Marlborough’s Hero’s part 3: School of the Soldier.

So shall we go back to the 18th Century today?

 Before you can join your regiment properly you have to learn how to march and use your weapon. At the depot you will be kitted out, possibly with fallen men’s uniforms, appropriately stitched up of course! And given a crash course in how to march in the regulation step, in line with other recruits, if you don’t know your right from your left then a piece of straw will be tied to one or the other leg or wrist, to help you learn the difference. Once you have the semblance of what its like to stand and walk, having had the beggarly habits of civilian life given a good firm punch in the solar plexus you are taught how to carry the musket, and probably a few basic motions, the care of the weapon is also taught to you, after all the Colonel of the Regiment has put allot of money into putting the best available into your hands, in this case they are a mix of 42 inch .68 calibre English fire and dog lock muskets.

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Doglock musket

Reproduction of an English Doglock Musket.

For better for worse you have been sworn in by the local magistrate and have are a newly enlisted soldier. You march to join your regiment and have arrived. Battalions of the Queen’s infantry did not get designated barrack’s on a large scale until the and of the 19th century. Until then, there was an uneven ratio of regiment to building. Instead the citizens of the countryside where often called upon to billet troops. Whole regiments would descend on towns and villages of a county or shire, sometimes spread over large areas by companies and living in the houses of the inhabitants.

French recruits off to join their regiment. Painting after Antoine Watteau.

French recruits off to join their regiment. Painting after Antoine Watteau.

You go from the depot where you have been kitted out with the red coat, cartouches and haversack, hose, shirts and other “Necessaries” that has rather diminished your two pounds bounty, with the other new recruits as a party lead by the men who recruited you (who will get a little bounty for brining you in, as you will also if you bring someone else) to ——–ton in —–shire which at this moment Captain —–ley’s company of Col —–mores (–th) Foot are billeted.

 

The amount and nature of drill that men like Fleet got could vary widely, and books on the regulations of drill were variable in mode and quality, hard bitten yet genteel veteran officers and

British company officer with spontoon

British company officer with spontoon.

NCOs, who had perhaps fought at Maastricht and Steinkirk, perhaps even Sedgemoor, might have written their own treatise’s and paid handsomely for a good artist to render drawings, but the widespread use of such articles would probably be confined to battalion use, you of course benefit from this system for better for worse.

It is just a fact that there was no standardized drill book available to the officers of Marlborough’s army, there was not a David Dundas’ manual of maneuver, or a regulated arms manual, Clothes and equipment was, as we have seen, supplied by the Colonel’s of the regiments whose personal taste would have a great deal to do with everything depending on how seriously he took his investment. Remember there are three sets of colours in Marlborough’s army, the Queen’s Colour, the English or Scottish flag and the Regimental (Colonel’s) Colour displaying the facing colour and usually his own coat of arms, in those colours are your Regimental loyalties represented. Therefore there was no such thing as a standard drill for anything, nor was there a really modern book reflecting the changing modes of tactics, for instance the 1690 book still had the motions for pike drills, and learning the use of the musket required a soldier to memorise a sequence 44 moves long.

Reenactors portraying pikemen of the 1690s

Reenactors portraying pikemen of the 1690s

You soon find out that company commanders are usually a good bunch, some much sterner than you would imagine, who look not only to the discipline and drill of their men but to their religious health as well. You are turned out in light cartouches and put through your paces in the evenings, you would be taught to march and counter march, form lines and columns and obey the rules or take the consequences. Once company level drills are done with, you graduate to battalion drills, who wouldn’t be thrilled to see over five hundred men forming that intimidating red wall, the six by six foot silk stands of colours floating in the breeze over the town common or heath where the regimental musters take place outside ——ton.

 

But there the grades of drilling stop, for emphasis in the army is placed on company and battalion effectiveness nothing higher. The army was stymied by the public and governments disdain and distrust for large numbers of organised armed men to be gathered in one place, precedents of the misuse of field days were there to see, General Monk took the regiments of the army garrisoning Scotland and paved the way for the Restoration by marching on London and King James II was deposed for among other things, being a little too fond of keeping large bodies of men concentrated on Salisbury Plain. Whereas in the French army large field days were a usual thing, with thousands of men drilling in brigades, parliament was wary of large gatherings and did not allow them to happen. So apart from a regimental basis there was virtually nil preparation for large manoeuvres and it is a testament to the men as well as the officers how they managed to control their formations in battle and obey those commands.

 

The firing drills suffered similarly for lack of a basic manual, but in this, apart from a few inter regimental differences differed little, once in battle the idea was fairly straight forward.

From either the ‘order’ or the ‘slope/shoulder’ positions the musket (preferably loaded) would be brought to the ‘present’ upon which time the muskets would be levelled towards the enemy, and on ‘fire’ they discharge them, you are told to fire low and if necessary close your eyes and don’t try to be clever and aim, nice and simple, over and over again you are drilled in how to do it, until a robotic quality pervades every motion from command to execution and that is exactly how it is supposed to be.

 Fixing bayonets was essential for close quarter defence and although not a new idea, by 1700 the new 16” or 17” triangular section socket bayonets had been introduced to all regiments of the army, removing the need for pikemen, supposedly this was done by by General Hugh Mackay after the plug bayonet failed so spectacularly to stop the Highland charge at Killiekrankie. Now in as little as four moves, having heard the spine tingling

British triangular section socket bayonet.

British triangular section socket bayonet.

rattle and scrape of the company or battalion slotting them into place, you have the capability to defend against cavalry and fight hand to hand with infantry, likewise you will have been thoroughly instructed on how to “Charge” it and “Push” it like a pike, disembowelling a good many grain sacks by the time you are through. Reloading was probably what took the most time, which involved opening the pan/priming your firelock, casting about to charge, drawing your cartridge, biting your cartridge, priming your musket, loading musket, handling your musket, drawing your scouring stick (for we still call the ramrod which is wooden at the moment not metal, a scouting stick) shortening your scouring stick, putting in the barrel, ramming home, returning your scouring stick, and probably a few I have left out for space. In battle and on parade these commands could simply be shortened to ‘load’ and it would be done, that was for the lucky, in a worst case scenario a recruit would be given his kit, a crash course in training and sent to Flanders to learn on the job.

 

The Plug Bayonet failed at Killiekranckie.

The Plug Bayonet failed at Killiekranckie.

In terms of regimental firing in England it was done not by ranks or battalion salvoes, but by platoons. Now this was before General Wolfe’s reorganization of the technique into ‘grand divisions’ and was a little more complicated.

Ever since the muskets invention, theorists had strived to achieve a faster rate of fire, this was first achieved by paper cartridges and flintlock mechanisms, but also by the depth of the line and thus how fast a regiment could volley, there were no two line formations in these early days (indeed three ranks was thin for the time), so theoretically in the space of a few seconds a body of say 500 men could have fired three times or more without ever being left with an entire line of unlaoded muskets.

But Platoon Firing was what the British Infantry did, and they did it well. When faced with enemy action the regiment gave front and lined up three deep. Immediately officers would separated their men into platoons, 1st Firing platoons, 2nd Firing platoons and 3rd Firing platoons, these were tactical formations and not standard formations that would act independently.

Shall we have a small example Colonel, if it isn’t too much trouble, Oh thank you that is most obliging of you, stellar chap this fellow you know. Now in the case of Colonel —-mores a regiment there are ten companies, each company would be divided into three platoons and on the command give fire the first firing platoon in all ten companies would fire, then the second and then the third. Fire control was such that the rate of platoon firing could even be tailored to fit the situation, in an experienced regiment, the order for the second and third firings to discharge could be delayed for half a minute so that by which time they had blazed away the first firing would have reloaded and ready, this would create a constant rolling fire that did not let up.

The novelty of this life, being cooped up in billet with your resentful landlords who, who extort money from you for this and that (for it will be a while before they are compensated) who think you are a lout and are mistrustful of your every step, the endless drills punctuated by a field day or a live firing exercise at the expense of the captain or colonel,  soon loose their appeal, but though of course you beign a dedicated career soldier take it in the proper spirit, some of your comrades begin to make trouble and consequences have to be meted out and taken.

Hope you will pardon Spelling errors, I will not be an editor any time soon, thanks for reading, please stop by again for another Adventure in historyland. 

Josh

Sources:

Blenheim Preparation, David Chandler.
Blenheim Battle for Europe, Charles Spencer.
Blenheim the Duke of Marlborough’s masterpiece, John Tincey.
Weapons & equipment of the Marlborough wars, Anthony Kempt
Marlborough England’s fragile genius, Richard Holmes.
Marlborough’s army 1702-1711, Michael Barthorp.
Marlborough’s Sieges, James Falkner.
Marlborough, Corelli Barnett.
Diary of Colonel John Blackadder.
The complete art of self defence by McBane via Highland swordsmanship, Mark Rector.
English army lists & commission registers, 1661 – 1714, Charles Dalton.
The life and adventures of Matthew Bishop of Deddington in Oxfordshire.
Marlborough, Angus Konstam.
Marlborough his life & times vol 2, Sir Winston Churchill.

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