Attack Column or ‘Ordre Mixte’: How did the French deploy at Albuera?

English historians since Oman have claimed that the French V Corps at Albuera formed ordre mixte, i.e. mixed order with battalions in a combination of line and column. Strangely French sources make no such claim. In all French sources V Corps was in closed column (colonne serrée). Unfortunately Oman mistook a French source and, because of that mistake, English historians have got it wrong since.

Oman on the ‘Ordre Mixte’ at Albuera

In 1911 Charles Oman (2004, p. 379-380) had this to say about Girard’s formation at Albuera:

I had long sought for an exact description of his [Girard’s] array, of which the French historians and Soult’s dispatch only say that it was a colonne serrée de bataillons. At last I found the required information in the Paris archives [at the War Ministry], in the shape of an anonymous criticism on Soult’s operations, drawn up (apparently for Napoleon’s eye) by some officer who had been set to write a report on the causes of the loss of the battle.

This document says that ‘the line of attack was formed by a brigade in column of attack (i.e. a column formed of four battalions in column of double companies, one battalion behind the other). To the right and left the front line was in a mixed formation, that is to say, on each side of the central column was a battalion deployed in line, and on each of the two outer sides of the deployed battalions was a battalion or regiment in column, so that each end of the line was composed of a column ready to form square, in case the hostile cavalry should try to fall upon our flanks – which was hardly likely, since our own cavalry was immensely superior to it in number.’

This formation disposed of the nine battalions of Girard’s division, which, as we see, advance with a front consisting of three battalions in column and two in line.

Although Oman specifies a specific formation at Albuera, ordre mixte was any combination of lines and columns. Usually ordre mixte is depicted with the lines in the centre to maximise firepower. The columns are usually on the flank to provide shock capability, manoeuvre flexibility and/or some defence against cavalry.

French Ordre Mixte

A French Regiment or Brigade in Ordre Mixte with three battalions

The basis of Oman’s claim regarding ordre mixte at Albuera is an anonymous criticism on Soult’s operations stored at the War Ministry. Although Oman’s reference isn’t precise Dempsey (2008) believes he found the document at the Army historical service (SHAT), now the “Land” department, Defence Historical Service (Service historique de la défense). The document is called “Bataille d’Albuera“.

Oman’s interpretation of this anonymous criticism has defined English perceptions of the battle for a century.

Subsequent English historians

Subsequent historians, at least the English speaking ones, followed Oman in his belief that Girard formed in ordre mixte. Here are a couple of examples from recent English sources.

Nafziger (1995, p. 174) says:

At Albuera, Girard formed his division into a mixed order with two battalions in line. In the centre of the formation were eight battalions in attack column, and on the outer flanks of the two deployed battalions there were two battalions in attack column at full intervals.

Edwards (2008, p. 139-140) says:

We are fortunate in having a record of Girard’s attack formation, thanks to the indefatigable Charles Oman. To understand what was about to happen, we need a mind’s eye picture of his deployment, and this report, which Oman unearthed in the Paris War Ministry archives, is invaluable:

The line of attack was formed by a brigade in column of attack. To the right and left the front line was in a mixed formation, that is to say, on each side of the central column was a battalion deployed in line, and on each of the two outer sides of the deployed battalions was a battalion or regiment in column, so that each end of the line was composed of a column ready to form square, in case the hostile cavalry should try to fall upon our flanks – which was hardly likely, since our own cavalry was immensely superior to it in number

To enlarge on this, and to give an idea of the numbers involved, the following will be helpful. Assuming seventy-five men in a company, and six companies to a battalion, it can be seen that Girard’s centre column was enormous. It comprised five battalions, one behind the other, in column of double companies, each some fifty files wide and forty-five ranks deep. On either side of this centre column was a battalion in column of single companies, twenty-five men wide and eighteen ranks deep. So the entire frontage was 400 men wide, which allowing for four gaps between battalions – wide enough to insert guns if required – gives a final width of at least 500 yards (Oman thought possibly up to 700 yards).

This formation was a rare example of a version of Napoleon Bonaparte’s famous ‘ordre mixte‘, his artilleryman’s compromise solution to the infantry problem of whether it was better to attack in line or column. It was, however, a solution mostly famous for being carefully avoided by his generals as providing the worst of both worlds. Events would decide whether Girard’s decision at Albuera was sound.

Oliver and Partridge (2007, p. 98) say:

The French deployed majestically into a complex ordre mixte formation

… and (p. 100) …

The French formation which Girard had chosen was a version of one much favoured by the emperor himself. The ordre mixte was so-called because it combined the firepower of the battalions in line with the density of battalions in column. In its simplest form, it was comprised of battalions in a continuous line with further battalions on each flank but in column. In addition to providing the best of both close order formations, it provided an effective protection from cavalry flank attacks, especially whilst the body was marching. The flanking columns were able to turn their outer files to a flank and their rear ranks to face backwards, thereby providing almost as much protection as a square. The added firepower of the lines was a powerful disincentive to enemy horsemen.

The actual formation employed by Girard’s own division was of four central battalions, one behind the other, in column of double companies (i.e. column of divisions). On either flank was a battalion deployed in a three-rank line, with a further battalion in column on either flank. The whole resembled a vast T.

That “vast T” appears in modern maps of the battle. The one I’ve picked on is from Napoleon, His Army and Enemies: The Vistula Uhlans at Albuera. May 1811

Girard's Division in Supposed T Shaped Mixed Order

Girard’s Division in Supposed T Shaped Mixed Order

So, is this idea of a “vast T” correct?

Challenging Oman

Dempsey (2008) points out that all French sources state that the battalions of V Corps attacked in column. As examples Dempsey mentions:

  • Soult (1811) who said Girard’s attack columns (colonnes d’attaque)
  • Brigade General Jean Marasin (n.d.) also said Girard’s men were attack columns (colonnes d’attaque)
  • Surgeon d’Héralde of the 88th Line talked about columns by division (colonnes par division) and columns by platoon (colonnes par peloton)
  • Lapène (1923) said Girard used closed columns by battalion (colonne serrée de bataillons)

But the decisive point relates to the anonymous criticism “Bataille d’Albuera” that Oman cites for Mixed Order at Albuera. Dempsey (2008, p. 110), who is confident he has found the original, observes that:

The document simply does not contain the information described by Oman. It is indeed a post-battle analysis of the action written by someone second-guessing the decisions made by Soult and his generals and it does describe the use of mixed column and line formation by the French. However, the author of the document was using that description to explain hypothetically what Marshal Soult should have done to ensure victory, not reporting factually what the French actually did. The text is unambiguous in this regard – the author states in a section entitled ‘Projet de la Bataille’ that the ‘French army was formed in regimental masses (masses par régiment) instead of [emphasis added] being formed’ in the manner described by Oman.

Dempsey (2008) goes on to say that Albuera, contrary to being an exception, was typical of the battles in the Peninsular – the French fought in columns. “The likeliest possibility is that all the battalions of a single regiment were arrayed one behind the other. It also seems likely that both regiments of a brigade would have been side-by-side with the lower numbered regiment on the right (as a matter of precedence) and with enough room (approximately the width of four companies) between the two regimental columns to allow the individual battalions to deploy into lines if circumstances required” (p. 111).

Albuera Map 1100 hours (Dempsey, 2008)

Albuera Map 1100 hours (Dempsey, 2008)


So much for ordre mixte.

References

Anonymous. (n.d.). Bataille d’Albuera. “Land” department, Defence Historical Service (Service historique de la défense) [previously the Army historical service (SHAT)].

Dempsey, G. (2008). Albuera 1811: The Bloodiest Battle of the Peninsular War. Frontline Books.

D’Héralde, J. B. (2002). Mémoires d’un Chirugien de la Grande Armée. Paris.

Edwards, P. (2008). Albuera: Wellington’s Fourth Peninsular Campaign, 1811. The Cromwell Press.

Lapène, E. (1823). Conquête de l’Andalousie, campagne de 1810 et 1811 dan le Midi de l’Espagne. Paris.

Maransin (n.d.). Observations

This was Maransin’s observations on Lapène’s (1823) book. Marasin highlighted errors in the book.

Nafziger, G. (1995). Imperial Bayonets: Tactics of the Napoleonic Battery, Battalion and Brigade as Found in Contemporary Regulations. Greenhill Books.

Napoleon, His Army and Enemies: The Vistula Uhlans at Albuera. May 1811

Oliver, M. and Partridge, R. (2007). the Battle of Albuera – 1811: Glorious Field of Grief. Pen & Sword Military.

Oman, C. (2004). A History of the Peninsular War: Volume IV, December 1810 to December 1811. Greenhill Books. [originally published 1911].

Soult, J. (1811, 18 May). Unpublished Report to ‘Prince de Wagram’ [File C8e 147 e, p 196-203]. “Land” department, Defence Historical Service (Service historique de la défense) [previously the Army historical service (SHAT)].

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