British Army Firepower in the mid-eighteenth century II

King George II with the Duke of Cumberland at the Battle of Dettingen on 16th June 1743 in the War of the Austrian Succession: picture by John Wootton

Earl of Stair British Commander at the Battle of Dettingen fought on 16th June 1743 in the War of the Austrian Succession.

Lieutenant General Henry Hawley wrote a similar account of the Highlander’s tactics, adding that they normally formed four deep, with their best men in the front rank, but that by the time they reached their enemy they were twelve or fourteen deep. The Duke of Cumberland added further detail when he gave his orders on how the Highlanders were to be fought. His orders explained that the object of the Highlanders firing ‘at a distance’ was to draw their enemy’s fire, adding that after firing they lay down to avoid that return fire. This enabled them to charge home with swords against unloaded muskets.

Mackay’s attempts to overcome the Highland tactics ended in defeat. Hawley’s response was to advise firing by ranks, the fire directed at the centre of the attacking body of Highlanders, starting with the rear rank, but not firing until the range was ‘ten or twelve paces’. He deemed it necessary to wait until the range was so short because the speed of the advance would prevent reloading. Cumberland’s orders were more comprehensive as he allowed for the enemy advancing slowly as well as for the Highland charge. First he specified that a battalion must be in eighteen platoons. If the advance was slow he ordered that firing should be by half firings, that is three platoons at a time, in the case of a rapid advance the fire of the whole battalion was to be reserved until the range was ten or twelve yards. He makes no mention of firing by ranks, so it would seem the whole battalion was to fire together.

The first infantry to meet the Jacobite army were those of the scratch force of Lieutenant General Sir John Cope at Prestonpans on 21 September 1745. A considerable amount is known concerning events at Prestonpans because there was a subsequent inquiry into the defeat of Cope’s little army, although the main interest of the inquiry was the conduct of the senior officers, not the tactics employed. What is clear is that there was no attempt to fight the Jacobite army in anything other than a completely conventional way. The infantry was described as completely formed and having been divided into platoons and firings. When the Jacobites attacked first the dragoons broke and then the infantry gave what was described as ragged fire and also broke and ran.

At the battle of Falkirk, 17 January 1746, the British army was led by Lieutenant General Hawley and, following the defeat of his cavalry, most of his infantry turned and ran in the face of the Highland charge and a raging storm with rain and sleet. However, some detail is available of how the infantry battalions that did stand fought the Jacobites. In particular the description by a sergeant in Barrell’s regiment described how the front rank knelt while the centre and rear rank fired continually. This is confirmed by a private in Barrell’s who referred to the battalion keeping a reserve, that is the front rank. A description of the Royal Scots that appeared in a Dublin newspaper described them firing on attacking Highlanders, the rear rank first, then the centre rank and the front rank when the enemy were within a few paces. This was sufficient to repel the attack. There is a suggestion that while the front rank was held as a reserve, the centre and rear ranks fired by platoon rather than whole ranks, but on the whole those battalions that stood appear to have adhered to Hawley’s advice.

Prior to the battle of Culloden the Duke of Cumberland assembled his army at Aberdeen. There the infantry were carefully trained for the forthcoming confrontation with the Jacobite army and the Highland charge in particular. On 2 April 1746 Cumberland ordered: ‘The Royal North British Fuzileers to be out in the Park tomorrow at 11 o’clock there to practice the motions of alternate firings by platoons from ye right and left to ye centre reserving the fire of ye front rank & Grenadiers.’ These were followed by the Royal Scots, Price’s, Barrell’s and ‘Every Regiment to take their turns afterwards.’ This method of firing was a departure from the normal practice of firing by platoons organised into firings. In some ways this was similar to what Bland advised for dealing with cavalry, with the front rank reserved, but alternate firing was something that he advised against. He described the way the Dutch conducted alternate firing when advancing and although he thought it could be very effective against a stationary enemy he considered it to be vulnerable to a sudden counter-attack while the platoons were reloading. He emphasised that it was necessary for a battalion firing in this manner to advance slowly, ‘to give the Men Time to load their Arms before they approach too near the Enemy’. This would seem to make it unsuitable as a method of dealing with the fast-advancing Highlanders. However, the suggestion that a battalion could be left vulnerable while men reloaded also indicates that the whole fire of a battalion could be delivered very quickly in this manner, something that would be desirable against Highlanders closing quickly. Should that fire not stop an attack then the fire of the reserved grenadiers and front rank could be delivered at a range of only a few yards. This intention of delivering the maximum available fire in a short time at close range is borne out by a passage in a contemporary history of the rebellion that described the infantry at Culloden as firing ‘according to Orders, viz. the 2d and 3d Rank, as they were within 30 Yards, and the 1st, just as they were at the Muzzles of their Guns’.

In addition to a different form of firing the infantry also received instruction in a new way of using the bayonet. From its introduction the bayonet had been treated in the same manner as the pike and for combat it was held in exactly the same manner as the ‘charge for pike’ position. The soldier turned his body to the right with the musket held horizontally under the chin across the chest. The left hand supported the musket under the chin while the right arm was fully extended and the right hand held the musket butt. Drill for fighting with the bayonet was limited to simply thrusting the musket forward, bringing the right hand to the right shoulder and extending the left arm, all with the musket held horizontally at shoulder level. It would seem improbable that soldiers in hand-to-hand combat only plied their bayonets in this manner and it is possible that this lack of drill, when compared to the extensive instructions for musketry, might be partly responsible for the idea that firepower was more important than the bayonet. However, the amount of instruction required for an activity is not necessarily an indication of its relative importance.

The drawback with this drill when fighting a Highlander armed with a sword in the right hand and a targe on the left arm was that any thrust with the bayonet was easily caught on the targe and the musket was also easily knocked aside by the targe, leaving the back of the soldier exposed to the sword. The solution to this problem was simple and introduced by the Duke of Cumberland: ‘his Highness took the pains to confer with every Battalion of Foot, on the proper Method of using the Musket and Bayonet to Advantage against the Sword and Target.’ He simply instructed the soldiers to reverse the position so that they faced to the left of their unit with the right hand under their chin and their left hand on the musket butt. The intention was that any thrust with the bayonet would then tend to come at a Highlander’s exposed right side instead of the left that was covered by the targe. Although Cumberland is usually credited with devising this drill, it is described in an article in the Gentleman’s Magazine for January 1746.

Cumberland’s army came face to face with the Jacobite army of Charles Edward Stuart on Culloden Moor on 16 April 1746. What followed was Cumberland’s army simply, efficiently and professionally going about its business, particularly the infantry. The Jacobite army was organised in two lines, the front consisting of the Highland units, with the Lowland units and French regulars in the second line. It was the Highlanders in the front line that attacked, moving forward in three large bodies. The body which moved towards Cumberland’s right flank did not make contact. Three times it advanced, trying to provoke the infantry into firing too soon, but, as Cumberland wrote in a letter to Lord Loudon: ‘On our right tho they came on with great fury, our Men did not take their firelocks from their shoulders tho they advanced three times within less than an hundred yards of us.’ It was also probable that the Jacobites were inhibited by the presence of three squadrons of cavalry on that flank.

On the other side of the battlefield the other two bodies of Highlanders coalesced into one single mass that struck the battalions of Barrell and Monro. Because of the surviving accounts and an accurate list of the strength of Cumberland’s army it is possible to examine in some detail the combat that ensued.

Barrell’s regiment took the brunt of the Highland charge. The strength of Barrell’s that day was 373, all ranks, of whom 325 were carrying muskets in the three-deep platoons. At this time infantry battalions consisted of nine hat companies and one grenadier company. Given the low strength of Barrell’s, it is probable that it was organised into a total of twelve platoons, giving a platoon strength of twenty-seven men. This would mean that the centre and rear ranks of the ten hat platoons contained 180 men and the reserve had 145 men. If they fired as related, the platoons would have commenced firing at thirty yards in what one eyewitness described as a ‘running fire’, followed by the reserve who ‘received them with their fire upon the Points of their Bayonets’. They appear to have only fired once before the Highlanders reached them, a total of 325 rounds.

Monro’s regiment was the largest battalion on the field with a total strength of 491 men and 426 men in the platoons. An account by a corporal in the regiment states: ‘we fired at about 50 yards Distance . . . they still advanced, and were almost upon us before we had loaden again. We immediately gave them another full fire.’ This probably means that the platoons of the centre and rear ranks fired twice, almost certainly tap-loading to get in a second round, followed by the reserve. Thus 236 men fired twice and 190 fired once, a total of 662 rounds. The corporal of Monro’s continued that ‘the Front Rank charged their Bayonets Breast high, and the Centre and Rear Ranks kept a continual Firing . . . most of us having discharged nine Shot each.’ Monro’s suffered a total of eighty-two killed and wounded in the battle, allowing for which the battalion could have fired approximately two thousand rounds at ranges well under fifty metres.

To the right of Monro’s was Cambell’s Royal Scots Fusiliers. Although not subsequently involved in hand-to-hand fighting, part of the Highland charge crossed its front. With 412 men in its platoons, and assuming its reserve did not fire, it is likely that it fired about 220 rounds at the Highlanders, if it only fired once. The initial fire received by the front of the Highland charge was probably in excess of one thousand rounds, many at point-blank range. The corporal of Monro’s wrote that this ‘made hundreds fall’.

It was at this point that Cumberland’s new bayonet drill came into play and numerous letters and accounts speak of its effectiveness. Cumberland himself wrote: ‘our Men fairly beat them & drove them back with their Bayonets & made a great slaughter of them.’ According to another account: ‘the Soldiers mutually defended each other, and pierced the Heart of his Opponent, ramming their fixed Bayonets up to the Socket.’ Another eyewitness claimed: ‘there being scarce one Soldier in Barreyl’s Regiment who did not each kill several Men; and they of Monro’s which ingaged did the same.’

Some Highlanders passed around the left flank of Barrell’s and between Barrell’s and Monro’s, overrunning two artillery pieces in the gap. Pairs of three-pounder cannon had been placed between the battalions in the front line and these undoubtedly added many casualties, the guns next to Barrell’s firing their last shots of grape at only six feet. The Highlanders who passed Barrell’s then came under fire from regiments in the second line. Subsequently these moved forward to support Barrell’s and Monro’s. In particular Edward Wolfe’s regiment marched to the left of Barrell’s and placed itself at right angles to the front line where it commenced firing. The account of an officer of that regiment says that the battalion fired five or six times. The strength of the regiment was 324 in the platoons and if this firing was carried out with the front rank and grenadier platoons reserved it would have fired between nine hundred and one thousand rounds into the Highlanders at close range. Ligonier’s, Bligh’s and Sempill’s regiments also added their weight to this fire with a total of 1,157 muskets in their platoons. There is no indication of how many rounds they fired, but if, like Wolfe’s, they fired five rounds each that would have been another 3,200 rounds.

Highland charge on Barrell’s Regiment: Battle of Culloden 16th April 1746 in the Jacobite Rebellion: painted by David Morier using Highland prisoners as models.

All in all it would appear that the Highlanders received between six and seven thousand rounds from the battalions of British infantry, many at ranges well under fifty metres. The strength of the Highlanders who attacked the British left-flank battalions was about 2,500. According to the officer of Monro’s left-flank grenadier platoon: ‘we laid about 1,600 dead on the spot.’ The figures for rounds fired would seem to be reasonably robust, as the various sources are consistent. It would also seem that most, if not all, were fired at ranges under fifty metres and that a considerable proportion were fired at much closer ranges. The area where the greatest doubt is to be found is in the numbers of casualties actually inflicted by this fire. However, a return of approximately 1,600 casualties for six or seven thousand rounds is a hit rate of roughly 22–26 per cent, which is in keeping with the 23 per cent suggested for Fontenoy. Even if the casualty figure is high and includes casualties from other parts of the battlefield a figure of one thousand casualties still gives a rate of 14–16 per cent. It would be unwise to place too much reliance on these figures, but they do give an indication of the capability of British musketry to inflict high casualties at the short range that they seem to have preferred to engage at. Every soldier with a musket had twenty-four rounds at Culloden, yet Wolfe’s battalion fired only five or six rounds a man. It would seem most likely that they stopped firing because there was nothing left to fire at.

Following the conclusion of the Jacobite Rebellion the British Army returned to Europe and on 11 October 1746 was engaged with its allies in the battle of Rocoux. Contemporary accounts of this defeat at the hands of the French tell us nothing about how the British infantry fought, but do tell that they fought well. On 2 July the following year the allied army was again beaten at Laffeldt. On this occasion one detail in a letter from a British officer sheds a little light on infantry combat doctrine. The letter confirms La Fausille’s statement that some British battalions attacked the French three times in the fight for possession of the village of Laffeldt. The officer gives the example of Wolfe’s regiment to illustrate how the British battalions fought.

Wolfe’s Regiment carried into the field 24 rounds a man. This they made use of. Afterwards they had a supply of 8 rounds a man more. After this was spent, they made use of all the ammunition amongst the dead and wounded, both of their own men and the enemies. When no farther supply could be had, they formed themselves immediately to receive the enemy upon their bayonets, and being ordered to retreat did it with the utmost regularity.

Wolfe’s battalion was probably involved in trying to repel at least four French attacks on Laffeldt as the village repeatedly changed hands. With firing minimised in the assault it would appear that Wolfe’s men fired in excess of thirty rounds each in defence or six or seven rounds a man against each French attack. This represents a considerable amount of sustained firing and paints a different picture to the short, sharp bursts of fire followed by the vigorous use of the bayonet that seem to have been the preferred method. It may be that the nature of this fighting, in and around a village – hedges are referred to in several accounts – forced the infantry into extended firefights. However, it clearly demonstrates that when necessary British infantry was capable of considerably extended periods of sustained fire.

Following the effective end of the war and while peace negotiations were in progress the Duke of Cumberland and the army were camped at Eindhoven. The organisation of firing was further developed and new instructions were issued on 27 August 1748.

According to these instructions a battalion was to be divided into two grenadier platoons and sixteen hat platoons. Although Bland, Kane and the 1728 regulations allow for other numbers of platoons according to the size of the battalion, the Duke of Cumberland was insistent on forming eighteen. As early as 17 May 1744 he had ordered all battalions to form sixteen subdivisions, eight half divisions and four grand divisions, besides the grenadiers. In his first orders for fighting Highlanders he again stated that battalions were to form eighteen platoons. This may have been fine for the battalions of Guards, in 1744 they averaged at about 660 men in each battalion, not far short of the establishment of seven hundred privates, giving thirty-six men to a platoon. The relatively small size of line battalions, compared to the theoretical establishment, can be seen from the morning state of the battalions at Culloden, where the battalions averaged about 367 privates. Forming eighteen platoons would have given a platoon strength of twenty, far below what Bland recommended as a minimum. In the case of Barrell’s regiment this figure would have been eighteen, yet the commander of one grenadier platoon wrote that he ‘had 18 men killed and wounded in my platoon’. Furthermore, if the grenadier company accounted for a tenth of the battalion strength, as one of the ten companies, and formed two platoons, then eighteen men would have been the platoon size again. As the officer is clear that he had eighteen men killed and wounded in his platoon, and not that all of his platoon were killed or wounded, it suggests that, as recommended by Bland, the grenadier platoons had been supplemented by hatmen. This further suggests that the number of platoons was fewer than eighteen, as has been discussed above.

Prior to the directions issued in 1748 there was no suggestion that the subdivisions could be used as a fire unit, they were simply for manoeuvring. In the absence of any contemporary discussion of the development of the new directions the possibility arises that the new departure of using of subdivisions – that is, pairs of platoons – as firing units was to overcome the problem of platoons that were too small to be effective on their own. As before the platoons were divided into three firings, the platoons of which could either fire singly, one after the other, or all together in a whole firing. However, before these directions could be tested in battle the War of the Austrian Succession was concluded.

There is no doubt that platoon firing was not an easy procedure to execute effectively. This was clearly demonstrated at Dettingen, the British Army’s first major battle in three decades. There, inexperience caused the infantry, described by La Fausille as novices, to open fire spontaneously at far too great a range.120 Although the same thing nearly happened again at Fontenoy, from then onwards the infantry carried out their firing most effectively. That effectiveness was improved by a number of changes from the days of Marlborough. Locking up made firing easier for the men and may have improved accuracy as a consequence. The platoon exercise, priming from the cartridge and steel ramrods all contributed to shortening the loading time, which could be further shortened under pressure by tap-loading. Working against these improvements, however, was the change in battalion organisation that meant platoons and companies were no longer synonymous. However, in Europe the difficulties and complexities were overcome and the experienced infantry fighting there were able to realise the full potential effectiveness of their firepower.

The importance of experience was clearly demonstrated during the Jacobite Rebellion. Of the fifteen battalions at Culloden that destroyed the Jacobite army five battalions had been at Dettingen, another eight at Fontenoy and four had been at both. It was also experience that taught that it was better to brave the enemy fire and get close before firing and then closing with the bayonet than to give in to instinct and fire as soon as the enemy was in range. As La Fausille pointed out, it was the apparently more dangerous course of action that led to the fewer casualties.

What is also clear from both the theory and the practice of British infantry combat doctrine during the War of the Austrian Succession is that it is still basically the same as that developed during the English Civil War. What was also demonstrated during the Jacobite Rebellion was that the infantry were capable of adapting the detailed execution of their doctrine to suit circumstances and the nature of a specific enemy, but that they did so without compromising the underlying principles of maximising short-range fire and following it with effective use of the bayonet. Nor should the importance of the bayonet be underestimated. Perhaps because of the small amount of attention paid to it in the drill books, modern writers appear to have missed the significance of its use and rather emphasised the infantry’s commitment to firepower. That it was an essential element of the way the infantry fought is clearly stated by Duroure in his comment on how it had been intended to fight at Dettingen and La Fausille in his remarks on Laffeldt. What British infantry generally did not do was get into long, sustained firefights where fire alone would decide the outcome, though when necessary they were more than capable of it, as at Laffeldt.