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Writings of Interest

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by Brent Nosworthy
Part I
While writing With Musket Canon and Sword, I stumbled upon the British Military Library, a two-volume set published from 1798 until 1801. Its self-proclaimed goal was to "present…the most valuable papers on military subjects, which existed in various foreign languages, or in scarce, expensive, and voluminous publications." Presenting excerpts from classic and contemporary continental authors, its pages covered the full gamut of tactical issues. Nevertheless, this writer found the following passage to be the most intriguing.
"When the use of fire-arms began to be generally established, the necessity of great regularity and uniformity in the manner of using these arms, became apparent. It was soon discovered that those troops which could make the briskest fire, and sustain it longest, had a great superiority over others less expert...It was, therefore, necessary to exercise troops in loading quick, and firing together, by the word of command…

Frederick William made great alterations and improvements in discipline, not only with respect to elegance, but likewise to use…formerly they used large and heavy muskets, with matchlocks, and carried the powder in leather case, or bandoliers, which hung by a shoulder-belt, down the breast of the soldier, holding a match lighted at both ends, between the fingers of the left head. This rendered it absolutely necessary to extend the arms, and keep the piece at a distance form the body, for fear of accidents of firing their own charges, which sometimes happened, and as these muskets were very heavy, they were soon forced into violent and constrained attitudes, in order to be able to expend their strength, and perform their motions. For this reason they could not exercise but in open order, and with the interval of three feet per man. But, when match-locks were laid aside, and the troops aimed with firelocks, which were much lighter, these wide motions became unnecessary, for many of them were quite useless, serving only for parade and show, the use and intent of the manual exercise, being to teach the soldier how to execute in the best and most expeditious manner, all that is necessary to be done with the firelock, there cannot be too much attention given to go to the shortest way to work, and to do every action with as few motions as possible, more particularly in the firing and reloading part, in which the older exercise was remarkably tedious, and full of useless motions and attitudes. Frederick the Great of Prussia was the first who altered the motions of the manual of exercise, causing them to be performed close to the body. By this alteration his troops could go through all the exercise, with their files in close order [Italics mine.] The King of France in 1757 caused several of his principal officers to compare every one of exercise and teach it to a detachment of his troops...We also, in England, about 1757, had a new manual exercise introduced among many of the troops, called Prussian, but resembled it only in the closeness of the motions, and to the firing and loading parts. This exercise has been altered by order of his Royal Highness the Duke of York and rendered capable of being performed much quicker than the old."

Part II
The Anatomy of Victory had concluded that the most important Prussian innovation had been the introduction of cadenced marching that in turn permitted the new manoeuvres developed between 1749 and 1755 and which formed the basis of the new Prussian school of tactics. The above quote suggests the most important of Frederick the Great's contribution to the art of warfare was instead a revision to the manual of arms. Since this seemed to contradict my existing views, I decided to investigate these claims, and assess what impact these would have on our understanding of early 18th century warfare.

Thumbing through a number of mid-century works, serendipitously I found that the text had been lifted from the introduction to George Townshend's A Plan of Discipline Compiled for the Use of the Militia of the County of Norfolk (London, 1759). The editors of the British Military Library had made one egregious mistake, however. In the original, the above italicized portion actually read: "The late King of Prussia was the first who altered the motions of the manual of exercise..." Writing during the Seven Years' War, Townshend obviously referred to Frederick William as the "late King" and not Frederick the Great.

How could I follow this lead? Though possessing a copy of the Prussian Infantry Regulations of 1743, I lacked information about earlier forms of the Prussian manual of arms to make the comparative analysis needed to determine accuracy of Townshend's claim. I did have access, however, to a number of English works with similar types of information, so I decided to take a close look at the evolution of the British manual of arms during the 1690-1763 period. A description provided in The Exercise of Foot with the Evolutions (London, 1690) is representative of how the British musketeer during the Nine Years' War period was to hold his matchlock at it was "presented" just before being ordered to fire.

The Musket in Presenting must not come too low on the Breast, but be set firm in the hollow of the Right Shoulder, and must be held strongly; you must keep up your Body strait, only prest down a little against the Musket, the Elbows as much as possible in an equal Line [italics mine], with a Butt a little below the strait Line, or Breast high, the Head strait upwards, the Left Knee a little bent.

Writing around 1727, Humphrey Bland provided a similar description of "the Present" motion in the manual exercise in his A Treatise of Military Discipline:

"In Presenting, take away your thumb from the Cock, and move your Right Foot a little back, the Toe turn'd in a little to the Right, the Body to the Front, and place the Butt-end in the Hollow betwixt your Breast and shoulder, keep your Fore-Finger before the Tricker (but without touching it) and the other three behind the Guard, the Elbos in a equal Line (which is called the Square) the Head upright, the Body strait, only press'd a little forward against the Butt-end of the Firelock, the Right Knee stiff, and the Left a little bent; the Muzzle should be a little lower than the Butt in order to take aim at the Center of the Body."

Since Bland's admitted goal was to limit his descriptions of the practices that been used during the "Late war in Flanders," it is reasonable to assume this was the method British infantry was indeed used during the War of Spanish Succession. Bland's work was extremely well received and over the next 35 years no less than nine separate editions appeared. The above description of the "present" motion remained unaltered in every edition up to and including the seventh edition that appeared in 1753.

There were a number of characteristics of this early manual of arms that had important implications. They not only affected the accuracy of the fire and the speed with which the men could reload, but also influenced the manner in which the men were positioned along the formation and how they could manœuvre as well. The manual of arms used until the mid-1750s forced the men to adopt a highly constrained position. The way they were required to hold their weapons did not exploit the weapon's natural center of gravity. Both elbows had to be held "in an equal line" parallel to the ground. This meant the positions where the men held their firelocks was much closer to their body than it would be after the manual of arms was revised. The requirement that the elbows be held "square" also meant that the front of the soldier's body was much more aligned with the firing line than it would be later, when it was almost perpendicular. Not only did this mean that each infantryman offered more of a target, but he occupied more lateral space as well.

The infantrymen's posture was also unnatural. At the moment of firing, he had to adopt what might be called a semi-lunge position. Looking at the two previous motions, "Join your Left Hands to your Firelocks" and "Cock your Firelocks," the position of the feet can be determined. In the first, the soldier was to step back a little with the right foot, the right toe pointing outwards, and the right knee a little stiff. In contrast, the left knee was slightly bent while the body was held straight. As the soldier cocked his firelocks he was to bring up the right foot and place it six inches form the "hollow of the left {foot}." Although unfortunately, neither Bland's work nor The Exercise of Foot (1690) were illustrated, the position of the feet and the elbows suggests that the British Infantrymen's stance throughout the first half of the 18th century was very similar to the comparable motions in the French manual of arms as prescribed by a March 2 1703 degree, illustrations of which can be found.

One of the most obvious deficiencies was caused by the need to keep the head straight. Soldiers were forbidden to look along the barrel. Commenting about the absurdity of making soldiers adopt such an artificial and awkward stance, Lt. Col. George Grant of the Murry's Highlanders facetiously observed that:

Any Commander that desires his Men to hold up their Heads when they fire, I am sure, was never a Marksman himself; and in such a Case, you may set Blind Men a Firing as a Man that can see; for it is with Difficulty the best of Men hit their Marks sometimes, when they have taken all the care they can.

Despite these problems, the by-now traditional manual of arms continued long after the demise of the matchlock for which it had been designed. Again consulting the long continuum of Bland editions, one sees that it remained in place within this source until the Appearance of the 8th edition in 1759. At this point, infantrymen when called to present their arms now were to:

Bring down the muzzle of your piece with both hands, throwing forward your left hand, as far as the swell of the stock under the barrel, and placing the butt end in the hollow betwixt your right breast and shoulder, pressing it close to you, at the same time taking your right thumb form the cock, and placing the forefinger upon the tricker, both arms close to your body, taking good aim, by leaning the head to the right, and looking along the barrel.

This new manual of arms, actually was introduced several years earlier and one of the first descriptions in print appeared in The Exercise of Foot for 1757, a very rare work with very few copies still existent. The Duke of Cumberland appears to have been the driving force behind this change, and Napier, his chief of staff, had issued a number of manuscript copies of the new procedure the previous year. The new manual of arms was different in several very important ways. The men were required to look along the barrel, a practice that would substantially increase accuracy of fire. The body was placed in a more sidewise position when firing (the men "looked over their shoulder") so they took up less space along the firing line. The elbows were sloped towards the ground and the left hand was brought further forward so that it supported the weapon's weight. Overall, the motions were performed closer to the body than previously, so that when well trained and practiced the men could fire more quickly than hitherto possible. A quick comparison the French manual of arms as prescribed by a May 6, 1755 ordinance with that which had been required by the March 2, 1703 decree shows a similar change occurred to the manual of arms used by French infantry.

Part III
The above analysis yields a picture consistent with George Townshend's contention. It is clear that, with the exception of the motions involving the match, British and French infantry continued to load and fire their firelocks using the same posture and movements developed for the matchlock many years after the weapon had been abandoned. This despite the fact this original manual of arms was clumsy, awkward, took more time to perform and worked against any attempt to achieve accurate fire. In stark contrast, the advantages of the new Prussian manual of arms became apparent as soon as they were employed in anger. After the battle of Mollwitz (April 10, 1741) an Austrian lieutenant-colonel exclaimed to his captors that the Prussians line appeared as "moving walls" rather than a long line of men. During the early phases of this war, the Prussian infantry was tightly packed along the firing line. Packed so close together the soldier's right arm was placed behind his neighbor's left arm and each man only occupied only 19 inches. The effect of the densely packed infantry lines was significant. Not only did the Prussian infantry with its iron ramrods and a streamlined loading procedure enjoy a greater rate of fire, but the resulting fire was more tightly concentrated and could be expected to cause a greater number of casualties per unit length of line.

However, what about Townsend's contention that Frederick William I's revision to the manual of arms ultimately transformed the capabilities of the Prussian infantry on all levels, and ultimately allowed for the adoption of a much more efficient manoeuvre system.

Once again, ironically some clues are found in early eighteenth century military scientific treatises and drill manuals. During the War of Spanish Succession, the distance between each British infantry and those around him varied according to circumstances. During reviews and on the parade ground the ranks were to be four paces apart and the files were open (1 pace between men along the rank). On the battlefield when the battalion was to fire, the ranks were closed to two paces while the files were tightened to a half pace apart so that "half outstretched one Hand bent at against the Side, the Elbow is to touch the Right-Hand Man." The battalion width of the battalion was reduced once again while marching or wheeling. In this case, "the Men almost touch one another with their Shoulders" and the ranks were closed to one pace. Obviously, this greatly complicated the manœuvring process. As it advanced towards the enemy, a battalion would assume the densest form of line. However, once it was ready to fire it had to open up the files to a half distance. These would have to be closed again in the final charge or when it manœuvred into a new position. This was not a trivial transformation; opening and closing the ranks was an exacting and a time consuming process and thus there was no continuity of motion during the manoeuvres, it was more a staggered series of steps.

The situation was far worse in the French army. Before the adoption of cadenced marching the ranks in a French battalion were kept open, i.e., about 13 feet apart. During the final moments of an advance, the ranks were closed to about three feet and the files were closed. Puységur estimated that when a battalion was charged by cavalry, the files were closed even further, each man now only taking up 15 inches of space. However, since the infantrymen had to circle back to the last rank by marching between the files after they fired, the files had to be kept a full pace apart in this last case.

The French not only encountered the same difficulties in manœuvring as did the British but this need to stretch out the line when firing created grand tactical problems as well. During the War of Spanish Succession, a French battalion to fire had to take twice as much ground laterally as it did when advancing to the attack. Conversely, if a French commander placed his battalions side by side (en muraille) with Open Files to fire, large intervals would appear between the battalions when the files were closed to advance. There is some evidence this remain a problem up until the mid-1750s. Although appearing in 1748, Marshal Puységur's Art de la guerre par principes et par règles continued to discuss how a commander could use what had originally been known as "fighting à la Hollandais" to exploit these large intervals during the attack. I had originally believed Puységur's work to be a description of methods used during the 1690-1713 period. I now have come to regard it instead to be a description of practices that continued to be used until past the Peace of Acchen (Aix-la-Chapelle) in 1748. In his master work, Histoire de l'infanterie en France, Victor Bellehomme tells us that although the French Minister of War commissioned a study of Prussian methods in 1749 the French infantry battalions continued to be deployed in line with full intervals in 1750.

It is clear that as long as the British and French continued with a manual of arms that had originally been designed for use with the matchlock the need to open and close the files not only greatly complicated matters grand tactically, but how the troops were to manœuvre between formations as well. As soon as the Prussians adopted a new manual of arms, the files could be kept closed, while firing, marching, and manœuvring. Since the width of the formation was not constantly accordioning, it could be much more readily functionally divided. New manœuvres could be created where the unit was broken down into subunits, such as a platoon or division, which moved according to a pre-arranged pattern simultaneously, such as the en tiroir or traversierschritt methods of going from column into line.

All this forces the conclusion that although the adoption of cadence did help revolutionize the manoeuvres that were used on the battlefield, these advances would have been impossible had the men continued to employ the original manual of arms that required wider spaces between the files. Townshend's claims are essentially accurate.