French Line Infantry Tactic

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Tactical Practices at the beginning of the XVIIIth Century

During the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-13), an ordonnance dated March 2 1703 fixed the number of ranks to 5 for line infantry deployed in line formation. The number of ranks would gradually decrease to 4 then 3 during the war and would stabilize to 4 till the middle of the th century. Usually there was a distance of 4 m between ranks.

Columns were organized in manche, demi-manche and quart de manche.

The piquets (50 men each) were mostly used in and against outposts during campaigns.

After 1715, line infantry deployed in closer ranks. When in march columns, it tried to march in at least 20 files. During this period, line infantry required a few hours to deploy from columns to lines.

From 1727, the grenadier and piquet companies were often deployed on the flanks or as skirmishers in front of the battalion.

In 1733, an ordonnance organised the battalions in sections, the company being equivalent to a section. Thus, two sections formed a platoon; and two platoons, a manche. The demi-rang (half-rank) consisted of half the companies of a battalion (thus six or eight companies depending on the total number of companies in the regiment at a given time).

Around 1740, the iron ramrod is introduced.

An ordonnance of 1750 standardized weapon handling in the French infantry but there were still no standardized manoeuvre exercises and very few firing exercises. In fact shock was still privileged and most French generals considered French infantry as inherently inferior to its adversaries in terms of firepower, shock supposedly being more in tune with the “génie français” (French character). This preconception created a vicious circle where firing exercises were neglected, thus causing the French infantry to have an inferior firepower on the battlefield; in turn, these poor performances confirmed high command in their belief.

Tactical Practices from 1753 to 1763

Introduction

This article describes the elementary tactic governing the manoeuvre and firing method of the French Line Infantry. Three successive instructions, respectively dated from June 29, 1753; May 14, 1754; and May 6, 1755, organised this tactic and completed each other to specify the various manoeuvres. It is also worth noting that all these instructions had been published before the regulation of August 1, 1755 which increased the number of companies in a battalion. Thus majors had to adapt these instructions to the new situation on the field.

During the Seven Years’ War, French armies were usually poorly commanded and suffered several defeats. However, tactically, it was a period of innovation and experimentation: thin lines (3 ranks), columns, skirmishers, battalion guns, introduction of the concept of army division…

Each time that battle took place on a rather flat terrain, the infantry was classically deployed in two lines; and grenadiers and piquets were only used to dislodge the enemy from its outposts in front of the army.

In addition to sub-units already mentioned in our article on the French Infantry Organisation, for drill formation, additional terms were used. Thus the company formed a section, two companies combined formed a platoon, two platoons made a division, and four platoons constituted a demi-rang (half-rank). It was then possible to order: "To the right by section" or "To the right by division." The term division, when applied to a regiment, designated two combined platoons and the regulation of June 29, 1753 was still using the term manche, already used at the beginning of the century. At the battalion level, the term division had a different meaning than at the army level where, during this period, it designated a formation including several infantry or cavalry brigades.

When approaching the enemy on the battlefield, the French infantry had insufficient training to allow for rapid deployment from two or three columns like the Prussian infantry could easily accomplish. Therefore, during the Seven Years’ War, we see a tendency to make the approach in several columns.

For example, in his instructions in 1760, Broglie organizes his infantry in four divisions and specifies that the army would approach the battle field in six columns (each cavalry wing and each infantry division forming its own column). The days of march, infantry regiments would march by platoon, leaving only 3 paces between each platoon. Whne forming in line, each squadron and each battalion would be separated from each other by a distance of 12 paces. Each line would be separated from the next by a distance of 300 paces.

These drill formations hold true only for the tactical organisation during the Seven Years' War, from 1755. With the regulation issued in 1764, the reduction of the number of companies and the larger number of men in each company, the half-company would become the section, the company the platoon, and two companies the half-rank.

Adoption of the cadenced step and close order

The Maréchal de Saxe wrote that the strength of infantry was in its legs. It is under his insistence that the French Infantry adopted the cadenced step and the pas emboîté (nested steps) which allowed to walk rhythmically in close ordered ranks with the foot of the man following landed at the exact place just left by the foot of the man preceding him in the file.

The ordonnance of 1753 fixed the distance between each rank to 1.30 m for a column of sections or platoons; to 2.60 m. in a column of manches or demi-rangs; and to 5.20 m. in a column of battalions.

The ordonnance of 1754 standardized the cadenced step for the French infantry.

According to the ordonnance of 1755, there should be an interval varying from 18 inches to 2 feet ahead and behind each soldier when deployed in close order ranks and files should be drawn close enough so that their elbows almost touched but without hindering them.

The petit pas (half-step pace) measured between 8 inches and 1 foot, it was done at the pace of 60 steps per minute. The pas ordinaire (standard pace) measured 2 feet and was done at the pace of 60 steps per minute. The pas redoublé (double pace) measured 2 feet and was done at the pace of 120 steps per minute. To execute the various manoeuvres, there was also the pas oblique (oblique step) and the pas de conversion (turning step). When a unit marched, all soldiers started with the left foot, similarly for turns the soldiers always used their left leg as pivot. Finally, the pas de route (road step), which appeared only in regulations in 1764. All these paces were military steps and must not be confused with the pas de camp (camp pace) used in the same period which was purely a unit of measure (3 foot) used to set up camps and to deploy troops in order of battle.

Tactical organisation of a battalion

Our article on the French Infantry Organisation depicts the administrative organisation of regiments. However, in the field, the companies of a battalion were organised in platoons (each comprising 2 companies) and divisions (each comprising 2 platoons).

Furthermore, in the case of regiments comprising several battalions, the rules of seniority and honours determined the placement of each battalion. The same held true for the dispositions of each platoon and division. Only the respective positions of the grenadiers and piquets varied depending of the placement of their parent battalion. Thus, in a regiments consisting of 4 battalions, the grenadiers of the leftmost battalion as well as those of the 3rd battalion were placed on the left wing of the battalion.

When, on August 1st 1755, battalions were increased to 16 companies, these companies were combined in 8 platoons, themselves combined in 4 divisions. When the grenadier company was absent (detached and converged with other grenadier companies), a second piquet company was temporarily created, the first piquet company then taking the place usually assigned to the grenadiers; and the second, the place of the first. This way, in camp, the battalion still occupied the same frontage. In 1760, chasseur companies were created, replacing the piquet companies.

Tactical formation of a French battalion deployed in Ordre mince - Source: Jean-Louis Vial

This perfect disposition was prescribed for a full strength battalion. However, this was rarely the case and rules specified how to form incomplete battalions. Within such battalions, platoons were organised to maintain a symmetrical deployment. Thus, when deployed in ordre mince, each platoon was formed in 3 ranks with an even number of files. Once this formation taken, supplemental soldiers were sent to other platoons who were missing soldiers to complete their own formation. Once all platoons formed, any supplemental soldiers would be transferred to the piquet company.

Ordre mince and ordre profond

It is difficult to approach the tactic of the French Infantry of the Seven Years' War without taking into consideration the quarrel between the ordre mince (line) and the ordre profond (column) which agitated French military throughout the second half of the XVIIIth century. Indeed we can see the first manifestations of this quarrel during this war. The adoption of the musket and bayonet and the abandonment of the pike had already caused a disruption at the beginning of the XVIIIth century. If the XVIIth century and the beginning of the XVIIIth century had been a period of discussions and publications on fortifications and sieges, the end of the XVIIIth century saw the publication of works on infantry tactic by fervent supporters of the ordre mince and ordre profond, even eclipsing the ongoing quarrel among artillerymen about the merits of the Vallière and Gribeauval systems.

To give a brief idea of these two conceptions: proponents of the ordre mince considered that fire was the determining factor in a combat thus the more the front of a unit was extended the more one could inflict losses to the enemy, weakening him to get the upper hand; meanwhile the proponents of the ordre profond argued that it was not fire but shock who was the determining factor, allowing to crush the enemy lines with 6 ranks deep (or more) columns bristling with bayonets.

The ordonnance of 1753 stipulated that the column of attack of a battalion was formed of three manches (i.e. division), one behind the other. According to Colin, such a column had 12 files and about 40 ranks with the grenadiers at its head and the piquets at its rear. This suggests that each manches was 8 ranks deep (3 manches @ 8 ranks plus grenadiers in 8 ranks ans piquet in 8 ranks). The only line formation was four ranks deep. However, the colonels experienced with various formations for manoeuvrability.

From 1754, the line had only three ranks. The same year, at the training camp of Gray, the ordre profond (six ranks) was used to attack troops deployed in ordre mince (3 ranks):

“Being at 120 paces from the enemy, the grenadiers, the piquets and the battalions of the wings move 20 paces forward, and fired. During this march and this fire, which covered movements in the rear, the three battalions of the centre doubled their ranks, recalling detached troops, and marched at double-step on the enemy line, breaking through its centre.”

In the ordonnance of 1755, the column of attack is simply formed by placing platoons one behind the other, without leaving any distance between them. The column always consists of two battalions side by side. The grenadiers and the piquets retain their deployment in three ranks and flank the head of the column, firing while it charged.

Ordre mince on three ranks for fire

French Infantry deployed in Ordre mince - Source: Jean-Louis Vial

During the Seven Years' War, it is the ordre mince in 3 ranks which was the most commonly used when infantry units deployed in order of battle. However, in April 1759 the War Minister, the Maréchal de Belle-Isle, had written to the Maréchal de Contades, enjoining him to put his infantry in 6 ranks in encampment as well as in battle and to train them in this exercise. We can see in this initiative, the influence of the Chevalier de Folard, one of the most fervent proponent of the ordre profond, over the Maréchal de Belle-Isle who was his faithful protector till the end of his life. Belle-Isle appreciated some of these innovative concepts and preferred attack over fire. Contades, as an obedient soldier, applied these instructions in parts. Thus at the battle of Minden, on August 1 1759, he deployed his infantry with some units in ordre profond and others in ordre mince. However, it seems that this new deployment in 6 ranks was not used very often, for it's true that the custom of manoeuvring in 3 ranks was already established since a while. Thus, Joly de Mezeroy, who served with the army during the Seven Years' War and was a proponent of the ordre profond, wrote in the introduction of his Théorie de la guerre, published in 1777: “in 1758, the Maréchal de Belle-Isle, then War Minister, produced a regulation who confirmed several articles of the preceding ones, among which to charge and manoeuvre in 6 ranks: but the German method who prevailed with too much influence; and the regulation has been observed only in exercises.” Similarly, the instructions of the Maréchal de Broglie in 1760 and 1761 maintained the disposition of the infantry in ordre mince.

The first rank fired kneeling (right knee to the ground), soldiers of the second rank standing, inclined their body to the right by placing their right foot at right angle 3 inches behind their left foot, and the third rank stood facing, simply placing the right foot 3 inches behind to gain stability and to place their musket in the intervals of the second rank.

In order to increase the rate of fire by whole ranks along the entire front of a battalion, the Maréchal de Broglie; in his instruction of 1761 addressed to the infantry majors of his army, specified the method to use by regiment which involved only the first 2 ranks.

Précision and effectiveness of fire

Once exercises in garrison or in camps realised, in real combat situations, firing procedure were much more difficult. The Encyclopédie of 1777 describes the action of an infantryman during combat as follows: “Fire is most often very uncertain, and nothing is more true. Whatever the position of an infantry troop, in open terrain or in mountainous country, it is undisputable that wind, dust or sun, noise and smoke, who are unavoidable, perpetual movements and unevenness of terrain make soldiers knock each others, and change order and union of the various parts of a troop and expose it to break; the quickness with which a soldier charge his musket, makes him often spill half his cartridge, or push it only halfway in the barrel; the barrel becomes burning hot and clogged by dint of firing; the gun lock gets dry and breaks down, or whose flint does not produce sparks any more; finally the ardour who gets on their nerves and stuns them; all of this contribute to disturb the exactness of fire, and to considerably diminnish fire and its effect.”

Lombard in his Essais du mouvement des projectiles dans l'air, where he describes trials made with the M1777 infantry musket, concludes that without correction of the elevation of the musket beyond 120 toises (233m) most balls do not reach the front of the enemy. He estimates that, with the method commonly used to fire to touch a 5 to 6 feet high target, this target should not be farther than 80 to 100 toises (155-195m), when aiming at the top of the target. According to Guibert and Cotty, fire was effective only from 70-80 toises (136-156 m), all shots fired beyond a range of 120 toises (233m) uselessly wasted precious ammunition.

Ordre profond: formation in column for the attack

For an attack on an enemy infantry position (assaulting a redoubt, a position inside a village, breakthrough an infantry line) infantry formed in 6 ranks deep column and charged at double pace at the point of the bayonet without firing. The instruction of February 17 1753, specified that for service during campaign: “One will put battalions in 3 ranks for firing exercise, and one will never make them fire when in 6 ranks deep.” An initial and rather complex method to form a 6 ranks deep column had first been introduced by the regulation of 1754, a new simplified manoeuvre was applied from 1755 on.

The formation in column of attack was always made using 2 battalions side-by-side, the passage from 3 to 6 ranks was made by doubling platoons and all the difficulties resided in the training for this manoeuvre which should be executed with speed and precision without confusion or disorder. In practice the 2 centre divisions moved forward side by side on a distance of about 16 feet, the wing divisions the made a lateral movement to take position behind the 2 centre divisions. The grenadier company on the right flank and the piquet company on the left flank remained in 3 ranks and covered the intervals between the columns during their formation and then moved forward to take the lead of the attack: the grenadier company to the right in front of the first division and the piquet company to the left in front of the second division. As mentioned before, the regulation stipulated that firing was prohibited when formed 6 ranks deep, but necessity forced to train soldiers formed in column to the feu de chaussée where men at the head of the column fired a salvo before rapidly walked back along the column to reform at its tail and recharge their musket, each rank repeating the same manoeuvre.

The Ordre profond was used at Rossbach and Minden. At Rossbach the French were surprised in columns of march. The leading regiments like Piémont and La Viefville Saint-Chamond formed in column and charged but were stopped by the lively fire of the Prussian infantry. At Minden, Contades gave orders to each infantry brigade of his two lines to form his first battalion in column and all others in line. To attack, each battalion was ordered to form in column, maintaining the initial distance between each battalion to easily from in line later on. Havré’s light troops (some 1,200 men) would occupy outposts on the neighbouring heights.

There were two other columnar formations prescribed by the regulation of 1755: the column of retreat and the column of march. The column of retreat, if attacked, would form a square which was not a tactical formation to receive cavalry charges. The Maréchal de Broglie paid much attention to the column of march in his instructions because this formation allowed a fast and ordered deployment of the army in order of battle, a quite laborious accomplishment until then. These improvement could also be found in the regulations edicted after the Seven Years' War.

Use of skirmishers

The use of, small troops of skirmishers detached in front of the army to make themselves masters of villages, woods, hedges and vineyards, had been widespread in French armies during the War of the Spanish Succession and had slowly decreased in the subsequent wars. The practice was reintroduced during the Seven Years’ War. These detachments of skirmished usually fired at will.

Firing procedure

From 1754, firing was made by section, platoon, tiers de rang, demi-rang or battalion.

In 1755, the regulation specified that fire should start from the central part of the battalion and proceed outwards.

Rest your firelock

Mettez le chien en son repos
(Rest your firelock)
Source: L'Encyclopédie


Handle your cartridge

Prenez la cartouche
(Handle your cartridge)
Source: L'Encyclopédie


Open your cartridge

Déchirez la cartouche
(Open your cartridge) - First movement
Source: L'Encyclopédie
Déchirez la cartouche
(Open your cartridge) - Second movement
Source: L'Encyclopédie

Prime

Amorcez
(Prime)
Source: L'Encyclopédie


Shut the pan

Fermez le bassinet
(Shut the pan)
Source: L'Encyclopédie


Pass the musket to the sword side

Passez vos armes du côté de l'épée
(Pass the musket to the sword side) – First movement
Source: L'Encyclopédie
Passez vos armes du côté de l'épée
(Pass the musket to the sword side) – Second movement
Source: L'Encyclopédie
Passez vos armes du côté de l'épée
(Pass the musket to the sword side) – Third movement
Source: L'Encyclopédie

Load with cartridge

Mettez la cartouche dans le canon
(Load with cartridge)
Source: L'Encyclopédie


Draw your rammer

Mettez la baguette dans le canon
(Draw your rammer)
Source: L'Encyclopédie


Ram down the cartridge

no illustration available

Return your rammer

Remettez la baguette en son lieu
(Return your rammer)
Source: L'Encyclopédie


Order your firelock

Portez vos armes
(Order your firelock) - First movement
Source: L'Encyclopédie
Portez vos armes
(Order your firelock) - Second movement
Source: L'Encyclopédie
Portez vos armes
(Order your firelock) - Third movement
Source: L'Encyclopédie

Turn

À droite
(Turn right)
Source: L'Encyclopédie


Make ready

Haut les armes
(Arms up)
Source: L'Encyclopédie
Apprêtez vos armes
(Make Ready) - First rank
Source: L'Encyclopédie
Apprêtez vos armes
(Make Ready) - Second rank
Source: L'Encyclopédie
Apprêtez vos armes
(Make Ready) - Third rank
Source: L'Encyclopédie

Present

En joue
(Present)
Source: L'Encyclopédie


References

Colin, Commandant d’artillerie: L’infanterie française au XVIIIe siècle – La Tactique, Paris: Berger-Levrault, 1907, pp. 27-81

Diderot and d'Alembert: L'Encyclopédie (illustrations of the firing procedure by Bernard Fecit)

Acknowledgements

Jean-Louis Vial of Nec Pluribus Impar for most of the content of this article

Ibrahim90 for the firing procedure