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"Advantage of line formation in three ranks over two ranks?" Topic


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Iorwerth06 Jan 2018 9:30 a.m. PST

I was going to post this on another thread I started ( TMP link ) but figured it was on a slightly different topic and so would be better in own thread.

I am trying to understand what were the benefits of deploying a battalion in line in three ranks, rather than two ranks. I know that at one point Napoleon talked about the wasted bayonets in the third rank, and that the British generally deployed in two ranks, even though their regulations talked about three ranks. I read in Nafziger that the British two ranks was down to the fact that most of the time they were under strength, and so two ranks were ‘forced' upon them, but not sure if this would be correct.

What I have gathered is that two ranks was supposed to be less secure against cavalry than three ranks, though I am not sure that would have been actually the case. Two ranks does allow more ( all of ) the battalion's muskets to be brought to bear, whereas in three ranks a 1/3rd of the battalion would not be firing ( or if they were, would likely be causing some casualties to their own mates in the two ranks in front! ) . Looking at the amount of files per company in British and French battalions, they were pretty even, though the British would have ten companies to the French six, so would have had greater firepower.

So, on the face of it, I am failing to see the advantages of a third rank. Below are some ideas as to possible benefits of three ranks, but these are not based on any knowledge, rather just trying to imagine what the advantages might be!

1. Tradition – it was how battalions were trained to operate. However, that didn't seem to be a problem for the British.

2. The fact that the third rank was supposed to reload and pass forward muskets somehow speeded up how quickly the battalion could put out fire?

3. Morale – with a third rank the men would feel somehow more secure, and so the file-closers had an easier time of stopping men abandoning the battalion.

4. A third rank made it easier to ensure the number of files could be kept to their starting number when the battalion started taking casualties, rather than having the frontage shrink, as would be the case in a two rank deployment. This would minimise disruption in battle when the battalion had to maneuver after taking casualties?

5. Skirmishers were drawn from the third rank ( at least initially ) and so the battalion frontage would not be affected when skirmishers were deployed, and so, like point 4 above, problems with maneuver after skirmishers deployed was minimised.

Are any of these correct? What were other benefits of three ranks over two? On the face of it, deploying in two ranks maximises the firepower of the battalion, so why use three ranks?

A further question on skirmishers – while early on skirmishers were drawn from the third rank ( at least so far as I can tell ) , it seems later on many nations, including the French, had the equivalent of light companies ( voltigeurs ) within the battalion, that were used when the battalion put out skirmishers, rather than just taking men from the third rank of all companies. Is that correct? If it is, might battalions with three ranks still put out additional skirmishers from the third rank if they felt in advantageous, which would make the three ranks more useful in this regard than a two rank line, as doing so would not shrink the battalions frontage. The British, in two ranks, would have to shrink their frontage if they wanted to put out more skirmishers than their light company – not sure if they ever really did that anyway.

NB – I did try and do a search on the site for other threads on this, but the search option wouldn't work for me, which may be more to do with my rubbish computer than the search function itself!

14Bore06 Jan 2018 10:00 a.m. PST

You have it down, my observations from reading
#2 was only done in certain situations but also was done by all armies I know of using 3 ranks. But also 3rd ranks did cause some casualties in the front 2.
#5 The Prussians were big on 3rd rank as skirmishers no idea of other armies
As only 2 ranks were used by British except in emergencies three ranks are the way it was, but know the British in at least 1 unit during Waterloo went with 4 ranks.

Korvessa06 Jan 2018 10:04 a.m. PST

What I don't understand is that in previous eras they did fire in three ranks. Why couldn't they here?

Seems like 3 ranks in a smaller area would concentrate firepower more.

Whirlwind06 Jan 2018 10:15 a.m. PST

I did try and do a search on the site for other threads on this, but the search option wouldn't work for me, which may be more to do with my rubbish computer than the search function itself!

try here TMP link

I read in Nafziger that the British two ranks was down to the fact that most of the time they were under strength, and so two ranks were ‘forced' upon them, but not sure if this would be correct.

No, Nafziger seems to have been wrong. TMPer Major Snort pointed out that sometimes British battalions were very big (e.g. 1808) but used 2-deep lines; and also that usually in the field French and British battalions were pretty much the same size (e.g. Salamanca, where IIRC average battalion strength differed by 1.

1. Tradition – it was how battalions were trained to operate. However, that didn't seem to be a problem for the British.

The British adoption of it was based on their American experiences as easier to manage in the terrain (an experience which other countries hadn't shared); they stuck with it afterwards when they found it worked for them. Conversely, the general tradition in the infantry was a gradual reduction in the number of ranks through the C17 and C18, so we might see it as a time of experimentation to see whether 2 or 2 did give the advantages.

TMPWargamerabbit06 Jan 2018 10:58 a.m. PST

The three rank deploying skirmisher from their third rank vs. two rank wasn't issue. Generally the two rank battalion had a light company organized in the battalion structure for most nations using two-rank. That entire light company would be detached from the battle line ranked formation and doing their job before the battalion.

Le Breton06 Jan 2018 11:56 a.m. PST

#4 for Russians. Also #5 for early period Russians.
Also, they seemed to want a rather compact column formation for movement.
Also, they liked to have lots of file closers : 1 NCO for 4 files of rankers.
Also, for Russian Jäger, the first two ranks of the center companies would for the chain(s), their third rank then reformed itself into two ranks in the center of the chain(s) to act as a rally point or to send replacements.

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

"had the equivalent of light companies (voltigeurs) within the battalion, that were used when the battalion put out skirmishers"

Late Russians *did* have the equivalent (more or less), the strelki or marksmen platoon of the grenadier company. However – these were *not* by preference detached for skirmishing. Indeed, in a Jäger battalion, they formed the *formed* reserve on the left flank of the skirmish chain(s), and were supposed to charge forward to defend/recover skirmishers attacked by formed troops. The grenadier platoon of a Jäger battalion performed the same rôle on the right of the skirmish chain(s).

In general, Russians used whole battalions for skirmishing. Jäger by preference – battalions of Grenadiers by second preference, special opolchenie (militia) units by third preference. The heavy infantry was usually formed in column (very often "attack" column) to deliver bayonet charges.

However, for any unit to cover itself, a new method was increasingly being used in place of detaching the third rank or detaching a whole platoon. This was to use "zastrelski" …. the best marksmen in each platoon made up the first two files on either flank of the platoon (12 men per platoon, 72 men per batalion). For the battalion to cover itself with one chain, 18 pairs of shooters * or 1/2 of the zastelski, would be sent out. They would conveniently be the outermost 2 files of a battalion column formed on the frontage of a division or 2 platoons – such as an "attack" column). For 2 chains, every zastrelski would be sent out. Some NCO's and an officer would go out also.

*Typically each skirmisher pair would cover 10 arshin (a bit over 7 English yards) of frontage, so 18 pairs was a chain of about 125 m, more than the frontage of the battalion even deployed in line.

In the older Jäger batalions, 1/2 or more of the zastrelski would be rifle armed – and sent out to cover flanks and place longer-range suppressive fire if the Jäger battalion was making a movement in formation, such as moving to attack a built-up area or piece of wooded terrain.

von Winterfeldt06 Jan 2018 12:39 p.m. PST

Prussians had 2 rank Füsilier battalion in 1792 – 1807

Advantage of 3 ranks

more solid
3rd rank could act as reserve to fill gaps of the two front ranks
3rd rank could be used for skirmishing
3rde rank could be used to create extra battalions as the Austrians did for several years in the French Revolutionary Wars (then however those units lost this advantage)
If campaign losses became sever – third rank battalions could be converted into two rank battalions and could keep identical frontage (amongst else French practise)
In fact, I see only advantages of 3rd rank.
3 rank firing could be still done, but 3rd rank fire was regarded as useless and often did not fire, or fired in the air and created collateral dammage on the reserves of the enemy.

Major Bloodnok06 Jan 2018 2:29 p.m. PST

One problem the British had with the two rank line was "shrinkage". As casualties mounted a two rank line's frontage would start to shrink thus creating gaps between units.

Major Snort06 Jan 2018 2:31 p.m. PST

Lorwerth wrote:

I read in Nafziger that the British two ranks was down to the fact that most of the time they were under strength, and so two ranks were ‘forced' upon them, but not sure if this would be correct.

As Whirlwind has noted above, even when British battalions were not under strength, they formed 2 deep for battle.

Nafziger is completely wrong with his assertion and gets completely muddled up with sections, platoons and companies in the process. Reading what the regulations actually say disproves his assertion beyond doubt.

Nafziger wrote:

The British regulations, like those of every other European nation, specifically directed that the infantry be organised in three ranks

No problem here, that is what the regulations state. However, from eyewitness accounts and general summaries written by serving officers, in battle the British infantry invariably formed their battalions 2 deep during the Napoleonic Wars (let's keep things simple and not venture into the occasional use of 4 deep).

Nafziger wrote:

All these regulations also directed that if the company strength fell below a specific strength the third rank was to be incorporated into the front rank to maintain its frontage

Not in the British regulations. A British company normally comprised of four sections. The minimum frontage of each section was five files. If the company strength was reduced to a level that did not provide four sections of five files, the regulations state that the amount of sections should be reduced. Nowhere in the regulations does it state that the amount of ranks should be reduced to maintain a minimum frontage.

From the regulations:

Each company is a platoon. Each company forms two subdivisions, and also four sections. But as the sections should never be less than five files, it will happen, when the companies are weak, that they can only form three sections, or even two sections.

Five files in three ranks = 15 men.
Two sections per company = 30 men.
Ten companies per battalion = 300 men.

The regulations do not advise what to do when the battalion cannot form 2 sections of five files per company.

Nafziger's statement that when the British battalion strength fell to 400 it "would absolutely have to be in two ranks if it were to maintain the minimum frontage" is complete nonsense.

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP06 Jan 2018 3:32 p.m. PST

There is an article in the THE UNITED SERVICE Magazine Jan-April Part 1 1850 entitled "Two or Three Ranks?" which goes into a great deal of detail about the advantages and disadvantages of three and two rank line formations learned from the Napoleonic wars.

It does also state that going to 2 ranks 'could be' a reason for deploying in two ranks, but gives several others too.

link

Green Tiger07 Jan 2018 1:36 a.m. PST

Can anyone point me to any actual eyewitness accounts of the British forming in two ranks? I find that there is very little mention of the nitty gritty in these accounts – they tend to assume you know. Actual examples would be immensely useful – Thanks

Major Snort07 Jan 2018 2:55 a.m. PST

Here are a few examples:

E. Olfermann, Stuart's Minorca Regiment (Later 97th Regiment); The Military Panorama, Or, Officer's Companion, Volume 3 p626. Describing the battle of Alexandria:

An instance of this kind happened in the memorable action of 21st March 1801, between the British and French forces in Egypt – The enemy's cavalry succeeded in penetrating part of our line, where a brigade of infantry were posted; consisting of De Roll's, Dillon's and Stuart's (now the 97th or Queen's Own Regiment), under the command of Sir John Stuart, when the General ordered the rear rank to face about, and to direct its fire upon the enemy cavalry in our rear, the front rank continuing to fire on the enemy in its front; the result was, by thus bringing immediately a fire to bear upon those in the rear, that no time was lost by tedious formation or countermarches to allow them to form regularly; but they [the French cavalry] were obliged to look for their safety in flight, by endeavouring to get back to their former ground, wherein but few succeeded, for most of them were either killed, wounded or taken – our infantry was formed two deep.

Extract from Gardyne's Life of a Regiment p129 describing the formation used during the expedition to Denmark in 1807. Gardyne quotes many of the General Orders in full and had undoubtedly seen a copy of the original order, but unfortunately only offers a summary of this one:

The troops were ordered to be formed till further orders two deep instead of three deep.

Surgeon George Guthrie, 29th Regiment, describing the formation at Rolica: London Medical Gazette; Surgical Anecdotes of the Peninsular War p377

They were the two battalions of the French 70th regiment, and the 29th and 82nd advanced in line to meet them. A line of two deep, either for attack or defence, is peculiar to the British; all other nations attack in column, but British disciplined troops can do what none others can do, and no day of ordinary parade could appear more beautiful than this. We advanced in this manner in perfect order and in ordinary time with shouldered arms, until the red tufts, nay, the very faces, of the French line could be distinguished. Lake and his horse seemed both to be prancing with delight. I was told my place, on such occasions, was seven paces in the rear of the colours (we then knew no better)


Thomas Staunton St Clair, 1st Regiment; A Soldier's Recollections of the West Indies and America p345. Description of the French surrender at Flushing during the Walcheren campaign of 1809:

They [the French] were halted and formed into line three deep. This formation, I afterwards found, was the general practice of the French army, whilst we continued at two deep; and Wellington afterwards proved to them that ours was the most convenient method, and consequently the best.

Charles Leslie, 29th Regiment; Military Journal of Col Leslie, p146, describing the formation of the army at Talavera:

Our front showed an extended line only two deep, with the reserve placed at various distances along its rear.

John Spencer Cooper,7th Fusiliers; Rough Notes of Seven Campaigns, p61, describing the Fusiliers at Albuera:

The enemy ought not to have been beaten, for they were greatly superior in all arms, besides having an advantageous position. To allow a line two deep without reserve, with few guns and cavalry, to drive them from a hill was positively shameful.

Major Snort07 Jan 2018 5:38 a.m. PST

Mcladdie wrote:

It does also state that going to 2 ranks 'could be' a reason for deploying in two ranks, but gives several others too.

I presume that you mean that low strength could be a reason for deploying in two ranks?

If that was what you were saying, then I agree, but the key point in relation to Nafziger's theory, is that the British regulations did not force this option onto low strength battalions.

This is what Dundas wrote under the heading "Depth of Formation" in the 1792 Regulations:

The fundamental order of the infantry, in which they should always form and act, and for which all their various operations and movements are calculated, is in three ranks: The formation in two ranks, is to be regarded as an occasional exception that may be made from it, where an irregular enemy who deals only in fire is to be opposed.- But from the present low establishment of our battalions, they are during this time of peace permitted, in order to give the more extent of front to their operations, to CONTINUE [my emphasis] to form and use it, in many or their movements and firings, at the same time not omitting frequently to practice them in three ranks.

The low peace time establishment referred to in this passage was only around 30 rank and file per company.

The use of the word "continue" is key here. Dundas was trying to impose a three deep formation onto an army that was already forming two deep as a matter of course. Further comments on this can be found in Dundas' 1788 Principles of Military Movements and also in Lieut. Col. Colin Lindsay's introduction to his 1793 translation: "Extracts of Templehoffe's history of the Seven Years War"

Although some officers clearly thought that Dundas was correct, including Lieut. Col. Lindsay, many more must have thought otherwise and two deep deployment in battle continued, even though the manoeuvres described in the regulations were adopted. A good example of this being the British army in India, where in 1794 Robert Abercrombie, C in C in India, adopted Dundas' 1792 regulations with the following exception:

As the only deviation from the Regulations now to be adopted, that the army in India continue to form two deep.

42flanker07 Jan 2018 6:49 a.m. PST

As a corollary to the above, in relation to Dundas' strictures and the 1792 Regulations, as I posted on another recent thread, this excerpt from daily orders during the Duke of York's march through Brabant in July 1794 shows how the theory was intended to be adapted in the field.

"His Royal Highness the Commander-in-Chief orders
the formations of the battalions of infantry of the army
under his command to be in three ranks, but with the
following regulations, which are at all times to be ob-
served : —

When the battalion forms for action, the third rank
is instantly to be formed into two divisions, and two
ranks, each under the command of an officer.

When the army or corps to which the battalion be-
longs is in two lines, those divisions will form on the
rear of the centre of each wing of their battalions at
the distance of fifty paces.

When there is no second line, the two divisions
joined together, a captain is appointed to the command
of them ; and being then in one body, it forms a re-
serve each to its own battalion, at 200 paces in the rear
of the centre ; in this manner these divisions form a
reserve or second line, which may be used either in
lengthening the first line by being carried to either
flank, or as a corps-de-reserve to strengthen any point
may be necessary."

The final paragraph indicates a degree of optimism, or complacency as to the practicality of such an order while conducting a withdrawal in the face of the enemy. Maj Gen David Dundas was one of HRH's brigadiers, commanding cavalry except for a brief key interlude when he commanded a rearguard force, predominantly infantry, at divisional strength.

History does not relate how those battalions deployed under his command. Reading between the lines, it is unlikely they had the numbers to form up in three lines as orders set down, particularly when operating in separate 'wings'.

These regiments were the pick of the surviving British force and despite depleted numbers and some very young Lieutenant colonels, not least one Hon. Arthur Wesley of the 33rd, with the aid of more experienced field officers and particularly strong esprit de corps, these PBI- as P as BI could ever be, remained remarkably effective in the field against an enemy superior in numbers and morale as long as circumstances allowed.

matthewgreen07 Jan 2018 8:22 a.m. PST

I would not dismiss the relative vulnerability to cavalry as a factor, especially in units with weaker discipline. Defending against cavalry is not just about firepower but also about presenting a solid hedge of bayonets in case that firing did not do the trick. When the British formed square, they doubled up the files, so each side was four deep. I remember reading a statement that the Austrians thought that a square with sides 3 deep was vulnerable, going for deeper formations such as the masse, a solid square.

War is a competitive, high-stakes business. If officers thought that there was a different way of doing things that would give them an edge, they generally did it, never mind regulations or custom and practice. That makes me think that there must have been solid operational reasons that so many armies adopted the practice of 3 deep line most of the time.

Further evidence comes from the "four deep" formation that the British used at Waterloo, which is affirmed by a number of sources. This was put down to the idea that the two deep line would be exposed to cavalry. Now I'm not sure if this refers to a conventional line with files of 4, or an "oblong", of two rows of companies, with the flank divisions in the second line, like a thin attack column. I think the 3rd Division at least used this. The thought was that the deeper formation was less vulnerable to frontal assault (less risk of gaps, a more solid formation, etc), and also that it could form square more quickly. Both considerations might apply to a 3 deep line over the 2 deep one.

A further detail that needs correcting is that the British were not the only army to use a two deep line. Some Confederation of the Rhine armies used it (Bavaria and Hesse-Darmstadt, I think) though eventually followed French practice. Prussian light infantry used it. And so did the French from time to time. Including Marmont's corps at Leipzig. It's clear that the French weren't comfortable with the practice though.

And finally, a point much discussed on TMP. There is no point in extending the firing line if there is nothing for the outer platoons to fire at. It is not quite as easy for these men to angle in as people suppose, and wheeling to attack the flanks was tricky and risky too – though this was done. This would apply particularly to defence against cavalry, though I suppose it would be harder to turn the flank of a longer line.

42flanker07 Jan 2018 9:12 a.m. PST

It is might be a mistake to extrapolate the experience of the allied infantry at Waterloo to earlier circumstances.

The battalion square was not the essential formation by which infantry could resist cavalry. From Minden onwards British infantry, by battalion or in brigade formation, confronted cavalry in line and in column. Costly set backs at Albuera or Quatre Bras were not due simply to being in the wrong formation. Battles like Alexandria showed how infantry brigade lines penetrated and caught in some disorder could nonetheless defend themselves and repel cavalry attacks.

Dundas, famously concerned as much as any man regarding the danger from cavalry to an infantry line lacking depth or 'solidity,' while highlighting "the necessity of solidity, effort, and mutual dependance," and advocating return to the "old ideas of firmness, compactness, and mutual support," wrote in 1788:

"…undoubtedly, there is much danger in allowing the line to be pierced, or in altering a disposition at the instant of being threatened by cavalry: and therefore in line of battle, where the flanks of the army are covered, where the getting round them would be a considerable and critical operation, and where the uniform front is to be maintained, the attack of the cavalry is at any rate to be opposed by steadiness, supporting corps, and a heavy constant well directed fire of musketry and artillery—

Notwithstanding these, should a part of the enemy break through the line, it is an event that ought by all to be expected, but not without its remedy— When the troops are thus prepared, they will be the less surprised to see cavalry in their rear, who cannot long remain to advantage between the lines, under a fire in all directions (if the infantry are steady) and who also are liable to be attacked when in disorder by the supporting cavalry."

Cavalry counter attacks aside, that is a reasonably accurate description of what occurred at Alexandria (and, it should be said, among the infantry squares at Waterloo).

Given that Dundas started his military career as a gunner, it is interesting and perhaps that a notable flaw in the principal that troops forming in "three ranks and at close files" should be "the constant and habitual order, at which troops are at all times formed and move" was the vulnerability to massed artillery batteries, which in the period 1788-92 was a phenomenon that had yet to emerge on the battlefield.

Major Snort07 Jan 2018 9:33 a.m. PST

The four deep formation used at Waterloo was not formed by doubling the files of a two-deep line.

Several different methods were used by different brigades, with none of these methods ever finding their way into official regulations, either before or after the event.

Quite a bit of confusion has been caused by James Shaw Kennedy's description of the Third Division's formation at Waterloo, not helped by Hamilton-Williams interpretation of them in the dreadful "Waterloo – New Perspectives".

What is obvious from other eyewitnesses is that Shaw Kennedy's formation of the division was simply that of quarter distance columns formed with the centre in front. The British brigade of the division combined two battalions together to achieve this. The original intention was not to form four deep line, but be in a position to quickly form either two deep line, to avoid casualties from artillery, or square to oppose cavalry.

The formation of four deep occurred towards the end of the battle and the method is well described by Edward Macready of the 30th Regiment:

In our condition at that time no power on earth could have formed a line out of us but that of 4 deep, by opening out from the centre of the rear face of the square, and wheeling up right and left, so indiscriminately were the men of our companies mixed together, from closing in and replacing casualties in the front face. And even if we had time to have made our men step up and make a line 2 deep, we should therefore have lost the great advantage of wheeling back into square in a moment.

So this was a completely irregular process. The Guards brigade formed four deep in exactly the same way. Adams brigade were a bit more organised and either drew up the battalions with one wing in front of the other, or with one subdivision in front of the other in every company.

It is very difficult to find examples of four deep being used anywhere except at Waterloo. The 29th Regiment formed four deep against cavalry at Vimiero, and I think that is the only other recorded example of this being used as an anti-cavlry formation. Other examples of four deep, such as the 42nd at Toulouse, are not for defence against cavalry, but to allow a passage of lines by doubling the files to make gaps.

The formation of four deep is covered in the 1824 regulations, but again, this is not as an anti-cavalry formation, but to either allow a passage of lines, or to allow the company to march to a flank without having to "march in file".

von Winterfeldt07 Jan 2018 12:37 p.m. PST

"Defending against cavalry is not just about firepower but also about presenting a solid hedge of bayonets in case that firing did not do the trick. "

It is very much about fire control, in case the infantry did shoot prematurley and did not keep any reserve fire – cavalry had a chance to brake the square, hence cavalry tatcis to provoke infantry to fire too early.

A close formation still was an asset, but cavarly could then ride without impunity onto the square.

For that reason also to attack if possible the angles of a square – infantry had difficulties to bear arms on them due to the restrictions of oblique fire.

Mike the Analyst07 Jan 2018 1:37 p.m. PST

Infantry from adjacent squares turned at 45 degrees or grenadier companies and battalion guns could provide protection to the apex of a square depending on the ground and the experience of the troops and their brigade command.

Le Breton07 Jan 2018 1:53 p.m. PST

"The battalion square was not the essential formation by which infantry could resist cavalry. "

The Russians did not mind *attacking* enemy cavalry while in battalion columns, typically on the frontage of 2 platoons. Examples include 18th Jäger (!) at Borodino and the 3 fusilier companies of the little depot battalion of the Pavlovskiy Grenadiers at the Berezina.

If caught deployed, they might *lie down*, out of reach of most swordsmen, and let the cavalry pass. Marbot commented on this strange thing at Eylau.

General Neverovskiy formed the 27th division's 4 infantry regiments in a single square to resist Murat's horsemen when acting as the Russian rear-guard before Smolensk.

Mike the Analyst07 Jan 2018 3:09 p.m. PST

As well as maintaining the frontage the use of two ranks also maintains the depth of the open column for understrength units.

Whilst this may not be significant for a single battalion it may be significant for a brigade in any approach march on the battlefield. Perhaps more significant for the British than other nations.

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP07 Jan 2018 4:17 p.m. PST

Mcladdie wrote:

It does also state that going to 2 ranks 'could be' a reason for deploying in two ranks, but gives several others too.
I presume that you mean that low strength could be a reason for deploying in two ranks?

Major:

grin Yes, that is what I meant to say… I was interrupted between the beginning and end of that sentence.

Stoppage07 Jan 2018 7:29 p.m. PST

@mike the a

Why is the depth of an open column important?

Into square?

Whirlwind08 Jan 2018 2:14 a.m. PST

Why is the depth of an open column important? Into square?

This may help: link

matthewgreen08 Jan 2018 7:27 a.m. PST

Major Snort. Thanks for clearing that one up for me. It had been bothering me for some time.

Stoppage08 Jan 2018 9:50 a.m. PST

@whirlwind

Illuminating – especially the composite squares

Iorwerth08 Jan 2018 10:37 a.m. PST

McLaddie:

There is an article in the THE UNITED SERVICE Magazine Jan-April Part 1 1850 entitled "Two or Three Ranks?" which goes into a great deal of detail about the advantages and disadvantages of three and two rank line formations learned from the Napoleonic wars.

It does also state that going to 2 ranks 'could be' a reason for deploying in two ranks, but gives several others too.

Thank you for the link. What an amazing window into the past that is! There were so many other articles in there that I am sure would be fascinating – just the titles alone evoke a bygone age. If I had more time, I could lose myself in reading about the recent arctic expeditions or the annexation of the Indian Hill states!

For the ease of others who haven't had the time to read the article, I thought I would just give a summation of the arguments used in the article about two or three ranks.

First off, the article argues that the third rank didn't fire and the first rank didn't kneel. Also the interchange of muskets from third rank forward actually slowed the rate of fire, so was a prejudicial feature, rather than a boon, and so was not standard practice.

Advantages of two ranks:

- Allows a smaller battalion to create a front of fire equal to that of a larger three rank battalion.

- A third rank doesn't contribute to fire, but can still be affected by enemy fire, especially artillery.

- Battalion strength being equal, two ranks delivers more fire, and most battles are decided by fire-arms without coming into close (bayonet) contact.

- By overlapping the frontage of a battalion in three ranks, it threatened the flanks more.

- Actual bayonet combat was such a rarity that having an additional third rank to add weight to such an attack is too weak a reason to have three ranks over two.

- When surprised by cavalry, three ranks fares no better than two ranks.

Advantages of three ranks:

- When two ranks take casualties the frontage shrinks, but with three ranks it is maintained.

- If the two rank battalion overlaps the three ranks, then the two rank flank muskets are not always as effective as those which directly face the enemy.

- The main benefit is morale. When a three rank battalion takes casualties they are replaced from the third rank, so the men in the first and second ranks never have gaps around them, and always have a comrade at their elbow, and are not forced to close ranks and shrink the frontage. Because of this, the three rank battalion will likely be less negatively affected by equal casualties as two ranks. This holds true the more inexperienced/poorly trained the men are.

- Voice command should not extend beyond 200 paces in length, so 300 files at the utmost. So for two ranks this would be a 600 strong battalion, but for a three rank this allows a battalion of up to 900 men.

- Manoeuvring after taking casualties is easier with three ranks than two, as the frontage of the three ranks will still be the same, whereas the two rank frontage will have shrunk.

The main thrust of the article is the benefits of morale and steadiness of the three rank battalion over the two rank. One of the things I liked about the article is that, due to their national character, the British didn't need this morale boost so much as the continental armies might! :)

By the way, thank you to everyone who has posted. I feel like this site gives me direct access to renowned experts in the field. I have learned so much in such a short period! I really appreciate people taking the time to post answers to my, probably inane, questions.

Wu Tian08 Jan 2018 2:48 p.m. PST

Some British writers who favoured three ranks:

Lieutenant Colonel William Dalrymple, of the Queen's Royal Regiment of Foot

In America, it has been the practice to adopt the formation of two deep; but as troops may be employed in different countries and situations, we should have an establishment calculated accordingly ; whenever the depth of our Battalions is reduced, the extent must be increased, and the Column of March being lengthened considerably, the movement of great bodies becomes more difficult ; besides, in an open country, the fire of three ranks must give a manifest superiority over the feeble efforts of two ranks.
The system of formation I have here established is three deep, conformably with the European School ; the hint is taken form the Memoirs Militaires de Guischardt, Preface du Traducteur sur la Tactique d'Arrien, Tom, 2de P. 111. It is calculated principally for an open country, and supposed to be the most perfect arrangement for troops armed as we are at present ; but to act in an inclosed, woody or mountainous country, it may be not only necessary to reduce the formation to two deep, or even to one rank, but to open the order considerably ; for as irregular fortification is to regular, so is this irregular kind of formation, to that of three deep, the primitive and supposed most perfect arrangement ; whenever the country permits the use of the primitive formations, it is to be preferred ; but in situations where a change may be necessary, it must be left to the genius and skill of those who command.

Tacticks, Dublin, 1782, p. ix-x.

John Russell

THREE DEEP.
The fundamental order of the infantry, in which they should always form and act, and for which all their various operations and movements are calculated, is in three ranks and close order: The formation in two ranks is to be regarded as an occasional exception that may be made from it, where an extended and covered front is to be occupied, or where an irregular enemy, who deals only in fire, is to be opposed. The formation in two ranks, at open Files, is calculated only for light troops, in the attack and pursuit of a timid enemy, but not for making an impression on an opposite regular line, which vigorously assails or resists. No general could manage a considerable army, if formed and extended in this manner, the great science and object of movement being to act with superiority on chosen points: it is never the intention of an able commander to have all his men at the fame time in action: he means by skill and manoeuvres to attack a partial part, and to bring the many to act against the few: this cannot be accomplished by any body at open files, and two deep. A line formed in this mariner would never be brought to make or to stand an attack with bayonets; nor could it have any prospect of resisting the charge of a determined cavalry. In no service is the fire and consistency of the third rank to be given up; it serves to fill up the vacancies made in the others in action; without it the battalion would soon be in a single rank.

Instructions for the Drill, and the Methods of Performing the Eighteen Manoeuvres, London, 1799, p. xx-xxi.

Just a small question, had the British army used three ranks in Low Countries during 1793-1795 and 1799? If so, did there exist any evidence?

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP08 Jan 2018 8:54 p.m. PST

Iorwerth:

Glad to help. I think there are several take-aways from this discussion:

1. There were still advocates for both 2 and 3 rank formations into the 1850s and beyond, even among British veterans. As there wasn't any general consensus across the Continent, there is no reason why we should come to any agreement two hundred years later as to which was 'best.'

2. There were advantages to both formations and divergent reasons for favoring one or the other.

3. A Napoleonic armies had regulations allowing for both 2 and 3 rank formations as the need arose. It wasn't one OR the other. The idea was to provide standard tools for commanders to use in a variety of situations.

For instance, during the Prussians' 1792-1795 participation in the French Revolution they formed two rank lines, with the third rank providing reserves, flank protection and/or skirmishers. During the same time the Austrians under Coberg did the very same thing on a large scale in Holland.

4. Certainly, the British and Continental armies had preferences, but they didn't limit forces from using 2, 3, 4 [at Waterloo] or more ranks as the need arose.

42flanker09 Jan 2018 2:10 a.m. PST

Just a small question, had the British army used three ranks in Low Countries during 1793-1795 and 1799? If so, did there exist any evidence?

Robert- repost from 7.1.2017

"As a corollary to the above, in relation to Dundas' strictures and the 1792 Regulations, as I posted on another recent thread, this excerpt from daily orders during the Duke of York's march through Brabant in July 1794 shows how the theory was intended to be adapted in the field.

"His Royal Highness the Commander-in-Chief orders
the formations of the battalions of infantry of the army
under his command to be in three ranks, but with the
following regulations, which are at all times to be ob-
served : —

When the battalion forms for action, the third rank
is instantly to be formed into two divisions, and two
ranks, each under the command of an officer.

When the army or corps to which the battalion be-
longs is in two lines, those divisions will form on the
rear of the centre of each wing of their battalions at
the distance of fifty paces.

When there is no second line, the two divisions
joined together, a captain is appointed to the command
of them ; and being then in one body, it forms a re-
serve each to its own battalion, at 200 paces in the rear
of the centre ; in this manner these divisions form a
reserve or second line, which may be used either in
lengthening the first line by being carried to either
flank, or as a corps-de-reserve to strengthen any point
may be necessary."

The final paragraph indicates a degree of optimism, or complacency as to the practicality of such an order while conducting a withdrawal in the face of the enemy. Maj Gen David Dundas was one of HRH's brigadiers, commanding cavalry except for a brief key interlude when he commanded a rearguard force, predominantly infantry, at divisional strength.

History does not relate how those battalions deployed under his command. Reading between the lines, it is unlikely they had the numbers to form up in three lines as orders set down, particularly when operating in separate 'wings'.

These regiments were the pick of the surviving British force and despite depleted numbers and some very young Lieutenant colonels, not least one Hon. Arthur Wesley of the 33rd, with the aid of more experienced field officers and particularly strong esprit de corps, these PBI- as P as BI could ever be, remained remarkably effective in the field against an enemy superior in numbers and morale as long as circumstances allowed."

Earlier, in 1793 the 3rd Foot Guards were ordered:

"Estreux, 1st June 1793. In the present situation as no Attack of Cavalry is to be Expected, the Troops will be Drawn up Two deep till further orders"

Brownand09 Jan 2018 4:32 a.m. PST

Regarding the last post, the British used thus the same method as Prussian en Austrian in using the 3rd rank for skirmish, reserve etc.?
Also 3 ranks were better against cavalry than 2 ranks ?

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP09 Jan 2018 7:16 a.m. PST

When the battalion forms for action, the third rank
is instantly to be formed into two divisions, and two
ranks, each under the command of an officer.

When the army or corps to which the battalion be-
longs is in two lines, those divisions will form on the
rear of the centre of each wing of their battalions at
the distance of fifty paces.

Brownand:
I hadn't seen that particular order before. It does sound very much like what the Prussians and Austrians did during the same period. Having the two divisions on each wing did provide some possible flank coverage, which at least for the Prussians and Austrians was one purpose of the third rank as a reserve.

Iorwerth09 Jan 2018 7:53 a.m. PST

A quick question on war-game rules and this subject. Are there rules that give certain advantages for a three deep formation over a two deep one? I know that some systems give fire bonuses to the British to account for them having more firepower in their two ranks than an equally sized three-rank battalion, or give British formations in two ranks more stands per battalion, and so model the firepower by stand etc i.e. two ranks are given more firepower in one way or another.

However, do any system give morale or equivalent bonuses to battalions in three ranks over those in two?

Wu Tian09 Jan 2018 8:15 a.m. PST

An American eyewitness in 1814, I don't know whether or not his account was reliable:

The British still kept up their old custom of forming their position three deep: one row of men kneeling on one leg, and the two other ranks firing over their shoulders. This style of firing, along with the darkness of the evening, explained to me the reason why the enemy's balls, which we heard whistling by, mostly flow over our heads, and only seven men were wounded, five of them belonging to our own company.

Nolte, Vincent, Fifty Years in Both Hemispheres Or, Reminiscences of the Life of a Former Merchant, p. 211

4th Cuirassier09 Jan 2018 9:44 a.m. PST

@ Iorwerth

I'm not at all up to speed on current rule sets, but the venerable 1970s Quarrie rules specify different frontages per figure according to whether they are in two-deep or three-deep line, and further give a firepower advantage to two-deep lines somewhat offset by a melee advantage to three-deep lines.

Three-deep lines are somewhat penalised by adding to a firer's score per rank deep of the target unit.

Mick the Metalsmith09 Jan 2018 9:54 a.m. PST

I've played rules where the brits got to use full figure strength for firepower while French only got 2//3 but that 2/3 was not reduced until there was over 1/3 of the battalions figs lost. The British frontage was a bit wider too. The rules gave no difference for melee but the denser French had an advantage by a third since they were narrower in frontage (in line the British battalions of 600 men occupied 3", a French battalion 2 1/4". Those rules were way too fiddly, and I have discarded them. I never count figs anymore and it created weirdness like a propensity to game frontages with no spaces between columns to maximize density.

Mick the Metalsmith09 Jan 2018 10:04 a.m. PST

I always figured the extra rank loading and passing forward their muskets may have been under emphasized in determining volley fire strength in firefights. The old column vs line saw got mixed up with 2 ranks vs 3.

At St Helena, Napoleon stated one of his great regrets was not forcing two rank lines use as the standard.

Wu Tian09 Jan 2018 10:10 a.m. PST

@42flanker
Thanks for your sharing. Very interesting information from Memoir of General Graham with notices of the campaigns in which he was engaged from 1779 to 1801, p. 156-158.
PS: Where can I find the full order on "Estreux, 1st June 1793"?

Major Snort09 Jan 2018 11:06 a.m. PST

Another reference to depth of files used in 1793 comes from the Journal of Lieutenant Charles Stewart, 28th Foot, which was reprinted in Vol. 29 of the Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research:

29th Nov. 1793. Head Quarters, Portsmouth

All persons belonging to the army are to be on board this day by 3 oclock and no permission to be granted for going on shore by any commg officer of a Transport unless a license for that purpose signed by the Genl of the Brigade be obtained.

During the Service on which the Troops are now Embarked the Regiment are to form two deep with close files.

Major Snort09 Jan 2018 11:24 a.m. PST

The order posted by 42flanker is very interesting. I wonder why the battalions didn't just form two deep and detach a couple of companies to form this reserve?

Along similar lines, Henry Bunbury described the use of "Flankers" in the Mediterranean in "Narratives Of Some Passages In The Great War With France From 1799 To 1810" p236 (note that these are in addition to the light company, who were detached from most units to form a Light Battalion):

These were soldiers taken from the battalion companies in each regiment, and placed under the command of picked officers. They were trained to act as sharpshooters; were not told off in line with their battalions (except at review, parades) and in the field were kept in rear of the flanks of their respective battalions or brigades, ready to act either to the front or flank as occasion might require. This was a plan of Sir James Craig's and introduced in Malta in 1805. It was discontinued when Sir John Moore took command of the army.

It would appear that around 15 men were detached from each company for this duty, as the strength of the Flankers from the 35th Regiment, who were with the army at Maida separated from their battalion, was about 120 men.

I have never been able to find any evidence that the army in the Mediterranean formed two deep, although I imagine that they did. All secondary sources assume that the British formed two deep at Maida, but there are no eyewitness accounts to verify this as far as I know.

Wu Tian09 Jan 2018 1:22 p.m. PST

An eyewitness from Royal Navy, Lieut. Parsons:

The cool and determined front presented by the Forty-second, might, in some measure, have created delay in their furious charge. The majority drew up, and the well-directed volley of the second and third ranks of our line over the front one, kneeling to receive the horses of the enemy on their bayonets, made them wheel about and retrograde in quick time, while about sixty furiously and rashly rode in on our troops.

Nelsonian Reminiscences, 1843, p. 77.

It seems the men of the 42nd were in three ranks during the battle of Aboukir (1801).

42flanker09 Jan 2018 1:56 p.m. PST

That was evidently, in part, in order to receive cavalry on the open beach,
-"the front one, kneeling to receive the horses of the enemy on their bayonets…"

There was also limited space to troops to form up on the beach.

I guess the point is that there was a degree of flexibility. Abercromby's troops had been training intensively in Turkey.

Major Snort09 Jan 2018 2:18 p.m. PST

A few days later, it seems that the 42nd were formed two deep at Alexandria.

The regiment were formed with one wing forward and one in support 200 yards to the rear when French forces infiltrated between the two wings.

Major David Stewart, an eyewitness, described the events in Sketches of the Character, Manners and Present State of the Highlanders of Scotland Volume 1

"In a few seconds, Colonel Stewart and Major Stirling's wings charged the column in the ruins, But it is proper to explain, that it was only the rear rank of the left wing that faced about and charged to their rear; the front rank kept their ground to oppose the enemy in their immediate front."

Only a front rank and a rear rank are mentioned, implying that they were deployed two deep.

42flanker09 Jan 2018 5:30 p.m. PST

As were the 28th in the same brigade-
"28th, rear rank only, right about face!"

Brownand09 Jan 2018 11:38 p.m. PST

"Rear rank only" does not need to mean there are only two ranks imho.

von Winterfeldt09 Jan 2018 11:54 p.m. PST

A very interesting discussion – bringing up new information, there was a similar one on TMP in about 2009.

The French Garde Nationale in 1791 – regulations were in two ranks as well, as long as till they were almagamated with the line, due to be of lower strength, about a third lower than the line, most likley reason is then they could cover the identical frontage as a line battalion.

The Manuel du Cipaye – Pondichery 1784 – also regulates 2 ranks, the battalion had to companies, 1 grenadier, 1 chasseur, 8 fusiliers

42flanker10 Jan 2018 2:14 a.m. PST

"Rear rank only" does not need to mean there are only two ranks imho.

The fuller version is "28th. Front rank, as you were. Rear rank only, right about face!"

Sadly, there is no tape recording.

Brownand10 Jan 2018 12:49 p.m. PST

thanks,
that explain

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