Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

A Reappraisal of Column Versus Line in the Peninsular War

Oman's Thesis

By James R. Arnold

According to Oman in his "Column and Line" lecture, the massive column had "become the regular formation for a French army acting on the offensive during the later years" of the Napoleonic wars.[7]  This tactic, he said, arose from the early Revolutionary days when the French discarded the linear tactics of Frederick the Great and improvised a new system in which a very thick skirmish line was thrown forward followed by a "row of columns of the heaviest sort".[8] These columns comprised companies, standing in three deep line, arrayed one behind another. None but the two front ranks could effectively fire their muskets while the remaining ranks were useless except for the impetus they provided.  Oman writes that when Napoleon resolved "to deliver his decisive blows, he often used pure columnar formations, covering the front of the a skirmish line, and if possible supporting it by a heavy artillery fire".[9]

To counter these tactics, Wellington selected a covered position with secure flanks, generally the reverse slope of a convenient ridge, in order to negate French artillery fire. He opposed the French skirmishers with a heavier skirmish line to screen his own men until the decisive moment. "The essential fact...was that the two deep line enabled a force to use every musket with effect, while the column put seven-ninths of the men forming it in a position where they could not shoot at all, and even the ordre mixte praised by Napoleon placed from seven-twelfths to two-thirds of the rank and file in the same unhappy condition".[10] By reducing tactics to a mathematical relationship between the number of effective marksmen in the column versus the line, Oman provided a compelling argument. By supporting his argument with prodigious documentation, he seemed to create an unassailable edifice.

The Règlement of 1791

One implication of Oman's analysis was that "French tacticians of the Napoleonic Wars were rather stupid, and blind to the most fundamental principles of infantry fighting."[11] Such, of course, was not the case. Numerous French military thinkers and leaders understood the column's limitations. About thirty-five years before the Peninsular War, Count de Guibert, the very important French theorist and a man who influenced the young Napoleon Bonaparte, described a hypothetical column attack:

"one approaches the enemy...the ranks are soon mingled...the column forms no more than a tumultuous mass...If the head and flanks of that column are struck by a lively fire, the soldier dazed begins to fire in the air, the mass whirls, disperses, and can only rally at a very great distance".[12]

Guibert's writing seems almost prescient when compared to a French account of an actual column advance, one cited by Oman and repeated by subsequent historians as the classic example of French assault tactics:

"When we got about a thousand yards from the English line the men would begin to get anxious...the quick-step became a run, the ranks tended to melt into each other, the  agitation became tumultuous. Many soldiers began to fire as they ran...The enemy's return, delivered with simultaneous precision absolutely blasted us. Decimated by it, we reeled together, trying to recover our equilibrium...[then] they were upon us, pressing us into a disorderly retreat."[13]

Thus, a key French military theorist, one whose views influenced the crafting of the French drill manual used throughout the Napoleonic wars, well understood the column's limitations.

The theoretical foundation of French infantry tactics was the drill set forth in the Règlement of 1791. These regulations defined the small unit maneuvers to be performed upon the battlefield. While covering such details as spacing between individual soldiers, alternative fire disciplines, and methods for changing formations, the regulations did not prescribe any particularly attack formation. Although it was recognized that a column was appropriate for the passage of a defile or an assault upon entrenchments or villages, there was no mention of an assault formation per se.

One of the alternative column formations the Règlement was the 'colonne d'attaque.' This term has often been represented in English literature as an attack column. This is an unfortunate translation error that has perpetuated the notion of the column attack. In fact, the term arose out of the debate preceding the Revolutionary Wars between the partisans of the massed formation and those of the more deployed formation. Without entering into the details of this often acrimonious debate between rival French military philosophies, suffice it to say that the term 'colonne d'attaque' entered the French drill manual as a sop to the school of military philosophy centered around the theories of Mesnil-Durand. This particular formation specified an interior arranged of sub-units very similar to a column of divisions formed on the center. It was merely one of several alternative column formations and in no way indicated an intent as an assault formation.

On the strengths of the Règlement of 1791 was its flexibility permitting a combat commander a variety of choices in executing a maneuver. Historian John Lynn studied the tactical formations used in 108 engagements fought by the Armée du Nord between April 1792 and July 1794. He found fifty-five recorded instances of the French deploying into line and cites seven examples of the line in attack and thirty-five cases of column attacks. Lynn concludes that "commanders placed their ways which exploited terrain and met the tactical challenge.  Battalions stood in a full close order repertoire of line, column, and square or dispersed in open order".[14] This conclusion applies to French infantry throughout the Napoleonic Wars.

Consider the June 9, 1800 Battle of Montebello. General Watrin opens the fight by deploying two battalions of the 6th Légère into line and charging the Casteggio heights. General Victor brings reinforcements. The commander of the 43rd Demi-Brigade places his two flank battalions in open order and keeps his center battalion in column.  The 96th Demi-Brigade is the next unit onto the field. It charges Casteggio in battalion column. Throughout the battle, the French infantry exhibits a well considered variety of tactical formations, effortlessly ploying from one to another while under artillery fire.[15]

Occasionally a commander's battlefield preferences were codified and such was the case in 1805 when Marshal Michael Ney issued his "Instructions for the Troops Composing the Left Corps."[16] The first section deals with marches and evolutions in column. This section makes it very clear that the column's purpose is to provide a rapid and flexible formation for approaching the combat zone. The bulk of the discussion centers around techniques for deploying from column into line in order to engage the enemy. Only in the second section, which deals with marches in line, is there mention of infantry charges. All of the discussion of charges specifies a charge in line with the bayonet. Concerning the principles of a charge in line Ney writes: "a French commander ought never to hesitate in marching against the enemy with the bayonet, if the ground is at all adapted to a charge in line with one or more battalions".[17]

Two points regarding Ney's instructions deserve emphasis. First, he reflects upon the difficulty of making soldiers rise up once they have knelt to fire. This lack of confidence contrasts with Wellington's handling of the British Army. Wellington routinely ordered his men to line down to protect them from unnecessary losses. A second similar point relates to Ney's notions about the proper way to engage in a musketry duel. He notes how troops who stop their advance to open fire are very difficult to get moving again. Assuming that the third rank was deployed as skirmishers, he advises having the first two ranks of the attacking line fire their muskets and charge with the bayonet. Ney believed that such impetuosity favored the French temperament.

The Germans on the other hand, "formed by the severest discipline", could engage in prolonged musketry duels.[18] Although Ney did not discuss the British, their army, also subjected to harsh discipline, proved its ability to endure prolonged short-range pounding. However, the British tactics of choice, successfully employed on numerous battlefields, were to advance from their reverse slope position, fire one or two volleys, and charge with the bayonet. British linear infantry tactics in 1809-1815 paralleled Ney's instructions to the Grande Armée written in 1805.

The Grande Armée

Ney's expectations regarding his troop's performance during a musketry duel applied to the Grande Armée, the VI Corps of which he commanded at the time he wrote his instructions. Without a doubt the Grande Armée comprised the best troops Napoleon ever fielded. To understand the French triumphs of 1805 to 1809 requires an understanding of what occurred along the Channel coast from 1803 to 1805. This was the time the 160,000-man Grande Armée formed. In such places as the encampment at Moulin-Herbert near Boulogne, the French army and its commanders had an unequaled opportunity to drill in all aspects of tactics.

The regimen of Marmont's Corps was typical: an initial month spent relearning individual and platoon maneuvers; then two days a week occupied with battalion drill and three with divisional maneuvers. On Sunday the entire corps drilled together while twice a month a large-scale maneuver was staged complete with live musket and cannon fire at targets. The soldiers were honed to a fine edge of discipline that persisted as long as the veterans of the Grande Armée survived. Marmont wrote that the residual beneficial effects of the training could still be seen even after many years of subsequent warfare.[19] The break-up of the Grande Armée, through losses and redeployment in 1807 and 1808, marks the beginning of the decline in French infantry prowess. Never again would the French have such an extended period to prepare for combat.

With the drill in the Règlement of 1791 imposed by months of training, how did the infantry of the Grande Armée perform in battle? Oman states that the Emperor's "most celebrated battle strokes seem frequently to have been made by very gross and heavy masses.[20] Sir Charles cites Soult's assault on the Pratzen heights during the battle of Austerlitz as an example.[21] However, he is wrong.

The tactical details of the attack by Soult's 1st division are clearly described by a French participant, General Thiébault.[22] Nearing the village of Pratzen, the 1st Battalion of the 14th deploys into line and is rebuffed in its attack upon the village. Thiébault leads a counterattack with the regiment's 2nd Battalion which "deployed as it ran".[23] Gaining the heights Thiébault is confronted by a heavy Russian counterattack. To respond to this challenge, he orders the 36th to deploy with all speed. The decisive engagement of the battle ensues.

Least there be any doubt about Soult's maneuvers, the deployment into line is observed and recorded by Karl Stutterheim, an Austrian eyewitness.[24] Thus, contrary to Oman, the spearhead of Napoleon's 'battle stroke', at the Emperor's most celebrated battle, fights the decisive action in line.

Another French tactic used by the Grande Armée was to dissolve entire battalions into skirmish order. Oman is also mistaken about this point. He writes:

"I do not remember any case in the Peninsular battles where whole battalions were broken up into skirmishers...Nor do I think that it occurred often, if ever, in any of the imperial battles".[25]

In the Peninsula at the Battle of Busaco a French participant recounts how an entire brigade in Ney's Corps dispersed into skirmish order as they fought along the ridge slopes.[26] Following the Battle of Salamanca, the French under General Souham engaged in heavy skirmishing with Wellington. At the forefront of the action was Colonel Béchaud who provides a detailed account: "the two left flank companies fired upon the advancing enemy columns...the remainder of the 15th dispersed into skirmish order...after twenty five minutes...the enemy turned our left...and our cloud of skirmishers were forced to retreat".[27] The 15th then reformed into two deep line and opened fire. Later in the day the eight companies of the 15th and 66th again broke into skirmish order.

Similarly, many French units fought in imperial battles while in skirmish order. In 1806, the report of the 16th Légère at Jena describes how, "the third battalion advanced into the woods in skirmish order".[28] Throughout the Ratisbon phase of the 1809 campaign, the French made extensive use of massed skirmisher tactics.[29] Even in 1813 the French were capable of deploying entire units in skirmish order. The Russian general Langeron recounts how the French left at Lutzen launched its counterattack in skirmish order.[30] During the retreat from Leipzig, when the French encountered the Austro-Bavarian army at Hanau, MacDonald placed two battalions of Old Guard Chasseurs in skirmish order, supported them with Old Guard Grenadiers, and attacked.[31]

In and of themselves these examples are not of surpassing historical importance. Skirmish order was merely one available formation that French commanders could select from the tactical tool box. However, the fact that the French were routinely capable of deploying entire units into skirmish order challenges Oman's expertise in French small unit tactics.





[7].Oman, "Column and Line in the Peninsular War", 321.

[8].Ibid., 325.

[9].Ibid. 329.

[10].Ibid. 339.

[11].Griffith, Forward Into Battle, 14.

[12].Jacques Antoine Hypolite, Comte de Guibert, Écrits Militaire (Paris: Copernic, 1976), 130.

[13]. Oman, "Column and Line in the Peninsular War", 341-342. Oman's source is Marshal Thomas Bugeaud.

[14].John A. Lynn, The Bayonets of the Republic: Motivation and Tactics in the Army of Revolutionary France 1791-94 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 250-251, 281.

[15].For a full account of this action see: James R. Arnold Marengo and Hohenlinden: Napoleon's Rise to Power (Lexington, VA: Napoleon Books, 1999), 121-127.

[16].Marshal Michael Ney, "Instructions for the Troops Comprising the Left Corps" reprinted in the Memoirs of Marshal Ney 2 vols. In 1 (Philadelphia: E.L. Carey and A. Hart, 1834).

[17]. Ibid.,190.

[18].Ibid. 189.

[19].Marshal Auguste Marmont, Mémoires du Duc du Raguse (9 vols; Paris 1857 et. seq.); see Livre VII, 251.

[20].Oman, "Column and Line in the Peninsular War", 330-331.

[21].Ibid. 330.

[22].Baron Thiébault, The Memoirs of Baron Thiébault 2 vols. (London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1896)

[23].Ibid. vol. 2, 160.

[24].Major General Karl Stutterheim, A Detailed Account of the Battle of Austerlitz (London: 1807), 101.

[25].Oman, "Column and Line in the Peninsular Wars", 330.

[26].Jean Jacques Pelet, The French Campaign in Portugal, 1810-1811 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1973), 181.

[27].Colonel Béchaud, "campaigne de trente cinq jours, par un officier superieur de l'avant garde, l'armée de Portugal", reprinted in Revue des Etudes Napoleon (Paris, July-November, 1912), 408-409.

[28]. Balthazar Schauenbourg, La tactique et la discipline dans les armées de la Révolution (Paris: Librairie Militaire R. Chapelot et Cie, 1902), LXXXVI-LXXXVII.

[29]. Colonel C.G.L. Saski, La campagne de 1809 en Allemagne et Autriche,  3 vols. (Paris: Berger-Levrault, 1899-1900). See particularly vol. 2, 250-350.

[30].Louis Alexandre Andrault Comte de Langeron, Mémoires de Langeron (Paris: Picard, 1902), 176.

[31].Marshal Jacques MacDonald Recollections of Marshal MacDonald, duke of Tarentum 2 vols. (New York, Charles Scribner's sons, 1893), vol. 2, 94.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: August 2004


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