Line infantry is a type of infantry which composed the basis of European land armies from the middle of the 17th century to the middle of the 19th century.
This picture is of the Prussian line infantry attack at the 1745 Battle of Hohenfriedberg.
Line infantry appeared in the 17th century. At the beginning of 17th century the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus decided to equip his army with firearms with wheellocks, but only his cavalry received them in his lifetime. Shortly after his death, the Swedish infantry was equipped with new muskets with wheellocks which were comparatively light when compared to older muskets, making it easier to fire the weapon without the aid of a support. Moreover, the new musket required less iron and it turned out to be cheaper to mass-produce. This firearm made it possible to create line infantry.
Linear tactics and function
Line infantry used mostly three types of formations in its battles: the line, the square and the column.
With the massive proliferation of hand guns (firearms that could be carried by hand, as opposed to cannon; not to be confused with handguns) in the infantry units from the middle of 17th century the battlefield was dominated by linear tactics, according to which the infantry was aligned into long thin lines and fired volleys. A line consisted of 2, 3 or 4 ranks of soldiers.
The relatively short range at which smooth bore muskets could accurately hit a target, added to the slow reload (2 to 3 rounds per minute), meant that massed formation firing was essential for maximising enemy casualties. The line was considered as the fundamental battle formation as it allowed for the largest deployment of firepower. Troops in skirmish formation, though able to take cover and use initiative, were highly vulnerable to cavalry and could not hold ground against advancing infantry columns. Line infantry provided an ‘anchor’ for skirmishers and cavalry to retreat to if threatened.
Against surrounding enemy cavalry, line infantry could swiftly adopt square formations to provide protection. Such squares were hollow (consisting of four lines), unlike the pikiners’ and old-style musketeers’ square.
Movement in line formation was very slow, and unless the battalion was superbly trained, a breakdown in cohesion was virtually assured, especially in any kind of uneven or wooded terrain. As a result, line was mostly used as a stationary formation, with troops moving in column formations and then deploying to line at their destination. Usually for movement and melee attacks, columns would be adopted.
Training and recruitment
Line infantry was trained in the manual of arms evolutions, the main objectives of which were fast deployment of a line, rapid shooting and manoeuvre.
Line tactics required a strict discipline and simple movements, practised to the point where they became second-nature. During training, the drill and corporal punishments were widely used.
Line infantry quickly became the most common type of infantry in European countries. Musketeers and grenadiers, formerly elite troops, gradually became part of the line infantry, switching to linear tactics.
Arms and equipment
In the middle of the 17th century, the muskets of line infantry had bayonets added. Bayonets were attached to the muzzles of muskets and were used when line troops entered melee combat. They also helped to defend against cavalry.
At the end of the 17th century, muskets were replaced by lighter and cheaper infantry fusils with flintlocks, weighing 5 kg with a caliber of 17.5 mm, first in France and then in other states. In many countries, the new fusils retained the name “musket”. Both muskets and fusils were smoothbore, which lessened their accuracy and range.
The bulk of the line infantry had no protective equipment. Only the former elite troops could keep by tradition some elements of protection, for example, the copper mitre caps of grenadiers.
Line infantry and other contemporary types of infantry
Besides line infantry, there were elite troops (royal guards and other designated elite regiments) and the light infantry. Light infantry operated in extended order (also known as skirmish formation) as opposed to the close orders (tight formations) used by line infantry. Since the late 18th century light infantry in most European countries mostly consisted of riflemen (such as the German Jäger), armed with rifled carbines and trained in aimed shooting and use of defilades. Line infantry, whose muskets with bayonets were heavier than carbines, became known as heavy infantry and were used as the main deciding force.
In France during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars the division into the Guard, line infantry and light infantry formally continued to exist, but line regiments and “light” regiments had identical weaponry (smooth-bore fusils) and tactics. Napoleon distrusted rifled firearms. However, both line and “light” regiments each included a battalion of tirailleurs or voltigeurs expected to act as skirmishers as well being able to deploy into line.
The Russian infantry of 1853 comprised 110 regiments. 52 of which were line infantry, 10 regiments were Guard, and 46 regiments were light infantry (42 Jäger regiments and 4 infantry carabinier regiments). However, only a part of the Russian light infantry were equipped with rifles.
In the 19th century the percentage of riflemen in European armies increased, and the percentage of line infantry equipped with muskets fell. In the American Civil War both Northern and Confederate armies had only a few line regiments. However, France, due to Napoleon III, who admired Napoleon I, had 300 line battalions (comprising an overwhelming majority) even in 1870. Although the French line infantry received Chassepot rifles in 1866, it still was being trained in the use of closed formations: line, column and square, which was changed only after the dethronement of Napoleon III.
In the years after the Napoleonic Wars, line infantry continued to be deployed as the main battle force while light infantry provided fire support and covered the movement of units. In Russia, Great Britain, France, Prussia and some other states, linear tactics and formation discipline were maintained into the late 19th century (examples: Crimean War, Franco-Prussian War).
With the invention of new weaponry, the concept of line infantry began to wane. The Minié ball (an improved rifle ammunition), allowed individual infantrymen to shoot more accurately and over greatly increased range. Men walking in formation line-abreast became far too easy a target, as evidenced in the American Civil War. By the end of this conflict breech-loading rifles were adopted, which gave the individual shooter even greater increased rate of fire as well. In the 1860s, most German states and Russia converted their line infantry and riflemen into the united infantry, which used rifles and skirmish tactics. After the Franco-Prussian War both the German Empire and the French Third Republic did the same. However, Great Britain retained the name “line infantry”, although it used rifled muskets from 1853, breech loading rifles from 1867, and switched from closed lines to extended order during Boer wars.
The growing accuracy and rate of fire of rifles and the invention of the Gatling gun in 1862 and the Maxim machine gun in 1883 meant that close orders of line infantry would suffer huge losses before being able to close with their foe, while the defensive advantages given to line infantry against cavalry became irrelevant with the effective removal of offensive cavalry from the battlefield in the face of the improved weaponry. With the turn of the 20th Century this slowly led to infantry increasingly adopting skirmish style light infantry tactics in battle, while retaining line infantry drill for training.
Retention of “line infantry” title
While, as detailed above, linear battle tactics had become obsolete by the second half of the nineteenth century, regiments in a number of European armies continued to be classified as “line infantry” (or cavalry). This designation had come to mean the regular or numbered regiments of an army, as opposed to specialist or elite formations. Accordingly the distinction had become one of traditional title or classification without significance in respect of armament or tactics. As an example the Belgian Army of 1914 comprised 14 regiments of Infanterie de Ligne (line infantry), three of Chasseurs a pied (light infantry), one of Grenadiers and one of Carabiniers. Similar differentiations were made in the majority of European armies of the period, although English-speaking authors sometimes use the designation “line infantry” when referring to the ordinary infantry of some other countries where the exact term was not in use. The modern UK army retains the traditional distinction between “line infantry” and “the Rifles” on ceremonial occasions for historical reasons, although all are armed with rifles and none use linear tactics. Equally, infantry of most 21st-century armies are still trained in formation manoeuvre and drill, as a way of instilling discipline and unit cohesion.
Historically an infantry square is a combat formation an infantry unit forms in close order usually when threatened with cavalry attack. With the development of modern firearms and the demise of cavalry this formation is now considered obsolete.
Very early history
The formation was described by Plutarch and used by the Romans, and was developed from an earlier circular formation. In particular, a large infantry square was utilized by the Roman legions at the Battle of Carrhae against Parthia, whose armies contained a large proportion of cavalry. This is not to be confused with the testudo formation, which also resembled a square, but was used for protection against ranged weapons such as arrows.
The Han Empire’s mounted infantry forces effectively utilized tactics involving highly mobile infantry square formations in conjunction with light cavalry in their many engagements against the primarily cavalry Xiongnu nomad armies in the 1st century CE. Infantry squares were used in the siege of the nomads’ mountain settlements near the Gobi region, where Han forces repelled nomad lancer attacks
The square was revived in the 14th century as the schiltron, and later appeared as the pike square or tercio, and was widely used in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.
As used in the Napoleonic wars, the formation was constituted as a hollow square, or sometimes a rectangle, with each side composed of two or more ranks of soldiers armed with single-shot muskets or rifles with fixed bayonets. Generally, a battalion (approx. 500 to 1,000 men) was the smallest force used to form a square. The unit’s colours and commander were positioned in the centre, along with a reserve force to reinforce any side of the square weakened by attacks. A square of 500 men in four ranks, such as those formed by Wellington’s army at Waterloo, was a tight formation less than twenty metres in length upon any side.
Once formed in square, the infantry would volley fire at approaching cavalry, either by file or by rank. In successful actions, the infantry would often withhold fire until the charging horses and men were some 30 metres from the square; the resulting casualties to the attackers would eventually form piles of dead and wounded horses and their riders which would obstruct further attacks.
Undisciplined or early fire by the infantry would be ineffective against the attacking cavalry and leave the foot soldiers with empty muskets. The cavalrymen could then approach to very short range while the infantry was reloading, where they could fire at the infantry with their pistols, slash at them with sabres or stab them with lances (if they were so equipped.)
Firing too late (with cavalry within 20 metres), although more effective in hitting the targets, could result in a fatally wounded horse tumbling into the infantry ranks and creating a gap, permitting the surviving horsemen to enter the square and break it up from within.
While it was vital for squares to stand firm in the face of a charge, they were not static formations. Astute commanders could, in suitable terrain, manoeuvre squares to mass fire and even trap cavalry, as the French managed against the Ottomans at Mount Tabor (1799). Squares would be arranged in a checkerboard formation to minimize the chances of soldiers from one square accidentally shooting the other.
At Waterloo (1815) the four-rank squares of the Allied forces withstood eleven cavalry charges (unsupported by either horse artillery or infantry). At Lützen (1813), despite infantry and light artillery support, Allied cavalry charges failed to break green French troops. Similarly, impressive infantry efforts were seen at Jena-Auerstedt (1806), Pultusk (1806), Fuentes de Oñoro (1811) and first Battle of Krasnoi (August 14, 1812). If a square was broken, as happened at Rio Seco (1808), the infantry could suffer many casualties, although brave and well-disciplined infantry could recover even from this disaster.
Breaking a square
Attacking cavalry would attempt to “break a square” by causing it to lose its cohesion, either by charging to induce poorly disciplined infantry to flee before making contact, or by causing casualties through close-range combat (see above).
Cavalry charges were made in closely packed formations, and were often aimed at the corners of the square (the weakest points of the formation.) Feints and false attacks would also be used to make the infantry “throw away their fire” by causing them to fire too early. However, if the infantrymen were well-disciplined and held their ground, the cavalryman’s dream to “ride a square into red ruin” would not be realized, and such an event was the exception rather than the rule in the history of warfare.
However, the most effective way to break a square was not by direct cavalry attack, but by the use of artillery. To be truly effective, such artillery fire had to be delivered at close range. A 20-metre wide infantry square was a small and difficult target for field artillery firing from within or just in front of its own army’s lines, typically 600 or more metres away, at which range most rounds could be expected to miss. Instead, the attackers would usually try to deploy horse artillery accompanying the cavalry. The presence of the cavalry would cause the infantry to form square, but the closely packed infantrymen would then become targets for the artillery – the cohesion of the square would break under their fire, making it much easier for the cavalry to press home the attack.
Combined attacks by infantry and cavalry would also have the same effect – the defending infantry unit would be placed in the difficult position of either forming square and being shot to pieces by the attacking infantry (which would usually be in line formation), or being ridden down by the cavalry if it decided to remain in line while trading volleys with the attacking infantry.
In addition, if the cavalry could catch an infantry unit before it formed square properly, the horsemen could usually inflict severe casualties, if not destroy the unit completely. Quatre Bras (1815) saw several examples of this, with several British units being surprised at close range by French cavalry hidden by the terrain. Other circumstances that could lead to a successful cavalry attack included sudden rainstorms soaking the infantry’s gunpowder and effectively reducing their weapons to very short pikes, or a mortally wounded horse in full gallop crashing into the square, opening a gap that could be exploited, as happened at the battle of Garcia Hernandez, shortly after Salamanca (1812).
The square continued in use into the late 19th century by European armies against irregular warriors in colonial actions. However, this was different in form from the Napoleonic formation:
“The new square was not simply infantry in static defence but a large, close-packed formation of some 1,000 to 1,500 men, capable of slow movement with ranks of infantry or cavalry forming the four sides and artillery, wheeled machine guns, transport carts, baggage animals and their handlers in the centre. Such a square could only survive where the enemy were without modern firearms.”
At the Battle of Custoza during the Third Italian War of Independence Italian bersaglieri formed squares at Villafranca to defend themselves from charging Austrian uhlans.
European colonial use
n a large battle of the colonial wars, a British square held out for two days in a remote area near Lake Victoria, fighting off assaults by French-armed native troops until reinforcements arrived.
On the 7th of February 1857, during the Anglo-Persian War, Indian cavalry successfully attacked and broke a Persian square in the Battle of Khushab. Only twenty of the five hundred soldiers in the square escaped.
During the Anglo-Zulu War, after the Battle of Isandlwana where the Zulu nation’s warriors overwhelmed the British colonial force’s poorly fortified linear formation positioning, infantry squares were used in most major battles such as Gingindlovu and the climatic Battle of Ulundi to counter their enemy’s massed charges.
Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Fuzzy-Wuzzy” refers to two battles in the Mahdist War, Tamai in 1884 and Abu Klea in 1885, where infantry squares were used by the victorious British. While in both battles the squares were partially broken, British losses remained very low in comparison with the losses of the attacking Mahdists.
In 1936, during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, the advancing Italians formed an infantry square to defend against a possible Ethiopian counter-attack in the Battle of Shire. No counter-attack was launched.
Use outside of Europe
During the American Civil War the infantry square was only used on a few occasions, the most notable of these being the Thirty-Second Indiana Volunteer Infantry at the Battle of Rowlett’s Station, December 17, 1861 against Terry’s Texas Rangers; a Colorado Volunteer company formed square when charged by lancers of the 5th Texas Mounted Rifles at the Battle of Valverde on February 21, 1862.
On other occasions such as at the Battles of Gettysburg and Chickamauga cavalry units feinted as if preparing to charge to force advancing infantry to halt their advance and form square.
In 1867, one of the first battles of the U.S. 10th Cavalry was the Battle of the Saline River. This battle occurred 25 miles northwest of Fort Hays in Kansas near the end of August 1867.
Captain George Armes, Company F, 10th Cavalry, while following an active trail along the Saline River were surrounded by about 400 horse-mounted Cheyenne warriors. Armes formed a defensive “hollow square” with the cavalry mounts in the middle. Seeking better defensive ground, Armes walked his command while maintaining the defensive square.
After 8 hours of combat, 2,000 rounds of defensive fire and 15 miles of movement, the Cheyenne disengaged and withdrew. Company F, without reinforcements, concluded 113 miles of movement during the 30 hour patrol, riding the final 10 miles back to Fort Hays with only one trooper killed in action. Captain Armes commented later, “It is the greatest wonder in the world that my command escaped being massacred.” Armes credited his officers for a “… devotion to duty and coolness under fire.”
In 1869, during the Paraguayan War in South America, the Paraguayan defenders formed a square towards the end of the Battle of Acosta Ñu. This square was formed too late and was broken by the Brazilian cavalry.
The square fell out of use in the late 19th century with the advent of modern repeating firearms (which made concentrated formations risky in the face of increased firepower), along with the parallel decline of horse cavalry.
Sauced from Wikipedia