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The Napoleon Series > Military Information > Organization, Strategy & Tactics

Tactical Doctrine of Russian Foot Skirmishers

By Alexander Zhmodikov

One of the areas of Napoleonic Studies that has not been written about much in English is the Russian use of skirmishers or 'strelki.' They are mentioned in official documents only a few times before 1815. An examination of these documents provides some interesting insights on how the Russian Army used skirmishers.

There is an interesting document titled Instruction to the Infantry Officers in a Day of Battle dated July 17, 1812 ('old style' date, one should add 12 days to get a normal date) was found in Moscow department of the General Staff Archive. It begins with the following words:

"Several years of almost incessant war at different borders have made the whole Russian army used to war and most officers perfectly know their duty during a campaign and in decisive days of battle; but as there are new regiments and in the old ones some officers are less experienced, it is considered to be not unnecessary to give the following simple and easy rules."

Among the information on skirmishing formations, which in Russian literally means a chain, there was the following paragraphs:

"An officer commanding the skirmishers sent in front of the troops has not to move his chain forward without permission from his regimental or battalion commander; his duty is to hide his men if possible, but he himself must move incessantly along the chain as for the supervision of his men so for the observing of the enemy movements and enemy mounted skirmishers charging at him. Having let them come at 150 paces the officer must fire and seeing that he has not stopped them by fire, at a signal he get his men together in groups of 10 back to back; in this position fire again and stab approaching horsemen with bayonets and he is to be in full confidence that his battalion or regiment will rush forward to help them."

The Instructions also contained the following:

"The jaeger maneuvers are not mentioned here because men are trained with them in all jaeger regiments and it is impossible to explain them here to the others."

Finally the Instructions mentioned a specific way of using the reserve in the woods, but unfortunately did not give any explanations of what is the reserve and why it was needed.

Although there were no formal regulations for skirmishing, they were mentioned several times in various other documents published after 1814.

From the Instructions by Barclay de Tolly, dated February 22 1815 (old style):

"The 'strelki' of the grenadier companies, in addition to the excellent conduct and bravery, must distinguish themselves by the art of marksmanship."

Here Barclay de Tolly refers to the 'strelki' are the men of the 8th platoon of the battalion. But there is no mention of any training to fight in skirmish order.

In the Emperor's Decree to Barclay de Tolly, April 18 1816 (old style):

"According to your proposal on the training of skirmishers I bid you to select in each platoon of each company 12 most efficient and skilful men who are to remain at their places in the formation and one should not put them on the flanks near to the grenadier and 'strelkovyi' platoons. These platoons will serve as a reserve to the 'strelki' and may be made up to strength with them, tall to grenadiers, little to 'strelki'."

In Detachment and Action of Skirmishers for Covering of a Battalion - adopted in the Guard before 1818:

"Four files, two from the left flank and two from the right one of each platoon are designated as 'strelki'. Formation: two lines of pairs; 8 NCOs (one from each platoon): two behind each line and one on each flank of both lines; 3 drummers: one with the officer who commands the skirmishers and one on each flank between the lines."

"In any case it is to be observed that the chain always covers the flanks of a battalion. The pairs must never put themselves closer than 3 paces between them but not farther than 15 paces one from the next."

The following is from Rules of the Skirmish Order or Directions on Skirmish Actions of Infantry for Training of the Jaeger Regiments and the Skirmishers of all Infantry is one of the few documents that cover skirmishing and it was adopted in the 1st Western Army in 1818.

Twelve men from each platoon ("the most efficient and distinguished in marksmanship") were named 'zastrelschiki' to distinguish them from the 'strelki' or 8th platoon. This gave each battalion a total of 96 men, 4 drummers, 8 NCOs, 4 officers to act as skirmishers. They would deploy in a single line of pairs and with a formed reserve 100-180 paces behind it. The 'strelki' or 8th platoon might be used as a reserve if necessary. This chain could be sent at up to 400-500 paces from the main body of a battalion if neither side advanced.

In the jaeger regiments up to a half of a battalion might be deployed as skirmishers or even a whole battalion if necessary.

In another document, the Regimental Training Rules" of Infantry (1818), the distance between the chain and the main body of a battalion is 300 paces.

The use of a double line of skirmishers was somewhat controversial. In 1818 General Dibich wrote to Great Prince Konstantin:

"As to the double chain of skirmishers adopted in the Guard, the C-in-C (Barclay de Tolly) has not admitted it useful to adopt this rule in the army, having been convinced by the experience of his service corroborated even more in the last war that in an engagement with the enemy such a chain is not only useless, but it rather leads to unnecessary casualties and confusion; on the contrary, it is well tried that a single chain with reserve may be of great use, this is... why these rules are introduced."

The absence of formal regulations does not mean that the actual performance was bad. The "Instruction" of 1812 clearly states that the army was experienced enough despite of the fact that there were no formal regulations on skirmishers' training. There are no any explanations who were the skirmishers and what they should do, what were the 'chain' and who formed the reserve. In all likelihood, it was considered unnecessary to explain these things because all officers knew them well enough.

There are numerous examples of skirmishers mentioned in memoirs of actions between 1808-14. In most cases, the jaeger regiments were usually used as skirmishers. In the battle of Borodino many Russian jaeger regiments were deployed in full skirmish order along the front line and some of them fought for almost the whole day between Semenovskoye and Utitsa. It is difficult to estimate their overall effectiveness, but it was probably lower by some degree than that of the French voltigeurs in 1812. The Russian line infantry regiments could deploy skirmishers, but it was not done often. In one case, even the St. Petersburg militia deployed its skirmishers in the second battle of Polotsk! According to the memoirs of Zotov, who was an officer of the St. Petersburg militia, this group was sabred by French cuirassiers. Zotov was wounded and lost his senses, but he was found alive later that day. Antonovskii, a junior officer in the 26th Jaeger Regiment, writes in his memoirs of another incident involving the same militia regiment in the same battle. In short he said that they were almost useless. Antonovskii wrote a very interesting and detailed memoirs and he states that he was often sent to skirmish with a jaeger platoon or company.