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A question on squares.

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A question on squares.

Postby Josh&Historyland » April 23rd, 2016, 8:33 pm

Gentlemen and ladies.

I was talking with someone today who raised an interesting point about squares that I'd always wondered about yet never pinned down. When several battalions form to receive cavalry, Waterloo and Quatre Bras being the most useful examples, how was fire control handled on those faces that fronted neighbouring battalions.

Enemy cavalry moved around and between multiple squares on many occasions. In the case of Waterloo was the checkerboard pattern really enough to allow volleys to be given at passing horsemen without fear of hitting the opposing square? I've never read of this happening, yet I always wondered about it, presumably squares would form at distances that negated causing casualties to fireldy formations and opening gaps. Though in emergencies would this be possible? And if two squares were close enough to hit one another surely enemy cavalry could use these blind sides to an advantage?

Any thoughts?
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Re: A question on squares.

Postby jf42 » April 24th, 2016, 8:28 am

I have wondered about exactly the same question, Josh. In the end, I think only first-hand accounts can really point to an answer. For instance, do we hear of infantry at Waterloo believing they were taking casualties from the fire of neighbouring squares? I suppose by now, given the literature and mythological power of Waterloo, if 'overs' had been an issue we would have heard by now.

It would be logical, Captain, to assume that the chequer-board formation was predicated on the distance between between squares being wide enough to avoid casualties inflicted between neighbouring squares, or other formations. Dundas seems to have been to be phlegmatic on that count:

"Should a part of the enemy break through the line, it is an event that ought by all to be expected, but not without its remedy— When the troops are thus prepared, they will be the less surprised to see cavalry in their rear, who cannot long remain to advantage between the lines, under a fire in all directions (if the infantry are steady) and who also are liable to be attacked when in disorder by the supporting cavalry." (Principles of Military Movements (1788) pp. 180-181)

Mind you, Dundas was not referring to infantry formed in squares as such and I am not sure to what extent he was writing from first-hand experience in the 7YW- when he served in the 15th Light Dragoons (who made their name carving up French infantry formations at Emsdorf). Indeed, how often in the second half of the C18th and after did battles develop into a contest between infantry squares occupying a defensive position arranged in chequer-board formation to receiving attacks from cavalry?

On reflection, it occurs to me that the main force of a battalion's volley fire would directed from the front face of a square at the initial approach of a wave of cavalry, because that was the only direction from which a formed column of cavalry would come; could come.

Once that charge had been blunted (presumably) then, as the cavalry formation dispersed to either side of the square under attack, it would present less of a worthwhile target for volley fire. We read general accounts of French cavalry at Waterloo hovering waiting for allied infantry to empty their muskets en masse and thereby provided an opportunity for them to spur on in to take advantage of any temporary gap that may have opened in the enemy ranks. The infantry, correspondingly, held their fire to avoid providing such an incentive to charge in. By the same token, dispersed cavalry may also have calculated that by not reforming once they were between squares, they would be less likely to receive a volley.

Therefore, the amount of fire coming from the flanks of a square might have been comparitively light and the possibility of neighbouring squares being hit by overs correspondingly less- especially if one assumes that individuals taking pot shots from the flanks with muskets might either be aiming low into a horse's forequarters or high to try and take out its rider, even if he was wearing a cuirass. On that count, any rounds missing their target would either hit the ground or lose their force in the air before dropping down as less dangerous spent shot.

Just thinking aloud here.
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Re: A question on squares.

Postby DaveH » April 24th, 2016, 6:02 pm

Aspern is a very good example of squares (well, closed squares = Masses) being used against cavalry, the idea being to fire on them from in front and then letting them flow through for some more damage. The 1807 Regulation, which has extracts here and all the plates of the full version https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=XwJ ... 07&f=false does include a rather elaborate drill for firing at cavalry, which finishes up with the 4th rank (see plate 48 for how the square was formed) passing loaded muskets forward and fire starting at 300 paces. However, in reality, fire was held and a two-rank volley was fired at 100 paces, the effective range of a musket. This is summarised in the piece just before the plates start, which is about facing cavalry. it is also instructive to note that in theory, the officers on the corners of the squares would turn the 4 men in each of the first four ranks to the flanks to deal with cavalry coming beyond the front (circles in the diagram). Otherwise, the most senior officer down each side was supposed to take charge of the firing to the flank. The result would appear to have been that you had three separate squads down each side under different officers. Similarly, given a company frontage, the length of the front would have been 50 men in each of the three ranks, so that is 50 paces.

Each line of a chequerboard would have to be able to march through the other on a company frontage plus you need some space at the sides. Rothenberg says (although I have not seen the source) that divisional masses were supposed to be 54-60 paces apart and they were shown in the Regs as being on a half-company frontage. Thus, the gap is about twice the frontage, so for squares, which would need at least a battalion, we are really talking 100 paces +, so the likelihood of muskets firing beyond that unobstructed is limited and obviously, if you are firing at cavalry, they are pretty big obstructions.
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Re: A question on squares.

Postby TheBibliophile » April 26th, 2016, 8:54 am

Remembering that the effective range of a musket is about 70 yards (63M). Did they not just rely on being far enough away from each other? or fire alternately?
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Re: A question on squares.

Postby A.Roads » April 28th, 2016, 8:58 pm

the effective range of a musket is about 70 yards

Musket balls are effective, lethally so, for hundreds of yards, they did not have good accuracy beyond 70 yards.
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Re: A question on squares.

Postby DaveH » April 29th, 2016, 1:04 am

That is only the maximum a ball would go if the barrel is raised above level and is unobstructed. For drill purposes, a musket would be level, in which case gravity would be acting on the ball and would be inaccurate at any distance, hence the need for volleys to ensure something hit the target.
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Re: A question on squares.

Postby jf42 » April 29th, 2016, 7:38 am

If a soldier in a square was firing at a cavalry attacker, his musket might well be above the horizontal. Clearly the ball would have to be unobstructed, that is to say "have missed its intended target," to pose a danger of causing casualties in a neighbouring square.

I don't think we are discussing 'drill' here, especially since battalions in general did not have the opportunity practice receiving cavalry in brigade formations and if they did, it would be unlikely they fired live rounds.

Accuracy is not the question here, surely, since by definition, an 'over' would have missed. A volley of 'overs' might be something to be concerned about, with friendly troops at risk of being peppered by not-entirely-spent shot.

All of which may be in the realms of theory, however, unless we have evidence that friendly fire between squares was indeed a problem.

I suspect that as a general rule, establishing a 'safe' minimum distance and arranging battalion squares on the diagonal so they faced each other corner to corner would have reduced the risk of friendly fire to acceptable levels.
Last edited by jf42 on April 30th, 2016, 9:05 am, edited 3 times in total.
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Re: A question on squares.

Postby janner » April 29th, 2016, 7:52 am

This piece maybe of interest, “They shot at the skies”: soldiers and firearms of 16th century, https://sellsword.wordpress.com/2011/08/09/firearms/
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Re: A question on squares.

Postby jf42 » April 29th, 2016, 8:51 am

Excellent piece. Thanks, Stephen.

The French light infantry must have been able to achieve some degree of accuracy with their smoothbore weapons. They can have served no purpose as skirmishers if their rounds were perpetually spiralling into the air.
Last edited by jf42 on April 30th, 2016, 9:04 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: A question on squares.

Postby TheBibliophile » April 30th, 2016, 8:11 am

I suppose the angle of fire would depend on whether they were shooting at the men or the horses.
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