Napoleonic Infantry Battle Tactics


Egyptian Mamluk cavalry charges a French infantry square during the Battle of the Pyramids, 1798.


The preparations for a pitched battle during the Napoleonic Wars had changed very little since the 17th century. Gustav Adolphus is credited with employing two lines of battle with a reserve force behind. This system of deployment would have remained familiar to Napoleon’s generals and sure enough, the Field Service regulations of 1792 describe the standard battle formation as being two lines of troops, three hundred paces distant. The reserves were to be placed three hundred paces behind the second line in the places allocated by the commanding general. (The second line might be formed in column or in line. In the former case it allowed the battalion to advance more quickly to reinforce the first line; in the latter the thin depth meant the column would suffer less from artillery fire. There is evidence from memoirs that men in the second line might be able to open ranks to permit the passage of cannonballs rolling along the ground). The artillery was to be placed in the most advantageous positions available from where it could fire on enemy troop formations.

As the infantry brigades deployed, light infantry would be sent ahead to screen the deployment and to discover the enemy’s dispositions. Infantry regiments would form in order of seniority from the right. This prerogative was considered a non-negotiable point of honour (Bardin considered this practice a potentially disastrous piece of vanity). Depending on the situation, generals might form their brigades in a variety of formations. The simplest to describe is a line of battalions, either deployed into line, or remaining in columns with sufficient deployment space either side of them. Another popular tactic was the ordre en echelon where a line of battalions formed something of a diagonal line in order to refuse a flank. The front of each battalion remained parallel to the enemy line, but each successive battalion was placed to the left and behind of the first battalion. The interval between each echelon was normally one hundred paces, but could be more or less depending on the views of the commander. (The echelon could also be formed with the left battalion leading). The ordre mixte was composed of a mixture of lines and columns. Although this system has been popularised in modern histories, Bardin did not stress any particular importance to it, and was fairly light in his description of the system, writing it had been used occasionally in Spain and also in an attack on the Russian redoubts at Borodino in 1812. Battalions might be placed en potence: at right angles to the main line to protect a flank. Other battalions might be set at an angle to the enemy line in order to make concealed marches against the enemy flank; a tactic favoured by Frederick II, and apparently copied by Napoleon.

The advice given in the regulations was that care should be taken when locating the reserve, and the commanders of the reserve instructed on which corps they were to support and replace in an action. Commanders of the reserve were instructed to vigorously charge any enemy troops which broke through the line of battle, or to fall on the flanks of an obstinate enemy. Divisions should be placed so they were mutually supporting and could come to one another’s aid.

Troops who had been issued clear instructions were best able to execute the orders of the commanding general. The instructions were to be said clearly with as few words as possible; lengthy oratory was frowned upon. At the same time commanders were not to underestimate the enemy or show excessive fear of the foe. If a commander had assured his troops the enemy would flee after receiving a single volley, the confidence of his men would likely falter if the enemy continued to press on after the first discharge. If a commander had told his men the enemy would abandon their positions, but they met heavy resistance, they would assume the enemy had been reinforced, or the general was incompetent. Even the bravest troops would hesitate or be intimidated in these circumstances. Success depended on the troops remaining silent and maintaining good order. The men had to obey their officers exactly and demonstrate sufficient ‘firmness and courage’ with increasing proportion to that shown by the enemy.

The engagement would usually commence with artillery fire. Battery commanders were instructed to direct their fire on enemy troop formations and not waste their ammunition on counter battery fire. The primary role of light infantry was to attack the enemy batteries, advancing in a lose skirmish formation which was less vulnerable to artillery fire, and making use of natural cover. Once within range of the enemy guns, the light infantry would open fire and kill the gunners as they served their pieces.

Attacks were to be made simultaneously at different points of the enemy line to divide their opponent’s attention. The line infantry would advance until one hundred paces from the enemy, and then redouble their speed to press home the attack. If the enemy line broke, the line infantry would slow to the ordinary pace, or would halt and reform. The light infantry and grenadiers would be hurled in pursuit of the enemy, although they were cautioned not to get too far ahead of their supporting battalions. (The more astute will notice the doctrine of 1792 describes a shock action as being the principal tactic – it does not describe halting the columns in order to deploy into line for musketry.)

If an attack was repulsed, and the troops had become disordered, there was no point trying to rally them under intense enemy fire. This often proved impossible and only resulted in heavy losses. It was better to allow the men to fall back out of range before trying to rally them and attempting to renew the attack. The regulations of 1 August 1791 stated the commander should order the beating of the breloque, at which the battalion would break and run. When the battalion commander wanted to reform, he would plant the colours and beat au drapeau. Each captain would rally his platoon six paces behind the new line of battle.

Sensible advice was given on the subject of retreats, because the fate of battles was considered as always uncertain, no matter how good the dispositions made beforehand. Before giving the order to retreat the commander was to indicate to his divisional commanders, the wings and the reserve, the points on which they were to retire. If two lines wished to pass through one another (for example, the first line retiring behind the second), intervals in the line could be opened by doubling the sections; in other words the second section of each platoon could stand behind the first. When the passage of lines had been completed, the line would be restored.

Role of officers in battle

According to the 1792 field service regulations, nothing would assure the confidence of French soldiers more than being led by men who inspired them: ‘For it is a very different thing to order men to march into danger, than to lead them there.’ Prior to giving battle the following advice was given to officers to help prepare their men for combat. While on campaign troops ought to be ready for action at all times, with their weapons in good order. However, when about to give battle, officers should give the greatest attention to inspecting the soldiers’ weapons, ensuring they were provided with fresh flints and these were well placed and secured. Prior to combat, the movements of infantry regiments were to be arranged carefully so the men went into battle fresh. The soldiers ought to eat before going into action so they were best able to support the fatigues of the day. Soldiers were not to remove their haversacks before fighting. When worn correctly they were not considered a particular hindrance to the movements of the body. The only possible exception to this rule was in mountainous or difficult terrain, if a general officer gave permission. Officers were to point out the advantages of favourable ground, and the routes to be taken if a retreat was necessary. During an advance the officers and other file closers were to maintain the alignment and order of the ranks. If they gave the order to open fire, they would hold back a portion of their fire if there was a threat of cavalry attack.

When given a post in range of an enemy attack, the officer was instructed to entrench himself by creating a redoubt. In a village it would be unlikely the detachment could hold the perimeter, so a walled place like a cemetery would be nominated as a defensive point. If the enemy arrived in force, the sentries would be called in and a message sent to the general. If static defence was impossible, the officer would fall back on the main body. If the officer decided to sit in a position and wait for support, he would take his own council, speak to the troops in a firm tone and not listen to any summons on the part of the enemy. Above all he was not to fall for enemy ruses and waste ammunition against feints. He would put a few fusiliers on a parapet to keep watch on the enemy, but keep the bulk of his men together.

Duties of sub-officers in battle

When given notice of a battle, corporals would speak to the men of their squad, reminding them not to open fire until the command was given and to remain immobile when the drum call for ceasefire was made. The corporal would remind them not to drop their cartridges on the floor; not to spill any of the gunpowder; to ram the ball home properly, and not to leave the ramrod in the barrel. After firing, the men were reminded to look at their touchholes and if they did not see smoke coming out this was an indication of a misfire. In this case they were told to use their vent picks and to re-prime. As a final measure the corporal was to inspect the arms, ensuring flints were placed correctly, the men had vent picks at the ready, and sufficient cartridges.

During the battle, corporals were to keep watch on the file closers, guides, and colour guards. If they fell in combat, the corporal was to replace them urgently. They were to stop the men from breaking ranks to steal from the dead, and to remind soldiers this carried the death penalty. The same applied to those who went to mutilate or finish off wounded enemy soldiers. The corporal would stop men from leaving the ranks to go in search of cartridges. When a man was out of cartridges, it was the responsibility of the file closers to issue fresh cartridges. If the ranks were thinned by musketry or artillery fire, the corporals were to encourage the men to close up in the direction of the flag. The file closers were responsible for pulling the wounded out of the ranks and directing them, as soon as it was possible, to the field hospitals. Missing files in the line would be restored by transferring men from one rank to another.

If enemy cavalry attempted to charge, the battalion columns would close up to form dense masses. The file closers would step forward and press close to the third rank. Corporals were to remind the soldiers their best hope was to remain steady and to open fire at point-blank range, and then cross bayonets at the point of impact. If the line broke before impact, the cavalry would charge through the gaps and cut them down. If the soldiers’ courage appeared to be waning, corporals were reminded the regulations did not forbid the hitting of men in flight.

During the battle, the drum major would send a party of drummers to go and look for cartridges in the caissons of the divisional artillery. These would be given to the file closers who would distribute them to the men. Meanwhile the remainder of the drummers would remain to perform rolls and signals, or to beat the charge.

If called upon to make an assault on a walled position or a town, the sub-officers were to remind the men not to quit their posts in order to commit pillage. A penalty of five years in irons was on the statue books, but more severe penalties could be announced by the general officer commanding the assault. There were two types of assault infantry might be called to make, one by escalade (in other words using ladders to cross a rampart or wall), and the other by advancing in force against a breach. In the first case the troops would approach the defences at the run, with as little noise as possible, and without becoming disordered. The ladder would be planted and everyone would scurry up and over the defences as swiftly as possible.

In the second case, it was assumed artillery had battered a breach in the defences, the rubble from which had fallen down and formed a sort of ramp by which the breach could be approached (i.e. made practicable). The troops would set out in attack columns and once the rampart had been gained, the sub-officers were to rally their troops on the crest of the breach rather than allow them to shelter in the rubble. It had to be assumed the enemy would have prepared an additional line of defences inside the breach, so sub-officers were to get their troops into order and commence firing in the regular manner as swiftly as possible.

While stuck in the breach, there was always the danger of the enemy igniting a mine which they had hidden in the rubble. The sub-officers were specially charged with examining the breach for any signs of a mine and, if they found one, to locate the match which might ignite it. All this was to be done in such a way as to not let the soldiers realise what was going on because they would certainly flee if they suspected they were about to be blown up.

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