Thursday, June 30, 2016

Bunching, Fire Control, and Command on the Pre-Twentieth-Century Battlefield

Frederick II at the Battle of Zorndorf

Dear Reader,

This post has been on my mind for a while now, and I hope you will forgive me for my long silence. I am now in the summer between my first and second years of doctoral work, and things are going quite well. One of my articles is being published in the Journal of the Seven Years War Association, so if you are interested in soldierly standards in eighteenth-century North German armies, be sure to check it out! On a related note, I want to examine the issue of bunching and fire control as it applied to eighteenth soldiers.

When I say, "bunching," I am describing the natural instinct to stand closer together in the presence of danger. I began to seriously consider the topic, when a long car-ride conversation with a friend, (and in his own way, military historian), when he expressed incredulity that a professional fighting force such as the Prussians would devolve into an undisciplined mass of men.

The breakdown of command and control on the Kabinettskriege battlefield is well documented. Charles-Joseph, Prince de Ligne, an Austrian officer and military author, recalled, "I cannot recall an action when I did not have to try to break up a multitude of such columns with blows with the flat of my sword, while my corporals were wading in with their canes." (Melanges Militares, vol. 1, 20) "So what," you say- "the Austrians are undisciplined, such things should be expected."  Noted scholars like Christopher Duffy would argue that you are wrong regarding Austrian military capabilities, especially when Ligne would have observed them in the 1770s and 1780s. Rather, this was a European-wide phenomenon.

Frederick II of Prussia's aide in the later stages of the Seven Years' War, Georg H. von Berenhorst, made similar observations regarding Prussian battlefield experience in the Seven Years' War:

"You begin by firing by platoons, and perhaps two or three times get off an ordered volley. But after that follows a general blazing away-- the usual rolling fire when everyone blasted off as soon as he had loaded, when the ranks and files became confused, when the men of first rank could no longer kneel, even if they had wanted to. The commanders, from the lowest officer to the general, could no longer get the mass to perform anything other function: they just had to wait until it finally set itself moving forwards or backwards." (Betractung über die Kriegkunst, vol. 1, 255.)

Berenhorst observations are striking. Even the disciplined Prussian army struggled with command and control. The counter-argument to this is that Berenhorst observed the Prussian army in stages of decline- by 1760, the infantry were of a lesser quality. However, this observation is striking in its similarity to other observers in different armies.

Lt. Colonel Russell, of the British Guards, observed British infantry in action at the Battle of Dettingen, in 1743. Russell wrote in a letter to his wife,

"That the Austrians also behaved well is also true... they all fired as irregular as we did; that the English infantry... were under no command by way of Hide Park firing, but that the whole three ranks made a running fire of their own accord, and at the same time with great judgement and skill, stooping all as low as they could." (Quoted in Blackmore, Destructive and Formidable, 106)

In another letter, Russel indicated, "our men and their regimental officers gained the day; not in the manner of Hyde Park discipline, but our foot almost kneeled down by whole ranks, and so fired upon'em a constant running fire." (Quoted in Blackmore, Destructive and Formidable, 106)

 Ligne, Berenhorst, and Russell all noted the difficulty in translating command and control from peacetime maneuvers to the battlefield. Some may come away thinking that the soldiers of the eighteenth century were not drilled to a high enough standard, but this is the wrong interpretation. Other, non-Kabinettskriege era armies experienced problems in this regard, even those with impeccable credentials.

Peter Connoly's imagining of the Battle of Coronea

To examine this phenomenon at a different level, let us turn to the ancient world. I am sure that many of us are familiar with Thucydides description of the "drift to the right" phenomenon in hoplite battles. According to Strassler's translation, he indicates that, "because fear makes each man do his best to shelter his unarmed side with the shield of the man next to him on the right, thinking that the closer the shields are locked together the better will he be protected."(Strassler, The Landmark Thucydidies, 343.)

But upon closer examination, that doesn't exactly bear out. The second part of that phrase is: καὶ νομίζειν τὴν πυκνότητα τῆς ξυγκλῄσεως εὐσκεπαστότατον εἶναι. (Thuc. 5.71)

Literally, the hoplites "thinking the denser their closeness is, the better protected they are." From a logical standpoint, this is describing bunching. Thucydides language indicates that this phenomenon occurs as a result of fear, and a desire for protection. Thus, even the vaunted Spartiate of the classical age struggled to deal with battlefield bunching. Thucydides shares this anecdote in the context of Spartan King Agis' attempt to minimize the effect of bunching at the Battle of Mantinea in 418.

So, it would seem that keeping soldiers under control on the battlefield was a facet of life in most pre-twentieth century armies, and as some twentieth-century observers, such as Brigadier General Marshall noted in Men against Fire, this problem remains with us today. These problems do not deal dishonor to men from earlier times- command and control had simply not evolved to a sufficient level in order to perfectly manage battle on the scale which it was being waged. Indeed, it must be noted, the highly efficient world of counter-terrorism operations conducted by special forces usually occurs on a small scale. Large armies in battle have been, and continue to be, difficult to manage, and observers should not look for perfection in the military operations.

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns

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