Monday, July 10, 2017

"Lay on your Arms!": The British Army's Use of Cover in the Eighteenth Century

Reenactors portraying the 7th Regiment of Foot lay on their arms
Dear Reader,

Last Monday found me five hundred yards south of Fort Niagara, laying on my belly, watching the approach of a column of (reenactors representing) French regular troops. The Fort Niagara reenactment, designed to emulate the 1759 siege and Battle of La Belle Familie, specifically calls for the British regulars to lie down, just as Lt. Colonel Massey's troops did during the approach of the French relief force. As the French column neared our position, I found myself wondering: just how common was this practice among the eighteenth-century British army?

We have already seen how the British army adapted to North America during the Seven Years' War, and how battlefield conditions often failed to match parade ground expectations. Thanks to the work of scholars like Michael Adams, Matthew Spring and Stephen Brumwell, we know that the British army was not the foppish, bewigged spectacle so often presented by Hollywood. However, laying down under fire has not received a great deal of attention from historians. I would like to extend special thanks to Mark Canady for assistance locating sources on this topic. How often did the British army perform this action, why did they do it, and what does it tell us about the nature of eighteenth-century warfare?

Reenactors portraying soldiers from HM 40th Regiment of Foot

First of all, from the available sources, it seems as though this practice was incredibly common. So common, that it might even be considered a normal (if not universal) British practice when on the defensive in the 1740-1815 era. Oddly enough, unlike the shallow, open order formations used by the British, laying down under fire does not seem to have originated in North America. Rather, it was a product of fighting in the low countries in the mid-1740s. Also, it should be carefully noted: by and large, the troops performing this tactic are battalion company soldiers, not light infantry of any sort. Where possible, I have avoided using sources from light infantry or provincial units, in order to establish that regular British soldiers employed this tactic. British soldiers, sometimes under orders, sometimes of their own accord, stooped low or laid down in order to present their enemies with a smaller target. You can see elements of HM 17th Regiment of Foot practicing this at timestamp 00:12-00:24 of the following video.

The first account of this type of behavior comes from War of Austrian Succession. British troops appear to have employed this tactic in almost every major battle of the War of Austrian Succession. Lt. Colonel Russell of the Guards describes the British and French infantry stooping low at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743, and in his words: "our foot almost kneeled down by whole ranks, and so fired upon 'em a constant running fire."[1] Russell describes a pattern, by which both sides would wait until individual enemy soldiers would rise from a stooped position to load or fire, and then pick off the exposed individual enemy soldiers.[2] Although Russell's description of events is suspect because he took no significant part in the fighting himself, when weighted together with the other evidence from the War of Austrian Succession, it becomes irrefutable.

Members of the 7th and 8th Regiments of Foot take cover in a woodland environment

The next major engagement of the War of Austrian Succession, the Battle of Fontenoy, contains a number of instances of British soldiers employing cover to avoid enemy fire. The first instance is that of the Royal Highland Regiment. Under the orders of Colonel Robert Munro, the Highlanders were permitted to engage, "in their own way of fighting."[3] When the French would prepare to fire a volley, the Highland troops would "clap to the ground," allowing the French fire to pass over them, and, "instantly as soon as it was discharged, they sprung up, and coming close to the enemy, poured in their shot."[4] The fact that sources describe this as being, "their own way of fighting," might seem to imply it is a Scottish peculiarity, but this is not totally accurate.

Sampson Staniforth, a private soldier (probably in Bligh's Regiment, the 20th of Foot) described his experience of combat at Fontenoy as follows:
We marched up boldly; but when we came close to the town of Fontenoy, we observed a large battery ready to be opened on us. And the cannon were loaded with small bullets, nails, and pieces of old iron. We had orders to lie down on the ground; but for all that, many were wounded, and some killed. Presently after the discharge we rose up, and -marched to the first trench, still keeping up our fire.[5]
So, like the Highlanders, regular British infantry would lay down under the threat of severe enemy fire.  Later in the war, at the Battle of Rocoux, Staniforth again gives us a window into the defensive nature of laying down under fire. He begins, "We English posted ourselves in some gardens and orchards, which were some little cover," and other soldiers who were there note that the British tried to fortify the hedgerows by filling them with dirt. As the French forces marched on Staniforth's position:
"Here we lay, waiting for orders to retreat to our army... While we lay on our arms, I had both time and opportunity to reprove the wicked. [Staniforth was a deeply religious man] By this time the French came very near us, and a cannon-ball came straight up our rank. But, as we were lying upon the ground, it went over our heads. We then had orders to stand up and fire."[6] 
Reenactors portraying soldiers from HM 40th  kneel in a cornfield

So, in at least three of the major battles of the War of Austrian Succession, British troops presented their enemies with smaller targets to avoid enemy firepower. This trend continued into the Seven Years' War era, in both North America and Europe.

During the Raid on Cherbourg in 1758, Corporal Todd of the 12th Regiment of Foot recalled lying down, in order to prevent friendly-fire incidents. "And as soon as we got ashore, we lay down close upon the Beach, near the water edge, that our ships might fire over us in case the Enemy Advance to make any Attack upon us[.]"[7] British soldiers laid down, not only to make themselves smaller targets but also to facilitate supporting fire in certain contexts.

In North America, British soldiers frequently laid down under fire. John Knox frequently describes this practice during the 1759 campaign at Quebec. He describes laying down in the course of maneuvering against the enemy, during siege operations, when taking fire from enemy artillery, and on the battlefield against enemy infantry.[8] In addition, the British 46th Regiment used this tactic at the Battle of La Belle Familie, as suggested at the beginning of this article. [9]

Troops from Heylar's Company of the 7th Regiment of Foot take cover in a field

Unsurprisingly, the practice continued during the American War of Independence. Again in this era, it seems to have been a response to coming under artillery fire.  At the Battle of Harlem Heights, multiple British diarists record that they lay on their arms after coming under fire by American artillery batteries. Thomas Sullivan, with the 49th Regiment of Foot, recalled: "The Cannonading continued at both sides for an hour... All that time out Brigade i.e. 2d., lay upon our Arms in a field of Indian corn..." Sullivan describes this practice again at Brandywine in 1777.[9] Also in 1777, Enisgn Thomas Glyn of the Brigade of Guards reported, "the Enemy advanced with two pieces of Cannon & began to cannonade us, when we were ordered to lay down and being covered by the ground, no loss ensued...".[10] Once again, even while employing the quick aggressive tactics outlined by Matthew Spring, the British were not afraid to take cover if the situation demanded it.

As in the Seven Years' War, this British practice extends far beyond North America. At the Battle of La Vigie on St. Lucia in 1778, British soldiers repeatedly took cover to avoid French firepower. Major George Harris of the 5th Regiment of Foot recalled, "My gallant friend, now no more, Captain Shawe of the 4th. Company, was ordered by me to make his men lie down, and cover themselves with brushwood as much as possible, to prevent them being seen as marks."[11] Lt. the Hon. Colin Lindsay of the 55th Regiment also reports that his soldiers took cover in the course of the fighting.

It seems odd, then, that one of the most enduring myths of the American War of Independence is that the British were, "Too Dumb to Take Cover," in the articulation of Professor Michael Adams. Indeed, British soldiers' frequently took steps to minimize casualties, and protect themselves against enemy fire. Reenactors and wargamers should take note, in order to represent and simulate the British army of the eighteenth century in an accurate manner.

Please feel free to share if you know anyone who might be interested.

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns

[1] Russell, Reports on the Manuscripts, 260.
[2] Ibid, 278.
[3] Doddridge, The Life of Colonel Gardiner, 162.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Jackson, The Early Lives of the Methodist Preachers, Vol IV, 126.
[6] Ibid, 136.
[7] Todd, Journal, 68.
[8] Knox, Journal, Vol I, 302, 308, 321;  Vol II, 70.
[9] Brumwell, Redcoats, 252.
[10] Sullivan, Journal, 67, 131.
[11]Glyn, Journal on the American Service, 30.
[12] Lushington, The Life and Services of General Lord Harris, 70.


  1. Interesting.. thanks for posting it.

  2. Very interesting article. Will certainly try and read a bit more on this subject matter