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"Infantry Vs infantry melee how common?" Topic

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Prince Rupert of the Rhine22 Jan 2023 11:31 p.m. PST

Hi guys. A quick question from someone new to the period. How common was hand to hand/close quarters combat among infantry? did it ever happen? My assumption so far is that it probably only happened in a built up area (like a village) that needed clearing of the enemy. I'm again going to make another assumption that if an infantry unit did charge enemy infantry, in the open field, with cold steel, they'd either by stopped short by musketry or the object of their charge would flee. Are my assumptions totally off? Are there any examples of infantry beating each others brains out up close and personal or is this something that only happens in Sharpe books?

advocate22 Jan 2023 11:55 p.m. PST

I seem to remember it happening at least once in the Penninsular War, bur certainly not often.

Personal logo Herkybird Supporting Member of TMP23 Jan 2023 1:10 a.m. PST

Even in the Seven Years War with better trained troops, infantry melees were almost never.
I think light infantry were typical, where they fired at each other till one side got an advantage, then they charged and the other side fled.
In the American Revolution/AWI despite the British side's emphasis on charging 'with zeal and bayonets only' melee seemed to be not too common, though a lot more so than in preceding and subsequent wars.


Personal logo Artilleryman Supporting Member of TMP23 Jan 2023 1:26 a.m. PST

A surgeon in the Peninsular War noted that the vast majority of bayonet wounds that he treated were in the back suggesting that most infantry vs infantry 'melees' were actually after one side broke and were being chased.

I think that the premise that infantry vs infantry melees were very rare is quite accurate. A survey (albeit quick) of Napoleonic battles shows that most infantry vs infantry actions followed the following scenarios:

1. The attackers advance but are driven off by the defenders' firepower. The defenders may then chase after the withdrawing attackers. (See most British/French clashes in the Peninisular War.)

2. The attackers advance but are halted by the defenders' firepower. There is then a short or long exchange of fire before one side weakens and either withdraws or is chased off. (See Albuera>)

3. The attackers advance and the defenders break before contact is made sometimes 'helped on their way' by the attackers' firepower. (See Ligny.)

Either way, clashes were very rare unless fortifications or buildings were being defended and the defenders had limited options for withdrawal whether they wanted to or not. Certainly in our house rules, they are tailored to make infantry melees 'in the open field' very rare indeed.

Personal logo 4th Cuirassier Supporting Member of TMP In the TMP Dawghouse23 Jan 2023 4:32 a.m. PST

@ Prince Rupert

You're correct, and I'd go so far as to suggest that if a set of rules routinely produce infantry:infantry melees in the open, there's something wrong with them.

When infantry advanced against infantry, either the defenders lost their nerve and ran, or the attackers were brought to a halt and a firefight developed. Some external event – reinforcement, artillery joining in, cavalry arriving – would usually then persuade one side to withdraw. If the encounter was unexpected, then the surprised side probably withdrew immediately.

An infantryman can do more harm to the enemy with his musket than with his bayonet, so that's what he used. If the enemy's inside a building he needs to try to get inside the building, so that's when melees happened.

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP23 Jan 2023 7:23 a.m. PST

You probably want to read Ardant du Picq's Battle Studies. Interestingly, in the Russian Civil War you found cavalry officers who had read du Picq before taking command. They said afterward that (a) du Picq was right--it was very seldom even with cavalry that it actually came down to melee, but (b) the only way to win was to act as though du Picq was wrong, and focus on momentum and melee.

Whether a set of rules is wrong to have infantry melees in the open would depend on exactly what was represented by the melee. As a rule, I'd agree with the consensus here: for the most part you used bayonets in towns or at breastworks. Otherwise, you threatened with bayonets. If no one ran away, you stopped and fired. (For exceptions, follow the career of "No Flint" Gray in the AWI and the French Revolution.)

One hedge. The "no melee" school tends to draw most of its support from English-language sources--where, in fairness, we find more memoirs and correspondence from lower-ranking participants. Central and eastern European sources are more likely to emphasize bayonet work. I think that's mostly because the sources are higher up the food chain. But I can't exclude the possibility it reflects different cultures or inferior muskets and powder.

Dexter Ward23 Jan 2023 8:31 a.m. PST

In most rules, "melee" includes close quarter firefights, so the two sides are not necessarily coming to blows.

Major Bloodnok23 Jan 2023 8:55 a.m. PST

any assault on a defended town will involve bayonet fights. There are plenty of examples from Leipiz for example. There have also been battles where the weather was so bad that the muskets wouldn't fire and it was fought with the bayonet. Now it doesn't mean that both sides stood there and stabbed it out for any length of time but someone was certainly trying to.

IronDuke596 Supporting Member of TMP23 Jan 2023 9:46 a.m. PST

+1 Dexter Ward, that is how G.deB. deals with melee.

Brechtel198 Supporting Member of TMP23 Jan 2023 10:01 a.m. PST

Ardant du Picq is, in general, 'all wet.' His combat and active service was mostly from colonial warfare-regulars fighting against undisciplined natives. He was also 'violently opposed' to using large numbers of reservists to reinforce the regular establishment. He also characterized the American Civil War 'as an example of the failure of volunteer armies.'

Du Picq's opinion was that war 'appeared a contest of wills and morale.' In his derision of the American Civil War he apparently had no idea of Rappahannock Station, Spotsylvania, and Gettysburg. In short, he was a dilittante with little or no ability to analyze historical examples and learn from them.

ScottWashburn Sponsoring Member of TMP23 Jan 2023 11:19 a.m. PST

But Du Picq based his conclusions on interviews with hundreds (thousands?) of Napoleonic veterans. He sent out questionnaires to those veterans and did one of the first systematic studies of warfare at the tactical level.

pfmodel23 Jan 2023 12:03 p.m. PST

There seemed to be melee at Borodino in towns and in fortified positions, the fortified Russians guns were overrun by either side many times so I assume some actual bayonet v bayonet melee occurred. However in my reading of Jena, men were under fire, in one case for up to 2 hours, before they attempted to attack. In that case the Prussians failed but the Saxons, for some reason, forced the French back.

While the occurrence of men with bayonets decking it out with each other for any significant period of time was probably uncommon, there were certainly many occurrences of one side attempting to get into melee, with one side running away. So initiating melee would be very common, the only uncommon event would be hordes of men in hand-to-hand combat for any significant period of time, unless they were in some form of defensive position.

The situation with cavalry was more extreme.

enfant perdus23 Jan 2023 3:47 p.m. PST

A surgeon in the Peninsular War noted that the vast majority of bayonet wounds that he treated were in the back

Treated is a very important word here. Dead men didn't see the surgeon, nor did (in the vast majority of cases) men with obviously fatal wounds.

MDDriessen23 Jan 2023 5:22 p.m. PST

Suvorov claimed to abide by the bayonet, was this just legend?

Prince Rupert of the Rhine23 Jan 2023 10:37 p.m. PST

Thanks for the replies everyone. I asked the question because I came across a set of rules I like. Interestingly for me these rules didn't allow infantry on infantry melee which was something I'd never encountered in a set of rules (for any period) before so I was interested to see if it was justified as a rule. I'm thinking that if infantry melee was a rarity then for the sake of simplicity the rule works quite well.

pfmodel23 Jan 2023 10:45 p.m. PST

I am uncertain if rules should prevent melee, it does sound rather unusual.

42flanker24 Jan 2023 1:35 a.m. PST

See most British/French clashes in the Peninisular War

In addition to fighting in a defended area, be it in entrenchments or a built-up area, roughness of terrain, inhibiting swift retreat and/ or affording a defensive posture in an attacking force might lead to hand-to-hand fighting (as opposed to the generalised war-gaming term of "melée"). For instance, at Bussaco, the check of the French attack culminated in fierce fighting in the rocks below the summit of the ridge, before the attackers were driven down the hillside.

CHRIS DODSON24 Jan 2023 2:13 a.m. PST

My research suggests that you are totally correct.

Apart from combat in built up areas, woods etc I think the morale was the primary factor in deciding when to leg it or not when close combat beckoned.

It takes a great deal of discipline , courage/ stupidity to face close range musketry in the open without giving thought to finding somewhere safer to be in my opinion.

Bast wishes,


arthur181524 Jan 2023 3:21 a.m. PST

In wargame rules, I think use of terms like 'melee' to describe close range exchanges of fire followed by an advance with the bayonet that causes the enemy to retire – without actually engaging in fighting with the bayonet – is inappropriate and risks creating the wrong impression. Use words in their normal sense, rather than saying that, in the context of the rules, they mean something else.

Brechtel198 Supporting Member of TMP24 Jan 2023 4:44 a.m. PST

But Du Picq based his conclusions on interviews with hundreds (thousands?) of Napoleonic veterans. He sent out questionnaires to those veterans and did one of the first systematic studies of warfare at the tactical level.

Du Picq did attempt to poll veteran officers from the Crimean War and the Austro-Sardinian War. That didn't work out very well for du Picq. He then attempted to study ancient history for the answers he was looking for. The result was Combat in Antiquity which was privately published just prior to his death in the Franco-Prussian War.

The bottom line is that du Picq apparently never figured out that there was a difference in fighting native tribesmen and well-trained infantry, such as the Germans.

Mark J Wilson24 Jan 2023 6:16 a.m. PST

I believe Baron Larrey and Les Hotel des Invalides both did some wound studies for the Napoleonic wars and came up with figures of ~33% each for swords, bullets and cannon fire and 2% for bayonets, which to me supports the no bayonet fights hypothesis.

Out of period this does leave you questioning what all those shield walls/phalanxes did in earlier periods.

Personal logo Flint and Bayonet Supporting Member of TMP24 Jan 2023 8:17 a.m. PST

"The bottom line is that du Picq apparently never figured out that there was a difference in fighting native tribesmen and well-trained infantry, such as the Germans."

I don't agree, I have the impression that you have not read the complete works of Colonel Ardant du Picq.
I am lucky enough to have the 1903 reprint, 373 pages, in French of course.
He talks about the morale of Man in battle and what he says is valid for Human beings in general, regardless of their degree of 'civilisation', their country and their skin colour.

Personal logo 4th Cuirassier Supporting Member of TMP In the TMP Dawghouse24 Jan 2023 9:51 a.m. PST

@ Mark J W

this does leave you questioning what all those shield walls/phalanxes did in earlier periods.

AIUI the current thinking is they did not do a lot until one side broke. They would then be pursued by the other, and cut down. It was during this phase that almost all the casualties would be incurred. This in turn means that claims of victory with a massively unbalanced butcher's bill, eg the Romans lost 200 men and the barbarians lost 20,000, may actually be fairly accurate. The casualties would be low and similar on either side until one side gave way, and would thereafter be disproportionate because only one side was inflicting them.

You don't see this much in the Napoleonic era because although one side did usually break they weren't in what we'd call "base to base" contact at the time – they'd be exchanging volleys at 50 yards' range or so. Where one side did give way, such as in BUAs, you did get very heavy casualties because it wasn't possible to run away.

Cavalry did routinely fight melees because they didn't pack the firepower to harm the enemy any other way.

Bill N24 Jan 2023 9:54 a.m. PST

In wargame rules, I think use of terms like 'melee' to describe close range exchanges of fire followed by an advance with the bayonet that causes the enemy to retire – without actually engaging in fighting with the bayonet – is inappropriate and risks creating the wrong impression.

I don't agree with this Arthur. There are a number of things that can happen when one force seeks to close with another. If we limit melee in wargame terms to just those situations where the both forces actually come into contact and then fight it out with bayonets, swords, clubbed weapons and rocks it would be too limiting. It also forces the game designers to come up with different sets of rules based on all the different permutations of what could happen if one force sought to close with another.

Now consider those factors within the context of most of the rules we play with. If one move equals 15 minutes or an hour then whatever happened would probably be over in the course of that one move. If you are playing on a brigade or larger scale then does it make a difference that part of one company of an attacking regiment managed to close but was dispatched by the defenders? Or that a quarter of the defenders stood while the rest routed and those who stood were overwhelmed? Does it make a difference whether that combat with edged weapons happened when a few of the attackers managed to catch a few of the retiring defenders?

arthur181524 Jan 2023 2:21 p.m. PST

I was not necessarily suggesting that there be separate rules to cover situations where 'opposing sides actually came into contact' and others where one side broke and withdrew before contact was made, just that the 'one rule to rule them all' not be named 'Melee'.

Cavcmdr24 Jan 2023 4:25 p.m. PST

I had already decided to rename the "Melee" phase of my new rules.

My current favourite replacement term is Close Combat.

Close Quarter Battle or CQB has too many syllables.

Ergo, I seek the thoughts of the wise, the better read and the opinionated.

What suits you, sirs?

Personal logo 4th Cuirassier Supporting Member of TMP In the TMP Dawghouse25 Jan 2023 1:35 a.m. PST

"Ruck" phase.

Bill N25 Jan 2023 5:36 a.m. PST

I am not aware of a generally accepted technical definition for melee. However if you want to reserve the term "Melee" for a hand to hand struggle with edged or clubbed weapons or bare hands and use the term "Close Combat" for the full range of close in fighting I would be OK with that. My point is that close combat is a continuum of types of actions that can resolve the fate of a charge. Treating what you call the melee in the rules as separate from those other types of actions, on any level higher than a skirmish game, is likely to be an unnecessary complication of the rules.

Viper guy Supporting Member of TMP25 Jan 2023 7:13 a.m. PST

General d'Armee has a good way of handling this. Charge phase doesn't always resolve into a melee phase.

Mark J Wilson25 Jan 2023 8:30 a.m. PST

4th C

"They did not do a lot until…", I entirely agree in terms of causing casualties, but what did they do to decide who broke.

"Ruck phase", you can't use your hands in a ruck, probably better to go for maul.

42flanker25 Jan 2023 9:27 a.m. PST

"you can't use your hands in a ruck"

They can down Millwall way.

ChrisBBB2 Supporting Member of TMP25 Jan 2023 11:59 a.m. PST

For "Bloody Big BATTLES!" (BBB), I opted to call this phase The Assault. Bayonet-fighting may or may not be involved. Here's how the rulebook describes it:

"The Assault represents units advancing to take the enemy's ground, either by charging to contact with bayonet or sabre, or by the threat of such a charge forcing the enemy to retreat before contact. At the scale of the game, where a unit may be a division of 10,000 men or more, often what is being simulated will be perhaps only two or three battalions actually being attacked, but their defeat and retreat making the position of the rest so vulnerable that the whole division is obliged to fall back."

Cavcmdr25 Jan 2023 6:05 p.m. PST

Hi Chris.
Your game scale is very different to mine.

I agree that threat is the main factor. Very close range musketry, sunlight on steel and the glint in the eye decide resolve …

Whoops. Note to self. Must change writing style.

Cavcmdr25 Jan 2023 6:13 p.m. PST

They have changed the rules since I used to play.

No kicking, no gouging, no raking.
They will be wanting skill next!

Have fun.

Scott Sutherland29 Jan 2023 3:31 a.m. PST

Some insight into the melee may be gained by a look at casualties.

This can be useful. The net effect of bayonets is around 2% of casualties in the sample. Fuller details are in the article which breaks down by troop type/weapons and body part injured.

Jorge Planas Campos & Antonio Grajal de Blas,
‘Wounds & Weapons in the Napoleonic War: a database of the Peninsular War',
British Journal for Military History, 7.3 (2021), pp. 117-127.

Available at

Valmy9229 Jan 2023 5:58 a.m. PST

As far as BBB's assault phase, he is dealing with a later period when there is longer range infantry fire going on. That longer range infantry fire would have preparatory fire like artillery bombardment. Close range fire would have been like the Napoleonic period short range high volume defensive fire to stop the enemy assault. If successful the attacker pulled up short to engage in a close range firefight, usually in less good order than the defender standing his ground. If unsuccessful in stopping the attacker the defender retreats (in whatever level of order or lack thereof). In that case many (most) of a defenders losses might be "missing," not there when reformed in the fallback position (likely somewhere "safe")

Tortorella Supporting Member of TMP29 Jan 2023 6:48 a.m. PST

It might be Neil Thomas whose rules require that infantry can only charge to melee against an opposing unit with less combat value. His reasoning was that this order was much more likely to be given under these circumstances, and troops are much more likely to enthusiastically and effectively execute this order when they have superior numbers. I adopted this for my own rules because it made sense to me.

There are always exceptions in history, but I have come to think that there was a lot more running away in the face of perceived or actual death than accounts may let on. Standing out in the opening a few dozen yards from a line of muskets for any length of time was not as common in real life than in gaming, has been my opinion, and my rules include a lot of falling back in various degrees of disorder up to just falling apart for the duration in some cases.

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