A Reappraisal of Column Versus Line in the Peninsular War
The Battle of Maida: Building a Tactical Edifice
By James R. Arnold
If Oman had significant misapprehensions about French infantry tactics
on Continental battlefield, how did these impressions influence his
descriptions of French versus British battles?
His basic misunderstandings probably stem from his initial treatment
of the Battle of Maida. This little known affair, fought in 1806 in
southern Italy, involved a small British army under Sir John Stuart
and a slightly larger force commanded by General Jean Reynier. It has
an importance for Napoleonic historians far greater than its impact
on the military events of 1806.
Oman first dealt with Maida in a lecture given in 1907 to the Royal
Artillery Institution. In this talk he attributed the French defeat
to the inherent difficulty of a column formation assaulting a linear
one. Speaking of the decisive clash between the 1st Légère and the British
Light Battalion, he said:
"It was the fairest fight between column and line that had been
seen since the Napoleonic wars began -- on the one side two heavy columns
of 800 men each, drawn up in column of companies...The front of each
was not more than sixty yards. Kempt, on the other hand, has his battalion
in line...every one of them could use his musket against either the
front or flank of one of the two French columns".
Oman repeated this explanation in his "Column and Line" lecture:
"5,000 Infantry in line received the shock of 6,000 in column,
and inflicted on them one of the most crushing defeats on a small scale
that took place during the whole war".
Sir John Fortescue, gave a similar account of Maida in his first edition
of A History of the British Army.
So, by 1910, the two foremost English language historians of the Napoleonic
period had given their versions of the Battle of Maida, complete with
details about the width of the French attacking columns. Furthermore,
both applied their understanding of Maida to the writing of their tremendously
influential works on the Napoleonic wars. The problem was that they
were completely wrong about how the battle's decisive encounter unfolded.
Oman partially recognized his error by 1912. In a footnote to his Wellington's
Army he wrote,
"Till lately I had supposed that Reynier had at least his left
wing...in columns of battalions, but evidence put before me seems to
prove that despite the fact the French narratives do not show it, the
majority at least of Renyier's men were deployed".
The evidence Oman referred to is two British eyewitness account of
Maida. One came from a distance. An engineer officer, Charles Boothby,
had been detailed to supervise construction of defenses to protect the
British beachhead. Instead, he climbed a convenient tower and watched
the battle unfold. Boothby described the key encounter as "the
equal shock of opposing lines of troops". Oman's second source
was Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Bunbury who served as Stuart's quartermaster-general.
At Maida he moved around the field on horseback and enjoyed a fine vantage
point: "We saw at the same time that the enemy outnumbered us considerably;
their formation as well as ours was oblique, the enemy's left and our
right being each in advance. Their Ir Légère (three battalions)...advanced
in line upon the brigade of British Light Infantry".
Bunbury was a creditable source. There were at least seven more eyewitness
accounts which apparently Oman never saw, that place the French in line.
The best came for the lieutenant commanding a section of four-pounders
positioned to the front right of the British light infantry: "Their
General told them the English were advancing loaded with riches and
that they would go down, plunder and drive them into the sea. And sure
enough down they did come, in line, in the finest order it is possible
The lieutenant's superior, a Major Lemoine, was slightly farther away
but he too described the French as deploying in line. Among others, the
second in command of the 78th Foot, Major David Stewart, described how
the 1st Légère's "formidable line, which from numbers, greatly
out-flanked our first line".
In addition, contrary to Oman's claim about the lack of French documentation,
two French participants strongly support the notion of a French advance
in line. A French artillery lieutenant named Griois wrote, "General
Reynier gave the order to advance to engage the enemy, and to accomplish
this to form on the left in line". Moreoever, there is Reynier's account
of the battle, a source of information that Oman really should not have
overlooked. In a letter written the day after the battle, Reynier relates
how "The 1st and 42nd regiments, 2,400 strong...passed the Lamato
and formed into line with the left on the Lamato".
Besides learning about Boothby and Bunbury, by 1912 Oman had also read
the French historian, Commandant Jean Colin. Colin's lengthy preface
to La tactique et la discipline dans les armées de la Révolution,
described repeated examples of the Imperial French infantry attacking
in line or in ordre mixte throughout the Napoleonic era.
Confronted with such evidence, Oman recast his thesis. A British line
was two-deep; a French line typically three-deep. So, Oman wrote in
Wellington's Army that instead of demonstrating the superiority
of line over column, Maida was "conclusive proof of the efficacy
of the double when opposed to the triple" rank.
In spite of his mea culpa of 1912, Oman repeated his erroneous
1907 version in his 1929 Studies in the Napoleonic Wars. Meanwhile, Sir John Fortescue conformed
with Oman's revised views in his second edition of A History of the
British Army published in 1921.
.Sir Charles Oman,
"An Historical Sketch of the Battle of Maida" read November
28, 1907 to the Royal Artillery Institution, published in the Journal
of the Royal Artillery Institution, vol. 34. Reprinted verbatim in:
Studies in the Napoleonic Wars (New York: Charles Scribner's
Sons, 1930), see 53. All citations are to the 1930 reprint.
.Oman, "Column and Line in the
Peninsular War", 333.
.Sir J.W. Fortescue,
A History of the British Army (Oxford, 1910), vol. V., 347.
.Sir Charles Oman,
Wellington's Army (London: Edward Arnold, 1913), 78. Oman completed
this book in 1912.
.Captain Charles Boothby,
Under England's Flag: From 1804 to 1809, Memoirs of Captain Charles
Boothby, Royal Engineers (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1900),
.Sir Henry Bunbury,
Narratives of Some Passages in the Great War with France (London:
R. Bentley, 1854), 244.
.The Letters of Lt.
Gen. Thomas Dyneley, C.B., R.A., 1806-1815, in Proceedings of the
Royal Artillery Institute, Vol. XXIII, 1896, 401.
.Major John Lemoine's
letter appears in Captain Francis Duncan, History of the Royal
Regiment of Artillery 2 vols. (London: John Murray, 1872), vol.
Stewart, Sketches of the Character, Manners, and Present State
of the Highlanders of Scotland; with details of the Military Service
of the Highland Regiments 2 vols. (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable
and Co, 1825), vol. 2, 334. Other British eyewitness sources that
provide corroborating detail include: Colonel John T. Jones, Journals
of Sieges Carried on by the Army Under the Duke of Wellington in Spain
2 vols. (London: T. Egerton, 1827) see vol. II, 225.; General Lowry
Cole's letter written on August 18, 1806 on file at the National Army
Museum, file 6809-398-2; Lt.-Col. Joseph Anderson, Recollections
of a Penisular Veteran (London: Edward Arnold, 1913), 12-13. To
be fair to Oman note that this was not formally published until after
Oman wrote about Maida. I'm delighted to report that Richard Hopton's
recent work found the letters of Captain Charles Pasley, a Royal Engineer
attached to the Light Battalion, and Major Rovera, Cole's ADC. See:
Richard Hopton, The Battle of Maida 1806: Fifteen Minutes of Glory
(Barnsley: Leo Cooper, 2002.)157.
"Combat de Maida" Spectateur Militaire IV (Paris, 1828).
See also: Memoirs du Général Griois (Paris: 1909), 308-313.
Général Reynier, commandant le corps d'expedition dans les Calabres,
du 1 février 1806 au 24 décembre 1807, Archives de l'Armée (Vincennes),
Registre No. C/31 and Joseph Bonaparte, Confidential Correspondence
of Napoleon Bonaparte (London: John Murray, 1855), 244. When Arnold
produced Renyier's report taken from the 1855 source, diehard Oman
supporters challenged the accuracy of the translation. Jean Lochet,
editor of Empires, Eagles, and Lions, produced the archival source
that confirmed the accuracy of the translation. Reynier used the term
"en bataille" which, depending upon context can mean tactically
deployed in line or more generally deployed in battle order.
. Balthazar Schauenbourg,
La tactique et la discipline dans les armées de la Révolution.
Colin's introduction appears in this volume.
.Sir Charles Oman,
Studies in the Napoleonic Wars (London: Methuen, 1929). Note
that the U.S. edition was published in 1930.
.Sir J.W. Fortescue
A History of the British Army (London: Macmillan, 1921); vol.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: August 2004
[ Organization Index ]