I’ve been reading a series of book on tactics from both the Napoleonic and Revolutionary wars as a background for my ongoing study of Civil War tactics. Part of this is to try to determine, as British military pundit Paddy Griffith had it, if the American Civil War was another Napoleonic war. How much, if any, did tactics change from the 1750s thru 1865?
The first book is David Gates’ The British Light Infantry Arm c. 1790-1815. Gates looked at a neglected aspect of Napoleonic war—the role of light infantry. While much has been written about other arms such as cavalry, heavy infantry, and artillery, little about the vital role of the light infantry has found its was into print, a deficiency I have noted about the Civil War as well.
As Gates notes, one of the keys of the French offensive system was their light infantry, which was rightly regarded as the best in Europe. The French system had been founded as a byproduct of their revolution, which entailed the collapse of the Royalist army and the departure of most of the aristocratic officer corps. Full of revolutionary zeal the Republicans fielded a large but untrained army which managed to do surprisingly well against its foes, especially in the enclosed terrain of Flanders and Holland.
The French sought battle and threw large numbers of irregular tirailleurs (the term means sharpshooter) against the enemy’s ordered line of battle. These skirmishers fought in no particular order, used any available cover, and would avoid a decisive engagement while harassing and confusing the enemy’s line, then concentrate their efforts on any weak points found. Some revolutionary generals described the French revolutionary army of the period as being composed entirely of light infantry. Gates also stresses the importance of aimed fire, which was a new concept at a time when most generals considered their units to be “walking batteries” who simply leveled their pieces and fired. Even though the tirailleurs used smoothbores that were not particularly accurate they were effective the close ranges at which they normally operated.
Nevertheless the system had its shortcomings. It was hard to control and extremely vulnerable to cavalry in open country, and hard to deliver a concentrated attack. In the late 1700 the French added the next ingredient, the infantry column (actually more of a large square). While the French commanders were well aware that a column could not normally attack a line of battle since only the front rank could fire, it could move much faster across the battlefield, especially over broken or enclosed terrain. They counted on their light infantry to engage and soften up the enemy’s line—to “carry confusion to the enemy” as one general put it—so that the follow-on infantry column could successfully assault it. When backed by the excellent French artillery, it was indeed a formidable tactical system, and this was what Napoleon inherited.
The problem for Napoleon’s enemies was how to counter it. The immediate task for the Allies was to increase their light infantry, which was routinely being swept away by the French tirailleurs and voltigeurs. The object lesson was the utter destruction of the famed Prussian army in 1806, long considered the most formidable in Europe, whose defeat was due largely to the French superiority in light infantry.
Gates points out that while the Prussians and Austrians had light infantry (and had indeed virtually invented it in its modern form) these formations had been “regularized” by the army establishment, which is to say that while they might have the title of jaeger or grenzer, there was little difference between them and the line battalions, and when it came to open order fighting they were no match for the French infantry legere. The British, ironically, had a good bit of experience in open order fighting in America, where they had adopted the “loose files” concept, something I explored in a previous post. After the British Army’s return, however, this had quickly been quashed by Lord Dundas and those lessons forgotten. This was unfortunate because in 1793-94 the British suffered a series of humiliating defeats in Flanders, eventually being run off the continent altogether. This too was due in large part to the superior French light infantry, which crawled in and shot up the British line.
The British responded by forming an “Experimental Corps of Riflemen” in 1800 as well as consolidating several German jaeger units in their employ into a rifle battalion (the 5/60th Royal Americans), and by establishing a camp of instruction for light infantrymen at Shorncliffe three years later. The Experimental Corps later morphed into the famous 95th Rifles, armed with the Baker rifle, but the British didn’t stop there. Several other line regiments, including the 43rd and 53nd Foot, were converted to light regiments. Although these were redcoats, they were given training in open order fighting and a lighter version of the smoothbore service musket. Gates goes into considerable detail on Shorncliffe, puncturing the later myth that the light infantry concept was the brainchild of Sir John Moore. While recognizing Moore’s contribution as overall commander, he gives most of the credit for the concept and the actual training to Lt. Col. Kenneth Mackenzie.
By the time the light infantry got a chance to show its stuff in Spain under Gen. Arthur Wellesley, they were trained and ready. Gates has an excellent section on Wellington’s reliance on his light infantry. In addition to the 95th Rifles and the aforementioned 43rd and 52nd Foot, the army fielded other light units like the King’s German Legion as well as the light companies of each battalion. Wellington organized a light brigade and later an entire light division in Spain. His tactical system, conceived especially to beat the French, depended on two main innovations. First was his famous reverse slope defense. Wellington typically arrayed his army on the slope behind a hill, which both hid his dispositions from the French and protected his men from their dreaded artillery. Second and equally important was his use of a thick light infantry screen on the forward slope to keep the pesky tirailleurs at bay, effectively neutering the two main strengths of the French army. Gates points out that while Wellington’s light infantry varied in quality and much of it was not as good as the elite French voltigeurs, he had a lot of it—proportionally more than any army of the period. Altogether it amounted to about one-sixth of the Peninsular army, which coincidentally is same figure that the Army of Northern Virginia used for its sharpshooters.
Yet in spite of the light infantry’s stellar contribution to Wellington’s victories, their key role dropped out of later histories. Two of the most influential historians of the turn of the century, Charles Oman and John Fortesque, wrote histories that purported to find the key to Wellington’s victories in the superiority of the British line “firing disciplined volleys that broke the previously irresistible élan of the imperial troops in a way that shocked French commanders.” This was also no doubt the way the British Army of the period preferred to see itself. Yet recent scholarship has shown that in most cases the French commanders were trying to form into line when they encountered the British position, which their tirailleurs had been kept from approaching by Wellington’s “light bobs.” In short, as Gates said long before, the French were well aware of the futility of assaulting a line with a column without it first being thoroughly shaken by light infantry and artillery.
I have found much the same thing in Civil War histories, which tend to treat the skirmishing and the activities of the sharpshooters as a sideshow while reserving most of their ink for the clash of the lines of battle. If you’re interested in the history of light infantry in general and how it fits into the “Napoleonic warfare” debate this is an excellent book to read. Unfortunately it’s both out of print and hard to find in this country, so you’ll probably have to get it, as I did, used from a bookstore in the UK.
The British Light Infantry Arm, c. 1790-1815
Hardcover: 224 pages
Publisher: Batsford Ltd (24 Sep 1987)