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"Passage of lines" Topic

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14th NJ Vol Supporting Member of TMP14 May 2019 9:49 a.m. PST

Could a Column of infantry pass through another column or line , and vice versa? I can't visualize it happening without severe disruption of both formations? So how would you get a fresh column to the front if behind another formation?

Personal logo Artilleryman Supporting Member of TMP14 May 2019 10:21 a.m. PST

The units were supposed to keep enough distance between them so that they had room to manoeuver if necessary. Units passing through each other could only be achieved if units opened gaps in their ranks to facilitate it. If they were forced to do so without preparation then time would b required to dress the ranks before carrying on. Witness D'Erlon's Corps passing batteries at Waterloo and Longstreet's Corps at Gettysburg.

USAFpilot14 May 2019 12:32 p.m. PST

It seems like both units would need special training to execute such a maneuver.

Rod MacArthur14 May 2019 3:24 p.m. PST

It was a standard drill for a line to wheel back elements, say companies, to open up gaps to allow another formation to pass through.

There is a whole section on it in Part IV of the British 1792 Regulations, pages 357-360 in the original edition.

Columns didn't need to do it since there were sufficient gaps between them to allow columns to pass by each other.


Bandolier Supporting Member of TMP14 May 2019 3:32 p.m. PST

+1 Rod.

Also depends what size columns you mean. Battalions would practice passage of lines in normal training. Not a big deal to accomplish if both units are in good order, unless done under fire.

If you are talking about brigade formations and larger, that is a different matter. Such manoeuvres could only be carried out far behind the battle line. In rules parlance that would be deemed a strategic move and could take hours. The French were experts at traffic management.

14th NJ Vol Supporting Member of TMP14 May 2019 7:03 p.m. PST

Interesting, thank you.

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP14 May 2019 7:47 p.m. PST

Yes, it was done under fire. Suchet's brigades at Jena, Hougton and Abacrombie's brigades with the Spanish brigades at Albuera, and Marchant's cavalry brigades through Packenham's infantry at Salamanca.

There was little reason to have a supporting line behind the front line if they couldn't pass through each other during a battle.

Rod MacArthur15 May 2019 12:26 a.m. PST

I will post an article on my website about Passage of Lines, with copies of the original French 1791 and British 1792 Regulations on this matter. It should be there within a couple of days and I will post a comment here once it is live.

It was definitely a manoeuvre they carried out in the face of an enemy in order to bring fresh troops forward from their second line.

I agree they would have been vulnerable during such a manoeuvre, but I assume they would have had a skirmish screen out in front to give them some protection whilst doing so, although that would have not been much use if they had been charged by cavalry mid-manoeuvre.


42flanker15 May 2019 2:14 a.m. PST

A timely discussion. Rod, I should be grateful to know if such a manouevre was practised within a battalion, one company opening files to let another pass through, or perhaps between two battalions. Do the regulations allow for that?

MDavout15 May 2019 2:43 a.m. PST

I don't have Le Regliment in front of me, but I can describe how it was done. Imagine two battalions of infantry, one behind the other at company distance ( or greater). Both both battalions are in line. An order is passed to the forward battalion to face to the right. The next order is 'by the right of pelatons to the rear, march'. So the right flank of each of the six peletons marches by file to the rear. It would look like 6 parallel lines all marching to the rear.

The battalion to the rear would do likewise except that the order would be 'by the right (or left) of pelatons to the FRONT, march. The two battalions would pass one another. Once passed each other, the peletons would each make a 90 degree turns thus having the battalions come back in line.

This is also how a formation would pass through a battery. But in all cases, the battalions have to be in line.

von Winterfeldt15 May 2019 4:56 a.m. PST

a most difficult tactcial manoeuvre, here two plates

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in my view – hardly possible when both battle lines – are with battalions deployed in line.

In case of columns, this is easier, in case they are deployed in deployment distance.

Are there any good reference (please ignore Elting) which state how Lannes did do it at Jena??

Brechtel198 Supporting Member of TMP15 May 2019 7:45 a.m. PST

Lannes executed a passage of lines at Jena.

Rod MacArthur15 May 2019 11:58 a.m. PST

42 Flanker,

Between two battalions – yes. But there was no drill to pass companies from the same battalion through each other, because there was no need for such a manoeuvre. Companies always remained in a fixed relationship to each other within the battalion and would never have passed through each other. Having said that, the drill was really always about companies from different battalions passing through each other.


Bandolier Supporting Member of TMP15 May 2019 4:23 p.m. PST

Does anyone have examples of passage of lines going badly during a battle?

42flanker16 May 2019 1:10 a.m. PST

Rod, if the companies of an outpost were retreating in echelon, (as described by Dundas), and had to negotiate a narrow passage, say a bridge, how would they negotiate the obstacle in the face of a pressing enemy pursuit?

von Winterfeldt16 May 2019 4:12 a.m. PST

It would be difficult to find a general who would admit that his passage of lines was going badly – would reflect on his lack of training.

I hardly know of any successful passage of lines – when battalions were deployed in line.

von Winterfeldt16 May 2019 11:20 a.m. PST

I found the passage of lines – which Suchet reported to Lannes, he exchanged the 17th regiment which was lacking ammunition with the 34th, Foucart, first volume, p. 633

Rod MacArthur16 May 2019 12:09 p.m. PST

42 Flanker,

I am about to fly to Spain for a few weeks, so will have to wait until I am there before replying more fully.

However there is a lot in the 1792 Regulations about passing obstacles. You might want to research it yourself. There are various editions of the 1792 Regulations available as free downloads. The main text is identical in all of them. One of them is here:



1968billsfan Supporting Member of TMP16 May 2019 1:01 p.m. PST


Yes, they knew how to have companies or even zugs change from line to column and back in order to avoid clumps of trees/ buildings etc. Passage of lines was just another type of the same regular, well-drilled action.

"Attack columns" (usually division- two companies wide and deep in close order) were favored on the continent. This allowed the first and second line to move up or back as requried.

42flanker16 May 2019 2:10 p.m. PST

Thanks Rod, I'll look again.

Buen viaje

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP16 May 2019 3:23 p.m. PST

in my view hardly possible when both battle lines are with battalions deployed in line.

von Winterfeldt:

And yet the British brigades of Hougton and Abercrombie did it under fire withe two brigades from a different nation: Spain at Albuera.

If it wasn't possible, it becomes difficult to explain why Britain and other nations deployed with both the front and supporting line with battalions in line formation.

ScottWashburn Sponsoring Member of TMP16 May 2019 4:46 p.m. PST

I've done it using Civil War regulations. There are several methods, but the easiest is to have the relieving battalions advance by the right of companies while the line that's being relieved can either retire by the right (or left) or just break enough files to the rear of each company to let the new battalions through. Once the new line is through a simple 'by company into line' and the new line is reformed in just a few seconds. Of course doing it under fire is the trick.

von Winterfeldt17 May 2019 3:17 a.m. PST

And yet the British brigades of Hougton and Abercrombie did it under fire withe two brigades from a different nation: Spain at Albuera.

thanks for making me aware of it, can you suggest a source where I am able to read more on it?

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP17 May 2019 3:38 p.m. PST

thanks for making me aware of it, can you suggest a source where I am able to read more on it?

I wish there were more detailed accounts. Most accounts just proudly say they 'did it' without details. Here is what Guy Dempsey writes in his Albuera 1811 book. It has flaws, but probably the best book on the battle.

De Roverea though that the ensuing 'Hourra[s]' from the British troops were more 'military and impressive' than the accompanying battle cry of 'Viva, Viva' from the nearby Spaish Troops. These shouts were the signal to start a 'passage of lines' manoeuvre in which the Spanish soldiers filed off to the rear using the intervals between the British battalions, which then moved up to face the enemy in place of the troops who had retired.
p. 143

von Winterfeldt17 May 2019 9:55 p.m. PST

still a good descritpion, thanks

Handlebarbleep18 May 2019 7:12 a.m. PST

How about Infantry opening intervals for Cavalry? In which case Picton's division and the Union Brigade at Waterloo?

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP18 May 2019 7:43 a.m. PST


Or Wallace's Brigade did for Marchant's cavalry at Salamanca. Page 128 Rory Muir's Salamanca

Le Marchant led his brigade forward along the plateau. Unfortunately, the sources are so fragmentary and confused that any account of their[Heavy Brigade] charge needs to be heavily qualified, for we cannot be certain of the sequence of events, although the final result is clear. But it seems that the regiments in the center and right of the brigade approached Wallace's line from behind at a canter. Grattan describes how the British infantry were startled by their sudden appearance, and at first mistook them for the enemy and began to form square. In a moment they were recognized, however, and the order was quickly given to 'Open right and left', creating gaps in the line through which the cavalry passed. Le Marchant's men then quickly re-formed their line, and charged forward at full speed. The French infantry facing them had little time to react: blinded by smoke and dust, dazzled by the sun, they had scarcely recognized the threat and begun to form square before the heavy dragoons were upon them.

1968billsfan Supporting Member of TMP20 May 2019 7:59 a.m. PST

The nice thing about the Prussians line of battle in a brigade formation is that the individual division columns were in a checkerboard fashion and the rear ones could march up in the gaps between the front ones. Being in a division column (2 companies wide and deep) meant that they were also in a reasonable defensive formation (6 deep) against cavalry. (Remember that in the 7YW they used such deep "lines" and most did't even know what a hollow square against cavalry was.

1968billsfan Supporting Member of TMP20 May 2019 8:04 a.m. PST

I guess the people back then didn't know the meaning of "attack" when used as an adjective.

Definition of adjective

(Entry 1 of 2)
: a word belonging to one of the major form classes in any of numerous languages and typically serving as a modifier of a noun to denote a quality of the thing named, to indicate its quantity or extent, or to specify a thing as distinct from something else The word red in "the red car" is an adjective.

attack adjective

Definition of attack (Entry 3 of 3)
1 : designed, planned, or used for carrying out a military attack an attack helicopter
2 : expressing or involving aggressively negative and harsh criticism of someone (such as a political opponent)

Rod MacArthur21 May 2019 12:47 a.m. PST

As promised, I have put an article about Passage of Lines onto my website. It can be accessed here:


or from my website Top Menu through Military Historical Research > Tactics > Passage of Lines.


von Winterfeldt21 May 2019 3:15 a.m. PST

very useful – thanks

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP21 May 2019 6:34 p.m. PST

The passage of lines is simply a formation change for both lines. Changing any formation close to the enemy is dangerous.

It is obviously that it was done and passage of lines is what made having supporting lines in battle practical.

von Winterfeldt21 May 2019 10:57 p.m. PST

yes the formation change has to be extremely well timed, otherwise an aggressive opponent could have cause havoc.

42flanker22 May 2019 3:20 a.m. PST

'simply a formation change'…

Might that not be over simplification? It seems that the key point is that the manoeuvre had to be executed with precision and dispatch in order not to expose the troop formations to attack during the exchange.

ScottWashburn Sponsoring Member of TMP22 May 2019 9:00 a.m. PST

I think that the circumstances of the battle will greatly effect how a Passage of Lines will be conducted.

If you have two opposing lines blasting away at each other at close range then you'd be crazy to try to pass a new line through the old.

But if your forward line was starting to falter or was running short on ammunition, then you would form your second line maybe a hundred yards to the rear with a few gaps in it and on signal, the forward line would fall back through the gaps in the second line. They'd do this as quickly as possible without worrying much about keeping their formation all nice and tidy. Once through the gaps they could reform again in the rear. The second line would hold its ground until the first line was clear, close the gaps in its line and then either open fire or advance.

In a different situation, say where the forward line was getting the upper hand and the enemy was faltering and beginning to fall back and you wanted to send in fresh troops to pursue, then the second line would form its columns and advance and the first line would open gaps to let them through. Once through, the relieving troops form their line and continue the advance.

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