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"AWI skirmish lines and Light Infantry tactics" Topic

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scally07 Jan 2011 6:43 a.m. PST

A few questions on skirmish lines and light infantry

I believe that skirmish lines were not standard infantry doctrine, however light infantry exsisted. Did they simply fight as infantry? Were they classed as elite infantry?

Were Jaegers classed as the same?



MajorB07 Jan 2011 6:51 a.m. PST

Did they simply fight as infantry?

As I understand it, in the sense that all AWI infantry effectively fought as light infantry, yes.

Were they classed as elite infantry?

Not necessarily.

scally07 Jan 2011 6:59 a.m. PST


so light infantry doctrine differed to line infantry. Would anyone happen to know what this was if any?



MajorB07 Jan 2011 7:48 a.m. PST

so light infantry doctrine differed to line infantry.

Not sure what you mean by that. British infantry in the AWI tended to fight in two ranks in open order.

scally07 Jan 2011 8:18 a.m. PST

Ok thanks, I was thinking that the infantry fought in ranked close order and lights in open order.

I am basicly trying to work out how, to best base my light infantry for Black Powder rules

MajorB07 Jan 2011 8:26 a.m. PST

I am basically trying to work out how to best base my light infantry for Black Powder rules

Just base all infantry as recommended in the rules. Base light infantry the same as line.

Personal logo ColCampbell Supporting Member of TMP07 Jan 2011 8:28 a.m. PST

My understanding is that British converged light infantry battalions were used as elite assault troops during major battles. They were usually brigaded with the converged grenadier battalions for this task. In the later years of the war, the Americans did the same, for example Lafayette's light infantry command in the Yorktown campaign. The Hessian jagers were more likely to have been used as skirmishers. During the AWI, there was nothing like the French or British skirmisher screens of the Napoleonic period.

The other major use of light troops was as raiders and foragers, gathering crops and livestock in the No-Man's land between the major outposts, such as in northern Jersey and on Long Island or throughout the southern states.


Charles Christy Inactive Member07 Jan 2011 8:42 a.m. PST

AWI flank companies, converged into specialized assault or reserve units, were still evolving as a tactic. They were used often as the reserve or as assault troops by the British.

Some of the German jaegers fought in a true open order and were somewhat effective at keeping open order or irregular troops well back from the advancing infantry.

The British 60th foot did the same, working more in company sized units supporting the main battle line, using more initiative and flexibility than the normal line regulars. They become the Kings Royal Rifle Corps later.

Iowa Grognard Inactive Member07 Jan 2011 11:35 a.m. PST

If you get a chance, read the book "Fusiliers" by Urban. Gives a good going over for what's been talked about here.

Supercilius Maximus Supporting Member of TMP07 Jan 2011 12:44 p.m. PST

By all means get hold of "Fusiliers"; however, the best book for AWI tactics would be Matthew Spring's "With Zeal and Bayonets Only" (this focuses on the British – nothing similar has yet been written on the Continentals).

As Col Campbell rightly says, it is important NOT to think of "light infantry" in the Napoleonic sense, in the context of the AWI. In the former, the light infantry skirmish line screened the main assault force(s), or defensive line(s); in the latter, they were the main assault force, or defensive line, with the close order supports being just that – something to fall back on if defeated. "Skirmish" lines in the AWI were more in the nature of looser firing lines than would involve close order troops.

The European experiences of the F&IW and AWI acted as a catalyst for the introduction of "petite guerre" tactics onto the main battlefield (although the French – through de Broglie – had attempted something similar with their grenadier and picquet companies at the start of the SYW in Europe, albeit that the experiment was not followed up).

The good Colonel is also spot on with British tactics; the Light and Grenadier battalions were not only placed together as part of the Reserve, but they often performed similar roles and by the end of the war were to all intents and purposes interchangeable. All British infantry was trained to fight in close order, or any of a number of open orders – the spacing between files being dependent on the situation. It was not uncommon for a particular command to employ more than one type of order to fight a specific combination of threats – with one unit (or wing of a unit) in open order and another in close order in support.

The jaegers invariably fought in extended (or skirmish, if you like) order; very often they were supported by platoons of "musket-and-bayonet" armed close order troops – usually grenadiers. Interestingly, the Light Battalion von Barner that served in the Saratoga campaign, and which contained the Brunswick jaeger company, did NOT provide such support. At Hubbardton, this was provided by grenadiers; at Bennington, by a detachment from the various line battalions.

Incidentally, the British Light battalions had their own integral platoon of riflemen. Each British light company had two men armed with rifles; these were "converged" and placed under the command of a subaltern, and formed the "point" of the advance guard.

Iowa Grognard Inactive Member07 Jan 2011 1:34 p.m. PST

the Light and Grenadier battalions were not only placed together as part of the Reserve, but they often performed similar roles and by the end of the war were to all intents and purposes interchangeable.

Was it Urban who stated that the Grenadier and Light battalions were formed in part because the bulk of line regiments were of rather low quality at the time and Howe, if I remember right, wanted a corps he could count on to get the job done?

I wonder how much the politics between officers at this time played in their formation. By forming these companies a CO could take capable troops and not have to take certain officers aligned against him, thereby avoiding an increase in their resume. Probably not, but interesting to think about.

Eclaireur07 Jan 2011 4:02 p.m. PST

I'm not sure where this idea about British AWI Light Infantry 'not skirmishing' has come from. Excellent first hand evidence of them using trees and fences for cover, choosing their targets, etc, comes from the letters of Captain Dansey, commander of the 33rd LI Company, which was part of the 1st LI Battalion during a period covering the 1776 New York campaign and throughout 1777. There are some quotes from his letters in 'Fusiliers'.

It is true to say that while Billy Howe was commanding the British Army, the LI were his cherished reserve for all difficult tasks and this did include 'shock troop' type assaults, as well as acting as the army's advanced guard and more typical petite guerre type missions. He had personally led the LI battalion in the assault on Quebec in 1759, so his devotion to them was understandable. That said, the Grenadier battalions were more typically suited in the doctrine of the time to the 'shock troop' type mission or frontal assault. They were used extensively by Howe too, as were several other corps thought capable of moving with the necessary speed and aggression. These included the Guards, 42nd Highlanders, and the 33rd which acted effectively as a light infantry battalion at various times.
Of the brigades of line infantry, Howe seemed reluctant to use them much, presumably having witnessed their poor performance in the Boston campaign.
Iowa Grognard, you are right that the officer corps politics of the time played a role in this. The LI and grenadiers began the war with many tired old place men in command but became by the summer of 1776, the nursery for commanders for the rest of the army. Officers in the LI and grenadiers knew they would get accelerated promotion – and both Dansey and Capt Hale (45th Grenadier Company, 2nd Grenadier Battalion) comment on this. They were first in line for promotion to major, a very tricky step given the numbers of captains and single majority available in each regiment. Thus men like Dansey, Mecan of the 23rd, and Scott of the 17th all achieved promotion to major from the LI, despite being men without the means to but their way up this step.

MajorB07 Jan 2011 4:15 p.m. PST

I'm not sure where this idea about British AWI Light Infantry 'not skirmishing' has come from.

I'm not sure either. I don't think anybody in this thread has suggested that was the case. In fact I specifically said:

British infantry in the AWI tended to fight in two ranks in open order.

Eclaireur08 Jan 2011 3:37 a.m. PST

my old friend Supercilius suggested it. As for fighting in two ranks in Open Order that is most definitely NOT skirmishing. Open and Skirmish (or Extended) order are defined as quite different things in manuals such as Rottemburg's, Dundas's 1792 regs, or the Torrens 1824 regulations that codified British experience in the Napoleonic Wars.
The differences between the two types of fighting can be summarised as:

FILE SPACING: the basic Open Order formation put 18" between each pair of men (ie front rank and rear rank men). At times it opened up to as much as 3 feet. In Rottemburg's manual he envisages file separation of up to 12 feet for skirmishers.

FIRING ON COMMAND: soldiers in Open Order levelled their weapons and fired them on order of command just like troops in Close Order. Skirmishers or Extended Order formations loaded, aimed, and fired at the time of their own choosing. This is really the critical difference and it was maintained rigidly until a fascinating evolution early in the 19th Century. The 1804 Shorncliffe Light Infantry drills devised by Col Kenneth Mackenzie (and promulgated by Gen John Moore) fudged this difference: they anticipated soldiers loading and levelling on words of command but choosing their own targets (ie aiming) and firing at their own initiative. This was a vital ingredient in the success of regiments like the 43rd and 52nd in the Peninsula. But all of this is long after the AWI…

FIRING FROM COVER: troops in Open Order were not meant to seek cover, either to re-load or to shield themselves from enemy fire. In fact doing so could mean a disastrous stalling of the advance. Soldiers in Skirmish or Extended order were meant to use cover in order to protect themselves a lesson that Capt Dansey 1st LI Battalion gleefully reported in a letter home in 1776 that they had learned very well from the American sharpshooters !

In short, an Open Order battalion was really meant to behave like a Close Order one in almost all respects. The salient difference was the opening of files, which both made it easier to advance across land strewn with obstacles such as trees (by the men side-stepping them without breaking formation) and for understrength battalions to occupy a greater frontage. The issue of two ranks or three is not really germane to this discussion. At Bunker Hill, it seems to have been the case that British troops advanced with a two deep line but formed Close Order (ie without the 18" file spacing later promulgated in a General Order by Gen Howe).

Do you get it ?

MajorB08 Jan 2011 5:43 a.m. PST

in manuals such as Rottemburg's, Dundas's 1792 regs, or the Torrens 1824 regulations that codified British experience in the Napoleonic Wars.

But all those manuals describe drill for the Napoleonic wars rather than the AWI – or have I missed something?

Iowa Grognard Inactive Member08 Jan 2011 6:14 a.m. PST

Was Dundas the gentleman who opposed the reforms of the colonial experience and backed more Prussian influence? I'm too lazy atm to look it up.

Maybe some confusion comes from battle reports where Battalions in 2 rank open orders, break up (by companies I assume) to clear certain areas where formed Colonials took cover etc. The first time I read these (don't remember where) I thought "skirmishing" but after reading Fusiliers it makes sense that they were not. Of course I could be totally wrong.

Eclaireur08 Jan 2011 6:58 a.m. PST

Margard forgive me, my friend, but I'm not sure what the relevance of your point is ? The evidence from the AWI is entirely consistent with what I have written it's just that you have to go to some fairly obscure manuscript sources to find it written down: the memo on 1st Bn LI tactics in the David Library; Peebles memo on the drill of the 1st Bn Grenadiers (in the Scottish National Archive); MG Phillips' instructions for the Virginia campaign; and the various general orders that specify specific tactical practices such as file spacing. We do not believe it was collated in one place.
The point about drill manuals is that the ones that codify tactical practice in any particular war you wish to examine are the ones written AFTER that conflict. The best example of this is Torrens' 1824 manual, which tells you far more about how the British Army fought in, say, 1810 or 1815 than the Dundas regulations drafted in 1791.
In the context of what Open Order is, and how it differs from Skirmish or Extended Order, the Rottemburg text if therefore very important. He served as an officer in the Hessian Jaeger Corps in the AWI and worked on his text in the mid to late 1780s.
Iowa Grognard yes you are right about Dundas. His manual was heavily influenced by the prejudices of a group of officers who resented the 'Americans' and their claims that they had found a better way of fighting over there. It was a reassertion of conventional thinking about mass, momentum, and solidity.
Your second point brings us back to scally's original question and hints at why wargamers often find skirmishing so difficult to represent on the table top. You are right that at certain times (eg 1st Bn LI at Brandywine, or 23rd Fusiliers at Guilford) regiments that had marched into the attack as a single entities, formed two deep in Open Order, broke down into smaller groupings. Matt Spring stresses the importance of British troops fighting in company formations, and I'm sure he's got a good point. Since companies were so small, and they fought by divisions or platoons in battle rather than as companies per se, I would argue it's good to think of them fighting in divisions, grand divisions, or wings, of anything from one to six companies. The judgements about how to divide the regiment, and whether to switch from Open Order formation to Skirmish Order were complex and dynamic depending upon the ground, enemy strength, casualties, and the abilities + seniority of the company commanders, among other things. Thus the 1st Bn LI appears to have a moment at Brandywine where it is fighting in a half (or wing) and two quarters, each of three companies. One of these quarters was definitely in Skirmish Order, lying down in cover under an American battery, it is less clear with the other half of that wing, but I would speculate that the battalion's other complete wing was still in an Open Order line at that time.
No wonder it's a tricky subject !

Adam D Inactive Member08 Jan 2011 10:51 a.m. PST

What a terrific thread. I really appreciate your contributions, Eclaireur.

Eclaireur08 Jan 2011 4:36 p.m. PST

Thank you Adam 0:-)

Supercilius Maximus Supporting Member of TMP09 Jan 2011 7:53 a.m. PST

<<I'm not sure where this idea about British AWI Light Infantry 'not skirmishing' has come from.>>

<<… old friend Supercilius suggested it.>>

Sorry, that wasn't my intention – far from it. What I was suggesting (albeit rather obscurely and clumsily) was that the nature of light infantry work at the time involved the troops still operating in two-rank files – ie in pairs, with one man covering the other (eg both men taking cover behind the same tree) – according to Townshend's 1771 memo.

Eclaireur09 Jan 2011 11:30 a.m. PST

I'm sorry if I misrepresented your argument, Supercilious :-)

Supercilius Maximus Supporting Member of TMP11 Jan 2011 8:36 p.m. PST

No, no worries – in retrospect it was not clear what I was saying there.

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