Friday, 5 April 2013

Forest Warfare in 1840s North America - Part 2

British troops against Quebecois rebels at the Battle of Saint Eustach, 1837. The British regiments in Canada in 1842 had already considerable experiance, but not necessarily in forest warfare.

In the 1842 volume of the United Service Magazine of London (available as a free Google ebook) Sir J.E. Alexander of the 14th Regiment of Foot gave his thoughts of the special requirements of fighting in North America, in an article entitled "On Bush Fighting"


Movement through woodland made parade ground drill impossible, but some degree of cohesion still had to be kept, a difficult balance as these two passages show...

"In advancing through a wood in extended order great attention must be paid to preserving the line as correctly as possible: if skirmishers advance too far, or carelessly fall back too much, the consequences may be fatal to themselves or to their comrades; also distances between the files should be kept as correctly as possible".

"When the soldier advances, he should not go straight forward, but should move at an angle toward some tree or other cover, to the right or left of what he has just quitted. The reason for this is obvious: if an advance is made straightforward toward the enemy, the latter has no occasion to alter his aim, whereas obliquing toward him obliges him to take a "flying," or a difficult shot. In retreating, the same mode must be practised,—look behind for the next shelter, fire, and, concealed by the smoke, oblique to the selected cover".


" Before taking one's company into the bush, it is requisite that the men can well riddle a target at 100, 150, and 200 yards' distance—both a fixed target, man's size, and a moveable one, passed along a rope, between two posts."

To motivate the men during target practice Alexander recommends a bounty of a shilling per bulls eye.
In the field each man should carry a "powderhorn to contain 100 charges, and 100 bullets in their patches, disposed in a long and narrow waist-pouch, with 120 caps, will not encumber the soldier, and, if well managed, will serve for a good day's fighting."

Although the rifle was a superior weapon, it was "advisable to impress soldiers armed with smooth barrels with the belief that there is no superiority in the rifle, if they keep moving, as they ought to do, in the bush". And indeed, the new percussion musket "used in platoon firing, always with the front rank kneeling, leaves little to be desired in the way of an efficient weapon".

In forests, "the first rule for bush-fighting is (after careful loading), that the soldier should fire to the right of the tree; thus the smallest portion of the person is exposed".

This was the age of gunpowder, where the smoke from a discharge might be easily seen by an enemy - nonetheless that might well be an advantage..,

" When an Indian, pursued, throws himself into a ravine, he does not cross it at once, but, covering himself with the bank, he fires at his exposed pursuers, and then, concealed by the smoke, moves to the right, left, or rear, as he deems best".

Close order work

Alexander devotes several paragraphs to hand to hand combat, and clearly expected this to be a part of any actions in the future. Of course, part of the importance here was psychological...

" Whatever gives the men a real or fancied superiority over an enemy is useful: thus a simple bayonet exercise, teaching the men to parry carte and tierce, and to thrust with the musket and bayonet, and recover themselves easily from a short lunge".


Ambushes and Night Attacks

" Cautiously creeping on the enemy, taking advantage of cover, and rushing on him, and striking with lead or steel, when he is caught at advantage, are the principles of bush-fighting".

Properly executed, a surprise attack could sweep away the enemy - the operative word being "surprise" as Alexander says...

" It has been proposed to make a charge on foot through the enemy's voltigeurs in this way: suddenly close the skirmishers to the centre, advance at the double, dash through the opposite line of skirmishers, wheel by subdivisions to the right and left, and sweep down and put to the rout the enemy's line. It is objected to this mode of attack, that if it is suspected the enemy will pour in a very destructive fire on the advancing company or column, and perhaps fatally shake it".

One option of course was to attack at night, which gave a much greater chance of catching the enemy unawares. Some officers apparently thought night attacks were " un-English and cowardly". Alexander disagrees, citing British experience in Africa and Arabia. In his opinion,

" There is no doubt that a sudden rush of even a few pikemen, broadswordmen, or even bayoneteers, through an enemy's bivouac at night, thrusting at all they met, would produce the greatest confusion, and little injury would result to the assailants; fire in the dark being so very -uncertain, and nearly harmless".

Using the Forest

If possible, Alexander recommends the practice of the Burmese, who "by the dexterous use of cutting tools, as we observed in the late war in Ava, were in the habit of inclosing themselves nightly (in the bush and near their enemy) in good stockades; no nocturnal rush could be made through their encampments; this was also the Roman practice".

In fact, there was much good use to be made of felled timber.

"Artificial intrenchments in wooded countries are easiest made by felling trees; a breastwork or bank of earth, or of stones, must be employed when there are no trees. It is wonderful how little covers a man from fire: a rifleman will lie down behind a stone a foot high, on an exposed slope, and render good service, with safety to himself".

And of course trees not only a good defence, but could be used to delay the enemy (which might be very important in any delaying action against invaders. He recommends a rear guard of men armed with hatchets ("not bill hooks") to fell trees across the path, and delay the enemy as much as possible.

Mounted Riflemen

The British deployment in Canada was remarkably low in cavalry compared to, say, India, and Alexander makes no mention of cavalry as such, but he is in favour of mounted riflemen.

" With regard to Mounted Riflemen, we think they are a most valuable arm on service, especially in Canada or North America; they ought, of course, to have none of the showy trappings of the dragoons, but a serviceable and dark uniform,-say a double-breasted frock".

As for armament, Alexander sees little difference between a fusil or a rifle, as long as it could " throw a ball well, and at a long range", but a bayonet was essential, and also a "good straight sabre" to "enable then to act as dragoons in the charge".

On deployment the ideal was for " two-thirds of them to scour the bush, leaving one-third outside in charge of the horses, at a safe distance from danger." The sabre, of course, would be left with the horses.

 Defence of settlements

When defending a settlement (there is more talk of retreat and defence in the article than perhaps Alexander realised) " a careful officer will immediately reconnoitre all round it, and at some distance from it, and he will not trust to other eyes than his own to gain a knowledge of the localities".

Otherwise he gives this advice on defending a settlement

" Voltigeurs will, of course, when they can, always take advantage of buildings, particularly if they occupy a commanding position, and can be made defensible by the assistance of abbatis, &c., and have a supply of water. The lower story will be barricaded with what materials may be at hand, and loop-holes be contrived in the windows of the upper. Cover for the enemy, if time will permit, ought to be cleared away in front, and above all things a flanking fire ought to be obtained; a porch affords a good one along the front of a building. The church in a village will be of course the citadel, the streets leading to it being blocked up by waggons, trees, fences, &c".

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