Both sides in these debates were in general agreement about some of the basics. Clearly, the battlefield of the near-future (they did not realize HOW “near”!) would be a more violent, confusing, and dangerous place than the battlefields fought-upon by Napoleon and his opponents. Infantry could no longer maneuver in the massive columns-of-battalions that had dominated the scene at Austerlitz and Borodino. Instead, deployments and maneuvers would have to be performed by smaller, looser formations – “columns of companies”, perhaps – which would, if conditions proved more ideal than they usually did, re-unite at a pre-arranged place and time to deliver a massive traditional attack from the closest possible range. Needless to say, such maneuvers multiplied the problems of command-and-control far beyond the experience of any living officer; and nobody quite knew how those challenges would be met.
The traditional sang-froid of the artillerymen would also fade rapidly, now that rifled infantry weapons could significantly exceed the range of 6-pounders and equal the effective range of most models of 12-pounders. Napoleon’s favorite tactic consisted of massing a tremendous amount of artillery IN FRONT of his waiting infantry formations, and using the guns’ firepower to literally rip a gap in his opponents’ line, then unleashing his foot-soldiers for a final, usually unstoppable assault with the bayonet. Almost certainly, this tactic would be largely negated by the greatly enhanced range and accuracy of rifle muskets. To mass cannon for a close-range suppressing bombardment, the attacker would first have to rush them into prepared positions behind earthworks or sandbagged revetments, or reconnoiter battery positions in defilade terrain which offered the gunners some protection, but also significantly diminished their ability to mass a decisive volume of fire against the chosen point-of-attack. Experimental drawings were many, depicting field guns fitted with hinged or folding iron shields, but before the invention of welding, the only ways to affix shields for the crews’ protection also required adding considerable weight to an already very heavy object, and making it even more slow and dangerous to change the gun’s traverse under fire.
An alternative tactic that received some haft-hearted study was simply
to mass the guns out-of-sight until the battle had reached its pivotal
stage, and then rush them forward en mass to deliver a coordinated blast
of firepower that would quickly decide the outcome. Experiments were tried;
the results were dismal. A mass of field guns powerful enough to have
a “decisive”, battle-winning effect, was also massive enough
to generate a hopeless traffic snarl in full view of the enemy’s
gunners (and now, his riflemen) who would slaughter so many gun crews
and horses that the survivors, by the time they reached a suitable firing
position and had unlimbered their pieces, would be too few and too terrified
to deliver anything more than a feeble blow at best.
So, although the future of artillery tactics was debated with considerable heat, nobody had the slightest idea how the matter would shake-down in real combat.
The odd-man-out, on both sides of the debate, was the cavalry. Only under rare and very fleeting circumstances would it ever again be possible to launch a grand cavalry charge after the manner of the Scots Grays at Waterloo. To achieve the full tempo and momentum required for such an all-out charge to strike with optimum force, the horses had to begin gradual acceleration while still roughly 1200 yards from their target. In 1815, that meant the charge could gather momentum through the first 900 or so yards, troubled only by a random sprinkling of shells, and that the enemy drawn up in a square to meet them, would have time to fire two, at most three volleys, before the colossal mass of horses and riders smote them. Obviously, when the intended targets’ soldiers could start emptying saddles at 1000 yards, the charge, by the time it struck, would be no tsunami, but a battered little ripple. Cavalry would be still play a vital role in future conflicts, but not as the primary offensive weapon it had traditionally been. As reconnaissance scouts, raiders, foragers, and pursuers-of-the-broken, good horse soldiers were still essential; but there would be no more mass charges, with all their attendant glory and excitement, until the Last Hurrah in September, 1918, when General Allenby’s gallant Australian Light Horse spearheaded a corps-sized attack – which included a bit of an old-fashioned charge now and then -- that tore-open the Turkish line protecting Megeddo and Damascus (helped to a VERY small extent by T.E. Lawrence’s Arab cut-throats, who mostly contented themselves with skulking around the rear of the collapsing Turkish left, massacring stragglers and pausing to loot anything that caught their fancy, from mirrors to gramophone horns).
The consensus gradually emerged that the most effective use of cavalry,
on both sides of any future conflict, would be as dismounted mobile infantry,
which in fact proved to be the case (most decisively on the opening day
of Gettysburg). On that issue, both the Futurists and the Skeptics were
in general agreement, much to the disgruntlement of many cavalrymen, who
kept trying to dream up ways to rekindle the former glamour of their service,
but couldn’t come up with anything until the invention of the tank,
which was not quite the same.
Stay tuned for next month's installment...