Skirmish tactics in Napoleonic wars
Skirmishing in linear combat saw it´s debut in 18th century and then in Napoleonic era.
To simply define "skirmisher" you could say it´s an infantryman deployed ahead of a main force in a loose order (skirmish chain) and harrases enemy regulars or their own skirmishers.
(on picture 95th Rifles in skirmish order)
Yet it´s important to differ between skirmishing as a form of harrasing the enemy on the field of battle
and skirmishing/harrasing the enemy on daily basis without engaging him directly
. Such tactic was used frequently during the American wars in 18th century and it actually contributed heavily to creating regular "light troops" = "skirmishers" in the european armies.
Usage and tactics in the field:
They were used to probe enemy position, to throw back the enemy skirmishers onto his attacking troops and - if possible - to carry disorder to its columns and lines. They harassed enemy troops and protected their own troops from similar threat by the enemy. The skirmishers also annoyed the flanks of the enemy and created terror when succeeded on appearing at the rear. De facto they worked as "screeners"
for the line infantry.
Biggest drawback for skirmish usage was their vulnerability to cavalry since they were spread out more so then regular infantry, making it harder to form square in time (in case of rifles even worse, since rifle was not long enough to serve as "pike").
The skirmishers acted in 2s, in pairs, and only fired one at a time so that one was always loaded. The intervals between pairs were:
- in the French army 15 paces,
- in Austrian 6 paces,
- in Russian 5 paces.
The intervals could change depending on tactical situation and available space. Advantage of such loose order of troops and skirmishers was:
1) harder to hit
2) could take cover (kneel, prone etc.)
3) skimishers generally had more ammunition on them then regulars so they could "skirmish" longer then regulars
4) better shots (both with muskets and rifles)
(on picture Russian Jaegers at Borodino)
Although the goal of the skirmishers was the same in all armies there were diiferences in training/equipment and usage of these troops. First of all, regular line infantry was trained
in skirmishing, but ofcourse using troops dedicated to this task was better. Therefore every infantry battalion had a "light troop"/ skirmish company. Sizes of battalions wary and so does number of companies in them, but for example:
1 of 10 companies in British battalion was a "Light company" ( skirmish regiments were "Rifles", "Light Foot" )
1 of 8 companies in Russian battalion was a "Strelki company" (skirmish regiments were then named "Jaegers")
1 of 6 companies in French battalion was a "Voltigeur company" (Voltigeurs also formed separate regiments or batallions)
Prussian and Austrian dedicated skirmishers were called "Jaegers" (hunters) or Freiwillingen Schutzen.
There was a difference between a battalion/regiment of "light infantry" and infantry battalion that had an skirmish company
for a purpose of skirmishing.
French were the only ones during the entire Napoleonic wars who frequently deployed entire regiments in skirmish order and at times even entire infantry divisions and also saw high succes with this tactic. Although Austrians, Prussians and Russians also experimented with this and proved capable in later years. Yet French armies were able to readily deploy line troops in skirmish, other nations used mostly dedicated units. The French enjoyed great reputation early on as skirmishers and rightly so. Even after Waterloo British officers and soldiers admitted that French were in general better suited for this type of combat (deploying large force in skirmish order, even regulars).
(French Lights "Voltigeurs")
According to George Nafziger only the French can lay claim to the universal employment of their line infantry as skirmishers
. General Duhesme proposed to rely only on skirmishers and small columns, claiming that the French are suited for this type of combat. Could be said that quality of French skirmishers was high until 1812. Russians and Austrians lacked initially but in 1813 they were an equal match for French.
There were also other notable differences in training in terms of "lead allowance" for troopers. Skirmishers generally had larger allowance and received additional training or were recruited from pouchers,huntsman, outdoorsman who were good shots and thus achieved better results.
lead (shots) allowances were:
- British light infantry - 50 rounds and 60 blanks
- French infantry - 40 rounds "for target practice" but only "in several regiments" (Waterloo Campaign 1815)
- Prussian jägers and riflemen - 60 "practice rounds" per man (in 1811-1812)
- Prussian light infantry (fusiliers) - 30 "practice rounds" per man (in 1811-1812)
- Austrian line infantry - 10 rounds (in 1809, Wagram Campaign)
- Austrian line infantry - 6 rounds (in 1805 Austerlitz Campaign)
- Russian jagers - 6 rounds (before 1805)
Not much data on France but conscripted French recruits received much less probably 2 shots in training. Of course this doesn´t apply for any "Guard" units or regiments with "Elite" status (especially in French armies). Also as war progressed, fresh French units received less training in general.
Generally it was the British army and their regulars and light troops that had most of yearly fire practice, simply because of their wealth (lead and powder were expensive) and smaller army size.
This coresponded with the British regular soldiers being able to shoot 3 rounds per minute on regular basis (even 4 was not uncommon), their light troops could easily do 4 rounds (2-3 with rifle).
French/Russian/Austrian conscript would be happy for 2 shots per minute.
Skirmishers and Musket vs. Rifle:
There was one notable difference between light infantry formations in Napoleonic wars and that is a use of a rifle
. After loosing war in America Britain learned their lesson and formed a lot of it´s light troops armed with rifles. The rifles were better suited for skirmishing then line troops muskets, as accuracy not speed of fire was the nature of skirmish duty, and the riflemen were deadly proficient at their task. Rifles were simply more accurate weapons than muskets and had a considerably longer range.
In September 1813 the French commander in Spain, Marshal Soult, wrote to the Minister of War that British sharpshooters were killing the French officers in a fast rate, "the losses of officers are so out of proportion with the losses in soldiers". Technically no orders to shoot officers were given to the light troops, but it proved painfully effective so it was "tolerated".
(Baker rifle and bayonet)
British Baker Rifle was probably the most accurate of all firearms during the Napoleonic Wars. On the training ground and under perfect conditions 100 % hits were recorded at 100 paces. In this field Britain dominated the battlefield. Entire regiments were armed with them, notably the: 95th "Rifles" regiment, King´s German Legion light battalions and 60th "Royal American" regiment. Eventually even forming the "Light Division" which task was specifically to harras and disrupt.
The most popular of them and "elite" was the 95th Rifles regiment
. It was formed in 1800 as the "Experimental Corps of Riflemen" to provide sharpshooters, scouts and skirmishers.
They were an exceptional outfit among British skirmishers in terms of performance, which can be demonstrated by the story of Rifleman Thomas Plunkett of the 1st Battalion, 95th Rifles:
"Armed with a Baker Rifle, he shot General Colbert at a range of between 400 and 600 yards; it is claimed! He then shot a second Frenchman who rode to his general's aid, so proving that it was not just a lucky shot."
The Regiment was involved in all campaigns during the Napoleonic Period:
- seeing sea service at the Battle of Copenhagen;
- forming the rearguard for the British Army's famous retreat to Corunna;
- was engaged in most major battles during the Peninsular War in Spain and Portugal;
- was sent as an expeditionary force to America in the War of 1812; and
- held their positions against tremendous odds at the Battle of Waterloo.
(KGL light rifle battalion troopers)
Other nations also used rifles in skirmish except the French army
, France experimented with rifle use and equiped elite formations with them, but troops refused to use them and complained about:
-long reload times
-to much maintanence needed
-being less sturdy in general
This is probably one of the most notable exceptions in their skirmish use. Ironically French formed "experimental" rifle battalion in 1793 (much sonner then British) but disbanded it same year. Thus French armies were the only ones who didn´t employ rifles en "masse" (they were given to chosen NCOs and officers in light regiments only). This coresponds with French tactic of "charge" attacks and offesive mindset and Napoleon´s possible dislike for them as well (there is a story of Napoleon witnessing performance of rifles vs. muskets and seeing their much slower rate of fire there, he didn´t support their use).
In general rifles and skirmishers did not decided outcame of battles but their effect on morale and simply their longer range and accuracy were serious problem for infantry armed with muskets (not to mention they were sometimes tasked with missions
outside the field of battle for their skill).
During Peninsular war Wellington favoured the use of light troops and even though French had better skirmishers in general (from line troops+ Voltigeur light battalions), use of rifles proved beneficial there. At Waterloo British/Coalition side had more than 4000 rifles on the battlefield and as we all know they won there decisively. Yet it took few more decades until rifle claimed it´s place over a musket.