Why were soldiers of the eighteenth and nineteenth century willing to fight in line formations?
Updated: Mar 11, 2019
When thinking of the battles that ravaged Europe and America during the eighteenth century, many of us picture opposing lines of musket bearing infantry, each one waiting for their commander to shout "fire!" so they can release their deadly volley of lead.
The bravery displayed by these men was nothing short of extraordinary. But how could soldiers tolerate something like this? Why didn't they lay down on the ground, or at the very least try to take cover? The truth is, they did. Or at least try. Commanders would use a variety of horrifying tactics to enforce discipline.
In the case of the French at Waterloo, each row was kept on the march by the pressed bayonets of those behind them. If they stopped, they would get stabbed, whether accidentally or intentionally. The constant marching meant that soldiers had no time to stop. Comrades who were lying on the floor, injured or dead, were simply stepped over¹.
Officers would often shout words of encouragement or threats to the marching men. And sometimes resorted to physically shoving them or using the flat side of their blade to prone them forward.
Soldiers often consoled themselves with the fact that their chances of dying were quite low. Muskets were incredibly inaccurate at the time. Just reloading them could take over half a minute. The volleys would then cause a puff of smoke, concealing the soldiers and making results unpredictable.
Even then, lines would often only hold for a very short time. Nervous, unskilled soldiers would start firing indiscriminately, formations would rapidly break down as soldiers ducked or ran for cover. This could often lead to devastating results, as they made the soldiers prone to Calvary attacks.
Skirmishers, soldiers who fought in a open skirmish formation, were used as well. Their small numbers and open formation gave them much better mobility, allowing them to launch surprise attacks and take better advantage of the terrain, such as taking cover behind trees or walls.
However such units were hard to coordinate. They were often vulnerable to Calvary attacks, and were poor at defending and taking ground.
Below is an eyewitness account of Garret Watts, an American foot soldier who was part of a line formation in the battle of Camden (1780). His telling of the battle perfectly displays the confusion and fear of the soldiers who had to face the jaws of death.²
“I well remember everything that occurred the next morning. I remember that I was among the nearest to the enemy, that a man named John Summers was my file leader, that we had orders to wait for the word to commence firing, that the (British) militia were in front and in a feeble condition at that time. They were fatigued. The weather was warm excessively. They had been fed a short time previously on molasses entirely. I can state on oath that I believe my gun was the first gun fired, notwithstanding the orders, for we were close to the enemy, who appeared to maneuver in contempt of us, and I fired without thinking except that I might prevent the man opposite from killing me. The discharge and loud roar soon became general from one end of the lines to the other. Amongst other things, I confess I was amongst the first that fled. The cause of that I cannot tell, except that everyone I saw was about to do the same. It was instantaneous. There was no effort to rally, no encouragement to fight. Officers and men joined in the flight. I threw away my gun, and, reflecting I might be punished for being found without arms, I picked up a drum, which gave forth such sounds when touched by the twigs I cast it away. When we had gone, we heard the roar of guns still, but we knew not why. Had we known, we might have returned. It was that portion of the army commanded by de Kalb fighting still. De Kalb was killed. General Dickson was wounded in the neck and a great many killed and wounded even on the first firing. After this defeat, many of the dispersed troops proceeded to Hillsboro in North Carolina. I obtained a furlough from General Dickson and had permission to return home a short time. This last tour was for the space of three months and truly laborious.”