Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics



A Reappraisal of Column Versus Line in the Peninsular War

Oman and Historiography

By James R. Arnold

 

The writings of Sir Charles Oman and Sir John Fortescue dominated subsequent English-language Napoleonic history. Their views became very much the received wisdom. The tactical summary provided by West Point professors Vincent Esposito and John Elting in A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars clearly reflected their influence.[67] Jac Weller's  Wellington in the Peninsula, which appeared in 1969 to generally high praise, utilized Oman's 'musket counting' approach to calculate the enormous firepower advantage of a British line versus a French column.[68] Such calculations seemed to provide all the reader needed to know to understand the battlefield outcome. With the publication of his classic The Campaigns of Napoleon, Sandhurst professor David Chandler vaulted into prominence as the foremost English-language Napoleonic historian.[69] The entry for Maida in his Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars stated, "Maida is important tactically as demonstrating the inherent superiority of British tactics over the French column of attack."[70]

The tactical edifice created by Oman and Fortescue began to crumble in the early 1980s. This writer stimulated a debate in an enthusiasts' journal called Empires, Eagles, and Lions when he published "The Battle of Maida and Secondary Source History."[71] Soon readers worldwide entered the debate and some provided new sources to challenge the conventional wisdom. Among those following the discussion was David Chandler. At a Napoleonic symposium Doctor Chandler sought ought this writer and politely demanded my proofs. A photocopy of Lieutenant Griois's letter combined with additional British accounts won the day. Chandler kindly tolerated the ardent zeal of a young historian and interceded to help find a publisher. The result was the original version of this essay which appeared in 1982 in the Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research.[72] Six years later, Chandler presented his own case to the XIIIth International Colloquy on Military History in a paper entitled "Column Versus Line: Oman Versus Modern Historians - The case of Maida 1806".[73]

Meanwhile, another Sandhurst historian, Paddy Griffith, had also read my critique of Oman while developing his own ideas. Griffith concurred about French tactical flexibility while arguing persuasively that the British did not simply stand in line and fire volleys to win out, but rather swept the field by firing and then conducting a bayonet charge.[74] By 1998 a new paradigm seemed to have set in with the publication of two books devoted to Napoleonic battle tactics.[75] Both claimed that the French fought in line at Maida and both fully explored French tactical variety. The 2002 publication of The Battle of Maida 1806: Fifteen Minutes of Glory, appeared to have brought the issue of column versus line to a satisfactory conclusion: "The contemporary sources are...the best evidence and their conclusion is clear: General Compère's brigade formed into line to attack Kempt's Light Battalion."[76] The decisive action at Maida took place in less than fifteen minutes. It had taken 72 years to rectify a great historian's error about what transpired during those minutes.

Surely from time to time enthusiasts and academic historians share the frustration about why the world is not listening to them. They diligently research something, often for an excessive amount of time, labor mightily to share their insights with their peers, and then groan in despair when their effort fails to produce the anticipated éclat. As the old saying goes, 'History never repeats itself, but historians seldom differ.'

 

 

 

Notes:

[67]. Vincent Esposito and John Elting A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars (New York: Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, 1964).

[68].Jac Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814 (London: Kaye & Ward, 1969), see 51 for his calculations for Vimeiro.

[69].David G. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1966).

[70].David G. Chandler, Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co, 1979), 261.

[71].James R. Arnold, "The Battle of Maida and Secondary Source History", Empires, Eagles and Lions no. 56, June 1981, 2-3.

[72].James R. Arnold, "A Reappraisal of Column Versus Line in the Napoleonic Wars" Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research LX no. 244 (Winter 1982): 196-208.

[73].David G. Chandler, "Column Versus Line: Oman Versus Modern Historians - The case of Maida 1806" presented at the XIIIth International Colloquy on Military History, Helsinki, May 31-June 6, 1988.

[74].Paddy Griffith, Forward Into Battle: Fighting Tactics from Waterloo to the Near Future 2nd edition (Swindon: Crowood Press, 1990). See especially chapter 2: "1808-1815: The Alleged Fire-power of Wellington's Infantry".

[75].Brent Nosworthy, Battle Tactics of Napoleon and His Enemies (London: Constable, 1995) and Rory Muir, Tactics and the Experience of Battle in the Age of Napoleon (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).In the interest of full disclosure I should say that Nosworthy contacted me several times about sources and methods while Muir read my original essay, partially accepted the premise, but called it "bad-tempered."

[76].Richard Hopton, The Battle of Maida 1806: Fifteen Minutes of Glory (Barnsley: Leo Cooper, 2002), 159.

Placed on the Napoleon Series: August 2004

 

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