Monday, June 5, 2017

Parade Expectations and Campaign Realities: The Paradox of Kabinettskriege Warfare

Modern Reenactors portray soldiers moving on parade (left) and on campaign (right)

Dear Reader,

This post springs up out of a series of thoughts and conversations (both online and in person) that I have had over the last few days. What did eighteenth-century warfare look like? Did large regiments of men in restrictive clothing, locked arm in arm, advance to the beat of drums under the terrible gaze of their officers? Or did soldiers' fight in a manner which was logical at the time?  At first glance, it may seem as though two different strains of soldier existed in the eighteenth-century. Reenactors, Television, and even historians seem to display two distinct types of soldier: the 'clockwork' soldier and the 'effective' soldier. 

With the reintroduction of cadenced marching and the slow geometrical maneuvers of linear warfare, it may seem as though soldiers in the eighteenth-century were plodding automata, or what some historians, including John Lynn, have called, "the clockwork soldier." In this view, the soldier marches with no great haste towards the enemy, and on the orders of his feared officers, performs the route motions of drill on the battlefield. Indeed, John Houlding has criticized the eighteenth-century British army for its relative lack of realistic training. According to popular belief, these soldiers were hampered by cumbersome uniforms, parts of which even made it more difficult for soldiers to breathe and fight. By the logic of this school of thought, eighteenth-century warfare seems to have unfolded much like drills on the parade ground. In the video below, you can see soldiers demonstrating the more formal aspects of the Prussian drill manual. The German transcriptions are not entirely accurate.


  On the other hand, historians such as Matthew Spring point to a different set of realities of warfare in the eighteenth century: that soldiers were capable moving swiftly, adapting to tactical realities, and that junior officers both exercised sound judgment and developed a positive working relationship with their men. Iyla Berkovich has suggested that many eighteenth-century fighting men were highly motivated. Reenactors and historians in this school often point to the numerous adaptations and modifications to uniforms and tactics made by soldiers in the era. In this model, men on the march and in combat made rational and effective decisions based on the realities of their wartime service. In the video below, you can see Prussian reenactors demonstrating a maneuver meant to be used in the midst of battle.

Infuriatingly, both of these schools have evidence and rationale to back up their opinions. However, this is where historians must look carefully at the type of evidence utilized. By and large, the clockwork soldier school uses prescriptive evidence: drill manuals, regulations, and military treatises. On the other hand, the effective soldier school uses descriptive evidence: orderly books, diaries, and letters. In other words, the clockwork soldier school often uses advice given out before and during wartime, while the effective soldier school often employs descriptions of events written during and after conflicts.  It swiftly becomes clear that with such evidence, both schools must have some ring of truth, even if as a historian, I find the descriptive evidence more convincing. 

Let us take a case from the army often cited as having the most "clockwork" tendencies in the eighteenth century: the Prussian army. If you examine the Prussian drill manual of 1750, there are a myriad of examples describing the clockwork soldier. Prussians are to load in their muskets in a multitude of tiny steps, they are never permitted to fire as individuals, only as platoon-sized elements, and the maneuvers are carried out with geometric precision. Soldiers are to be punished for minor infractions of military dress, and large appendices cover the complicated and formal clothing of soldiers. However, the effective soldier school replies: what actually happened? 

Descriptive sources from Prussian soldiers talk about firing as individuals in the confusion of battle, and even describe daily orders in which soldiers wear reduced clothing in violation of the drill manual.[1] Violence on the battlefield, then, looked different for Prussian soldiers than marching on the drill square. It is hard to imagine the 8th Regiment moving fifty miles a day in the rural midwest while maintaining parade level discipline. How can we account for these differences? 

Some historians have attempted to answer the question via the North American/European divide, arguing that for various reasons (terrain, lack of cavalry, individualism, 'national character', etc) soldiers in North America were effective soldiers, while those in Europe remained clockwork soldiers.  This alone cannot explain the difference, because, as I suggested last month, the Prussian army developed quick battlefield maneuvers. Christopher Duffy describes European soldiers moving "almost at a run" during the battles of the War of Polish Succession in the 1730s, and Peter Paret, Jim McIntyre, and others have suggested that light infantry doctrine emerged in Europe, not North America.[2]

The obvious answer to this problem is that context matters a great deal. Parade ground maneuvers took on a decidedly clockwork feel, as some of the same soldiers who examine the effective choices made in the field described.[3] Officers and men who experienced frontline combat and then observed peacetime reviews often criticized such maneuvers as ridiculous.[4] Much like the army today, the importance of close order drill, traditional uniforms, and military discipline mattered a great deal, because they taught important skills to eighteenth-century soldiers. However, once in a combat or campaign environment, those clockwork ideas were quickly replaced by a need for military effectiveness. Obviously, there was never a perfect split between these two realms. But, as soldiers moved further away from garrison life and into the maelstrom of combat, some of the formality of eighteenth-century warfare seems to have fallen behind. 

As historians write about the wars of the eighteenth century, and reenactors portray it to the public, great care must be given to the exact context of what is being described and portrayed. Confusing battlefield practices and parade ground maneuvers is a fatal mistake. 

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns

[1] Braeker, Der Arme Mann im Tockenburg, 164; Hoppe, "A Truthful Description", 7.
[2] Duffy, Military Experience in the Age of Reason, 203, McIntrye, British Light Infantry Tactics,1-5
[3] Braeker, Der Arme Mann im Tockenburg, 140-5. 
[4] Cornwallis, Correspondence, Vol I, 212.


  1. I wonder, if there is a book or publication out there compiling and sorting the supplemental tactics, maneuvres and motions, that the 'official' 1764 Manual of Arms is lacking.

    It seems difficult to the layman, to sift through a vast number of period sources to get fragmented and incomplete snippets and descriptions, and make them into something useful.

    1. You could give "With Zeal and With Bayonets Only," a read. It deals with the realities the British Army faced when prosecuting the war in America. It details logistics, formations, how they advanced, their fire discipline and a bit on drill.

    2. And, if you are interested in a good collection of drill and tactical supplement's from the period, you should check out John Williamson's "The Elements of Military Arrangement," published in 1781. Although we cannot be sure of the universal adoption of the tactical developments he describes, letters from returning British soldiers indicate that at least some of them were used in the AWI.

      As Kyle suggests, Matthew Spring's book is the one place to go in secondary sources.

    3. I do have "with zeal..."

      I was looking more for something short, condensed and handy, that a reenactor could use like the maual of arms, for training, but that includes at least the important bits from those wartime adaption.

  2. To use an analogy to art, Pablo Picasso is famed for his oft-confusing cubist work, but a look at his earlier work shows that he had great technical skill. Cubism actually has "rules", if you understand them, and new artists who try to emukate Picasso, without FIRST developing an accurate eye and previse technical hand, fail miserably at cubism, or other abstract forms. In the same way, a soldier is trained in precision, to teach him loading and firing as an exact sequence of events, so that he doesn't have to think about loading, in battke: he just DOES it. He is trained in close-order march, to teach him how to work as a cohesive member of a unit, not just a man in a crowd. He sees, firsthand, how powerful a concentrated group of men can be, when working together, and it gives him confidence in his comrades' abilities to do THEIR jobs, while he does HIS. Knowing what "Poise", or "club" means, through repetition, means he doesn't have to try to remember terminology, and allows him to execute such maneuvers, in tight quarters, in the heat of battle. Once the entire company is well-versed in all this, Officers and Enlisted, alike, SKILLED Soldiers will quickly develop an ability to adapt to immediate conditions, especially when every man present not only knows his job, but that every other man does, as well. So clockwork on the Parade, properly used, enables effectiveness in the field. Learn tge basics, through and through, and you have better ability to adapt in the field. I realize, of course, that I'm probably preaching to the choir, so pardon me, if I state tge obvious, but these discussions teach me, as a Serjeant, a great deal about my job. Thank you, for this terrific article!

    1. Buzz,

      I think you are absolutely right. There is a reason why soldiers in eighteenth-century armies were taught the position of the soldier and manual before anything else. Those basics are the glue that begins to hold military experience together, and most eighteenth-century diarists discuss there formative experiences of close-order drill, even their combat experiences were quite different. I enjoy the analogy to Picasso.

    2. Not only do I agree with Buzz Mooney completely, I was going to comment with the same analogy about Picasso. People only familiar with his Cubist work have no idea that he was a superb draughtsman - every line you see in “Seated Woman” or the expressive agony of “Guernica” is the result of not whimsy, but deliberate artistic intent.

      Many AWI period re-enactors concentrate on “effective” style small unit tactics. There is no question that at the edge of conflict a strict by-the-book practice will yield to that which is most effective. However, these same re-enactors rarely take into consideration that the larger part of a battle is maneuvering your troops into position, and for that your troops need to have been well drilled in the larger battalion movements. How many times have you heard someone pooh-pooh the entire rear section of HM ’64 as only being for Reviews and Parades? *No one* expects an engagement to unfold in the exact order in which is it displayed in the “reviews” section of ’64, but what is being reviewed is the ability of the Battalion to move, march, deploy from line into column and column into line, change its front, pass an obstacle, and prepare to resist Cavalry. Every officer in the formation needs to know how to give orders to his command; from the Major to the Wings, from the Captains to their Companies, from the Subalterns to their Platoons, from the Sergeants to their sections. It seems every time I go to an event we have to be taught how to Advance by Files and Form the Line all over again! This is stuff the soldiers should know cold before they ever step on the boat to America. Yes, it’s “clockwork” soldiering, but when you’ve got 350 moving parts in a Regiment, you need to be able to keep them from bumping into each other.

      Yes, “effective” soldiering is useful and practical when you are in wooded and broken country and practicing “petit guerre” tactics, but when you break out into the open and see a line of blue coats you had better be able to deliver crashing and effective volleys. No one is impressed with the crackle and pop of ragged, sloppy fire. When you see a unit moving with precision and economy of motion delivering crisp fire every 22 seconds, your side takes note, the other side takes note, and the crowd takes note. A well trained soldier should be able to go from advancing in column of Companies to advancing by files back to to Company front to Extended Order to firing by files using trees and cover back to Close Order and Company front. This is a mix of “clockwork” and “effective” which are each used in the context of need, all of which are part of the abilities of the trained soldier.

    3. Radford-

      I agree with most of what you say, especially as wargamer. You are on point as far as most reenactors needing experience in both of these areas. In fact, I indicate that exact idea near the end of the article. Many progressive reenactors may be too comfortable with maneuvers designed for wooded environments, but at least in my experience, much of the hobby has yet to fight two ranks in open order as standard. To me, that seems like a larger problem than progressive reenactors being rusty on larger battalion maneuvers. Don't get me wrong, the latter is a serious problem that needs addressing, but less serious than the former.

      The only thing in your above that I really take issue with is your assertion that "No one is impressed with the crackle and pop of ragged, sloppy fire." To some extend, if period soureces indicate that the breakdown of fire occurred, (and they often do) does it matter if the result is less impressive than crisp volley fire? Firing by file partners doesn't mean you are unable to deliever crisp fire. Upon reforming after firing by file partners, our platoon was twice complimented by the battalion commander for delivering crisp volleys. The staff up at Niagara and the King's Royal Regiment of New York can confirm the story.

      So, as you suggest, the ability to perform both types of soldiering is absolutely necessary. Context, exact context, as I wrote above, is vital.