Infantry square


Infantry square

An infantry square is a combat formation an infantry unit formed in close order assumes when threatened with cavalry attack. [citebook|title=History of the Art of War|author=Hans Delbrück|year= 1990|publisher=University of Nebraska Press|id=ISBN 0803265867]

Early history

The formation was described by Plutarch and used by the Romans, and was developed from an earlier circular formation.Fact|date=June 2008

The Han Empire's mounted infantry forces effectively utilized tactics involving highly mobile infantry square formations in conjunction with light cavalry in their many engagements against the primarily cavalry Xiongnu nomad armies in the 1st century CE. Infantry squares were used in the siege of the nomads' mountain settlements near the Gobi region, where Han forces repelled nomad lancer attacks.Fact|date=June 2008

The square was revived in the 14th century as the "schiltron", and later appeared as the pike square or tercio, and was widely used in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. [A detailed exposition of the square in action and much else is contained in a book by the British General Richard Kane, printed in 1745 after his death: “A New System of Military Discipline for a Battalion of Foot on Action; With the Most Essential Exercise of the Cavalry, Adorned with a Map of the Seat of War and A Plan to the Exercise”. [http://www.bonaventura.co.uk/discipline.html] ]

Forming square

The formation (as used in the Napoleonic Wars) took the form of a hollow square, or sometimes a rectangle, with each side composed of two or more ranks of soldiers armed with single-shot muskets or rifles with fixed bayonets. Generally, a battalion (approx. 500 to 1,000 men) was the smallest force used to form a square. The unit's colours and commander were positioned in the center, along with a reserve force to reinforce any side of the square weakened by attacks. A square of 500 men in four ranks, such as those formed by Wellington's army at Waterloo, was a tight formation less than twenty metres in length upon any side. Once formed in square, the infantry would volley fire at approaching cavalry, either by file or by rank. In successful actions, the infantry would often withhold fire until the charging horses and men were some 30 meters from the square; the resulting casualties to the attackers would eventually form piles of dead and wounded horses and their riders which would obstruct further attacks.

Undisciplined or early fire by the infantry would be ineffective against the attacking cavalry and leave the foot soldiers with empty muskets. The cavalrymen could then approach to very short range while the infantry was reloading, where they could fire at the infantry with their pistols, slash at them with sabres or stab them with lances (if equipped with these weapons.)

Firing too late (with cavalry within 20 meters), although more effective in hitting the target, could result in a fatally-wounded horse falling into the infantry ranks and creating a gap, permitting the surviving horsemen to enter the square and break it up from within. However, this was a very rare event.

While it was vital for squares to stand firm in the face of a charge, they were not static formations. Astute commanders could, in suitable terrain, maneuver squares to mass fire and even trap cavalry, as the French managed against the Ottomans at Mount Tabor (1799). Squares could also be arranged in a checkerboard formation to give supporting fire as cavalry moved between them.

At Waterloo (1815) the four-rank squares of the Allied forces withstood eleven cavalry charges (unsupported by either horse artillery or infantry.) At Lützen (1813), despite infantry and light artillery support, Allied cavalry charges failed to break green French troops. Similarly, impressive infantry efforts were seen at Jena-Auerstedt (1806), Pultusk (1806), Fuentes de Onoro (1811) and Krasnoi (1812). If a square was broken, as happened at Rio Seco (1808) or at Quatre Bras (1815), the infantry could suffer many casualties, although brave and well-disciplined infantry could recover even from this disaster.

Breaking a square

Attacking cavalry would attempt to "break a square" by causing it to lose its cohesion, either by charging to induce poorly-disciplined infantry to flee before making contact, or by causing casualties through close-range combat (see above).

Cavalry charges were made in closely-packed formations, and were often aimed at the corners of the square (the weakest points of the formation.) Feints and false attacks would also be used to make the infantry "throw away their fire" by causing them to fire too early. However, if the infantrymen were well-disciplined and held their ground, the cavalryman's dream to "ride a square into red ruin" would not be realized, and such an event was the exception rather than the rule in the history of warfare.

However, the most effective way to break a square was not by direct cavalry attack, but by the use of artillery. To be truly effective, such artillery fire had to be delivered at close range. A 20-metre wide infantry square was a small and difficult target for field artillery firing from within or just in front of its own army's lines, typically 600 or more metres away, at which range most rounds could be expected to miss. Instead, the attackers would usually try to deploy horse artillery accompanying the cavalry. The presence of the cavalry would cause the infantry to form square, but the closely-packed infantrymen would then become targets for the artillery - the cohesion of the square would break under their fire, making it much easier for the cavalry to press home the attack. Combined attacks by infantry and cavalry would also have the same effect - the defending infantry unit would be placed in the difficult position of either forming square and being shot to pieces by the attacking infantry (which would usually be in line formation), or being ridden down by the cavalry if it decided to remain in line while trading volleys with the attacking infantry.

In addition, if the cavalry could catch an infantry unit before it formed square properly, the horsemen could usually inflict severe casualties, if not destroy the unit completely. Quatre Bras (1815) saw several examples of this, with several British units being surprised at close range by French cavalry hidden by the terrain. Other circumstances that could lead to a successful cavalry attack included sudden rainstorms soaking the infantry's gunpowder and effectively reducing their weapons to pikes, or a mortally-wounded horse in full gallop crashing into the square, opening a gap that could be exploited, as happened at the battle of Garcia Hernandez, shortly after Salamanca (1812).

Later use

There is only one confirmed use of an infantry square against cavalry in the American Civil War, this square was formed by the Thirty-Second Indiana Volunteer Infantry at the Battle of Rowlett's Station, December 17, 1861 and used against the famous Confederate cavalry regiment, Terry's Texas Rangers. The square was used again in the late 19th century by European armies against indigenous warriors, most notably by the British at Ulundi (1879). However, this was different in form from the Napoleonic formation:

:"The new square was not simply infantry in static defence but a large, close-packed formation of some 1,000 to 1,500 men, capable of slow movement with ranks of infantry or cavalry forming the four sides and artillery, wheeled machine guns, transport carts, baggage animals and their handlers in the centre. Such a square could only survive where the enemy were without modern firearms." [ "Fuzzy-Wuzzy; Notes on the text" (by Roger Ayers) at [http://www.kipling.org.uk/rg_fuzzywuzzy1.htm#square www.kipling.org.uk] ]

In a large battle of the colonial wars, a British square held out for two days in a remote area near Lake Victoria, fighting off assaults by French-armed native troops until reinforcements arrived. The British forces inflicted over 1,600 casualties on their opponents while only suffering six themselves.Fact|date=December 2007

Rudyard Kipling's poem "Fuzzy-Wuzzy" refers to two incidents in the Mahdist War (the battles of Tamai and Abu Klea) where British squares were broken.

References and notes

Further reading

External links


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