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Opening Moves
Tatics and Formations
The Battlefield
The Battle
The Battlefield Today



Private of the 33rd regiment 
of Foot (Johnson’s)
Painting by Christopher Pyrah

Tactics and Formations.

Before proceeding with a description of the battle it is well worth pausing a moment to look at the various tactical changes that had taken place during the period from the end of the War of Spanish Succession until the outbreak of the War of Austrian Succession, and I give below the very detailed account of these formations taken from Brent Nosworthy’s excellent work, The Anatomy of Victory, Battle Tactics 1689-1763.


The British Infantry.

In 1745 Richard Kane published A New System of Military Discipline for the Battalion of Foot, which described much of the tactical systems then current in the British army. Interestingly enough, this is the same Richard Kane who was the acting commander of the Royal Irish regiment at the battle of Malplaquet 36 years earlier. This regiment’s use of the platoon firing system on this earlier occasion was immortalized in Robert Parker’s memoirs. (See Malplaquet article on this site)

The Firing technique and the method of advancing to the attack in the “new system” was probably very similar to that used during the War of Spanish Succession, as described by Captain Parker. The only notable change was the consistent use of the drum to supplement the colonel’s voice while issuing orders.

The men in a battalion were deployed just as thirty years earlier. A battalion of between 800 and 1,000 men was deployed in three ranks, the men having fixed bayonets onto the ends of their muskets. The grenadiers were placed on both flanks, while the officers were ranged in front of the battalion, the colonel in front, or in the absence of the colonel, the lieutenant colonel. The colonel, sword in hand, was on foot eight or ten paces in front of the men, in the centre of the battalion. He was accompanied by an “expert drummer” who stood beside him. The battalion continued to be divided into four “grand divisions,” each of four platoons. Counting the grenadier platoons this gave a total of 18 platoons, which were tolled off into three “firings,” each of six platoons.

The major difference between platoon firing as conducted near the turn of the eighteenth century and that 36 years later is the use of the drums to transmit orders. Richard Kane, who provides a very detailed account of platoon firing as it existed around 1745 advocated that the drum be used in addition to verbal commands. He argued that not every commander had a sufficiently loud and clear voice, and it detracted from the regiment’s self –image if the orders had to be given by the major or an adjutant during the actual battle. Also, it avoided the confusion that could arise during the heat of battle, if the commander was killed or otherwise incapacitated and a new voice was heard issuing orders. (What happened if the drummer(s) were killed is not mentioned!)

British Grenadier

When the battalion was in line, and the general action was about to begin, the colonel would order the drummer to make a ruffle. Then, positioned a distance in front of the battalion, he would deliver a short “cheerful” speech to encourage the men. Having finished speaking, the colonel would order the march and the drummers would beat to the march. He stood still until the battalion closed to four or five paces of him, then he turned around and slowly marched with the battalion towards the enemy.

The grand tactical theory behind the dynamics of the assault remained unchanged: the battalions were to engage the enemy in a series of firefights, at an ever-decreasing range, and break the enemy’s will to fight by a succession of ordered volleys. The advance was to continue until the enemy opposite the battalion began to fire, at which point the colonel ordered the drummers to stop. Turning to face his men once more, the colonel ordered the men to halt and the drummers to beat a “preparative.” As soon as this order was given, the men in the six platoons of the first firing, and all the men in the first rank (except those in the two centre platoons) were to prepare themselves to fire. The front rank knelt, and placed the butts of their muskets on the ground at their feet and angled their weapon upwards. This posture was assumed to defend themselves from cavalry. The men in the rear two ranks closed in on the front rank, and kept their thumbs on the cocks of their muskets taking care to keep their arms “well covered.”

…When the first firing was to fire, the colonel ordered the drummers to beat a “flam.” The men in the front rank dropped the muzzles of their muskets to the ground, while the two rear ranks presented their arms. The officers and subalterns in these platoons made certain that the muskets were levelled according to the range of the enemy so that the volley would have the best possible effect. At the same time, they had to caution their men to withhold their fire until the next orders on the drum.

As soon as the first firing was properly presented, the colonel ordered a second “flam” to be beaten, and the men fired their weapons. Immediately, these men recovered their weapons, fell back and started to load as fast as they could. The sergeant’s task at this point was to see that this reloading was done without hurry or disorder. The men in the first rank did not fire and were part of the battalion reserve fire. These men kept their muzzles on the ground and their thumbs on the cocks. The colonel then immediately ordered the drummers to beat the second  “preparative,” and the platoons in the second firing prepared themselves to fire. The same set of orders and drumming was used to command this firing to fire.

When the second firing had fired, the same procedure was followed for the third firing. In theory, this routine was followed to produce a near-continuous fire, without significant hesitation between firings. If the need arose for the reserve to fire, the colonel ordered the first rank of all but the two centre platoons to present arms, and then the same set of commands was used as for the other firings.

If at any point during the firing the enemy started to retreat, the men were ordered to cease-fire. The next firing were to “half-cock” their weapons and be ready to fire later. The battalion was to march after the retreating enemy, rather than waste ammunition and time firing upon them. This was yet another reason why it was important for the colonel, as opposed to the captains, to control the firings. The firings would tend to continue for a much longer time when the captains controlled the firings of their individual platoons.

On the other hand, should the enemy infantry maintain their ground, the British battalion was to recommence its advance. Another “preparative” was beaten to order the next firing to make ready. Ordering the battalion to march, the colonel waited until the first rank was two paces from him before turning around and marching himself. The nearer a battalion approached the enemy, the closer he was to position himself near the first rank. This was important; otherwise he would stand out as an easy mark for enemy fire. When the battalion arrived at the appropriate distance away from the enemy holding its ground, the colonel was to order the battalion to halt. Immediately, the front rank knelt as before and the rear ranks closed forward. On the next “flam,” the next firing fired its muskets. The colonel now went through the same orders as before, making the various firings deliver their fire as quickly as possible until the enemy started to give ground.

Official doctrine purposely avoided prescribing what was to occur in the final moments of an encounter, where the threat of actual contact was imminent. This was left to the discretion of the battalion’s commanding officer. The one enjoinder was that should the enemy retreat faster than could be followed while still maintaining order, the infantry was to stop and continue firing until the enemy was out of range. The task of pursuit was left to the cavalry. 11

The British Cavalry.

Up until the first several campaigns of the Seven Years War, British cavalry doctrine had not significantly changed from that used during Marlborough’s time. The Duke of Cumberland’s instructions on how British dragoons were to conduct themselves during combat is illustrative of all British cavalry during this period.

When attacking, the dragoon regiment was to form a column of squadrons, each squadron deployed in two ranks. Prior to advancing, the men were ordered to draw their swords, then shorten their bridles, before bringing their swords to their thighs. Some of the officers and quartermasters in each troop did not participate in the charge but rode behind the squadron to rally anyone attempting to flee and bring them forward with the next squadron in the column.

The advance was begun at a walk or slow trot until the squadron had advanced to about sixty paces from the enemy. At this point, the squadron commander would order his men to “trot-out,” that is, ride forward now at a fast trot (canter).

As in Marlborough’s time, the emphasis was placed on maintaining strict order within the squadron formation. The troopers were to remain knee to knee throughout the charge. The next rank was to keep itself close enough to the first rank to push it toward the enemy, yet distant enough to avoid being stopped in its tracks if the first line was defeated.

The squadron commander if possible was to attempt to have the squadron advance obliquely to the right as it advanced, to be able to take a portion of the enemy line in flank as they met. In actuality, given the level of British cavalry training at this period, this proved difficult in practice and the two forces usually met head-on, if they actually closed to contact.

If the attack proved to be successful, the squadron was to halt at the position previously indicated for this purpose by the squadron commander. Here, it was to reorder itself to be able to respond to an enemy counter charge or wait to be supported by the squadrons following in column behind it. Should the first squadron’s charge be checked instead, its men were to ride to the left and right to clear the front so that the squadrons behind could continue the attack.

…The British cavalry lacked the thorough training and appears to have never have mastered the multiphased aspect of the Prussian (cavalry) charge at the gallop. British cavalry tended to charge enthusiastically without being able to maintain the tightness of formation….

…The Hanoverian cavalry appears to have been even more conservative, relying on the traditional advance at the trot and, the discharge of firearms prior to closing with the sword. One interesting feature of the Hanoverian cavalry charge was that the troopers in the third line (of the squadron) would “double,” that is, they would close into any space provided by the intervals between squadrons of files within the squadron to tighten up the formation….12


French Infantry tactics.

French Infantry 1747

Although the years between the War of Spanish Succession and the War of Austrian Succession saw a proliferation of theoretical works about the need for new drills, exercises, manoeuvres and even tactics in the French army, very few changes were actually officially approved between 1713 and 1749.

Whatever changes were made can be summed up in a paragraph. By the outbreak of hostilities in 1740, the French infantry battalion now consistently deployed in four ranks. Previously, when a portion of each battalion had been armed with pikes, the company was nothing more than an administrative unit, without any tactical meaning at all. However, once all of the men within the battalion started to be armed identically, the company began to be treated as a tactical subdivision of the battalion. The training camp of 1733 officially recognized this development; henceforth a company was referred to as a “section” in this capacity.

However, the battalions continued to be arranged in the same fashion; the officers and subalterns were positioned according to the regulations of 1703, while the distance between the ranks and the files remained unchanged. Unfortunately, the highly cumbersome and time-consuming methods of deploying from column into line from line into column also remained virtually the same, although there was no lack of unofficial experimentation by the more enterprising regimental commanders.

In terms of fire systems, the only progress that could be pointed to was that the French troops no longer performed the caracole version of fire by ranks. Prior to 1749-1750 there was never any official mention of either cadence marching or a cadence manual of arms (loading and presenting the weapons). The troops were still forced to march with open ranks (six paces between ranks), and had to close ranks before they either changed direction of march or deployed.

The conservatism within the French army ran deep, that despite Puységur’s constant lobbying for the use of continuous lines of infantry, en muraille, the battalion along each line officially were still to be deployed with a full interval separating them and their neighbour as late as 1750, despite the fact that, practically speaking, this method of deployment was abandoned during the War of Spanish Succession! Fortunately for the French, this last regulation appears to have been rarely, if ever, carried out during this era, there usually being too many battalions to deploy across the battlefield to permit such wide intervals.13


French cavalry tactics.

French Cavalry Uniform

…By the 1730’s and 1740’s the French had become more aware of the value of shock and the role of speed in winning close order combats. In his Reveries De Saxe stated, “Such that cannot go at speed over a couple of thousand yards to pounce upon the foe, is for nothing in the field.” However, Colonel Mack’s comments that Austrian cavalry could not gallop 50 yards without 25 per cent of the horses becoming disordered were probably as applicable to French cavalry.

At the Battle of Fontenoy (1745), Marshal de Saxe ordered his cavalry to break the British infantry column that had advanced behind the French lines, using the “breast of their horses.” Of course, given the sharp rows of enemy bayonets, cavalrymen never found this an easy task.

The debate over whether firearms should be used by cavalry started to slacken; with most cavalry officers believing they should never be used during a battle when meeting their enemy counterpart. According to Grandmaison:

“A horseman should never use his pistols but on the most pressing occasions, either to save his life, or disengage himself from some disagreeable situation.”

 …The French continued to believe that cavalry capability against infantry and other cavalry was largely the result of “weight of horse.” When attacking enemy infantry, French cavalry used a different set of tactics. Previously, French cavalry had used pistol or carbine fire when attacking formed infantry. However, the success of this method declined with the adoption of the socket bayonet. Also, any attempt to have an entire line of cavalry close with a line of infantry, necessarily resulted in extensive casualties because of the number of men exposed to musket fire. These considerations, as well as exposure to new methods used by Austrian light cavalry during the first two campaigns of the War of Austrian Succession, led the French to develop new cavalry tactics during the mid-1740’s.

These newer tactics were based on the principle that a few brave and experienced men would create the necessary gaps in the enemy infantry’s line, and then the remainder of the squadron would exploit these. The fewer numbers of men initially exposed to enemy fire would mean correspondingly fewer casualties. Each squadron leader commanding experienced troopers would have 15-20 of his bravest men, presumably his “commanded” men positioned on each flank of the squadron, attack the infantry in line while the remainder of the squadron advanced in an orderly fashion behind them. His first wave advanced at the trot until 20 paces or so away from the line then moved in at the gallop.

The concentration of muskets directed against this handful of horsemen was such that most, if not all, would be hit by the resulting fusillades. However, it was an accepted cavalry maxim that only 50 per cent of the horses and men hit by musket fire would be disabled, and, in fact, if the attacking cavalry was sufficiently close when fired upon, the remainder generally redoubled their efforts upon being hit. This interesting observation was made by General Grandmaison of the Volontaires des Flandres:

  “ The other half [of those hit by gunfire] animated by the fire and the blood, fall with fury and impetuosity on the infantry, whose breastworks of bayonets is not able to sustain the weight of the horses in fury. The rider cannot any longer command them, they rush headlong, and make openings for the rest of the squadron, to penetrate and break the battalion, which cannot oppose this shock, a manoeuvre sufficiently quick and exact.”

It had long been known that horses would not voluntarily impale themselves upon the hedge of bayonets offered by an ordered line or a square. The above strategy was to position the attacking cavalry close to the line or square being attacked at the moment of fire, so that the horses infuriated by the pain of their injuries, especially those in the chest, would forget the danger of the bayonets and in their agony involuntarily move onto the infantry they were attacking.

…If any gaps were created in the line of infantry, the remainder of the squadron still in good order would attack the line. It should be pointed out, however, that this attack could be delivered at a trot at the quickest, since the squadron would have been 20-30 paces behind the leading elements. It was hoped that the first group of attackers would, contrary to the wishes of the enemy officers, succeed in drawing the fire of all the enemy ranks. Then when the main body of horsemen closed, the infantry would be caught without fire. The cavalry, under these circumstances, could advance to contact much more easily, and the infantry were much more inclined to break.

…Unfortunately for the French, there was a downside to these tactics. Although they fulfilled their purpose of reducing the number of casualties incurred in any localized attack, by their very nature they tended to work against massive attacks, conducted in unison, against large enemy formations.

The ineffectiveness of piecemeal charges conducted with limited forces was demonstrated clearly at Fontenoy, where a number of French cavalry regiments were thrown one at a time against the British (and Hanoverian) column that succeeded in penetrating the French line between the redoubts in the Wood of Barry and that of Fontenoy. Only the assault led by De Vignecourt had any success. This officer and 14 men managed to momentarily break through the enemy formation but were immediately killed or wounded. All these attacks, made without any initial preparation or agreement and made with limited forces, were defeated by the compactness of the British formation and the steadiness and discipline of the British platoon fire.14

11 Nosworthy. Brent, The Anatomy of Victory, Battle Tactics 1689-1763, page 229-232

12 Nosworthy. Brent, The Anatomy of Victory, Battle Tactics 1689-1763, page 227-229

13 Nosworthy. Brent, The Anatomy of Victory, Battle Tactics 1689-1763, page 199-200

14 Nosworthy. Brent, The Anatomy of Victory, Battle Tactics 1689-1763, page 216-220



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