Written by Antony Mason
The armies of the Napoleonic Wars were made up of three complementary branches: infantry, cavalry and artillery. Each had its individual role, but each needed the support of the others to win battles. The infantry used muskets, which were notoriously inaccurate, and effective only to about 100m: to compensate for this, infantrymen needed to be massed in lines, two or three deep, to create a thick volume of fire. But lines were vulnerable to cavalry charges, so to advance in open ground the infantry formed columns 30 or so deep; here, though, only the outer ranks had the free space to fire their weapons. Columns were also very vulnerable to artillery: a cannonball could mow down an entire row of 30 men. So the infantry advanced in columns, then fanned out into lines to go into combat. If under attack from cavalry, they could quickly form ‘squares’, actually rectangles, four men deep on each side, with the two or three back rows firing muskets and the front row kneeling with fixed bayonets pointing outwards.
Horses would not charge squares and cavalrymen could not reach into them to attack them. Infantry squares were almost unassailable by cavalry: however, like marching columns, they could suffer mass casualties from artillery. The artillery fired solid cannonballs (roundshot), or fused and exploding shells, or ‘canister’ (tins or leather pouches filled with about 85 iron balls, loosely referred to as ‘grapeshot’), which was particularly deadly in close action against cavalry and infantry. Light cannons were drawn up by horse artillery especially to get close to the action. Artillery teams were vulnerable to enemy cannon fire, to cavalry charges and infantry attack.
The infantry on both sides used smoothbore, muzzle-loaded muskets. Their ammunition came in paper cartridges containing gunpowder and a lead musket ball about the size of a large marble. To load his musket, the infantryman bit off the end of the cartridge, put a small pinch of gunpowder into the priming pan next to the trigger, then tipped the rest of the gunpowder down the upended barrel, followed by the musket ball and the cartridge paper (to serve as the ‘wad’, to hold the ball in), all of which was then pushed home with the iron ramrod. When he pulled the trigger, the flint (literally a chip of stone flint) slammed forward and sparked the gunpowder, which ignited the gunpowder in the barrel to fire off the musket ball. A trained infantryman could fire a musket two or more times in a minute. If he did not have time to reload, he could fight hand-to-hand using the bayonet fixed to the tip of his musket.
More accurate rifles (which had rifling in the barrel to spin the ball) were used by specialist rifle brigades; they could hit a target at 200m, although rifles took longer to load. Armed with rifles or muskets, trained ‘light infantry’ marksmen called skirmishers (voltigeurs or tirailleurs in French) went ahead of the lines and attacking columns to fight independently, picking off officers, non-commissioned officers and the drummers signalling their commands.
(Photo: © Joseph Jeanmart/Whybelgium.co.uk)
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