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Napoleonic military tactics

Thu Apr 30, 2015 7:37 pm

I decided to start out a thread about military tactics from Napoleonic era, since although there is number of quality pages on the topic, I haven´t found one in this forum. I realize that Ageod games are above single unit tactical control, but some basic understanding of tactics and units used could prove beneficial not to mention it´s an interesting part of european history.
Ideas used by me in this thread are not my "own" nor did I invented them, I simply recreated or used materials by other authors. I´ll try to give credit when credit is due.

Line Combat basics (rock, paper, scissors):
This basic chart uses a simple logic of counters if attacker or defender. (idea used from Mr.J presentation,

In this chart you see a simple projection of what would happen if you used certain unit against other certain unit on the attack. Know this is a simple chart, it of course does not take into account training, morale, terrain and manouvering. It´s best to picture it like "if I use this unit head on against this unit in a standard plain terrain this will happen".

It does ilustrates a basic military thinking about line combat tactics of that time (pre-napoleon). It´s similar to a today knowledge of "tank beats infantry" "urban infantry beats tank".
Now ofcourse any decent tactian will try to find a way how to break this pre-determined outcome given by nature of weapons used. It´s also very clear that none of these units can oparate independently and achieve a good result against a mixed force.

So what tactics were used in the Napoleonic wars? Quite a few, but as always bread and butter of line combat always was infantry tactics.
Chart v.2.png
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Column and Line tactics, what´s that about?

Thu Apr 30, 2015 8:43 pm

Traditional line:

-horizontal progress
-hard to maneuver/turn
-easier to brake on movement (loss of cohesion)

+higher firepower

= Traditional formation from 18th century, in napoleonic era it lost it´s popularity to columns which were better for maneuver combat. Yet very efficient if used by drilled infantry on defense.

Column deployment:

+simpler formation/ easier to learn
+easier to manuever/turn/move en masse
+hold together in rough terrain
+less vulnerable against cavalry in general (square was also easier to form)

-deficient in firepower (only front ranks firing)
-vulnerable to artillery

= new way how to manuever, faster movement, easier to learn. Adopted to a degree by all armies in Napoleonic wars, first succesfull usage by French armies.

So here it is column vs. line, but how could it look in the field if these two formations met? Well see for yourself....


Above picture shows an obvious advantage of line over column if the two met. It comes down to a simple mathematics and unless the column would attack head on, they would have to retreat.
To clarify, not all the colums and lines used by warring nations were same, they were differences between "rank" (file) distance, company and battalion spacing and also in used order of march.


In line deployment important factor was especially "depth of the line". In 18th century the most efficient model adopted was 3 lines depth, but in Napoleonic era some armies used or experimented with two lines (Brits) or four lines (Prussians) tactics. Three lines were considered a "standard" depth of that time.

Conclusion: it´s obvious to see strenghts and weaknesses of both formation, reason why column gained popularity was because of a need for manuever warfare and flexibility. But no commander could completely abandon line deployment since it projected firepower better. But was it just line or column in regular infantry?
No, but guess what happened here with basic line and column deployments= MIXED ORDER TACTICS (next post)

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Mixed order tactics

Thu Apr 30, 2015 9:35 pm

Why use mixed order? Well, because Napoleon thought of it as a good idea.
"Columns don't break through lines unless with superior artillery." - Napoleon

This advice was not always listened to, and colums took heavy losses if not under cover or if under prolonged artillery fire. Napoleon therefore advocated the use of both lines and columns in the attack by acting in concert thus getting rid off the disadvantages of both formations. Napoleon himself used column-line-column. His Marshals had their own preference as well.

Pros and Cons
+ mobile and flexible
+ able to project firepower better
+ usefull on attack (fire and charge)
+ fast forming into square

- technically none, but it was hard to use effeciently
- still needed support from cavalry and artillery

Such mixed order then looked like this:
This picture represents biggest column in napoleonic wars, although battle of Wagram was an victory McDonalds column did not succeded and took heavy losses.

Here French, although deployed in mixed order did not achieved advantage. When pitched in long volley exchanges mixed order still didn´t beat line.

Both of these examples are not actually succesfull ones. Not because mixed order was wrong but because even if you use mixed order you still gonna have to achieve advantage through maneuver and use of artillery .

Conclusion: Mixed order was an effective use of infantry, great examples are battle of Jena, Borodino, Austerlitz.
It was the most efficient way how to use line infantry flexibly on the move and attack to achieve decisive victory.
Cavalry and especially artillery played a critical role in gaining "upper hand" in such battles. Both were also infrantrymen´s nightmare and important counter against line troops.

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Squares vs. Cavalry

Thu Apr 30, 2015 9:42 pm

Squares and their place in linear combat:

Square formation was an important tactic and infrantryman only hope against cavalry in the field. It´s use was not limited only in Napoleonic wars (used before and after as well), but Napoleonic wars saw a heavy use of this formation, mostly because of strong formations of cavalry. For starters there was not a "single type" of square used.

[color="#B22222"]How it was inside such a square?
"Our squares presented a shocking sight. Inside we were nearly suffocated by the smoke and smell from burnt cartridges. It was impossible to move a yard without treading upon a wounded comrade, or upon the bodies of the dead; and the loud groans of the wounded and dying was most appaling. At 4 o'clock our square was a perfect hospital, being full of dead, dying, and mutilated bodies." Wellington himself took refuge in this square. He appeared very "thoughtful and pale." [/color]

Hollow square:


picture shows hollow square from the top view.

Hollow square was a standard-issue square used pre-napoleon and it was traditionally used by line-formed infantry and later by column formation. On the lower pictures you can see a way of forming a hollow square from both formations. Forming it from column was simpler and quicker. In many cases column itself was able to protect itself, especially "closed column" (attack column). Square was usually from battalion level here.


So how long it took to form hollow square?

According to French regulations of 1791 if the infantry was in line it should be able to form square in 100 sec. If they were in attack column (closed column) 30 sec. were enough.
At Leipzig the Austrian "5th Jager Battalion" formed square at a run, delivered a volley, and waited its fate with bayonets at the ready. In reality speed in which square was formed was dependent on many factors:
-experience, discipline and training
-battlefield situation, morale, panic etc.
Reasonable expectation was 3-5 minutes and that applies for drilled infantry (albait raw). Entire battalion was thus forever looking for a cavalry movement, forming too late meant disaster.

Solid square:


Solid square was a formation developed thanks to use of columns on the battlefield. They were unlike Hollow squares a dense, packed formation formed from a closed column formation (attack column) and their main difference and advantage was an to form quickly and move on the battlefield (slowly).
Yet drawbacks were:
-hard to manauver
-extremely vulnerable to artillery fire (even more so then hollow squares)

Egyptian square:
(no picture here, imagine big square formed from an entire division and packed with people in rectangle shape)

In Egypt Napoleon's army faced the fierce but undisciplined Mamelukes. Although heavily outnumbered Napoleon realised that the only enemy's troops of any worth were their cavalry so he arranged his troops in large divisional (multi-battalion) squares with the front and rear made up of a half-brigade each and the third half-brigade of the division making up the two sides of the square. The "Egyptian squares" had 3-rank deep walls. Friendly cavalry and baggage hid within these squares. The large squares repelled the Mamelukes with artillery fire supporting.

Difference? It was a rectangle formation!

Multi-Battalion squares: Two, three or four battalions formed regimental square.

General Jomini wrote, "It is agreed that the regimental square is the best for the defensive and the battalion square for the offensive." The larger the square the more firepower it had and the more diffcult it was to break it. The regimental square however required more time to form. It also moved slower, and was much more clumsy. For these reasons such formations were mostly used by the defending infantry.
What it meant in the field was this: hollow and solid squares were formed on battalion level (600-900men) individually. They were more suitable for movement and offensives. But at times entire regiments formed squares = multi battalion squares (2-4 battalions). Even higher level was a brigade or divisional level square (such are those that Napoleon used in Egypt).

Following picture is a great example of a successfull multi-battalion square.

It´s obvious that square formed an essential tactic against cavalry charge and increased infantryman survival rate tenfold. But even formed squares could be broken by cavalry!

Methods used were:
1) Cavalry + Artillery = most effective method, very bad situation for any battalion
2) Charge in two following formations = first charge draw musket volley, second attampted to brake the square after first retreated
3) One troop of cavalry dismouted (dragoons) and skirmished the square, second troop stayed on horseback and waited for a brake (required training and experience + sufficient numbers)
4) Charging corners (weakest point) + using subterfuge and cunning

Still square was a hard formation to break for cavalry, as long as soldiers kept their calm and hold fast they prevailed. Simple mathematics was against the cavalry when they attacked a square.An average strength battalion with 600 men formed a square 3 ranks deep, this meant that on one side were some 150 soldiers, all of whom could fire and contributed bayonets to the hedge. They covered a frontage of about 25 m (50 men x 0.5 m).The most cavalrymen that the enemy could bring to face them were 50 in 2 ranks (25 men x 1 m). But only the men in first rank could attack at a time, some 6 muskets + bayonets confronted a single lance or saber. Very bad mathematics for a cavalryman indeed.

"cavalry charge against infantry in square would be thrown back 99 times out of 100."- Mark Adkin


About content usage: I received a permission to use and pictures any material from an above site as long as I reference it. I can only recommend above page for any Napoleonic fanboy. It´s a well of knowledge about this era.
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Thu Apr 30, 2015 9:44 pm

Reserved for: Light infantry, Skirmish order.
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Fri May 01, 2015 1:45 pm

Extremely interesting...

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Fri May 01, 2015 2:50 pm

Great Job, awaiting the rest.
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Fri May 01, 2015 10:47 pm

Thanks guys, also updated. :)

Technical question: why can´t I put more then 5 pictures in a post?
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Sun May 03, 2015 10:30 am

Thanks, very interesting.

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Skirmishers and Skirmish order tactic.

Wed May 06, 2015 5:44 pm

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.

Yearly 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.

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Wed May 06, 2015 5:46 pm

Updated, up next probably Cavalry or Artillery tactics and usage.
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Thu Jun 25, 2015 2:59 pm

Would like to see more emphasis on Fire Discipline in the mechanics game as it played a role in formations and skirmishing.

The first musket volley was the most effective and succeeding volleys less and less so.

Skirmishers (especially en masse) sometimes provoked and early volley as well as disrupted cohesion.

Column was often used for inexperienced troops but was also used by Napoleon because his enemies were notorious for poor fire discipline...they would fire too soon at the column. And then the column would advance into a poor second volley or none at all and either halt to fire one narrow volley or just advance/charge. In which case the enemy would break (no bayonet fight except in literature or fortified/closed positions).

Also would like to see some new traits that might be relevant...some sort of reverse slope thing, etc. The British were well trained to hold their fire but the reverse slope also helped preserve the precious first volley as well. And in those cases it was the French who often broke.

Kind of like a game of discipline and who will break.

Also, there were two or three times where the British repelled cavalry charges while in line I think. The key was the flanks and how cohesive or well-formed the infantry was. Horses will not charge into a well-formed, cohesive body with bayonets no matter what the formation.

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Sun Jun 28, 2015 7:17 pm

Great great job Smitzer52 ! very interesting ! I agree with you.
1. for the infantry square, discipline was the key : Auerstaedt 1806 seeing French infantry square facing multiples charges of all the prussian cavalry, it's the elite of the french infantry with Davout.
2. the skirmishers, yes the french voltigeurs were very effective and it's interesting that they were less used as skirmisher in 1813 1815 at Waterloo for example and i think it was the lack of training after 1812.

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