Eighteenth Century Warfare
James Mc Intyre
The conduct of war in the eighteenth century stands as a subject that is often misunderstood, and as a result oversimplified and misrepresented. The types of forces and the tactics utilized by belligerents in this period only vaguely resemble their modern counterparts. This slight similarity has led some to force modern concepts on the military forces of the eighteenth century, with the result that the forces of the eighteenth century come out looking fairly comical at best. By the same token, there exists a desire among many historians to force the tenets of the enlightenment—reason and classical balance—onto the manner in which conflicts during the period were conducted. Certainly, to some extent these intellectual forces played a role. It was in the eighteenth century that the various armies in Europe, and eventually in the fledgling American Republic began to develop an ethic of professionalism in their respective officer corps. Likewise, officers began to take the study of warfare seriously as an intellectual pursuit. Technology, however, stamped a far greater imprint onto how wars were fought in the period, both on land and on the seas. It is in distinguishing between the different forces that shaped conflict during this period that students often become confused. In addition, without some explanation of the manner in which armies and navies fought, their tactics can appear as foolish and wasteful of both human and material resources. The following work will present a brief overview of the various types of troops, their weapons and how the armies of the time employed each of them in land warfare in both eighteenth century Europe and North America. Western Europe is included since their methods of prosecuting combat set a blueprint for the ideas concerning warfare that many Europeans brought with them across the Atlantic. At the same time, a number of European conventions were drastically altered to meet the new conditions and challenges, specifically the terrain and the opponents that colonists faced when they came to North America.
In describing the land warfare of the period, the following will first describe the three basic arms of the militaries of the period. These included the infantry, artillery and cavalry. It will then present a brief description of the manner in which they fought. There follows some discussion of the growth in professionalism in the armies of the period, predominantly among their officer corps. Finally, the work includes a short bibliography of major titles on the subject to provide a resource for further exploration.
Before proceeding, it is necessary to provide a note on citation. This work follows the Chicago Style for citation. The standard methods used at Moraine Valley Community College are the MLA and APA. For research papers in this class, the MLA is the preferred and accepted style. The Chicago Style is the method employed by the historical discipline and is therefore used here for conformity and in order to present students with some exposure to that method of crediting information.
The primary type of soldier, and the one that comprised the overwhelming majority of the armies in Western Europe and North America during this period was the infantryman. The infantry dominated these armies to such an extent that they were dubbed the queen of battles. These men were essentially foot soldiers, in that they walked to battle and fought on foot. All infantry, however, were not the same. Even in the eighteenth century, there were different types of what we would refer to as specialist troops who were tasked with performing different missions on the battlefield. The three dominant types of infantry used in Europe as well as North America at this time were the grenadiers, regulars and light infantry. In North America, another type of infantry developed as well, the rangers. Each of these will receive attention in turn.
The basic organizational unit for armies in the eighteenth century was the regiment or battalion. (In this period, both terms were used interchangeably). The regiment consisted of ten companies of roughly 100 men when up to full strength. Thus, it would equal a force of roughly 1,000 officers and men. It should be noted that regiments were rarely ever at full strength, especially during peacetime. The two main reasons for under strength units were the economies of the various states and the greed of the regimental officers. (Many regiments were still considered the property of their colonels, a practice that dated back to the end of the Middle Ages.)
Each regiment contained a portion of all three types of infantry. The bulk of the regiment consisted of regulars, who usually comprised about eight companies. The grenadiers usually made up one company and shortly after the middle of the century, most European states began supplementing them with light companies.
The original purpose of the grenadiers was to hurl small, hand-held grenades into the trenches of an opponent’s army, which resulted in their name. The men selected for this duty tended to be the physically larger and more robust of the recruits. Their physical stature was deemed necessary in order to perform the battlefield service required of them. As time went on, they were used less to throw grenades and more as shock troops. They were often recognized as heavy infantry.
Light companies, on the other hand, began to be introduced into European armies about midway through the eighteenth century. Essentially, their introduction resulted from the varieties of fighting Europeans encountered on the fringes of the continent and in North America. Here, lightly armed, more mobile troops inflicted heavy casualties on the more cumbersome infantry of the early part of the century. Likewise, these experience of fighting Native Americans in North America achieved much the same result in that Europeans and colonists recognized the necessity of having more lightly armed troops capable of fighting in open formations and fast pursuit. This need gave rise to the light infantry, who carried less equipment overall, and were designed to fight in more lose formations. (See tactics)
Both the light infantry and grenadiers were commonly referred to as flank companies, as they were often lined up on the flanks of their parent regiment. On active service, these companies were often separated from their parent regiments and brigaded together with like troops from other regiments in order to form task forces for special missions.
Due to the different terrain and demands of fighting Native Americans, a fourth type of infantry developed in North America. These were known as rangers, since they ‘ranged’ or patrolled over large areas of land engaged in hit and run raids on their opponents. (See tactics). These men often mimicked the dress and deployments of Native Americans. Unlike the other types of infantry described above, rangers were often recruited and served in companies. Their mission revolved essentially around two goals, preventing raids on frontier settlements by Native American war parties, and taking the offensive against these opponents.
The second major type of unit involved in eighteenth century land warfare was the artillery. The artillery consisted of smooth bore canon and mortars of various sizes. The canon were rated according to the weight of the solid iron ball they fired across the field at an opposing army. The types of canon that most often saw service on the battlefield of the eighteenth century were three, six, and twelve pounder guns. There were larger weapons, such as eighteen and twenty-four pounders. These were generally reserved, however, for use in battering down the walls of towns and fortifications in siege operations. On very rare occasions they were pressed into service on the battlefield, however, this practice constituted the exception rather than the rule. Lastly, there were howitzers, such as the one pictured to the rear in the above illustration. These were used for firing solid shot or explosives at high trajectories to get them over an opponents walls or field fortifications.
As is the case in modern warfare, artillery in the eighteenth century fired a variety of different types of projectiles that were designed to achieve different results. The types of ammunition ran the gamut from solid iron shot, to in a pinch, anything that could be forced down the muzzle of the piece, such as chains, nails, or even simply bits of broken iron.
Most often in land warfare, however, canons fired either round shot or canister. Round shot was the solid iron ball whose weight designated the caliber of the gun, and in were no larger in size than a baseball or softball. Artillerists of the period would attempt to skip the solid ball across the battlefield, much like skipping a stone across a pond. While moving at velocity, the ball would go through anything unfortunate enough to fall in its path. Even when most of the energy had dissipated from these projectiles, they could still be quite dangerous. Even if you get hit by a slow moving twelve pound bowling ball, you have still been hit by a twelve pound bowling ball!
Canister shot constituted the other form of artillery ammunition most routinely utilized on the battlefield. Canister was simply an iron or tin casing, roughly the size of a modern one pound coffee can. It was packed with gun powder and roughly 50 to 100 small projectiles. When the canon was fired, the can exploded, showering the area in front of the muzzle with these projectiles to the distance of roughly 150 yards. Thus, in effect, transforing the canon into a huge shotgun firing a load of buckshot.
One other type of artillery occasionally used on the battlefield in the eighteenth century, but more often reserved for siege warfare, was the mortar (See figure 2). This fired a hollow, explosive packed shell at a high angle in order to get over the walls of a town, fort or entrenchment. Often times, these shells were loaded with incendiaries. The purpose most often stood in setting fire to a target, such as buildings in a town for instance. Mortars could be utilized on the battlefield as well, to fire explosive shells at the defensive works of enemy troops.
During the eighteenth century, artillery was usually interspersed with the infantry in order to provide moral support to the troops. Many leaders believed that the sound and flash of the guns bolstered their men’s courage. At the same time, it dispered the fire of the artillery, making it less effective against enemy troops. The use of concentrated artillery fire to create a breach in an opponent’s line, or simply to break their will to fight was first truly employed on a large scale by Napoleon Bonaparte.
The last major component of the land forces participating in the warfare of the eighteenth century was the cavalry. These were mounted troops, the descendants of Medieval knights, sometimes literally. As with the infantry, there were several different types of cavalry. These were differentiated by the tasks they were designated to perform on the battlefield. By the same token, cavalry was used to a much larger extent in Europe than in North America, due to differences in the terrain and in the types of conflict prevalent in the two areas.
In the most general terms, there were three types of cavalry, heavy, medium and light. In battle, they played one of two important roles. Either they supported the infantry or engaged the cavalry of their opponent. They performed these functions mainly on the flanks of the opposing armies. If one side broke, the cavalry of the opposing side was tasked with riding down the fleeing infantry men, thus turning the defeat into a rout. In the broader sense of the campaign, the cavalry units mounted guards and also protected or even took part in foraging parties. These were small detachments sent out form the main force to gather supplies. In addition, they served as escorts for officers, especially couriers, and conducted raids. Raids served a double purpose, to keep the enemy off balance, and to gather information as to the location, numbers and the types of troops of an enemy.
Heavy cavalry consisted mainly of cuirassier. These were direct descendants of the knights of the middle ages, and they still wore steel breast-plates and donned steel helmets. The weight of these men’s equipment required that they be larger in stature, and the same could be said of their horses. Their principal service on the battlefield stood in engaging the mounted troops of the enemy.
The medium cavalry were known as dragoons. They began as mounted infantry, and would ride to the field of battle, then dismount and participate in the fighting as infantry. Dragoons were therefore equipped with shorter muskets referred to as carbines, however, they carried swords as well. They rode middle size horses, and their uniforms often resembled those of the infantry more than those of other cavalrymen, thus hinting at their origins. Depending on the national army of the period, these troops served more predominantly as infantry or as cavalry. The cuirassier and the dragoons represented the bulk of the European general’s mobile strike units on the battlefield.
The hussars were the chief form of light cavalry. These troops descended from the mounted raiders of the Hungarian regions of the Holy Roman Empire. In recognition of the valuable services of these troops to the Austrians in the Seven Years’ War,
numerous other nations began to mimic these horsemen, down to the details of their uniforms. Their classic role was that of raiding and intelligence gathering. Both of these missions required speed and agility, from both horse and rider, so their mounts tended to be lighter, and the men somewhat smaller of stature, especially when compared with cuirassiers.
Over the latter half of the eighteenth century, there developed a number of other types of cavalry. These included such forces as light dragoons, chevaux legers, chasseurs a cheval, lancers, and so on. As the noted military historian of the period Christopher Duffy observed, more than anything, these additional varieties of cavalry “helped to satisfy a demand for fancy uniforms and titles and to make use of horses which were too light for service with the cuirassiers and dragoons.”
For the most part, North America lacked the type of open terrain most useful for cavalry engagements. The use of mounted troops in that region was minimal to say the least. Most mounted troops in North America served as scouts and in raids.
In order to draw all of the preceding information together, it is appropriate to discus how combatants fought battles in the eighteenth century. This leads directly into a discussion of tactics. Simply put, tactics are the methods utilized by either side in order to defeat an opponent on the battlefield. This differs significantly from strategy, which is the overall plan for winning the war. To draw a simple differentiation, strategy is usually the realm of political leaders, while tactics are under the direct control of the military commanders. Most military thinking in the eighteenth century revolved around these two central concepts.
Infantry tactics in Europe were linear in nature. Men would form in rows by their respective companies, with the standard formation being three ranks deep. At the word of
command, they would discharge their muskets in unison presenting a massed volley of fire to their opponents. Most of the firing took place at the distance of roughly sixty yards. This method of delivering fire developed in order to compensate for the severe inaccuracy of the weapons the men carried.
The standard infantry sidearm of the eighteen the century was the smoothbore musket. These were roughly five feet in length, and weighed approximately ten pounds. The ammunition was a .69 to .75 caliber round ball, weighing one ounce, or 16 to the pound of lead.
Due to the inaccuracies of the smoothbore musket, the troops crossing the battlefield on the offensive remained relatively free from casualties until they reached a point eighty to one hundred yards from their objective. The contest then devolved into a confrontation of wills, as the attackers had to hold their fire for the next fifteen seconds of so necessary to reach a point that roughly fifty yards from the opposition. This was the range known as point blank, for here artillery could fire at zero elevation. The attacking infantry would then deliver their first volley at the defenders, reloading their muskets as they resumed the advance. They may deliver one or two more volleys into the defenders, depending on the amount of distance remaining between the two opposing sides.
As the two sides closed, the artillery of the attackers may be used at long range to inflict some damage on the defenders. The sight and noise of the cannons would also bolster the morale of the attacking force. Likewise, the artillery of the defenders would be brought to bear to cut through the ranks of the attacking force. When the defenders reached approximately 150 yards, they may even be subjected to the withering fire of canister (see above).
Finally, when both sides were close enough, they would settle the issue with their bayonets. These were eighteen inch long, blunt tipped, triangular weapons that left a vicious puncture wound in the body of their victim. It was a brute force weapon. This was the prescribed method of bringing an infantry confrontation to its climax as described in much of the military literature of the period.
It should be understood that the entire purpose of the contest to this point was not so much to kill the soldiers of the opposing army as to break their will to remain on the battlefield. An infantryman took between five and seven years to fully train, according to the dictates of the period, thus they stood as a valuable commodity, and not one to be thrown away frivolously. Still, this being said, casualties could run as high as twenty percent in some of the more violent encounters.
When one side lost its cohesion or their will to remain on the battlefield, they would begin to withdrawal. This is often when the cavalry were brought in to exploit the confusion of the retreat. In theory, the victors would use their cavalry to attempt to turn the defeat of their opponents into a rout. By the same time, the defeated side would bring in their cavalry to cover the withdrawal. Often times, however, both sides were too exhausted by this point engage in further activity. The victors were too mauled to mount a pursuit of the vanquished. Likewise, the defeated force thought mainly of covering their retreat.
One effect of the enlightenment on warfare came in the form of a burgeoning professional ethos among many European and North American military officers during the eighteenth century. This development is borne out by two factors. One is the number of professional military publications and the other is the proliferation of military schools.
The proliferation of military schools is a well documented fact. The Royal academy at Sandhurst was founded in …. Likewise, the artillery school at Brienne, whose most famous student would be Napoleon Bonaparte was founded in. even North America was not immune form this trend. Robert Rogers, the famed leader of rangers in the French and Indian War (1754-1763) founded a school for rangers. Among the more well-known graduates from this academy of backwoods warfare was William Howe.
With regards to the military literature of the period, there occurred a positive explosion of titles in French, English and German. These guidebooks covered every aspect of military affairs from the movements of artillery, infantry and cavalry to the proper layout of a military camp. Even the hallmark work of the enlightenment, the Encyclopedie contained literally hundreds of entries on military topics.
Finally, the above should be considered as a series of general statements. The eighteenth century encompassed a remarkable variety of military experiences, much the same as any other age. The period witnessed major changes in the art of war as well. Technology advanced and battlefield tactics altered to accommodate these innovations.
 Christopher Duffy, The Art of War in the Age of Reason, 116-117.
 I use approximations in the preceding in order to account for the variance in weapons across the European continent, as well as modifications made in North America.
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Articles: Mc Intyre, James R. “Bringing Order to Chaos: Military Works of the Eighteenth Century Considered as Enlightenment Literature.” in Seven Years’ War Association Journal vol. 13, no. 3(Summer 2004): 66-74. Powers, Sandra L. “Studying the Art of War: Military Books Known to American Officers and their French Counterparts During the Second Half of the eighteenth Century.” in Journal of Military History vol. 70, no. 3(July 2006): 781-814.