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Author Topic: British rifle company question  (Read 1143 times)

Offline olicana

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British rifle company question
« on: August 11, 2022, 10:00:54 AM »
Can anyone tell me how individual detached companies of riflemen (those attached to line brigades) actually deployed. I know how they operated in larger groupings, with the light division, but not as detached companies.

Did they deploy as a company, as a singular length of the brigade's skirmish line; or were they split up into smaller groups and spread across the entire front (attached, in small groups, to the light bob companies of the line battalions?) of the brigade's skirmish line?

Thanks in advance.

Online Cubs

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Re: British rifle company question
« Reply #1 on: August 11, 2022, 10:24:24 AM »
If you're talking Napoleonic era, despite what Sharpe tells us, British battalions didn't have rifle companies. There were rifle regiments (the 95th, the 60th) and light companies (armed with muskets like the rest of the battalion) but from memory I think the King's German Legion were the only ones who had some rifle companies in line battalions.

My understanding is that, in theory the light companies were available as skirmishers to the fore of the rest of the battalion, and no doubt they often performed in this way. But it was also very common in large engagements to amalgamate the light companies into a battalion - they were pretty flexible. From memory again, the rifle regiments were very often split into smaller formations for specific tasks and unlike the musket-armed skirmishers, who often worked in pairs, they were grouped into 4, because they were expected to put in an aimed shot (perhaps with a target spotter) then reload the rifle (which took longer) and still have at least one man in the group alert for threats with a loaded rifle ready at all times. 
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Offline Baron von Wreckedoften

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Re: British rifle company question
« Reply #2 on: August 11, 2022, 10:50:20 AM »
.....but from memory I think the King's German Legion were the only ones who had some rifle companies in line battalions.

Your memory is good!  The light company of a typical KGL Line Battalion was split into two platoons, of which one was musket-armed and the other armed with rifles (ie red-coated riflemen!).  The KGL 2nd Light Battalion also had a mix of rifle- and musket-armed men - the ratio of 1 rifle to 2 or 3 muskets suggests itself, but I may be mistaken.  However, I think that by the time of Waterloo almost the whole battalion was rifle-armed (the KGL 1st Light Battalion was almost entirely rifle-armed when it arrived in the Peninsula, and wholly so soon after).  Unfortunately, I can't recall off-hand how the two groups were organised - whether they were split within each company, or divided into separate companies.  Either way, this had been a common Germanic practice with rifle-armed troops since their first introduction, in order to provide protection for the slower-loading rifles. 

In fact, this was also true historically of British troops - during the AWI, British light companies included half a dozen "sharpshooters" with Tower rifles, and when the light companies were removed from their parent regiments and formed into Light Battalions, all the riflemen were pulled out of their companies and formed into a distinct platoon under a subaltern.  This platoon would lead the way on the march, with the musket-armed duty light company of the day supporting them.  Possibly because their War Minister had been a senior Loyalist officer during the AWI, the Bavarians adopted a similar process.  Prior to the 1811 reorganisation along French lines, each of the three fusilier and  one grenadier company in each battalion would deploy its third rank (50-60 men) as "schutzen", with one junior NCO and six men armed with rifles (who were called "scharfschutzen" - sharpshooters).  Occasionally, all of the schutzen detachments within a battalion, or even within an entire regiment (two battalions) would be joined together into an ad hoc light infantry formation and whenever this happened, the "scharfschutzen" of all the companies involved would be gathered into one group and used to take out enemy commanders etc.

From memory again, the rifle regiments were very often split into smaller formations for specific tasks and unlike the musket-armed skirmishers, who often worked in pairs, they were grouped into 4, because they were expected to put in an aimed shot (perhaps with a target spotter) then reload the rifle (which took longer) and still have at least one man in the group alert for threats with a loaded rifle ready at all times.

Given that it was extremely rare for riflemen in British service to operate completely independently of other troops, I suspect that there was usually plenty of musket-and-bayonet support to cover them.  Bear in mind that it wasn't just a question of time taken to re-load, but also the reach of the shorter rifle when forming square.
« Last Edit: August 11, 2022, 11:01:46 AM by Baron von Wreckedoften »
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Offline olicana

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Re: British rifle company question
« Reply #3 on: August 11, 2022, 05:39:29 PM »
As my OP stated, I was specifically referring to rifle companies attached to brigades. Sorry not to specify 'in the Peninsular'.

However, my question, cubs, despite your  condescending tone, is a valid one. You see, I know what was and wasn't attached to what, and Rifles were attached to Brigades and operated with the light bobs of the brigade's Line Battalions.

I also know that Wellington ordered his Brigades commanders, by way of standing orders, to organise their light coys. into almost permanent 'ad-hoc light battalions' so that they got used to operating together and could more easily fulfil their role as a Brigade level skirmish screen. In that effort, those brigades with ATTACHED RIFLE COYS from the 95th, 60th and Brunswick Oels Jagers (I know a high proportion of KGL Light Battalion were armed with muskets so I didn't ask about them, only the rifle armed units) would be part of that ad-hoc structure but I'm not sure how.

E.g. Salamanca OOB.

1 coy. 5/60 attached to Fermor's Brigade, 1st Division.
1 coy. Brunswick Oels Jagers attached to Pringles Brigade, 5th Division.
etc.

My question, I suppose - though it is pretty clear in the OP - should be: Given that each light company (from the brigade's line battalions) would have its assigned place in the brigade skirmish line (or there would be chaos), did the company of attached riflemen fight as a single part of the line, or did split into platoons (or smaller groups) each attached to a musket armed light company in the skirmish line to provide a smattering of rifles along the entire front.

Again, thanks.

P.S. It seems certain that Light Battalion KGL muskets outnumbered rifles by at least 2:1 in the Peninsular. I suspect they were, for housekeeping reasons, organised into separate companies - making distribution of two types of ammunition easier. If this is the case, it seems almost certain that the single light coy, KGL Light Infantry, Lowe's Brigade, 1st Division (at Fuentes de Onoro), was also a rifle company - 'specialists' like the rifle armed Brunswick Oels Jagers companies taken away from their 'Corps' to supply rifle armed contingents to the line brigades of line divisions.

The light companies of the KGL Line battalions, at Waterloo, were also armed with rifles, though I have no idea what they were armed with in the Peninsular. By this time rifles in the Light battalions outnumbered muskets by 3:2, more or less.

 
« Last Edit: August 11, 2022, 05:41:41 PM by olicana »

Online Cubs

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Re: British rifle company question
« Reply #4 on: August 11, 2022, 06:19:38 PM »
However, my question, cubs, despite your  condescending tone, is a valid one.

WTF?!!

Urm ... yeah, you're welcome.
« Last Edit: August 12, 2022, 10:00:29 AM by Cubs »

Offline IronDuke596

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Re: British rifle company question
« Reply #5 on: August 12, 2022, 09:47:24 PM »
Olicana; I did not read a "condescending tone" from 'Cubs'.

To answer your question; when operating with light infantry or light companies in a brigade skirmish screen, all of the rifles were deployed as skirmishers; "When as often occurred [in the Peninsula], riflemen were used as the extreme front line, they might all be committed to skirmishing if the light infantry of the following formation could act as their reserve. This was probably the best utilization of the special skills possessed by the rifle corps." Ref: British Rifleman: 1797-1815, Warrior 47, p. 30.

Otherwise, it was normal to keep 50% of skirmishers as a formed reserve, sixty paces out was the first line of skirmishers 25% (acting as an immediate reserve to the front line skirmishers) a further 80 paces out was the skirmish line 25%. " However the size of the reserve and the distances involved could be varied according to circumstances". Pages 27 to 43 give further tactical elements of rifles acting as skirmishers.

I hope that this answers your question.

P.S. Thanks for continuing to produce a great Blog

Offline Kevin

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Re: British rifle company question
« Reply #6 on: August 16, 2022, 06:56:53 AM »
Hi
While I respect the obvious depth of knowledge that many of you have displayed in your replies to the original post, I'm personally still not clear as to the answer to the actual question.  It's probably me just being thick!
So, permit me to re-ask what I think the question was:

How were attached rifle companies deployed in the brigade skirmish screen? Is it:

a) spread evenly across the entire width of the brigade skirmish screen?

or

b) as just one section of the screen?

Sorry to be a pain!

Offline TomMcC

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Re: British rifle company question
« Reply #7 on: August 16, 2022, 12:10:13 PM »
Hello Kevin,

This is just my assumption as I haven't read enough original sources to verify it.  I have read a lot or modern works including the Osprey books on French, British and Prussian tactics. 

I think command and control is a big thing. I think anyone who has served in the military might tell you, an officer would want to keep control of his unit or forces, so I think it would be more your option b) just one section of the screen.   

I imagine it like a situation where a brigade has say, 3 battalions in line and the brigadier orders skirmishers forward. Each battalion commander then allocates its own skirmishers forward as part of his own unit's frontage, as supports plus the actual forward firing line. In that way the colonel keeps control and orders can be transmitted down the chain of command, via voice, drum or bugle or junior lieutenant Miggins sent forward with a message. 

For a rifle company attached at brigade or divisional level, then it would be the general to allocate that company to a specific section of the line. Perhaps he might judge a battalion's skirmishers as understrength and needing extra support, or allocate the rifles to a particular part of his frontage where his rifles have an advantage. The general might perhaps allocate them to operate alongside a battalion.

Sorry for my waffle, but my main thought is skirmishers allocated to just one section of the front, to maintain command and control. 

I'll maybe go off now and read some first hand accounts of the action on the Coa, or maybe read Rory Muir's book on tactics again.

Hope my waffle may help,
regards,
Tom



Offline Kevin

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Re: British rifle company question
« Reply #8 on: August 16, 2022, 03:56:34 PM »
That makes a lot of sense!
Thanks.

Offline olicana

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Re: British rifle company question
« Reply #9 on: August 17, 2022, 04:58:41 PM »
Quote
Hi
While I respect the obvious depth of knowledge that many of you have displayed in your replies to the original post, I'm personally still not clear as to the answer to the actual question.  It's probably me just being thick!
So, permit me to re-ask what I think the question was:

How were attached rifle companies deployed in the brigade skirmish screen? Is it:

a) spread evenly across the entire width of the brigade skirmish screen?

or

b) as just one section of the screen?

Sorry to be a pain!

Nail hit firmly on head. Thank you.

Offline olicana

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Re: British rifle company question
« Reply #10 on: August 17, 2022, 05:07:35 PM »
TomMcC,

I've only read secondary sources about Riflemen (particularly those of the Light Division) but it's not helpful in understanding how they might be deployed in smaller groups attached, by individual companies, to Line Brigades.

I understand that Light Companies didn't operate purely in open order and that they held a good proportion of their number back, in close order, on which the skirmishers could rally. However, that would still be possible without riflemen forming part of that formed 'rallying' body if they were attached, in small groups, to the light coys of the Line Battalions - because the riflemen would be far better employed forward with the screen whilst the musket armed 'ordinary light bobs' formed the rally point.

The arguments (without evidence - which I don't have) for dispersed versus concentrated are many and varied and why I asked the original, very specific, question.
« Last Edit: August 17, 2022, 05:17:17 PM by olicana »

Offline olicana

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Re: British rifle company question
« Reply #11 on: August 17, 2022, 05:21:40 PM »
Quote
"When as often occurred [in the Peninsula], riflemen were used as the extreme front line, they might all be committed to skirmishing if the light infantry of the following formation could act as their reserve. This was probably the best utilization of the special skills possessed by the rifle corps." Ref: British Rifleman: 1797-1815, Warrior 47, p. 30.

This is the best evidence I've read. It seems to answer the question quite fully. Sounds like dispersed, I think?
Thanks IronDuke.

Offline vtsaogames

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Re: British rifle company question
« Reply #12 on: August 18, 2022, 01:22:19 AM »
Interesting, as the small force of riflemen in Morgan's command at Cowpens (1781) operated as the first line of resistance. They fired their two shots as requested, stopping the lead dragoons of Tarleton's force, then fell back and joined the miltia behind them.

Now I wonder if the volunteer jagers of the 1812-1815 Prussians operated ahead of the fusilier skirmish screen. 
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Offline Baron von Wreckedoften

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Re: British rifle company question
« Reply #13 on: August 18, 2022, 12:02:22 PM »
Morgan had probably observed that from the British light battalions of the AWI, where the rifle-armed men would be extracted from each of the companies and banded together into a "point" platoon, under a subaltern.  This unit would lead the way on the march, supported by whichever company was the "duty" company that day.  I would suggest that institutional memory would have created a similar mode of operation in the Napoleonic Wars.

On the question of the Brunswick Oels Jagers riflemen, there was only ONE rifle-armed company, which had been the scharfschutzen unit(s) in the 1809 campaign.  The other two skirmish companies remained armed only with the musket and bayonet.  This is confirmed both by Gustav Kortzfleischer, the leading historian of the Brunswick corps at this time, who indicates the the scharfschutzen retained their rifles and hirschflanger (sword-bayonets) whilst the rest of the battalion received British muskets and bayonets; and by Rob Griffith who has studied all the surviving paperwork, and believes that the rifle-armed company was attached to 4th Division and the two musket-armed companies were with 5th Division.

Offline TomMcC

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Re: British rifle company question
« Reply #14 on: August 18, 2022, 12:39:23 PM »
olicana
Your comments are good, and I apologise for my poor explanations.

My answer to your original is I don't know how a rifle company company attached to a line brigade would act. I'm getting older, but I can't recall any source specifically mentioning it.

My only contribution would be to suggest that some element of command and control would be needed to control the actions of the rifles, whether dispersed or not. I think that would include whether to attach small groups of rifles to individual line skirmish companies, or for the rifle company to operate as part of an overall brigade detached skirmish screen, or to allow them more independent action under their own officers. I think the decisions would be made by a brigadier or higher officer in line with the brigade orders.
 
The actions and any command and control might also depend on the morale and proficiency of the unit. It's possible that the 60th might be allowed greater flexibility in dispersal than the Brunswick Oels Jaegers.

Since the question was raised, I re-read the light infantry and officers chapters in Rory Muir's Tactics and the Experience of Battle in the Age of Napoleon. He quotes quite a few sources, but as far as I recall, none specifically answer your question. 

The Iron Duke and Vincent offer the best answers.

At the end, I would only say that however you want to apply rifles in your games is up to you and no-one can
really say it's incorrect. 

regards,
Tom

 

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