Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Did Eighteenth-Century Infantry Frequently "Fire At Will"?

Members of HM 17th Regiment of Infantry engaged in a firefight
Dear Reader,

In the eighteenth century, commanders prized orderly and disciplined fire. The British and Prussian armies were famous for their level of discipline and firepower. These armies particularly valued soldiers who fired by platoons (perhaps 1/8 of the formation firing at a time.) Soldiers and junior officers regularly noted when troops were able to achieve this level of discipline and control on the battlefield. At battlefield as diverse as Mollwitz, Dettingen, Prague, the Sullivan Campaign, and Reichenbach soldiers maintained complicated firings by platoons, divisions, and battalions. [1] We should take these reports seriously: these armies were sometimes able to achieve fire-disciple.

However, it appears from the sources that troops involuntarily used another type of fire: something that in modern English we might call, "firing at will." In the eighteenth century, the English sometimes called this an "irregular," "straggling," or "running fire," the French a, "feu de billebaude" and German sources often refer to it as, "Plackerfeuer" or sometimes "Batalillenfeuer." In practice, this simply meant that troops loaded and fired as quickly as they could, often without orders from officers. It is important to carefully interrogate sources referring to "running fire," as at times this can mean a quick but orderly fire by divisions.  A number of historians have written on this topic, such as Christopher Duffy, David Blackmore, John Houlding, and Matthew Spring.

British Troops firing
I should make it clear: eighteenth-century military theorists often frowned on this type of firing, as it was perhaps less effective than controlled firing by platoons or ranks.  Despite the censure of military theorists, we can observe this type of firing in a number of sources. It was used on eighteenth-century battlefields, across most armies. The British and Prussian armies took steps to mitigate firing at will and it may have occurred less frequently, but sources still report its use in those armies. Perhaps the most famous (and controversial) description of this type of firing comes from Lt. Colonel Russell of the British Guards at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743:
"That the Austrians behaved well also is true; that except one of their battalions which fired only once by platoons, they all fired as irregular as we did; that the English infantry behaved like heroes, and as they were the major part in the action to them the honor of the day is due; that they 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, making almost every ball take palce, is true, that the enemy, when expecting our fire, dropped down, which our men perceiving, waited till they got up before they would fire as a confirmation of their coolness as well as bravery, is very certain; that the French fired in the same manner, I mean like running fires, without waiting for words of command, and that Lord Stair did often say he had seen many a battle and never saw the infantry engage in any other manner is as true.[2]
As you might expect, this statement has generated some controversy. David Blackmore has called the eyewitnesses credibility into account and has suggested that Lord Stair's comment may only apply to the French Infantry.[3] The author was two miles away from the battle, but wrote this letter two months after the battle, and would have been able to discuss the events with officers closer to the scene. The statement "Lord Stair did often say," implies that this topic was a matter of conversation, at least among officers, after Dettingen. Even if we assume that Stair's statement only applies to the French, what a statement! Another officer reported on the same battle reported that "the British infantry fired not by platoons but with perpetual Volleys from right to left, loading almost as fast as they fired without ceasing so that the French were forced to retreat."[4]

Interpretive Staff representing French Troops at Fort Ticonderoga in 1758

If this practice happened at Dettingen, where else can we observe it in the eighteenth-century? Certainly, this practice was embraced by the French. In the 1750s, the Comte de Chabot argued that allowing soldiers to fire at will was superior to other systems of fire. "The French leave each man the will and power to direct his fire, and all this fire takes good effect... this is the great advantage of French fire."[5] Chabot put forth a number reasons why this type of firing might be effective, including less pressure on officers, less chance of rookie soldiers interfering and disordering the battalion, and many other reasons.[6] Sometimes, the troops would augment firing at will by laying on the ground or on their knees. It seems that the battles of Parma and Guastalla in 1734,  the French and Austrian fought mainly on their knees.[7]   Charles Immanuel de Warnery reports that on this occasion, "the infantry laid on all fours, and fired after the manner of Croats."[8]  Comte Turpin de Crisse, writing in 1770, called the feu de billebaude, "the best of all fires," and advocated that officers facilitate the fire by having men in the rear ranks load, while the men in the front ranks fired.[9] Austrian Veteran Jacob de Cogniazzo discussed the use and disadvantages of an "unregulated fire."[10] Tobias Smollet's military history, published in 1786, refers to straggling and irregular fire in reference to the British and French Infantry in 1758, but since he was not an eyewitness, we should treat these accounts with care.[11] John Knox reports that the French used, "a galling though irregular fire" at Quebec in 1759.[12]

French military author, Jacques, Comte de Guibert, discussed the varieties of infantry fire in his 1772 essay on tactics. He concluded,
Finally, the running fire, [feu de billebaude] is the only one that should take place during a musketry firefight. After two orderly discharges, there is no effort of discipline that can prevent a complicated and regular fire from degenerating into firing at will. This fire is the liveliest and most deadly of all... it is particularly suited to the French way of war. The only thing that is necessary is a signal to cease firing. Formerly, it was thought impossible that this could succeed. During a battle in the last war [the Seven Years' War] I witnessed a regiment execute this fire in a fight with the enemy, by beginning and ending with a drum beat.  This regiment fought everywhere with the same discipline and value.[13]
As I believe the next few sources will show, the Prussians fretted endlessly about their inability to perfect platoon fire, even though they were more successful in achieving this end than other armies. Charles Immanuel de Warnery, writing in 1782, summarizes some of the difficulties in firing with platoons.
"The whole world seems to cry out against our platoon fire, since on the battlefield, we can only seem to do it twice. I agree in part, as I have written elsewhere, and I believe that we could perfect this system with better principles than we have now. The first vice is the size of our platoons: they are much too big, their frontage is too wide. How can we pretend that the officer who commands the platoon, standing on the right can see his command, much less be heard when the [more senior] two officers 50 paces to the rear can barely hear themselves? The noise of the artillery, musketry, and shouts of other platoons officers, the cries of the wounded, blinding and suffocating smoke, the distance from where the [platoon] commander stands to the left of the platoon, all conspires to hide the officer from the platoon. He could not command them even if he had a voice of thunder. These are the primary obstacles which prevent us from firing by platoons, as the system currently exists. It is amazing that noone has tried to fix this. We should also carefully examine initial cause of the disorder which gets into the infantry as soon as it has started to fire. Officers agree that this is quite normal, [once the shooting starts,] they are almost no longer masters of their soldiers."[14]

An image of Scharnhorst later in life, during the Napoleonic Era

 In his 1790 handbook for officers, Prussian General Johann von Scharnhorst, entitles one of his chapter headings: "The Plackerfeuer which must be Avoided."[15] He complains about firing at will for some time, giving detailed descriptions of why it is disadvantageous. "The worst of all these is that a certain order in the battalion has been generally lost during this fire, and that the officers who have lost control of their command can only restore their attention with great difficulty, and often not at all."[16] The extensiveness of his complaints indicate that he was not merely talking from a theoretical standpoint but from first-hand experience. Other Prussian military authorities also addressed the problem of troops involuntarily firing at will.

Berenhorst in 1756
In 1798, Georg Heinrich von Berenhorst reflected on the art of war. He had served on Frederick II of Prussia's staff during the Seven Years' War, and would become an important military figure in the history of the Napoleonic era. When describing infantry firing in battle, he noted,
You begin firing by a salvo, or perhaps firing by platoons for two or three shots. Then a general blazing away follows: the usual rolling fire where everyone fires as quickly as they are loaded. Ranks and files become mixed, those in the first rank could not kneel even if they desired it, and the officers, from the lower ranks to the generals can do nothing more with this mass, until it finally begins moving forwards or backwards.[17] 
This type of firefight is perhaps the kind of combat Ulrich Bräker was referring to when he recalled of the Battle of Lobositz in 1756. A soldier with the Itzenplitz regiment, Bräker recalled that"in great heat and excitement I, I fired away nearly all my sixty rounds. My musket became so warm that I had to carry it by the sling."[18] A Prussian report from the Battle at Soor in 1745 indicates, "In the meantime, our infantry had to endure a strong fire from the small arms [of the enemy.] Our battalions began to fire without orders, the enemy withstood this and continued his fire, which brought disorder into our lines."[19]  Johan Gottfried Hoyer, who would rise to prominence as a Prussian Major General of the Napoleonic Era, set out to describe military history between 1750 and 1799. In describing infantry fire-tactics, he describes firing by platoons and other various forms of complex firing in the eighteenth-century. Near the end of his description, he comments:
"In fact, all these types of firing were practiced in peacetime on the drill-square, but soldiers hardly used them in serious combat. Once there, everything was abandoned for running fire [plackerfeuer], that is, everyone loaded and shot for himself as fast as he could. This is highly embarrassing, as after one hundred years of practice, we can not bring common soldiers under control, and build an unfeeling shooting-machine. In the heat and confusion of battle, the instrument is only set in motion by the artist's finger. Some exceptions [to the general rule of running fire], which may be found among the Prussian troops, and only with them alone, have been made possible through their ceaseless practice. They can prove nothing against the universality of the idea shared here."[20]
Hessian Troops open fire at Guilford Courthouse

 In North America, there are examples of this type of firefight as well, though during the American War of Independence, the British used bayonet attacks and volley fire. This swift-moving sort of attack sometimes prevented a general breakdown of control. On the other hand, the forces of the young United States appear to have used this tactic frequently.[21] It occasionally happened to the British as well, as British officer Thomas Anburey describes it in his letters from Burgoyne's campaign:
"In this action, I found that all manual exercise is but an ornament, and the only object of importance it can boast of was that of loading, firing, and charging with bayonets: as to the form, the soldiers should be instructed in the best and most expeditious method. Here I cannot help observing to you, whether it proceeded from an idea of self-preservation, or natural instinct, but the soldiers greatly improved the mode they were taught in, as to expedition, for as soon as they primed their pieces, and put the catridge into the barrel, instead of ramming it down with their rods, they struck the butt end of their piece upon the ground, and bringing it to the present, fired it off. The confusion of a man's ideas during the time of action, brave as he may be, is undoubtedly great..."[22]
This phenomenon, often called, "tap-loading" quickened the rate of fire, but had the potential to
greatly reduced muzzle-velocity. It is possible that the Austrians engaged in this practice at the Battle of Mollwitz in 1741.[23]

2nd Battalion of Light Infantry at Germantown
What does all this mean for wargamers and reenactors? The nature of many wargame rules already simulates this idea, as many rulesets give a bonus for initial firing, and have factors which slowly curtail the effectiveness of extended fire. I would argue that it should be possible for troops who stay stationary and away from the enemy (doing nothing) for a 15 minute period to reclaim this "first fire" bonus, as troops often carried extra flints, and cleaning supplies such as barrel worms, with them on the battlefield. In addition, this represents officers bring the regiment back into a state of order, which was a key part of maintaining fire discipline. In terms of effectiveness, troops who engaged in a running fire should be perhaps marginally more effective in a firefight, but at a severe disadvantage if charged by a swift-moving enemy.

For wargamers, if in a firefight lasting more than 3 volleys, (preferably at longer range) I would suggest that it is perfectly permissible to represent troops engaging in an uncontrolled firing. The unit as a whole should fire as fast as possible until the enemy moves away, or officers manage to restore order. Again, this is perhaps less likely for Prussian and British troops (although still a feature of their experience) and more common for French troops.

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Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns


[1] For examples of these types of reports see: Christopher Duffy, Military Experience in the Age of Reason, 212-213.;  Cook, Journals of the Military Expedition of Major General John Sullivan,  232.; Anonymous, Schreiben eines Hollaendischen Volontairs, 5,; Charles Immanuel de Warnery, Campagnes de Frédéric II, roi de Prusse, de 1756 à 1762, 48.; David Blackmore, Descructive and Formidable, 107.; C. F. Hempel and J. F. Seyfart, Helden- Staats- und Lebens-Geschichte Des Allerdurchlauchtigsten und Grosmächtigsten Fürsten, 260.; Anonymous, Das Treffen bei Reichenbach in Schlesien Zwischen Einem Korps Preussen Unter Den Befehlen Des Herzogs Von Braunschweig-Bevern, 12-13.
[2]Historical Manuscripts Commission,  Report on the manuscripts of Mrs. Franklin-Russell-Astley, of Chequers Court, 278.
[3]Blackmore, Destructive and Formidable, 107.
[4]Lt. Colonel E. A. H. Webb, History of the 12th (The Suffolk) Regiment, 63,
[5] Chabot, Réflexions critiques sur les differens systêmes de tactique de Folard, 9-11.
[6]Ibid, 5-20.
[7] Duffy, Military Experience in the Age of Reason, 213.
[8] Warnery, Des Herrn Generalmajor von Warnery sämtliche Schriften, Vol 2, 211.
[9] Turpin de Crisse, Commentaires sur les memoires de Montecuculi, 179-180
[10] Jacob de Cogniazzo, Geständnisse eines Oesterreichischen Veterans, Vol 1, 169
[11] Tobias Smollet, The History of England from the Revolution to the Death of George the Second, 189, 260.
[12] John Knox, An Historical Journal, vol 2, 128.
[13] Comte de Guibert, Essai général de tactique, 107-108. (He was describing the Royal Deux-Ponts Regiment at Vellinghausen.)
[14] Charles Immanuel de Warnery, Remarques sur plusieurs auteurs militaires et autres, 69-70.
[15] Scharnhorst, Handbook für Officiere, 276.
[16] Ibid, 277.
[17] Georg Berenhorst, Betrachtungen über die Kriegskunst, Vol 1, 255.
[18]Ulrich Bräker, Arme Mann, 150.
[19] Sammlung ungedruckter Nachrichten, Vol 1, 359.
[20] Johann Gottfried Hoyer, Geschichte der Kriegskunst, 102-103
[21] John Simcoe, Simcoe's Military Journal, 45, 146.;  Cook, Journals of the Military Expedition of Major General John Sullivan,  92, 95.
[22] Thomas Anbury, Travels through the Interior Parts of America, 333.
[23] Anonymous, Denckwüdiges Leben und Thaten Beruehmeten Herren Johaan Daniels von Menzel, 80.

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