Infantry squares.

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Infantry squares.

Postby Thorpe » 06 Feb 2018 22:40

Can someone tell me how much space would have been allotted to each man in the face of an infantry square? I'm currently reading Mike Snook's book 'Beyond the Reach of Empire', and I understand him to be saying that each man would have occupied about three feet from side to side - i.e. a rank of ten men would have formed a frontage of about 10 yards. Is this correct, or have I misunderstood him?
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Re: Infantry squares.

Postby Will Mathieson » 07 Feb 2018 02:30

Abu Klea square
Abu-Klea Battle birs eye view.jpg
Abu-Klea Battle birs eye view.jpg (189.07 KiB) Viewed 297 times
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Re: Infantry squares.

Postby rd72 » 07 Feb 2018 04:37

Hi there. By the book (the 1877 Field Exercise) when forming a battalion square, the dressing of the men does not change. It is given as 24" and "lightly touching at the elbow" when standing at attention.

It is important to realize that the squares used in these Victorian battles weren't the same kind of beasts that battalion squares (of Waterloo fame) were. These latter versions were used to repel cavalry... I'd have to get into the books to refresh whether or not the square at Abu Klea (which was an "Army" formation rather than a unit one) was in two ranks or four... regardless, by the book, the same frontage applies. That said, surely when moving, things got a bit stretched out as marching 2 feet from your mate is exceptionally difficult under the best of circumstances let alone crossing rough desert strewn with stones and such.

I'm sure that the good Colonel will be able to confirm the depth of the formation (two ranks or four) at the drop of a hat.
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Re: Infantry squares.

Postby ED, in Los Angeles » 07 Feb 2018 05:03

Now come on Will. That is a pretend image of Abu Klea. Uniform colors are wrong and the movement of the Ansar needs adjusting. Where are the disabled volley guns, surrounded by their dead crews?
This image is from the cover of Mike Snook's, "Go Strong Into The Desert". ... u-clea.jpg

Here is the most realistc "point of first contact" image that there is regarding authenticity of uniform and gear. Note different colored puggarees and field expedient shoulder patches. In not too many seconds from this artists view in time, the whole portion of this affected line of the square will be hammered by soft lead Martini projectiles, as the opposite side of the square will reel around 180 degrees and open up on Ansar and British alike in order to prevent a disasterous defeat. Bullets will thud against Dervish torsos and limbs bringing the enemy down by the hundreds. Grey tunic'ed Brits will be shot by their own guns, and cloth and cork helmets will be grazed by hot lead. The dead and dying will be three deep on the ground. The Gardner volley guns are outside of the square, surrounded by their dead crews who vainly tried to unjam the heavy wheeled, double barreled weapon.
And oh yes, the column was out of drinking water. When the column arrived at Abu Klea wells, the cloudy water gave everybody mild diarrhea, and for hours, the men's urine would be dark, dark brown, almost black, from dehydration.

Another image. ... Wollen.jpg
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Re: Infantry squares.

Postby mike snook » 07 Feb 2018 10:59


Harry if I may,

The square at Abu Klea was two ranks deep, plus the 'supernumerary' rank of which more in a moment. Theoretically four ranks would be more 'usual' for a 'receive cavalry' square, but this was an old horse and musket era tactic being adapted to confront a new enemy, so 'usual' did not really apply. Brigadier-General Stewart was of the opinion that two ranks would suffice. Notwithstanding things went awry at Abu Klea, he was right. Two should have been enough. It is my view that four deep would not have prevented penetration of the square anyway, while its adoption would have halved the available firepower per face - which would be much more likely to make a scrimmage inevitable. Additionally a four deep formation would not have had sufficient internal capacity to accommodate the baggage camels carrying important materiel like reserve ammunition, or hospital animals fitted with cacolet seats or stretchers, with which wounded men could be carried forward with the fighting echelon.

In file formation, or line, each 'file' (one rear rank soldier covered off behind a front rank one) operated pretty much shoulder to shoulder occupying a frontage, according to the book, of 24 inches. In 'extended order', which by 1884-5 would be regarded as the more usual manner of fighting, (unless you happened to be confronting fundamentalist fanatics in the Sudan!), the formation could be lengthened by an unspecified number of 'paces' between 'files'. (A pace is 30 inches). Four paces could be considered 'the norm' in as much as anything was 'normal' in extended order. The square at Abu Klea was obviously not in extended order, though it was occasionally in disorder (!), which in some sense was much the same thing.

Let's now consider front to rear. The infantry line can be in 'close' order or 'open' order. In some sense these terms have come to be understood differently from their contemporaneous meaning, partly because of the great span of military history and also because of the different practices and terminology used in various national armies. A lot of people use 'open order' where, if one is talking of the British military in the Victorian age, they should more properly say 'extended order'. So in the British Victorian sense 'close order' and 'open order' govern the interval between the front and the rear rank. In 'close order' the rear rank men are only one pace (30 inches) from the front rank men. In 'open order' they are two paces back. The 'supernumerary' rank, which consists of officers (in defence), sergeants and drummers/buglers etc, and is much more thinly populated, is likewise either one or two paces back from the rear rank. So, in taking open order, both the rear rank men and the supernumeraries take two paces back in response to the executive word of command. Job done. To resume close order, two paces forward. Job done.

To return to the particulars of the question. Yes, I have allowed a hypothetical one yard per two-rank file in calculating frontages, which is obviously an extra foot over the 24 inches of the 'infantry drill'. There's really two reasons for that. First this isn't the drill square at Horse Guards, (where nobody fires volleys); rather it's an undulating piece of rock-strewn desert. People give themselves that little bit more room to prevent the constant jostling effect that would otherwise arise from being dead shoulder to shoulder. Secondly, in order to fire, the book states that the rear rank men in the file come up on the left side of the front rank men. I have estimated the effect of these two things as being an extra foot per file. To be clear: two soldiers to each three feet of frontage where a company has turned towards the enemy and intends to fire a volley.

I think if you kept reading you will by now have probably confirmed exactly what I mean to your own satisfaction anyway.

I think I've been technically correct in describing the practice, but this sort of stuff is the forte of the living history/re-enactor groups and I welcome any additional erudite comment from amongst their ranks [pardon the pun!].

Best Wishes


PS. If you would like to know more of the intimate details, you should be able to obtain a reprint copy of the 1877 edition of 'Field Exercise and Evolutions of Infantry' tolerably cheaply.
Last edited by mike snook on 07 Feb 2018 17:44, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Infantry squares.

Postby timothylrose » 07 Feb 2018 12:50

This is a fairly good representation of the formation Mike is talking about -
from the Four Feathers 2002 it gives a good idea and the drill etc is on the money -
pleasure to be involved in it all ... ction=view
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Re: Infantry squares.

Postby NWMPMoose » 07 Feb 2018 15:18

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Re: Infantry squares.

Postby Thorpe » 07 Feb 2018 18:55

Thanks, everyone, for helping me out with this, and responding so quickly.

That clip from 'The Four Feathers' made me wonder if the camels were packing fresh pairs of underpants for after the battle (not for themselves, like).

Special thanks to Mike for his extensive and detailed reply, which has given me a good deal of stuff to ponder. I'm actually immersed in your book ('Beyond the Reach of Empire') at the moment, Mike - I'm taking it slowly and savouring every fascinating detail. My cousin Joe (thrice removed) must have got a shock when he saw the Bayuda Desert, after spending his first twenty years in the Lincolnshire fen country. The contrast couldn't have been more extreme. After being discharged from the RHG in 1902, he returned home with the Welsh girl he'd married in London, and took over a pub in Freiston, a few miles east of Boston, Lincs, called The Bull & Dog. He held the job until he died in 1916, from the combined effects of cirrhosis of the liver and heart failure. At some point thereafter, his wife Elizabeth went home to Wales. I'm hoping I'll eventually be able to locate descendants of their siblings, who might, if I'm really lucky, still have some photos and memorabila.

Yes, Mike, it's fine to call me Harry. I wanted to use my real name as my user name, but the machine seemed to be telling me it was already being used by someone else, so I chose a place name with family connections instead.
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