Obstacle Avoidance Drills

This is an extract from my unpublished book on tactics, which I began to write over 30 years ago, but never finished.  It covers obstacle avoidance drills, used by all armies when moving in column or line.

I originally wrote it based on the British 1792 Regulations, but I have added some extracts at the end from the French 1791 Regulations, Prussian 1812 Regulations and American 1794 von Steuben Regulations, to show that all nations used similar drills.

Obstacle Avoidance Drills

British regulations specified that the various steps would be used for both line and column. The use of each of these steps is defined as follows :-

Ordinary Step (75 paces per minute).

“being the pace on all occasions whatever, unless greater celerity be particularly ordered, the recruit must be carefully trained and thoroughly instructed in this most essential part of his duty, and perfectly made to understand, that he is to maintain it for long periods of time together, both in line and in column, and in rough as well as smooth ground, which he may be required to march over”.[i]

Quick Step (108 paces per minute).

“used in filing from line into column or column into line and by battalion   column of manoeuvre when independently   changing position. May occasionally be used in the column of march of small bodies, when the route is smooth, and no obstacles occur, but in the march in line of a considerable body it is not to be required, and very seldom in a column of manoeuvre, otherwise fatigue must arise to the soldier and more time will be lost by hurry and inaccuracy, than is attempted to be gained by quickness”. [ii]

The Quickest Step (120 paces per minute).

“Chiefly to the purpose of wheeling. Also in this time should divisions [companies] double, and move up, when passing obstacles in line, or when in a column of march the front of divisions is increased or diminished”.[iii]

Running was generally discouraged in the British regulations but was sanctioned in exceptional circumstances as defined below :

“A company or division may occasionally run, a battalion may sometimes Quick Step, but the hurrying of a large column or of a body moving in front will certainly produce confusion and disorder. It is never to be risked when an enemy is in presence though it may sometimes be necessary when a post or situation is to be seized”.[iv]

This discouragement was modified in the case of light infantry with the statement :

“A battalion of light infantry may occasionally be ordered to run, for the purpose of anticipating an enemy going to occupy any particular post; but in doing so, the utmost care is to be taken that confusion do not ensue”. [v]

On the face of it, columns and lines could therefore move at exactly the same speeds, by the commanding officer merely ordering the battalion into the requisite formation and then selecting whatever march rate he wanted. In practice however there were factors which led to columns being able to move faster than lines. British regulations recognised the difficulty of marching a single battalion in line as follows :

“The march of the battalion in LINE, either to the front or rear, being the most important and most difficult of all movements, every exertion of the commanding officer, and every exertion of the officers and men, become peculiarly necessary to attain this end. The great and indispensable requisites of this operation are, the direction of march being perpendicular to the front of the battalion then standing; the perfect squareness of the shoulders and body of each individual; the light touch of files; the accurate equality of cadence, and length of step, given by the advanced sergeants, whom the battalion, in every respect, covers, follows, and complies with. If these are not observed, its direction will be lost; opening, closing, floating, will take place, and disorder will arise, in whatever line it makes a part of, at a time when the remedy is so difficult, and perfect order so essential.” [vi]

In respect of marching in a multi-battalion line British regulations state ;

“If the correct march of a single battalion requires so much attention and precision, it is evident that these must be redoubled to procure the just movement of a line, which is the operation that leads to the enemy, and is the most difficult and material of all manoeuvres.” [vii]

“The march of a considerable body in line can only be at the ordinary step; a quicker movement would produce disorder, nor could artillery well attend its motions when advancing to the enemy: But there are situations, where a brigade or smaller front should move on to a particular object or to an attack at a lengthy step, or where even a quicker cadence may be required from them.” [viii]

It is clear from these extracts and various memoirs that a long line, particularly a multi-battalion one, tended to snake and this was obviously more difficult to correct at higher march rates. Columns, with their smaller frontage did not suffer from this same problem. This problem would be more acute for less well trained troops, as many Napoleonic conscripts were.   The main reason however for the selection of different march rates lay in the anti-obstacle drill practised throughout the era. This was virtually identical for all nations and is described in British regulations under the section entitled “PASSAGE OF OBSTACLES WHEN THE BATTALION IS MARCHING IN LINE” as follows:

“When the battalion is marching either to the front or rear, the partial obstacles that present themselves will be passed, by the formation, march, and deployment, of the close column. Such parts as are not interrupted, still move on in front; such parts as are interrupted, double by divisions as ordered, behind an adjoining flank or flanks, and in this manner follow in close column in their natural order. As the ground opens the successively deploy, and again perfect the line. – The columns are always behind the line, and march closed up. – The formed part of the battalion, whether advancing or retiring, continues to move on at the ordinary pace, and in proportion as the obstacles increase or diminish, will the formed or column parts of the line increase or diminish.” [ix]

British regulations further lay down that the columns so formed should be of sub-divisions (half company frontage) unless half or more of the battalion needs to form column in which case they will be formed on a company frontage. [x] There is an excellent diagram showing this process in British regulations [xi] from which the basic principles have been extracted to create the slightly simplified version below.

Obstacle Avoidance Drill in Line

The diagram shows an infantry battalion advancing in line (A) and as already stated they attempted to maintain the same rate and same direction regardless of obstacles in their path. As they advance the right wing is blocked by woods (B) so the right flank company falls back by half companies and forms a close column behind the second company. The regulations state that this forming of a close column of half companies should be accomplished by the blocked company briefly halting and then conducting the standard drill for diminishing a column frontage (as shown in the article on Basic Movement and Formation Drills). The remainder of the battalion continues at exactly the same pace and direction. Once the line is past the woods the right flank company resumes its place in the line (C) by doubling forward at 120 paces per minute (it being one of the uses specifically stated for that movement speed as quoted in detail above). [xii]   The diagram then shows a similar situation taking place on the left wing (D) which is resolved by the left flank company similarly forming close column until it clears the woods and resumes it place in the line (E). Exactly the same process would be carried out if one of the centre companies was blocked, as shown in the diagram at (F), and again that company would form close column to pass the obstacle and then resume its place in the line (G).   If the obstacle was wider than a single company the two companies could each form close column and move outwards to their respective flanks to avoid the obstacle as shown at (H), again resuming their place in the line once the obstacle was passed (I). If the obstacle was particularly large, as shown at (J) then the close column may be formed of more than one company. These would however continue to form in a column of half companies unless more than half of the battalion needed to form in column, in which case a column of companies would be formed. Again once the obstacle was passed such a larger column would again double back into line.

Using this drill, it obviously took time for the element which had been blocked to catch up with the line. This was relatively easy if the line moved at the ordinary pace and the blocked section, having negotiated the obstacle, moved in column at an accelerated pace.   The problem for 18th century or Napoleonic troops was that, according to the regulations, the blocked element could not move any faster than the double of 120 paces per minute. If it was therefore decided to move the line at the Quick Step of 108 paces per minute it would take longer for the blocked element to catch up. For an 18th century line any increase in the time that the line was fragmented was highly undesirable. If a line itself moved at the Quickest Step of 120 paces per minute then any blocked element could only catch up by running which was strongly discouraged in the regulations. [xiii] The likelihood of a line encountering many obstacles needing such avoidance drills was obviously very high in 18th century multi battalion battle lines of perhaps some 10 or more battalions all advancing together in a line up to 2 miles in width. Even in the Napoleonic era battalions did not normally manoeuvre entirely independently and an advancing line was likely to be formed of a minimum of a brigade, perhaps 3-6 battalions with a frontage of at least half a mile.

It was therefore perfectly possible for a Napoleonic battalion or brigade commander to order his troops into line and then tell them to advance at the quick step (100-108 paces per minute) or the quickest step (120 paces per minute). Quite apart from the high standard of training required to keep the line from snaking at these higher march rates, the real problem was that a battalion in line moving at such speed would be fragmented if it encountered any obstacles, since the blocked elements would have the greatest difficulty in catching up.   A battalion commander would have to be very sure that he was not going to encounter any obstacles, whether terrain or battlefield debris, if he was going to move a line at higher speeds. With visibility on the battlefield being what it was, such a decision was very dangerous. Prudent commanders did not take such risks and lines normally moved at the ordinary step (75 paces per minute) or at the most, on good open ground in clear visibility, the quick step (108 paces per minute) with the fastest pace of 120 paces per minute only being used by lines in the final 100 yards or so of an assault.

By way of comparison, the diagram below shows the obstacle avoidance drill used by the same battalion advancing over the identical terrain in column.

Obstacle Avoidance Drill in Column

The battalion is shown in a quarter distance column (A) which was standard British practice if there was any cavalry threat.   As it advances it encounters far less of the obstacles than the line did due to its narrower frontage (B). When an obstacle is encountered, shown here as the pond, then the column simply wheels (C), passes to one side of the obstacle, wheels back to the original alignment (D) and resumes the march. Following such an advance in column the concept outlined by Guibert would expect a line to be formed by perpendicular deployment just outside enemy musketry range (E).

A battalion advancing in column thus encountered far fewer obstacles than when advancing in line due to its much smaller frontage. If a column did encounter an obstacle they could easily negotiate it simply by wheeling around the obstruction without any risk of impinging on neighbouring columns.. There was no need to fragment the column in order to avoid obstacles as was the drill in line. As a consequence, there was no inhibition on a battalion commander selecting higher march rates for columns than was prudent when in line. In theory therefore columns could therefore easily move at the Quick Step (100-108 paces per minute) or the British Quickest Step (French Pas de Charge) of 120 paces per minute without any fear of disorganisation.

Napoleonic commanders attacking the enemy therefore had not only to decide what formation to order their troops to adopt, but also the speed of march, balancing formation and speed against the potential for disorganisation.  Good Napoleonic Wargame rules should give players those same choices.

[i] Rules and Regulations for the Formations, Field Exercise and Movements of His Majesty’s Forces 1792. Section 6. P6

[ii] Rules and Regulations for the Formations, Field Exercise and Movements of His Majesty’s Forces 1792. Section 16. P14

[iii] Rules and Regulations for the Formations, Field Exercise and Movements of His Majesty’s Forces 1792. Section 17. P14

[iv] Rules and Regulations for the Formations, Field Exercise and Movements of His Majesty’s Forces 1792. Section 79. P79

[v] Rules and Regulations for the Formations, Field Exercise and Movements of His Majesty’s Forces 1792. P279

[vi] Rules and Regulations for the Formations, Field Exercise and Movements of His Majesty’s Forces 1792. P220

[vii] Rules and Regulations for the Formations, Field Exercise and Movements of His Majesty’s Forces 1792. P333

[viii] Rules and Regulations for the Formations, Field Exercise and Movements of His Majesty’s Forces 1792. P334

[ix] Rules and Regulations for the Formations, Field Exercise and Movements of His Majesty’s Forces 1792. P233

[x] Rules and Regulations for the Formations, Field Exercise and Movements of His Majesty’s Forces 1792. P233-234

[xi] Rules and Regulations for the Formations, Field Exercise and Movements of His Majesty’s Forces 1792. Plate 9. Diagram 34

[xii] Rules and Regulations for the Formations, Field Exercise and Movements of His Majesty’s Forces 1792. Section 17. P14

[xiii] Rules and Regulations for the Formations, Field Exercise and Movements of His Majesty’s Forces 1792. Section 79. P79


The original diagram of a battalion advancing in Line from the British 1792 Regulations is below:

Obstacle Avoidance - British 1792 Regulations


Below are extracts from other Nations regulations regarding this same drill:

French 1791 Regulations

French - 1791 Regulations

Prussian 1812 Regulations

Prussian 1812 Regulations

American 1794 von Steuben Regulations

American 1794 - von Steuben Regulations