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18 September 2014
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From Musket to Breech Loader

By Professor Richard Holmes
Drills and formations

Image of mounted infantry honing their skills, 1894
Mounted infantry hone their skills, 1894 ©
The flintlock musket imposed its iron logic on training and battle alike. The armies of the age were generally composed of men from the bottom of the social heap, officered (and here the generalisation is very broad indeed) by gentlemen.

First the soldier learnt to drill without his weapon. Men who could not tell left from right often had a wisp of straw stuck under a bootlace to remember which was the ‘straw foot’. Then he was taught ‘manual exercise’, learning how to load and fire his musket, graduating from this to ‘platoon exercise’, blending his own drill into that of a small body of men, and finishing up with larger ‘evolutions’.

'For a typical battle, infantry would advance in a column, their movement screened by cavalry, and then deploy into line.'

Throughout the period there were fierce debates over the best formations to adopt, with some theorists arguing that the musket was so unreliable that it was always best to form up in column, attempting to shatter the enemy by physical impact or to undermine his morale by the threat of such attack.

For a typical battle, infantry would advance in a column, their movement screened by cavalry, and then deploy into line. The Duke of Wellington took particular care to shelter his line behind the crest of a suitable hill, and many clashes between French columns and British lines came when the French collided with a line that had hitherto been out of sight.

Thomas Bugeaud, a French infantry officer in the Peninsula, who was later appointed Marshal of France for his services in Algeria, gives a classic description of the meeting of column and line.

‘The English generally occupied well-chosen defensive positions having a certain command, and they showed only a portion of their forces. The usual artillery action first took place. Soon, in great haste, without studying the position ... we marched straight in, taking the bull by the horns. About 1,000 yards from the English line the men became excited, called out to one another, and hastened their march; the column began to get a little confused.
'The English remained quite silent with shouldered arms and from their steadiness appeared to be a long red wall… The contrast was striking; in our innermost thoughts we all felt that the enemy was a long time in firing, and that this fire, reserved for so long, would be very unpleasant when it came. Our ardour cooled. The moral appearance of steadiness, which nothing can shake (even if it be only appearance), over disorder which stupifies itself with noise, overcame our minds.
'At this moment of intense excitement the English wall shouldered arms: an indescribable feeling would root many of our men to the spot; they began to fire. The enemy’s steady, concentrated volleys swept our ranks, we turned round seeking to recover our equilibrium; then three deafening cheers broke the silence of our opponents; at the third they were on us, pushing our disorganised flight.’
The Campaigns of Napoleon, by David Chandler (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1995)


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