I'm watching a documentary on the Boer War and apparently, during the Victorian era, the British Army commonly employed their infantry in "quarter column". I've tried to look it up, but can't find any additional info. What is it? What is "quarter column"?

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According to British Army regulation, a column is a formation of soldiers in which each company of a battalion forms a line, and each line follows behind another line.

In column, each company is placed at a distance equal to its own breadth from the one immediately in front. A battalion in column thus occupies the same ground that it would cover in line, less the front of its leading company. A half column is formed with the companies at half distance. A quarter column is formed with the companies at 6 paces distance.

(I know that this is the 1870 manual and not the most recent version that would have been in use in the Boer Wars, but the text was unchanged and I can't find any later editions online).

In fact, there is a photo of a British Army battalion in South Africa in quarter column on page 58 of British Infantryman in South Africa 1877-81 by Ian Castle (Osprey 2003). As you can see, it is a close formation which would have left them vulnerable against an entrenched enemy, as at Magersfontein.

  • If half column means the distance is halved, why doesn't quarter column means the distance is quartered?
    – Louis Rhys
    Feb 20, 2013 at 5:23
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    @LouisRhys I'm sure that is how the term originated, halving the half. At such distances it was probably easier and more consistent to count paces than to eyeball one half of one half of the width of the column, but that is just speculation on my part.
    – choster
    Feb 20, 2013 at 20:19
  • @LouisRhys: It's just a military shorthand. For instance, "on the double" means at double speed, that is 6 mph instead of 3 mph.
    – Tom Au
    Apr 2, 2013 at 21:24

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