Thursday, January 21, 2010


George II at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743 (from Wikipedia)

Did the British infantry use the tactic of forming square during the War of the Austrian Succession? This question was posed to me by one of my readers and I promised to do a little bit of research and get back to him with an answer. The question about squares at Dettingen in 1743 arise from a passage in Michael Orr's "Dettingen 1743" from the Knight's Battles for Wargamers series (page 59):

Part of the French cavalry managed to survive the fire of the English squares and to pass through the intervals of the first line. In the second line Huske's were still forming square, the worst possible situation in which to be caught by cavalry. But Brigadier Huske himself took command of the grenadiers, who poured a tremendous fire into the enemy ranks, while the rest of the regiment completed their maneuvers unharmed.

Situation Summary
Briefly, the situation, as I recall it, was that as the Pragmatic Army advanced towards the French position on the other side of the Forchbach Stream, they began to form two battle lines of infantry. The right flank was protected by a woods, but the left flank (the one closest to the Main River) was dangling in thin air as there was a significant gap between the left flank of the left most regiment (33rd Foot) and the Main River. The French Maison du Roi cavalry (9 squadrons in all) held its honoured position on the French right flank, opposite the gap on the British left. The French horsemen noticed the gap and proceeded to move forward to engage the scarlet infantry and overwhelm them.

General Clayton, commanding the British cavalry on the left, also noticed this gap and hurried up the lone regiment of the 3rd (Bland's) Dragoons to fill said gap and purchase some time for the rest of the British cavalry to come forward to support Bland. With 3 squadrons facing off against 9 elite French squadrons, the outcome of this cavalry melee could hardly be in doubt, though Bland's dragoons did their best to make a tough fight of it. Eventually, the Maison du Roi surged foreward into the British infantry on the left, which brings us to Mr. Orr's statement that they were forming square.

My Theory
I believe it was General Bland, himself, who put the first British infantry regulations to paper, and this happened in the early 1750s, after the WAS and before the SYW. My correspondent believes that in the absence of any formal drill regulations , that it was left to the individual regimental colonels to decide what tactics to use against cavalry.

My own belief is that it was more likely that the third rank of a British battalion would simply turn about face and present their muskets to any cavalry that might be bearing down on them from behind. I think that this is what might have happened at Dettingen.

Fortesque indicates that this is what happened (page 99 "History of the British Army, Volume 2):

But now the First and Seventh Dragoons, which had been summoned from the right, came galloping up and fell in gallantly enough upon the French Household Cavalry. These two regiments were, however, repulsed, partly, it should seem, because they attacked with more impetuosity than order, partly because the French were armed with helmets and breastplates heavy enough to turn a pistol shot. The Blues followed close after them, but sacrificing order to speed were, like their comrades, driven back in confusion; and the French Gendarmes, flushed with success, bore down for the second time upon the 21st and 23rd and succeeded in breaking into them.

OK, so we have the French Maison du Roi cavalry breaking through two of the British regiments comprising the first battle line. I am inferring that breakthrough also means that the French had ridden through all three ranks of the 21st and 23rd Foot and now found themselves trapped between the two British battles lines. The doctrine of the day would seem to call for the two broken regiments to about face, if they could, and face down the enemy cavalry, which were now behind them.

But the two battalions were broken for only a moment. Quickly recovering themselves, they faced inwards, and closing in upon the French in their midst shot them down by the scores.

Another Account of the French Breakthrough

I also consulted a very useful book titled, "The Bloody Eleventh, History of the Devonshire Regiment ,Volume I 1685-1815" by Roger E.R.Robinson (1988). It contains an account of the 11th (Sowle's) Regiment at Dettingen:

Bland's squadrons, outnumbered by about three to one, had a bad time of it, but fought with great gallantry. Sowles and the other regiment on their right found the French riding through their line [this suggests that they were not in square - Alte Fritz] . Weight of horse and momentum caused gaps to appear. There was some confusion. But before long order was restored, NCOs 'taking a grip' , no doubt and officers supervising the closing up of ranks. By the time the French were collected and ready to return the way they had come, the men were reloaded and 'gave them another fire'. Only some forty of the hundred and fifty who made the assault got back to tell the tale (page 126).

Robinson then goes on to give the account of how Bland's dragoons had to face a second wave of French Household cavalry and pushed back. British reinforcements arrived including Honeywood's and Stair's Horse Regiments (lated downgraded to Dragoon Guards regiments after the WAS concluded) and the Blues. The Blues and Honeywood's became entangled with one another , their horse were out of control, and the whole lot of them tumbled back into the ranks of the first British infantry line, thereby disordering their own infantry.

Seeing the confusion, the Gensdarmes rallied and came thundering down upon the British foot. Having discharged both their pistols, they threw those weapons at the infantrymen and then swung their swords into their hands. Johnson's , Campbell's and Sowle's bore the brunt of this assault. All three regiments were 'disordered' by this method of attack. A bloody fight followed, during which the staunch redcoats held their ground, turned inwards and gave blow for blow. Few of the horsemen got away: the Gensdarmes were reported 'quite ruined'.

So both Fortesque and Robinson relate stories of the French Maison du Roi cavalry breakthrough, followed by a brief period wherein both infantry and cavalry attempted to recover their formations. The British foot simply did an about face and delivered volleys of musketry into the French horsemen that were now trapped between the first and second infantry battle lines. I believe that this is "the square" that Michael Orr refers to. Perhaps he was equating this to the situation at Quatre Bras in 1815 where the French lancers broke a British square and were subsequently surrounded as the square closed up and the cavalry were shot down. At Dettingen, on the other hand, the French cavalry appear to have been trapped between two LINES OF INFANTRY rather than a square. Like my reader/questioner, I think it unlikely that a square formation was used by any battalion at Dettingen, but certainly the British foot's ability to recover from the breakthrough (and not break and rout themselves), reform, and deliver a punishing fire into the cavalry, has a similar ring to the Quatre Bras situation.

This is only my theory, and it is only based on second or third hand accounts written 200 years after the event. Certainly, both Fortesque and Robinson based their research on contemporary documents, papers, reports and letters from participants in the battle. So there is probably some grounds for believing their accounts.

If anyone has some additional information about Dettingen, please forward it to me or post it on the inquiry that I posted on The Miniatures Page in the 18th Century Discussion chat board. I would particularly like to verify the date when British drill regulations were set to paper.



  1. The following snippet from p69 of "The British Army of the 18th Century" by HCB Rogers may be relevent: In 1728, at the behest of George II, a drill book was published entitled 'The Exercise of the Horse, Dragoon, and Foot Forces'.

  2. Another great post Jim - so informative. It does seem that the linear tactics made famous by Frederick and variations on the line like you mentioned - the rear rank(s) reversing to face cavalry that got in behind them - were commonly used up until the development of the square.

    I believe Brent Nosworthy claims the use of square evolved more in the early Revolutionary period - specifically in Egypt as a tactic against the Mamelukes. As he uses primary sources (he quoted eyewitness account by General Foy)I tended to accept this claim but it occurs to me that the French most likely got the idea from somewhere. My guess would be the Austrians who used similar tactics with use of a mobile spiked obstacle known as the 'Spanische Reiter' against the Turk light cavalry in their interminable wars in the Balkan frontiers. These were set on the corners and rear of the outer lines surrounding encampments which were always square or rectangular with joining lines of infantry adjacent or behind them. It seems logical that the square itself as a tactic could have evolved from this.

    I do recall an exchange with the Austrian expert Dave Hollins in a forum some years ago on the subject and he details these tactics in his Osprey book 'Austrian Grenadiers and Infantry 1788-1816'. I'd be interested if anyone could find any earlier examples of use of the tactic.