Friday, April 17, 2015

C'est la Guerre

Winfield Scott leads his infantry brigade forward.
Chippewa - H. Charles McBarron (US Army Center of Military History, Public Domain)
In the paintings the uniforms are virtually spotless, the ranks perfectly aligned. The grass is green and there is but a hint of smoke in the background. Men who have become casualties drop to the ground as if they have but stumbled.

That is art. Not war.

Actual battle in the time of Wellington, Scott, Suvorov and Napoléon was seldom, if ever, so picturesque.

The night before the battle the troops, the lucky ones that is, usually slept under the open sky. In a fast moving campaign, tents and other baggage, even if an army used them, seldom could keep pace. More stress was laid on making sure ammunition was available. Shot and powder were much more important on a battlefield than creature comforts. Such as food and shelter.

The unlucky may have spent long hours in the night on the march. Driven by their officers to arrive on the field before the fighting commenced. Often times, many troops were still on the march when the fighting began. In the distance the powder smoke might be seen rising over the tree line or the next ridge.

The thump of artillery could be heard at quite a distance if the wind was right. Legend has it that the cannon fire on the field of Waterloo could be heard at Dover, over 170 miles away. But that was a large battle with over 400 cannon on the field.

Prussian Artillery Reenactors

Commanders learned early to "march to the sound of the guns." The troops no doubt sweated and grumbled as they hurried onward. No matter how tired and footsore they might be, their officers and sergeants drove them on.

While battles did happen in winter, no one who survived would ever forget the frozen hell of Preußisch Eylau, most battles were fought in warmer weather.

The blazing heat of the march into Russia in 1812 killed thousands of men and horses. Try marching at a steady pace of 2 to 3 miles an hour, wearing a wool uniform and carrying upwards of 60 pounds of equipment. In the blazing sun, day after day, then offering battle. Sometimes the march would be in the pouring rain, the road muddy. Each time a battery of artillery needed to pass, the troops would have to move off the road, and then be splattered by the wheels of the limbers and guns passing by.

"Ingenieros" - Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau (Source CC)
The Spanish royal regiment of sappers (Regimiento Real de Minadores-Zapadores)
abandon Alcalá de Henares on May 24, 1808, to join the loyalist cause in Valencia.

The troops would often be tired, hungry and filthy at the start of a battle. Uniforms might be muddy and soaked through. Shoes might be worn through or falling apart entirely. These were mass produced items and could be expensive, as always the army would buy from the cheapest bidder. And always it was the fighting man who suffered his government's parsimony. (I say men here because women generally did not fight. Though some did, from time to time, dress as men and fight in the ranks. And died.)

French Fusilier Grenadiers and Fusilier Chasseurs
Richard Knötel (Public Domain)

Fancy plumes would be stowed in one's pack, fancy shakos would be wrapped in oilskin. The bright colors called for in the regulations would be faded and irregular.

The bright red of the British infantry might be a muddy looking sort of red, almost brown. The dark blue of the French could be anywhere from a sick looking bottle green to a faded grey-blue. Quality blue dye was so hard to come by that Napoléon actually planned on re-uniforming his infantry in white.

The cost of new uniforms for hundreds of thousands of troops, the horror of bloody wounds showing so well against a light colored uniform and the absolute disdain of the troops for white led the Emperor to back off on that particular uniform change. (The troops hated the idea of white uniforms because their hated foe, the Austrian white mice of the Hapsburgs wore white. And they always defeated the Austrians!)

So the men stand, and wait. They would normally be in column on the battlefield when not actually engaged. Each company of 60 to 120 men in three deep line, one company lined up behind another to form a battalion column. (There were four to ten companies per battalion depending on the nationality.)

Sometimes, if the army expected to be on the defense, the battalions in the front line would be in line formation. The companies formed as before, only now side by side. Most armies employed three-deep line, three men, one behind the other. The British allegedly preferred two deep line (though this may have been due to shortages in manpower more than a desire to cover more frontage). Theoretically, every man in a line formation would be able to fire his musket at once. Ofttimes though the fire of the third would only injure, deafen and annoy the men in the first two ranks.

(Note: There were essentially two types of column. One for the battlefield, 20 to 40 men across and four to six companies deep and another for the march. Just like nowadays, column of fours, forward march!)

So there they stand. It may be blisteringly hot, it might be pouring rain, it might even be freezing and snowy. But you stand in ranks and you wait.

The artillery opens the contest. Men must watch as the iron balls fly, ripping into the ranks and literally tearing men to pieces. Soldiers are splattered with blood and tissue from the men standing near them. There are recorded instances of troops being badly wounded, not by an enemy projectile but by bits of bone, teeth and stones thrown up from the solid shot of the artillery.

Standard practice was to bounce the shot into the enemy formations. If the ground was hard this would throw up dirt and stone and wound even more men. A ball which bounced after traveling 500 yards would, in theory, travel another 250 before it bounced again, then another 125 yards and so on.

Cannon shot, near the end of their run, could look most innocuous rolling through the grass. Many a rookie soldier would put his foot out to stop the ball rolling. Only to have his foot torn off and then be left to bleed to death in the grass.

There were no medics or corpsmen to attend to you if you were hit. If you weren't killed outright, it could be a day or more before someone got around to hauling you back to a very rudimentary aid station. Back then, if a wound was in an extremity, they amputated it. In the torso anywhere, they might try to dig it out if it wasn't too deep, or they moved on to someone they could save. Military medicine was very crude and simple.

Eventually the battlefield became clouded by powder smoke. This smoke (I have seen it and experienced it on a small scale) varies from a dirty white to a dark gray, no billowing clouds of black smoke. That's for the movies.

Ponder that, hundreds of cannon firing, nearly continuously, followed by thousands of smoothbore muskets firing, all using black powder. That makes for a lot of smoke. There were instances in battle of opposing units nearly marching into each other out of the smoke.

Soon one could hear the drums of the enemy's advance, or one was in a formation marching to massed military drums towards a probably unseen enemy. Out there somewhere in the powder smoke.

When in effective range, which for a smoothbore musket was no more than a hundred yards, the infantry volleys would begin.

The Storming of La Haye Sainte
Richard Knötel (Public Domain)

Men would be falling all around, soon one side or the other might attempt to bring the battle to bayonet point but this seldom occurred. Usually one side or the other would have had enough of being shot at and give way, retreating back into the smoke.

Or the cavalry would dash in, out of nowhere, and smash into a wavering line of exhausted soldiers.

Battle of Albuhera
William Barnes Wollen (Public Domain)

The battle would seesaw back and forth until exhaustion, death and fear overcame the army. Sometimes both armies in the fight would be nearly finished, their reserves all in, ammunition running low, unit strength dwindling. You might notice other soldiers starting to slip to the rear, by ones and twos. Sometimes five or six men "helping" a wounded comrade off the field.

Officers would exhort their men to one more effort. One more push, one more volley.

Stand fast!

Les Grenadiers à Cheval de la Garde Impériale à Eylau
Édouard Detaille (Public Domain)

Wellington at Waterloo
Robert Alexander Hillingford (Public Domain)

Then one side would break...

And the slaughter would begin.

Battle of Salamanca
Artist Unknown (Public Domain)

The Aftermath of Battle

The victorious army might pursue the defeated army but often most of the victors would spend the night on the field where they fought all day. Fresh reserves, if there were any, would pursue the beaten foe.

Men would not stray far from the campfires, for in the dark was horror.

Looters would stalk through the bodies, some still living were "helped on their way" by the thieves in the night. Sometimes they were civilians, sometimes they were soldiers. It was not the custom for the troops to help bring in the wounded. In those days discipline was fierce, a soldier allowed away from his sergeants and officers might not come back. You stayed with your unit.

One could also hear the moans and screams of the wounded. Not just men either. At Waterloo 10,000 horses were killed or injured. Artillery horses, cavalry horses, officers' horses, an army did not move without their equine comrades. They too suffered, they too died.

In the morning the sight of the field would be dreadful, if one were lucky, the unit would take to the road to chase after the enemy. If one were unlucky one would help to bury and/or burn the dead. Injured horses would be dispatched. Serviceable equipment would be collected, the wounded would be loaded on carts (or ambulances in the French army) for transport back to the surgeons. Who would already be exhausted by then.

War in the time of Wellington, Scott, Suvorov and Napoléon was brutal. It was nothing glorious like the paintings show. It was dirty, bloody and pitiless.

But then again, war is still that way. War has always been that way.

There is no glory, only death and suffering.

Sometimes war is necessary. Sometimes war is forced upon a nation. Then it must be fought to the utmost to bring things to a speedy conclusion. Make it as brutal and as violent as possible for your enemy. Make them regret the day they forced war upon you.

Lest they try again.


  1. Great post Sarge, and one that should be force fed to politicians.

    Also proof of why you only liberate after conquering, despite the opium dreams of idiot politicians and bureaucrats and rabbit civilians who've never been anywhere or done anything.

    Not that I feel strongly about the subject, mind you!

    1. The politicians seldom learn. Why? It isn't their blood being shed.

    2. The picture of King Abdullah of Jordan suited up for a combat mission after one of his pilots was killed was impressive indeed. Can't see our current leader doing the same.

    3. True.

      We have a leader? /snark

    4. Wonder if he'd wear pumps or flats with his combat dress?

    5. Heh. Monitor has been sprayed.

  2. War is honorable, despite its brutality and horror, when forced upon us and we go to defend our nation and teach the enemy that this will not stand. However, I don't know what to call it when it's done via cyber warfare, drones, and suicide bombers. It's still horrible, but those smaller asymmetric attacks are so much harder to counter and qualify as war that we are unable to convince a leadership that it too deserves swift and brutal response, even if it's not proportional.

    1. I don't know about "honorable" but sometimes it is absolutely necessary. Certainly the cause can be honorable. The conduct of individuals within a war can be honorable. But war itself?

      Also, the people who say "violence never solved anything" probably assume that Hitler was negotiated into surrender.

      Swift and brutal response is the answer, who cares if it's proportional? If a guy wants to stab me and I shoot him, tough.

      Dissuade potential foes by whatever means available. If threats don't work, start killing. It's what the enemy does.

  3. Excellent essay, thanks. As an aside, my wife and I recently toured the new Yorktown Victory Center ( I highly recommend it and its sister, Jamestown Settlement) and I got to try on an exact replica of British, French and Continental uniform coats from the period. They were VERY heavy wool--almost felt. I cannot imagine wearing such in August in Tidewater Virginia. Well, I can imagine, and can only marvel that more men were not lost to heat stroke etc.

    1. I will have to go there, it sounds excellent.

      The Battle of Monmouth in 1778 was fought in hot and humid weather, many troops on both sides were laid low by the heat.

  4. I've never fired a shot in anger, so will defer to some esteemed people who have.

    "War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself." John Stuart Mill

    "Nothing except a battle lost can be half as melancholy as a battle won." Wellington

    To me, who tries to reduce everything to what a fighter pilot can understand, these mean:
    War is horrible and should be avoided when feasible, but when avoidance is unfeasible make damn sure you win it! Don't pussyfoot around!

    1. Mr Mill said it very well.

      Don't pussyfoot around is good advice. Go in hard, go in strong and hit the enemy as hard and as violently as possible.

  5. I like your reductive analysis Juvat! Juvat for President!

  6. As a descendant of many, many generations of "cannon fodder", my contempt for those at the top, who haven't a fraction of the courage and resolve of those they put at the point of the spear is, is bottomless.

    Great post, Sarge.

  7. Well done, and well said sir.

  8. Now Congress sent a commission out, they loaded up with Scotch
    While they were throwing parties, we had 40s up the crotch
    They cried "Let's kill the bastards" "Let's drive then to their knees"
    But there weren't any Congressmen on the list of casualties

  9. The first thing I thought of was the movie Zulu and the Battle it portrayed.

    1. Though somewhat flawed historically, a most excellent film.


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