Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Did Melee Combat Frequently Occur on Eighteenth-Century Battlefields?

British Troops prepare to charge at Guilford Courthouse
Dear Reader,

We have charted some interesting territory over the past couple of weeks. It seems that mid-eighteenth-century soldiers frequently fired away their entire ammunition load, engaged in firefights at a much greater distance than is usually assumed, and sometimes fired at will, rather than fire by platoon or division. What does all this mean for eighteenth-century combat? If troops fired quickly, it can help to explain the ammunition usage, and the range of combat can help historians make sense of the large numbers of rounds expended vs. small number of casualties.

What does all this mean for melee (hand to hand, close) combat? Did eighteenth-century soldiers engage in melee combat frequently? If the Swedish Army during the Great Northern War and the British Army during the American War of Independence preferred bayonet attacks, surely there was a good deal of hand-to-hand combat?

Melee combat occurred, but it was perhaps less frequent than might be initially imagined. I am sure we can all think of famous examples: Culloden, Bunker Hill, and Guilford Courthouse all seem like important examples. Many military commanders, at some point in their careers, seemed to prefer an armes blanche or cold steel attack. Frederick the Great advocated this idea in the early Seven Years' War, Alexander Vasilyevich Suvorov famously stated that, "the bullet is a mad thing, put your trust in the bayonet." With these ideas spreading, surely hand to hand combat was frequent?

An artist's reimagining of Prussian Troops at the Battle of Leuthen

In reality, hand-to-hand, or melee combat was often limited to a select number of places on the battlefield. When enemy troops appeared to make a serious advance into close range with bayonets, defending troops often melted away. That is why the Swedish Karoliner and British redcoats proved so effective on their respective battlefields. It also helps to explain why, when things went wrong for troops making a charge with cold steel, they went very wrong (such as at Poltava in 1709 and Cowpens in 1781.)Troops did experience hand-to-hand combat, but firepower (at range) was the order of the day. In William Dalrymple's 1782 essay on tactics, he asserted (in the case of infantry):
"There is probably not an instance of modern troops being engaged in close combat... the bayonet can be of little utility by way of impulsion in the field... these defects in modern infantry prove the impracticability of two battalions, opposed to each other, being brough in the open field to close encounter: one body must give way before they get into action."[1]
Though Dalrymple is exaggerating for effect, we would be wise to take his point. In the open field, when flight was a possibility, it was rare for two battalions of infantry to cross bayonets. Nonetheless, other types of melee combat did occur, and are worth discussing. Even in nations where military theorists preferred bayonets, such as the French, soldiers realized that actual bayonet fighting was rare in this era. French military authority Jacques Antoine de Guibert understood the issue in this way:
"Finally, it seems that the entire exercise of the bayonet consists of fixing bayonets, presenting, and unfixing. I do not wish, as is currently the case, that troops should only use bayonets at parades and reviews. I would like them to be placed, as in combat, or rather in simulated motions which represent it. Soldiers have become familiar with bayonets, and view them as an unnecessary arm. They consider it to be a weapon without a use. Soldiers, and French soldiers above all, believed, "Well, I am out of ammunition, so only bayonets are left."... According to the method of the German infantry, our troops always march with fixed bayonets, in a unique way, a weapon that is always ready but never used."[2]
In short, during cavalry action, attacks on defensive works, and surprise attacks, troops often engaged in melee combat. These were the places for bayonets, not in the open field against other infantry.

Prussian Cavalry on the Charge
When cavalry troops were involved, melee combat was quite frequent. At Guilford Courthouse, William Washington's light dragoons savaged the British 2nd Guards.[3] One of these light dragoons, Peter Francisco gave us a window in the visceral intensity of this type of combat:
“Colonel Washington, observing their maneuvering, made a charge upon them, in which charge he (Francisco) was wounded in the thigh by a bayonet, from the knee to the socket of the hip, and in the presence of many, he was seen to kill two men, besides making many other panes which were doubtless fatal to others.”[4]
At the Battle of Hohenfriedberg. the Bayreuth Dragooner swept away a large portion of the Austrian army.[5] Lt. Francois de Chasot, a friend of Frederick "the Great" of Prussia, gave his recollection of the attack:
At the start we moved at a walk. We crossed several ditches one rank at a time, and on each occasion I made the leading rank halt of the far side so as to give the reward two ranks time to catch up. Then we broke into a trot, and finally into a full gallop, putting our heads down and running into the Austrian grenadiers. At first they stood bravely, and fired a salvo at twenty paces. After that, they were overthrown and cut down.[6] 

Unlike dragoons and cuirassiers, Prussian Hussars had curved swords 

When fighting other cavalry, it appears that the horses would seek intervals through the enemy formation, leading to brief moments of intense combat followed by maneuvering. In moments of true melee combat, all order was lost, and horses and men swirled around in an individual combat. Even here, however, cavalry melee was perhaps less effective than frequently believed. In the 1780s, military theorists studying the Prussian army recorded, "We heard from some cavalry officers that when troops undertake a charge, almost always, one troop flees before melee is joined, and the other gives pursuit."[7] Georg Tempelhof, a veteran of the Seven Years' War, reported,
"The strength of cavalry consists in its movement: it must have the ability to maneuver with speed. The shock or charge has no effect unless it happens in this way. Forgive me if I do not consider the cavalry's shock to be so decisive as it seems. In 1762 I observed Prussian cavalry charging superior Austrian horsemen. The result was that on both sides there were a few hundred wounded and prisoners. Not a single death was recorded."[8]
It is possible that Tempelhof, as an artillerist, underestimated the potency of cavalry. Horsemen, then, particularly in Europe, preferred to engage in hand to hand combat. Cavalry officers endlessly debated whether or not it was more effective to cut or thrust against the enemy, or whether straight or curved swords were more effective. Frederick II of Prussia was once pressed on this issue:
Speaking one day with his Majesty the King of Prussia, of this diversity of opinions, with regard to the edge or the point, he answered, " Kill your enemy with the one or the other, I will never bring you to an account with which you did it."[9]
Having addressed cavalry, we will now turn to another example of troops in melee combat: combat over defended positions.

Reenactors in the processes of assaulting a Redoubt

When defending soldiers held fortified or prepared positions, melee combat could be fierce. Soldiers attached great pyschological important to their defensive works, and often tangled with enemy troops in melee combat in order to defend them. In discussing this issue, Christopher Duffy presents evidence that soldiers actually had difficulty understanding that they needed to use their bayonets in these type of assaults.[10] Even insignificant defensive positions could motivate defending troops to stand, such as the rail fence which the North Carolina troops sheltered behind at Guilford Courthouse in 1781. An advancing Hessian soldier, recalling the fighting over this obsticale, only commented, "Colonel Du Buy at once ordered, "Fix bayonets! March! Before the enemy could reload, we changed against them with our bayonets. Everyone was bayoneted."[11]

Obviously, this type of melee action includes siege warfare. During the Siege of Schweidnitz in 1762, Austrian 1st Lt. Waldhütter and thirty men of the Erzherzog Carl regiment spearheaded a successful sortie against the besieging Prussian forces. Franz Guasco, the fortress commandant, left this description of the sortie:
"Waldhütter and his troops jumped inside without hesitation and found the Prussians on their guard.Some of the opened fire, while some knelt on the floor and raised their muskets, the bayonets fixed to the muzzles. Our men flung themselves blindly among them, sabre in hand; some of them were skewered on the bayonets, but the rest set about the enemy and hacked them to pieces."[12]
Alexander Hamilton was briefly involved in bayonet fighting during the storming of redoubts 9 and 10 at the siege of Yorktown. Joseph Plumb Martin is silent on the exact nature of the fighting inside the redoubts.[13]  Hamilton reported that men under his command suffered a number of "bayonet wounds," in the course of the fighting.[14]

Xavier della Gatta's impression of the Battle of Paoli
Troops often fought with bayonets during surprise attacks or "massacres." 
The American War of Independence produced a number of famous night-attacks which led to bayonet fighting, both of these, at Paoli in 1777 and Tappan in 1778 were extremely violent affairs, with many soldiers being killed both in and out of combat. At both Paoli and Tappan, British troops bayoneted Americans, and there is indeed evidence that Americans fought back with bayonets. This type of fighting was quite intense from a psychological perspective, and you often find descriptions of men, who like Captain Sir James Baird, killed large numbers of enemy troops singlehandedly. In addition to fighting with bayonets, troops at Paoli and Tappan burned to death, and were killed by firepower. Lt. Martin Hunter described the scene: "the camp was immediately set on fire; the Light Infantry bayonetted every man they came up with... this, with the cries of the wounded, formed altogether the most dreadful scene I ever beheld. Every man that fired was immediately put to death."[15]

The Attack at Hochkirch by Hyacinthe de La Pegna
During the Seven Years' War, the Austrians managed to inflict similar damage on the Prussian army. At the Battle of Hochkirch in 1758, Austrian columns overran the Prussian camp before some Prussians were even awake. Johann Wilhelm von Archenholz, a Prussian veteran, described what it was like the be on the receiving end of such a swift-moving attack:
"It was dark, and confusion reigned supreme. What a sight for these warriors, almost like a night terror. The Austrians seemed to emerge from the earth, in the midst of the Prussian flags at the center of camp! Several hundred men were killed before they could open their eyes, and others ran half-naked to their weapons. Only a few could reach them. Others laid ahold of whatever was closest to hand, and began to fight."[16]
Here we have an example of true melee, with thousands of soldiers fighting and dying in close combat. However, even here, it is important to note the ways in which this melee is unique. The Prussian army was surprised in camp, and fought a battle of desperation because of the impossibility of escape. In the open, troops would have fled long before this point.

British Troops with charged bayonets

So, did troops in the open really not cross bayonets? Outside of the above-mentioned categories, infantry forces actually crossing bayonets when one force had the option to flee seems to have been quite rare. Again, there are instances such as Culloden and Guilford Courthouse, but those remained more the exception than the rule.  According to one French report, 68.8% percent of troops were wounded by small arms fire, 14.7% were wounded by artillery fire, and approximately 15% were wounded by swords and bayonets.[17] When we consider that swords were the cavalry's main form of engaging the enemy, these figures are impressive. J. F. Puysegur argued that,
"firearms are the most desctructive category of weapon, and now more than ever. If you need convinving, just go to the hospital and you will see how few men have been wounded by cold steel as opposed to firearms. My argument is not advanced lightly. It is founded on knowledge.[18]
Because Puysegur was writing in the 1740s, before the Seven Years' War, his experience is even more telling. Other military theorists, such as David Dundas, recalled,  "... infantry seldom mix with bayonets."[19] These eighteenth-century military observations match well with those from the twentieth century:
"The vast majority of soldiers who do approach bayonet range with the enemy use the butt of the weapon or any other available means to incapacitate the enemy rather than skewer him... when the bayonet is used, the close range results in a situation with enormous potential for psychological trauma... The resistance to killing with the bayonet is equal only to the enemy's horro at having this done to him. Thus in bayonet charges one side or the other inveriably flees before the actual crossing of bayonets occurs."[20] 
Reenactors at Guilford Courthouse
 Thus even in desperate circumstances, such as the battle of the third line at Guilford Courthouse, we see infantry attempting to load and fire while in melee combat. Captain John Smith of the 1st Maryland Regiment found himself in heavy melee combat against the British guards, but was shot in the head at extremely close range (non-fatally by buckshot, as it turns out) by a soldier who had just loaded.[21] Therefore, there may be some truth psychological prejudice against using bayonets, even in the eighteenth-century. Lt. Colonel John Graves Simcoe described realistic small unit training which kept this principle in mind:
"they were, particularly, trained to attack a supposed enemy, posted behind railing, the common position of the rebels; they were instructed not to fire, but to charge their bayonets with their muskets loaded, and, upon their arrival at the fence, each soldier to take his aim at their opponents, who were then supposed to have been driven from it; they were taught that, in the position of running, their bodies afforded a less and more uncertain mark to their antagonists, whose minds also must be perturbed by the rapidity of their approach..."[22]
Here, we can see that when driving enemy from a position, infantry were trained to fire at fleeing men, rather than attempt to chase them down with bayonets. Obviously, melee occurred in the eighteenth century. However, it was not a common occurence, and seems to have become less prevelant over the course of the era.

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Thanks for reading,


Alex Burns

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[1] William Dalrymple, Tacticks, 113.
[2] Guibert, Essai général de tactique, 81.
[3] Lawrence Babits and Joshua Howard, Long Obstinate and Bloody, 160.
[4]Letter of Peter Francisco, William and Mary College Quarterly, (1905) Vol 10, 219.
[5] Christopher Duffy, Military Life of Frederick the Great, 64.
[6] Matthias Kröger, Friedrich der Große und General Chasot, 38.
[7] Mirabeau and Mauvillon, Systeme militaire de Prusse, 104.
[8] Georg F. Tempelhof, Geschichte des Siebenjährigen Krieges in Deutschland, 68.
[9] Charles Immanuel de Warnery, Remarks on Cavalry, 17.
[10] Christopher Duffy, Military Experience in the Age of Reason, 204-5.
[11] Bertold Koch, The Battle of Guilford Courthouse, 7.
[12] Kriegs Archiv, Vienna, HKR Memoires 1762  880/12, Guasco, Relation du Siege de Schweidnitz, 31 October, 1762.
[13] Joseph Plumb Martin, Private Yankee Doodle, 237.
[14] Alexander Hamilton, The Works of Alexander Hamilton, Vol 8, 47.
[15] Martin Hunter, Journal, 31.
[16] Johann Wilhelm von Archenholz, Geschichte des Siebenjährigen Krieges, Vol 2, 279.
[17] Andre Corvisier, L'Armee Francaise, 64.
[18] Puysegur, Art de guerre par pricipes et par regles, Vol 1, 227. (Translation is Christopher Duffy's.)
[19] David Dundas, Principles of Military Movement, 51.
[20] David Grossman, On Killing, 120.
[21] Babits and Howard, Long Obstinate and Bloody, 159.
[22] John Simcoe, Simcoe's Military Journal, 98.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Eighteenth-Century Combat Podcast

British Troops Maneuvering in Close Order

Dear Reader,

I had the great privilege of being a guest on Rob Rhodes' History to Wargames podcast. In this episode, we discussed the nature combat in the mid-eighteenth century. By its very nature, a podcast is perhaps less "scientific" or footnoted than the written word, but Rob and I had a lively discussion, and I thoroughly enjoyed being a guest on his excellent podcast.

Until March 8th, this post will exclusively work on desktop devices.

You can find the podcast here.

Thanks for Reading,


Alex Burns

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.

If you enjoyed this post, or any of our other posts, please consider liking us on facebook, or supporting us via the donate button in the upper right-hand corner of the page. As always:

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.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

How Close Ranged were Mid-Eighteenth-Century Firefights?



The British Prepare to Give Fire

Dear Reader,

After the post last week on ammunition expenditure, I noted a number of surprised conversation on social media. If many eighteenth-century battles in Europe, and some in North America, resulted in troops expending their ammunition load (of 30, 40, 60, or 90+ rounds) how could any soldiers be left alive? Or in other words, in battles with such high rates of ammunition expenditure, how could casualties be so low?

The answer to this riddle is not the supposed inaccuracy of muskets, or the failure of soldiers to aim properly, but the ranges at which battles were often fought. When picturing eighteenth-century combat, historians and the public often imagine battle reenactments. In these reenactments, troops often open fire at a very short range, at say 50 or 25 yards. For those unused to picturing such ranges, imagine one half or one-quarter of an American football field. Troops in the eighteenth-century occasionally fired at such close range (such as the Swedish Karoliner of the Great Northern War) but MUCH more frequently, fire-fights developed at a longer range.

Reenactors represent Regiment von Bose at Guilford Courthouse



In the eighteenth-century, the term "musket-shot" usually referred to a distance of around 300 yards. Commanders, concerned about the accuracy of their musketry, often performed tests in peacetime to discover an optimal range.  During the era, such tests were conducted at between 500 yards and 80 yards, 200 yards and 100 yards, and further estimations of 250 yards and 80 yards and 200 yards and 80 yards.[1] I find it strangely compelling that none of these tests felt the need to practice at ranges underneath 80 yards, perhaps implying that combat infrequently reached those close distances.  Leaving aside this theoretical point, let us turn to what the soldiers of the era say in their writings: how close range were eighteenth-century firefights?

Although there is no way to truly measure the surviving descriptions of range scientifically, we can perhaps arrive at a few conclusions regarding the range of eighteenth-century firefights. In the first category, there are skirmishes and premature fires by inexperienced troops. These preliminary skirmishes often occurred at 300 yards, or even a greater distance. As a result, they were not very deadly. During skirmishes in 1759 and 1760, French troops and their native allies opened fire on the British at a range of 300 yards, which seemed quite normal to the participants.[2] During a skirmish on Staten Island in June of 1777, preliminary skirmishing began at about 300 yards.[3] At the Battle of Mollwitz in 1741, the Prussian infantry, inexperienced in real combat, opened fire at the considerable range of 600-800 yards.[4]

A small group of Prussians engaged in a firefight

In Europe during large-scale and determined combat, battle-lines could draw much closer. A good "average" range for combat during the Seven Years' War appears to be between 200 yards and 100 yards. At the Battle of Leuthen in 1757, Ernst von Barsewisch recalled, "As soon as we had cleared the forest, we approached the enemy's second line of battle at a distance of 200 paces [150 yards], which was preparing to march against us. Now... our officers ordered, "Fire! Fire!"[5] Later in the war, Barsewisch recalled being fired on by Croats at a similar distance.[6] The battle lines at Prague in 1757 appear to have been around 150 yards apart.[7] At Hochkirch in 1758,  Johann von Archenholz recalled that the Austrians opened fire at, "a few hundred paces."[8] During a skirmish near Prenzlow in October of 1760, hostile forces approached to within 200 paces [150 yards] of one another.[9]  At the Battle of Vellinghausen in 1761, official reports indicate that battle lines were 150 paces [100 yards] apart, and indicate that this was uncomfortably close.[10] By contrast, when the battle lines closed to 80 yards at the Battle of Minden, the contest was no longer in doubt, and the French began to retreat.[11]

In North America, infantry firefights followed a similar mold. Although the French and Indian War saw few large-scale field battles, a few sources describe infantry firefights. At the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, the French opened fire a very regular European distance, 130 yards.[12] During fighting in the Carribean in 1759, Francis Downman noted that the enemy moved away from the British, "keeping always 200 yards in our front."[13] During the American War of Independence, firefights continued to follow a European pattern, at least with regards to range. During the flank attack at the Battle of Brandywine, both the British and Americans gave fire at 150 yards, and then the British immediately charged at the run with their bayonets.[14] The French attack on St. Lucia in December of 1778 was conducted, "at a distance not less than 280 yards."[15] At the Battle of Camden, John Robert Shaw describes an infantry firefight at 100 yards.[16] At Guilford Courthouse, Roger Lamb reports that the American line opened fire at 140 yards.[17] Berthold Koch, a sergeant with the Von Bose Regiment, recalled receiving fire at 100 yards from the American line.[18]

British Reenactors representing the 2nd Battalion of Light Infantry

Troops were often ordered to hold their fire until very close to the enemy line, but appear to have found it difficult to follow this directive. At the Battle of Germantown in 1777, Joseph Plump Martin describes this in his humorous way:
"Our brigade moved off to the right into the fields. We saw a body of the enemy drawn up behind a rail fence on our right; we immediately formed in line and advanced upon them. Our orders were not to fire till we could see the buttons upon their clothes, but they were so coy that they would not give us an opportunity to be so curious, for they hid their clothes in fire and smoke before we had either time or leisure to examine their buttons."[19]
Here, we find a unit ordered to hold fire until close to the enemy, but because the enemy began returning fire a long range, a longer ranged firefight developed. When troops did approach (or fire) at ranges closer than 100 yards, it was often because a bayonet attack was underway. The Swedish Army in the Great Northern War, and the British Army in the American War of Independence, both made quick moving assaults supported by one close-range volley a standard of their tactical repertoire. Nicholas Creswell describes this type of attack on Staten Island in 1777:
When [the two sides] were about 100 yards from each other, both parties fired, but I did not see any fall. They still advanced to the distance of 40 yards or less and fired again. I then saw a great number fall on both sides. Our people rushed upon them with their Bayonets and the others took to their heels. I heard one of them call out murder lustily, this [would  have been] laughable if the consequence was not serious. A Fresh party immediately fired upon our people but was dispersed and pursued into the woods by a company of the 15th Regmt."[20]
British Troops. The man in front appears to be calling out, murder, lustily.

Here, Nicholas Creswell describes the archetypal bayonet attack as practiced by the British Army in the American War of Independence. If troops moved into 50 yards or closer, it was not to have an extended firefight, but because one or other intended to make an attack with bayonets, or was in the process of doing so.  Prescriptive source: drill manuals, books offering advice to officers, etc, often instructed soldiers to reserve their fire until at thirty or fifty yards of the enemy.[21] While a good idea in theory, advancing into such close range under a heavy fire proved difficult to do. Notably, the British seem to have achieved this at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, but examples of this kind are rare. On average, troops seem to have fired at ranges of 100 yards or longer. 

How might reenactors represent this to the public? Battles should occur at greater ranges. If you are engaged in a standup firefight with other reenactors, and you are much closer than 75 yards away, something is wrong. If the British advance to within 40 yards and fire a volley, they should immediately follow that volley with a bayonet attack and either way, Continental forces should quickly prevail or retreat. Engaging in standup firefights with 20+ rounds expended is acceptable, even laudable. Just make sure that you have a football field or two between you and the opposing forces while doing so.

If you enjoyed this post, or any of our other posts, please consider liking us on facebook, or supporting us via the donate button in the upper right hand corner of the page. As always:

Thanks for Reading,




Alex Burns


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[1] Duffy, Military Experience in the Age of Reason, 207.; The Army of Frederick the Great, 128.;  Lossow, Denkwürdigkeiten, 260-61, 275.
[2] John Knox, An Historical Journal,  Vol 2, 274.; Vol 1, 305.
[3] Nicholas Creswell, A Man Apart, 170.
[4] Valorie, Quoted in Duffy, Military Experience, 212.
[5] Barsewisch, Meine Kriegs-Erlebnisse, 36.
[6] Ibid, 170.
[7] Johann von Archenholz, Geschischte des Siebenjährige Kriegs , (1911, Leipzig), 52.
[8] Ibid, 187.
[9] Sammlung ungedruckter Nachrichten, Vol 5, 358.
[10] Westfalen, Geschichte der Feldzüge des Herzogs Ferdinand, Vol 5, 623.
[11] Ibid, Vol 3, 486.
[12] Knox, Journal, 70. (The British, it must be said, held their fire until 40 yards on this occasion).
[13] Francis Downman, The Services of Lt. Colonel Francis Downman, 8.
[14] Martin Hunter, Extracts from the Journal of General Sir Martin Hunter, 27.
[15] Downman, The Services, 98.
[16] John Robert Shaw, John Robert Shaw, 31.
[17] Roger Lamb, An Original and Authentic Journal, 350.
[18] Bertold Koch, The Battle of Guilford Courthouse, 7.
[19] Joseph Plumb Martin, Private Yankee Doodle, 72-73.
[20] Creswell, A Man Apart, 170-171
[21] David Blackmore, Destructive and Formidable, 136-137

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

How Often Did Mid-Eighteenth-Century Soldiers Run Out of Ammunition?



British Reenactors engaged in a mock fire-fight


Dear Reader,


Today, we are going to examine a complex issue, which often lacks clear supporting data. The question before us is: how often did soldiers run out of ammunition on the battlefields of the Kabinettskriege era? Our first reaction might be: not very frequently. When I visited Fort Ticonderoga in the summer of 2010 (before the current administration, in other words), a member of the interpretive staff there intimated to me (and the entire  tour group with me) that the average experience of eighteenth-century combat was similar to going to the battlefield, "with one clip in your AR-15, and only firing 15 rounds out of a 30-round magazine." Being rather pretentious and annoying, even in those early days, I approached this interpreter to talk about the experience of the Prussian army in Europe. A friendly conversation developed, and I spent the rest of afternoon collecting materials to build gabions offsite with this interpreter. It was one of the strangest and most surreal experiences of my life to date.

How might we go about answering this question of ammunition usage on eighteenth-century battlefields? Once again, numerous historians have addressed firepower in an eighteenth-century context. I am most familiar with the works of Christopher Duffy, David Blackmore, David Chandler, Stephan Brumwell, Matthew H. Spring, Jeremy Black, and John Lynn. These historians have addresses the mechanics of eighteenth-century combat in more detail than I will be able to in this post. I would also to thank Dr. Tomasz Karpinski for comments on this post. With that said: what do these historians and period sources tell us about ammunition expenditure?

Reenactors portray the 2nd Battalion of Light Infantry at Germantown

What can non-data-driven sources, tell us about the frequency of running out of ammunition? We must also carefully interrogate these sources: as running out of ammunition was often used by eighteenth-century soldiers as an excuse for failure, or in order to clear their reputations of any poor conduct in battle. With that said: eighteenth-century soldiers ran out of ammunition quite frequently. Ammunition shortages plagued many major armies on the battlefield.

In the era of Frederick II of Prussia, the Prussian army developed new strategies for the rapid consumption of ammunition. At the Battle of Mollwitz in 1741, the Prussian troops quickly fired away their 30 issued rounds, and attempted to gather ammunition from wounded men nearby. After the battle, the standard ammunition load in the Prussian army was increased from 30 to 60 rounds, but even this proved insufficient.[1]

Two independent sources affirm that the Prussian infantry used all (or almost all) of their ammunition while attack the Lobosch Hill at the Battle of Lobositz in 1756. An individual soldier  reports that in the "heat and excitement, I fired away nearly all my sixty rounds."[2] The personal secretary of the Duke of Bevern, Herr Kistenmacher, who observed his master at the battle, recorded the following:
The greatest difficulties had to be overcome in order to dislodge the enemy. We were under a small arms fire which lasted for five hours at an unimaginable intensity. Our lads shot away all their cartridges, and those of their dead and wounded comrades. Now we had reached a crisis point, since the enemy continued to fire heavily on our men, who did not flinch and could now not lift a finger to fire themselves. In this sorry state of affairs the Duke of Bevern came galloping up, passing though heavy fire like an intrepid hero, and saw how the lads of his regiment, because of the impractical terrain, were not in close order. Rather, they had to fight in small groups on the hillside, and did not reply to the enemies heavy volleys. "Children," yelled the Duke, "Shoot for God's sake, shoot and advance!" "Oh, dear father," the lads replied, "What shall we do?" We have no more powder, and are being shot dead without reply!" "What?" cried the Duke, "Don't you have bayonets? Go and kill the dogs!"[3]
The resulting Prussian charge decided the battle. Despite the obvious melodrama in Kirstenmacher's telling: he clearly indicates the feeling of helplessness which running out of ammunition could impart to soldiers. It is quite possible that these soldiers fired away 90 cartridges, rather than 60, as sources describe taking 30 rounds from unengaged units.[4] At the Battle of Leuthen in 1757, both sides replenished their rounds from ammunition carts, and it appears that some Prussian infantry may have fired over 180 rounds.[5] During the Battle of Zorndorf in 1759, many Prussians were wounded by the buckshot ammunition that the Russian infantry employed at that battle. At the Battle of Hochkirch in 1758, both the Prussian and Austrian infantry appear to have run short of ammunition.[6] In the Prussian case, some soldiers fired over 120 rounds.[7]

The fighting in Hochkirch, as imagined by 19th-century artist Karl Roechling

At the Battle of Torgau in 1760, multiple sources in the Austrian Army reported that the primary reason for failure was a lack of infantry and artillery ammunition. Franz Moritz von Lacy reported"Finally, everyone was agreed that there was no more ammunition for either the artillery or the infantry [by the end of the battle.]"[8] Austrian veteran Jacob Cogniazzo reported that in this case, a previously useful innovation, filling drums with ammunition and employing drummers as ammunition runners, had failed the Austrians:
"...the lack of ammunition, a defect which should never be found in a purposeful institution, and is always a sign of irresponsibility. But we had experienced it before, particularly at the Battle of Breslau. Sufficient ammunition was not brought forward, by way of the drummers and their drums, because they had to haul the ammunition from a very great distance, losing a great deal of time. This put the loading troops at a great disadvantage."[9]
Hessian troops loading in winter
When fighting in Continental Europe, the British often relied on firepower. A Dutch officer observed that at the Battle of Fontenoy, the British fired all their cartridges, or perhaps between 20-36 per man.[10] During the Seven Years' War, British infantry began to carry 30 and 60 rounds per man, rather the regulation 24. Yet more ammunition was ready-made in specialized wagons following the army.[11] In the Seven Years' War in North America, British ammunition allocation seems to have fluctuated between 36 and 70 cartridges per man. Despite the fluctuation, three extra flints appears to have been the standard issue.[12] In July of 1759, Townshend's Brigade received the following order:
"The light infantry of the army are to have their bayonets, as the want of ammunition may sometimes be supplied with that weapon: and, beacause no man should leave his post, under pretence that all his cartridges are fired, in most attacks by night, it must be remember, that bayonets are preferable to fire."[13]
The emphasis is present in the original. It is intriguing that the order commands to troops to stay at their posts when out of ammunition. This idea- that soldiers with empty cartridge pouches could return to the rear, also confronted the American Army at the Battle of Germantown in 1777.

British Regulars and Local Allies on a Raid in Upstate New York

In the American War of Independence, there are also numerous examples of soldiers running short on ammunition.  Despite the British Army's clear preference for aggressive moment, British soldier's found themselves drawn into heavy firefights. One of the clearest examples of replenishing ammunition from fellow soldiers comes from Sjt. Thomas Sullivan of the 49th Regiment of Foot. During the Forage War in early 1777, Sullivan reports that during a skirmish, "Major Dilkes with [100 grenadiers] engaged them with two field pieces, and kept a continual fire up, until they expended all their ammunition at a rate of 60 rounds per man. Then they retreated to the second party of Grenadiers from whom they got more ammunition."[14]

At the Battle of Freeman's Farm, it is possible that the British Infantry regiments were able to access 100 rounds. This was the ammunition allotment set as a standard for the army by Guy Carleton in April of 1777. "...every soldier in the army should always be provided with 100 cartridges, of which the man should have 30 in his cartridge pouch and the other 70 should be well taken care of  and conveyed by the company[.]"[15] Sargeant Roger Lamb of the 23rd Regiment of Foot recalled replenishing his cartridge pouch from the body of a slain member of the Brigade of Guards at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse.[16]

Reenactors representing the 3rd New Jersey, "Grays" prepare to fire

Continental Army soldiers, too, reported a heavy expenditure of ammunition. During the winter of 1775-1776, the American army outside of Boston, could scarcely, "furnish four rounds a man."[17] At the Battle of Germantown, Lt. Colonel Adam Hubley reported that almost every unit but his own 10th Pennsylvania had, "expended forty rounds," after a firefight that lasted, "4 hours, without the least intermission."[18] At the same battle,  General John Sullivan recalled that "my division with a Regiment of North Carolinians,... finding themselves unsupported by any other troops[,] Their Cartridges all Expended[,]... retired with as much precipitation as they had before advanced[.]"[19]
Private soldier Joseph Plumb Martin, also present at Germantown, also mentions this idea:

"Affiars went on well for some time. The enemy were retreating before us, until the first division that was engaged had expended their ammunition. Some of the men unadvisedly calling out that their ammunition was spent, the enemy were so near that they overheard them, when they first made a stand and then returned upon our people, who, for their want of ammunition and reiforcements, were obliged in tehir turn to retreat, which ultimately resulted in the rout of the whole army."[20]

Timothy Pickering, a young officer present with George Washington at the battle, recalled that, "General Sullivan's divisions were warmly engaged with the enemy... this fire was brisk and heavy... Washington said to me, 'I am afraid that General Sullivan is throwing away his ammunition; ride forward and tell him to preserve it.'"[21] The soldiers began to withdraw from the battle, "holding up their empty cartridge boxes to show why they ran."[22]

From these sources, it is clear that soldiers often used their entire ammunition issue, whether kept in their cartridge pouches or around their person in other ways. One of the few estimates for ammunition usage by an entire army is Mauvillion's calculation of the Prussian army at in 1742: "According to my sums, the Prussians fired 650,000 rounds of musketry during their advance at Chotusitz."[23] When we divide that sum by the roughly 17,000 Prussian infantry at the battle, it seems that the average man fired 38 rounds. With the amount of guesswork, rounding and estimation involved, I would be very cautious about using such a sum as evidence in anything but a casual conversation.

Eighteenth-century firefights, particularly when conducted at longer ranges, could last for a long time. In both North America and Europe troops frequently ran short of ammunition, and worked feverishly to bring more cartridges into the fight. As armies recognized this issue, soldiers began to carry more and more ammunition and enjoyed close support by ammunition wagons and carts. Firepower increasingly played a dominant role on Kabinettskriege-era battlefields.

Prussian and Russian Troops in a heavy firefight on the author's wargame table

As wargamers and reenactors, do we represent these challenges? First, let us turn to wargamers.Some rulesets allow troops to only fire for a certain number of turns, but this usually represents smoke buildup, rather than ammunition expenditure. Rulesets such as Final Argument of Kings often limit artillery ammunition but does not provide a clear maximum limit for infantry fire. Should rulesets include this level of detail?  If a turn represents twenty minutes, and a soldier in firing constantly for twenty minutes might expend 20-30 cartridges, should troops only be able to fire for two turns unless more ammunition is obtained? How do you deal with these problems on the tabletop?

Photo Credit: Tom George Davison Photography

Second: how does this problem affect reenactors? Sargeants sometimes function as ammunition carriers, providing extra ammunition to soldiers. It would be interesting to see musicians function in this role during extended firefights. At appropriate reenactments, it would be possible to simulate troops retiring when out of ammunition, first calling out that ammunition is dangerously low, and then retiring to the rear, preferring empty cartridge boxes to officers.  In addition, many battle reenactments occur at very close range. Many of the longer duration firefights in the eighteenth-century occurred at a range of 100-150 yards. [Imagine a football field between the firing lines.] At this range, firepower alone was often indecisive, leading to longer firefights. When at extremely close range (50 yards and below) firefights tended to have a very short duration.
How else might reenactors simulate this battlefield challenge?

If you enjoyed this post, or any of our other posts, please consider liking us on facebook, or supporting us via the donate button in the upper right hand corner of the page. As always:

Thanks for Reading,


Alex Burns

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[1]Neue Militarische Zeitschrift, Vol 19,  (1813)  p. 21
[2] Ulrich Bräker, Arme Mann, 150.
[3] Quoted in, Curt Jany, "Briefe Preussische Soldaten," Urkundliche Beiträge, Vol 1, 9-10.
[4] Ibid, 3.
[5] See Duffy, Army of Frederick the Great, 274, for Prussian usage, and Duffy, Prussia's Glory, 158, for a description of Austrian ammunition carts.
[6] Christopher Duffy, By Force of Arms, 142, 144.
[7] Ernst von Barsewisch, Meine Kriegs-Erliebnisse, 77.
[8] Quoted in Duffy, By Force of Arms, 300.
[9] Jakob Cogniazzo, Geständnisse eines Oesterreichischen Veterans, Vol 3, 298.
[10] Quoted in David Blackmore, Destructive and Formidable, 136.
[11] William Todd, The Journal of Corporal Todd, 141-143.
[12] John Knox, An Historical Journal, Vol I, 160, Vol II, 188-190. 214, 238, 377.
[13] Ibid, Vol I, 314.
[14] Thomas Sullivan, From Redcoat to Rebel, 102.
[15] Journal of General Riedesel, Hessian Documents of the American Revolution, Microform, H.Z.974
[16]Roger Lamb, An Original and Authentic Journal, 362.
[17] James Thatcher, A Military Journal during the American Revolutionary War, 35.
[18] Peter Force Papers, Library of Congress, Washington DC.
[19] John Sullivan, Letters and Papers of Major General John Sullivan, Vol 1, 546.
[20] Joseph Plumb Martin, Private Yankee Doodle, 73.
[21] Timothy Pickering, North American Review, Vol 23 (1826), 425-430.
[22] Quoted in Christopher Ward, The War of the Revolution, 369.
[23]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

Friday, January 19, 2018

Russia Admonished: The Battle of Narva in the Great Northern War

Swedish Reenactors portray Karoliner on the march in summer months
Photo by Anders Bertrandsson

Dear Reader,

Today, we have our second guest post- this time from Michael Glaeser.[1] As a historian who has published on the Great Northern War, Michael brings a great depth of experience to the subject in this post: the Battle of Narva.

If you would like to write for Kabinettskriege, or have an idea for a post, please contact us via the link on the upper right. Without further introduction- here is Michael's post:

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In the year 1700, the Kingdom of Sweden was the dominant power in the Baltic. The sea was very much a Swedish one with the nation’s territory circling around the waters to include Finland, Ingria, Estonia, Livonia, and parts of northern Germany. For many socio-political reasons, Denmark-Norway, Saxony-Poland-Lithuania, and Russia formed an alliance to seize control and beat back Swedish hegemony. The three-pronged attack was meant to be quick and decisive. After all, the King of Sweden, Charles XII, was only an eighteen-year-old adolescent…

Immediately after declaring war on Sweden on August 20th, the Russians began their push into Ingria to besiege the fortified town of Narva. With Russia having no access to the Baltic, Ingria was a vital strip of land that Tsar Peter I desperately wanted to have back. As Narva was also the lynchpin fortress on the border of Ingria and Estonia, Peter wanted to take the town first and use it as a base of operations from which Russian troops could pour into neighboring regions. More importantly, it was only fourteen kilometers away from the Gulf of Finland and that vital seat on the Baltic Sea.

Looking for sources: a British Newspaper from 1700 describes the battle

Due to its strategic location, the town of Narva was well fortified. The Swedes added a ring of bastions in the 1680s to supplement the existing 15th-century castle. This was done under the watch of the aged field marshal and engineer Erik Dahlberg, the "Swedish Vauban". The western side of the town had the most open approach but this too had defensive features including a dry moat. The town itself held a garrison of 1,460 infantry, substantially lower than the planned 3,100, but it did include additional cavalry as well. These were under the command of Henning Rudolf Horn at the time of the siege.

While Russian troops immediately advanced into Ingria, it wasn't until the end of October that the artillery and siege guns arrived at the outskirts of Narva. With over 37,000 men facing the town, the general expectation was that Narva could only hold out until the end of the month. Peter had arrived to personally supervise the siege and take part in the forthcoming surrender. Horn and his men clung to the safety of the town walls and were no doubt encouraged by the letters sent from Charles indicating that "we will soon be with you and dislodge the enemy".[2]

Russian Army flags used at Narva (later captured by the Swedish Army)
Following the sweeping success against Denmark, Charles and the Swedish army mustered for shipment to the Baltic provinces in early October. They had arrived and disembarked by the 8th and a plan was formulated to send a relief force to Narva while the king and another body of troops headed south to break the siege of Riga launched by Augustus, the Elector of Saxony.[3] Swedish commander Otto Vellingk brought news of an improved situation- Augustus did not get the necessary support from his ally Peter and rather than face the wrath of the Swedes alone, decided to break his siege and send his army into winter quarters. Given the suspension of Saxon operations and the seasonably bad weather that mired the roads, Charles felt safe enough to divert all efforts towards Narva and come to grips with his cousin at a later point.

On November 13, the Swedish army began its march through soggy and scorched lands. Given the scarcity of food, the weather, and the state of the roads, the army was in need of a morale boost. This came on the 17th when the king led a small detachment against a much larger Russian force led by General Boris Sheremetev at a chokepoint called Pyhajoggi pass. Sheremetev was under orders to withdraw without forcing a battle but the retreat of 5,000 of the enemy had an uplifting effect for the tired Swedes. More importantly, this was the first independent action for Charles who held his own and managed his men well enough to earn praise.

Despite hearing news from Sheremetev that the Swedes were approaching, the Russian command was unconcerned. Western European warfare had become known for lengthy sieges rather than fast assaults and pitched battles. The belief in the Russian camp was that the Swedes would halt, gather strength, and then force the issue. Tsar Peter even left the siege a day and a half before the Swedes arrived on the 19th in order to direct more reinforcements. The tsar's leave of absence on the eve of battle has garnered much attention from contemporary observers and historians. Naturally, the Swedes painted Peter as a coward, someone who saw the writing on the wall and wanted no part in an eventual defeat. But given the prevalence and preference for siege warfare, Peter probably thought he had more time. In any case, it was a fortuitous move on his part.

Battle of Narva, Robert K. Massie, Peter the Great, 331.


In the tsar's place as acting commander was Field Marshal Charles Eugene Du Croy, a western trained general who fought against the Swedes at Lund and the Ottomans at Vienna. He had the vastly larger Russian force organized behind a nine-foot-high wall in front of which was a six foot wide dry trench. He was also backed up by over 140 cannon and mortars. Due to the size of Narva, the most glaring error was that his forces were stretched out over a six-kilometer line. The Swedish attack would focus on two columns smashing into the enemy and then rolling up both flanks. With poetic timing, or perhaps divine intervention, a snowstorm picked up in intensity and blew directly into the faces of the waiting Russians. The Swedes used the opportunity to launch their attack with Charles and his Drabants concentrated on the left column. It was this group that was the first to shatter their opposition. A Swedish volley within 30 paces caused many of the defenders to “fall like grass”. Hastily made fascines filled the dry trench, and ladders allowed the Swedes to scale the walls and enter the Russian camp. Success quickly followed on the right as well: “We charged directly sword in hand and so entered. We slew all who came at us and it was a terrible massacre”.[4] That the fighting was intense is evidenced by the commentary surrounding Charles. He had a horse shot out from under him and lost a shoe in the soggy mud. After the battle, a bullet was found lodged in his neckcloth, the first of five to hit him in his life.

With the Swedes storming into the camp, a panic set in. Many of the Russian commanders were foreign and some could not even communicate in the language of their subordinates. Distrust and an unwillingness to fight for their officers led many Russians to flee. Most famous was the rout across Kamperholm bridge which became so inundated with fleeing men that it collapsed under their weight. Many drowned as a result. Du Croy and the Russian guard regiments provided a valiant resistance but were forced to surrender. A small holdout of Russians continued to fight until nightfall at which point friendly fire was inflicting unnecessary casualties on the exhausted Swedes. By the morning, the battle was over.

More Russian Banners Captured at Narva 
The Swedes counted over 600 dead. The Russians had anywhere between 8,000 to 12,000. The number that surrendered was even higher forcing the Swedes to set the majority free and allow them to return to Russia with and without arms. Leading commanders were taken prisoner for ransom or future exchanges. All of Peter's artillery was claimed as war booty forcing the tsar to famously confiscate church bells in an effort to cast new cannon. A near spiritual success was the capture of a large number of Russian flags and standards.[5] Among the victors, General Magnus Stenbock was quick to praise his colleague and king: “It is God’s work alone, but if there is anything human in it, it is the firm, immovable resolution of His Majesty and the ripe dispositions of General Rehnskjold.”[6] For all his losses, Tsar Peter remained optimistic and redoubled his efforts to modernize his forces: “When we had that misfortune, or putting it better great fortune, compulsion then drove away sloth, and forced us to labor day and night."[7] It was a process that paid dividends on a summer day in the Ukraine some nine years later.


Thanks for Reading,



Mike Glaeser,


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[1] Michael Glaeser is an early modern historian specializing in the Great Northern War and the reign of Charles XII of Sweden. He is published in The Great Northern War Compendium and taught history at the University of New Hampshire. He is also an avid reenactor and wargamer. He completed his graduate work at the University of Sheffield, England.
[2] Hatton, Charles XII of Sweden, 150.
[3] Augustus "the Strong" was both the Elector of Saxony, King of Poland, and Duke of Lithuania.
[4] Massie, Peter the Great, 333.
[5] A vast majority of these captured flags still reside in the Army Museum in Stockholm, and are on display.
[6] Massie, Peter the Great, 337.
[7] Rothstein, Peter the Great and Marlborough, 35.