The mid- to late-nineteenth century was a time of great change for the military.
At the beginning of the period, soldiers faced enemies armed with smoothbore weapons that were typically short-ranged, single-shot and not very accurate. At the end of the era, their opponents boasted weapons that were so advanced as to remain fundamentally unchanged until the 1950’s.
This was not only a period of great technological change. Improvements in transport and communication meant that the same soldiers could fight diverse opponents across a huge geography of theatres. Marshal Achilles Bazaine, for example, in his career as an officer in the French army, successfully fought native tribesmen in Algeria, ill-trained militia in Mexico, and then faced and was defeated by the might of the Prussian regular army in France.
Those wargaming the mid- to late-nineteenth century therefore need to understand and employ a huge variety of battlefield tactics, the most important of which are summarised below.
For convenience, I have divided the subject into three sections:
- commanding regular troops against native irregulars
- the reverse i.e. commanding native irregulars verses regular troops
- commanding regular troops against other regulars
Many of the doctrines expounded span all three sections but, for the sake of brevity, are not necessarily repeated.
Part 1: Commanding Regulars against Natives
"Nothing could stand against such a store of lead" Corporal Skinner, Diary, 2 Sept. 1898 (National Army Museum)
Wining battles with small numbers of regular troops against hordes of mostly spear- and sword-armed natives is all about distance and firepower. You must get your force into a position from which they can pour fire into the enemy ranks without the enemy ever managing to close to melee.
This is because once melee is joined, the likelihood is that your force will be overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers. The history of the period is littered with examples: Isandlwana (British vs Zulus, 1879); Maiwand (British vs Afghans, 1880) and Adowa (Italians vs Abyssinians, 1896) being three of the best known.
Where a regular force has managed to concentrate its fire from a good defensive formation or position, especially in open terrain, the native irregulars have been mown down in their hundreds. At Ulundi (British vs Zulus, 1879) the Zulus paid for Isandlwana many times over, and at Omdurman (British vs Dervish, 1898) the British killed (i.e. not including wounded) over 10,000 of their enemy whilst suffering only four deaths themselves.
Your battle plan must therefore be conservative, reliable and dull. The desire to do something interesting is often the death of a regular commander when faced by fanatical natives. Let’s look at what elements this boring-but-effective battleplan should contain:
Prior to the Battle
Scout, scout, scout and scout. Do not let yourself be ambushed under any circumstances, or be drawn into an encounter battle with an enemy force whose size is unknown.
This is what your cavalry is for. As we shall see later, they are pretty much useless for anything else once battle has been joined, so expend as many of them as you like for this vital function.
One name should be on your lips throughout this section of the battle or campaign: George Armstrong Custer. Lack of scouting at Little Big Horn (US Cavalry vs Sioux, 1876) led to his death, along with over 250 of his men, as they attacked what they thought was a village of some 800 fighting men to find over 1,800 warriors present.
Proper scouting also allows you to choose where to fight your battle: it allows you to pick the terrain.
The most important factor when choosing where to site your force is field of fire.
The defeat of the Berkshire’s at Maiwand stemmed directly from the fact that the Afghans could make use of a gully to get close to the British square before charging.
As Baden-Powell said, when he visited the battlefield in 1915:
“Unknown to the British a deep ravine ran in a horse-shoe form almost entirely round the spot on which the brigade was standing. The brigade formed a square to receive the attack, expecting to see the enemy coming across the open, instead of which the Afghans poured down the nullah by thousands unseen, and then suddenly made their attack from three sides at once.”
Assuming that no forts are available - a fort being just about impregnable to native troops c.f. Chitral (British vs Afghan, 1895) and Gura (Egyptians vs Abyssinians, 1875) – then cover is also good, but still less important than a clear field of fire. At Omdurman, for example, the British protected their frontage with zaribas (obstacles made out of lethal thorn bushes) but found that this meant that all ranks had to stand to shoot.
Choose a spot with plenty of open ground. The Martini-Henry rifle is sighted to 1000 yards, so that much clear ground on all sides is just about right.
Your formation in any country where contact with natives is possible should maximise your defensive capacity. This may mean that you move very slowly, but better than finding yourself at the mercy of your enemy’s womenfolk! As Kipling said:
“When you're wounded out on Afghanistan's plains/and the women come to cut up what remains/then just roll on your rifle and blow out your brains/and die like a good British soldier.”
Place your wagons and artillery in the centre of a column that resembles a large Napoleonic square. Divide your force into approximately six equal parts. One part fronts the column, two go on each side, and one goes at the back. At both Ulundi and Omdurman the British formed vast defensive columns such as the above.
Your cavalry should scout ahead, to the sides and to the rear of the column: one third out scouting, one third resting, and one third kept as an emergency sacrifice force to be hurled at the enemy as a delaying tactic in case of ambush.
In difficult terrain, such as the mountain passes of Afghanistan and region, you may be forced to adopt a long, narrow-fronted column that is vulnerable to both sniping and ambush charges.
The key here is to control the high ground. During the Second Afghan War (British vs Afghan Rebels, 1878-1880), Lord Roberts used light infantry to move along the ridge tops running parallel to his column marching down below in the passes. These light troops could winkle out any snipers and spot any ambushing force well in advance of there being danger to the main column. Watch the 1939 version of the film Gunga Din for an example of how a column (here a whole army) without proper high-ground scouts can be ambushed.
Usually you will be moving towards an objective such as a native village to be burnt as a punitive strike. Your tactics should involve keeping formation at all costs and just plodding slowly towards your target. This should force the enemy to attack you on your terms.
As soon as the enemy is spotted, then the column must shift into fighting mode.
Laager any wagons, hobble any pack animals.
Artillery deploy evenly around the square, but primarily at its weak points: the corners.
All cavalry withdraw behind the infantry line: they are dead meat if caught out in the open as even charging they don’t have the numbers to resist a huge mass of enemy troops (see the charge of the 21st Lancers at Omdurman as a good example).
Infantry form their best firing position. This could be behind the wagon laagers, in three ranks, or behind zaribas (which are apparently surprisingly portable). Try to make sure that you have at least some veteran troops on all sides of your square. It’s volume of fire from steady infantry that you’re going to need.
All this deployment takes time. Ideally your scouts will have spotted the enemy at a distance, giving you plenty of time to form square properly. If you are surprised, you need to make time to deploy. This is where your cavalry reserve comes into play. Hurl them at the enemy and form up your infantry and artillery as your brave horsemen push the enemy back, then get overwhelmed and slaughtered to a man. Cavalrymen love the opportunity to nobly sacrifice themselves!
After that it is really just a matter of blazing away at the enemy with everything you’ve got until (a) you run out of ammunition or (b) they run out of warriors.
However, as most tabletop wargames do not account for ammunition expenditure, running dry will not normally be a problem, so don’t bother to hold your fire until you see “the whites of their eyes”: shoot with everything you’ve got as soon as you see the enemy.
If your system does monitor ammunition, then remember that your defensive square has pack animals loaded with bullets at its centre, only a short distance away.
Just make sure you have the right tools to open the ammo boxes. At Isandlwana one reason given for the British defeat is the fact that they couldn’t cut the brass bands securing the ammunition boxes, but this is probably apocryphal as it’s been proven that you can easily smash one open with a rifle butt, especially if there are 26,000 iklwa-armed Zulus about to ritually disembowel you! Far more significant was the dispersed formation adopted by the British, combined with a failure to laager wagons and a lack of respect for the fighting ability and morale of their opponents.
Once you have broken the enemy attack, and they are starting to drift away of their own accord, then your surviving cavalry can be released to ride them down and slaughter as many as possible of them from behind. This is what lancers are for.
Given the above, no native force should get close enough to you for contact to occur: you should shoot them down before they can attempt to overwhelm you in melee.
However, if we take a worse case scenario and assume that your enemy do manage to make contact, then the danger is that your square collapses in on itself and destroys its own integrity.
At Maiwand, for example, one wall of the Berkshire’s square collapsed into the back of the other, and even a sacrificial cavalry charge couldn’t give the infantry time to reform properly before they were over run.
At Abu Klea (British vs Dervishes, 1885), the British had adopted exactly the tactics described above. However, the going was so rough that no scouts had been deployed. The Dervish hoard appeared suddenly from behind a ridge and slammed into the British square despite taking many casualties on the way in.
For a time it looked as if the British column was doomed, but the Ansar attack was halted when it hit the hobbled pack camels in the centre of the square. This gave the British time to reform and, after fierce fighting, the square was re-established and all intruding Dervishes destroyed. Even to get to contact was an achievement. As Kipling recorded:
"So 'ere's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your 'ome in the Soudan;
You're a pore benighted 'eathen but a first-class fightin' man;
An' 'ere's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, with your 'ayrick 'ead of 'air -
You big black boundin' beggar - for you broke a British square!
To counter this danger, therefore, there should be a small reserve in the centre of the square which can be used to reinforce places where the enemy attack is strongest.
If, for example, it looks as if one part of the square is going to collapse, then this reserve should form a second firing line a short distance behind the first. As the first collapses, the second pours fire into the enemy, who, flushed with impending victory, are not ready for such an assault, then advances to fill the gap.
- Never break your defensive formation.
- Never try to be clever.
- Shoot them down before they get to contact.
Part 2: Commanding Natives against Regulars
Masochistic wargamers with a death wish will sometimes agree to play the part of Zulus, Dervishes, Xhosa, Native Americans, Afghans, Maoris etc against a regular, European-style army.
Battlefield success is going to be difficult to achieve: as most evening or afternoon wargames won’t give you enough troops to overwhelm the enemy with no thought of casualties, and don’t go on long enough for your main advantages – local weather conditions and terrain – to have an affect on the game.
Isandlwana is always considered a Zulu victory, but what one has to remember is that the Zulus outnumbered the British over twenty to one, and killed around 1000 Brits for the loss of 6,000 of their own men: a quarter of their force. As their King, Cetweshwayo, said afterwards: “a spear has been thrust into the heart of the Zulu nation”. Those who also play Ancients will be thinking of Pyrrus at this point!
To have any chance of winning, you are going to need to study the section above on the tactics to be employed by a regular army against native troops, and try and fight the battle on your terms not theirs.
Before the Battle
If your game system allows it, then you should adopt a Fabian policy. Avoid contact for as long as possible and allow your enemy to wear himself out marching all over the place trying to get into contact with you.
Read any description of Lord Robert’s march to Kandahar during the Second Afghan War. Conditions were terrible: with temperatures during the day hitting 43o C (110o F) with fierce dust and sandstorms adding to the misery. By night it was barely above freezing. Things were so bad that European officers were limited to just one pack mule each for their personal possessions!
Adopt a scorched earth policy around the enemy’s line of march, poisoning the water holes he knows about whilst drinking from the ones he doesn’t.
If you have guns, snipe from a distance: especially at foragers. Pick off any stragglers and kill any scouts. Sudden attacks on weak points of his column are good, especially at dawn and dusk, and especially at non-combatants such as pack animals and civilians . Generally disrupt his morale and routine as much as possible.
Read Flashman’s description (in Flashman) of the British column’s retreat from Kabul during the First Afghan War (British vs Afghans, 1839-42), and adopt the same tactics as their Afghan tormentors.
Just as your opponent will be seeking to do battle on the equivalent of a bowling green, so you should be trying to fight in terrain riddled with cover.
Use dried-up watercourses (nullahs and dongas) to get as close to the enemy formation as possible before launching your final assault. Support skirmishers and any artillery should be on high ground, preferably protected by sangars: little walls of stone or earth.
Fighting in jungle is also good, but will interfere with your visibility, command integrity and ability to control your troops as much as it does your opponent.
When fighting in jungle, don’t bother with complicated manoeuvres: some of those you send to outflank are bound to lose their way. Keep your troops tightly packed together in one place (after all, you don’t need to worry about enemy fire into your dense formations) and launch them en masse as soon as the enemy is contacted.
Before the Climax
If your opponent is sensible, then he will have adopted the squared column formation described above.
Any enemy units outside the protection of the square should be swamped with overwhelming numbers and dispatched piecemeal.
Climax: The Final Assault
Although your skirmishing can wear the enemy down, a native army will usually find itself outgunned, especially in terms of artillery. Eventually you will have no choice but to launch a final, devastating assault on the enemy formation.
The key here is to attack the weakest part of the enemy line with as much force as you can bring to bear. Ideally, this final charge will also start close to your opponent and be launched from cover.
The weakest point of a square is its corners, so aim your assaults there.
Drilled native troops (e.g. Askaris and Sepoys) are usually much weaker than their European equivalents, so charge them: not the ones with the white faces anachronistically singing Men of Harlech. Especially stay away from men in skirts or tartan of any kind, as many rule systems make Highland troops ridiculously good.
Your enemy is likely to be volley-firing at you. Troops armed with single-shot breechloaders or muzzle-loaders will take time to reload between volleys so one trick is to try and anticipate the gaps between volleys, and only move forward then. If the system you use allows it, charge forward and go to ground just as the enemy fires. Let the volley go overhead, then up and forward again. A Zulu Impi advancing by rushes is a sight to see!
Wave assaults are the key to success: hurling successive lines of your men at the same point of the enemy formation.
If numbers allow, then make your target two different points. The Zulu horns of the bull formation is ideal for this. There’s no point in holding anything back: if this final assault doesn’t succeed, then the battle is lost anyway, and committing your troops piecemeal is death by a thousand routs.
First in line are your sacrifice units, and I find using small but noisy units of fanatics ideal for this purpose.
Place the body to be sacrificed a short distance in front of your key combat units. Charge all together. As they all come into view, the enemy square will hopefully waste its volley on the first unit they see: your sacrificial victims. Your other troops then surge forward over the dead bodies of their comrades and fall on the foe as they frantically struggle to reload.
Dependent on game system, try to slam more than one wave into contact with the same point in the same turn. Your opponent should waste some of his defensive fire on the sacrifice unit, the rest of it on the first wave of your main body, and be left with nothing to stop the next.
Once you’ve made a gap in his formation, pour through it: giving him no time to recover. Don’t stop to loot: plenty of time for that after the enemy has been properly broken, and it doesn’t take much for a drilled, professional army to get back on its feet.
- Weaken your foe with skirmishing and Fabian tactics.
- Use terrain features to get close before charging.
- Charge using sacrifice units and wave assaults.
- Charge everything.
Part 3: Commanding Regulars against Regulars
If your only experience of nineteenth century wargaming is command of a European army against irregular, native troops, then facing another army of regulars is going to come as somewhat of a bombshell to you. As Captain Blackadder said:
“I'd had fifteen years of military experience, perfecting the art of ordering a pink gin and saying "Do you do it doggy-doggy?" in Swahili, and then suddenly four-and-a-half million heavily armed Germans hove into view. That was a shock, I can tell you.”
Rather than deal with the different phases of the battle, as above, I’m going to look at how to use each different arm – infantry, cavalry and artillery – in turn.
It is important to remember that the battlefield tactics employed by your historical counterparts were based on a failure to realise that the sort of firepower that the opposition could generate had greatly increased since the days of Wellington and Napoleon.
Infantry of the period still manoeuvred in massed columns or lines, wore gaudy uniforms in bright, morale-boosting colours, and attempted to close with the enemy rather than shoot them down from a safe distance. As late as the First World War, the French still believed that élan, or spirit, would carry their men forward through any hail of fire until positions could be taken at the point of the bayonet.
They were wrong.
Although it is possible to win 19th Century wargames this way, the experiences of the British army in the First (Transvaal) and Second (Great) Boer Wars, and any battles of the Franco-Prussian War (France vs Prussia & Allies, 1870-71), show how hard it can be to do so.
At Bronkhorstspruit (British vs Boer, 1880), for example, entrenched Boers faced four times their number of the 94th Foot. In the subsequent battle (“duck shoot” is perhaps a better term) the British lost three quarters of their force killed or wounded, the Boers one man. Every British officer was shot dead. The British were still wearing bright red coats, despite the fact they were facing Mauser rifle armed marksmen at relatively close range.
At St.Privat (French vs Prussian, 1870), the Prussian Guard formed company columns and assaulted emplaced French infantry armed with Chassepot breech-loading rifles. The five regiments of Guards, some 15,000 men, lost a third of their number and all their officers.
The lessons to be learnt here are as follows:
a) Know your weapons and those of the enemy. Adapt your tactics depending on whether you or your opponent has technological superiority in terms of range and volume of fire.
If you have superiority, then be content to shoot from a distance if a line of attack doesn’t seem immediately obvious. You should win the shooting duel, and can then attack a considerably weakened enemy.
This is where the French often went wrong in the Franco-Prussian War. They wasted the advantage of the Chassepot, longer ranged by far than the Prussian Dreyse Needle Gun; and placed their Mitrailleuse machine guns at the back of the battlefield with the artillery rather than realising its true potential as an infantry close support weapon.
If you do not have technological superiority, then you need to make sure that you seize and keep the initiative. Don’t let your opponent settle down and shoot you to bits: keep him off-balance and reacting to your manoeuvres.
b) Dig in wherever possible. From the time of the American Civil War (Union vs Confederates, 1860-65) troops behind prepared positions became almost impossible to shift with frontal assaults: read about Pickett’s Charge on the third day of Gettysberg for more. Check the rules system that you use to see whether it allows you to dig in once deployed. If it does, do!
c) Unless you have overwhelming numbers and don’t care about casualties, do not frontally assault prepared infantry positions. Outflank trenches and abattis wherever possible. If you do have to carry out full frontal assaults, consider the tactics noted above under Native Troops vs Regulars. You’re likely to be just as successful!
d) Begin by assaulting the enemy line with cloud’s of skirmishers. Most European armies had some specially trained light troops for this purpose: the Rifle Brigade and any Jaegers being examples. Here the trick is to deploy enough skirmishers so that they aren’t dispersed by enemy counter-fire, and to have other troops in denser formations ready to support them.
e) Once the enemy line has been weakened by your skirmishers and artillery, then you can prepare for an assault. Your attack columns should advance behind more clouds of skirmishers. These skirmishers don’t need to be specially trained light troops: they are not for shooting with, but for protecting your other troops. As (b) above, consider attacking the flanks or ends of the enemy position rather than dead centre. Work out where his strongest fields of fire are, and stay away from them.
f) Finally, as soon as they get into range, your attack columns, hopefully as yet untouched by enemy fire, burst through your own skirmish line and slam into the enemy position. From this point onwards, you might as well be shouting uthu-zulu as anything else: see under Native Troops vs Regulars for appropriate tactics.
As Ulysses S Grant (Union commander-in-chief at the close of the American Civil War) said:
“I don't believe in strategy in the popular understanding of the term. I use it to get up just as close to the enemy as practicable, with as little loss of life as possible. Then, up guards, and at 'em.”
I feel sorry for cavalry commanders in the 19th Century. At the beginning of the period, they were still the knights of the battlefield. By the end, they were useless.
Your cavalry, no matter how good they are, cannot successfully charge any formed enemy formation that can get off a couple of decent volleys at them. Your horsemen are just too vulnerable
The Charge of the Light Brigade might have actually reached its destination, but lost two thirds of its strength in doing so. As Bosquet said: “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre”
Before you attempt to copy them, read about Campbell’s “thin red streak” stopping the Russian cavalry during the same battle (Balaclava, 1854, Russians vs British).
So what can you use them for?
Well, they look very pretty…but I find that their best use is as expendables suitable for the following tasks:
a) Clearing skirmish screens. Prone, dispersed infantry, even with breechloaders, are vulnerable to formed cavalry charges. The trouble is that this will usually leave your cavalry under the guns of the enemy units supporting the skirmishers: bye-bye cavalry. However, the loss of a squadron of cavalry is often worth it if you neutralise large numbers of enemy lights.
b) Scouting. If your rule system gives an advantage for outscouting the opposition, then no-one scouts better than regular light cavalry.
c) Following up a breakthrough or finishing off broken enemy troops. Cavalry have the speed to do this, but watch that you don’t leave them vulnerable to enemy fire during the process.
d) My favourite: the all-out mass cavalry charge as an act of desperation! This is where you hurl whole brigades or even divisions of cavalry at the enemy because everything else has failed and you are about to lose the battle unless something extraordinary happens.
Once the battle looks lost, the desperation cavalry charge can also provide cover for your retreating artillery or infantry: at Mars-la-Tour (Franco-Prussian War, 1870), the Prussian Cuirassiers gave their infantry comrades time to reform by what came to be known as “Von Bulow’s death ride”, losing four squadrons of horse in the process. In the same conflict, the French often covered the retreat of their infantry and guns with suicidal brigade or divisional cavalry charges.
There are definitely two schools of thought for artillery use on “regular” battlefields in the mid- to late-nineteenth century.
The first follows Napoleon’s system of Grand Batteries. All guns are grouped together at the back of the battlefield and fire en masse at enemy positions to be assaulted or enemy troops advancing on your own positions.
This will, however, only work if your guns out-range those of the enemy. During the Franco-Prussian War, the Prussian artillery easily out-ranged those of their enemy: with the result that the massed guns of the French were either destroyed in an artillery duel or positioned too far from the frontline to do any good.
The second school of thought is more flexible, and involves individual batteries, sometimes sections, used much closer to the front line. They can provide devastating local support in either attack or defence but can leave your artillery crews vulnerable to skirmisher fire, and risk your guns being over-run if their supports retreat.
During the Great Boer War, at Colenso (1899), General Buller rushed artillery forward to pound the Boer positions. Unfortunately, the Boer positions he pounded at the top of a ridge were fake, and his artillery crews were shot down, nay massacred, by Boers entrenched at the bottom. More men were sent in to rescue the guns: they were slaughtered in turn.
The key to using artillery, therefore, is to shoot them when they can’t shoot you. This may sound obvious, but it took horrendous losses before the French and the British learnt this lesson.
a) If the enemy guns out-range yours, then split your guns up and employ them in frontline positions all over the battlefield. They should be protected from counter-battery fire by their proximity to the enemy and the fact they are dispersed and hidden amongst your infantry. Be careful to support them with foot units for protection against skirmishers and sudden charges.
b) If you out-range the enemy, then concentrate your guns en masse, and counter-battery fire until you have destroyed all the enemy guns. Then turn your attention to enemy infantry units: concentrating your fire on one formation at a time. No need to risk your artillerymen near the front line: blast the enemy to pieces from a distance.
The key to success in nineteenth century wargaming is fighting the battles as if you are a Second World War general. It wasn’t until this terrible conflict that military doctrine caught up with available military technology: as the 30,000 men killed on the first day of the Somme would testify.
Regular armies need to concentrate their firepower through cover, formation and technology whilst avoiding that of the enemy through cover, formation and concealment. It may sound obvious but, as we have seen, above, a lot of men died to teach the lesson.
Native armies should practice hit-and-run tactics rather than meeting their European opponents head-on in pitched battle. If they have no choice in the matter, then sudden charges from close up can succeed: but casualties will usually be considerable.
As T.E. Lawrence said: “With two thousand years of examples behind us we have no excuse, when fighting, for not fighting well.”