Basic Formations and Movement Drills


There were several basic tactical structures which changed little, if at all, throughout the 17th, 18th and indeed most of the 19th century. Both Marlborough’s and Napoleon’s soldiers were formed into tactical units and sub-units in similar ways and their manoeuvres on the battlefield in order to change formation were virtually identical at the most basic levels. Indeed a modern soldier would recognise most, if not all, of these drills as familiar components of today’s ceremonial parades.

Drills did evolve during the 18th century and continued to do so during the Napoleonic wars, creating levels of intricacy not considered by earlier generations. These more sophisticated manoeuvres were however built on a solid foundation of basic drills which remained relatively unchanged throughout the period. To truly understand Napoleonic tactics it is necessary to have a good knowledge of these drills and the military logic behind their use. From this comes an appreciation of both the opportunities for tactical development and the limitations which the drills themselves imposed on commanders on the battlefield.


As noted in previous articles, the primary tactical unit for infantry was the battalion which in practice throughout this period averaged some 600 men in the field. Internally the battalion was divided into a number of tactical sub-units which were based on equalised companies or equalised half-companies, depending upon national preferences. These would typically be between 60-100 men in field conditions.

Each infantry unit would be formed up in a number of rows known as ranks, normally three or four in the 18th century but dropping to two or three in the Napoleonic era. Each vertical “slice” through the unit (ie one man from each rank) is known as a file. The process of ensuring that troops once formed are accurately positioned within this structure is known as “dressing”, and sergeant-majors today still carry out exactly this same procedure of minor adjustments to ranks and files to ensure that their units are evenly spaced. This rank and file structure was shown below.

Diagram 1

Infantry battalions could form a number of different shapes on the battlefield by moving their sub-units. With a few exceptions, the sub-units themselves however normally remained in exactly the same linear formation throughout this process and achieved the battalion restructuring by merely rearranging the pattern of these basic company or half-company building blocks.

The primary formations used by infantry battalions throughout the entire period were line and column. Squares were obviously known of, and drills existed for forming them in 18th century regulations, but throughout most of the 18th century armies formed in multi-battalion structures where the need for individual battalions to form square did not exist. The only occasion for doing so would be if a battalion was detached as explained in the British 1727 Regulations:

“As Foot are sometimes Interlined with Horse or Detached from the Main Body to secure some important post, by which they are exposed to the Attacks of Horse, it will be proper to lay down some general Rule how a battalion is to proceed on such an Occasion.” [1]

With the advent of more fluid tactics in the late 18th century squares became more important, indeed absolutely vital, and so will be considered in a separate article.

There was a fixed relationship between the spacing of sub-units in a column and the length of the same unit when in line. This is shown below.

Diagram 2

For much of the 18th century columns were formed so that the space between each element in the column was the same as the column frontage. As a result the length of the column was effectively the same as the length of the same battalion when in line, in fact exactly the same distance less the length of one element as described in British regulations:

“An open column occupies the same extent of ground as when in line, minus the front of its leading division.” [2]

In this context “division” means the element on which the column was formed, whether this in fact is a Grand Division (double company), company, half-company or smaller. Such a column is referred to as one at full deploying distance. In the late 18th century reduced distance columns began to be used and these were the norm in the Napoleonic wars. These will be covered in a later article. As can be seen in the diagram a full distance column could be formed on various frontages. For non-tactical marching, in what were called Columns of Route, narrow frontages were used since these allowed obstacles to be negotiated easily.

The minimum frontage was a column of fours (ie four files wide) since in close order a block of men four files wide was slightly more than the depth they occupied in their three ranks. Narrower columns of two or three files would have been forced to spread out and create a column longer than the line. If infantry did have to reduce to a column with such frontages, to cross an obstacle for instance, then they normally halted before the obstacle, crossed it in two files or even single file, and reformed at the halt on the other side before moving off again. This naturally caused what George Nafziger has described as the highly undesirable “accordion” effect, [3] and good commanders attempted to ensure that their troops were not disarrayed by such a problem. The British 1792 regulations specifically warn against such extension:

“Where woods, enclosures and bad or narrow routes, absolutely require a march in file, there is no remedy for the delay in forming, and man may be required to come up after man: but these circumstances, which should be regarded as exceptions from the primary and desired order of march on a greater front, should tend the more to enforce the great principle of preventing improper distances, and of getting out of so weak a situation as soon as the nature of the ground will allow of the front of the march being increased.” [4]

Columns of Fours were used when marching non-tactically between battlefields, ie in a Column of Route, when the terrain did not permit a wider formation. Some nations however preferred a minimum of a column of sixes. The limitation on this was the need to ensure that the depth of each section of four or six files did not impinge on the space needed for the following section. A section of four files was possible for troops in two ranks but the additional depth of a section in three ranks indicated a better minimum frontage of six files. The British regulations, written assuming that the normal configuration was in three ranks, explain this as follows:

“For the purposes of movement they [columns] need not exceed 16 or 18 files, nor should they be under 6 files in front when the formation is three deep, otherwise there will not be space to loosen the ranks and the battalion will of course be lengthened out.” [5]

Where the terrain permitted, wider frontages could be used. There was less likelihood of troops closing up on each other and therefore a reduction in the risk of any consequent “accordian” effect but the wider frontages did give their own problems of keeping accurate spacings between elements of the column. For non-tactical Columns of Route the widest formation normally used was a column of quarter companies which, depending on unit strength could be some 8 to 12 men wide.

As troops approached the rear of the battlefield they would open out into wider formations, typically columns of half-companies or columns of companies. In the 18th century all movement close to the battlefield and the actual deployment into line on the battlefield would have been carried out in a column of companies. In the Napoleonic era columns of companies were the most commonly used formation on the battlefield, but in close terrain (such as encountered by the British in India [6]) columns of half companies might be used. When conditions permitted, some nations in the Napoleonic era opened out their formations even more into double company frontages, the British Column of Grand Divisions, known by most other nations as Columns of Division.

Although the spacing between individual infantrymen in a line did vary throughout the period, nevertheless a Napoleonic line looked very similar to that of one hundred years earlier, or indeed very similar to a modern one on a ceremonial parade. The number of ranks in a Napoleonic line was less, at two or three, to that of the early 18th century at four or five and there was a tendency in the Napoleonic period to fight in closer formations than that of Marlborough’s day, but the basic structure was virtually identical.

All evolutions on the battlefield were conducted by carrying out a series of linked manoeuvres of which there were relatively few basic elements, although there were some complex variations. At the simplest level infantrymen could march by ranks or by files as shown below.

Diagram 3

A body of infantry, such as the company shown in the diagram, would normally march straight ahead (by ranks) and the vast majority of all movement, on or off the battlefield, was conducted by such rank marching. Occasionally, for certain formation changing manoeuvres, infantry would turn to the right (or left) and march by files. The problem with file marching arose from the spacings used between ranks and files. In the early 18th century both ranks and files were relatively loose (or spaced some distance from each other) since this was dictated by the safety requirements of burning fuses on matchlock muskets. The universal adoption of flintlock muskets led to tighter formations, which were better for concentrated firepower, being able to be adopted. By the mid 18th century it was normal for close order troops to leave one pace (26 to 30 inches) between ranks but only allow some 22 inches per file.   This gave troops just enough space to march by ranks but when marching by files each man’s leading foot needed to overlap the rear foot of the man ahead of him. If troops were not perfectly in step they would trip over each other. When file marching, troops would also have the pack of the man in front of them almost touching their chest, which meant that they could not see where they were going and this in itself led to men tripping over unseen obstacles, thereby disrupting the formation. By comparison, modern soldiers do not suffer from this same problem because the space between files has been opened up again, so file marching is commonly used today for marching in column of route. Napoleonic British regulations explained the problem of file marching as follows:

“A body obliged to march any distance in file, will at least occupy one half more ground than it requires in line; such situation is therefore to be avoided.” [7]

The British solution to this problem was to accept file marching as a manoeuvre normally limited to individual companies within a formation change, discouraging marching of complete battalions in file with the statement:

“The march of the battalion in file, and without opening out, can rarely be required, except in smooth ground, and for the purposes of counter-marching, or closing or opening an interval in line.” [8]

An even stronger statement was used to discourage file marching of multi-battalion formations as follows:

“At no time whatever ought a column of manoeuvre or of route to occupy a greater extent of ground in marching than what is equal to its front when in order of battle; – Therefore, the marching of great bodies in file, where improper extension is unavoidable, must be looked upon as an unmilitary practice, and only to be had recourse to when unavoidably necessary.” [9]

Changing direction on the march was achieved by wheeling. There were two basic variants to this manoeuvre, wheeling on a fixed pivot (ie with one end of the unit halted) or on a floating pivot, where all soldiers continued to march, albeit at different speeds.

In the late 17th century the use of matchlock muskets with burning fuses led to infantry being spread out both in ranks and files. In the early 18th century the introduction of the flintlock musket led to spacing between files also being closed up. The French clung on to the outmoded practice of using five ranks for their formations and also had the considerable distance of 13 feet between each rank. As a result each rank had to wheel separately as shown below.

 Diagram 4

In order to avoid losing formation during a wheel, the French normally conducted this on a fixed pivot by the innermost man of the wheeling rank (ie the right hand man if wheeling to the right) halting and facing to the new direction whilst the remainder of the unit wheeled around him. The wheel itself was achieved by the men closest to the pivot point taking shorter paces whilst those at the other end of the wheel increased their pace. There is a limit, dictated by human physiology, to the length of pace possible and this in turn dictates that the maximum practicable length of line to wheel is some 100 files, with the difficulty of the wheel being exacerbated as this limit is approached. This limit was one of the more significant factors in the development of more fluid Napoleonic tactics.

One further problem with fixed pivot wheeling by open ranks was that the wheel needed to be achieved in the time before the next rank reached the pivot point. If this did not happen then progress of the entire unit would be interrupted by a series of concertina like movements. Again the length of line wheeling was critical to this and it is noticeable that late 17th century and early 18th century infantry avoided this problem by using much smaller sub-units, typically 48 men in three to five ranks, with a frontage of 10-16 men compared to the Napoleonic era when typical sub-unit frontages were 25-30 men.

Marlborough’s Anglo-Dutch army led the way in reducing to three close order ranks. These could wheel on a fixed pivot more easily because the limitations of successive ranks being balked had been removed and the sub-unit now merely had to clear the pivot point before the next sub-unit reached it. This allowed considerably more time for the wheel and eventually allowed larger sub-units to be used.

A further development was the introduction of wheeling on a floating pivot. Rather than the pivot man halting and turning, he now merely shortened his pace. The wheel took longer to achieve but the entire sub-unit continued to march forward, thus further removing any danger of successive sub-units catching up with each other. In the late 17th century when open ranks were used there were not enough officers and sergeants with the formation to control each individual rank, so wheeling on a floating pivot was likely to result in a scattered formation. Once rank spacings were reduced, the tightness of the ranks and files, and the fact that there were now officers and sergeants on all four corners of each wheeling element allowed such floating pivot wheels to take place without losing formation. This is shown below.

Diagram 5

The relationship between lines and columns was absolutely crucial to the tactics of this period. There was only one structure which a line could take but as shown in the second diagram above there were a number of variants of columns, by Grand Divisions (on a two company frontage – which the French called Column of Divisions), by Companies, by Half-companies and by Fours. In the early and mid 18th century Columns were always at Full Distance, as shown here. During this period lines always formed into columns, or vice versa, at the halt.

As previously noted, in the early 18th century some nations, particularly the French, were still forming their troops in five ranks with some 13 feet between each rank. This naturally made their columns very spread out and it was not uncommon for such a French column to occupy two or three times the length of the unit when in line. The problem with this was that the conversion to line was then required to be accompanied by an extensive closing up of the unit and consequent re-dressing of the ranks, all of which could take a considerable time. The introduction of a tighter close order formation was pioneered by Marlborough’s Anglo-Dutch army and was subsequently adopted by all other nations. This had the advantage that troops could now move in columns whose length did not exceed the length of the same unit when in line. This greatly speeded up the time taken to form from column to line or vice versa.

The drill to form full distance columns from line was very simple. If it was desired to form a Column of Half-companies to march off to the right from a Line, the left hand man of each half-company, who would normally be an Officer or Sergeant, turned to his right, and the remainder of the half-company wheeled backwards into their new position, as shown below.

Diagram 6

To form a column of quarter companies was just as easy, in that it was normal to pre-position corporals at the quarter company points in the company frontage. They then knew to act as “pointmen” during the wheel without the need to be “told off”.

Column of Route was normally formed in “fours” from a two rank line or “sixes” from a three rank line as shown in the diagram below.

Diagram 7

If forming column of fours the men in the front rank would be “told off” by an NCO moving down the line and identifying every fourth man. On the word of command “form fours” these markers turned right and the rest of the men in those four files wheeled backwards into column. Exactly the same drill was used if forming column of sixes, but in this case every sixth man was “told off”.

When the column reached the point at which it was required to form line it wheeled at right angles to the eventual line, halted, and each element then wheeled into line simultaneously. In theory it was very simple but, like most military drill, could be thrown into confusion if the troops in each element did not keep their exact spacings from each other.

British regulations took care to cover the potential problem of unequal elements wheeling, whether they were companies, half-companies, quarter-companies etc. If all elements were not exactly equal then a system of wheeling forward from line to column, followed by a further forward wheel from column to line, would lead to such irregularities causing both squeezing and gaps in the final line. The solution was to always wheel backwards from line to column, and forward from column to line. Provided distances were maintained then any irregularities would not matter. This was described in the British regulations in the following manner:

“In wheeling FORWARD from line into open column, and even if the divisions are of equal strength, the pivots will and distances after the wheel will not be true, because the different sizes of men, and the least over or under wheel of any one division, will derange them, which in practice will infallibly happen. – But if the divisions are of unequal strength…the distances which the column marches off at must be all changed during the march, otherwise when the column is to wheel up, and form, strong divisions would have to wheel into the space which weaker ones had left, and vice versa; the consequence and confusion thence arising is obvious.“

“To prevent therefore such inconveniencies it must be regarded as a rule almost general – That all wheels by companies or smaller divisions from battalion or line (when halted) into open column should be made BACKWARD ; and all wheels from open column into line FORWARD : ….- If the division does not exceed 16 or 18 file, it may readily wheel back without facing about : but if the division is stronger and the ground uneven, it must Face aboutWheel – and then Halt, front.”   [10]

The nomenclature used by 18th century and Napoleonic writers can be confusing to those who have not encountered it before, or have not themselves had personal experience of military drill. One particular concept which is unintelligible to those who first encounter it is the reference to columns formed “on the left” or “on the right”. It needs to be appreciated that all 18th century and Napoleonic drill, or for that matter modern ceremonial parades, require all of the manoeuvring elements to maintain fixed relationships to each other or the result is total confusion. Battalions were therefore invariably formed in a standard structure. The norm was for line to be formed with the most senior company to be on the right and the most junior on the left. In the 18th century much stress was laid on the hierarchy of Colonel’s company, Lieutenant-Colonel’s company, Major’s company etc with the consequence that promotion not only affected the individual but also the precedence of his company within the battalion. This resulted in all of the most senior officers being concentrated on the right of the battalion and so some nations overcame this by a tactical organisation which interspersed junior and senior companies along the line. By the Napoleonic era this linking of companies to senior officers had for the most part been abandoned and the problem therefore disappeared. Napoleonic companies were numbered (or lettered) in a fixed structure which did not depend upon the seniority of their company commander.

It was however still normal for Napoleonic battalions to form in line with the senior (ie lowest numbered) company on the right and the most junior (ie highest numbered) on the left. Battalions which had grenadier or light companies invariably placed the grenadiers on the right and the light company on the left. This structure is shown in the diagram below.

Diagram 8

Columns also followed this same hierarchy, either being formed with the senior company leading or the junior company leading. A column led by the senior company is described as being “right in front” or “by the right” because the senior company normally occupies the right of the line. Similarly a column with the junior company leading is described as being “left in front” or “by the left”.   The decision as to whether a column was formed by the right or by the left would depend on the judgement of the commander as to likely tactical developments as described in British regulations:

“Columns of march or manoeuvre will be formed with the left in front, wherever it is probable that the formation of the line will be required to the right flank; and vice versa when required to the left.”   [11]

This advice was based on the original 18th century processional or parallel deployment system, but worked equally well for most forms of Revolutionary war and Napoleonic perpendicular deployment. The same principles of forming columns by the right or by the left were identical for companies formed on any frontage, ie double company, company, half-company, quarter-company or fours/sixes.

During an advance in column it was sometimes necessary to diminish the frontage of the column. This most frequently occurred when negotiating a narrow defile. Once the obstacle was passed then the column could open out again to a wider frontage. As we have noted previously, troops also normally moved in columns with relatively narrow frontages when marching non-tactically in Column of Route, but progressively opened out to columns of half-companies and columns of companies as they approached the rear of the battlefield.

At the beginning of the 18th century, such diminishing or increasing frontage was always carried out at the halt, as shown in below.

Diagram 9

On the cautionary command to diminish front the rear rank coverer (ie the sergeant or corporal on the left rear rank of the company) moved to mark the new position for the half-company. Each left hand half company would then be given the command to face right, at which point the leading three or four files (depending on national regulations) of the left half-company would wheel backwards to disengage themselves from the right half-company. On the command quick march the left half-company would step off, wheeling into its new position as previously identified by the left flank marker sergeant.

The same process could be carried out to diminish front from columns of division (British Grand Division) to column of companies or from columns of half to quarter companies. Similarly the process could be reversed to increase the frontage.

As previously noted, the practical maximum frontage for troops when wheeling was some 100 men. In the Napoleonic era this effectively limited troops wheeling to a double company or division frontage.   The difficulty of troops wheeling when in line has been mentioned and in general commanders in Napoleonic era tried to ensure that they formed their lines where they wanted them in the first place so as to avoid wheeling them later. In the 18th century this same inhibition existed but the effect was not so severe since battalions tended to be smaller and troops formed in more ranks, so that it was not uncommon for battalions to have frontages of no more than 100 men in the first place. The problem for 18th century troops was more the fact that they invariably formed multi-battalion lines and these clearly had extreme difficulty in wheeling as an entity. If such 18th century multi-battalion lines, or Napoleonic battalions, needed to wheel when in line this could only be achieved by accepting a fragmentation of the line as it wheeled as shown in the diagram below.

Diagram 10

If the order was to wheel to the left, as in the diagram, the left hand company would perform a conventional wheel. The other companies would not attempt to match this, but would each independently wheel forward, taking their own path to their new position. Since the first company had the shortest distance to follow, and all of the other companies progressively more, the new line was formed sequentially from the left to the right as each company in turn came into line, taking their dressing from the one before them. Most countries had a drill for the adjutant, or some other officer, to move to the opposite end of the new line from the pivot point, to mark where the line should end up. If the line needed to wheel to the right, exactly the same drill was performed in mirror image.   British 1792 regulations describe this echelon wheeling process in some detail under a section entitled:

“When the Battalion changes Position to the Front, on a fixed Flank Company, by throwing forward the rest of the Battalion.” [12]

In mid evolution the line was very fragmented and vulnerable to enemy attack. For this reason, wheeling a line was a highly dangerous manoeuvre to attempt when close to an enemy, particularly if enemy cavalry were present. Whether in the 18th century or Napoleonic era commanders tried to form their troops into line at an orientation where subsequent wheeling would not be necessary. Marching a line to their front was fine, but wheeling a line was definitely not recommended.

Battalions throughout the entire period needed to keep their internal sub-units in a strict structure to each other. The formation changing drills were complex but were greatly facilitated by each company always remaining in a set relationship to the ones on either side of it. If companies became out of order then the drills simply would not work and the battalion would dissolve into chaos. Even the relatively minor complication of reversing the order of the companies was considered to be highly undesirable because all drills would then have to also be reversed, with the potential for confusion and disintegration of the battalion at a critical moment.

In the 18th century various battalion structures were used by different nations which sometimes put the most senior companies in the centre of the line. If such structures were used then these were still fixed for that particular nation at that time in history. By the Napoleonic era the normal order for battalions in line was to be drawn up with the senior numbered company on the right and the most junior on the left. All formation changing drills were based on the premise that this order was maintained. In an emergency a battalion could about face to confront an enemy approaching from the rear, but it was very difficult for that battalion to carry out any further tactical manoeuvres until it had corrected the order of its companies to a normal structure.

For this reason the standard drill to change front to the rear was not simply to about face, but was to counter-march as shown in the diagram below.

Diagram 11

This shows the manoeuvre which would be carried out if there was a need to change the front of the battalion so that they faced what had been their rear. The order would be given to turn to the right and march off in file, with the leading company immediately executing a 180 degree wheel to bring it back parallel to the original line. This was one of the very few manoeuvres for which it was acceptable for a complete battalion to march in file. All of the companies would follow the first one until the line had returned to its original position. The countermarch would then have potentially inverted the order of the companies but by turning from column of files to line by a left turn the battalion would then be in line in correct order, but facing to the rear of its original alignment.   If necessary the new line could then retire (march backwards) a few paces to bring them back into exactly their original position, but on a correct alignment.

A similar manoeuvre could be carried out where the company order in the battalion has become reversed (inverted) by the battalion about facing. This was highly undesirable but could occur if the battalion needed to fire to its rear to see off an enemy as described in British regulations:

“Although in general the INVERSION of all bodies in line is to be avoided, yet there are situations where this rule must be dispensed with, and the quickest formation to a particular front thereby obtained. – The battalion or line may be obliged to face to the right about, the more readily to oppose a danger, instead of changing its position by a countermarch.” [13]

As soon as the potential threat was removed, and assuming that the battalion commander still wanted to face in this new direction, the battalion could be ordered to countermarch, thus restoring the companies to their normal order in line. In this circumstance the starting position is with the order of the companies inverted, ie the junior on the right and they would commence the manoeuvre with a right turn and march in files, exactly as previously described. Once the countermarch was completed the battalion would face to its original front by making another right turn. This would enable the battalion to carry out further manoeuvres which it would have had extreme difficulty in doing with the order of the companies inverted.

There were many minor variations to such countermarching, British regulations stating :

“The Countermarch by Files may be made either before or behind the body. – If made BEFORE it, the front rank men will be the pivots on which each file will wheel : If made BEHIND it, the rear rank men will then be the pivots on which each file will wheel. All countermarches by file will necessarily tend to an extension of that file; the greatest care must therefore be taken, that the wheel of each file is made close, quick, and at an increased length of step of the wheeling men, so as not to retard or lengthen out the march of the whole, and unity of step is absolutely indispensable.” [14]

An example of a countermarch in the face of the enemy took place at the Battle of Toulouse as recorded by Sergeant Anton of the 42nd Highlanders :

“Our colonel was a brave man, but there are moments when a well-timed manoeuvre is of more advantage than courage. The regiment stood on the road with its front exactly to the enemy, and if the left wing had been ordered forward, it could have sprung up the bank in line and dashed forward on the enemy at once. Instead of this, the colonel faced the right wing to its right, countermarched in rear of the left, and when the leading rank cleared the left flank it was made to file up the bank, and as soon as it made its appearance the shot, shell, and musketry poured in with deadly destruction; and in this exposed position we had to make a second countermarch on purpose to bring our front to the enemy.” [15]

The 42nd Highlanders were operating as two half-battalion wings at this time and Anton clearly felt that the left wing of the regiment should simply have been ordered to attack the enemy to their front. The commanding officer of the 42nd (Colonel Maccara) wished to lead the attack with his right wing, supported by his left wing, hence the need for a convoluted countermarch to bring them into the correct position. Maccara’s decision could be criticised, as it was by his own men, but it did maintain his battalion in a more normal structure of the senior wing leading, and thus better balanced for any further manoeuvres which might then be necessary.

Once battalions formed into lines, it was normal for these to be straight, or as straight as the ability of the soldiers to keep their dressing dictated. It was indeed difficult for a line to move if it was not so. Once a line was formed and static it was however possible to wheel a portion of it forward or back if necessary. A line formed with such an angle in it is said to be en potence as is shown in the diagram below.

Diagram 12

Such a line could be formed with an element wheeled forward (advanced) or wheeled back (refused). In the diagram a pair of companies are shown in these configurations but obviously the proportion of the unit required to be deployed at right angles to the main body would depend on the circumstances. Again, in the diagram this body is referred to as a wing, which strictly speaking is half a battalion, but general usage in the period concerned would recognise as any substantial element of the battalion operating independently.

Advancing a wing was clearly a potentially dangerous operation because it exposed its flank to the enemy. Nevertheless some historians have maintained that that Wolfe’s complete battalion was ordered to deploy en potence, advanced to Cumberland’s second line, at Culloden. John Prebble’s account states :

“Yorke’s orders were that Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Martin, of Wolfe’s Regiment, should march his men away from the left of Huske’s line and place them en potence with Barrell’s on the left of the first line. That is they were so to wheel that their right flank made a right angle with Barrell’s left, their backs to the stone wall and their front facing down the field.” [16]

The timing of this manoeuvre is disputed in a more modern account by Stuart Reid, whose detailed investigation into original source documents and his personal knowledge of drill gained through military service, leads him to the conclusion that :

“every writer in the British ranks who refers to the crucial part played by Wolfe’s tells how they only marched up to a flanking position after Barrell’s were hit.” [17]

This suggests that the manoeuvre carried out by Wolfe’s complete battalion was very little different to the action of many battalions, or elements of battalions, throughout the era of wheeling some or all of the unit to produce an enfilade fire on the flank of an enemy. Marlborough’s Anglo-Dutch army used this system [18] as did Wellington’s troops one hundred years later. Oman describes this tactic being used by the Light Division at Bussaco in 1810 as follows :

“Craufurd waved his hat to the battalions lying in the road behind him….The crest was at once covered by the long red line, and the fronts of the French Brigades received such a volley at ten paces as has seldom been endured by any troops in war. The whole of the heads of their columns crumbled away in a mass of dead and dying. The centre and rear stood appalled for one moment; then Major Arbuthnot wheeled in three companies of the 52nd upon the right flank of Simon’s leading regiment, while Lloyd of the 43rd did the same on the extreme left, so as to produce a semi-circle of fire.” [19]

Alternatively it was possible to refuse, or throw back, a wing from the line as shown at diagram 10b. This would normally be a defensive measure to protect a flank or tie in the end of the line to a feature or another unit. British regulations give a number of examples as to when such a manoeuvre might be required as follows :

“- in order to occupy a particular position, – to prevent the enemy’s designs on that wing; or at least to make him take a greater detour to effect it, – or that he might be obliged to align his own on a height which is occupied, and from which he may be flanked.” [20]

One of the more common reasons to throw back or refuse a wing was in order to allow friendly troops to pass through, whether advancing or retreating.   Such a situation was described by Sergeant Anton of the 42nd Highlanders at Waterloo:

“our general gave orders to open our ranks. In an instant our cavalry passed through, leaped both hedges, and plunged on the panic-stricken foe.”[21]


Cavalry drill manoeuvres were very similar to infantry, to the extent that the British 1796 Cavalry Regulations stated :

“The general principles for the formation and movements of cavalry and infantry being invariably the same, their fuller and more particular explanation in several points is to be found in the Regulations for the Infantry, which by His Majesty’s command have been lately published, and are ordered to be observed : an attentive perusal of them is therefore essentially necessary, to every cavalry officer.” [22]

As the infantry used a primary tactical unit of a battalion, so the cavalry used a primary tactical unit of a squadron. In other words, squadrons could move independently from one another, but it was normal to keep the sub-units within the squadron in a structured strict relationship to each other.

In the 18th century cavalry were normally formed in three ranks but by the beginning of the Revolutionary wars most countries used a two rank formation. Typical squadron structures are shown in the diagram below.

Diagram 13

The typical 18th Century squadron is some 150 men, slightly larger than the typical Napoleonic squadron of 120 men. The Napoleonic squadron however has a wider frontage due to being deployed in only two ranks. In both cases NCOs (Sergeants and corporals) would be positioned on the flanks of the quarter squadron divisions within the squadron structure to assist in control when formation changing.

A squadron in all armies was invariably comprised of two administrative companies (British Troops), each commanded by a captain, with the consequence that there would be two captains per squadron. In most armies therefore, the senior one took command, in front of the squadron, with the second one taking up a position at the rear. The French army originally used this practice, but later created a new grade of Chef d’Escadron as an additional officer to command the squadron in the field. This grade was equivalent to the infantry Chef de Bataillon, both ranks being equivalent to a major in other armies. One lieutenant or ensign would be positioned in front of each quarter squadron, with the remaining other officers, sergeants and corporals forming a line at the rear of the squadron.

There was very little national variation in the spacing of cavalrymen in the ranks. The French specified one metre frontage per man, and the British defined this as six inches from boot top to boot top[23], which amounts to very nearly the same thing. All nations specified half the length of a horse between ranks, the British calculating this as “about three and a half feet”.[24]

No gaps would be left between the troopers and NCOs forming the rank and file of the squadron, so that the divisions between half-squadrons and quarter-squadrons were purely marked by the NCOs and not with a physical separation. In the early 18th century squadrons were sometimes deployed with no gaps between them “en muraille” (ie in a wall) but this practice died out before the Napoleonic wars. The 18th century Prussian cavalry commentator, General Emanuel von Warnery was particularly critical of it writing:

“A line of cavalry en muraille, even at exercise, cannot manoeuvre without confusion” [25]

By the Napoleonic wars intervals were always left between squadrons, whether of the same regiment of different regiments.   British regulations specified a gap of one third of a squadron, approximately 20 yards, between each squadron,[26] French regulations specified an interval of 10 metres [27] and Prussian regulations gave intervals of 4 paces (yards) between squadrons of the same regiment and 12 paces between adjacent regiments. [28]

The basic structure of line and column were identical for cavalry to that for infantry.   One important variation however was in the concept of file marching. As we have noted above, infantry found it difficult to march in file for any distance because they were too close together for comfort and had to overlap their pace with the man in front if the line was not to extend. For cavalry file marching was impossible without extending the line because a horse is over twice as long as it is wide. Cavalry therefore resolved this problem by carrying out all file movement in blocks of three troopers since the width of this block (some nine feet) was slightly more than its depth (seven and a half feet). This allowed marching in file with some 18 inches from successive horses’ tails to the noses of those following. Some nations preferred manoeuvring in blocks of four because this gave slightly more distance between horses, but it also increased the width of the formation when file marching.

The drill of cavalry manoeuvring by threes was immensely useful because it allowed much simpler and more accurate placement of cavalry units than was possible by wheeling large bodies of horses. The concept is shown below.

Diagram 14

For simplicity only a quarter-squadron is shown, but the drill would be identical whether it was conducted by any size of cavalry unit. The cavalry quarter-squadron in the illustration is originally in line, as two ranks of 15 men each. On the command “three’s right” each group of three men carries out a 90 degree wheel to their right as shown in the diagram. It should particularly be noted that cavalry carried out this drill with each rank wheeling independently, and not as the infantry would have done as complete files. The consequence was that cavalry wheeling to the right in threes ended up with a frontage of six troopers (nine if they had been in three ranks). Nations which carried out a similar drill by “fours” ended up with an eight man frontage, assuming that they were deployed in two ranks. The total depth of the formation in file was however no more than the frontage when it was in line.

The unit could now move to its right in file, wheeling as necessary as it did so as shown in the diagram. Because its frontage was only six men it was highly manoeuvrable and could be positioned with great precision on the battlefield. Once it reached the desired location the order was given to wheel left into line by threes, as shown in the diagram, and the original formation was reformed. This manoeuvre was particularly useful because it allowed rapid movement of a cavalry formation to a position from which they could develop an attack on the flank of an enemy threatening their original position. British regulations stress the utility of manoeuvring in three’s as follows:

“This telling is calculated for the retreat of the squadron, by each rank independently wheeling to the right about by three’s; also for a flank march of the squadron, six men in front, by each rank wheeling to the flank by three’s and moving on. – The deployments from close column into line, and from line into close column are also made ranks by three’s – and it is the only rank wheeling (with that by two’s) essential to the movements of the squadron” [29]

This drill is also covered in Section 19 of the British Cavalry Regulations as:

“A single regiment, by the flank march of each of its divisions by threes, moves to arrive in the new line.”[30]

Cavalry could form by files of smaller frontage, but only at the expense of lengthening their column, which was highly undesirable. The British 1796 Cavalry regulations state that:

“Filing is an operation of the squadron, of use in broken or embarrassed ground, which will not allow of movements on a greater front. It is a situation in which horses move free and without confinement, but in which the squadron or its parts lengthen out, and take up much more ground than what they stand on in line, and it is therefore to be had recourse to only from necessity.” [31]

On the march cavalry wheeled exactly as infantry were shown as doing in the relevant diagram above. Non-tactical movement was normally carried out by columns with quarter-squadron frontages (some 15 men) unless the ground forced a narrower front.[32] On the battlefield it was more normal to manoeuvre in half-squadron or squadron frontages. Wheeling of all elements up to a full squadron in frontage was possible although progressively more difficult for the wider formations.

Cavalry could form columns at the halt by wheeling from line exactly as infantry were shown as doing above. In this case the men in the second rank wheeled around behind the first rank, and not independently as when wheeling by threes. The only inhibition was that the smallest element which could wheel in this way was in sub-divisions of one-eighth of a squadron, provided that these were at least six files, otherwise the squadron would open out.[33]

Diminishing or increasing frontage of cavalry units was again achieved in a similar manner to infantry as shown in that diagram above. If at the halt, the left half of the unit would wheel by threes, the leading element completely about facing in this process. The left half of the unit would then file into the new position and wheel back into line. On the march the left half of the unit could achieve the same effect by reining back then wheeling as a complete half unit into their new position as the right half of the column continued.

Wheeling of cavalry lines longer than a squadron was achieved by accepting fragmentation of the line in exactly the same way as with infantry Lines wheeling. On many occasions, attempts to wheel a complete squadron would also result in a similar fragmentation into two half squadrons unless it was carried out very slowly. Most cavalry commanders preferred to wheel at speed, accept the fragmentation, and expect the rear elements to accelerate their pace to catch up once the wheel was completed.

Cavalry countermarching was also carried out for exactly the same reasons and by exactly the same drill as for infantry. In countermarching cavalry would do so by wheeling to the right in threes so that they could file march.


In theory artillery used the same structure of columns and lines as infantry or cavalry, but practical considerations created severe limitations on the formations used.

Infantry and cavalry could normally move off roads and so maintain fronts to their columns which did not cause them to elongate to longer than the same unit would have covered when in line. The rare occasions when this was not possible were considered to be a temporary lapse to be corrected as soon as terrain permitted.

Artillery however was invariably constrained to roads for all of its non tactical movement. Roads in the 18th century and the Napoleonic era were frequently only wide enough for frontage of a single artillery vehicle. The consequence was that, for artillery, column of route normally meant single file. The problem with this was that an artillery battery in single file occupied some 400 metres of road, whilst their frontage when deployed was less than 100 metres. The theoretical target of columns being no longer than lines was simply not possible for artillery. This was not so much of an inhibition as it could have been since commanders normally allowed artillery units to occupy the roads, whilst infantry and cavalry marched alongside them, thus keeping the entire army compact.

Typical artillery formations used by a battery on the move are shown in the diagram below.

Diagram 15

The diagram shows a French artillery battery from the Napoleonic era, but the principles would have been very similar for all nations in the 18th century and Napoleonic Wars. In column of route the battery is in single file on the available road. The artillery pieces (in this example six guns and two howitzers) are likely to have been drawn by teams of 6 horses and occupy some 16 metres of road. The ammunition caissons and other battery vehicles are likely to be drawn by teams of 4 horses and occupied some 12 metres of road. All of the drivers would attempt to maintain a gap of one metre between the lead horses of one vehicle and the rear of the one ahead. The eight artillery pieces would lead the column, followed by the eight caissons carrying their immediate (first line) replenishment of ammunition. A further eight caissons would follow carrying the second line ammunition supply. Finally at the rear of the column would come the battery reserve vehicles, spare caissons, a spare artillery carriage, and a forge. The whole column would be some 400 metres long.

As they approached the battlefield, or whenever the tactical situation required and the terrain permitted, the column would close up to a column of sections (a section being a pair of guns or howitzers). This increasing of the column frontage would be achieved in exactly the same way as for infantry of cavalry, with every alternate vehicle in the battery swinging out of line to the left and coming up beside the vehicle ahead of it. Artillery in a column of sections could then reduce the length of their column to some 200 metres, which was still over twice their frontage when in line.

On the battlefield itself, whenever terrain permitted, movement could be by column of half-batteries. Exactly the same doubling up process took place to increase the frontage again with the alternate sections swinging out of line to the left and closing up beside the leading sections. This process would reduce the column length to some 120 metres, still a little more than battery frontage when in line.

For comparison the same typical French artillery battery is shown deployed into line for firing in the diagram below.

Diagram 16

Gaps between artillery pieces were not so rigid as frontages used by infantry and cavalry. The minimum was some 6 metres [34], which gave gun crews working space and avoided the problem of an explosion at one gun position seriously damaging the next. Larger gaps were preferred since these not only gave better dispersion but also allowed guns to be traversed over wide angles without masking each others shot. [35] The theoretical maximum was some 20 metres (or British yards) since this was at the limits of command and control of a noisy battery position by voice alone. Terrain often constrained artillery battery frontages, with infantry and cavalry commanders insisting that artillery deployments did not obstruct their front. Mercer records one such event during the retreat from Quatre Bras to Waterloo:

I determined to retire across the little dip that separated me from Sir O Vandeleur, and take up a position in front of his squadrons, whence, after giving a round to the French advance as soon as they stood on our present ground, I thought I could retire in sufficient time through his intervals to leave the ground clear for him to charge. This movement was immediately executed; but the guns were scarcely unlimbered ere Sir Ormsby came furiously up, exclaiming, “What are you doing here, sir? You encumber my front, and we shall not be able to charge. Take your guns away, sir; instantly I say – take them away!” It was in vain that I endeavoured to explain my intention, and that our fire would allow his charge to be made with more effect. “No, no; take them out of my way, sir!” was all the answer I could get; and accordingly, I was preparing to obey, when up came Lord Uxbridge, and the scene changed in a twinkling. “Captain Mercer, are you loaded?” “Yes, my lord.” “Then give them a round as they rise the hill, and retire as quickly as possible.” [36]

Artillery could be employed in groups smaller than a battery, typically a section of two guns or half-battery of three or four. The spacing within such detachments would conform to the above principles but such detachments might well be deployed at considerable distances from each other. In the 18th century it was normal for artillery to be spread out in small detachments whilst in the Napoleonic era there was a tendency for more deployments by complete batteries.

If massed artillery were deployed by grouping several batteries together a closer frontage might be used, partly for command and control and partly to intensify the effect of the concentrated fire. The diagram shows a typical compromise of 10 metres per artillery piece.

Unlike infantry or cavalry, an artillery battery in line had a considerable depth. The limbers themselves would be facing the rear some 10 metres behind the gun positions. A further 50 metres behind this would be the first line caissons, and 50 metres more were the second line caissons. Finally the battery reserve vehicles would be some 100 metres behind the second line, giving a total depth to the battery position of over 200 metres. It was possible, indeed normal, for infantry or cavalry to be positioned in the gaps between artillery lines, the artillery using the intervals between the infantry and cavalry units to move their caissons forward and back for replenishment.


Tactical Developments

This article has dealt with basic Formation and Movement Drills, which were common throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries. A future article will deal with tactical developments during the 18th Century.



[1] A Treatise of Military Discipline – 1727. Humphrey Bland.   Chapter VII. P90.

[2] Rules and Regulations for the Formations, Field Exercise and Movements of His Majesty’s Forces 1792. P95

[3] Imperial Bayonets. George Nafziger. P57

[4] Rules and Regulations for the Formations, Field Exercise and Movements of His Majesty’s Forces 1792. P368

[5] Rules and Regulations for the Formations, Field Exercise and Movements of His Majesty’s Forces 1792. P95

[6] Wellington in India. Jac Weller. P291

[7] Rules and Regulations for the Formations, Field Exercise and Movements of His Majesty’s Forces 1792. P95

[8] Rules and Regulations for the Formations, Field Exercise and Movements of His Majesty’s Forces 1792. Section 94. P122

[9] Rules and Regulations for the Formations, Field Exercise and Movements of His Majesty’s Forces 1792. P368

[10] Rules and Regulations for the Formations, Field Exercise and Movements of His Majesty’s Forces 1792. P83

[11] Rules and Regulations for the Formations, Field Exercise and Movements of His Majesty’s Forces 1792. P95

[12] Rules and Regulations for the Formations, Field Exercise and Movements of His Majesty’s Forces 1792. Section 159. P207

[13] Rules and Regulations for the Formations, Field Exercise and Movements of His Majesty’s Forces 1792. P286

[14] Rules and Regulations for the Formations, Field Exercise and Movements of His Majesty’s Forces 1792. P126

[15] Retrospect of a Military Life. James Anton, 42nd Royal Highlanders. P128

[16] Culloden. John Prebble. P84

[17] 1745 – A Military History of the Last Jacobite Rising. Stuart Reid. P163

[18] The Art of Warfare in the Age of Marlborough. David Chandler. P119

[19] A History of the Peninsular War. Sir Charles Oman. Vol III. P380

[20] Rules and Regulations for the Formations, Field Exercise and Movements of His Majesty’s Forces 1792. P359

[21] Retrospect of a Military Life. James Anton – 42nd Royal Highlanders. P210

[22] Instructions and Regulations for the Formations and Movements of the Cavalry 1796. P286

[23] Instructions and Regulations for the Formations and Movements of the Cavalry 1796. P4

[24] Instructions and Regulations for the Formations and Movements of the Cavalry 1796. P3

[25] Remarks on Cavalry. Emanuel von Warnery. P39

[26] Instructions and Regulations for the Formations and Movements of the Cavalry 1796. Sect 4. P11

[27] Imperial Bayonets. Tactics of the Napoleonic, Battery, Battalion and Brigade as found in Contemporary Regulations. George Nafziger. P217

[28] Imperial Bayonets. Tactics of the Napoleonic, Battery, Battalion and Brigade as found in Contemporary Regulations. George Nafziger. P228

[29] Instructions and Regulations for the Formations and Movements of the Cavalry 1796. P2

[30] Instructions and Regulations for the Formations and Movements of the Cavalry 1796. Sect 19. P73

[31] Instructions and Regulations for the Formations and Movements of the Cavalry 1796. Sect 9. P25

[32] Instructions and Regulations for the Formations and Movements of the Cavalry 1796. Sect 108. P278

[33] Instructions and Regulations for the Formations and Movements of the Cavalry 1796.   P2

[34] French Artillery. Patrick Griffith. P25

[35] Open Fire – Artillery Tactics from Marlborough to Wellington. B P Hughes. P25

[36] Journal of the Waterloo Campaign. General Cavalié Mercer. P 146