In Napoleonic wars era, a line contains mostly regular troops except for two kind of elite units, the heavy one, e.g. grenadiers, they normally are the bravest, strongest troops with the best stamina, suitable for shock troops which is posted to the right, and the light one who are normally the best shooters/skirmishers, normally posted in the left flank.

What is the advantage or the motivation of this particular arrangement? I could somehow understand why the best units are posted at flanks , possibly to allow or guard against flanking attacks, but why is there preference to post best storm troops to the right and best shooters to the left (as opposed to the other way around, or have it symmetrical)?

  • Do you have any examples?
    – Luke_0
    Commented Sep 27, 2012 at 22:04
  • Generally speaking, large set-piece battles are a battle for the flanks, so placing your best troops there is good practice. Having said that, tactics varied for each battle, if you read through the battle reports of the time they involve a lot of throwing units into the fray and onto the line as they arrived and adapting to the situation as it evolved. A deployment that rigid wasn't always possible.
    – Odysseus
    Commented May 2, 2013 at 4:44

3 Answers 3


This was an expression of the "traditional" order of fighting, elite troops, in the position of order on the right; lesser troops on the left.

The battle of Leuctra cited in another answer was an exception. But many military dispositions were not so rational. In the battle of Camden in the American Revolution, the British-trained American general, Horatio Gates was criticized by Alexander Hamilton for using this model. Hamilton opined that the best defensive ground was to the American right, and should have protected the worst troops, and the best attacking ground was to the left, better for America's elite troops.

  • Aren't skirmishers (normally the best shooters) considered elite as well? Why did they get the left flank?
    – Fitri
    Commented Sep 30, 2012 at 5:28
  • Also, I suppose you mean this custom originated from the Greek tradition? But if it survived all the way through the Napoleonic Wars era, it must have some advantages for gunpowder infantry as well?
    – Fitri
    Commented Sep 30, 2012 at 5:32
  • @filtri: Skirmishers are good, but often "irregular" troops that perform the role of "assassins." As such, they would be placed in front of the enemy's elite troops, their right, your left.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Sep 30, 2012 at 13:07
  • @Fitri: Yes, it did matter in Napoleonic and Frederickan warfare; see my answer: history.stackexchange.com/questions/3236/… Commented Jan 12, 2014 at 23:13

This is basically oblique order. The idea is to crush one flank of the enemy with the strong force, turn it 90° and defeat the enemy in detail. The remainder of your troops keep the enemy busy on the other flank.

You put your heavy troops on the strong flank because they need the most strength (they need to break the line). The light troops are more useful for skirmishing. Their job here is to keep the enemy occupied. If the enemy penetrates your skirmishers, it is all over for your army. If the enemy realizes that your army is employing this tactic too soon, they will all fall on the strong flank and it will be crushed.

This technique was first used in Greece in the third century BC, but was most famously used by Frederick II of Prussia. Napoleon greatly admired Frederick II, and it is more than conceivable that Napoleon developed these tactics directly from him.

Oblique Order

  • 1
    I think in your example the whole line other than the strong flank needs to fix the enemy line... Also, why is the heavy flank consistently in the right (instead of left?)
    – Fitri
    Commented Sep 28, 2012 at 15:13
  • 3
    I don't quite follow your first sentence, but as to right and left, that is dependent on many factors. It is not always on the right. Terrain, and intelligence are the key factors. There has to be enough room for your strong flank to maneuver. Also, if you know one flank of the enemy is weaker, you'll want to place your strong flank on that side. There are many other factors involved; there is no rule that the strong flank must be on the right. For example, the Battle of Leuctra had the strong flank on the left.
    – Luke_0
    Commented Sep 28, 2012 at 17:40

In the French Army of Napoleon size was not the critical qualifier for being a grenadier - experience and bravery was. Certainly diminutive size would disqualify a soldier from being eligible for the grenadier company of his battalion (but in turn making him eligible for the voltigeur company), but average size was sufficient (and a moustache was de rigeur).

Further, the internal layout of particular battalions was irrelevant for any battle larger than brigade on brigade, which virtually all Napoleonic battles were.

However, the martialing of troops onto the battlefield had long been done by having each unit send guides to mark out the right hand end of its intended deployment. Why the right hand end/side of the unit was chosen was simply traditional, and continued because everyone else did it, and all the drill manuals assumed it. However guides were sent to only one end/side of the unit because if the soldiers had to keep turning their heads to follow two sets of guides, this was certain to disrupt the unit as soldiers swung their heads from side to side and stepped on each other's heels.

Now, given that the guides were on the right hand end/side of the unit, and every soldier's eyes were angled right to follow the guides, where is the most correct and conspicuous place to put your most experienced troops, on whom all other eyes would be set? The right hand side of the unit. Hence the reason for placing the grenadiers, the bravest and most experienced men of the unit, on the right hand side as a model for all the rest of the battalion to emulate; the true place of honour.

The second elite company of the battalion, the voltigeurs, were designated to occupy the left hand end of the unit because they were in practice almost never there. In almost all circumstances they were detached as skirmishers either in front of, or to both flanks of, the battalion.

  • Yes, Napoleon mandated that all grenadiers must wear a mustache, the bigger and bushier the better. This was certainly desired to add a fearsome aspect to the unit, but also perhaps to ensure a certain maturity by all grenadiers. I certainly couldn't grow a decent one until about 25. Commented Jan 13, 2014 at 0:54

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