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


A Reappraisal of Column Versus Line in the Peninsular War

By James R. Arnold

On March 16, 1910, Sir Charles Oman delivered a lecture entitled "Column and Line in the Peninsular War".[1]� This lecture presented Sir Charles' views on the salient tactical factors that determined battlefield outcomes when the British and French fought during the Napoleonic Wars. At this time Oman was working his way through his History of the Peninsula War[2] in which he "laid bare the tactical system of the two sides with the same lucid confidence which he brought to all other aspects of the struggle."[3] Concurrently, Oman's� great contemporary, Sir John� W. Fortescue, had advanced his epochal A History of the British Army up to the Napoleonic era.[4]

Oman and Fortescue were good friends and often referred to each other's writings in their own. Fortescue particularly relied upon Oman's tactical analysis when he addressed the Peninsula War.[5]� Today, Oman's and Fortescue's work continues to provide the foundation for English language readers' understanding of the tactical details of Napoleonic warfare.

Consider the� The Journal of Military History. The analysis underpinning Oman's work came from his study of the 1806 Battle of Maida. In a Napoleonic book review that appeared in the January 2003 issue, the reviewer measures the author's work against Oman and complains that the author strips "the battle of Maida of the significance historians have traditionally given to it...In particular, the British line at Maida proved superior to French columns, firing disciplined volleys that broke the previously irresistible �lan of the imperial troops in a way that shocked French commanders. On a small scale, Maida foreshadowed Wellington's campaign in Portugal and Spain, and that is its significance."[6]

The review is merely one recent example of Oman's enduring influence. Numerous modern, popular and academic authors extensively cite Oman's works. However, an examination of primary source information demonstrates that, in both general and specific ways, Oman's understanding of French tactical method was flawed.




[1].Sir Charles Oman, "Column and Line in the Peninsular War" read March 16, 1910, to the British Academy. Published in: Proceedings of the British Academy, 1909-1910 vol. 4 (London: Oxford University Press), 321-342.

[2].Sir Charles Oman, A History of the Peninsula War 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1902-1930).

[3].Paddy Griffith, Forward Into Battle: Fighting Tactics from Waterloo to the Near Future 2nd edition (Swindon: Crowood Press, 1990), 13.

[4].Sir John Fortescue, A History of the British Army 13 vols. in 20 (London: Macmillan, 1899-1930).

[5].Paddy Griffith notes that Fortescue's sixth seventh and eighth volumes contain 121 references to Oman while Oman's last two volumes have 31 references to Fortescue. See: Paddy Griffith, ed. A History of the Peninsular War Volume IX Modern Studies of the War in Spain and Portugal, 1808-1814 (London: Greenhill Books, 1999), 30-31.

[6]. John L. Tone, The Journal of Military History 67, no. 2 (January 2003): 234-235.



Placed on the Napoleon Series: August 2004


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