Monday, December 11, 2017

Two Methods of Wheeling on Eighteenth-Century Battlefields

British Reenactors at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse

Dear Readers,

Today, I want to examine two methods of changing front in the eighteenth century. The first method, called wheeling, is quite well known even to individuals with a passing knowledge of military life. Timestamp 00:30 in the following video displays Hessian reenactors demonstrating a wheel in the 2015 Battle of Trenton reenactment. The basic concept is that one end (or the center,) of the line remains relatively stationary, while the rest of the formation pivots around it.

The concept is quite simple, and was widely used in eighteenth-century armies. However, historians and reenactors have identified another way which troops in the eighteenth century also reformed their front. By the 1780s, the British had developed a number of different ways of using this type of motion, with different orders for different situations. Troops would perform tasks such as forming to the right and left, a much faster way of wheeling on the run. Another way of changing the unit frontage in a rapid manner was breaking and reforming. In this method, the troops are dispersed, and then commanded to reform, usually facing a different direction than before. 

As opposed to the more stately wheel, troops were expected to reform the company at a much quicker speed. At timestamp 00:34 in the following video, you can see reenactors portraying British troops part of the way through executing this maneuver. In the video, they are reforming their front from a position perpendicular to the camera to one parallel, facing the camera. 

Up until this point, the exact origin of this maneuver is unclear. Reenactors have theorized that it came about as a result of British experience during the Seven Years' War in North America. Specifically, the first British source to mention this idea, Townshend's Orders to the Irish Establishment, given on May 15th, 1772, reference the idea as a light infantry exercise. The maneuver is to be carried out by "Light Infantry Companies...marching through a Wood or any Strong Country." 

The next British source to describe this idea, Thomas Simes, The Military Instructor, was printed in 1779. Rather than a company, Simes describes the maneuver as something that a battalion to execute in case of dispersal by the enemy. This command is a three-step process. The commanding officer of the battalion gives the order: "Take care to disperse: March." At this point, the officers and colors of the battalion take six paces to the front, and the drummers give a long roll. Upon the command, "to arms," the battalion reforms around the colors.[1]  Finally, John Williamson's The Elements of the Military Arrangement, published in 1782, gives a much greater discussion of the various ways a company could use this process in order to reform on the run. Williamson describes this as a new method of wheeling, which is making the old style of wheeling obsolete.[2]

If not for the obvious similarities in these discussions, you could almost believe that they were three separate ideas, independently formulated. Townshend's is clearly a measure designed to change the front of company-sized element of light infantry, Simes is a formalized order for reforming a battalion he does not even mention changing frontage.  Williamson's treatise makes it clear that speed, rather than formality, is the purpose of the exercise. However, my submission to you all is that all three of these authors drew on the same idea, and that the originator of the idea was not even an officer of the British army, but rather, this guy:

Frederick II, King of Prussia
The 1743 Prussian infantry regulations, authored by Frederick II, often called, "the Great" contain a passage in which the kernel of all of these elements can be identified. 

Like Simes, Frederick identifies dispersal with an enemy attack, or "entstandenen Alarme," (Spontaneous Alarm), and describes the maneuver with a battalion size element in mind. Indeed, Simes seems to lift much of his text directly from the Prussian Reglement. Like Townshend, Frederick intends his officers to use the maneuver to change the frontage of their units. The officers were to swiftly, "change the front via the colors," and that soldiers received commands to, "face to the colors."  Finally, like Williamson's treatise, Frederick indicates that the maneuver should be carried out with a high degree of speed. After dispersing, battalions should reform themselves, "with the utmost speed," and that after the order to reform has been given, "rush to reform themselves in their ranks and files."[3]

Prussian Reenactors performing this manuever

Thus, it would seem that Prussian ideas, rather than North American experience, led to the development of reforming fronts. This should not necessarily, surprise us: Williamson is explicitly overt in praising and copying Prussian ideas, while Simes directly copies portions of Faucwitt's translated Prussian regulations. With that being said, the British developed and perfected this idea in North America.  As Matthew Spring has shown in With Zeal and Bayonets Only, the British greatly adapted their tactics to a North American environment. By 1785, Charles Cornwallis expressed disgust at the outdated Prussian infantry maneuvers:

"The cavalry is very fine; the infantry exactly like the Hessian, only taller and better set up, but much slower in their movements. Their manoeuvres were such as the worst General in England would be hooted at for practising; two lines coming up within six yards of one another, and firing in one another's faces till they had no ammunition left: nothing could be more ridiculous."[4]

So, while the Prussian infantry may have been at the cutting edge of tactical development in the 1750s, the British had clearly surpassed them in infantry maneuvers by the 1780s. I believe the lessons for reenactors are rather clear, and many reenactors are currently implementing these ideas. But what about wargamers?

Many rulesets make wheeling a more costly affair (in terms of inches available) than simply moving straight. European soldiers appear to have applied inventive solutions to the problem of wheeling, but how often do we see these abilities on the wargame table? I would like to offer the follow solution to the issue of changing front. As opposed to a manner requiring a move, any unit should be able to change front with no penalties following a check. In Dean West's Final Argument of Kings ruleset, this is called a TCT, or tactical competency check. If units fail this check in the movement phase, they should still be allowed to change front, but must fall into disorder. John Williamson is particularly clear that troops could perform this maneuver while under fire, and that it performed well, it would not impede their ability to return fire.[5]

Could our perception of wheeling in the American War of Independence need to be updated? Is this another area where British soldiers employed cutting-edge tactical thought, perhaps with questionable results? 

Finally, if anyone has information regarding the use of this maneuver earlier than 1743, please come forward! Frederick II was doubtless influenced by contemporary military thinking. Some have claimed that this practice is found in the Ordonnances du Roi, but I have yet to find a version before 1743 which describes changing front in this way.  Has anyone seen this tactic used in the Marlburian era?

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Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns

[1] Thomas Simes, The Military Instructor, 29.
[2] John Williamson, Elements of Military Arrangement, 50-52.
[3] Reglement vor die K├Ânigl. Preussische Infanterie, 1743, 130-132.; Fawcett, Regulations for the Prussian Infantry, 107-108.
[4] Cornwallis, Correspondence,  1859, vol I, 212.
[5] Williamson, Elements of Military Arrangement, 51. 

1 comment:

  1. I'd love to be able to "play" with this maneuver, but as a Maryland Provincial Serjeant, 1756-58, it sounds like this would be well outside my historically-justifiable parameters. Interesting post, however!