The Evolution of Tactics in the 18th Century

Tactics in the early 18th Century

In the 18th Century, battalions had companies which were administrative sub-units. For marches and battle, battalions were subdivided into a different structure of firing platoons, and there were normally 8 or 16 of these formed from the Centre Companies of a battalion. Grenadiers were often formed into one or two additional platoons on the flanks. Armies who should have formed with 16 Centre platoons might only form 12 in weak battalions.

In the early part of the 18th century the processional method of deployment meant that entire armies marched onto the battlefield as a single column, with each infantry battalion in a column of platoons at full deploying distance until it reached its appointed position and wheeled into line. Troops marched to the battlefield in Columns of Route exactly as they did in the later Napoleonic period. Such Columns of Route would have frontages of between 4 to 8 files but were always at full deploying distance (ie the length of the column was identical to its frontage when it formed line). As troops approached the rear of the battlefield they progressively widened their frontage into half platoon then full platoon widths, but still maintained their full deploying distance. At the very rear edge of the battle area, these columns wheeled, marched across the front to their position in the battle array then formed line by each platoon wheeling forwards. Successive battalions followed to form the entire first line. Battalions from the middle portion of the column then began their wheeling to form the second line.  Finally battalions from the rear of the column wheeled to form the third or reserve line. Armies used standard battle layouts with the infantry formed in solid walls of two or possibly three lines, each composed of a number of battalions, so that each battalion had its flanks protected by its neighbour. This deployment process is shown in the diagram below.

1 - Early 18th Century Processional Deployment

The obvious problem with such deployment was that it was very slow. Every battalion in the front line had to wheel in column in turn and then march across the entire battlefront before finally adopting battle formation by each platoon wheeling into line. Infantry battalions had to be in columns of platoons at full deploying distance for this processional deployment to work. It was normal for the second line to be formed some 300 to 500 metres behind the first line so that their integrity would not be damaged by routed troops if the first line was penetrated. The second line could not begin to form at all until the last troops of the first line had passed the point at which the second line needed to begin its wheel. Artillery would be placed in the gaps between battalions and also took time to be unlimbered and deployed. If an army was attacked during such a deployment it would be very vulnerable and unable to defend itself so all armies carried out the transition from columns into line some considerable distance from the enemy. It was normal for such deployment to be made outside the extreme range of artillery fire which led to armies forming up some 1,000 metres or more from each other.

Once the line was formed all movement was by the entire army as a single entity with each battalion dressing with that on its flanks. In order to keep accurate dressing such movement was consequently slow. Columns were not used for movement on the battlefield itself and all troops stayed in line once the initial deployment had been made. There was no need for squares because each battalion had its flanks protected by its neighbour. Cavalry was always formed by Squadrons on the flanks in order to protect the flank battalions, and with the solid wall formed by the infantry battalions there was nowhere else for cavalry to deploy. This classic early 18th century battlefield layout is shown in diagram below.

2 - Classic Early 18th Century Battle Layout

Obviously terrain could affect such standard layouts, and more adventurous generals did experiment with variations, such as a heavy concentration of cavalry on one or other flank, but in general most armies conformed to this general pattern of deployment. The consequence was that most battles commenced with artillery being used to “soften up” the enemy, followed by a cavalry charge on the opponents cavalry. If this was successful, cavalry reserves were then used to roll up the enemy infantry line from the flank whilst one’s own infantry developed a frontal attack.

The primary infantry weapon of the Napoleonic wars, the flintlock musket, came into general use at the beginning of the 18th century. During the previous century infantry had used a combination of pikes and matchlock muskets. Although the pike had originally been the main infantry weapon of the middle ages, by the end of the 17th century it had largely been relegated to the role of providing defence for musketeers. The matchlock musket was somewhat unreliable and slow to load. Nevertheless, if used en masse, and in dry weather, it was more effective than the pike as an offensive weapon. The 17th century musketeer could not easily protect himself from enemy cavalry so it was standard practice in all nations to form composite units of muskets and pikes, normally with the centre composed of pikemen and the flanks of musketeers. The proportion of musketeers to pikemen had been steadily increasing as muskets became more reliable.

From the middle of the 17th century some musketeers began to be equipped with plug bayonets which fitted into the end of the musket muzzle but use of these prevented the musket from being fired. At the end of the century, the invention of the socket bayonet enabled musketeers to be able both to fire and defend themselves, so the need for pikemen disappeared.

At the end of the 17th century infantry used matchlock muskets which had smouldering fuses which made it dangerous for infantrymen to be too close to each other. This, combined with slow firing rates led to all nations using open order 5 or 6 rank formations which allowed the rear ranks to reload then pass to through the other ranks to the front to fire, if advancing, or to fire then withdraw to the rear if retiring. Individual soldiers had to have a space of at least one yard on all sides to prevent their burning matchlock fuses from setting off an explosion in the ammunition bandoleers of their comrades. The advent of the flintlock musket enabled troops to be safely packed more closely together thus producing a greater density of firepower. The greater speed of loading of flintlock muskets also allowed a reduction in the number of ranks and removed the need for ranks to pass through each other in order to fire.

The infantry battle tactics of the early 18th century, as exemplified by Marlborough during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) depended on mass firepower. The complete army formed in two, or possible three lines, would march towards the enemy. At extreme musket range, perhaps 250 metres, the infantry would commence a cycle of firing and advancing which would be repeated until they were within some 60 metres from the enemy. At this point both sides would be firing as fast as they could in controlled volleys until one side broke.

The firing system used by most nations during the early 18th century was rank firing. This was a direct evolution of the method used with matchlock muskets, except that firing by rank rotation could no longer be used since each file was now packed tightly to the next in order to optimise the density of fire. In the early years some nations (particularly the French) fired their front rank, who then flung themselves on the ground to allow the second rank to fire and so on [1].  This clearly had the problem of making it very difficult for anyone to reload until all ranks had fired, at which point the entire battalion was unloaded and therefore vulnerable. Friendly fire casualties could also be caused by nervous men in the rear ranks firing early.

A safer variation was developed with all ranks kneeling, apart from the rear rank who fired over their heads and then reloaded whilst the next rank stood up and fired. This had the advantage that by the time the front rank fired the rear would be reloaded. There was however still a delay in the firing rate whilst each rank stood up and aimed and even more delay whilst the front rank reloaded. Fire control was difficult across the entire battalion front and there was also of course still a danger of friendly fire casualties. This system as used by nations such as the French with 5 ranks and other nations with 4 ranks is shown at diagram below.

3 - Comparison of Different Early 18th Century Firing Methods

Some nations were quicker to adopt flintlock muskets than others. The cost of re-equipping an entire army was undoubtedly a factor and the British, with their small army were able to issue all infantry with flintlock muskets and move to a 3 rank formation in 1703. At this date the French still used 5 ranks and all other nations used 4 ranks, the French adopting 4 ranks in 1706. The 3 rank system used by Marlborough’s Anglo-Dutch army enabled all three ranks to fire simultaneously, the front rank doing so kneeling and the rear two closed up and firing over the heads of the front rank.

Rather than have the entire battalion fire then a long pause while they reloaded the Anglo-Dutch troops devised a system of firing by platoons. Under this system the firing line was divided a number of firing elements (platoons) which at this period bore no direct relationship to the administrative company organisation. The British system divided its centre companies into 16 firing platoons and the grenadier company into 2 more firing platoons (one on each flank). These 18 platoons fired in three staggered “firings”. This meant that a proportion of the battalion was always loaded and there was no inhibition on loading as in the rank firing system which needed front ranks to load whilst kneeling or lying down to avoid overhead fire. Fire control was much easier and this system also created more devastating casualties per volley immediately opposite each firing platoon and a faster overall rate of fire. There were several different variations of this platoon firing system. One of the most common is shown in the diagram above.

In order to have all three ranks firing simultaneously, without any danger to the front ranks, the Anglo-Dutch armies closed the gaps between their ranks before firing. The front rank knelt, the centre rank took half a pace forward and half a pace to the right so as to fire in the gaps between front rank men and the rear rank took one pace forward so as to fire in the gaps between centre rank men. This closing up of ranks was known as “locking up” and is shown in the diagram below.

4 - Locked Up for Firing

Another advantage of the Anglo-Dutch 3 rank system was to give their battalions greater frontages than the 4 rank system favoured by their enemies. For any given number of battalions, more fresh troops could be kept in reserve, which throughout history has been an essential component of successful battlefield tactics. Eventually all other nations became convinced of the effectiveness of the system and during the remainder of the 18th century all nations moved to 3 ranks, the Prussians in 1740, the French in 1754 and the Austrians in 1757.

Cavalry tactics in the early 18th century were still evolving out of the 17th century system of bodies of troops riding towards the enemy, halting and firing with pistols or short muskets. This method was still used by some nations, notably the French and Austrians, whilst Marlborough preferred to rely on cavalry charging in a controlled trot, using swords alone as their weapon.

Cavalry, of all nations, operated by Squadrons, with gaps between them (as they continued to do during the Napoleonic Wars), since deploying a complete Regiment in an unbroken Line was much too unwieldy.

Cavalry of most nations of the early 18th century comprised Heavy Cavalry, some wearing armoured cuirasses, and Dragoons, who at this period were still essentially mounted infantrymen, using their horses for mobility but capable of dismounting to fight with muskets. 18th century Dragoons were often uniformed and equipped virtually identically to line infantry but as time went on Dragoons adopted more of the characteristics of Heavy Cavalry and gave up their quasi-infantry role.

A new breed of cavalry began to emerge in some countries during the early part of the 18th century. Light Cavalry, originally invariably irregular and based on utilising the skills of wild tribesman who were natural horsemen, were raised by Austria in her wars against the Turks. These light horsemen relied on open skirmish tactics and would dissolve when faced by formed regular enemy cavalry, only to reform later when the threat had passed.

By the beginning of the 18th century artillery equipment had developed into the same basic structure which was to be used up to and beyond the Napoleonic Wars. Guns of various calibre were used to fire solid round shot at low elevations. The cannon ball essentially was a direct fire projectile, normally travelling at below the height of a man and often skipping in “bounces” towards the end of its range. This flat profile meant that it was only possible to use overhead fire if either the guns or target were positioned on higher ground to each other. Overhead fire was possible by using high elevation howitzers which used explosive filled bursting shell rather than solid round shot. Artillery companies normally contained a mixture of both types of ordnance, with guns predominating. Both guns and howitzers could also be used to fire cannister, or case shot, at close range. This was a thin casing containing a number of musket balls which when fired at close range had an effect similar to a giant shotgun. The number of musket balls increased with the calibre of the weapon and variations between 30 to 180 are recorded.

Large mortars were used only in sieges, but small battlefield mortars were sometimes used, particularly the Coehorn Mortars used by the British and Dutch Armies.

In the early 18th century artillery was considered to be essentially an infantry support weapon. It was relatively immobile and therefore sited in small detachments (often pairs of guns) across the entire battlefront, normally in the intervals between battalions. Calibres of guns were small by later Napoleonic standards, often only 3 or 4 pounders but the limitations of gun and carriage design precluded larger pieces being used on the battlefield. Civilian contractors were used to provide the horses and drivers to move artillery, and once deployed, artillery did not move for the duration of the battle. One consequence of this was that artillery companies were entirely administrative and were issued with a considerable variation in numbers of guns.

Mid-18th Century Tactical Developments

One of the more significant developments to arise in the mid-18th century was the re-introduction of cadenced marching, or marching in step, by infantry. Although used in former years, this had fallen out of fashion in the latter part of the 17th century. This arose since the more open rank and file structure, employed as a result of safety considerations when using matchlock muskets, made marching in step both difficult and unnecessary. If one thinks of a comparison, modern troops advancing in an extended line do not do so in a cadenced step, and the same was equally true when advancing in loose order open ranks in the late 17th century. It was only the reintroduction of close order dressing, itself made possible by the invention of the flintlock musket, which made cadenced marching both possible and desirable. After the War of the Spanish Succession the Prussian Field Marshal Leopold I, Prince of Anhalt-Dessau, re-introduced cadenced marching into the Prussian army [2]. Within a few years it was also re-adopted by all other European armies.

By the middle of the 18th century all nations had modified the original processional deployment system. Troops now marched onto the battlefield in three or more columns, each of which separated into three elements as it reached the battlefield. The leading elements of each column formed the first line of battle, the second elements of each column formed the second line of battle and the third elements formed the reserves. All of these elements could simultaneously wheel into line to form a section of the battle line. This process was essentially the same as the former processional method of forming lines but the split into a number of separate columns enabled a much faster “parallel deployment”. The effect was that each line of battle now comprised elements from every column in the army or, looking at it the other way, each column comprised elements from each battle line. A good example of this parallel deployment in practice was at Culloden in 1746 as shown in the diagram below.

5 - British Parellel Deployment at Culloden

One important consequence of this preliminary march to the battlefield in 3 or more columns was the separation of the army into a number of distinct elements. Formerly armies had merely comprised a number of infantry battalions and cavalry squadrons. Although it was common to divide these on the battlefield into a Left Wing, Centre and Right Wing, this was a purely temporary arrangement for the duration of the battle itself. The need to divide the army into a number of multi-battalion columns during the approach to a battlefield provided the basis for these columns to evolve into more permanent Divisions. Similarly the fact that each column then provided a number of battalions to the first, second and third line of battle provided the basis for these groups of battalions to evolve into more permanent Brigades.

The basic drill did not however change and battalions still marched onto the battlefield in columns at full deploying distance and formed their line at extreme artillery range. Battlefield tactics consequently also remained the same. Sometimes grenadier battalions were deployed in columns on the flanks of the battle line to provide protection against cavalry in the gap between the first and second lines, thus making the entire infantry formation into one gigantic oblong as shown in the diagram below.

6 - Mid 18th Century Typical Battle Layout

During the Seven Years War the Prussians developed the concept of using echelon attacks in which the same basic principles applied but some fragmentation of the battle line was accepted. Although fragmenting the battle line was potentially dangerous, the stepped echelon structure was however used over relatively short distances, so that the exposed flanks of each echelon of infantry were protected by the firepower of the battalion to their rear flank. The advantage of such an echelon attack was that each fragmented element could wheel much faster than was possible by the entire army and so could develop a flank attack more quickly than the enemy could respond. This concept is shown in the diagram below.

7 - Frederick the Great's Oblique Order

The echelon concept further strengthened the development of a higher formation system. Troops were now not only moving to the battlefield in structured Divisions, which subdivided naturally into first line and second line Brigades, but they were also beginning to be used tactically on the battlefield in these same groupings. The flexibility of these new tactical concepts also made it imperative that troops in the same Division lived and trained together so as to be able to operate as cohesive structures on the battlefield.

During the war the Prussians developed their tactical concepts to include flank attacks, or the “strategy of the indirect approach” as the military theorist Captain Basil Liddell Hart was to call it 150 years later. Before the re-introduction of cadenced marching, it took time to form complete armies by processional or parallel deployment methods. When two armies faced up to each other, they invariably formed parallel to each other so as to prevent one or other being close enough to cause casualties during deployment or having a flank advantage. Once formed in this way conventional mid-18th century thought was that armies could only move straight ahead so that all elements in the force produced a cohesive front. The Prussians revolutionised this by using their use of fragmented echelon attacks and flank marches. They essentially used the same parallel deployment methods as previously but were prepared to use these tactically on the battlefield to manoeuvre. In this they were able to trust that the highly disciplined cadence marching of their troops, developed to a higher degree than in any other nation, would ensure that all battalions, however apparently fragmented, were in fact remaining in a very structured relationship to each other. The entire army, or elements of it, could thus rapidly transition from a fragmented mass of battalions back into a solid line.

Prussian tactical skill was particularly demonstrated at the battle of Leuthen in December 1757. The Prussian army of some 33,000 men was only half the size of the Austrian army of 65,000 men. Nevertheless, Frederick outmanoeuvred and outfought his opponents so as to soundly beat them causing 22,000 Austrian losses or prisoners at a cost of only 11,500 casualties to his own army [3]. The tactical principles employed in this battle are shown in the diagram below.

8 - Frederick's Flank Attack at Leuthen

The Prussian army marched onto the battlefield in the standard 18th century structure of three columns of infantry flanked by columns of cavalry. The Austrians had already formed their army between the villages of Leuthen and Nippern in the classic 18th century formation of two infantry battle lines, with cavalry on each flank, supported by infantry and cavalry reserves.

As Frederick’s army passed through the village of Borne, he detached his advance guard into a feint attack (1) on the Austrian right flank. The Austrians responded by despatching some of their infantry reserves to extend the right of their line. Frederick then wheeled his entire army to his right, with the three columns of infantry forming two lines of battalions in column in a similar manoeuvre to that of Cumberland’s army at Culloden. The Prussian army then marched across the Austrian front (2), partly obscured by the mist.

At this stage the Prussian tactics were perfectly standard and the Austrians would have expected the Prussian army to stop, once all battalions were in a line parallel to their own front, and then wheel into their final battle line. Frederick however did not stop and his army continued to march past the Austrian left flank. Initially the Austrians thought that the small Prussian army was refusing battle and marching off the battlefield. The Prussians however then turned left and began to approach the Austrian left flank. The Austrians hastily re-deployed their remaining infantry reserves (4) to extend their line below Leuthen and formed some units “en potence”, at right angles to the main line, so as to directly face the Prussian threat.

Frederick took time to ensure that his army was perfectly formed and then launched it in an echelon attack (5) on the Austrian flank. The Austrian cavalry reserves (6) attempted to counter attack to get behind the Prussian line, where they could have mopped it up from the rear, but the Prussian right flank cavalry (7) defeated this. It was unfortunate for the Austrians that the reserves which they used to extend their line were not the highest quality troops in their army. As a general military principle reserves need to be reliable since, by the nature of their role, they will invariably be committed in uncertain and possibly critical circumstances. The Austrian line crumbled and the Prussian attack rolled on towards Leuthen.

As the horror of their circumstances finally dawned on the Austrians, they frantically attempted to reposition their army on a new alignment through Leuthen at right angles to their original line. Although they succeeded in this redeployment the line formed was hasty and unsteady. After hard fighting in the village the Prussians broke through. Towards the end of the battle the Austrians regrouped their remaining cavalry and launched it on an attack towards the advancing Prussian army. The Prussian left flank cavalry convincingly drove this off and then joined in the final assault which completed the defeat of the Austrians.

From an overview of the battle one can see that the flexibility of Frederick’s attack and the speed with which it developed, particularly so from an unexpected direction, threw the Austrians totally off balance. By the time the Austrians did realise what was happening it was too late for them to effectively re-deploy their army.

By the end of the Seven Years War the Prussians were making substantial detachments of troops as separate attack formations. These however used standard 18th century tactics, effectively subdividing the army into a number of separate small armies, each of which still formed line outside effective artillery range, and each of which had its own flank protection. Whilst the Austrians and Russians still tended to form their entire army as a single structure, the Prussians at Zorndorf (1758), Kunersdorf (1759), Liegnitz (1760) and Torgau (1760) formed their army into two or three distinct elements, often manoeuvring to encircle the enemy. It is however true to say that several of these battles were inconclusive affairs, marked by poor co-ordination of the various detachments by the Prussians, and consequent heavy casualties on both sides.

From this development of dividing the army into separate elements on the battlefield stemmed the concept of a permanent Brigade and Divisional structure. It is also interesting to note that Prussian officers were in much demand in the late 18th century to train foreign armies. The Spanish in particular entered the Napoleonic wars with a tactical doctrine developed by such Prussian emigres. This undoubtably led to the Spanish fixation with surrounding the enemy, which was fine for an 18th century Prussian army faced with the rigid 18th century tactics of the Austrians or Russians, but did not work at all well against the far more flexible Napoleonic tactics employed by the French.

One of the problems with processional 18th century deployment was that it took space to achieve it. If an army marched towards the battlefield in columns led by the units who would eventually form its right flank, as was normal, then such an approach march needed to take place on the extreme left flank of the eventual position. Only this would give the army sufficient distance to be able to wheel all battalions into line. The parallel deployment as practised by the middle of the 18th century did somewhat reduce this problem but if the standard system of three infantry approach columns (left, centre and right) were used then each column still needed approximately one third of the entire battle front in order to deploy into line. It also took a considerable time to convert an entire army from column into line, perhaps as much as one to two hours prior to the advent of cadenced marching [4], since all of the battalions had to follow each other in a march across their eventual front before they could halt, dress their ranks and wheel into line. Prior to the Seven Years War Frederick had wrestled with this problem and developed a new method of deploying his battalions directly to their front. This perpendicular deployment originally appeared in his secret “Instruction für die General-Majors von der Infanterie” issued in 1748. As originally conceived the troops deployed from column into line by a diagonal march known as the “traversierschritt”. This concept is shown in the diagram below.

9 - Prussian Column forming Line using Traversierschritt

Using this method, columns could spread out across the battle front without having to follow each other in a procession. Each battalion could then convert into line simultaneously which was much faster than the original processional or parallel methods which required at least one third of the battalions in each line to march across their front before forming line. If the platoons (Prussian zugen) in the column were in their normal order, led by the senior platoon, they would form line by a diagonal march to the left. If they were in inverted order, led by the junior platoon, they would carry out a mirror image of this drill by marching to the right. In all cases the line would be formed with the senior platoon on the right and the junior platoon on the left. The Prussians originally made this conversion with an odd diagonal step (the traversierschritt) which crossed the right leg over the left, if moving to the left, or the left leg over the right, if moving to the right. Other nations later copied the principle, but not the step, by carrying out a 45 degree wheel, marching straight to the new position and then making a second 45 degree wheel in the opposite direction to form into line.

The problem with this method of forming into line was that the rearmost platoon had to march the greatest distance, and this was the limiting factor in the time taken for the conversion. The leading platoon was standing still, and the second platoon needed the full deployment distance between them so as to be able to bring its right flank into line with the leading company’s left flank. This same limitation applied to each successive platoon as it traversed diagonally into line.

By 1752 Frederick solved this problem with a new and revolutionary method of converting from column into line. This used the same perpendicular deployment principle as the traversierschritt, but rather than marching diagonally the conversion was now achieved by an en tiroir deployment. The name tiroir literally means drawers, as in chest of drawers, and the diagram below shows how apt that is as a description of this drill.

10 - Prussian Close Column forming Line using en Tiroir Methos

Under this method the leading platoon halted, and all the other platoons simultaneously turned left and marched towards the left of the line. As the rear of each successive platoon cleared the front of the one ahead of it, it had reached a position parallel to that which it would eventually occupy when in line, so it faced front and then marched into line.

The advantage with the en tiroir method is that the distance to be marched is less than that in the diagonal march method. It does however require the troops to use file marching, which was only suitable for short distances. A normal pace was 30 inches, but when a rank turned left or right and file marched there was only 22 inches between each man, so unless they all kept perfectly in step they would trip over each other.

There was a variation of the en tiroir method which could produce even faster deployment by all platoons moving simultaneously (eg forming to the right rather than the left), with the leading platoon marching across the entire front, the intermediate platoons all marching progressively shorter, and the rear platoon just marching forwards. This required a very high degree of drill and is shown in the diagram below.

11 - Prussian Close Column forming Line using en Tiroir Alternative method

A further advantage of the en tiroir method also became apparent because it permitted the use of reduced distance columns. The previous processional and parallel deployment methods required all columns to be at full deploying distance. The same inhibition applied to traversierschritt deployment at the halt, although it had been realised that it was possible to reduce the intervals between companies in column and still conduct a traversierschritt deployment on the march (ie if all platoons continued to advance). Now, for the first time, it was possible to reduce the intervals in a column to half, quarter or even close distance (one or two paces between companies) and still deploy into line, without having to open up again to full distance before doing so. Such reduced distance columns could deploy into line faster since they did not have to march as far.

The Prussians envisaged the main use for reduced distance columns as a most useful tool to conceal the size of their units, since when in close column it was very difficult for an observer to judge this accurately. The Comte de Gisors enumerated the consequent advantages as described by Frederick to his generals as follows :

1. The units which form the columns are closed up to intervals of two feet or less, and so have little depth. Seen from a certain distance, ten battalions which are formed in this way will look like a large platoon whose strength is difficult to estimate. This disparity between appearance and strength is an excellent means for deceiving the enemy, and misleading him as to the forces he has on his hands.

2. When columns are arranged in this way, nothing is more difficult for an enemy than to predict the alignment on which our army will form. For instance, if it is marching in two columns, it can align itself in a multiplicity of different ways by movements which will be virtually imperceptible to observers at any distance: one of the columns, for example, just has to slow down its pace, while the other continues on its way, and then by aligning the heads of the columns – which can be done in an instant – you can deploy on a frontage running obliquely to the one which the enemy would naturally suspect [5].

During the Seven Years war however, the Prussians tended to rely on their proven full distance columns, forming into line by a conventional parallel deployment. Traversierschritt diagonal marching, en tiroir deployments and reduced distance columns seemed to be experiments used mainly on the parade ground. Duffy identifies only five occasions when such tactics were used during the Seven Years War, all due to lack of space for conventional 18th century deployments [6]. It was left to tactical theorists writing after the Seven Years War to see the full potential of such drills and convert them into the flexible tactics used in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.

One concept which developed during the mid-18th century was the use of Light Infantry. In the 1720s as the utility of loosely organised troops to act as raiding parties on enemy lines of communication began to be recognised. In central and eastern Europe light infantry concepts grew out of the irregular tactics used by the wilder border troops of the Austrian Empire, such as Croats and other Balkan peoples. By the 1740s this role had expanded to include providing advance guards and flank protection for the conventional close order main army. Many European countries felt that such loose tactics were most appropriately developed from the natural skills of their huntsmen and foresters such as German Jäger, French Chasseurs or Scottish Highlanders. Throughout 18th century, most European armies despised light infantry as “bandits and mercenaries” and not true soldiers. The general view was that they were a necessary evil, good at raiding parties and protecting the flanks of an army, but of no use in real combat. This contempt for light infantry was particularly true of the Prussian Army, Frederick himself considering his Light Infantry Frei-Korps to be “detestable scum” [7]. As the Prussians were the acknowledged leaders of tactical thought, their views were echoed in other European nations.

In particular the light infantry “raison d’etre” of sniping at chosen targets, especially when these were enemy officers, was felt to be ungentlemanly conduct. Philip Haythornthwaite relates the anecdote concerning Frederick the Great’s encounter with an Austrian light infantryman who was waiting behind a tree to shot at him.

“Frederick approached the man and pointed at him with his cane, and intent on making him ashamed of his conduct, called out in a threatening tone, “You, sir!”. The Pandoor lowered his musket in a fright, and uncovering his head, remained in an attitude of homage until the king passed by.”[8]

Light infantry in the mid-18th century were not used much, if at all, on the main battlefield. They were seen as a useful force for advance guards, flank protection and acting as raiding parties on the enemy’s lines of communication. If they figured at all in a conventional battle it was invariably to operate in an area of difficult terrain, where close order troops could not easily be deployed in line.

During the first half of the 18th century most nations raised light infantry which were entirely separate units from close order troops, and this reflected their origin as independent free companies of irregulars. During the Seven Years War all of the European nations formed bodies of light troops who were more conventional but for the most part these continued to exist as separate, and often temporary, units to be disbanded at the end of the campaign. The French however had begun to develop the concepts outlined by Marshal de Saxe in 1732 which proposed a detachment of piquets in each infantry battalion which could act as light or line as the situation required. Experiments in 1754 confirmed the utility of this concept and in 1759 Marshal de Broglie ordered all French battalions to raise a 50 man piquet to be used in conjunction with their parent battalion. These began to be used as true skirmishers, holding off or harassing the enemy whilst the main body deployed [9].

Frederick the Great also revolutionised cavalry tactics with his concept of charges accelerating from a walk, into a controlled trot, culminating in a final gallop, using the sword as the sole means of attack. These Prussian tactics were copied by all other nations and essentially remained the same into the Napoleonic period and beyond. Cavalry in this period were clearly divided into heavy cavalry, who fought in close order, and light cavalry, used for skirmishing, reconnaissance and pursuits, who were often irregular.

Artillery tactics evolved during the century as a result of improvements in the mobility of gun carriages and limbers. The effect of these improvements enabled guns to be repositioned several times during a battle. By the end of the Seven Years War artillery was being deployed by batteries and not purely in small detachments as infantry support weapons. Frederick the Great had little time for artillery in general but was instrumental in creating the concept of horse artillery. From the outset this was used, not solely to support cavalry, but in order to create a highly mobile force of artillery to support any attack.  The greater mobility of artillery led to many countries (but not Britain) providing rudimentary uniforms for their civilian drivers.  These uniforms were often simple smocks (as in the French or Hessian drivers), occasionally proper uniforms (as with the Hanoverians), but nevertheless these drivers all remained as civilian contractors, hired for the duration of the war.

Late 18th Century Tactical Developments

For most nations the period from the end of the Seven Years War in 1763 to the outbreak of the French Revolutionary wars in 1792 was a time of relative peace and military stagnation. Prussia and Austria did go to war in 1778-79 in the inconclusive War of the Bavarian Succession but more men were lost from sickness and desertion than in conflict on the battlefield [10]. There was much theoretical writing but the European theatre produced no advances in military tactics on the battlefield during these 30 years.

For one country, Great Britain, and some small contingents of German allies, this period did however produce a military experience of a totally different nature. The Seven Years War in North America (French and Indian War), followed by the American War of Independence, were to have a far-reaching effect on British military thought. In particular both the British adoption of two rank lines and their development of their particular style of skirmisher tactics were firmly rooted in their experiences in North America rather than anything which was happening in continental Europe.

The armies that fought in North America during the 7 Years War were forced, by the nature of the terrain, to abandon conventional European close order tactics. Both the French and British armies adopted looser formations to cope with the problems of movement and fighting in woodlands. Many battles were relatively minor skirmishes by European standards and it frequently made more sense to fight in two loose firing lines. As the war continued, such irregularity became the norm for a considerable proportion of the British army. General Amherst held that two ranks were sufficient in terrain where cavalry could not operate stating that :

“No yelling of Indians, or fire of Canadians, can possible withstand two ranks, if the men are silent, attentive, and obedient to their officers.”[11]

Even when the opportunity for conventional close order battles occurred, the tactics used were modified by this North America factor. The British at Quebec in 1759, despite forming a close order battle line, did so in two ranks, partly because of the need to cover a large frontage with an inadequate number of troops, but also partly because they had become accustomed to fighting in this way. Noel St John Williams relates that Wolfe :

“had only some 2,000 men in the six regiments facing Quebec to cover the half-mile battle-front and bear the shock of the French attack. Thus, for the first time, the British army was drawn up by Wolfe in its famous “red line”, two deep instead of three, 50 years before such a formation was officially authorised.”[12]

The British “perfect volley” as described by Fortescue [13] shattered the French, arraigned in their standard three rank formation (they having only moved from four ranks to three relatively recently in 1754). The lesson learned at Quebec, that infantry could fight successfully in two ranks, defeating an enemy drawn up in a denser formation, was not lost on those British officers who served in that campaign.

In Britain, and to a certain extent in France, the standard European view of light infantry as a “necessary evil” was greatly modified by the experience of the American wars, where such methods became the norm. Following the disaster at Monongahela
in 1755 where Braddock’s close order column was massacred by a smaller force of irregular French and Indians, the British army raised light troops specifically trained to fight in loose formations in such terrain. Predominant amongst these was the 60th Foot recruited mainly, although not exclusively, from German immigrants, the four battalions of which were trained as marksmen and :

“In order to qualify for the Service of the Woods, taught to load and fire, lying on the ground and kneeling” [14]

The French had originally led the way in the development of detachments of piquets, as integral light infantry in every infantry battalion, but they were slow to put this theory into practice. By 1758, all British battalions in North America had raised light companies, selected from their “most active resolute men”. A year later, in 1759, the French followed suit. These troops were used as advance guards and flank protection to their main battalions and began to evolve into the skirmisher screen used in the Napoleonic wars. The British light companies adopted local modifications to their uniforms to make them more suited to fighting in North American woodlands such as cropping their hats to turn them into caps and putting sleeves of their coats onto waistcoats to turn them into short jackets. It must be emphasised that this creation of battalion light companies was a local arrangement ordered by Amherst and Wolfe for those battalions serving in North America, and not sanctioned by the military hierarchy in Great Britain [15].

Both nations also formed irregular units, copying native North American Indian dress and tactics. The French also tended to rely on native North American Indians to a greater extent than the British did for this type of fighting. The British response was to raise irregular forces such as Roger’s Rangers from a mixture of locally raised provincial militia and detachments from regular British army regiments. These Rangers wore “uniform” adapted from North American Indian dress, using greens, greys and browns as their primary colours. The Rangers became very proficient in the entirely new, and very modern, fighting techniques required in the woodlands and lakes of North America. Furthermore the Rangers acted as a training ground for detachments from British regular regiments who then returned to their own units to act as cadres for the new light infantry companies in each battalion. This diffusion of skirmisher expertise had a significant effect on the views of many British officers concerning the utility of light infantry.

The American experience affected the British more deeply than the French because a higher proportion of the small British Army was involved in the war. Many of the better British officers had been involved in the light infantry experiments during the war, some serving with Rogers Rangers, although unfortunately one of the most brilliant British officers of his generation, Brigadier General Lord George Howe was killed leading a party of Rangers at Ticonderoga. Howe had led by example, stating “we must learn the art of war from the Indians” and Wolfe had called him “the best soldier in the British Army”[16]. His loss was sadly felt but other officers continued to promote many of the concepts he held so dearly.

The end of the Seven Years War saw the troops who returned to Great Britain being forced to readopt conventional European military practice. The use of three ranks was reintroduced and troops ordered to adopt close order tactics. Short sighted measures disbanded British specialist light infantry after the Seven Years War, and battalion light companies were not re-established until 1771. Irregular forces such as Rogers Rangers were simply disbanded. All of the lessons of fighting in North America had to be relearned during the American War of Independence.

The outbreak of the war in 1775 saw an unprepared British army but in 1776, after Bunker Hill, the British commander Lord William Howe (the brother of George Howe who died at Ticonderoga) ordered that two ranks rather than three be used as the norm [17]. The American army originally used three ranks but von Steuben’s reforms of 1778 specified the use of two rank formations stating :

“A company is to be formed in two ranks, at one pace distance”[18]

The effect of this was that both sides used two rank formations for most of the American War of Independence. By the conclusion of that war most British officers who took part in it were convinced that, regardless of what regulations written in England might say on the matter, two ranks was the correct mode for “modern” warfare.

The tactics used by the British during the American War of Independence were markedly different from those used by any army earlier in the 18th century. Light and grenadier companies were frequently detached into converged elite battalions, leaving line battalions with only their eight centre companies. Line battalions were often formed with four of the companies in a loose two deep line with the remaining four companies formed as four deep supports. The standing orders issued by Major General Phillips describe this well.

“The Major General would approve also of one division of a battalion attacking in the common open order of two ranks, to be supported by the other compact division as a second line, in charging order of three or four deep. The gaining the flanks also of a supposed enemy, by the quick movements of a division in common open order, while the compact division advances to a charge; and such other evolutions, as may lead the regiments to a custom of depending on and mutually supporting each other” [19].

The two wings (halves) of the battalion could interchange these roles and support each other in a sophisticated and flexible manner. This structure would not have been unfamiliar to the French revolutionary infantry of 15 years later, whose use of tirailleurs supported by close order infantry is wrongly thought by many to be a novel and unprecedented development.

Although the British army did introduce light companies into their battalions in 1771, the concept of formed battalions of light infantry was slow to be adopted by the British army. Where these did exist, they were of a temporary nature, often formed from volunteer or militia troops for the duration of the war only. Many of the highland units of the British army started their life in this way, some being disbanded at the end of the Seven Years War and others converted to regular line units. In the West Indies two light regiments, Morgan’s Irish Light Infantry and the Royal Volunteer’s Light Infantry were formed in the Seven Years War, disbanded at the end of it, re-raised for the duration of the American War of Independence and finally disbanded permanently at the end of that. There were however instances in which several light companies from different battalions were converged together into an ad hoc light battalion.

Specialist units of light infantry in the British forces, where they existed, were invariably foreign or colonial. The five companies of the Hesse-Cassel Feld Jäger Korps were broken up into small detachments throughout the army, foreshadowing similar use of such riflemen by the British army in the Napoleonic Wars. Simcoe’s Queen’s Rangers and Tarleton’s British Legion were both colonial formations with a mixture of light infantry and light cavalry carrying on the traditions of Roger’s Rangers. In view of developments during the Napoleonic wars it is notable that all of these units wore green uniforms and were armed with rifles.

The conservative British military establishment were slow to recognise the utility of light infantry. Throughout this period however, sufficient enlightened British officers were convinced of the need for light troops as to provide a constant spur for change which was to eventually come to fruition at the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars.

The North American wars were primarily an infantry struggle. The terrain did not lend itself to the use of artillery except in prepared positions. For much the same reasons cavalry tended to revert to the original role of dragoons as mounted infantry, although there were a few light cavalry combats.

It was not only the British army which was to bring the experiences of North America back across the Atlantic. Oberst-Leutenant von Ewald of the Hesse-Cassel Feld Jäger Korps was instrumental in spreading lessons of his service in North America to his fellow Germans and also the Danish army in which he later served [20]. General von Gneisnau, who was later to find fame as Blutcher’s Chief of Staff in the Waterloo campaign, served in North America with the Anspach-Bayreuth Jäger Regiment. Although he arrived too late to see any real fighting he avidly sought out his compatriots who had seen action so as to learn as much as possible about “modern warfare” [21]. These were lessons he put to good use when later he was heavily involved in the reorganisation of the Prussian Army.

There will be a subsequent article on:
“Tactics at the Commencement of the Revolutionary Wars”.


  1. The Art of Warfare in the Age of Marlborough. David Chandler. P115-116.
  2. The Army of Frederick the Great. Christopher Duffy. P118
  3. The Army of Frederick the Great. Christopher Duffy. P268
  4. The Anatomy of Victory – Battle Tactics 1689-1763. Brent Nosworthy. P70
  5. Tactique et Manoeuvres des Prussiens. Comte de Gisors 1767. Quoted in The Army of Frederick the Great. Christopher Duffy. P125
  6. The Army of Frederick the Great. Christopher Duffy. P126
  7. The Army of Frederick the Great. Christopher Duffy. P138
  8. Frederick the Great’s Army – Specialist Troops. Philip Haythornthwaite. P12
  9. The Anatomy of Victory – Battle Tactics 1689-1763. Brent Nosworthy. P216
  10. The Army of Frederick the Great. Christopher Duffy. P318
  11. The British Light Infantry Arm. David Gates. P15
  12. Redcoats along the Hudson. Noel St John Williams. P188
  13. History of the British Army. Vol II. Sir John Fortescue. P387
  14. Lord Loudoun in North America. S M Pargellis. P 299. Quoted in The British Light Infantry Arm. David Gates. P12
  15. Uniforms of the Seven Years War 1756-63. John Mollo. P175
  16. Redcoats along the Hudson. Noel St John Williams. P144
  17. British Redcoat 1740-1793. Stuart Reid. P32
  18. Baron von Steuben’s Revolutionary War Drill Manual 1779. Chapter 3. P6
  19. British Redcoat 1740-1793. Stuart Reid. P32
  20. The British Light Infantry Arm. David Gates. P20
  21. Prussian Reserve, Militia & Irregular Troops 1806-15. Peter Hofschröer. P42