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"What did Late 19thC combat really look like?" Topic

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doctorphalanx27 Feb 2016 3:14 p.m. PST

I've been wondering about how FPW infantry formations would actually have looked like in combat

There is hardly any photographic evidence AFAIK and the vast majority of paintings are extremely suspect. Troops are depicted in very close order and at very close range. I'm not saying this never happened. It probably did in built up areas. But most paintings look more like a romanticised, heroic view of ancient combat rather than anything resembling warfare in the late Nineteenth Century.

So would anyone care to point up any pictures, old or modern, or even photos of wargame figures, which they think look the most realistic?

Louie N27 Feb 2016 3:36 p.m. PST

Would early WWI photos be a rough guide?

KTravlos27 Feb 2016 3:37 p.m. PST

Yes, there is a Ottoman painting from one of the battles in 1897 that I believe gives a good idea of the approach. The greeks are way off in the distance, and the infantry is hugging the ground.You can find it in the file with Ottoman Paintings I uploaded in the 19th Century Wargame and Warfare group on Facebook.

The work by Candido Lopez for the Paraguayn War is a must and probably the most realistic portrayal of mid-century to late-century warfare






Lope is the superlative 19th century war painter imho.

Some other images I have seen that seem ok



KTravlos27 Feb 2016 3:44 p.m. PST

Lopez took part in the war and his paintings show troops doing things as the diaries and battle descriptions show them doing.

Some more photos from the Balkan Wars

Supposedly one of the few photos showing Bulgarian units lunching a bayonet assault at Chtaltza


Interesting painting, notice the open order of the infantry


there is also this famous photo of Sedan (or mayhaps infamous)


robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP27 Feb 2016 4:54 p.m. PST

I don't mean to be depressing, but I think it would have looked, mostly, very dim and confusing--maybe even worse than the Candido Lopez paintings. There would have been a LOT of smoke--increased rate of fire, but still black powder. Formations were still pretty tight, so people would be blocking your view, and if you stood up and apart to get a better look, they'd have shot you, weapons being more accurate. Of course, what with increased ranges, camouflage and skirmishing, this is only going to get worse. Which is why I prefer my warfare on the tabletop.

If you mean, what would the formations have looked like with a good strong wind and everyone stopped firing for a moment--I'd say take the drill manuals and deduct between five and 25% for rough terrain and people getting killed and wounded. "Just like on the drill field" was still used as praise, which means (a) it was the goal, and (b) they usually didn't quite make it. But you can look at frontages and see they were still in the ballpark.

Patrick R28 Feb 2016 5:52 a.m. PST

Troops moved and shot mostly in formation, but they are somewhat looser than those in the Napoleonic period with companies advancing in bounding leaps, covered by large numbers of skirmishers. Most importantly you see troops go into cover thanks to the bolt-action rifle, though views on this were ambivalent. The French preferred a good defensive position where the range of the rifles would give them an advantage, the Germans would move to mid-range and use mostly a large volume of fire to overwhelm the enemy and then close in.

You have to keep in mind that armies in those days still used large formations lead by a relatively small number of officers, this means that in these large blocks the majority of men tended to focus on a single task (march, fire). The company is generally the smallest element on the field and dispatching one or more companies as skirmishers is about the best you can expect. In the last decade of the 19th when new weapons like the machinegun and modern artillery start to have an impact there is a shift towards bounding moves by companies, but it's mostly experimental for armies that haven't fought a major war against modern equipped troops. The British experience in the Boer War gives them an edge, doing away with some illusions unlike the Germans and French who remain more conservative, still convinced that dash and elan can eventually trump firepower.

MichaelCollinsHimself28 Feb 2016 9:08 a.m. PST

Nice paintings Konstantinos!

mashrewba28 Feb 2016 10:28 a.m. PST

I always thoought these might be close



Mollinary28 Feb 2016 11:41 a.m. PST

Hi Guys,

I hope you will be tolerant, because I am a bit of a klutz when it comes to technology! The best painting I have seen for depicting an attack in the FPW is by Rochling, and shows the attack of the 1st Prussian Foot Guards Regiment at St Privat. I found it on the following website: I the clicked on regimentsgeschichte on the left hand side, and then on 1858-71. Scroll down until you come across a black and white picture of Rochling's Angriff das Ersten Garde Regiment zu Fuss auf St Privat. Click on the picture, and an amazing set of colour representations of this painting will appear as if by magic! I think this is as good an example of the Prussian mode of attack as you will find. I await the inevitable correction, but look forward to better pictures, and links!


MichaelCollinsHimself28 Feb 2016 11:53 a.m. PST

Nice Mollinary,

here`s that picture:


Mollinary28 Feb 2016 12:14 p.m. PST

Well done that man!


KTravlos28 Feb 2016 12:29 p.m. PST

That is a good painting no question about it. Still think Lopez is the closest to the real thing though.Rochling still has some heroic-romantic stuff in it. Look at the Lopez paintings carefully. There is nothing heroic. It is desperate fighting and the deaths are bloody with people losing limbs all over. Google search images and use search tools to get the largest images of his paintings online, then go and explore them. The stuff he depicts in small details is remarkable and grim.

Mollinary28 Feb 2016 12:35 p.m. PST

Perfectly fair point regarding the casualties etc. Rochling certainly contains some heroic elements, because it shows individual, named, officers, as recognisable individuals. But I think its value is showing the environment in which the 'heroism' took place. In terms of formations, I think this nails it.


KTravlos28 Feb 2016 1:08 p.m. PST

yup I agree on that.

Oberlindes Sol LIC Supporting Member of TMP29 Feb 2016 12:10 a.m. PST

There is quite a lot of battlefield photography from the late 19th Century. I don't know if anyone brought a camera up in a spy balloon, but both technologies existed and were well developed by 1880.

As I recall, Robert Packenham's definitive study of the Boer War has some pretty good battlefield photos.

Ramming29 Feb 2016 5:34 a.m. PST

The Rochling I believe gives a good idea of how the attack started. If the casualty figures are correct, about 8000, then it must have been 'taken' very shortly after the whistle as there aren't nearly enough men down. Also I believe once the French fire really brewed up they went to ground and stayed there until their guns cleared the way. Also I'm a bit perplexed by the appearance of the fields, up here we would call them 'hefted' ie they rise in small segments like waves. I've never seen this outside the UK where it was a clever feature of the agricultural revolution (gives you more grazing land per acre).

doctorphalanx29 Feb 2016 12:51 p.m. PST

Thanks to everyone for their very interesting responses and many pictures which I've never seen before.

The Bulgarian painting showing single lines in extended order appears significantly different from the others and looks, I imagine, like WW1 practice.

The rest generally show subsequent ranks moving forward in quite close order, with the actual firing line somewhat irregular and dispersed whether from casualties, utilising cover or, I suppose, the pressure of battle at the sharp end.

GreenLeader29 Feb 2016 3:20 p.m. PST

I think you mean 'Thomas Pakenham'?

His 'definitive' study of the Boer War really should be taken with a large pinch of salt, in my opinion – massively biased in favour of Kruger's regime and leaves out / glosses over anything that doesn't suit his agenda.

From what I have read, most photos from that conflict were staged for the benefit of the press corps later. And one can understand why as action photos would have been very difficult – cameras were still fairly primitive, and British army doctrine stressed wide-spacing and use of cover, so highly unlikely to get nice pictures which would convey much of what was happening.

KTravlos01 Mar 2016 5:43 a.m. PST

Doctor Phalanx I would say it depends on the size of your bases. If a single base is large enough you can hanve a bunch of minis bunched up preceded by skirmishers. Otherwise in the same unit (for BBB for example) have some bases in dense formation and some in open. I use 10mm figures on 20x20 bases, so not much space to do that, but if I used larger bases with smaller scales 6mm or even 2mm, that is what I would do.

doctorphalanx02 Mar 2016 5:53 a.m. PST

As BBB enthusiasts will know, basing skirmishers was recently discussed on the BBB Yahoo Group…

It seems odd to me to have some bases of close order and some bases of skirmishers in a line in the same unit. I like the idea that was suggested of having all the bases in close order and additional skirmisher markers/bases to indicate skirmishing capacity.

Mollinary02 Mar 2016 2:25 p.m. PST

Agreed that they would look good. You have got me thinking now. I have over a hundred Prussians and a similar number of Austrians based in twos which I currently use as the skirmisher bases for BBB, there is no reason they should not be markers, and replaced by ordinary bases for the actual units. As I am experimenting with making Prussian units 2S to reflect their tactics, this would make them look even better. Thanks for the idea!


doctorphalanx02 Mar 2016 4:11 p.m. PST

If the close order bases are 1" square I would make the skirmisher bases/ markers 2" X 0.5". That way they wouldn't be too fiddly.

YogiBearMinis Supporting Member of TMP05 Apr 2016 1:41 p.m. PST

Your basing suggestions sound like an endorsement of 6mm V&B basing, where a few close-order groups are scattered on the 3"x3" base preceded or interspersed with single skirmishers figures--the "build a little diorama" type of basing. I had never thought of that being the most historical way to do it also.

McLaddie05 Apr 2016 9:57 p.m. PST

Read A. v. Boguslawski's book Tactical Deductions from the War of 1870-71.

He was a captain of a company in the 3rd Lower Silesian Infantry Regiment No. 30.

One of his observations was
p. 77

So it happened frequiently that, soon after the eginning of an action, a whole regiment fount extended into a line of skirmishers, and that often the regiment in the second, if not already directed to incline to the right or left, was required to act as support the first.

…Neither French nor Germans ever succeeded in bringing troops in close order into front line, in a fight such as that described [above], or in pushing battalions or companies forward to fire volleys.
As the absolute impossibility of this manoeuvre, so much practised on the parade ground, was apparent to our generals, it was never attempted on the offensive, and when tried on the defensive generally failed.

[He discusses Spiecheren and St. Privat as exceptions of massed attacks…which failed.]

His book provides a detailed discussion of how the two armies fought, which in turn gives a graphic picture of what such battles would look like.

KTravlos05 Apr 2016 11:26 p.m. PST


Royal Marine06 Apr 2016 3:30 a.m. PST

This is what 19th Century Warfare looked like link

Ramming07 Apr 2016 6:15 a.m. PST

Its a slightly awkward question. For example the APW differed hugely from the FPW and the time difference was only four years. In the former the Austrians were trying out the stosstactik experiment, the Prussians were airing their fire tactics properly for the first time (leaving lundby and 1864 aside). Both sides attempted to bring formed bodies to battle, the Austrian storm columns were shot to bits and disintegrated, the Prussians found that their formations (company columns mostly) dissolved as the men raced forward into the firing line, leading to a loss of C&C. The Prussians paradoxically tried to tighten up their formations for 1870 but the same thing happened again and to a greater extent, whole battalions became hopelessly muddled during the assault, the assault on the Neiderwald (Woerth) is a classic example, leading to a breakdown in C&C again, and in this case making effective pursuit of the defeated French impossible. This loss of control really bothered the Prussians and once again in 1914 they tried, and failed, to bring close formations (admittedly not as close as 1866) into the field; the BEF had a field day.

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