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"Dropping to the Ground??" Topic

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Personal logo Ironwolf Supporting Member of TMP07 Jun 2017 9:44 p.m. PST

Ok, I've read a few stories about individuals or small groups of men would drop to the ground when being fired at by a larger unit in formation. Even when smaller units were skirmishing. So I can see this as being a common tactic.

But I've not ever come across reports of a company or larger dropping to the ground when in line and exchanging fire with another large group in line. Have you??

Reason why I ask is,
Recently read Brandywine by Michael Harris. On page 312 – 314 the topic is after the battle, the Americans thought they'd caused a large amount of casualties to the British. In a report to Congress, Gen. Sullivan claims they gave ground around Birmingham meeting house, but not till the ground was covered with British dead. The problem being, there were not enough British casualties for someone to claim the ground was covered.

Now here is where the author says the reasonable explanation for Sullivan to write such a report. Gen. Howe trained his soldiers to drop to the ground when the rebels fired upon them. Instilling some light infantry tactics into all his troops. So during the smoke and confusion of the battle, men deliberately lying on the ground were confused to be casualties.

Now Sullivan had under his command two brigades with 8 – 10 battalions. We know when Sullivan took over command of the entire wing, Gen. de Borre took command of Sullivan's Division. We know the Guards knocked them out of the battle at the beginning. So I'm taking Gen. Sullivan's report to mean, later on when he was with Gen. Stirling's and Stephen's Divisions. When they were being pushed back, before Gen. Greene formed up behind them to hold back the British while they retreated???

So my questions are, have any of you read of company or larger size formations dropping to the ground to avoid fire as the author claims??

The author of the book makes it sounds like this might not have been done on a regular bases but was a common thing since Howe trained all his units to do this??

Thomas Burke's allegations of misconduct against Sullivan didn't go further than a lot of letters back and forth. So I chalked off Sullivan's claim of British dead covered the ground, as him countering Burke's version of events.

Every since I've read this, its become one of those things that keeps popping up in the back of my mind. So knowing we have a good number of historical affluent members on here, I thought I'd ask.


22ndFoot08 Jun 2017 8:28 a.m. PST


Anyone interested in British tactics in the AWI should read With Zeal and Bayonets only by Spring. It is a very useful little book.


Supercilius Maximus08 Jun 2017 12:32 p.m. PST

A lecturer at West Point (a US Army Lt Col, no less) offered me a similar explanation for the discrepancy between observed and actual casualties among the Crown forces during the action at Pelham, Westchester County NY, in October 1776. In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, over-enthusiastic local historians, in addition to "bigging-up" the Crown forces numbers by converting every British and German flank company into its parent regiment, estimated Anglo-German losses in the several hundreds based on eye-witness accounts of men dropping to the ground after each Continental volley. The paucity of Howe's reported loss, especially among the Germans, seems to suggest this "trick" was used in this action – which prominently featured British light infantry who would have been first to be taught this type of tactic.

Personal logo Ironwolf Supporting Member of TMP08 Jun 2017 12:55 p.m. PST

22ndFoot – With Zeal and Bayonets is a great book and when I read it a few years ago, gave me a totally different perspective on the Rev War. But I don't recall it making reference to line units dropping to the ground during engagements?

SuperMax – I was hoping you'd chime in on my question. Let me ask this, Sullivan's report seems to make reference to the American and British engagement after de Borre and Sullivan's Division retreated from the Guards and Grenadiers. So Stirling's and Stephen's Divisions were fighting against the British two Light Infantry battalions and Gen. Agnew's 4th Brigade??? If I'm understanding your post correctly, your thinking what Sullivan saw was the two light battalions dropping to the ground at Brandywine??

I find this very interesting that the Lights might have done this at the engagement at Pelham, and possibly again at Brandywine.

historygamer Supporting Member of TMP08 Jun 2017 1:13 p.m. PST

Weren't the Lights pinned down on Birmingham hill – literally?

22ndFoot08 Jun 2017 1:34 p.m. PST

Ironwolf, Spring quotes at length from a light company officer in the 1st Light Battalion who describes he and his men "throwing ourselves on our knees and bellies" at Birmingham Meeting House. Also, the grenadier company of the 4th at Harlem Heights being ordered to lie down and another battalion doing so at the same action. He also discusses the troops from Massey's field force drawn from the Halifax garrison being taught to avoid enemy fire by various means including going prone. So, it was done.

Personal logo optional field Supporting Member of TMP08 Jun 2017 2:13 p.m. PST

It would be worth considering that the casualties reported might also be too numerous due to honest and sincere overestimation (or less than honest overestimation for that matter). It certainly wouldn't be the only case in history where a side vastly overestimates the harm inflicted to an enemy.

Winston Smith Supporting Member of TMP08 Jun 2017 2:47 p.m. PST

Next thing I know, you'll be telling me they all hid behind trees, like the Yankees did.

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP08 Jun 2017 3:10 p.m. PST

I sometimes get the feeling with Monmouth that both sides lowballed their own casualties a bit. More than any other AWI battle, anecdotal accounts keep suggesting harder fighting and heavier losses than the official reports suggest. Hoping to get a nominal roster of officer casualties together this year to see whether that suggests anything. People are usually a little more honest about individual officer losses than about numbers of total enlisted casualties.

42flanker08 Jun 2017 4:17 p.m. PST

22nd Foot has it, I believe. I first read this explanation in the account of Brandywine in Thomas McGuire's Philadelphia Campaign. It was a tactic employed not so much by all of Howe's infantry but by the LI battalions.

I believe the grenadiers at Harlem Heights were not throwing themselves down in the face of enemy fire, since they were not actively engaged, but simply keeping out of the line of fire while in reserve- even though at least one soldier was killed by an 'over' where he lay.

Personal logo Ironwolf Supporting Member of TMP08 Jun 2017 6:40 p.m. PST

22nd Foot, sorry I should have been more clear in my post. I was aware of Lights had done this. It seems they did it more often than I was aware. But I was asking about line units. As the part of the battle Sullivan seems to be referencing at Birmingham Hill. They were engaged with two battalions of lights and Line units from the 4th Brigade. The author, Michael Harris, claims Howe had instilled this training not only with the lights but with the line units also. As SuperMax posted, it more than likely was the lights doing this trick. Sullivan saw this and in the confusion of battle thought his men were slaughtering the British.

Seems most references to this being done while engaged are attributed to the lights?

As for grenadiers at harlem heights, I took their action as avoiding fire passing through the engagement in front of them? I've read similar situations where a unit would go prone or drop down to avoid casualties while in reserve.

42flanker09 Jun 2017 1:46 a.m. PST

Ironwolf, Agnew's 4th Brigade were formed up in support on the British left behind the battalions of the Reserve. They then moved up to support the grenadiers who had been caught in enfilade by the rearguard on the American right, only to be caught in flank themselves with the 64th Regt in particular taking a heavy loss as darkness fell.

Interestingly, McGuire again speculates that the jäger Captain Ewald's impression of the two lead battalions of the 4th Bde being decimated might have been the result of the same tactic as employed by the Light Infantry.

Personal logo Ironwolf Supporting Member of TMP10 Jun 2017 11:57 p.m. PST

I'd forgotten Ewald's comment on that. Thanks for posting those details.

Virginia Tory13 Jun 2017 5:49 a.m. PST

The 2d Grenadier Battalion at Brandywine reportedly went prone when fired upon. I think it's in the McGuire book.

They also were not wearing their fancy caps--they had them in their knapsacks until right before the attack. Makes me wonder what they were actually wearing for most of the day.

Lance Flint13 Jun 2017 1:51 p.m. PST

Apparently in the Thirty Years War some Imperialist units were ordered to crouch or duck before receiving a salvo from Swedish Infantry to reduce casualties.
But would it be considered to be ungentlemanly in the 18th century?
Unless if course your formation or individual and flexible style of fighting allowed it.

Supercilius Maximus14 Jun 2017 3:59 a.m. PST

@ VA Tory – they would probably be wearing either plain hats (flank company men got one very year, same as the centre company men), or nightcap style forage caps (see the Perry British gun handlers pack, although regimental styles varied).

42flanker14 Jun 2017 5:36 a.m. PST

VA Tory- McGuire's reference is to the 2nd Light Infantry rather than the grenadiers. By contrast, the Grenadiers advance steadily against the American line until they were caught in the enfilade referred to above. McGuire comments on American reports of extent of British killed here as perhaps being a result of similar precautionary tactics, but points out heavy casualties in both grenadiers and Agnew's 4th Bde. 7/10 British officers killed at Brandywine were from Grenadiers and 7 others wounded, including Lt Col. Medows who was shot from his horse- an indication, perhaps, of the less nuanced tactics of the Grenadiers. Lt Col Monkton, Medows' colleague at Brandywine, was killed leading his men into heavy fire at Monmouth Courthouse.

Re. grenadier headgear, references from Harlem Heights and Germantown point to grenadiers wearing felt hats uncocked as SM has pointed out.

Virginia Tory14 Jun 2017 7:59 a.m. PST


Agnew's men were hard hit during the later fight at Sandy Hollow with Greene's men, not the fight at Birmingham Hill.

I'm also not sure about the Lights v. Grenadiers--I'll have to revisit McGuire. The Grenadiers were not pinned as far as I'm aware--deBorre's men were already falling apart when the Grenadiers attacked. The lights were pinned at the foot of Birmingham Hill for some time and needed additional companies to come to their support. The Rebel line didn't fall back until Sullivan's (deBorre) division collapsed.

42flanker14 Jun 2017 10:49 a.m. PST

Yes, indeed VA, as I indicated in my earler post, which you might have missed. I looked through McGuire before posting, which seemed a good idea.

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