Napoleonic Infantry Tactics: A Quick Guide


In the Napoleonic Wars, infantry fought in
‘close order’ – packed together, standing shoulder to shoulder. But why present such an easy target for the
enemy? First, command and control. Before radios, orders had to be relayed by
shouted commands, drums or bugles – difficult enough in the smoke and din of battle, almost
impossible if troops were scattered. Second, firepower. Smoothbore muskets were inaccurate beyond
about 80 yards, so volley fire, firing en masse, was the best way to inflict physical
and psychological damage on the enemy. Third, morale. Soldiers were much more willing to advance
into danger or hold the line if they did so together as a unit, urging each other on. Fourth, defence against cavalry. Scattered infantry were easy targets for horsemen
– only by sticking together could they fight them off. The basic tactical unit of infantry was the
battalion. A French line battalion had, in theory, 840
men, but in practice, nearer five to six hundred. Our example here has 605 men, a typical strength
for a battalion on campaign. The men were divided into six companies: Four fusilier companies, and two flank companies
– on the right, the grenadiers, made up of the tallest, strongest men, often detached
to form elite all-grenadier units… and on the left the voltigeurs, specialist light
infantry used for skirmishing in front of the battalion. Skirmishers moved independently, used cover
and fired at will to harass and unsettle the enemy, while preventing enemy skirmishers
carrying out the same task. Most armies also had specialist light infantry
units for this role, such as the British 95th Rifles, French chasseurs à pied, and Austrian
and Prussian jäger battalions. The traditional battlefield formation was
the line: all companies formed up alongside each other, three ranks deep. Line formation maximised the number of men
who could fire their muskets at the enemy, and limited casualties from artillery fire. But it was extremely vulnerable to cavalry
if it could be outflanked… and even for well-drilled troops, it was difficult to keep
the line straight while advancing across broken ground. So for manoeuvre and attack, battalions usually
formed a ‘column of divisions’. This was a more flexible formation that allowed
the battalion to advance quickly, though it presented a larger target to enemy guns, firing
solid roundshot that would tear through several ranks… and far fewer men could fire their
muskets at the enemy. Theoretically, therefore, the battalion would
deploy into line before reaching the enemy – but carrying out this slow manoeuvre under
fire wasn’t always possible or sensible, so some commanders kept their men in column,
relying on momentum to break the enemy line. This was a risky tactic that often worked
against raw troops, but led to high casualties when facing better-trained infantry, like
British redcoats. A column could be closed up quickly to provide
protection from cavalry, or if there was time, could form a square – With bayonets fixed, the battalion formed
an all-round defence, that often resembled more of a rectangle. Enemy cavalry could surround the battalion,
but not break in, as horses won’t charge a solid wall of men and steel. But an infantry square was extremely vulnerable
to artillery fire, and could only move very slowly. Changing quickly and smoothly from one formation
to another, especially under fire, required training, practise and experience. In 1809, the Austrian army began to use the
‘battalion mass’ formation, crude but more suited to hastily-trained conscripts. This was a dense column, with limited firepower,
and huge vulnerability to enemy cannon. But it could quickly close up to repel cavalry,
using the same principle as the square, but without the complex drill; and was much more
manoeuvrable.

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