Saturday, October 21, 2017

Scissors, Rock, Paper

Friedland - Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier
The other day I mentioned in a comment that I was feeling the need to do a post about cavalry, men at war on horseback. But first I needed to check to see if I'd ever done a post specifically about cavalry. (At my age I tend to tell a story multiple times. Sometimes to the same audience. It's not that I don't know more stories, it's just that I'm not sure who I've told the stories to. Sigh...)

Seems I've done more than one post that dealt specifically with cavalry - here, here, and here. (You should go read them, I thought they were pretty good. Of course, YMMV.) So I thought I'd take a different tack with this post, which includes cavalry, naturellement.

You might be wondering about the title of today's post. "Scissors rock paper", a game known to most of us (I presume) and which is popular in other cultures as well. Imagine my surprise when my wife and her friends played this back when we were young. In Korean it's called 가위 바위 보. (Roughly ka-ee, ba-ee, bo.) Imagine my surprise last night when I looked that up to confirm the spelling (in Korean, my Korean is very rusty) and noted that here in the west the game is "rock paper scissors," because of the Korean connection, I've always referred to the game by the Korean order, which is "scissors rock paper." (I don't think the Chuck Norris option is available in Korea.)

Just in case you didn't get the reference above...
But yes, I digress, we're here to talk about the similarity of Napoleonic tactics to the old "rock scissors paper" game. (I read that somewhere and it has some truth to it.)

We know the game, "paper covers rock," which wins, "rock smashes scissors," which wins, and finally, "scissors cut paper," which wins. Three basic elements, each has its strength, each has its weakness.

The three basic combat arms on the Napoleonic battlefield were the infantry, the cavalry, and the artillery. Each had its strengths, each had its weaknesses. Balancing the three arms in battle was the task of the commander.

The Infantry
The most numerous arm was the infantry. For the most part these men were equipped with a smoothbore, black powder, flintlock musket. Firing a lead ball over a half-inch in diameter (actual caliber varied from army to army) these weapons were wildly inaccurate at anything over fifty yards if you were actually aiming at something. So the infantry stood shoulder to shoulder and fired volleys at the enemy. When a hundred muskets are fired (all at once) in your general direction, someone or something is going to get hit. These weapons caused devastating wounds.

As the infantry was the most numerous, and was really the key to winning a battle, we'll primarily look at them. The infantry was very powerful. They formed upon the battlefield in three basic formations at the battalion level (think 400 to roughly a thousand men, grouped in four to ten companies, all depending on which army you are talking about).

For moving around the battlefield, battalions would be in column, usually one company across with the other companies stacked behind them, with enough room between companies to enable them to deploy into the other formations.
Column of companies
(French Shown)
This formation was very useful for movement on the field. The problem was that these big formations were very nice targets for these guys -

The Artillery
Artillery was effective out to 1200 yards, for the larger guns. They were grouped in batteries of four to twelve pieces (as the individual cannon are known) and fired two basic types of ammunition: round shot (big metal ball) and canister (smaller metal balls backed in a tin).

Cannon were classified by the weight of their shot, typically four to twelve pounds. Believe me, you did not want to get hit by one of those things. Solid shot was used at the longer ranges, if the enemy got too close the gunners would switch to canister. The effect of which was a giant shotgun. Though short ranged they could tear an enemy formation to red rags in a hurry.

So the infantry needed to get across the field with some quickness, all the while being pounded by cannon fire. You'd think it might be impossible to survive, but most did. The real nastiness didn't start until you got close to the enemy, standing and waiting for you with loaded muskets. Typically deployed in line -

Standard three deep line.
Again, the French are depicted.
And yes it's a small drawing, otherwise it would stretch right across the page and beyond!
The Continental armies (France, Spain, Prussia, Austria, etc.) typically deployed in three-deep line, the British preferred two-deep, some sources say because it made all of the muskets effective in the battalion, some sources say it was so the usually smaller British armies could cover more ground. (I prefer the former theory.) It is true that in three-deep line the guys in that third line were more of a danger to their comrades in front of them than the enemy!

Okay, so you've made it across the field, leaving your path strewn with dead and wounded, now the preferred tactic before coming into musket range of your enemy was to deploy from column into line, thus maximizing your firepower. But while doing that, these guys might show up -

The Cavalry
If you spotted them in time, you would want your battalion deployed in square -
Square formation, this is far more tidy here than on the field.
Often it looked more like a rectangle.
Again, it's a French battalion.
The first (outward) rank is kneeling, musket butt firmly on the ground held in place with a foot, bayonets forming a steel hedge around the formation. No, horses don't like steel hedges. The cavalry couldn't force their horses into the square, and it was tough to reach the guys in the square with your sword. The two ranks behind the kneeling rank would be trying to shoot the horsemen down.

Now if the cavalry fell back to regroup because they couldn't break the square, then the infantry were again exposed to cannon fire. And a square is a nice big juicy target. One ball can kill or maim as many as six men at a time. (Hit one face of the square, taking out three guys, then hit the backside of the square, taking out three more guys. No, hitting a human or two won't stop that metal ball. Might slow it down a bit, after taking out say ten men?)

So what do you do now battalion commander? Your square is getting chopped up by the cannon, if you don't do something, this could happen -

Cavalry cutting infantry to red ribbons.
Well, if your commander planned things right, you don't have to worry about the enemy's cavalry because you brought your own along to counter-charge theirs. Then while the horsemen dash about swinging their swords at each other. You might deploy into line, the French would often stay in column and charge with the bayonet. Which was a long steel spike attached to the end of the infantry musket. You did not want to get stabbed with one of those.

It seldom came to crossing bayonets. One side or the other would say "fire truck" this and retreat. Usually the attacker had to launch multiple assaults in order to find a weakness in the other side's deployment. Sometimes there weren't enough cannon in a sector, sometimes a gap developed which the cavalry could charge through and start sabering the "in the rear with the gear" types.

Armies who let the enemy get behind them always got nervous and usually lost.

A very bloody game of "rock scissors paper" though obviously more complex.

Infantry who were tired or who had suffered under cannon fire might just throw down their muskets and run away. While that might seem like a good idea, cavalrymen liked nothing better than sabering fleeing infantry.

Really good infantry would stand their ground regardless of losses. You almost had to push them over after shooting them. There were infantry units in the Napoleonic Wars who would continue to fight against all odds.

Some would run away at the first shot.

It was all about getting the right troops, in the right formation, at the right time, in the right place which won battles. Sometimes all it took was a single cavalry squadron showing up in the rear and panicking the reserves which could make an entire army flee.

Sometimes the two sides would pound each other all day with no apparent result. One side might slip away in the night to fight another day, sometimes a battle would last into a second or even a third day, though that was very rare.

Once the battle was won, and perhaps even the war, then for the lucky ones it was back to home and hearth.

War is never as pretty as the paintings make it seem.

Yes, I left out a lot of things, howitzers, rifles, rockets, lions, and tigers, and bears. Oh my.


  1. Really like your Napoleonic postings... BTW watched The Duellists and enjoyed it. Easily offended? That's putting it mildly as to Keitels character...... sheesh

    1. Thanks Nylon12. I'm glad you liked the film, agree on Keitel's character.

  2. Excellent analysis, my Friend. Very well done.

  3. Workable arrangement until the advent of machine guns.

    1. It sort of worked until the Civil War. The rifled musket played havoc with gun crews and the only time cavalry could charge was when they were only faced with cavalry.

      The rifle made a huge difference, Napoleonic formations (necessary for command and control) and modern weapons. Not a good mix for the gravel agitators.

    2. Rifles, better cannon and their ammunition, and the completely different topography of the US vs Europe.

      The Europeans had an idea what so-called 'modern war' looked like, as they all sent observers to 'our' war, and they all sent observers to the Crimean war (those that didn't fight in that one.)

      The French and Germans(ish) also had lots of pointy reminders during the whole French and Prussian War(s) thingy, with the introduction of centerfire rifles (the French), machine guns in combat (in Europe)(the French again) and modern recoiling artillery (yet again, the French.)(How could the French lose, with all this innovation? Well, just repeat, to yourself, the word 'French.')

      Then there were the little dust-ups, line the Spanish-American War and the unpleasantness between the Tsar and the Emperor (of Japan), which saw full use of machine guns, gatling guns, reasonably modern naval artillery. Only thing missing were airplanes, really.

      All of these conflicts had plenty of observers from all the powers, lots of books and papers written about them, changes in the various countries' weapons and tactics to deal with the new upcoming threats.

      Just, well, 20-20 hindsight was probably invented by war-fighters. "Ogg, why you turn your back on Nog, when he have stick in hand? He always hit you when you turn back to him." "Well, uh, I worked with Bog, to not turn back to Nog, but..."

      Especially since it seems the stupid was very condensed during the Great War.

      Though, looking at it from the distance of time, I understand why trench warfare broke out. Now, sending waves after waves after waves of troops to perform the 'Spandau Ballet' I don't understand. Arrogant, feckless pricks is the only answer I can come up with.

    3. Excellent synopsis of the evolving weapon systems and tactics from 1850 to 1918. (The former evolved faster than the latter, that's for sure!)

      My theory is that once the war is over (generically speaking) the officers who have seen the most combat are heartily sick of it and return to civilian life. Those who spent the bulk of their time "in the rear with the gear" stayed in and became generals and advisers to politicians. Those who had learned nothing from the last war rose to command the bloody debacles of the next.

      Seems a never ending cycle...

  4. I remember playing [sic] rock, paper, scissors, but calling out “Rho, Sham, Bow!” (Rochambeau).
    Ironic, neh?

    1. No kidding?

      That's pretty interesting and yes, somewhat ironic.

    2. I played it both ways, but I think Skip's way was when I was in that state out west where he lives. I don't remember it that way in Texas.

    3. If you look up the different names for the game, Skip's variant was popular in Northern California.

      Makes sense.

  5. Thanks for the great posts. It is always interesting to see how the tactics of ancient days lasted (sometimes very modified, sometimes not so modified) up to the recent modern era (about 1917-1918, depending on what country/military we are talking about.)

    The rifle-square sure worked for the British during the Zulu wars, didn't it.

    1. Other than Isandlwana, where their officers completely dropped the ball, yes.

    2. Ancient tactics in modern day warfare? Say it ain't so.

    3. Now that's a favorite of mine!

  6. You write (so well),
    "My theory is that once the war is over (generically speaking) the officers who have seen the most combat are heartily sick of it and return to civilian life. Those who spent the bulk of their time "in the rear with the gear" stayed in and became generals and advisers to politicians. Those who had learned nothing from the last war rose to command the bloody debacles of the next."
    This seems to be so true, even in my brief experience. I knew a few ring knockers and one made four stars. He appeared to be ingenuous even as a O-2. It was obvious to all in the squadron. This was in the deuce, protecting us from the mighty bear in the North or somewhere.

    1. This has probably been true since the very first war.

  7. Thanks for the post. Very good, as usual. Commenters spot on as well.

    Paul L. Quandt

  8. cavalry was sure also effective and moving down unportected canoneers...

    re:civil war
    there, and in the Crimean war before, rifled muskets did made stunning entrance, and breechloaders/repeaters were already entering into action in civil war...
    re: French in 1870
    Prussians had better artillery, and their Dreyse needlers were almost as good as french Chassepote rifles.
    it was bloody affair for such a short war, had it devolved into longer slugging match, it would probably be like ww1 4 decades early

    to add another "warning sign before 1914" Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 - Japan won not only Tsushima but also land war, at staggering costs in lives, though... and learned precisely the wrong lessons, thinking that samurai spirit can beat modern firepower

    1. Spot on.

      You know your history Paweł. I might note (for those who don't know, and Paweł does), at Somosierra that was Polish cavalry.

      You Poles have always been brilliant horsemen!

  9. "Yes, I left out a lot of things, howitzers, rifles, rockets, lions, and tigers, and bears. Oh my." Yeah, like all the anti-aircraft batteries and armor. (I don't have much knowledge of historical battles or infantry so I have to just come up with smart-alecky comments like that)

    1. Hahaha!

      I look forward to your smart-alecky comments. And posts.


  10. Sarge,

    Am a bit late to the party with this, but thought many here would enjoy this presentation, especially at the 25:00 mark where he talks about "ringing the battery".

    Found here--

    1. Yup, the guns took a back seat to the rifle in that war.


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