Thursday, November 30, 2017

How Accurate were Regular Soldiers in the Mid-Eighteenth Century?

A Soldier from the King's Regiment takes aim.

Dear Readers,

Today, I want to touch on a rather controversial subject.* The subject is the infantry fire effectiveness of mid-eighteenth century European and Euro-American armies. At the outset, "shooting at marks" or target practice, was common in many eighteenth-century armies. Specifically, I am examining the accuracy and limitations of firepower regular soldiers from the British and Prussian armies in the 1740-1783 era.  Many people have firm beliefs on this subject and feel that the eighteenth-century musket was a rather poor weapon.

 First of all, by modern standards, the smoothbore musket of the mid-eighteenth century was not a terribly accurate weapon. However, we need to judge it by the standards of its own time, not modern standards. In the eighteenth century, more accurate weapons existed, such as the rifles carried by specialized American troops, and Hessian Jägers. However, those weapons also took a significant time to load.

To see the drawbacks of rifles firsthand, examine this pair of videos. The first shows a musketeer and riflemen loading side by side.  The second video, below, shows how quickly British soldiers could move in order to attack riflemen with bayonets. The rifleman, offscreen, is portrayed by the director of interpretation at Old Fort Niagara, Davis Tierney. Just before the video begins, Davis has fired a shot, incapacitating one soldier. In the remaining 13 seconds, the British troops quickly cross the 100 yards separating the opposing forces.

 When bayonets were not the primary form of attack, how accurate could smoothbore-equipped forces be against one another? The Journal of the American Revolution has featured a number of posts on this topic. The purpose of this post is not to rag on any of the work of these academic, public or amateur historians. In this sense, I use amateur as it is intended to be used: these individuals are interested in the topic for the love of it, and care for it, not simply motivated by the career-orientated goals of a professional historian. As a result of these works, the general public can access information in an easy to digest format suggesting that the soldiers of the eighteenth century fired at marks, and took time to aim. Almost two years ago, living historians at Old Fort Niagara made this video, in order to seriously address this question. Take a few moments to watch the link, or click on the video below.

Firepower was vital to armies of the mid-eighteenth century. A number of authors have amassed evidence regarding the British Army's dedication to accurate fire. In his book, Louisbourg 1758, Hugh Boscawen gives a very detailed description of the British Army honing their accuracy during the Seven Years' War. During the preparations for the attack at Louisbourg, British troops engaged in extensive marksmanship training, mostly consisting of "firing at a marque" or a man sized target. [1]  The 60th of Foot, the Royal American Regiment, was praised for taking good aim during the Seven Years' War in North America.[2] In the course of the American War for Independence, despite their reliance on bayonet tactics British troops frequently practiced shooting at marks, and their Germanic allies followed suit.

British Soldiers take aim near Ft. Niagara
Friedrich Adolf, Freiherr von Riedesel, often called Baron Riedesel by English language historians, left an excellent description of this process.

"General Carleton has decreed that that the army is to practice target shooting or shooting at a goal, I am issuing orders so as to adhere to this as well and as successfully as possible. Each squadron or company is to have some rough boards fastened together, on which a ring of black is to be painted proportionately. The target may be either square or round. Have this target placed at a distance of point blank shot."

"NOW WAIT A MINUTE," you say.  How helpful could target practice be at point blank range? Well, fortunately, we have an exact idea what "point blank" meant in the eighteenth century. It may surprise you. Lewis Lochee, the author of a military treatise in this era, notes that, "the point blank of our firelocks... is known to be about 300 yards." [3] For more on the subject, check out this website. With that in mind, let us return to Baron Riedesel:

"Each man of the company will shoot eight times... a non-commissioned officer standing some distance from the target will mark on the target the location of the shot... the company officers are to gather together to prove to the men how well they can shoot and aim. When each man has shot eight times, the entire target practice will be completed. In the judgement of the captain, the one who has made the best four shots will receive the following prizes..."[4]

Riedesel goes on to list a monetary reward, and also gives instructions that men who are waiting their turn to shoot should be kept at ease, so as not to think of target shooting as a hard duty, but something necessary for military life. If Germans in North America took to target shooting with such alacrity, we should not be surprised to find that German soldiers in Europe also worried about the accuracy of their shots.

Firepower was also a key feature of Prussian infantry tactics, where Frederick II's infantry had won him the province of Silesia in the War of Austrian Succession via their skill at loading the musket.  Wargamers and reenactors debate Frederick's devotion to infantry firepower based on his theoretic military writings, but that his infantry used firepower in both the attack and defense remains clear. Frederick's mind clearly seems to have been made up on the issue by November of 1757, when after witnessing infantry firepower shattering a spontaneous and abortive French assault in columns at the Battle of Rossbach, he famously stated, "If Chevalier Folard had known how it would have turned out, he would have cursed his sacred columns."[5]

Don Troinai's recent interpretation of Freeman's Farm, one of the
few heavy firefights of the American War of Independence

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given their monarch's Enlightenment persuasion, the Prussian's under Frederick undertook a number of studies concerning accuracy of fire during his reign. The first, after the initial battles of the War of Austrian Succession, revealed that Prussian soldiers were firing to low. According to Mauvillon, a military theorist of the time:  "According to my sums, the Prussians fired 650,000 rounds of musketry during their advance at Chotusitz, and the enemy lost scarcely 2,500 dead and as many wounded. If you subtract the men who were killed and wounded by the sword, a great number of rounds must have gone astray!"[6]

Frederick himself was concerned with measuring the accuracy of fire, and as a result his general Winterfeldt had two platoons of Grenadiers fire at a target screen in 1755, scoring between 10 and 13% hits at 300 paces, 16.6% at 200 paces, and 46% at 150 paces.[7] It must be said that this target screen was around 30 feet by 30 feet. Finally, Scharnhorst tested the older musket of Frederick's period in 1813, producing the following results:

(Duffy, Military Experience in the Age of Reason, 207)
However, it is important to realize that none of these tests, no matter how hard they might try, simulated the stress of combat. This prevents these studies from truly helping us understand what occurred on mid-eighteenth century battlefields. For an indication of what that combat might have been like, we can only turn to the documentary evidence. The following two excerpts come from Prussian common soldiers' experiences of the Battle of Lobositz, the first engagement of the European Seven Years' War:
“So the battle began at six o’clock in the morning and dragged on amidst thundering and firing until four in the afternoon, and all the while I stood in such danger that I cannot thank God enough for my health. In the very first cannon shots {my friend} Krumpholtz took a cannonball through his head and the half of it was blown away, he was standing just beside me, and the brains and skull of Krumpholtz sprayed into my face and the gun was blown to pieces from my shoulder, but I, praise God, was uninjured. Now, dear wife, I cannot possibly describe what happened, for the shooting on both sides was so great, that no-one could hear a word of what anyone was saying, and we didn’t see and hear just a thousand bullets, but many thousands. But as we got into the afternoon, the enemy took flight and God gave us the victory. And as we came forward into the field, we saw men lying, not just one, but 3 or 4 lying on top of each other, some dead with their heads gone, others short of both legs, or their arms missing, in short, it was a horrifying sight. Now, dear child, just think of how we must have felt, we who had been led meekly to the slaughterhouse without the faintest inkling of what was to come.” [8]
Prussian Soldiers, from a 1730s painting
Another Prussian soldier recalled:
     “Now an indescribable slaughter took place, before we could drive the Pandurs out from among the trees. Our advance troops suffered severely, but the rear ranks pressed after them at breakneck speed, until at last all had gained the height. There we had to go stumbling over heaps of dead and wounded. Then the Pandurs went helter-skelter down the hill, jumping down over one wall after another, down to the level ground. Our native Prussians and Brandenburgers sprang upon the Pandurs like Furies. I too was quite beside myself with heat and excitement, and conscious of no fear or repugnance I loosed off nearly all my sixty cartridges without stopping, until my flintlock became almost red-hot and I had to carry it by the sling; yet I do not believe that I hurt any living thing, it all went into thin air. “[9]
With these examples in mind, the chaos of eighteenth-century warfare can begin to seem a bit more real. These passages help explain Mauvillon's discrepancy between shots expended and casualties inflicted. Eighteenth-Century battlefields were truly chaotic places, and acheiving accuracy with a smoothbore weapon was difficult at the best of times.   All that the Prussians (or any other European soldier) could hope for was a comparative advantage in firepower which would drive off the enemy force. And, as a result of thorough training, the Prussians and other armies often achieved that comparative advantage.

Infantry firepower decided many of the battles of the eighteenth century, and as a result, helped shape our world. While, "Muzzle-Velocity" military history may be out of favor with academic historians, it remains a portion of lived human experience, and as a result, a topic worthy of historical thought and explanation.

If you enjoyed this post, or any of our other posts, please consider liking us on facebook,  or following us on twitter. Finally, we are dedicated to keeping Kabinettskriege ad-free. In order to assist with this, please consider supporting us via the donate button in the upper right-hand corner of the page. As always:

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns

*This is a largely updated version of an older post.
[1] Hugh Boscawen, Louisbourg 1758, 140.
[2] Alexander Campbell, The Royal American Regiment, 110.
[3] Lewis Lochee. Elements of Field Fortification, 1783,  37
[4] Hessian Documents of the American Revolution, Microform, "Riedesel's Order Book", 21.
[5] Quoted in Duffy, Prussia's Glory, 80.
[6] Translation  by Christopher Duffy, quoted in Military Experience in the Age of Reason, 209: Mauvillon, Histoire de la derniere guerre de Boheme, Vol. 1,  100-101
[7] Duffy, Army of Frederick the Great, 128.
[8] Bleckwenn, Preussische Soldatenbriefe , 13.
[9] Ulrich Bräker, Lebensgeschichte Und Natürliche Abentheuer Eines Armen Mannes Von Tockenburg (Zurich: Hans Heinrich Füssli, 1789), 150.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Reenactors and Wargamers: Representing the British Army in the Mid-Eighteenth Century

A British Soldier on Campaign in North America
Dear Readers,

Today, I want to discuss the diffusion of historical knowledge and the representation of the past. Representations of the past are powerful. Many people will never open a footnoted history book, but they will attend a film, watch a reenactment, or play a game regarding the past. As a result, representations of the past, whether professional historians such as myself approve it or not, are often more powerful than scholarly books. This post examines the work of one historian, now almost a decade old, and surveys the impact of his ideas on representations of the British Army in the America War of Independence. After outlining the main areas of major research, the post will point to four ways that both mainstream reenactors and wargamers could improve their representations of the British Army on the battlefield during the "American War."

Since 1980, a number of brilliant scholars have redefined how historians understand the British Army in the eighteenth century. They include Don Hagist, Steve Rayner, Stephen Conway, Will Tatum, Stephen Brumwell, Mark Wishon, Todd Braisted, Mark Odintz, J. A. Houlding, Sylvia Frey, and Glenn Steppler. Their work, and the work of other historians not listed, has drastically changed how we view the British Army, and we are greatly in their debt. For the era of the Seven Years' War, Stephen Brumwell has radically altered the picture of how battlefield engagements occurred. However, today, we are going to specifically focus on the work of one historian: Matthew H. Spring. Spring's work deals with the British Army on the battlefield in the American War of Independence, and as a result, has perhaps the most import for representations of the British Army.

 Front Cover 
Almost a decade ago, Spring authored his first book, With Zeal and With Bayonets Only. Like many revisionist histories, Spring's work has generated much controversy. However, it is possible to sum up 10 of Spring's contributions to understandings of the British Army in the American War of Independence:

1) In North America during the American War of Independence, British commanders often sought to maintain the operation and tactical offensive, frequently targeting rebel forces in flank attacks.[1]

2) In the course of their offensive actions, quickly-moving British troops often fought individual combats between regiments, in "fluid and ragged" battles, rather than deploying slowly with geometric precision.[2]

3) British soldiers were highly motivated by unit pride, a sense of their superior military abilities, and a distaste for rebellion. [3]

4) The British Army fought deployed in open order, in two ranks, rather than close order and three ranks.[4]

5) The British "made their initial advances into action at about a quick step, accelerated to a trot or a jog within small-arms range of the enemy, and then broke into a run for the bayonet charge." The British frequently cheered when close to the enemy, in order to weaken enemy morale.[5]

British Troops "Giving the Indian Halloo"

6) British junior officers directed the battle at the regimental level (see point 1) and exercised a large degree of initiative in North America that would have been impossible in Europe.[6]

7) The British Army relied on shock tactics, rather than pure firepower, to drive its opponents from the battlefield. As a result, the effectiveness of British firepower suffered. Technical problems, such as the low quality of flints, also decreased British fire effectiveness.[7]

8) Early in the war, the British reliance on bayonet charges proved useful, but by the later stages of the conflict, continental troops had become adept at standing firm in the face of British steel. [8]

9) British light infantry troops, though adept at seizing defensive positions and making use of individual cover, often employed the same bayonet tactics as the rest of the army. In open and light terrain, this was effective, but often more costly in heavily wooded areas.[9]

10) Despite winning the majority of battlefield engagements during the American War of Independence, British policymakers overestimated the politic results of battlefield victory and were eventually incapable of fully destroying the rebel field armies.[10]

"Progressive" Reenactors

Published in 2008, Spring's book has certainly made a stir in certain circles of the historically-conscious community. Many reenactors who portray the British Army, such as those in the "progressive" movement, attempt to demonstrate Spring's ideas to the public. However, the majority of British American War of Independence reenactors continue to portray an army which looks more like the eighteenth-century British army in Europe, or perhaps in The Patriot, than the historical reality of the British Army. With that in mind, I have the following four suggestions to British Army reenactors. Offering these suggestions does not in any way criticize the units currently not employing them. Historical knowledge, like medical knowledge, is frequently updated as new primary sources become available. Constantly being aware of new information is a key feature of any hobby or profession.

1)  Although this idea has already been adopted by many reenactors, British reenactors should commonly form at open order, in two ranks. This battlefield practice became so common that it was used for a royal review by Prince William in 1781. Although it might be a bit much to expect modern reenactors to run everywhere, British reenactors might attempt to portray troops slowly jogging into action, particularly when under fire by their Continental counterparts.

2) Rather than arranging troops by lines of battle, event organizers might consider pairing Continental and British units, and include interplay between individual units, rather than lines of battle as a whole. Especially in the later stages of battles, it may be easier to visualize combat between units, or groups of units, rather than battle lines as a whole.

3) Though often impressive to spectators, drums and colors often played a rather small role on the historical battlefield. As they fought these "fluid and ragged" battles, British soldiers usually did not worry about keeping drill-square precision. Though drummers accompanied troops into battle, keeping step, and especially calling cadence, should be a rather low priority for reenactors portraying troops in battlefield conditions.

4) Reenactors should avoid prolonged firefights at close range. British troops should quickly move into range of their opponents, and either push them back or be repulsed. Examining battles such as Guilford Courthouse, groups of British units approached the Continental third line, and were repulsed in waves, until finally breaking through. Rather than simply stopping at close range, the British attacks were mobile and fluid, as regiments advanced, fell back to regroup, and advanced again.

Perry Miniatures' plastic box set of British troops

Finally, we turn to wargamers. The recent plastic box set by Perry miniatures seems to show a familiarity with modern ideas on the British Army. Many individual wargmers understand the tactical realities of the American War of Independence. I recall a conversation with Lynn Langer at the 2012 Seven Years' War convention. We had both read With Zeal and With Bayonets Only, and were entirely convinced by the weight of Spring's evidence. We were disappointed to see that no rulesets at the convention captured the nature of the British Army in the AWI. To my knowledge, and I would love to be corrected, the only ruleset which allows the British to move and fight as Spring describes is Loose Files and American Scramble by Andy Callan. You can find a PDF here. This four-page ruleset, published in the 1980s by Wargames Illustrated, captured many of the conflict's historical realities, and was published many years before With Zeal and With Bayonets Only. While there are a large number of widely used rulesets, few allow for tactical developments like Spring describes. With that in mind, here are four suggestions for AWI wargame rulesets.

1) British troops should be able to move quickly. In the house-modified version of Dean West's Final Argument of Kings, that I use, British movement is increased to 14 inches when in line formation.

2) Because of their "loose files and America scramble" (a quote from David Dundas) British troops should take some sort of organizational check each turn in order to avoid falling into disorder. Period sources frequently describe British troops advancing at great speed, "in tolerable order." Speed comes at a price. This organizational check should be easy to pass when not in combat, but become more difficult as the game progresses.

3) British troops should be equal to or at a slight disadvantage to their opponents in terms of firepower. Particularly in the late war, Continental troops were capable of delivering fire which stunned British forces.

4) British troops frequently employed terrain to their advantage when under fire, and fought in open order. It should be slightly more difficult to hit British troops than their close-order Hessian and American counterparts. Some wargamers may feel more comfortable only giving this bonus to troops being targeted by artillery, and not small arms. It appears that British troops used cover in many combat situations, when not advancing with the bayonet.

As ever, I appreciate my readership's ideas and opinions. How do you think that we can better portray British soldiers on the battlefield as reenactors and wargamers? How important are realistic representations of the past to you?

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns
[1] Matthew Spring, With Zeal and With Bayonets Only, 74-75.
[2] Ibid, 102.
[3] Ibid, 137.
[4] Ibid, 139-143.
[5] Ibid, 161.
[6] Ibid, 190.
[7] Ibid, 215.
[8] Ibid, 244.
[9] Ibid, 262.
[10] Ibid, 281.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Hessian Jägers at the Siege of Charleston

A non-contemporary image, from the perspective of the siege lines

Dear Reader,

Today, we have an extract from the journal of Staff Captain Johann Hinrichs of the Hessen-Kassel Feld-Jäger Corps at the Siege of Charleston in 1780. Hinrichs gives an account of the entire siege, but it lasts for 50 pages, so I will only detain you will the final days here. Hinrichs' account is available in certain libraries via Microform, and is highly readable. He was a keen observer of siege tactics.

"May 5.

Today 1 Captain [Ewald] & company went towards no. 1 (a redoubt) by another road, that lay close to the Ashly and skirted the trench. Our batteries in the 3rd parallel were still all masked, and did not fire a shot. The enemy enfiladed them in the rear and partly on the flank, and they suffered a great deal. The mistake lay in the 2nd parallel, [His emphasis] As the enemy had got to know that the workmen were relieved at 3 o'clock in the morning by means of deserters from our side, and therefore kept up a steady cross ricochet fire along the road until daylight. I went there this afternoon and marked out another road to the right of the existing one, on which only 3 embrasures could play.  This night the battery in the 2nd parallel that had been commenced the preceding night was completed, and the batter en barbette on the highroad, 160 paces behind the 2nd parallel, was provided with 3 embrasures, repaired and strengthened.

Hessian Jägers, Don Troiani

May 6

This morning I marched along the new road with the detachment, and only one ball came near us. I went to the left and Lt. Schaeffer to the right. Our workers had been diligent, they had got a good deal done... We fired 3 6-pounders into the midst of the enemy's works. Our 3rd parallel ran towards the centre of the enemy's section in oblique lines. Not a single cannon in the enemy's advance redoubts on both wings had been silenced. Consequently their left wing enfiladed our left en revers, and their right our right. And our side had not attempted to rectify this mistake either by means of sufficient traverses or re-entering and salient angles. The rebels tried to avail themselves of every advantage and kept up a brisk fire. However, the Jägers always kept them in check, so that they dared not open their embrasures much during the day, and could only fire a shot now and then by one or other gun by stealth. But they fired all the more during the night, and razed our new batteries that were built of such light materials, so that there was enough to repair next morning.

A few bombs were thrown on our side, and the Jägers kept up a steady fire. I had 300 sandbags fetched during the day, and had proper embrasures made on the parapet for the rifles in a line with the rebels' embrasures. At 5 o'clock int  the afternoon, whilst we were constructing these embrasures, they enemy fired a salvo of 13 guns at us, that hit below the sandbags, threw them in to the air,a nd then into the ditch. Fortunately, none of the Jägers were wounded, although they were all occupied either in aiming at the enemy or arranging the sandbags. The blast and debris knocked us all down, and some rifles were smashed.  Almost all our batteries were completed during the night and supplied with ammunition. The enemy kept up a brisker fire than they had ever done before. At o'clock an alarm was sounded in the town. The noise never ceased, and it seemed to be seized with a panic.

[The entry for May 7th contains details for the surrender of outling forts]

May 8

As our breaching battery was now ready, the embrasures were opened last night, and another summons was sent to the town and garrison at daybreak. The whole of the opposite bank of the river was in our hands, from Cain Hoy to Fort Multrie, consequently, all the communications the enemy might have were cut off, their cavalry routed, no chance of succour, all their forces concentrated in the town, our works quite near their ditch, about 100 paces of this ditch was already dry and becoming drier every moment, and Fort Multrie and the whole of the harbour in our hands.  They were given two hours respite, which was prolonged from time to time, this went on until 6 o'clocl in the evening. Various points had already been settled, and then suddenly the negotiations were broken off.

At o'clock in the evening, the armistice was at an end, the enemy had all the bells in the town rung, and after 8 hurrahs had been given they kept up such a terrible fire the whole night as never before. It was a fire kept up by drunkards, for I believe the whole garrison was drunk...

Hessian Jäger, Don Troiani

May 9

In the Morning our batteries and bombs began to play, and kept up a galling fire. The enemy's front redoubt on the left wing demlished our one 24-pounder that had played on it straightway in the first salvo, but another was brought in in no time, which silenced all the 4 gun batteries of the front redoubt on the left wing, smashed 2 of the guns and destroyed all the 4 embrasures, so that nothing more was to be seen of them. The enemy had provided all their embrasures with mantelets, but some bar-shots cleared the embrasures and gave the Jägers a chance of shooting.

May 10t

The firing was kept up all day, and a number of bombs were thrown during the night. Th enemy had thrown very few for the  last fortnight. The 10-inch howitzer that had been captured at Fort Moultrie was brought up the river Ashley during the night, and taken into the 3rd parallel to the right.

May 11

The enemy bore up against the fire and returned it until noon, when another flag was sent out. The fire was so fierce that we did not see them come, and they had to retire again. At 2 o'clock they hoisted a large white flag on the horn-work and sent a second flag, and offered to surrender the town, etc, on the conditions we had already offered to them. An armistice was granted and a message dispatched to the admiral... and at 11 o'clock the same vening the main capitulation was in order.


As regards the rebel fortifications and their defence as well as our attack I will keep the account until I have finished the plan of the town, as it has been quite impossible for me to do it as yet. Their artillery was better than our, but they have confessed themselves that our rifles had cost them...killed and wounded since our 3rd parallel was commenced, and they could never open their embrasures without loss. The reason why they threw so few bombs during the latter part of the seige was because their best bombardier, a major in the artillery, had been shot on April 31, and they had nobody who could make good fuses, of which they stood in need."

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns