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Tuesday, 23 August 2011


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I remember an undergraduate problem I was set to analyse Trafalgar using that "Law of Battle". A bunch of us took it on in the same Mathematics Reading Room where I once saw a job advert on the noticeboard that, it struck me, was recruiting for spies - or, more precisely, probably for counter-espionage, code-breaking and whatnot. Bloody clever, it was - if you couldn't see what the advert must be about, they wouldn't have wanted to hire you anyway. Ever since, I've allowed myself a wee grin whenever I've heard some blowhard assuring the world that all spies and such are stupid. "Aha", I've thought, "you're the sort of tit who wouldn't have understood the job advert."

By the by, what can French morale have been like when they had to advance on an unseen foe? They are marching up a slope in column; they can see British skirmishers, and officers on horseback with their telescopes out, despatching young messengers at the gallop. A few pieces of light artillery too, perhaps? But just behind the crest lies a British infantry army whose size they don't know, perhaps set out in lines, perhaps to march over the crest at the last moment to deliver volleys. Heart-in-mouth, I'd have thought.

And if the French send their cavalry, the British manoeuvre into defensive array in squares, with their artillerymen tucked up safely inside.

DM, Lanchester's theory worked beautifully at Trafalgar where, as you know, Nelson cut the Franco-Spanish line one third of the way down thus equalising the two fighting forces. However, his ships, as they approached in two seperate columns in line, split and each ship made its own way through the enemy line passing between a ship to the left and to the right, at which point the gun crew fired off a double-shotted (ie, 2x balls) gun into the rear of one enemy ship, and then, dashing over to the other side, they fired the same way into the front of the other enemy ship. These, of course, were raking shots going the length of the ship rather than across and were thuse many times more deadly.

As for you putative spying career, just think, you might have met John le Carre!

What you describe in your second comment was more or less what happened at Waterloo. Reports from the time indicate that the French, in the absence of any obvious enemy thought they were home and dry - until they crossed the road and the hedge at the top of the ridge. Then, they were truly 'gob-smacked', as they tried desperately to get themselves back in formation, to see lines of British infantry with their muskets at the ready. A few seconds later they were blown away. It was a particular shock to the Imperial Guard who saw nothing to disturb them until the British Guards suddenly stood up in the cornfields where they had been hiding - the corn used to grow very tall in those days!


The French at the beginning of the Revolutionary Wars adopted a Column attack formation because of time and cost they did not have to train the conscripts. Anyway Revolutionary elan will always carry the day, right? . It worked well enough for a while, ‘till the allies figured out what to do, of which the British army was unsurpassed.

John Keagan comments that the French columns broke from the rear. In the front with smoke hiding much the Fight side of the “fight or flight” took over. In the rear of the column , where they could see some shat was happening the Flight side would take over. Fight or Flight reaction is some what related to the distance to the danger the brain making subconscious decision on which is the best course to survive. But it could be hellish 60 or 90 seconds until the columan broke.

The British line did not have to fight the whole column, if they defeated the front ranks the rest were in retreat. The math was certainly in their favor and got better once the colun staated to break.

Courage, training, drill, and discipline over elan any time.>

"Courage, training, drill, and discipline over elan any time."

And firepower - remember Lanchester!

By the way, Hank, your link doesn't work.

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