Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

A Reappraisal of Column Versus Line in the Peninsular War

The Peninsular War

By James R. Arnold


But what about other British versus French encounters? After all, we have the words of the Great Duke himself writing after the April 3, 1811 combat at Sabugal: "Really these attacks in column against our lines are very contemptible".[47] This stereotype, repeated by most contemporary historians who rely heavily on the writings of Oman and Fortescue, overlooks an important component of the tactical mosaic comprising the column versus line encounter.

Oman wrote the first volumes of his Peninsular War history while still supremely confident about his tactical understanding. Consider his description of the first important Franco-British encounter in the Peninsula, the Battle of Vimeiro. He writes: "The French came on in their usual style, a thick line of tirailleurs, supported by battalion columns close in the rear."[48] He depicts the fight between Solignac's brigade and the defending British as a classic column versus line affair. Only after British fire has shattered the French infantry, do the remnants try to deploy.

In contrast are the words of a British participant who described the French reaction when their columns encountered Ferguson's brigade: "nor did they make the slightest pause, till they beheld the 36th, the 40th, and the 71st regiments in close array before them. Their line was likewise formed in a moment".[49]  From the first French‑British encounter at Vimeiro to the last great battle at Waterloo, when British lines engaged French columns the French tried to deploy into line. A French staff officer observed the ascent of the II Corps at Busaco: "At last it reached the summit. The column began to deploy as if at an exercise".[50] A French officer wrote regarding Albuera, "General Gerard is in the midst of the danger; he attempts, in this critical position, to deploy his troops...but the passage of lines, which requires space and coolness, cannot be effected under so violent a fire."[51] The pattern is repeated all the way through Waterloo. At the final French assault of the Imperial Guard a soldier in Halkett's Brigade writes: "Within fifty yards of them, the enemy...attempted to deploy".[52] A different Imperial Guard unit faced the fire of the British Guards: "they now wavered, and several of the rear divisions began to draw out as if to deploy".[53] 

The French tendency to try to deploy their columns was so prevalent that Oman occasionally mentioned it. He relates a British soldier's account of the Battle of Albuera fought in 1811: "I saw their officers endeavouring to deploy their columns, but all to no purpose. For as soon as the third of a company got out, they would immediately run back in order to be covered by the front of the column".[54] However, he under emphasizes it because of his basic misunderstanding of French tactics. Worse, most subsequent historians overlooked the issue entirely.

In his effort to explore French tactical diversity, Oman cites the French formation employed at  Albuera. While concluding that the French habitually fought in column, he points to Albuera as an exception: "Albuera is the only fight in the war in which I have definite proof that the enemy fought in the ordre mixte".[55] His proof is a pre-battle order explaining the intended French dispositions to be used. However, the actual French advance was not performed in the mixed order formation, according to a staff officer who advanced with the attacking wing of the French army. Accordingly to this officer, the French advanced in close column and initially displaced the allied defenders. Eager to capitalize upon this success, the corps commander, "General Gerard, thought that he had only to precipitate his attack, to complete the confusion and disorder...[he did] not stop to deploy his short, General Gerard committed the fatal imprudence of advancing the 5th Corps still in close column, and of attacking the enemy in that order".[56] This interpretation of the French advance is seconded by the writings of Perrin-Solliers who analyzed the French defeat at Albuera.[57] The Battle of Albuera is another example of Oman's muddled understanding of French tactics and deployments.

"A Row of Columns of the Heaviest Sort"

There are two famous examples of French column attacks most often cited as illustrative cases of French tactical abuse, MacDonald's attack at Wagram and D’Erlon’s attack at Waterloo. Criticized by French and British authors alike, MacDonald's advance on Wagram's second day, July 6, 1809, is typically identified as an extreme example of Napoleon's increasing reliance upon mass tactics.

A careful reading of MacDonald's post-battle report and his memoirs challenges this viewpoint. MacDonald relates how he was preparing to attack the Austrian position along the Russbach when he received orders from the Emperor to redirect his advance. Archduke Carl had surprised Napoleon by launching an offensive against the French left. There was a gap in the French line toward which an Austrian cavalry force was headed.[58] Macdonald commanded the nearest available troops to oppose the Austrian cavalry. MacDonald wrote,

"The Emperor...kept sending officers, one after another, to me to hasten my movements...Vexed and anxious to know the reasons for these reiterated orders, I galloped toward the Emperor. The enemy, who were in great number at this point, were marching the more boldly as they encountered no resistance: I then understood (as the Emperor afterwards admitted) that his intention in thus hurrying me was to show that he was not in retreat...It was therefore necessary to risk something in order to carry this out with the utmost speed".[59]

MacDonald formed his first units, which advanced at the double, in two lines of four battalions each. As his other units arrived he formed them in column to secure his flanks. This unusual formation, necessitated by the dual pressures of time and the presence of enemy cavalry, successfully repulsed the Hapsburg horsemen. Only then did the French proceed to make an attack. MacDonald's formation can be explained as one extemporized in haste. No such satisfactory answer can account for the formation of D'Erlon's Corps at Waterloo.

These unfortunates formed in columns of battalion by division. Each division marched on a deployed battalion frontage with successive battalions, also formed in line, marching to their rear. Durutte, the commander of D'Erlon's 4th Division, says that the formation was dictated by the staff officers carrying the attack order.[60] Whether Napoleon or Ney expressly willed the awkward formation is unknown. Ney had used a similar formation with Marchand's Division in 1807 at Friedland. At Friedland, however, Marchand had been hurrying to achieve a flank position from which to launch an assault and therefore had not the time to deploy. In contrast, at Waterloo there was ample time to prepare. Regardless of how D'Erlon's deployment came about, the unwieldy French formation caused the attack to fail dismally.

Why the French Failed

At the end of the day, there remains a set of immutable facts that are hard to square with one another. The Napoleonic French army was thoroughly professional with battlefield leadership largely based upon meritocracy, the officers honed by years of warfare. French tactical philosophy well understood that columns were the most handy formation for approach marches. Columns were not intended as assault formations except under special circumstances. Yet, under Wellington's inspired tactical leadership, British infantry repeatedly defeated French columns. Part of the explanation rests with Wellington's selection of reverse slope positions.

Customarily, European armies on the defensive chose to occupy the crest of available high ground. The French attack at the Battle of Thann in Bavaria in 1809 provides a model of how to tackle such a defensive position.  On April 19, 1809, Saint-Hilaire's Division of Davout's III Corps unexpectedly encountered Austrian infantry in the steeply rolling terrain between Teugen and Hausen. The Austrians occupied the Hausen Berg, a steep ridge top position similar to the Peninsular ridges chosen by Wellington. As Austrian skirmishers formed on the heights, Davout personally launched the 3rd Ligne up slope in skirmish order. After a stiff combat, the 3rd retired and rallied on the lower slopes. The attack gained time for the 57th Ligne to organize a set-piece assault. The 57th formed in battalion columns and struggled to the top of the Hausen Berg while enduring intense artillery and musketry and then deployed into line. The 3rd advanced again to support the 57th by extending the line. After a protracted fight, the Austrians retreated. To conquer a tenaciously defended ridge top, French commanders had skillfully blended skirmish order, line, and column.[61]

In the Peninsula, Wellington's novel tactical positioning negated such French maneuverability. At battle's onset, a thick British skirmish line screened Wellington’s main line of resistance, which was hidden on the reverse slope. Experience taught the French that the British were somewhere behind the hill, but they never managed to solve how to attack the hidden foe.

A second major factor accounting for French failure in the Peninsula relates to the decline in troop quality. The Grande Armée suffered terrible cumulative losses by the 1809 Battle of Wagram. The conscripts who replaced the fallen veterans never received the prolonged training enjoyed by the Grande Armée. A young French conscript, Phillipe Gille, provides a detailed account of the inadequate manner in which French soldiers were rushed to the front.[62] Mobilized in France in 1808, Gille apparently did not even receive his musket until arriving at the Spanish border. There he joined a provisional unit composed of fellow conscripts, crossed the border, and soon engaged in combats with guerilla. Eventually his unit merged with similar ad-hoc formations to make up Dupont's ill-fated army. Near the Spanish town of Jaen they faced their first formed opposition from Spanish regulars. In spite of their inexperience, the conscripts formed line, advanced with trailed arms, received a close range volley, charged at the bayonet, and routed the Spanish. While such intrepid shock action worked against poorly trained Spanish infantry, it was ill-suited for more professional opponents such as the British. Three points deserved emphasis from Gille's account: the conscripts entered combat virtually untrained; they formed line for combat; and they did not attempt to engage in a musketry duel but relied upon shock action.

During the Peninsula years, how large a numerical contribution  to the French armed forces were conscripts such as Gille? For the decisive years 1808 to 1812, French annual conscript calls ranged from 181,000 to 217,000.[63] During 1810 and 1811, when France was at peace in the rest of Europe, the majority of these conscripts went to the Peninsula and substantially diluted the quality of the French forces serving there. Simultaneously, troop quality declined further as veterans suffered some of the nearly 100,000 casualties sustained in the Peninsula in 1810-1811.[64] The impact of this dilution is clearly stated by General Anne Savary. Savary's  report on the 1809 Battle of Essling, where he fought with troops substantially better than the average Peninsula soldier, observes, "if instead of troops consisting of war levies [raw conscripts], we had opposed to them such soldiers as those of the camp of Boulogne [the Grande Armée], which we might easily have moved in any direction and made to deploy under the enemy's fire without any danger their being thrown into disorder".[65] Innumerable Peninsular battlefields demonstrated this need.

In addition, French replacement policy was poorly calculated to maximize the soldier's potential. The lack of veteran officers caused replacement units returning to Spain to be led by mutilated veterans or inexperienced National Guard officers. This problem is illustrated by the fact that while officer schools in France turned out about 4,000 graduates from 1802 to 1815, this number was insufficient to meet the officer losses suffered in two such major battles as Wagram and Borodino.[66]

The problem worsened as the Peninsula became a secondary front. A typical Peninsula regiment of 2,500 men would send 120 to 200 men back to France as a depot unit, 50 to the artillery, 10 to the gendarmes, and 12 of the best men to the Imperial Guard. These subtractions, coupled with the unprecedented guerilla-inflicted losses experienced in the never secure rear areas, seriously eroded the staying power of the infantry regiment. It got worse  in 1811 and thereafter when Napoleon withdrew the best troops from the Peninsula to prepare for the Russian invasion.

An analysis of French tactical failure in the Peninsula cannot overlook the complex interplay of strategic factors that greatly determined the morale, manpower, and logistical support affecting French battlefield efficiency. Some of the salient factors were: outdated central direction from Paris; lack of command continuity so that officers and men seldom were able to learn from the  experience of fighting the British; lack of cooperation among the French senior leaders, particularly the marshals who jealously ran their areas of operation like personal fiefdoms; and crippling supply constraints caused by active guerilla that often forced the French to rush into battle before they ran out of food rather than rely upon maneuver.




[47].Oman, Wellington's Army, 86.

[48]. Oman, History of the Peninsular War, Vol. I, 224.

[49].Charles William Vane, Narrative of the Peninsular War (London 1829), 144.

[50].Jean Jacques Pelet, The French Campaign in Portugal, 1810-1811 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1973), 179. Both 'Busaco' and 'Bussaco' appear as common English-language usage at the time and thereafter.

[51].General William Beresford, Refutation of Colonel Napier’s Justification of his third volume, (London, Mark Thompson, Publishing, 1834), Beresford cites Captain Lapene's account, 170.

[52].Major Harry Ross-Lewin, With the 32nd in the Peninsula (London, 1834), 279.

[53].Major-General H.T. Siborne (ed.), Waterloo Letters (London: Cassell, 1891), Captain H.W. Powell's letter of April 21, 1835, no. 109, 255.

[54].Oman, "Column and Line in the Peninsular War", 338. Oman cites Blakeney's account.

[55]. Oman, Wellington's Army, 88.

[56].Beresford, Refutation of Napier, 195. Beresford cites Captain Lapene's account.

[57].Chef de battalion Perrin-Solliers, "Examen Raisonné de Propriétés des Trois Armes" Spectateur Militaire no. 13(Paris, 1832), 364-365.

[58].For the grand tactical situation see: James R. Arnold, Napoleon Conquers Austria (Westport CT: Praeger Publishers, 1995),146-156.

[59].MacDonald, Recollections of Marshal MacDonald duke of Tarentum, vol. 2, 337.

[60].General Pierre Durutte, "Mouvemens de la 4e Division du 1er Corps d’Armée" La Sentinelle De L'Armée (Paris, 1838), 77-79.

[61].For full details of this action see: James R. Arnold Crisis on the Danube (New York: Paragon House, 1990),85-92.

[62].Phillipe Gille, Mémoires d'un Conscript de 1808 (Paris 1893), see particularly 15-95.

[63].Albert Meynier, "Levée et Pertes D'Hommes sous le Consulat et l'Empire" Revue des Études, vol. 30. (Paris, Jan.-June, 1930), 26-51. Conscription data appears in Tableau I, 28.

[64].Ibid., 43. Casualty estimates appear on Tableau II.

[65].Rovigo, Anne Jean Marie Réne Savary, duc de Memoirs of the Duke of Rovigo 4 vols.(London: H. Colburn, 1828),vol. 2, 84.

[66].Don W. Alexander, "French Replacement Methods during the Peninsular War, 1808-1814" Military Affairs, vol. XLIV, no. 4, Dec., 1980, 193.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: August 2004


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