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In an infantry formation, the front ranks seems to have much higher chance of being killed because they are exposed to the enemy front.

This thread explains how soldiers are arranged in Roman military formation. In the 18th-19th century era line infantry, what usually decides who goes in front? It seems unfair if just one person has to be in front all the time.. And if there is any consistent rule, how is it enforced? Or there is no preference at all, so it just depends on luck whether you get the front rank or not?

To clarify, I'm especially interested in the personal (the soldier) point of view regarding this, i.e. why they would want to be in what must be an unfairly disadvantaged position, but some insight about the tactical consideration is also welcome

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What military are you referring to? I believe many of the British infantry from that time tended to be of the "lower classes" or were criminals given the choice to serve so would not have had any choice. French foot soldiers, especially under Napoleon, might have been different. –  MichaelF Oct 11 '12 at 20:15
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2 Answers

From what I learned in military strategy classes in OCS, the line infantry for pretty much all militaries in the 18th and 19th centuries consisted primarily of ill-equipped, poorly trained conscripts. These were men who either chose the military rather than going to prison, or enlisted because there was no other job to be had. Either way, the one thing they all had in common was that they were expendable.

In those days, it was typical to send in a line of infantry to test the strengths and weaknesses of your enemy. Since these foot soldiers were expendable anyway, you could march them out to see where the enemy had their cannons placed and to see what kinds of weapons they might have available. It also helped to reveal certain formations that may not have been obvious. It also sometimes served to give you an idea as to how motivated or experienced your enemy might be.

In some militaries, they had such overwhelming quantities of line infantrymen that they could simply use them to overrun enemy emplacements. Once they had managed to break through the opposing lines, the better trained troops and/or cavalry would follow them through and engage the enemy's more elite troops.

(If you ever wondered where the term "cannon fodder" came from, it was these types of front line troops.)

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Wellington may have thought his men "the scum of the Earth", but he guarded and protected them as closely as a jealous lover. Likewise for Der Alte Fitz, Frederick the Great himself. –  Pieter Geerkens Jan 11 at 4:09
    
An example of this is when he ordered his troops to lie down just over the crest of a hill to protect them from cannon fire at Waterloo. –  Kobunite Jan 11 at 17:27
    
Sorry Steve but "ill-equipped, poorly trained conscripts" is ridiculous. Exceptions include all of: The Grande Armee anytime post 1805; Austrian 1st and 2nd battalions in 1809 [John H. Gill, Thunder on the Danube - the 3rd battalions were untrained]; Prussians anytime (the officer corps had much rot pre-1808 but the troops were professionals); British anytime; Bavarians 1809 & 1813 [ibid]. –  Pieter Geerkens Jan 12 at 5:47
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Any unit required to execute formed battle-field drill is likely to size-off regularly in order to place the smaller men in the middle of the line, and the larger men on both wings. This is done in order to minimize unit disruption while wheeling in either direction.

The modern means of sizing off is to:

  • Line up in order of decreasing height;
  • Count off with every odd man stepping forward;
  • Fold the advanced half-line to the short end of the other, to place the larger men on both wings; and finally
  • Count off a second time with every odd man stepping forward.

Unless one was vey near the either end of the line, and knew whether it was a odd=man forward or an odd-man backward day, one couldn't effectively or reliably maneuver onself into the second line instead of the first.

The Canadian Forces Drill Manual describes more elegant means of sizing off on pages 2-26 to 2-29, including the technique illustrated below from a single rank in which the tallest individuals have formed to the right and the shortest to the left:

Figure 2-17  Sizing in Single Rank

Interestingly, according to this 1803 British Volunteer Cavalry drill manual cavalry preferred to put the taller mounted-riders in the centre, with the shorter on the wings. This reversal may be favoured by cavalry because the rider not the horse determines the overall height, and thus the horses carrying the lesser weight perform the speedup on wheeling.

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This is exactly what I was thinking of. :-) Nice answer! –  Kobunite Jan 11 at 13:53
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