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"Skirmishers of the Major Nations" Topic

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gamer104 Apr 2017 7:08 a.m. PST

Okay, I tried to post this yesterday and I think it got bugged or something cause it was mixed up with a fantasy post:)
I have read several different sources, some conflicting and wanted some input on the quality and usage of skirmishers/light troops.
My understanding is that the French and British used them the most effective and were equal, followed by the Russians, then the Prussians and Austrians. And the other minor countries and Spain would fit in there somewhere.
One other question, does anyone know off hand about how far ahead of their battalion the skirmishers normally deployed? I would think it would have to be far enough to do their work but still close enough to know what the rest of their battalion was doing and to be able to hear a recall order or something like that?
So am I right or wrong on some stuff? Thanks.

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP04 Apr 2017 8:00 a.m. PST


It all depends on:

1.The time period we are talking about.
2.The nation during that time period
3.Who is making the analysis
4.The mission the skirmishers were given
5.Which units are doing the skirmishing

I don't mean to make this complicated, but your question is covering more than five national armies fighting over a 20 year period. There isn't just one answer.

The Austrians were better at skirmishing in the first five year of the war 1792-6, but didn't deploy as many as the French. The French tactics of masses of skirmishers didn't last very long 1793-94 according to French General St. Cyr. In 1812, some Russian Jager units were very good, having fought in the Swedish and Ottoman wars of 1807-1811.

British officers felt that the 95th Rifles were better than the French, but the rest of the British light infantry weren't as good.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

ScottWashburn Sponsoring Member of TMP04 Apr 2017 9:42 a.m. PST

Skirmishers would be far enough ahead of the main body to be able to discover any surprises or ambushes which might be waiting, and also far enough ahead that any musketry aimed at the skirmishers which missed (most of it) would not then fly on to hit the main body. In the ACW, where most were armed with rifles, the skirmishers would typically be about 300 yards ahead of the main line and with the reserves for the skirmishers about halfway in between. During the Napoleonic period with most troops armed with smoothbores, I would expect the distance to be less, but I don't know for sure.

gamer104 Apr 2017 9:46 a.m. PST

Thanks for the reply and I understand your point. The fact that the nations did make changes in both organization, tactics and quality as time went on is probably why I see different info. Perhaps I should narrow it down then and you may could offer more.
I am mainly focused on 1812-1815, the "late years" of the time period. Also, as mentioned I am mainly curious about the majors "over all" effectiveness with them, their are always exceptions to every rule, so to speak.
Thanks again.

forwardmarchstudios04 Apr 2017 10:54 a.m. PST

A thing to keep in mind is that one major reason for using skirmishers in real life was to probe and control the space in front of the main body of troops, so that you knew where the enemy was and could keep in contact with him. When we say skirmish screen, one literally means a barrier that prevents viewing beyond it. The same thing occurs today in modern militaries with light armor recon units, who are a "screening force" in the exact same sense as skirmishers in the horse and musket period. With the helicopter effect of table top games this role is largely moot. If you want an example of how critical a skirmish screen can be, check out the Battle of Chancellorsville and Jackson's flank march.

One other thing, is that skirmishing was not a low-casualty endeavor- heavy skirmishing was draining on units, and depending how long the skirmishing went on the screen would have to be reinforced again and again.

Also, for modeling purposes, a skirmish screen would often have a rear reserve, between the main body of troops and the location of the skirmish line, where they could fall back on and where reinforcements would be sent out from. This probably changes by national doctrine.

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP04 Apr 2017 11:38 a.m. PST

I am mainly focused on 1812-1815, the "late years" of the time period.

gamer1: That makes it much easier. The skirmish practices by that time were fairly similar. It usually was a question of where the skirmishers [3rd rank, lt companies, lt units line units] were coming from and how experienced the particular units were.

matthewgreen Supporting Member of TMP09 Apr 2017 8:01 a.m. PST

In this era skirmishers were often used to wear down the opposition – i.e. to create significant casualties and ammunition consumption (not a cheap tactic – you could burn through your own men quite quickly). An example of this is the French at Quatre Bras. This involved committing serious numbers to the skirmish line – not just the specialists. I think most nations did this (French and Prussians certainly) – though not the British, who (I think) regarded it as a waste of good troops and ammunition – and tended to restrict skirmishing to the specialists. That caused them difficulties at QB, though the French failed to break through while wearing their own troops down.

As McLaddie says, the best proxy for aptitude at skirmishing is the general grade and experience of the troops. At Waterloo the French outfought the Prussians (or so said Clausewitz) – but that was mainly because they had more veteran troops.

That's my take anyway!

Retiarius909 Apr 2017 11:24 a.m. PST

i totally agree that skirmishers provide screens, especially against other skirmishers, but many rules allow them to be 'invisible force shields' ala the martian war machines in war of the worlds, which isnt very accurate either.

huevans01110 Apr 2017 6:38 a.m. PST

An example of this is the French at Quatre Bras. This involved committing serious numbers to the skirmish line not just the specialists. I think most nations did this (French and Prussians certainly) though not the British, who (I think) regarded it as a waste of good troops and ammunition and tended to restrict skirmishing to the specialists. That caused them difficulties at QB, though the French failed to break through while wearing their own troops down.

That's an interesting point. And of course, D'Erlon's Corps at Waterloo "dissolved" into a skirmish line after the failure of the first assault. British accounts normally discount D'Erlon's formation as too "shattered" for normal combat after this.

But I wonder if this was a French tactical innovation for fighting the British in 1815. Something like: "The British won't break in normal musketry firefights. They are too experienced and solid. Why don't we avoid firefighting in formation and instead feed in a huge skirmish line and wear them down??"

And of course, the British were pinned by the French cavalry at Waterloo and couldn't counter-skirmish anyway.

This would make sense of the whole "What happened to D'Erlon's boys and why did the French send in all that unsupported heavy cavalry??!!" conundrum.

Sorry for the thread hijack.

matthewgreen Supporting Member of TMP10 Apr 2017 6:50 a.m. PST

I have suspected something of the kind, huevans011. If there was a French tactical choice at QB and Waterloo, cavalry was certainly part of the mix. Soften up with skirmish fire and then bash them with cavalry. Except when the British were rash enough to try and drive the skirmishers off, this was a failure, of course.

But I don't think this was a one-off tactic for the British. I am very struck by Clausewitz's descriptions in On War and elsewhere that imply an attritional phase in battle, in which it is clear skirmish tactics play a leading role. The fact that half the men in a Prussian regiment (the third rank plus the fusilier battalion – not mentioning any jager supports)were trained to skirmish (or were meant to be) reveals a lot.

Which means that skirmishers were often much more than screens.

summerfield10 Apr 2017 6:51 a.m. PST

Interesting the listing upon the efficiency.

The following were excellent
- British 43rd, 52nd, 60th, 95th, 71st, 85th, 90th, 51st etc that were designated light infantry.
- Portuguese Cacadores
- Prussian Jager and the Fusiliers (1806-07) – Repeatedly they defeated the French skirmishes.
- Austrian Jagers (the Grenz had become too regularised but effective)
- Wurtemberg, Saxon and Bavarian
- Early period French Legere before they became too much like the line post 1811.

These were not renowned for their abilities
- Russians were not wonder
- Spanish except the Catalonians

Experience is required to be effective. The Prussians by 1814 were excellent, even Landwehr.

It is always difficult to generalise. I dislike wargames rules that give national characteristics as these tell more about the prejudice of the rules writer than reality.


streetgang6 Supporting Member of TMP10 Apr 2017 3:11 p.m. PST

The interesting things about the Kriegsspiel rule set is that you get an insight into what the Prussian officers that developed the game based upon their own experience in the Napoleonic Wars held to be important. No where is this more marked than in how the game treats skirmishers. In Kriegsspiel they are held to be highly lethal as reflected by the combat results "table" (actually printed on the 5 dice used in the game). The 1828 Berlin Garrison modifications to the 1824 Reisswitz publication includes the following:

"Note on skirmishers. In the Prussian army at
this time the third rank was used for
skirmishers. When skirmish order was called
the third rank would form four squads of
about 25 men each behind the line two on
the left and two on the right. At either end
one of the squads would stay behind the line
as reserve, the other would advance forward
about 100 paces. At 100 paces half the
forward squad at each end would stay in close
order as supports, and the rest (about 25
men) would advance another 250 paces or so
and working in pairs would spread out to
cover the length of the line with about 5 to 10
paces between each pair. If the skirmish line
suffered casualties they would be replenished
from the supports, which in turn could be
replenished from the reserves. In the case of
skirmishers ahead of the column, the reserves
would stay behind the column and the
supports and skirmishers would advance in
front of it. For skirmishers in the intervals,
again the reserves would take up position
behind the column, and the skirmishers would
spread out to either side of the battalion,
with their supports at a small distance behind
them. If the opposition drove in a battalion's
skirmish line I presume the reserves would
have to be sent out to replace them which
would be bound to take a few minutes,
especially if the had to advance some 350
paces forwards."

I highly encourage anyone interested in Napoleonic warfare to get themselves a copy of the excellent arrangement of the Kriegsspiel rules put out by TooFatLardies.

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