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"French Attack Column" Topic


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HappyHiker07 Nov 2017 8:02 a.m. PST

I've got a question about French Attack columns, I did a search and I'm surprised there weren't more questions on it.For various reasons(I wont repeat) I'm looking for new Nap rules, and I wonder if I have got the Attack column thing right.

My understanding was Napoleaon used them to punch a whole in the enemy formation, probably a line. They would get shot at going in, 2 companies v's a whole line of firing, but due to the sheer weight of numbers and the blokes in front getting pushed on by the blokes behind, the whole column surged into the enemy and caused such a shock(hopefully) they'd break. The idea being the troops could be less well trained, but because they are all getting pushed, on the Morale is high(and they cant see all the guns pointing at them).

Based on this TBH
link

so 1) Is that Right ?
2) To model that in a wargame, the attack column should get extra morale and maybe movability ?

HappyHiker07 Nov 2017 8:18 a.m. PST

sigh… I only posted it once I promise.

Marc at work07 Nov 2017 8:47 a.m. PST

It was easier to manoeuvre as dressing the ranks was easier – remembering that the column was basically two companies wide, 3 deep, each of which was formed in a line 3 ranks deep.

But that is a gross oversimplification and there have beeen some excellent links to formations recently. I will try and find a link for you

Gunfreak Supporting Member of TMP07 Nov 2017 9:07 a.m. PST

Most French doctrine was to deploy into line. The " attack columns" were movement formations. Both for general movement across the battlefield but also to manovre with in brigade/division formation.

Some battalions would be in line others in column. If you had battalions on the flank of the division. These could easily form square to protect the division from cavalry.
Same with battalions in column in reserve. Since they were in column they could move within the larger formation to plug gaps or exploit advantages.

4th Cuirassier07 Nov 2017 9:31 a.m. PST

I am pretty sure there was never a French doctrinal tenet that attacks should be pressed home in column. It was just that in the Revolutionary era, citizen levies couldn't be relied on to deploy into line in proximity to the enemy; or, they would do so inexpertly, and get shot up.

So a practice arose of just bulling through in column, which as you've noted carried advantages of formation depth offset by vulnerability.

French columns getting shot up by British lines in the Peninsula had usually been surprised by the line emerging from dead ground and usually tried to deploy to meet fire with fire. At Waterloo d'Erlon attacked Wellington's left in its reverse slope position using – in effect – a column of lines one behind the other. Apparently he did so because he'd been in Spain and was wary of being ambushed by British infantry that suddenly appeared from dead ground. So he advanced already deployed and was instead ambushed by British cavalry that suddenly appeared from dead ground. Bummer!

Oliver Schmidt07 Nov 2017 9:35 a.m. PST

If you find the word "attack column" in the literature of the period, it alway means a column formed in a particular way, on the pelotons in the centre (means the centre pelotons are at the head of the column):

picture

The standard French column (1791 regulations) was formed on the flank pelotons (means the pelotons of the left or the right flank are at the head of the column). Here three ways to achieve this formation:

picture

Both kinds of column could be used for movements, or for bayonet attacks. The formation and deployment of the attack column was a bit quicker.

There is an order of Napoleon of 1813, that the attack column should be used frequently, and when it stopped for deploying in front of the enemy, the two front pelotons should start firing immediately, the other pelotons joining in successively as soon as they had deployed as well.

Timmo uk07 Nov 2017 10:05 a.m. PST

At Bussaco the French used attack columns that were a single company frontage. The ridge they assaulted is pretty much a mountain and they must have been knackered by the time they got close to the crest.

The Light Division ambushed one attack part way up the ridge from dead ground. They apparently stood up and fired their first volley at an ultra close range of just 5 – 10 yards.

attilathepun4707 Nov 2017 11:32 a.m. PST

In a decent set of Napoleonic rules, in my opinion, the column should receive both penalties and bonuses.

Regarding movement, an individual soldier can march just as fast in line as in column. However, the longer the frontage of a unit, the harder it is to preserve order in the ranks when marching across any terrain that is not dead flat and completely clear (let alone under fire!). Therefore, a unit in line has to halt more frequently to dress ranks, if it is to maintain a front that is approximately straight. It also takes much longer for a battalion in line to execute a wheeling movement than for a battalion in column. So a column should receive some sort of bonus to its rate of movement. Being more compact, it should also be able to move in and out of square more quickly.

Assuming a battalion attacking in column reaches an enemy position without either side breaking, it should also get some sort of impetus bonus during melee against a battalion in line. If the rules involve multiple phases for close combat, the bonus should only apply for the initial contact. The rationale here is that, at the moment of initial contact, the column can bring more men immediately to bear in hand-to-hand fighting. Many maintain that bayonet fights never really happened in open field battles. I do not think that is quite right, but it certainly was a rare occurrence.

Which brings us to morale bonuses and/or penalties. This is tricky because it inevitably brings up the thorny question of "national characteristics" in rules. Soldiers in column should probably only receive a morale bonus if the doctrine in their army held it to be the superior formation for delivering an attack. By the latter period of the Napoleonic Wars, it might be argued that this would be true for most Continental armies, based on the long string of French success using columns in attack. Conversely, troops in line, facing columns might well have come to expect defeat. But things were clearly different with regard to the British Army and its Portuguese ally, where superior training in musketry and Wellington's clever use of terrain would have led to quite different expectations about the probable success of an attack in column.

If a column is forced to halt and engage in a firefight, the line will automatically be able to inflict greater casualties because only the front ranks of the column can fire. But I think there should also be a morale penalty imposed on the column, if it is not still advancing, but taking fire from an enemy unit in line.

The really big problem is that of assigning specific values to bonuses and penalties, such that they bear some relation to real outcomes. Otherwise, wargamers wind up just "playing the rules." They may have a great time, but will not learn much about actual Napoleonic warfare. My attitude is that if you don't care about authentic historical detail, you might as well play fantasy or science-fiction games, where there is no reality to begin with.

HappyHiker07 Nov 2017 12:59 p.m. PST

I think this is where I get confused. Some people say french attacked in column, some say they only did it when they failed to deploy in line. Some rules model attack column some don't. But then it was called an attack column, so it was obviously used to attack. Thing is if you get no morale or melee bonus, what's the point in having it in the game?

The rules I've been looking at, rank and file, give a +1 for deeper rank in melee, but because you roll dice according to base contact, attack column against a line would give 2 dice vs 4, so the +1 is a bit irrelevant, coulmn would still be at a disadvantage. What that means is in the game everyone would be best of in line all the time. Unless I'm reading it wrong?

And I agree, if your going to play historical, it ought to be as realistic as you can make it whilst still fun – that balance will be different for different people though.

von Winterfeldt07 Nov 2017 1:08 p.m. PST

what's the notion about the melee – an attack column was a brake through column, the opponent would not stand but by braking the morale of the opponent he would disolve his formation well before contact.

Otherwise a line would be much in advantage, the overlapping flanks could close in from the side, like Cannae

Gunfreak Supporting Member of TMP07 Nov 2017 1:14 p.m. PST

And that's why it was standard to deploy in line before coming with musket range. Weather the plan was to charge with bayonets or shoot the enemy to pieces you deployed in line outside enemy musket range
If you ended up close to the enemy in column. It was usually a mistake.

HappyHiker07 Nov 2017 1:25 p.m. PST

"attack column was a brake through column, the opponent would not stand but by braking the morale of the opponent he would disolve his formation well before contact."
I think it's this I was expecting to be represented.

Is the argument that they didn't do that, so rules don't model it? How come some people argue that they did do it ?

there's even a quote from bony that infantry only need to know 2 formations, attack column and square.(don't ask to find a source though, it was on t'internet)
Am I misunderstanding, or do people just disagree what was actually done ?

evilgong07 Nov 2017 3:50 p.m. PST

And at some point you ask, is it really necessary to have detailed rules that show what formation troops are in?

Can you just assume the troops / officers are always trying to be in the optimum formation for their immediate tactical environment and let dice decide how well and when they do it.

Not much fun for a really low level game, but if you want to complete a battle of 25,000 + men per side, in a reasonable time, maybe that's the compromise you need.

Regards

David F Brown

Stoppage07 Nov 2017 4:12 p.m. PST

@happyhiker

This all seems very important when considering a single battalion, however, single close-order battalions were only really used to assault point targets like farm complexes, small villages, or bridges. A small column makes sense as you can get it down a lane.

As DFB points out – in a big battle your point of view opens out – you are handling lines of battalions – probably flanked by artillery – preceded by skirmishers – supported by cavalry and/or a second-line of battalions. The problem is how to get the troops towards the front, assemble them as a brigade, get them up to the front in a grand column, shake the brigade out into a line of battalions (in columns) and then move them up for the assault and eventual deployment into battalion line.

Columns of attack (AKA column formed on the middle(*)) were favoured by the French up to about 1808 (nine-peleton battalions) but afterwards discouraged in favour of columns formed on a flank (grand-division or peleton frontage). Probably because it was easier to keep lateral distance between battalion columns – so that there was predictable deployment into battalion line.

(*) Prussian and Russian battalions, Austrian grand-divisions

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP07 Nov 2017 4:25 p.m. PST

Part of the question is how the term 'attack column' was used. The French used the term for a specific type of column, one formed on the center which folded out in both directions to form line. They also referred to any column formed for an attack as an attack column just as any column for maneuver was referred to as a maneuver column.

Certainly quickly forming line was one if the only benefit of an attack column, so obviously the intent was there, however the French had a long and strong tradition of seeing a major French martial strength as the bayonet charge.

Then there was the French tactic of using skirmishers as the fire power for an assault, where the columns would come abreast of the skirmishers who would retreat in between the columns and together they would conduct fire combat until the enemy was seen as disorganized enough to send in the columns.

So, I think the intent of the French in advancing in column was variable, to form line close to the enemy, to attack by column and to conduct fire combat with the skirmishers until the enemy had been 'prepared' for an assault.

Here is description of an engagement by a French Veteran, Georges marquis de Chambray, in his work Mélanges which shows that the intent was to assault with the columns directly without firing.

Pp. 336

On the eve of the battle of Talavera, several deserters of an English regiment, composed of foreigners, arrived at the outposts of a French regiment, which had a large number of old soldiers, and said that many of their comrades were like them Willing to desert, if they found the opportunity. The next day the French regiment was in the presence of the English regiment, to which the deserters belonged. The troops were deployed on both sides. The French loaded the gun into their arms according to their use. Having reached a short distance, and the English line remaining motionless, some hesitation appeared in the march. The officers and non-commissioned officers shouted to the soldiers in front, walk, do not fire; some even cried, they will make. The forward movement is thus restored, and it was only a very small distance of the English line, when a fire started in two rows brought destruction within of the French line, stopped Its motion, and produced some disorder. The forward movement is thus restored, and it was only a very small distance of the English line, when a fire started in two rows brought destruction within of the French line, stopped its motion, and produced some disorder.

As part shouted to the soldiers in front not to fire, some fired despite the cry. The English, suddenly ceasing their fire, charged with the bayonet. Their order, the impulse, their resolution of fighting with the bayonet was gone. On the contrary, the French, the ranks thinned and disunited, and the surprise caused by the unexpected charge of the enemy; The French had to flee. This flight, however, was not the result of fear, but of necessity; the French regiment rallied behind the second line, went to new forward and valiantly fought the rest of the day.

Such circumstances will always bring about the same results; because the most impetuous courage may fail to succumb if it is supported by of good methods of war.

When the French infantry overturns that which is opposed to it, it pursues it with great vivacity, and it needs rather to be moderate than excited. Sometimes, carried away by her ardor, she breaks her ranks; And in several cases, it was vigorously repulsed by the second line of the enemy, for having pursued the first line too vividly and too far after having overthrown it.

Most French officers agreed that assaulting a fresh enemy line with columns was doomed to failure.

attilathepun4708 Nov 2017 12:05 a.m. PST

@HappyHiker,

Indeed there has been debate raging for decades on the questions of what the intent was when attacking in column, how effective it was, and even, in many cases, what exactly really did happen. A great deal of detailed information has been brought into the discussion from all sides, but no general consensus has emerged--and I do not expect that will change anytime soon.

Some of the problems arise simply from matters of language: sloppy choice of words in original accounts of battles, subtle changes in the meaning of some technical terms over the course of years, and problems of translating descriptions from foreign languages all contribute to obscuring our understanding.

The French infantry regulations of 1791 were in force throughout the period, and they clearly called for an approach in column until just outside effective musketry range, but then for deployment into line to deliver the actual attack. Equally clearly, that very frequently did not happen. In the early revolutionary phase of the wars, it probably was because the hastily raised conscript forces were simply not well enough trained to carry out the necessary evolutions in the face of the enemy. But it seems that massive French columns, screened by clouds of skirmishers, frequently just unnerved opposing troops in line, who were not accustomed to such tactics, and broke before the French ever actually came into contact. In later years it may be that many French commanders simply ignored the regulations, and never intended to deploy into line because of their experience of success with attacks delivered entirely in column. Eventually most other European armies adopted many aspects of French tactics. Unfortunately, we generally are given no explanation of whether or not there had been any intent to deploy into line.

One thing that is clear is that actual melees between infantry in open field battles were extremely rare. One side or the other almost always broke before actual contact took place. Sometimes well disciplined troops in line shot up an attacking column so badly that it halted or broke. That was the usual result when French columns attacked British in line, but that is something of a special case because additional factors were involved, which I choose not to go into now. On the other hand, troops which were poorly trained and/or without combat experience frequently lost their nerve at the imposing sight of an advancing column and just ran away after a ragged volley or two. So questions of relative morale are really vital. This psychological aspect is really what made the column suitable for achieving a breakthrough, as von Winterfeldt mentioned above, much more than any advantage in melee.

Also, as Stoppage pointed out, it rarely was a case of a single battalion in column. The defender usually faced a group of battalions, which could be formed in a number of ways: Usually a line of columns, the "ordre mixte" (mixed order) or a column of battalion columns, but sometimes apparently as a column of battalions in line, or even a giant hollow square (although there is a lot of controversy about examples of the last two).

4th Cuirassier08 Nov 2017 1:45 a.m. PST

Attila wrote:

The line will automatically be able to inflict heater casualties…

Actually this has always baffled me because I appears to me to be only trivially true. A French column of divisions of say 1810 would be two companies wide and three deep, or something like 60 to 80 men wide and nine deep. This formation would be no more than about 45m wide. It follows that if it's attacking a line, then only this within a certain arc can actually fire at it, and the closer it gets to the line, the fewer that is. At point-blank range, for example, only the 60 to 80 men in front of it could fire, plus a handful to with side. In other words, most of the column can't fire – and neither can most of the line.

I don't have the calculations handy but I have worked this out previously and found that at 200 or so yards all of a 500 or 600-man line can fire if a firing arc of 30 degrees ahead is assumed. At 30 yards' range, this falls to roughly the same number as the column has in its front rank.

When I worked out what this did to casualties under Quarrie rules I found that it means the losses a line inflicts on a column are the same regardless of range. At long range more can fire but because of the range they mostly miss. At short range the ends of the line can't fire other Tha across the face of the line, which is unhistorical.

So I am a bit bewildered. In theory the line could wheel its ends towards the column but did that ever provably happen? Ironically a line does more damage to two columns attacking it than to one because the whole line can see a target.

This was what led the group I played Napoleonics with to move to a model where casualties are basically ignored I these encounters. Each side tests morale with close range volleys being more stressful, so that one side breaks usually before any melee.

Allan F Mountford08 Nov 2017 2:00 a.m. PST

Forget the idea of infantry in melee. At its simplest, introduce a reaction test at a critical distance (50 to 100 yards) during the assault with three possible results:
(1) Defending line withdraws and the attacking column follows up.
(2) Attacking column withdraws.
(3) Attacking column deploys into line and enters into a firefight.
Note that result (2) would only generally occur if the defender began some offensive movement (the so-called 'countercharge').
You could add an option (4) to allow melee, but I doubt if this actually occurred in more than one in every 1000 encounters.
Newbury Rules 'Napoleonic Warfare' 3rd & 4th editions had a very similar rules mechanism except they allowed melee to occur far too frequently.

Allan F Mountford08 Nov 2017 2:07 a.m. PST

The French 'column of attack' formed on the centre was actually two half columns formed side by side. In the event the battalion column moved through an enemy line the two half columns could temporarily operate separately to left and right against the flanks and rear of the enemy line. Naturally, that option was not open to a column of divisions.

HappyHiker08 Nov 2017 2:34 a.m. PST

Gentlemen, you are all stars. Thank you for your answers.

AttilaThePun – I particularly like the theory that the intention was to form line, but the European armies ran off before they got chance, so when facing the British they expected the same, and therefore got beat.

It does make it difficult to model in a game, You can't really have a Austrians run off without taking many casualties because the french look scary phase.

von Winterfeldt08 Nov 2017 5:26 a.m. PST

no, the intention was not to form line, it was to brake through and split up in two halves when the brake through was achieved to roll up the enemy line.

In the rarest cases the attacking column did deploy under enemy fire, in most cases they did not, ot tried to do and then fail (like the Old Guard at Belle Alliance)

Stoppage08 Nov 2017 5:48 a.m. PST

@happyhiker:

You can't really have a Austrians run off without taking many casualties because the french look scary phase.

"get the troops towards the front, assemble them as a brigade, get them up to the front in a grand column, shake the brigade out into a line of battalions (in columns) and then move them up for the assault and eventual deployment into battalion line. "

If the Grand column was of division-strength – with three brigades each of four battalions – then it'd be 108 ranks deep ( 3 x 4 x 9 = 108) by say 60 files wide. Defending troops would see that mass snaking out of the assembly area and up to the forming-up line – scary and unnerving.

Then the artillery and skirmish line would create a lot of smoke and noise and suddenly – looming out of the murk – would be the individual battalion columns.

Unnerved troops might well break and run.

4th Cuirassier08 Nov 2017 9:00 a.m. PST

Allan's 3 results are those we usually got.

The player commanding the line declares the range at which he wants to fire on the advancing column. At that range he first takes a morale test, with an ever greater penalty applied the closer he lets the column get. If the line stands, it fires a volley, and then the column tests morale. It applies the same morale penalty as the line did, so the longer the fire is in coming, the greater the effect.

The usual results from a close-range volley are

1/ the line's morale falters so it withdraws without firing, in which case the column follows up; or
2/ the line stands and the column recoils, in which case the line follows up or continues to fire; or
3/ both stand, in which case the column's best bet is to deploy, because the line will continue to fire into it.

The actual casualties from the shooting are normally pretty slight. It's the circumstantial morale penalty that sends one or other unit backwards. Once the circumstances change, the unit rallies quite quickly, largely intact.

The fourth possible result, a melee, typically resulted only when a veteran unit attacked another, or attacked a unit with secure flanks or lots of support or hard cover. The veterans would then charge and the receiving unit would stand, producing a melee. These were rare circumstances.

It takes quite a lot of firing for either unit to do material damage to one another, because most of both have no target.

At 30 yards' range and assuming any man can fire 30 degrees to either side of straight ahead, simple trigonometry shows that not much of the line can fire. If the column's 60 files and hence 40 yards wide, then it can be fired at by

- the front two ranks of the 60 files opposite itself in the line, plus
- about another 26 files to either side, who at that range are within 30 degrees of the column's front.

That's a total of 112 files or 224 men of the line whose weapons will bear on the front rank of a 60-files-wide column.

The column would be able to return the fire with 120 men. So although clearly outgunned, there is no prospect of crashing volleys by 500, 600, or 1,000 muskets "blowing away the head of the column". At point-blank range, only 220 or so of the line's muskets can actually bear. At 200 yards' range the entire line can fire, but of course at 200 yards' range, the fire is so much less effective that 600 men firing at 200 yards do no more damage than 200 firing at 30 yards' range.

I am really quite perplexed by this, because it feels like the best defensive formation is always a four-deep line. The third and fourth ranks can't fire but neither can the extremes of a two-deep line fire either, so in a four-deep line you've at least got some depth if a melee ensues.

Allan F Mountford08 Nov 2017 9:42 a.m. PST

@4th Cuirassier

I wouldn't dispute your trig calcs, but I would add an observation.

Assaults by an individual battalion would be rare. In an assault at brigade level the first line of the attackers would comprise battalion columns at lateral deploying distance. Assuming (for the sake of this exercise) that the attacking and defending battalions were of similar strength, the likelihood is that the defending battalion in line would always have more than one attacking column to target if it was itself the target of the assault. I am sure we could plug in some numbers to generate the number of muskets capable of being brought to bear.

attilathepun4708 Nov 2017 11:37 a.m. PST

And yet, historical accounts repeatedly (though not invariably) speak of whole ranks at the head of French columns being shot down by devastating British volleys, their bodies impeding the ranks behind, and the terrific shock usually bringing the column to a halt. Not that the British generally engaged in prolonged fire fights; rather, after one or two such volleys, they would charge the shaken column in line and put it to flight. Of course the British were not invincible and there are cases where their pursuits got out of hand and were in turn counter-attacked and routed.

Gunfreak Supporting Member of TMP08 Nov 2017 11:58 a.m. PST

Companies could wheel. A column could easily find itself getting shot at from 3 direction.

Given how important frontage is in all war from small skirmishers to entire front of whole theaters of war.

Why would you volunteeraly open your self up to getting flanked?

Either a column attacks with enough room to deploy in line (like they should) if they do then the enemy in line can wheel its companies and flank it on two sides.

Or the fabled column shoulder to shoulder with 2 or even 3 columns to a single defending battalion in line. Well then again you have reduced your frontage and now you'll be flanked by the supporting defending battalions and 2 or 3 battalion columns will be shot to pieces.
Battalions were organic things not a fixed thing mounted on bases. The flank companies wouldn't stand around looking at an enemy column saying: oh no, the angle has been measured and we now can't shoot at the column I guess we just loose then.

von Winterfeldt08 Nov 2017 12:01 p.m. PST

I think the shocking thing was that the Brits had the nerve to fire one or two vollies and then attack, braking by that the equilibrium of the opponent

HappyHiker08 Nov 2017 12:42 p.m. PST

I suppose it's inevitably the historical accounts in English, focus on the Brits. Are there any Austrian/Russian/Prussian accounts of column attack? Or other tactics of the tyrant?

4th Cuirassier08 Nov 2017 12:55 p.m. PST

@ Allan

the likelihood is that the defending battalion in line would always have more than one attacking column to target if it was itself the target of the assault.

Indeed – that's why I previously said that

Ironically a line does more damage to two columns attacking it than to one because the whole line can see a target.


You can fit two or three battalions in column of divisions up against one battalion in line. This, however, was AIUI doctrinally unsound because the battalions could then not themselves deploy into line as they'd have no room!

In the above calculation I assumed therefore that one battalion faces another, with of course a series of similar encounters taking place to either side.

@ Gunfreak

Either a column attacks with enough room to deploy in line (like they should) if they do then the enemy in line can wheel its companies and flank it on two sides.

Yebbut how is that actually possible? This requires someone at each end of the line to order a section of it to angle itself towards the enemy. But what if there's more than one enemy and what if they can't see the enemy at all through the smoke?

the Brits had the nerve to fire one or two vollies and then attack, braking by that the equilibrium of the opponent

Yes and it seems to me that the psychological pressure of being fired at en masse from very close range – regardless of the actual loss this inflicted – coupled with the countercharge was the key to why this worked. A running fire from 200 yards out that didn't seem to stop or even slow the enemy might be all it took to make a defending line retreat.

Timbo W08 Nov 2017 1:32 p.m. PST

Anyone know of historical mentions of more than one column attacking a line? I imagine one way to do it with some space to form line if needed is the echelon of 3 columns but I have no idea if this was ever done.

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP08 Nov 2017 3:20 p.m. PST

Of course more than one column attacked a line. Usually, it is described as a French brigade attacking a line.

The French debated the effectiveness of attacking in line versus column from the 1700 to well after the Napoleonic wars with no uniform agreement. The French were attacking in column in 1859.

So, why should we expect to see a clear argument for one or the other during that time and why should we be able to come up with a definitive either / or?

It is clear that the French intentionally attacked with both line and columns. French columns did win against line troops in Europe and the Peninsula. [e.g. Clausel's columns against the Fusilier Brigade at Salamanca]

And from what de Chambrey saw as a typical example of column attack, it is clear that from the French perspective, the volleys delivered by the British did damage and produced 'some disorder', it was the loss of momentum [the desired immediate result of a volley] and the subsequent British bayonet charge that sent the French running.

Counting casualties, regardless of the method, still leaves one with the question of 'so what?' It is the effect of those losses and resultant behaviors that are the real questions. There is no way to meaningfully equate numbers of casualties with particular reactions of the target units.

I would say the three results Allan provided are generally true, though the variations within those three were seen.

Sparta09 Nov 2017 4:26 a.m. PST

"I suppose it's inevitably the historical accounts in English, focus on the Brits. Are there any Austrian/Russian/Prussian accounts of column attack? Or other tactics of the tyrant?"

By tyrant do you mean the British king, the Czar or one of the german monarchchs??????

:-)

Allan F Mountford09 Nov 2017 4:52 a.m. PST

@McLaddie

Counting casualties, regardless of the method, still leaves one with the question of 'so what?' It is the effect of those losses and resultant behaviors that are the real questions. There is no way to meaningfully equate numbers of casualties with particular reactions of the target units.

Someone has to ask this: So if it's not casualties, what factors influenced which of the three results occurred?

Popcorn at the ready ;-)

HappyHiker09 Nov 2017 5:06 a.m. PST

"By tyrant do you mean the British king, the Czar or one of the german monarchchs?"
I mean, of course the egalitarian visionary that united most of Europe under a single banner. Though of course there's a couple of candidates for that description too… ( Maybe not so much the egalitarian bit) :-)

"So if it's not casualties, what factors influenced.."
I reckon its perceived casualties, not actual casualties, lots of people lying on the floor covered in blood screaming is much more scary than quiet dead people. Some wargame rules measure drop in morale rather than actual casualties. Casualties is more 'fun' though.

1968billsfan Supporting Member of TMP09 Nov 2017 8:12 a.m. PST

cf: TMP link
……
Let me make some comments on the horrible mismatch that happens when an unit is attacked on the end of a line by a column. Worse yet, if the end of a line being attacked from an exterior angle. The purpose is to support the wargame philosphy of keeping brigades in a close spatial association.

The conventional "wisdom" is that a line of battle will have all guns shooting at an approaching column, whereas the column will only have a few guns shooting. So there's a tremendous mismatch in firepower and columns don't stand a chance. What is missing from this is that a battalion in line is LONG compared to the range of the smooth barrel musket and that soldiers who are in LOB but far from the point of attack are not really in the fight. What's also missing is that if a column can hit the end of a line in some fashion, the advantage is all with the column.

I've run some analog calculations (a.k.a. drawing up to-scale little squares and different templates on an excel spreadsheet the size of a battalion in line and of a close column of attack) and considered a number of cases. For discussion here consider three simple cases:
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[1] a close column of attack hitting the center of a battalion line of battle ("LOB")
[2] a close column of attack hitting the end of an unsupported line and
[3] a close column of attack hitting the end of an unsupported line from a 45 degree oblique angle, from the outside.
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The line of battle is 215 files wide and each file is 30 inches wide. Each soldier can fire at an angle of 45 degrees from his front (otherwise he blows the head off of one of his own people). The attacking column is 22 yards wide and 30 yards deep. Only the first two ranks can fire- actually I'll be counting the number of "files" that can fire.
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DDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDD AAA AAA
[1] If the attacking column comes directly perpendicular into the LOB with the center hitting the center of the LOB you have approximately the following proportions of the LOB able to fire.

AT CONTACT Many of the LOB troops can't get a shot at the column because they can't twist and fire through their own troops. 50 files can shoot at the sides of the incoming column at ranges between 0 and 43 yards. 25 files shoot at zero range. 35% of the defenders can shoot.

AT 50 YARDS 213 out of 215 files can fire. The ranges are between 50 and 99 yards. This is a good killing zone. 99.1% of the defenders can fire.

AT 100 YARDS 100% of the defenders can fire. The ranges are between 100 and 124 yards.

AT 150 YARDS 100% of the defenders can fire. The ranges are between 150 and 167 yards, which is getting a little long for the muskets.

=================================================


DDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDD AAA AAA
[2] If the attacking column comes directly perpendicular into the LOB with the center hitting the end of the line you have approximately the following proportions of the LOB able to fire.

AT CONTACT 40 files out of 215 can fire. 18%

AT 50 YARDS 90 files out of 215 can fire. 42%
The average range is ~ 65 yards

AT 100 YARDS 136 files out of 215 can fire. 62% total can fire. However 23% of the defenders are firing at greater than 150 yards. This is very long range and largely ineffective. Only 40% are firing in the 100 to 150 yards range, which isn't that hot either.

The attacking column is only firing one eight of its files. (12%) but all are firing at the minimum range, not at a variety of longer ranges. Also as the front ranks get killed, they are replaced by back ranks who bring up loaded muskets. This increases the firepower.

===================================================


DDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDD AA AA
If the attacking column comes in at a 45 degree angle from the side of the LOB and hits the end of the LOB you have approximately the following proportions of the defending LOB able to fire.

AT CONTACT 3.5 files out of 215 can fire. 9%

AT 50 YARDS 3.5 files out of 215 can fire. 9%

AT 100 YARDS 3.5 files out of 215 can fire. 9%

The attacking column is only firing one seventh of its files. This is 12% of its files. 12% is greater than 9%. The attacking column wins the gunfire contest on the way in. As to the melee, it starts off about 10 to 1 odds.

===========================================
My point is that any wargame rules should make an attack on the end of a line by a column be a really really bad experience for the defender. This will limit the "
zippy battalions" and force brigadiers and colonels to keep units together with flank support. A close column of attack should be able to curve around and hit the end of a LOB- it doesn't even have to be directly from the side or rear to be deadly. Put attacking skirmishers in front of the attackers to hide the direction of the column. Bad news for the defender. Pin the defender by moving another LOB close to them in front. Bad news for the defender. If the defending LOB refuses the flank, they have weakened themselves because the attacking column can hit the hinge and now the defender has a lot of guns facing empty space and not the attackers."

HappyHiker09 Nov 2017 8:44 a.m. PST

Its a good point. Rules like BP only give +1 on melee dice for a flank attack, which I've always thought low. Other rules allow double attacks for a flank attack(Rank and File for instance) which is probably more realistic.

Its difficult to know the true effect of tactics for a period, so we assume the rules have modeled it correctly. I think the logic for BP is the men are trained to turn and so wont be flanked, but obviously if pinned by the front, they cant turn.

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP09 Nov 2017 8:51 a.m. PST

Someone has to ask this: So if it's not casualties, what factors influenced which of the three results occurred?

Allan:
grin That isn't the question. I wasn't saying casualties don't influence the results, the question is how and when.

Why does that de Chambrey column only become "somewhat disordered" after the British Volley but doesn't retreat, advance or stop and begin volleying [the order was NOT to fire], while the French V Corps at Albuera spent between one and two hours taking casualties, some retreating, others charging with lots of disorder.

Then at Jena, columns in several situations, while taking significant casualties continued to advance.

The only meaningful use of counting average casualties etc. is if there was some general equation: # of casualties = X behavior.

That equation simply doesn't jibe with the historical accounts in any reliable way.

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP09 Nov 2017 11:07 a.m. PST

Its difficult to know the true effect of tactics for a period, so we assume the rules have modeled it correctly. I think the logic for BP is the men are trained to turn and so wont be flanked, but obviously if pinned by the front, they cant turn.

Any quantification of the 'true effects' of tactics for a wargame would have to be statistical. That can only be done with average variations across many examples. A statistical analysis of a large base. That can be done with historical accounts, however difficult. [I am attempting that right now] For instance, a preliminary conclusion [not final] is that very few if any volley fires actually drove off the enemy. Stopped them, disordered them, forced them to return fire, but not retreat or a forced withdrawal. Something else had to happen such as with de Chambrey's example. Those rare occasions, involved troops with poor morale or already badly battered before the encounter.

Most wargame designers have instead relied on a few anecdotal accounts or the opinion of one or two military men, however general.[Or just wargame conventional wisdom]

It is understandable why they do that, but it leads to these discussions where it isn't clear what that +1 represents or whether columns should or shouldn't have a morale benefit. Moreover it does lead to 'feeling' right, which can and has proven to be just that, someone's feelings, not linked to anything substantial.

Historical interpretations, which is what wargame rules are…are interpretations of something, in this case, historical sources. Wargames require quantifications and probabilities of results. Those can only be found in statistical analysis.

attilathepun4709 Nov 2017 11:29 a.m. PST

Regarding 1968billsfan's comments, I will not argue about his calculations. The more important point is the situation. If a defending line is pinned in place by two or more columns delivering a well-coordinated attack, then it is badly outnumbered and cannot expect to fare well, regardless of how many troops can fire effectively. The commanding officer may well conclude that he cannot hold his position and try to conduct a fighting withdrawal, continuing to fire. If not, there will certainly be a loss of morale among his men, who will probably vote with their feet and scamper before there is any actual contact.

On the other hand, if the attack is not well coordinated, the defenders will only have to deal with one battalion column at a time. In which case, they can extend their line to right or left if the column is heading for one end of their line, or wheel to face it if the column is approaching obliquely.

McLaddie is quite right that it is really all about morale, rather than casualties per se. Certainly heavy casualties will affect morale, but not in rigidly predictable or consistent ways. That is because morale is more about perception than actual reality, and why a battalion that fights like lions one day may run away the next. In the heat of battle no one is counting casualties to see if they have reached 25 per cent (or whatever), and now must check morale. Any casualties at all will probably seem heavy to a man in close proximity, but he will have only a fuzzy notion of the overall number in his battalion.

Stoppage09 Nov 2017 11:51 a.m. PST

@attilathepun47

Why are the defending line outnumbered? They've more files in the fight that the attacking columns.

Only the first two or three ranks of the column can actually do anything (such as fire their muskets. The rest are just milling about waiting for something to happen.

Stated like this the attacking troops are actually the outnumbered ones.

attilathepun4709 Nov 2017 1:22 p.m. PST

My comment about being outnumbered was not talking about a firefight, but the total number of attackers: one battalion against two or more, if it is pinned in place by a coordinated attack. In that situation, if any of the enemy battalions were to succeed in advancing to actual contact, then others most likely would too. In which case the line will almost certainly be overwhelmed. Of course, if the defending line manages to halt one column with effective volley fire, that might give pause to the other columns as well, but there can be no certainty, and it would be evident to all that the defending line was in a very perilous situation.

Gunfreak Supporting Member of TMP09 Nov 2017 1:35 p.m. PST

If all column are concentrated on one defending battalions. Then you'll have many unkengaged defending battalions that can flank. Hence you don't make your frontage shorter then the enemies.
And why you didn't attack in columns. But either line or mix of line and columns.

davbenbak Supporting Member of TMP09 Nov 2017 6:15 p.m. PST

@Happy Hiker
Welcome to the world of Napoleonic opinions. The reason there are so many rule sets out there is that different players have different opinions on how to portray Napoleonic tactics. I'll try to answer some of your questions. Yes, it was tactical doctrine in the French army to deploy from column into line before engaging the enemy but it is clear that commanders were relying heavily on the impetus of the column to do most of the dirty work for them. Yes, I would think that troops attacking in column should receive a morale bonus towards the success of their attach. And yes, I think fire effect for both musketry and artillery should be modified given the targets formation, be it moving dense column or stationary square.

It must be remembered that early on the continental powers did not use an offensive skirmish tactic like the French did. Troops were formed into lines to await the enemy assault. Something that does not get modeled often in the rules is the psychological effect the French skirmish screen had at that time. Can you imagine just standing in line for 30 minutes while being sniped at and not being able to shoot back? As has been stated, casualty effects on morale are very localized. You have no way of knowing what percent of causalities your unit has taken, only that a couple of guys around you have been hit. Rule sets that recognize the difference between units that have offensive skirmish capability, defensive skirmish capability and no skirmish capability, model this well it's just not a lot of fun to have the enemy shooting at your soldiers turn after turn and there's nothing you can do about it so who wants to play that game even if it's historical. The continental forces did adjust their tactics (strengthing skirmish capability and massing artillery) as time went on. The French did not.

I like sets of rules that test both the attackers morale to see if an attack succeeds and then the defenders morale to see if they stand. Actual hand to hand combat was rare so if the attacker passes it should be unlikely that the defender stands. If offensive skirmishing and artillery fire has been effective the morale of the defender should be eroded. if not, it should be unlikely that the assault by column should succeed unless elite veterans facing conscripted raw troops. I do like a range of possible results that attacking columns could falter momentarily dress lines and resume, halt and form line, halt in disorder or break and retreat.

Now to address all the discussion of British infantry in line verses an assault column. They also had a very effective offensive skirmish tactic. So much so that it they completely countered any effect from the French skirmishers. It is unclear to me if either the French at this point were so confident in the attack column tactic that they never attempted to deploy to line or if they did not know enough about the location of the enemy due to the ineffectiveness of their skirmishers. In any event the anecdotal evidence suggests that French columns took withering fire from the British troops in line. This would not have happened IF they had deployed into line formation outside of effective musket range as doctrine prescribed.

It is up to you if you wish to chose a rule set like Shako II that enforces doctrine by enforcing the distance between columns. If using actual troop frontages it is unlikely that you will ever get more than a 2 to 1 attack ratio unless you use company wide columns then maybe a 3 to 1. Again, every player faces that somewhat elusive goal of "does this feel right to me" when choosing a Napoleonic ruleset. Good luck.

Whirlwind09 Nov 2017 7:04 p.m. PST

@1968billsfan,

The only problem with your theory is that no accounts mention it. Not one AFAIK. It actually feels like modern infantry tactics applied to the early C19. What does get emphasized is discipline and morale and leadership and terrain.

Your calculations, allied to 4th Cuirassier's point plus lots of period accounts leads to a conclusion the reverse of what you are saying: that a Napoleonic infantry unit, if it remained steady, was more than capable of holding off the enemy with the fire from a single company (or equivalent sub-unit). That is why squares and columns could win firefights.

Regarding 1968billsfan's comments, I will not argue about his calculations. The more important point is the situation. If a defending line is pinned in place by two or more columns delivering a well-coordinated attack, then it is badly outnumbered and cannot expect to fare well, regardless of how many troops can fire effectively. The commanding officer may well conclude that he cannot hold his position and try to conduct a fighting withdrawal, continuing to fire. If not, there will certainly be a loss of morale among his men, who will probably vote with their feet and scamper before there is any actual contact.

This is more or less what happened at Albuera. I'm inclined to agree with 4th Cuirassier – massed columns (which were rarely used in this way it appears) just got more men killed by presenting more targets, although the defenders would lose more too. The "mass" is an illusion.

This is a wargames-ism. Rules are often calibrated so that a single line will usually defeat a column unless the line is shaken by artillery or skirmisher fire: so far, so good. So the implication is that if the attacker chucks another column or two in at the same time, the defending unit has to "split its fire", won't achieve enough "hits" and is toast. But 4th Cuirassier's calculations – and period accounts – make it clear that one didn't need the full firepower of a battalion in line to stop a column – a couple of steady companies would do the trick.

So we can see what the French were trying to do: Batter the enemy infantry with artillery and skirmishers then send in an attack in column at the right moment; being faster and easier to control, more likely to achieve success and will suffer fewer casualties than an attack in line. The only downside is that the infantry attack would cause less casualties on the enemy because fewer soldiers could fire. But the French weren't going for attrition in close-order infantry combat in the first place, usually. When they wanted attritional infantry effects, they generally used large bodies of skirmishers instead.

4th Cuirassier10 Nov 2017 2:59 a.m. PST

I was quite surprised at the observation above by davebenbak:

Something that does not get modeled often in the rules is the psychological effect the French skirmish screen had at that time.

I'm not that familiar with modern rule sets apart from LFS, but is this true? If so, it's a remarkable thing to overlook. A number of the signature features of a Wellingtonian battle – rifle screens, reverse slopes -
were expressly contrived to shelter his line from fire as long as possible. It would be a surprising omission from a set of rules if the effects of skirmishers, that he took such trouble to counter, weren't modelled.

The first set I ever used 40 odd years ago penalised defenders heavily for being under fire and again if they were under skirmisher fire. In fact, if a 20-figure battalion all in skirmish order fired on a formed line of 20 figures from 100 yards, the former would inflict the 10% losses required to force a morale check within a move or two and the latter would recoil involuntarily within a couple more. If there was artillery firing on the line as well, then it wouldn't even take that long.

The moral for those games was, you absolutely had to have your own skirmish line out there countering the enemy's.

From this and previous discussions that have covered similar ground, I have been persuaded that the number of defending muskets and of attacker casualties were relatively immaterial to the results of these encounters. Clearly the defender would like as many of both as possible, but the main factor was how intact the line was when the attack reached it, and how the attackers reacted to the line's fire.

If that fire slackened as the column approached, the column would be heartened and press on. If the line was unscathed and was maintaining or even reserving its fire right up to point blank range, then the column has a rethink. Up until some point any defensive fire has not been very effective, but around 30 or 40 or 50 yards out, the column crosses an invisible line into a space where the defenders' next volley is likely to "do great execution", as the writers of the day might have put it.

At that range, the muzzle report is right in the receiver's face, like not one, but several hundred very loud fireworks going off. The attacker is close enough for the powder smoke from the musket barrels to engulf him. Few men will be hit, but every man will hear multiple bullets going past very close, to either side. This unnerving noise* will be notably louder than at the longer ranges, because at 100 yards out the flying bullets have spread out or hit the ground, whereas close in they are all close together. Among the smoke and bullets there will be burning paper wads flying past as well, to remind the receiver how horribly close to this fire he is. Relatively underwhelming further out, it is quite clearly lethal.

At this point the column either damns the torpedoes and goes in anyway (if we are talking Old Guard), or it stops and tries to deploy to fire itself, or it withdraws. Or indeed all three in that order.

When one reads of columns being "blasted to a standstill" by lines (Correlli Barnett's account of Maida uses that exact phrase IIRC even though the French were in line), the standstill is, I think, brought about the proximity. That is, the tactic would still work if the line were firing blanks.

* I'm reminded of a WW2 submariner's account of being depth-charged in which he noted that you knew the depth-charges were really close if, inside the submarine, you could hear "rain" – the sound of the water flung up by the explosion falling back to the surface. There would be some range for receivers of musketry at which they'd never heard so many bullets going past so loud.

Le Breton10 Nov 2017 3:39 a.m. PST

First – this is a very interesting thread – thank you all for lots of good ideas and information.

I thought the whole idea of the columns, especially columns on division (2 platoon, 2 peloton) frontage, and especially attack columns (formed on the center division ) was protection against cavalry. The denser formation were pretty good "as is" to defend against cavalry and could form square most quickly.

The idea of "support" battalions on the wings of a deployed line confers modest benefit. In the time it takes the infantry in line to reload, the cavalry can approach 120 to 150 meters, perhaps more : i.e. from outside of effective range. So …. if the the enemy horse is approaching, what does the line (even the suppported line) do? Reload and try one final shot before impact? Try to form square "in time"? These look all to be pretty chancy ideas – as Bagration found out at Austerlitz.

I thought that the use of skirmishers was part of this : the enemy cavalry can't get to be just out of effective range of the formed battalions, as this ground is covered with skirmishers. If the cavalry moves on the skirmishers, you have plenty of time to react. Russians, for example, were prone to charge the cavalry, even with infantry in columns.

I thought that the more extensive use of deployed lines by the British was caused by (Wellington's) careful choice of ground and the dispersal of artillery : if the enemy cavalry cannot move quickly to your line (or is in small numbers and poorly mounted as in Spain), and cannot linger just out of range of the infantry (where rifle-armed men and artillery can get to them), and your infantry is steady and fast reloading, then you can afford to run the risk described above in order to apply more infantry firepower.

Otherwise, because of the effect of cavalry, you end up with lots of skirmishers and formed units in columns on division frontage …. which was pretty much the standard procedure for late period French and Russians. In reality, there were actually rather few examples of infantry column vs. infantry line. Or so I thought.

I am *very* open to being corrected, as the comments here on this thread indicate the members know more about this than I do.

Whirlwind10 Nov 2017 5:01 a.m. PST

@ Le Breton,

Your points are all very interesting. The only comments I would make are that AFAIK in the British and French discussions of this, cavalry attack did not feature much – perhaps because direct frontal attacks on unshaken infantry were rare anyway; and secondly, that if avoiding enemy cavalry was the primary reason, one would have expected the French in the Peninsular to have used lines more than they actually did (the British cavalry was not strong, even weaker proportionally than the British artillery; the Spanish cavalry appears to have often been both weak and inefficient).

4th Cuirassier10 Nov 2017 7:32 a.m. PST

@ Le Breton

there were actually rather few examples of infantry column vs. infantry line.

Without having much data to support it, I have arrived at much the same view, just working from first principles. It doesn't feel like you need or could organise a whole battalion's firepower to stop a column. So a double-depth line would work just as well.

The only example I'm aware of is Wellington's four-deep lines at Waterloo. I would be interested in how other armies fought defensive battles. Did Prussian battalions form up six deep? If I were playing a game in which I had to defend a position, then in wargame terms what would work best would be a heavy skirmish line augmented by artillery and supported by battalion columns and cavalry formed to counter-attack locally whatever came near.

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP10 Nov 2017 7:45 a.m. PST

if avoiding enemy cavalry was the primary reason, one would have expected the French in the Peninsular to have used lines more than they actually did (the British cavalry was not strong,…

Part of the reason for French columns was that, at least in many of the battles in the Peninsula early and late in the war, the fighting was in hills and rough terrain, which usually called for columns in moving across it. You see the British using columns in attacking at the Nive and Orthez for that reason… with similar results.

The idea of 'mass' in an attack wasn't completely an illusion for the Napoleonic soldier. For instance, at Bussaco, when the French colum on a two company front reached Craufurd's light division, Napier folded his flank companies in behind the two facing the column before charging, actually leaving a gap in the brigade line a company wide on both sides of his 'mini-column'. The Russians often attacked in column. Kutusov ordered his generals to counter-attack in column before Borodino.

And cavalry was a real threat to skirmishers. Skirmishers could not hold cavalry off unless in rough terrain.

Ruchel10 Nov 2017 8:04 a.m. PST

This quote summarizes the use of attack columns:

"My brigade moved in attack columns up the hill as if on the parade ground, tirailleurs covered our front while the 69th and two battalions of the 76th changed into line. Once at 100 paces from the enemy line, we opened fire with such rapid and deadly volleys that our firepower broke the Austrian infantry in front of us."

General Roguet, Elchingen, 1805. (Quote taken from General d'Armee rulebook, page 5).

We can see the same procedure at Austerlitz, Jena, etc.
I think it is the typical use of attack columns. Of course, I am talking about the professional armies of the period, not the massive armies of militia troops and conscripts (late campaigns).

By the way, taking into consideration the whole action described in that quote, we can conclude that skirmishers did not replace lines in order to defeat the enemy lines by firepower. Skirmishers fire did not replace the volleys fired by formed infantry lines (or not in all circumstances). I think skirmishers' role is overestimate.

I am not an expert on these military matters, but I used to play Napoleonic wargames in the past, so I did read many books and battle accounts. In my humble opinion, if attack columns did not change into lines, they moved in order to try to outflank the enemy lines better than to attack them frontally. Frontal assaults against lines of well-trained troops were not very successful (against British infantry or any other good European infantry). Obviously, if the enemy lines were disintegrating previously, attack columns used to continue their advance against them instead of changing into line.

It is just my opinion. Again, I am not an expert.

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