.m. PST

I'm also trying to put together British squares at 1:1 and have also been puzzling over many of the above queries!

My main point is that, whatever the training manual said, I doubt very much there were any 4 rank British squares at Waterloo. After Quatre Bras some of the units would have been (well) under 400 men. I have never heard of flank companies NOT being part of the square (Adkin's book shows quite clearly how squares were formed folding back from the flank companies). But even with the full 10 companies it is hard to make a square big enough to not be almost SOLID!

I believe therefore that there would only have been enough men for ONE kneeling rank (which never fired unless in emergencies), with a firing rank stood behind, and a third rank either joining in, or loading for the middle rank, or standing ready.

In actually putting together a square at 1:1 the difficulties in spreading four ranks with depleted numbers is evident.

Finally, I believe the officers DID stand in the ranks with the men. There are a number of accounts which back this up, which I can look up if you need.

p.s. It was my understanding that the small contingent of 3rd Battalion rifles at Waterloo, too small to form their own square, joined the square of the 71st.

p.p.s The Inniskillings (so famous for Kinkaid's "dying in square") were in column of companies, not square, when they took their pasting.

right…must stop

4th Cuirassier01 Mar 2010 9:24 a.m. PST

Squares seem to me to be a poorly-understood formation.

We have Lord Hill's point about the Inniskillings not being in square; we have the Guard's attack allegedly being made in square, per Barbiero and perhaps others; and we have Siborne, writing at a time when infantry still formed squares against cavalry, saying that only the first rank knelt.

Then there's Lady Butler (whose painting of the 28th Line at Quatre Bras was completed long after Waterloo, in 1875) who depicts the interleaved formation referred to above.

What to do, what to do.

Now, still more questions arise.

I take the point above about the part-battalion of rifles. But there were full battalions present also. These must have covered a fair frontage, so surely they didn't attempt to return to their original position to join a square – it would have been too far. Would they not have simply headed back up the slope and joined the nearest square?

In other words, could there have been an undersized square composed wholly of the nearest riflemen, while the others were to be found distributed among the adjoining ones?

I'd love a square of riflemen, but I can't remember a good source that says there was one at Waterloo (which isn't to say there isn't such a source; it's to say that I'm not familiar with any).

What I'm thinking of incidentally is carabiniers versus light infantry. Could be the 52nd, could be the 71st, could be one of those but with a smattering of riflemen, or conceivably it could be a square of riflemen.

To depict a formation in four ranks that is clearly a square (i.e. you can see it's hollow) one would need to do a diagonal corner of it featuring at least 44, maybe 52 figures.

Lord Hill, you can sketch this in Excel if you fiddle with the cell sizes to make them square so they are correct for depth and width. That's what I've been doing.

It supports your point that these formations are tight. In 1/32, a depiction of the corner of a square, with 52 figures in it in four ranks, would be 10 figures along the sides, which comes out at less than 7".

It does seem possible to me to make even a 500-man battalion into a 4-deep square, however. As noted above a 500-man battalion would be 44 feet square on the inside.

It does seem marginal whether this could have been done with a 250-man battalion, say. At that strength you'd be looking at a formation only about fifteen feet square inside. They must have gone to three ranks or maybe two, although how effective a two-rank square would be I don't know.

Grizwald Inactive Member01 Mar 2010 9:43 a.m. PST

The whole point of a square is that it cannot be outflanked. So in theory, you could form a square with only a very few men, say 12, giving 3 men on a side in a single rank. There is nothing to say that a square has to have more than one rank. Admittedly a single rank square will be fragile when it suffers casualties, but a small square woulds be better able to close the ranks.

Diadochoi Inactive Member01 Mar 2010 10:01 a.m. PST

Squares were not square, most were rectangular. In the waterloo companion there are very nice diagrams of the 2/30th (640 ranks) in line, in 4 different column formations and in square (and how they get to square from quarter distance column. The "square", which includes both flank companies, has a frontage of 20m and a side length of 65m i.e. it is a rectangle. On the following page is how two weak battalions would combine to form a square

4th Cuirassier01 Mar 2010 10:20 a.m. PST

A square would have to have a minimum mass in order to represent a plausible hazard to a body of horsemen, however.

Grizwald Inactive Member01 Mar 2010 10:38 a.m. PST

"A square would have to have a minimum mass in order to represent a plausible hazard to a body of horsemen, however."

So what do you think that minimum mass would be?
Why would they need to represent a plausible hazard to a body of horsemen?

Ligniere Sponsoring Member of TMP Inactive Member01 Mar 2010 10:59 a.m. PST

General orders for the Waterloo campaign, and indeed the Peninsular, required that the light companies of each regiment form a separate brigade light battalion under the command of a major or other field officer. These would fight and operate together exclusively on the field of battle. It therefore makes no sense that the brigade battalion would 'break-up' in order to reform in square with the parent regiment. So it seems to suggest that the regimental square was formed from 9 companies, and not ten as Adkin indicates – in some cases two battalions would form together as one square – that would make 18 companies. Seems to be a fairly complex subject.

Is my logic correct with regard to the brigade light battalion?


Musketier Supporting Member of TMP01 Mar 2010 11:19 a.m. PST

"In other words, could there have been an undersized square composed wholly of the nearest riflemen, while the others were to be found distributed among the adjoining ones?"

My understanding is that skirmishers caught out by cavalry would form "clumps" or "hedgehogs", standing back to back with bayonets presented in all directions, rather than orderly squares. At least this is being demonstrated by re-enactors at Waterloo anniversaries – although I can't seem to find a picture of it online for all the Abba throwbacks…

Major Snort01 Mar 2010 12:17 p.m. PST

The stance of the 4 ranks in a British square, according to the 1792 Rules and Regulations was:

"The front two ranks…will kneel and slope their bayonets, the next two ranks will fire standing…"

For the position of officers and NCOs, see the rules and regulations, S178, point 10 in the link below. British squares were normally formed from quarter distance column, which resulted in 4 deep squares throughout the Peninsula and Waterloo and not 6 deep as envisaged by Dundas, because the individual companies would have always been deployed 2 deep when in the field.


Here is an illustration of the stance of the four ranks for receiving cavalry from a slightly later manual of arms:


The 2/95th were certainly formed into square at Waterloo. Captain Budgen of the 2/95th wrote:

"I think the 2/95th sustained and repulsed three attacks about that time, and while in square I recollect seeing the French cavalry in possession of some guns in our rear and near the road."


"The 2/95th were not employed in skirmishing any part of the day, I am almost positive."

The two companies of the 3/95th operated in conjunction with the 71st regiment. Captain Eeles of the 3/95th wrote:

"I observed a large body of the enemy's cavalry advancing to attack us. We had just time to get back and form in rear of the 71st square."

Regarding the 52nd Regiment, they operated in two wings for much of the battle, forming two separate squares.

Major Snort01 Mar 2010 12:46 p.m. PST

Lord Hill wrote,

"I doubt very much there were any 4 rank British squares at Waterloo."

I can't agree with that. Maitland and Halkett both formed their men into 4 deep line late in the day simple by splitting the squares half way across the rear face and wheeling up the sides, which must mean that the squares were 4 deep to begin with.

welly181501 Mar 2010 1:29 p.m. PST

The 52nd were a large Battalion and actually formed two squares at Waterloo

Major Snort01 Mar 2010 4:27 p.m. PST

Diadochoi wrote:

"The "square", which includes both flank companies, has a frontage of 20m and a side length of 65m i.e. it is a rectangle."

Something must have gone wrong with Adkin's mathematics when he wrote this in The Waterloo Companion. If all 10 companies were in the square, (which would have been unusual as the light company was usually detached as mentioned above by Ligniere) if the front of the square was 20m long, the sides would have been a little over 30m. The front and rear faces would have contained 8 sections each, the sides 12 sections each.

If there were less companies available, the amount of sections in the left and right sides would be reduced, the amount of sections in the front and rear faces remaining unchanged. Battalions with as few as 5 companies could form square in this way.

4th Cuirassier01 Mar 2010 5:02 p.m. PST

@ Major Snort:

Thanks that's excellent stuff. So it seems there were two kneeling ranks and two standing, with each encroaching into the space of the rank in front.

Also v interesting re the 95th operating as a formed battalion. Seems I could depict a square of riflemen, or a square of intermingled riflemen and HLI. I wonder if individual riflemen were distributed through the square, or if they formed up as two additional, contiguous companies?

@ Ligniere:

This begs the question of what the light troops did when menaced by cavalry. If strung out in a skirmish line across the frontage of several battalions, did they leg it back up the hill to the nearest one and mill about inside it, or did they form their own square?

@ Musketier:

What you describe is called, I believe, a "rallying square" and was resorted to if, as you say, they were caught with their pants down. In normal circumstances, I would have thought they'd formate on the part of the battalion that was still in close order. AIUI most light formations did not usually deploy entirely into skirmish order, but rather continuously replenished the skirmish line from a formed nucleus behind it. May not have applied at Waterloo.

Lord Hill01 Mar 2010 5:13 p.m. PST


At least this is being demonstrated by re-enactors at Waterloo anniversaries although I can't seem to find a picture of it online

yes that's because re-enactors are usually "battalions" of 12 men or less.

As for the "Flank Battalion" made up of the light companies of various regiments – true for Halkett's brigade (under the command of Major Vigoroux of the 30th) but there is no evidence, I believe, for assuming any other Waterloo brigade followed suit (forgive me if I am wrong, I do not have my resources with me at present).

Major Snort – my "any" may have been intended as "many" – a typo I hope! I was merely trying to suggest that apart from the unusually massive formations (of, for example, the Guards and the 52nd) a 4-rank square would have been impractical for the much smaller units (the Black Watch, for example, being less than 350 men).

Musketier Supporting Member of TMP02 Mar 2010 3:55 a.m. PST

"that's because re-enactors are usually "battalions" of 12 men or less"

- My mistake, I should perhaps have specified that I was referring to Rifle or KGL Lights re-enactors demonstrating skirmish tactics. Whenever possible skirmishers would indeed fall back on their formed reserves but even these platoons or companies would have formed a solid mass rather than a hollow square.

Flank Battalions – do we have evidence one way or another for the day of Waterloo, from Light Company officers or men who were in such a converged battalion, or clearly stayed with their parent regiment?

Musketier Supporting Member of TMP02 Mar 2010 4:04 a.m. PST

Promised you the reference – it's "Rifles at Waterloo" by George Caldwell and Robert Cooper (1995), ISBN 0951660020.

Highly recommended, providing a detailed step-by-step account of the Rifles' involvement in that campaign. Both 1st and 2nd battalions were at 6 companies and on the weak side, but the two companies from 3rd battalion were nonetheless kept separate. From the book it seems as though they formed up behind, i.e. outside the squares of 71st and 52nd respectively. By a later movement they found themselves between those two battalions, and then both followed the 71st. Meanwhile the 2nd battalion apparently aligned on the 52nd when Colborne made his flanking move, so it is conceivable that their aimed fire, combined with the LI's massed volleys, may have played a part in disabling so many Imperial Guard officers and stalling the French advance.

Ligniere Sponsoring Member of TMP Inactive Member02 Mar 2010 9:11 a.m. PST

Heres the text from General orders issued by the Duke of Wellington, related to the formation and operation of the 'brigade' light battalions for the campaign in Flanders, which included the battles of Quatre Bras and Waterloo. Having read recently the Battle of Quatre Bras by Mike Robinson, it's fairly clear from the text that Picton's division, at least, operated brigade light battalions.

General Orders: Brussels 9th May I8I5
1. The light infantry companies belonging to each brigade of infantry are to act together as a battalion of light infantry under the command of a field officer or captain to be selected for the occasion by the General Officer commanding the brigade upon all occasions on which the brigade may be formed in line or column whether for a march or to oppose the enemy.
2. On all other occasions the light infantry companies are to be considered a attached to their battalions with which they are to be quartered or encamped and solely under command of the commanding officer of the battalion to which they belong.
3. The Commander of the Forces wishes that some of the light infantry battalions of each brigade should be practiced in the manoeuvres of the light infantry and if possible at firing at a mark.

The general orders don't go into any specifics of what these lads did if threatened by cavalry, but I do recall reading, in Robinson's book, that one group formed up as part of a nearby square. There's another account from that battle of a british unit only forming three sides of a square, the fourth being a wall or other linear obstacle, that was considered sufficient to block the movement of cavalry to that side. It seems that composite squares composed of multiple regiments was also very common, either because of low numbers, or simply because of proximity. So two sides of a square would be formed by one regiment, and the other sides by another. At least for the British the actual method of formation of the square appears to be somewhat informal, and more a matter of expediency – 'prepare to receive cavalry…… and be quick about it!'


Chosen Man Inactive Member02 Mar 2010 3:20 p.m. PST

It is important to remember that what has been practised in training is simply applied as best as it can given the circumstances. It seems quite plausible that by using the basic theory of forming a square to repel cavalry that in the heat of battle you may be forced to form a small, large or mishapen square. When being run down by cavalry in the heat of battle you would do the best you can and hope that what you have learned in training keeps you alive. Historical sources are bound to speak of versions of square formed on the field of battle as these would be dictated by terrain, troop mass, field position etc… so fill your boots, after all… in wargaming it is you who decides.

Chosen Man Inactive Member02 Mar 2010 3:26 p.m. PST

Ligniere… Only just read your comment fully and you have already made my point more eloquently when you wrote ** "At least for the British the actual method of formation of the square appears to be somewhat informal, and more a matter of expediency 'prepare to receive cavalry…… and be quick about it!'**

My point exactly… You train hard and then adapt what you have learned to the real scenario.

Take for example a police officer applying handcuffs. Officers are trained to apply the cuffs using specific techniques but in essence so long as the cuff is applied that is what is important.

The outcome may be the same but the methodology may not always be as smooth or practised as in training as the officer may have to adapt to the circumstances that are constantly changing.

Am I overstating my point now?

Major Snort02 Mar 2010 3:41 p.m. PST

While I agree that in the heat of battle unconventional methods would often be necessary in desperate situations, I don't agree with the statement that the actual British method of forming square was somewhat informal.

The British method of forming square on the vast majority of occasions was from quarter distance column, as seen in dozens of memoirs, letters and diaries of the period. This was a very formal procedure, understood by all.

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