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"When can a commander ignore orders" Topic

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Last Hussar23 Dec 2018 5:11 a.m. PST

Playing a game the other night, I made the old, old observation that we always react to threats the men on the ground wouldn't have seen/known about/etc.


A divisional commander (YOU, the player) gives an order to a Brigade ("Capture that hill").

At what point can the Brigade deviate from those orders? And is this a given up and down the command chain (i.e. Divisions ignoring orders from Corps)

Some are a given – 'Cavalry in charge distance – FORM SQUARE'

But in RULES FRIENDLY and PLAYABLE wording, when can the PLAYER ignore the orders the brigade is operating under, and have a sub-command react?

MajorB23 Dec 2018 6:21 a.m. PST

If any subordinate of mine failed to obey orders, he'd be up for a court martial!!

Last Hussar23 Dec 2018 6:34 a.m. PST

Even at the loss of his command? I'm talking about reacting to things not covered by the order.

Martin Rapier23 Dec 2018 6:50 a.m. PST

In real life, commanders regularly disobeyed orders. Montgomery lamented that in the British Army an 'order' was usually interpreted as the starting point for a discussion, but few went as far as the Prussian Crown Prince who deliberately tore up the telegraph lines so as to be able to ignore Von Moltkes orders, and on the odd occasion an unfortunate messenger arrived at his HQ, he did the exact opposite of what he'd been ordered to do.

In playable game terms, I rather like the order system in Spearhead. The formation has a mode and direction or travel, but it can be overridden by an immediate local threat when the commander can halt, redeploy or even pull back (if taking heavy losses). Once the threat has passed , the original direction or travel resumes.

In Shako otoh, I dimly recall divisions ordered to attack beating themselves to bits in impossible situations. I'd have to read the rules again to remind me what the break of options are.

But essentially your local commanders options are press on, stop and fight, or pull back. In the latter case, more junior officers can expect a fairly dismal response from those on high, depending how sympathetic they are.

JimDuncanUK23 Dec 2018 6:50 a.m. PST

If the change of circumstance makes it impossible to obey the order then halt and report back to the commander, unless the subordinate commander uses his initiative to react appropriately in order to subsequently obey the delayed order.

stecal Supporting Member of TMP23 Dec 2018 6:54 a.m. PST

Before the modern era of the "manager" general with telephones and radios, history is full of examples of local commanders using their discretion to delay, misinterpret or ignore higher command orders. This is even worse when the commanders are political rivals or members of the nobility are involved.

Best handled in a game with an order activation roll that also includes a chance for a fumble, i.e. Black Powder "12"

Last Hussar23 Dec 2018 7:27 a.m. PST

I ask because I am looking at writing a set of rules which concentrates on the lag in orders changing (Wednesday I diverted 1/4 of my forces for a sub-command which men on ground couldn't see)

I'm looking at very simple combat rules, these will be of the 'effectiveness reduction' type rather than figure removal.

I have played Spearhead, with it's 'ride the line'. Its not that mechanism I am looking at, its when the guy 'riding the line' can say 'nope, lets do this' as a defensible decision.

jurgenation Supporting Member of TMP23 Dec 2018 7:36 a.m. PST

we have a older crowd,that games,Remembering is step one,after that it's a crap we use our gamers towards their will always attack or defend..xan;t read command control is built inLoL1

rustymusket Supporting Member of TMP23 Dec 2018 8:15 a.m. PST

I would think a sub-commander needs to react to certain local conditions but he needs to communicate what is happening up the command chain, as possible. I just read something about Napoleon giving an order, but the Marshal made a different move due to circumstances. It was in one of James R. Arnold's books, either Napoleon Conquers Austria or Crisis In The Snows (current read). (And I don't mean Bernadotte. He did whatever he felt like at the time, regardless, IMHO, so that does not count.)

21eRegt23 Dec 2018 8:38 a.m. PST

I remember a Battle of the Bulge scenario I set up years and years ago. The Americans were tasked with holding a couple of little villages as long as possible with the promise of a trickle of reinforcements. I emphasized that things would go in the dumpster for the whole front if they didn't. Tough mission, but sometimes sacrifices must be made. So within a turn or two of seeing from 200' high the German force coming, the American CnC ordered everyone out. We played a few turns, slaughtering GIs in the open (instead of stone buildings) then called it. I rather harshly told him to write a few dozen "Dear Mr. and Mrs." letters for getting his command destroyed, the engagement and the Battle of the Bulge lost. He never seemed to get it.

TMPWargamerabbit23 Dec 2018 8:48 a.m. PST

Horse and Musket era….First question is…. was the orders directly given to the commander in person. If lost in the chain of command then you have an "out" till the reissue arrives… hand carried in many cases.

Disobey a direct delivered senior chain of command order and you have three results:
1) You are successful in your actions so all around you notice your remarkable success, and including the senior command.
2) Your officer career is finished till another senior commander wishes to use your abilities. In some cases the military will force by group pressure your resigning.
3) The senior commander issuing the orders is wounded or killed during the battle. But in many cases his ADC staff will remember and the army gossip will start. Plus good commanders have a written orders book with the written orders compiled.

Personal logo Saber6 Supporting Member of TMP Fezian23 Dec 2018 9:06 a.m. PST

The Fields of Honor rules have a good model for orders

Whirlwind23 Dec 2018 9:30 a.m. PST

For game purposes, I would have a rule that if the orders become significantly harder to carry out than at the time the order was given, the commander can decline to attack (or withdraw if he was defending). Significantly harder = enemy reinforced by another unit/formation, depending upon which level your game is at; and this can only happen if the commander in question has LOS to these reinforcements.

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP23 Dec 2018 9:44 a.m. PST

A lot of the answer to the question has to do with:

1. The military period we are talking about, WWII was a lot different from the Seven Years' War.

2. The military organization. That question's answer is different for the Napoleonic Austrians than the French…or even the British.

3. While I agree with TMPWargamerabbit list of disobey results in general, again, depending on the country and time period, there could be more than just three outcomes.

4. I am not sure how the message was delivered actually makes that much of a difference…is verbal that different from written, radio that much different from verbal?

138SquadronRAF Supporting Member of TMP23 Dec 2018 10:15 a.m. PST

The Gentlemen Wargamers play always multiple player, scenario driven games. We let the scenario drive the play and let personalities effect the outcome.

I well recall a game where I was the off table Divisional general who was told he could support the on table player when he was attacked and called for help. Well the call came and I sat there an refused to move, because I didn't know if there was enemy to my front. I sent out forces to carry out a reconnaissance and continued to ignore they calls for help. When the Confederates who were attacking Joe to my left didn't push their attack hard and the umpire told me I couldn't find Confederates to my front, my reaction, as a 1862 commander in the AOP was to send the following to McCellan:

"Sir the Rebels have attacked to my left flank. The situation in my front is uncertain. I recoomend the army withdraw to a more defensible position."

Personal logo Jlundberg Supporting Member of TMP23 Dec 2018 11:02 a.m. PST

Of course there are the misunderstood orders like the Light Brigade, commander "initiative" like Sickles at Gettysburg

Winston Smith23 Dec 2018 11:03 a.m. PST

We don't need no stinking orders.

Winston Smith23 Dec 2018 11:13 a.m. PST

Last night we were playing a Franco Prussian game where Napoleon the Inadequate was trying to escape from Sedan. He was supposed to exit the road in the muddle of our side.
We were given the situation and were told we were surprised.
I SUPPOSE I should have sent my entire command to help block that move but I was being attacked by twice my numbers of Froggies. I defended myself in place.
Napoleon the Ridiculous went after the right flank anyway, so if he escaped it wasn't my fault!

In the long run, leaving him in charge running things would have been better for Prussian cause anyway.

We play multiple player games every week. Orders? With punishment for "disobedience"? Are you serious?
I have enough problems keeping Roger from shooting me in the back in a zombie game!

scouts19508a23 Dec 2018 11:15 a.m. PST

I always say "do what your career can afford"

Lascaris23 Dec 2018 11:34 a.m. PST

One thing I like about the Et Sans Resultat rules for Napoleonics is that it covers the issue of subordinates changing their own orders, in this case specifically at the corps level. It gets harder the better the army commander is, i.e. corps changing their own orders under the eyes of Napoleon or Wellington is non-trivial while under the command of Bennigsen it's quite a bit easier!

Lion in the Stars23 Dec 2018 12:32 p.m. PST

Are you assuming that individual battalions or even brigades are going to be in the appropriate formation for whatever happens?

Glenn Pearce23 Dec 2018 1:03 p.m. PST

Hello Last Hussar!

"we always react to threats the men on the ground wouldn't have seen/known about/etc."

"But in RULES FRIENDLY and PLAYABLE wording, when can the PLAYER ignore the brigade is operating under, and have a sub-command react?"

It's human nature to respond to everything that we see. So regardless of what rules you write players will always be as creative as possible to circumvent them whenever it works to their advantage.

I've used/played in just about every kind of order system out there, written orders, markers, grids, cards, follow the string, pick a pre-packaged order and a host of various verbal concoctions. All look reasonable on paper or when explained, but in practice all fall short when trying to compare them to actual historical situations.

You also end up with systems that encourage debate that often drag a game down to its lowest level. Game time is just too valuable a resource to be wasted on debate.

I think you have to simply accept that the sub-unit did receive new orders for any number of unknown reasons or was able to make a qualified judgement decision based on any number of unknown circumstances. Is it really that important to write an entire rule system for the odd maverick sub-unit or brigade?

We have not used any type of actual order system (you must do this or take that, etc.) for about 20 years. Players simply hold a "council of war" at the start of the game and make adjustments as the game moves on. It's the players skill in adjusting to the changing situations that generally decide the winner and losers. A player suddenly changing direction is simply considered to have new orders or taking action in an emergency.

Don't let the small details or human nature overwhelm your gaming system.

Best regards,


d88mm1940 Supporting Member of TMP23 Dec 2018 2:36 p.m. PST

If possible, make it an Optional Rule. If the system is not dependent on this (not an integral part of the system), then you may accommodate different play styles / likes / biases.

Personal logo Herkybird Supporting Member of TMP23 Dec 2018 2:58 p.m. PST

How about having a deck of 1-6 randomly drawn cards, each giving an alternative interpretation of an order. At the start of a game, throw a D4/6/8 etc, get that many random cards.

These may be like:
'Attack' may 'halt''
'Halted may advance towards nearest visible enemy'
'May reserve fire and stay hidden'
'Unit may retire to next cover to rear'
'You may move an enemy unit!'
'Unit may move towards different objective'
etc etc.

Players may play up to a single card each turn. Cards are discarded after use.

This can be further modified as to the personality of the commander, making a die roll to succeed necessary for the new order to be accepted.

Just a thought.

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP23 Dec 2018 4:25 p.m. PST

Part of the issue around this question is "how often did lower level commander disobey orders?"

Unique or rare events tend to get far more press in history than the norm.

It may rare enough to be a non-starter, again depending on the army, the time period etc.

John Tyson23 Dec 2018 4:39 p.m. PST

I use General de Brigade Deluxe rules, and during the Orders phase, an 'Average' Brigadier can take an 'Initiative' 2D6 roll of 10 or higher and change his own orders. A 'Poor' general requires an 11. An 'Excellent' general a 9 or higher. If the roll is a 2 or 3, command confusion sets in and he may find his brigade retiring.

However, the Brigadier may not try to change orders based on events outside of his view.

JCBJCB Supporting Member of TMP23 Dec 2018 8:03 p.m. PST

I bought a few martinis at a club of ill repute for a divisional commander who ignored three repeated (and stupid) orders from me. That would have been circa 1995-1997.

So, in answer to your question: the subcommander may ignore any order from me, at any time.

In all seriousness, though, this is why I prefer classic Piquet for my rules. Crap happens that can't possibly be contrived by any rules set, and it all ends up swimmingly.

Didn't The Gamers' set of "Brigade" rules (i.e., "Thunder at the Crossroads") have rules for disobeying/abrogating orders?

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP23 Dec 2018 10:44 p.m. PST

In all seriousness, though, this is why I prefer classic Piquet for my rules. Crap happens that can't possibly be contrived by any rules set, and it all ends up swimmingly.


I played Piquet and it's different off-shoots a lot years ago. When it came out, it was different. I liked the 'fog of war' it provided. The basic problem with Piquet rules is that it created chaos evenly across the battlefield a foot deep. The problem was that 'chaos' and sundry 'Crap' never happened that way. Where and how often such crap occurred is the issue.

There are all these command rules out there, but they seem to just throw out mechanics and dice odds that obviously have no established relation to 'what happened' from the evidence. An order was lost at some battle, so every scenario has to have a significant chance. The designer of Grand Piquet even went as far as to say that HALF of all orders were not followed.

The old saw is "For the want of a nail the shoe was lost'. It wasn't some foot soldier how lot a boot or some trooper who broke his lance or some company that lost their way at Borodino.

It was a courier carrying an important order. Crap happened and still happens to organizations more often at particular points X number of times over a certain time period. Even chaos has patterns.

von Winterfeldt24 Dec 2018 4:59 a.m. PST

I agree, problems of command are underrated, how often was a battalion commander killed or out of action and then what?
Put a captain, usually not mounted in charge of a full battalion?
It is even worse for higher up in the command, see the Duke of Brunswick at Auerstedt, a complete brake down in leadership.
Add to that loss of orders, time to find the man in charge, misinterpretations of orders – and one is realizing how difficult it was to lead an army.
For that reason – routines were essential, like to form two lines of battle for example, so you would have a kind of corset – where you could fall back to it – which would sort of function.
In case – go and look how battlegroup rules work for WW2, they included such communication brake downs in their rule, what a difference to bolt action.

Murvihill24 Dec 2018 5:06 a.m. PST

You have to differentiate between 'commander present' and 'commander absent' situations. If the commander is on the battlefield overlooking the whole situation a subordinate would be hard pressed to come up with a valid excuse to ignore an order. If the subordinate was, for example sent off to defend a village far from the commander you might expect a little more flexibility but still under the guise of following the original order.
If you are talking about other players I'd give them orders then try to roleplay it to encourage them to follow their orders. If you are talking about lead subordinates I'd set up the morale rules to deal with that, anything less than rout would be the result of the perception of the subordinate whether they can follow the orders or not.

Personal logo deadhead Supporting Member of TMP24 Dec 2018 5:11 a.m. PST

Does any set of rules allow for what really did happen on occasion, in real life, and save the day?

Could any allow Netherlands officers (on a gaming table), subordinate to an absolute authority like Wellington, to ignore his orders and concentrate at Quatre Bras instead of Nivelles?

Initiative is great if everything turns out OK. Even then you may not be the one who gets all the ultimate credit

I like Herkybird's idea and used a modification many years ago in solo gaming of WWII. Two options. One he obeys original orders, second he does what I hope he will now do, instead, using his common sense. Every subordinate is "weighted" 1-5 say for that common sense ability. Chuck that dice and add his personal score. 5-6 he shows that touch of genius

Dynaman878924 Dec 2018 5:28 a.m. PST

> But in RULES FRIENDLY and PLAYABLE wording, when can the PLAYER ignore the orders the brigade is operating under, and have a sub-command react?

For most wargames the answer is "whenever they want". Since the only consequence of disobeying the "order" is perhaps getting riffed on in the next game. One way to help enforce orders would be making it part of the victory conditions for the scenario. If X is ordered to take a hill then X has to take that hill or lose the game.

Nine pound round24 Dec 2018 8:11 a.m. PST

This is the hardest single problem a subordinate commander faces: do I do what I'm told, or what seems right? The description of Lucan and Cardigan trying to puzzle out Raglan's order (without any help from Nolan) is well told in "The Reason Why," and worth reading. And it's not purely a black powder-era problem- read the description of Lieutenant Band trying (and failing) to exercise initiative successfully in "The Thin Red Line," and you'll see what it looks like on the modern battlefield. The latter work is fiction, but there's a hell of a lot in that book that actually happened, and I would bet those decisions did, too.

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP24 Dec 2018 9:37 a.m. PST

do I do what I'm told, or what seems right?

Most all armies had/have guidelines for answering that question…that is, the subordinate's parameters for decision-making.

As Clausewitz noted, the lower you go in the command structure, the more restricted those parameters become on the battlefield. A battalion commander in the SYW had virtually no initiative allowed, whereas a battalion commander in WWII quite a bit of leeway.

Personal logo Dye4minis Supporting Member of TMP24 Dec 2018 10:51 p.m. PST

Officers should always be able to defend their positions and forces. They require orders to engage in offensive (and therefore risk losses) combat. When confronted with unforseen events that interfere with or will prevent the execution of their orders, their FIRST duty is to provide an upward flow of communication that will inform hi commander about the situation and await supplemental orders. Until received, he is to continue as ordered or switch to "defend/hold his ground.

Most rules do not require/allow for/ require the upward flow of communication in the Command and Control mechanics. Of course, time and distance can be your friend or enemy and sometimes a subordinate commander must make a decision based upon the intent of his commander because he does not have time to await response….YET…he still owes his commander that upward flow of communication to alert the higher commander of the local situation.

On the subject of leader losses, you MUST get your hands on the title "Command and Control Difficulties at the Battle of Gettysburg"! (My copy is in MD- I'm in CO for the holidays). It's amazing so many right decisions were made by astute sub-commanders by dumb luck than by "Following Orders" from men who no longer were in Command!

Brechtel198 Supporting Member of TMP25 Dec 2018 3:53 a.m. PST

There's an old French army maxim stating 'order, counterorder, disorder' which is right on the money. Orders to subordinates on campaign and in combat, especially at army, corps, and division level should be mission-type orders which state what the objective is and the subordinate commander figures out what to actually do to accomplish the mission.

There's another old military adage which states that orders and regulations are for the guidance of the commander. Having been a unit commander a time or two, this is definitely an accurate adage.

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP25 Dec 2018 10:28 a.m. PST


Do you mean

On Command: An Illustrative Study Of Command And Control In The Army Of Northern Virginia, 1863 by LTC Charles W. Sanders Jr.


RudyNelson25 Dec 2018 10:50 a.m. PST

Told to take that hill, the process selected may reflect the character of the commander or a desire not to follow orders.

So is the attack, a full run assault, a slow methodical advance, an advance after a very long predatory artillery bombardment, sending pre-March exploratory probes and sorties into enemy positions. So other than a halt and not even a bombardment on the hill, what would be considered not following orders…none. They all are methods of taking the hill.

Situation changes lack of flank support or any counter-attack.

Lion in the Stars25 Dec 2018 11:59 p.m. PST

While I agree that it's very quick to get from Order to Counter-Order (that wasn't heard by everyone) to disorder (and all the screaming NCOs that entails), I was under the impression that Mission orders tended to be a recent thing in the military. Within the last 100 years recent.

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP26 Dec 2018 2:24 a.m. PST

I was under the impression that Mission orders tended to be a recent thing in the military. Within the last 100 years recent.

Find and read Napoleon's orders for his army October 14th in anticipation of the Battle of Jena and those for Davout.

Mission orders were a thing during the Napoleonic wars… They just weren't couched in modern terms. None-the-less, commanders were told the main battle plan, their roles and objectives, with few specifics and as with Napoleon's orders, an explicit statement that corps commanders would deal with any circumstances as they saw fit in completing their part of the battle plan.

Sparta26 Dec 2018 8:39 a.m. PST

Mission orders is a derivative og Moltkes Auftragstaktik. The new thing in the Prussian way of thinking was the low level of command that it was supposed to work on. It is porpably fair to say that it was evolved to rather than revolutionized by the prussian staff, considering the way it was used at higher command levels during the Napoleonic wars.

Sparta26 Dec 2018 8:52 a.m. PST

The original or purist/old school approach is for rules to simply let players do what they want, sometimes advanced to little papers moved around by couriers either between players or to subordinates. It is propably all well and fine, but I have never really been satisfied by this, it seems ther eis to much discussion about interpretation of orders and there is a lack of friction in getting the troops moving once the order is actually there. ADC´s of most armies moved at simlar speed, but an austiran column in 1805 just did not react as fast to changing circumstances as a french corps.

In wargame terms I think there are three major command and control issues that rules need to adress – at least for me to feel satified.

1) Delay in getting troops / formations to do what you want
2) Troops/subordinates reacting to the unexpected in a way the player wants them to
3) Troops/subordinates reacting in ways players do not want them to.

1) Is often adressed by activation of orders that the players issue to troops – this is handed fine by abstract modifiers depending on distance to superiors and staff quality – examples are Empire, Valmy to Waterloo and others rules in that fine simulation tradition. The level of orders depend on the level of play, and I find that few and abstract orders work best. In our current rules you can defend, march by roads or advance straight towards an given objective. Generally movement has friction, standing stille is the things troops do by default and rules should reflect friction in getting multiple formation to advance in coordination.

2) This is more difficult, but can be handled with different modifiers like above. Different commands can have different abilities to deviate quickly from orders or change objective – even in the absence of commanders.

3) this is hardest, how often do you want something completely of to happen. We have introcued randoim events for units out of command – so the player can just keep units in command, but scenario rules can make som units aggressive so that a random event makes them charge.

Mike the Analyst26 Dec 2018 1:54 p.m. PST

Sparta, (1) can sometimes be addressed by making sure the formations have an appropriate (or long) tail meaning that it takes a period of time for the formation to transition from road march to assembled and then deployed. Once deployed all it needs is a clear command to advance which may be as simple as the fire of three salvos from a battery. So no delay for the troops once they are properly prepared.

Aebel90 Inactive Member26 Dec 2018 2:14 p.m. PST

Thats an interesting element. Through times the commanding officers have to varying degrees had rivalry or pure dislike of each other. It would be an interesting element to add in a game.

As much as battle plan are laid out there are always elements that can halt a plan. Either instances of conflict hampering co-ordination in the field or being surprised by an defence stronger than anticipated.

Its rather rare for everything to go as planned during a battle, even when led by the most competent officers.

Personal logo Dye4minis Supporting Member of TMP26 Dec 2018 9:12 p.m. PST

McLaddie- No. It's a different book.


John Edmundson26 Dec 2018 9:40 p.m. PST

I remember years ago (in my defense I was a kid at the time) playing a WWII multiplayer game. The COs were in different rooms from us with telephones to transmit orders. I had a carrier platoon and was ordered to take the hill to my front. My next order was to move from the hill to occupy a wood forward to my left. The problem was that by the time I received that order I'd already done it because it seemed the right thing to do. Reasonable platoon commander initiative? I'm not so sure because even though it was sensible, it wasn't in the spirit of the game. I knew that a pre-planned artillery barrage had narrowly missed my location on the hill. More importantly, I had the Eye of God advantage so while I could plausible argue that it was sensible to move to the wood, in reality I should not have preempted my CO's orders. No consequences for me of course, it was a smart move and helped us, and it was just a game.


Lion in the Stars26 Dec 2018 9:44 p.m. PST

@McLaddie: OK, thanks for that. Still seems like that's Corps commanders specifically being given permission to 'make it happen' and which may not have been passed down to their subordinates.

I know today, you get clear down to a Corporal in charge of a fireteam (4 bodies total) being given some pretty significant latitude in performance of the mission, where 100 years ago it reads like even a battalion commander might not have as much latitude.

Last Hussar27 Dec 2018 3:51 a.m. PST

I suppose I should have said "when will a subcommander use initiative within the parameters of his own orders?"

Brigade is marching to capture objective on its orders.
Enemy moves to flank.
At what point does the bde stop marching, and turn to face.

Conversely, at what point could a brigade take initiative to conduct this flanking manoeuvre? Or would that take an order from division?

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP27 Dec 2018 2:09 p.m. PST

McLaddie- No. It's a different book.


Not having the book at hand, can you say anything else about it? It isn't called up by that title on any source I know of…

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP27 Dec 2018 2:15 p.m. PST

Conversely, at what point could a brigade take initiative to conduct this flanking manoeuvre? Or would that take an order from division?

Speaking about 18th and 19th Century, there were very specific parameters for those questions. As you get closer to the 20th Century, those parameters for action become wider. It has to do with close-order, linear formations versus those same formations spreading out over the 19th Century.

One rule that was pretty strictly followed by brigades was: don't break the line of battalions/brigades. So, a brigade could refuse a flank or square if threatened without permission, but moving out of line by battalion or brigade required some permission before or during the battle.

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