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In movies/books set in the Napoleonic Wars, the British are normally deployed into lines and the French into columns. The columns are usually the advancing ones, charging into the line as the line hold their ground and fire volleys at the advancing column. In the movies it's always depicted that this situation benefits the British, because they outshoot the column (the whole line can shoot vs just the front rank or the outer edge of the column), and they don't have to move (meaning they can reload easily and faster). Not to mention that it seems scarier to be in the front rank of a column.

The result is normally the French getting slaughtered before they even reach the line, or when they arrive they would be so outnumbered that it becomes an unbalanced melee. Well, to be fair of course English-speaking movies tend to show British victories.

Actual history reading seems to confirm that the French indeed liked fighting in columns, but why did they do this when it seems obvious that the line is more advantageous? The only advantage I can think is probably faster speed (because less files to harmonize), but I don't think this justifies the greatly reduced firepower.

And why is it in the movies the French seems to be the one attacking and the British standing their ground? How would the French deploy if they're the defending side? Is there a good example of a French victory using this kind of setting?

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I've got an alternate history book at home that goes into this in detail. Fascinating subject (if a little morbid, when you consider we are talking about the best way to kill people). I'll try to snag it and post an answer when I get home. –  T.E.D. Jun 4 '12 at 20:54

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What you are referring to is commonly known as the "French Column". I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that English movies and the English version of Wikipedia are pretty dismissive of it. After all, that was the opinion of everyone's favorite English General, Wellington. And he was certainly able to back it up.

The first thing you have to realize is that Napoleonic-era unit tactics were not all about math. Getting the maximum possible fire on your opponent is important, but it isn't the only factor.

The greatest goal is to remove the enemy units from action. Now a unit (regiment, battalion, etc) obviously can be removed from action without killing every single person in that unit. How bad do you have to hurt them? That depends on oodles of factors (eg: training, experience, casualties, etc) that are often wound up into a big ball called "morale".

So a lot of Napoleanic-era tactics that may not make a lot of sense mathematically make a lot of sense when you factor in morale. For instance, the volley. Mathematically you'd be better off letting every man fire as fast as he possibly can, rather than making them all wait on a signal. However, there's a huge difference to the opposing unit whether your buddies around you are dying in dribs and drabs here and there, or in great big groups all at once. Volleys hit like a hammer rather than a steady rain.

The idea behind a French Column isn't to pour a lot of fire into the opposing unit. Instead, it is to concentrate the entire efforts of your unit into a small area (usually in the middle) of the enemy unit. The folks in the rest of the enemy unit may feel safer, but anyone at the point of impact looking at an entire French Column 50 or so men wide and hundreds deep making a beeline straight at their part of the line has a pretty good idea they are gonna die. A sensible human being (aka: all but the incredibly well-trained) looking at that will do whatever they can to get out of the way.

If you can break the enemy line there, you break their unit in two. If you then keep coming, you will suddenly have your whole unit in the middle of theirs, able to fire on all of them effectively in a line while they have found themselves in a column (assuming they don't just rout). The key to being able to do this is training and speed, and early on nobody could match Napoleon in these two qualities. It was almost like a Calvary charge for him, but done with infantry.

Here's a passage taken from a fan of the formation in Eric Flint's 1824: The Arkansas War (a work of alternative history):

The term "column" was a misnomer, he now realized, applied to the fighting formation of the French armies of the Revolution. This bore no resemblance at all to a long, slender line of men marching down a road.

It was more like a sledgehammer. Or perhaps a very blunt spear. Fifty men across, at the front, firing as they came, with the rest of the regiment in close support. The formation relied on speed and impact, more like a cavalry charge than anything else Sam could think of.

Watching it in action, he could now understand why the formation had eventually been abandoned. Very well trained and disciplined professional armies, formed into lines, could bring too much fire to bear on the front of the column. Hundreds of men against fifty.

But that presupposed the sort of professional armies trained and led by generals like the Duke of Wellington...

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FWIW: The linked book is currently my absolute favorite book. It's the second in a series, but the first is available online for free at baenebooks.com/10.1125/baen/0345465687/0345465687_toc.htm –  T.E.D. Jun 5 '12 at 1:23
    
T.E.D. is correct that this tactic and formation is controversial in the literature of military science. I would recommend reading the scholarly debate and making up your own mind on the matter. As T.E.D. notes, dismissing the French column is an element of British nationalism. I myself have only read enough to note that the debate exists, but not what the conclusions are in the literature, or whether there is a preponderance of scholarly opinion. –  Samuel Russell Jun 5 '12 at 1:42
    
@T.E.D. thanks for the great answer. Another question though, wouldn't the morale thing work both ways? I mean, being in the front rank of an advancing column means almost certain death too, isn't it? The enemy line, and possibly neighboring lines, artillery and skirmishers all only have you to shoot. How did they manage the morale then? –  Fitri Jun 5 '12 at 16:57
    
@Fitri - Perhaps, but no more so than any infantry charge. Perhaps even less so than most. Note the second setence in RISY's answer about how it was driven forward. If you find yourself on the font of a French Column, your only hope of survival is to get yourself into the midst of the enemy formation ASAP. So human fear would actually make it faster, and thus perhaps more effective, if it can hold together. –  T.E.D. Jun 5 '12 at 17:11
    
Fascinating stuff. Thanks for the answer! –  coleopterist Dec 5 '12 at 18:31

Napoleon loved forward momentum - and he got it with the heavy column. The formation forced his infantry forward, the front ranks constantly pushed to the fore by the ranks behind them, and made opponents break formation to get the hell out of the way. This worked, because Napoleon was an artilleryman - he would disrupt opposing line formations with artillery barrage and cavalry, and once an infantry column broke through, it was all but over for the opposing forces. Napoleon's genius was knowing the soft spot to send his columns towards, and how to best support the attack.

Bear in mind that the "attack column" wasn't like a marching column or even an infantry square. The peleton, which translates as "platoon" or "rank", was either 80 men wide and 9 deep, or 40 men wide and 18 deep, and was the base unit of maneuver. So look at it more as successive waves of dense line formations. Once they're through the opposing line, peletons can wheel right or left to deliver flanking fire.

Wellington went with a much thinner line, and relied on carefully chosen terrain, cavalry and counter-artillery to disrupt French artillery support. Retreat and redeploy was a common British tactic, changing the shape of the line, bending but never breaking. The British are never shown as retreating in historical fiction because they're supposed to be the "Good Guys" in most english-language media - nevertheless C.S. Forrester had a fantastic depiction of a typical British retreat, organized and in good order while under heavy fire, in his Hornblower series. (Marines rather than infantry, but you get a good idea how this was drilled and practiced.) The other trick was to break French discipline with a two-volleys-and-bayonet-charge drill which caused the front of the attack column to break ranks, to rush to engage the enemy, which left them helpless to respond to flanking fire and too disorganized to take advantage of their break-through or allow the rest of the column to engage.

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+1. I'd forgotten to mention in my answer that he liked to soften up the enemy unit a bit before pulling this stunt, and this answer gives that its proper emphasis. –  T.E.D. Jun 5 '12 at 12:17
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just curious, which Hornblower book did you read that one in? –  Fitri Jun 5 '12 at 17:18
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It is unusually high praise to be able to say of a commander and a formation that they were able to retreat in good order. –  Samuel Russell Jun 6 '12 at 1:35
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@Fitri I didn't read all the Hornblower series but there is a good chance that the book (actually, just a chapter) was en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mr._Midshipman_Hornblower#Quiberon –  kubanczyk Jun 6 '12 at 12:43

The first thing to remember is that Napoleon prized speed over everything else. Most of his campaigns he faced much larger armies led by different nations and leaders. When Napoleon arrived the opposing armies would be near one another but not yet (His apposing armies were separated due to forage and supply needs, or were traveling to meet one another at a rally point.) Napoleon would then force march his army to meet one of these separated enemy armies. Once he arrived there he needed to attack and destroy that army immediately before the other allied army could bring reinforcements and overwhelm him. He did this in such battles as Montenotte, Ulm, Jena, Ligny (the battle before Waterloo).

Once he got on the battle field he usually attacked the center of the enemy, his troops advancing in the French column. This allowed the troops to move more quickly only pausing a moment to slightly widen and then continue to march forward. They didn’t have to pause to redress their lines at any point. There is a great web site that explains it better than I can. http://www.napolun.com/mirror/napoleonistyka.atspace.com/infantry_tactics_4.htm But as others have said the intent of the French column was to hit the center with a hammer blow.

The third thing to remember is that Napoleon’s armies were international and not very well trained. The French didn’t spend the time the British did to train troops to fire 3 shots a second. They didn’t train for months to perfect the complicated maneuvers needed to go from column to line under fire and under speed. According to La Grande Armee by Blond in 1809 the Grande Armee numbered 350,000 troops, 80% of which were French troops. By 1812 the 400,000 Grande Armee only 33% of them were French soldiers. Some of these troops, and officers did not even speak French. It would be too difficult to give multiple complicated orders versus just saying see their center go right for it as fast as you can. The British could train their troops so thoroughly because their army was so small; which is why it needed to be as tough as it could be. The French also could not afford to waste powder by constantly training them how to fire faster. Napoleon on the other hand knew he had a much larger man power base than any other single country; he could afford to waste his soldiers for a victory.

Some people would say this shows the genius of Wellington to use his men to the maximum of their ability; and Napoleon lacked genius because he was so willing to sacrifice them. To me it says that both of them realized their own situation and tried to maximize it as best as they could. Napoleon believed in speed, Wellington in terrain. I had also wondered why the French used the column attack, and I spent a lot of time researching different ideas on it. But speed and undertrained and international army seemed to be the most common answer to why the column was used.

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Welcome to the site! This is a very interesting answer and I second your first explanation (speed). But the other (international character of army) needs some sources to back it up - right now it's an intriguing conjecture. P.S. What's a cavalry square? –  Felix Goldberg Jan 22 '13 at 21:55
    
@FelixGoldberg probably he's referring to the infantry square, which was normally used against cavalry –  Louis Rhys Jan 23 '13 at 5:32

Columns are an aggressive formation, that work best against "inferior" (slower-firing, -marching) opponents. That's because at the point of contact, the column is very deep, which means that it has a good chance of breaking the enemy line. It's weakness is that against a well-drilled opponent, the defender will pull back the line on either side, let the attacker go through, and then slaughter the column with fire from both sides.

Most of Napoleon's opponents had inferior armies. The main exception was the British army, which was exceptionally well-drilled, and could not only deploy in line, but "refuse the line" (the standard anti-column defense used at e.g. Little Round Top by the North at Gettysburg), and form squares (against cavalry).

That's why British armies under the likes of Wellington could defeat equal or greater numbers of Frenchmen, while other countries' armies needed a superiority of numbers.

There are few inherent advantages to lines versus columns; it's all a matter of execution. Ultimately, the British executed better than the French, while others did not, which is why British lines distinguished themselves against French columns.

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+1 for the matter of execution –  American Luke Jun 7 '12 at 14:28
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Great answer. Searching on "refuse the line" is most enlightening too. The answer might benifit from a link to something there. This usually appears to be done in flanking manuvers, not attempts to break the middle by a column. Perhaps that's just because the former is much more common. –  T.E.D. Jun 13 '12 at 15:52
    
@Tom Au - I vehemently disagree with your last paragraph, which is simply wrong. How many musket balls can you fire with a 5 deep line of 30 guns firing in volley formation against a 30 deep column of 5 gun width? And how many can the enemy fire back whilst in marching order? Work it out. –  spiceyokooko Dec 5 '12 at 17:58
    
Actually, all countries knew how to form squares, it was a standard drill. –  Felix Goldberg Jan 22 '13 at 21:56
    
@FelixGoldberg: Many (not all) armies knew how to form squares. But some did it better than others. –  Tom Au Jan 23 '13 at 1:01

You have to be very careful about films about the Napoleonic Wars. First off, there aren't that many, unless you include the Richard Sharpe made for TV series and various TV miniseries, about which I will speak later.

Of the actual feature films, I think War And Peace has been made twice, the only one worth watching being the Bondarchuk version. Bondarchuk also directed Waterloo, which though accurate to a point, contained many of the myths and fallacies endemic of British histories of the battle. This owes much to nonsense written about the battle by Capt William Siborne, who was not present for it but relied on heavily on accounts provided by officers to whom he was personally indebted for substantial amounts of money. Siborne's work was heavily used by Charles Oman, whose work was even more anglo-centric in nature and a lot of fallacies make their way into the popular history. In the film Waterloo for instance, when Drouet d'Erlon's corps attacks the allied line, Wellington is heard to remark "They're coming at us in the same old way," to which Picton replies "Then we'll have to greet them in the same old way."

All nice, but it's historical nonsense of the first order. d'Erlon's corps did not advance in the "same old way" meaning meaning "colonne de bataillon par division," or the standard French battalion column. They advanced in in a rarely used formation dating back to the French Revolutionary wars knows as "colonne de division par bataillon." In this formation, all eight battallions in the division were formed in line 3 deep, with one battalion behind the the other, giving the division a frontage of approximately 200 men, 24 ranks deep. The difficulty of repelling cavalry in this formation has much to do with the the chaos caused by Uxbridge's timely charge with two brigades of British heavies, but prior to this event, they came quite close to crumpling up the left of Wellington's line.

Siborne had access to this information but didn't understand the difference between "colonne de division par bataillon" and "colonne de bataillon par division," so in his history, and most everything British that followed, the French simply advanced in the "same old way."

Making films about Napoleonic battles is expensive. Thousands of extras are needed, not to mention horses, colorful uniforms and artillery. The battle sequences are difficult to film. Not to mention that the interest in the North American (the most lucrative) market is limited since Americans weren't involved. Waterloo was a box office failure. When "Master and Commander: The Far Side Of the World" a naval film of the same era was made, the enemy had to be changed from the Americans as in the book, to French, else it would never sell in America.

The TV miniseries are just that; soap operas about Napoleon and Josephine, often with battle segments stolen from feature films and plonked in. The Sharpe TV movies are comparatively low-budget affairs, without the money most of the time to properly depict the battles described in the books. Further, Bernard Cornwell who wrote the books, is as completely Anglo-centric in his views as Siborne and Oman, and his work contains many of the same mistakes or fallacies.

As I have previously posted, the French tactical system was a flexible one that made extensive use of combined arms and out of necessity during the Wars of the French Revolution. The problems that French commanders faced in this period was that while they could field large numbers of men making heavy use of conscription, these men lacked the training and tight discipline of the long-service armies of their enemies, which were still being trained and disciplined to 18thC standards. The tactical system that evolved, was one that relied on combined arms, "élan" (momentum), permanent divisions and the evolution of the army corps, and finally, commanders promoted up through proven ability rather than by aristocratic birth or purchase of commissions.

The system worked well enough for the French to stomp all over the other armies of Europe who used linear tactics and smaller, long service armies. Pretty much all of the armies in Europe, save the British and Portuguese who were British trained, eventually adopted or copied the French organization, though they continued to promote commanders based on things other than ability.

Finally, I will add that while the British who continued to use linear tactics were an important participant in the Napoleonic Wars in terms of their naval and financial contributions, they were a very minor player on land. Wellington, the only British army commander to have much success, never had many troops available to him in Portugal and Spain and even at Waterloo, only one third of his 75,000 men were British.

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Excellent - to a point. This statement is unfortunately the opposite of the truth for a key period of the Napoleonic Wars: 1805-1812: "... these men lacked the training and tight discipline of the long-service armies of their enemies". After the Boulogne camp, the Grande Armee was far and away the best trained on the continent, but was slowly frittered away in Iberia. Consider III Corps' performance at Auerstadt: Caught debouching from a defile by an enemy twice it's size, it decisively defeated it's opponent. Yes, Davout commanded; but he commanded the force he created at Boulogne. –  Pieter Geerkens Nov 24 '13 at 16:03
    
No argument from me, however in discussing the the evolution of French tactics, my starting point is the wars of the French Revolution. By 1805, the French have kicked the snot out of most of the old armies of Europe and Napoleon has won his greatest victory at Austerlitz. –  Gary Menten Nov 26 '13 at 12:44
    
Austerlitz occurred some months after the Boulogne camp broke up to begin the Ulm campaign. –  Pieter Geerkens 2 days ago

There are few things I would point out that seem to have been missed in earlier responses. The French infantry battalion was generally composed of 6 companies; four center companies and one each of grenadiers and voltigeurs. The French regiment or demi-brigade in the early period usually had three battalions, and there were two regiments per brigade, though organization changed somewhat over the years.

The French attack column was called "colonne de battalion par division" In this formation two center companies were up front in line, two more behind, with the grenadiers formed up on the right of the front right hand company and the voltiguers either on the left, or up in front acting as a skirmish screen. Three battalions or a demi-brigade , properly spaced to allow formation changes could thus advance more quickly then if formed in line. As they got closer to the enemy, they frequently reformed to something called "Ordre Mixte." In this formation, the center battalion would form a line, with all of its companies side by side, three ranks deep, while the other two battalions would keep their column formations with the skirmishing voltigeurs now forming up on their respective battalions left flanks.

This provided a regimental frontage of 14 companies (out of 18). This formation was therefore more linear than columnar. A common practice was that once within musket range, all 14 companies would fire a volley. At this point, either the whole regiment might be ordered forward in the charge, or sometimes the center battalion in line would remain in line and continue firing as the other two charged.

These tactics actually evolved from the French Revolutionary wars specifically as a method by which large numbers of less-trained troops could crush the linear formations of highly drilled long service veterans. It was very effective, particularly with preparatory bombardment by the well-organized French artillery. The only opposing army that NOT to eventually adopt similar tactics were the British, but the ONE and only truly great general produced by England at this time was the Duke of Wellington. Wellington, was head and shoulders above in ability over any other allied commander in the Napoleonic period,and very careful to deploy his infantry on the reverse slopes of hills to shield them from observation and French Artillery, and trained one man in five in his army to serve as skirmish troops.

The other thing that's missing is that Napoleon was a master of the use of combined arms. It was not at all uncommon for Napoleon or his generals to gallop a battery of horse artillery forward, to within say about 200 yards of an enemy line,well ahead of his infantry, and at which range the musket was all but useless against a dispersed target like a battery in line but the battery could wreak havoc on the formed infantry. Then that nasty French demi-brigade would come up...

Again, this would not have worked very well against troops deployed on a reverse slope, but the Wellington seems to have been the main proponent of the reverse slope defense, and there was only one Wellington.

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+1 - Good additional info. –  T.E.D. Nov 22 '13 at 21:11

When will this myth dies its long deserved death? It is based on the blind following of Sir Charles Oman's mistaken interpretation of French tactics, arising from a misunderstanding of contemporary accounts of the Battle of Maida. You all need to read A Reappraisal of Column Versus Line in the Peninsular War by James Arnold.

The true French battle formation in the Napoleonic Wars was skirmish order, and it is with its disciplined artillery and hordes of skirmishers that the French pummelled the lines of Austrian, Prussian and Russian troops for 20 years, softening them up for a hammer blow by reserve infantry and heavy cavalry that would punch a hole through the lines and unleash a torrent of pursuit by the likes of LaSalle and Montbrun. It is noteworthy that the only other nation to train and deploy skirmishers in similar quantity and quality to the French was the British under Wellington.

The Column, whether by company or division, was a maneuver formation, which wheeled and formed (hollow) square up to 3 times faster than a line (French regulations of 1791 gave respectively 30 sec. and 100 sec. for forming square). In emergency a masse or closed-column square could often be formed even faster to defend against cavalry, a maneuver favoured by the Austrians, Prussians and Russians from their experience against the nomadic horsemen of the steppe.

For the bulk of Napoleonic battles in which they fought the French were the attacker, and hence maneuvered in column prior to deploying and giving combat. Those on the defence, without the requirement to maneuver, have the luxury of waiting in line for the assault. As noted in James Arnold's series the intent was always to deploy into line before contact (except as a coup de main), though this sometimes failed in execution.

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A possible reason for confusion is that at times a French battle column might stumble on a line before being able to deploy, especially with the reverse slope deployment Wellington favored. –  Oldcat Jun 2 at 17:13

Speed with greater numbers and fear is the primary answer here.

The marching columns main purpose was to simply get to the enemy as fast as possible and overwhelm them with superior numbers. The huge columns of soldiers marching to a rhythmic drumbeat would strike fear into the hearts of any opponent. The high casualty rate of this kind of tactic was justified by the speed of victory and was less significant for the French due to their superior numbers.

Bottom line - it was a sledge hammmer to crack a nut.

This of course didn't work particularly well against the British, despite their inferior numbers, due to their far higher discipline and better training (they didn't break and run so easily) and their greater volley firing rate.

All British redcoats could fire 3 musket balls a minute - far better than any other army.

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I'd suggest taking a second look at the "overwhelm them with superior numbers" part. The part I was quoting from in my answer was describing a scene where the column in question was marching against a unit that was far larger than itself (but also far inferior quality). That was fiction, of course, but I wouldn't be surprised to find that the same situation happened in an actual Napoleanic-era battle or two. –  T.E.D. Dec 6 '12 at 20:22
    
@T.E.D Firstly, I haven't read your answer, secondly, I know enough about the Napoleonic wars to know that generally Napoleon fielded larger armies than his opponents (and wasted more troops) and where he didn't, he won by better strategy and discipline, yet still used the column formation. Look at the sheer number of troops he marched into Russia with. –  spiceyokooko Dec 6 '12 at 20:59

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