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Infantry in the Late 18th Century

Frederick the Great, son of Frederick William I, owed many of his successes to the inertness and resourcelessness of his opponents. But this self-taught soldier had the insight to grasp the essential principle of battle leading, to make the best possible use of the weapon his father had formed for his hands, and to evolve a tactical system which made the most of the special qualities of the Prussian army. His drillbook was soon adopted, with minor modifications, by most European armies, but as so often happens, most of those who took it up saw in it not a means but an end. It was Frederick's merit that he always saw in the work of the drill ground only a preparation for operations in the field. After his death the Prussian army fell back into a period of unintelligent routine. The drill-book became the sum of military knowledge.

The wars of Frederick the Great finally secured for the infantry arm its place as the main strength of the battle line. Henceforth as the years went on the proportion of infantry to cavalry in regular armies rose steadily, till before long it was recognized that the mounted troops formed only an auxiliary arm. But Frederick's system depended on the use of the foot soldiers in close-ordered shoulder-to-shoulder formations. It was in colonial wars that the use of the skirmish line of sharpshooters and of what came to be known as light-infantry tactics first received recognition from professional soldiers. Frederick's later campaigns were part of a world-wide conflict of allied nations, one phase of which was the struggle between France and England for predominance in North America. In the forest regions of the New World the French had learned the arts of the skirmisher from their Indian allies. The Colonials had adopted the same tactics, but the English regular officers would not hear of anything but the methods of the parade ground until they received a rude lesson in General Braddock's defeat near Fort Duquesne in 1755.

Braddock, a routine soldier, despite the advice of his Colonial officers, advanced in close order into wooded ground at the head of about 1400 men. When a circle of fire opened upon him from invisible enemies in the bush, he deployed his Uttle force in the regulation three-deep line and replied with volleys, When the men tried to open out and take cover, Braddock sternly ordered them to keep their ranks, and insisted on remaining mounted, though four horses were shot under him. When at last he himself fell dead, Washington, who served on his staff, brought the remnant of the force out of action. Nearly a thousand had been killed and wounded. The opposing force of French and Indians was only 900 strong, and suffered a very trifling loss.

After this the Royal American Regiment was raised, the same regiment that was afterwards known as the King's Royal Rifles. Besides the regular close-order drill they were specially trained for " irregular warfare"that is, for skirmishing tactics. From the outset the regiment was armed with the rifle, a weapon then regarded as an exceptional equipment for special purposes. It was costly to manufacture, and the forcing of a bullet into the grooves made loading a slower operation than with the smooth-bore musket. The elongated bullet had not yet been invented, and the rifle had neither the long range nor the extreme accuracy of the weapons we now know by the name. But even with its slower rate of fire it was superior to the musket. The theorists of the day held, however, that the more rapid fire of the smooth-bore at close quarters marked it as the ordinary weapon for infantry in the line of battle, and the rifle where it was used was regarded as the weapon of the individual sharpshooter.

The distinction between "rifles" (or to use the French and German equivalent names "chasseurs" and "jagers") and the "infantry of the line" has become less and less of a reality with the general levelling up of armaments and infantry tactics. But originally in all armies these special corps were quite distinct from the line regiments. The latter formed the battle line, shoulder to shoulder, and manoeuvred in close order. The former were known as "light troops," and their duties were to do outpost work and to skirmish in the front and on the flanks of the line regiments. In some armies the distinction was one of race and recruiting. The Austrians always brought into the field in the wars of the eighteenth century a horde of wild Croats and other southern Slavs, who acted as their light troops, and were so undisciplined and so apt to murder and plunder that a general never ventured among them without an escort. There was originally the same distinction among the cavalry. There were mounted " regiments of the line" trained to charge knee to knee, and half irregular corps that acted as scouts, looked after parts of the outpost line and went out as foragers. The Austrian Hussars were originally of this type, as the Cossacks were in the Russian army even during the Napoleonic wars.

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Page last modified: 13-09-2012 19:13:15 ZULU