In the annals of early modern warfare, the line formation emerged as a standard tactical arrangement that revolutionized the way armies engaged in battle. This formation, which found its roots in the ancient phalanx and medieval shield wall, involved arranging infantry soldiers armed with polearms in several ranks, typically ranging from two to five, with three being the most common.

The line formation offered a formidable frontage for volley fire, allowing soldiers to unleash a devastating barrage of projectiles upon their enemies. However, this advantage came at the cost of maneuverability and vulnerability to cavalry attacks. Despite these drawbacks, the line formation proved its worth during the Age of Reason, particularly in the hands of military genius Frederick the Great and his adversaries during the Seven Years’ War.

To maintain the integrity of the line, soldiers were positioned in close proximity to one another, usually within arm’s length, with just enough space to present their weapons, fire, and reload. Each rank was separated by approximately half a meter, and the success of the formation relied heavily on the discipline and training of the troops. Non-commissioned officers (NCOs) played a crucial role in maintaining order, using their long polearms to “dress” the ranks and ensure that soldiers aimed their weapons correctly.

While the line formation proved effective in delivering concentrated firepower, it had its limitations. Movement in this formation was slow and cumbersome, and any breakdown in cohesion could spell disaster, especially in uneven or wooded terrain. As a result, troops often moved in columns and only deployed into line formation upon reaching their destination.

One of the most glaring weaknesses of the line formation was its vulnerability to cavalry charges, particularly from the flanks and rear. Unless the unit could quickly transition into a square formation, such attacks often resulted in the complete destruction of the line.

During the Napoleonic Wars, the British Army adopted a unique two-rank line formation to compensate for their numerical disadvantage and maximize their firepower. This thin line proved its mettle at the Battle of Balaklava, where the 93rd (Highland) Regiment, known as the “Thin Red Line,” successfully held their ground against a fierce Russian cavalry charge, a feat rarely accomplished by infantry alone.


Theodore Ayrault Dodge, A History of the Art of War from Its Revival After the Middle Ages to the End of the Spanish Succession War | Wikipedia

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