Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics



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".[32]

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".[33]

Sir John Fortescue, gave a similar account of Maida in his first edition of A History of the British Army.[34]

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".[35]

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".[36] 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".[37]

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 to conceive."[38] The lieutenant's superior, a Major Lemoine, was slightly farther away but he too described the French as deploying in line.[39] 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".[40]

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".[41] 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".[42]

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.[43] 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.[44] In spite of his mea culpa of 1912, Oman repeated his erroneous 1907 version in his 1929 Studies in the Napoleonic Wars.[45] Meanwhile, Sir John Fortescue conformed with Oman's revised views in his second edition of A History of the British Army published in 1921.[46]

 

 

Notes:

[32].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.

[33].Oman, "Column and Line in the Peninsular War", 333.

[34].Sir J.W. Fortescue, A History of the British Army (Oxford, 1910), vol. V., 347.

[35].Sir Charles Oman, Wellington's Army (London: Edward Arnold, 1913), 78. Oman completed this book in 1912.

[36].Captain Charles Boothby, Under England's Flag: From 1804 to 1809, Memoirs of Captain Charles Boothby, Royal Engineers (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1900), 78.

[37].Sir Henry Bunbury, Narratives of Some Passages in the Great War with France (London: R. Bentley, 1854), 244.

[38].The Letters of Lt. Gen. Thomas Dyneley, C.B., R.A., 1806-1815, in Proceedings of the Royal Artillery Institute, Vol. XXIII, 1896, 401.

[39].Major John Lemoine's letter appears in Captain Francis Duncan, History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery 2 vols. (London: John Murray, 1872), vol. 2, 148.

[40].Major-General David 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.

[41].Lieutenant Griois, "Combat de Maida" Spectateur Militaire IV (Paris, 1828). See also: Memoirs du Général Griois (Paris: 1909), 308-313.

[42].Correspondance du 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.

[43]. Balthazar Schauenbourg, La tactique et la discipline dans les armées de la Révolution. Colin's introduction appears in this volume.

[44].Oman, Wellington's Army, 77.

[45].Sir Charles Oman, Studies in the Napoleonic Wars (London: Methuen, 1929). Note that the U.S. edition was published in 1930.

[46].Sir J.W. Fortescue A History of the British Army (London: Macmillan, 1921); vol. V, 346.

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: August 2004

 

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