Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

The Use of the Third Rank and Brigade Formations According to the Prussian Regulations of 1812

By Jeff Lewis

Usage of the Third Rank: an Overview

The emphasis in formation of infantry units before the Eighteenth Century had been from the pike era with the file taken as a basic sub unit. As the Eighteenth Century began though, the pike disappeared and infantry units became less deep and wider. The change to a unified weapon type made more possible fairly rapid changes in formation, but only when each section was a reasonably uniform width and was as far as possible kept to a standard width. The emphasis thereon changed to a section, with its width defined within limits; the number of files was now more important than the depth of each file.

The form of firing had changed from a caracole of men, where as each rank fired they rotated to the rear, into a static fire. This static fire did however have its own problems. With more than two ranks it was really necessary to have one or more ranks kneel, otherwise the rearmost ranks were likely to hit those in front or have to uselessly fire into the air. The front most ranks once having knelt, it was difficult to get them to stand back up; this not only reduced the numbers firing very rapidly, it also made an advance to charge practically impossible.

This also came at a time with the increasing recognition that masking the formed troops with a skirmish line as long as possible was the best way of keeping them at their most effective. The provision of the skirmishers really needed to be as integral as possible to the units. Stripping out the third rank for a variety of uses, but most particularly as the skirmish element provided a ready answer to both these problems.

In light infantry terms the Prussians needed no lectures or lessons. The majority of light infantry works of the Eighteenth Century were in German and written by Germans. The Prussian Bülow went so far as to write a work advocating the exclusive presence of light infantry on the battlefield, which saw print translated into English, for the benefit of the British, in 1806.

The regulations prior to 1806 had provided for an increasing number of men armed with light infantry weapons within battalions and the usage of a greater part of the third rank had received attention previously in Austrian works. In this respect section four of the regulations in 1812 were not revelations but a codification of what had been previously experienced and considered the best practice.



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