The Essentials of Good Skirmishing To which are added a brief system of common light infantry drill
THE ESSENTIALS OF GOOD SKIRMISHING
|I. The Essentials of Good Skirmishing||13|
|II. A system of Common Light Infantry Drill, adapted to the Long Range Rifle||35|
|III. A Method of Practice for the Speedy Acquirement of Proficiency in the Use of the Rifle||51|
|IV. Short Observations on Dress and Appointments||59|
PREFACE TO THE SECOND EDITION.
Under the immense increase which is now taking place inthe length of range and accuracy in effect of small arms,there must, of necessity, come an increase of the importanceof skill in skirmishing. The reconnoissances of mountedstaff officers, the patrolling, skirmishing, and menacing ofcharges by small bodies of cavalry, and even the action ofartillery on that very large proportion of the surface of theearth in which vision is limited to at most one thousandyards, will be greatly controlled by the accurate and distantinfantry marksman. Nay, even columns and linesof infantry will now only be able to repel his power ofdestructive annoyance by meeting him with troops inextended order. Of old, if he pressed too near to a closedbody of infantry, an impatient volley might sweep him andhis comrades into annihilation, but now, ensconced in hisdistant cover, he may “beard the lion in his den,” a battalionof infantry in position, with something like impunity.
With this distant power of the individual skirmisher,however, there stand connected increased difficulties ofcombination with his surrounding and supporting comrades.Such general unity of action is most important attimes for reasonable security, and always for the productionof general and total effects.
These advantages must depend, more than ever, uponwell-impressed individual acquaintance with the essentialprinciples of good skirmishing.
Under these considerations the following pages, whichwere received at the time of their first publication withpublic and private testimonials of approbation, are reprinted,with some corrections and additions to make themsuitable to the present standard of military efficiency, andwith remarks which may be useful, at this period, uponlight infantry drill, rifle practice, dress, and appointments.
PREFACE TO THE FIRST EDITION.
Some high continental military authorities have of lateyears proclaimed that British soldiers are incapable, ornext to incapable, of acting as light infantry. Than thisannouncement there never was a clearer illustration of thegolden maxim, “Assertions are not proofs.” If our censorshad taken the trouble to search for evidence, southernand western Europe would have told them, that in theseportions of the civilized world there have not been known,in the middle and modern ages, light troops superior tothose of Britain. In archers, the light infantry of “theolden time,” by what nation in the world was Englandsurpassed? Her troops of this class, the direct forefathersof a large proportion of our present soldiery, gained forthemselves a name that might, one would think, havesounded even to the shores of the Baltic, which at leasthas rung upon every ear familiar with the tales of Poictiers,Cressy, and Agincourt. All of these, as described byforeign pens, were won mainly by the skill and conductof the British bowmen. At Cressy 12,000 Genoese, thenthe most renowned light troops of continental Europe,were driven like chaff before unerring cloth-yard shaftsfrom the tough old English yew.
Had our critics inquired concerning more modern warfare,their Hessian neighbours would have told them thatin the North American revolutionary contest, in that sixyears’ war of surprises, skirmishes, and ambuscades, amongunequalled woods and wildernesses, the British soldier inhimself was more than a match for the skirmisher-bredAmerican woodsman; and, to say the least, as alert andintelligent at the outposts as his well-trained Germanfellow-combatants. The struggle, indeed, ended unsuccessfullyto Britain; but, let the blame rest where it may, itcannot be thrown upon the British soldier; he never cameshort of his duty.
In the protracted and astonishing conquest of Hindoostan,which had some European inimical spectators, theflank companies of battalions did three-fourths of thework; not only concentrated at the breach and escalade,but also, when necessity required it, extended in thejungle.
And to come to those contests which offer the fairestestimate of the British soldier as he now is, and withwhich all civilized military critics may be expected to havebecome acquainted, the European campaigns of the Dukeof Wellington; it is not sounding an empty boast, but anote of most sober and honest truth to say, that, than theBritish light troops of his army, better never guarded acamp or fought in a skirmish. In a fluctuating war ofeight campaigns, over many hundred miles of varyingcountry, opposed to the bravest and most intelligent soldiersof the continent, none were ever more constantlyconquerors in action or more successfully vigilant onoutpost duty.
It is true, indeed, that the British light infantry manhas a practical system in some important particularspeculiar to himself; and in none more so than that,under all circumstances, he continues the well-disciplinedsoldier, never systematically assuming the character of theloose, lawless, free-corps freebooter. From this lastpeculiarity may have arisen the incorrect impressions ofour foreign contemporaries. We, however, glory in thedifference, and affirm that stern discipline and high soldier-likeprinciple must form the basis of thorough militaryefficiency to the full as much in the light and extendedservices, as in those of a more concentrated description.
Free corps originate in long internal wars. Happilyfor Britain, she of late has not been distinguished for suchnurseries of irregular military skill; but when her territorieswere desolated by them, there were not wantingbodies of this description as active, intelligent, and enterprisingas any that ever graced the continent of Europe.
To assist in keeping up the remembrance of theessentials of the practical system of the modern Britishlight infantry man, in that important branch of his duty,skirmishing; in order that foreigners, whatever be theirtheories, may continue to receive, when necessity requiresit, practical evidence that British soldiers can act as lightinfantry, is the principal object of the Author in submittingto the army the following observations.
THE ESSENTIALS OF GOOD SKIRMISHING.
Skirmishing is the art of fighting, with numbers insufficientto occupy, in close order, the ground contested.
In light infantry or skirmishing drill, as in all otherinstruction, the principal art is, to dwell forcibly on thingsreally essential; moderately on things merely important;and lightly on things nearly indifferent.
To good skirmishing there are eight essentials:—
1. Active Intelligence.
2. Correct Firing.
3. Daring Courage.
4. Making the best of Cover.
5. Presenting the smallest possible Marks to theEnemy’s Fire.
6. Maintaining Extension from, and Dependenceon, a given File of Direction.
7. Preserving a sufficient Readiness to resistCavalry.
8. A judicious Employment of Supports andReserves.
Very deficient in any of these qualifications, skirmisherscannot be of the first order. Possessing them all inreasonable proficiency, skirmishers must be very good, letthe character of their other attainments and systems ofdrill be whatever it may.
The life and especial mark of the good skirmisher isActive Intelligence.
In the ranks, the closer men attain to a state of unreflectingmechanism, with nothing of mind but attention,the nearer they are to true soldier-like perfection. Not athought should arise, an eye-ball turn, or a finger tremble,but in obedience, and that obedience should be accurateand instantaneous as the word. Not so the skirmisher;within certain limits he is his own general, and must thinkfor himself. From the moment that he “shakes out”from the elbows of his right and left comrades, reflectionmust awake, and, in due dependence on a broad establishedsystem, be energetically directed to gain every advantageon the opposing foe.
The French as skirmishers excel in active intelligence.Every man manœuvres as if the fate of the day dependedupon his conceptions. Their ability, in this particular,may spring in a great degree from the looseness of theirinstruction practice of all field exercise. This, while it isill calculated to make steady soldiers at close order, is welladapted to give free scope to the natural intelligence ofskirmishers.
The mechanical stiffness, formerly much seen in Britishlight infantry, arose, there can scarcely be a question, fromthe formality of our old ordinary mode of applying thesystem of light infantry drill. The automatonism, properto the ranks, was extended to skirmishers, and they alsowere taught to move only as they were wound up. Theindignation of the drill instructor was poured out, notupon men who failed in the first-rate essentials of goodskirmishing, but upon those who erred a foot in dressingor in distance—who did not step off, halt, or fire, preciselyat the sound of the whistle or elevation of the signal fire-lock—whoseunmusical ears refused to distinguish amidthe endless variety of bugled orders—who could not runlike racers, or who ran bewildered in some of the intricateevolutions, which were supposed to crown the very pinnacleof skirmishing perfection. Some corps did not drillaccording to this erroneous method, others did not carryit to its full extent; but, taking the army as a whole,unreflecting precision in the details of skirmishing was itssystem, and to this day that system has its votaries.
It is no small proof of the strength of natural intelligencein British soldiers, that, when brought into actualservice, they broke through the fettered stiffness of theirinstruction drill, let go what was indifferent in it, clung tothat which was important, and soon rivalled their intelligentand experienced opponents.
The true summit of perfection in skirmishing is, thepreservation of order in disorder and of system in confusion;for the circumstances which accompany skirmishes ofnecessity produce, almost always, more or less mixture,inversion, and general irregularity. In hot contests overlarge extents of intricate ground, men of different companiesregiments, brigades, and even divisions, mingle with eachother. Soldiers should therefore be drilled, not indeed tofall into such irregularities on principle, but to be ready forthem in practice. They should be made at times to skirmishin inverted companies, mixed companies, and mixed regiments—toform good skirmishing lines out of confusedmasses—to concentrate from similar mixed bodies intosquares to resist cavalry, or into lines or columns for thepurposes of charging or defending streets of villages, orother defiles—to extend again rapidly, and to performevery necessary evolution as if no mixture or irregularityhad occurred.
Such movements, when inculcated as