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Line infantry is a type of infantry which composed the basis of European land armies from the middle of the 17th century to the middle of the 19th century.
Line infantry appeared in the 17th century. At the beginning of 17th century the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus decided to equip his army with firearms with wheellocks, but only his cavalry received them in his lifetime. Shortly after his death, the Swedish infantry was equipped with new muskets with wheellocks which were comparatively light when compared to older muskets, making it easier to fire the weapon without the aid of a support. Moreover, the new musket required less iron and it turned out to be cheaper to mass-produce. This firearm made it possible to create line infantry.
Linear tactics and function
Line infantry used mostly three types of formations in its battles: the line, the square and the column.
With the massive proliferation of hand guns (firearms that could be carried by hand, as opposed to cannon; not to be confused with handguns) in the infantry units from the middle of 17th century the battlefield was dominated by linear tactics, according to which the infantry was aligned into long thin lines and fired volleys. A line consisted of 2, 3 or 4 ranks of soldiers.
The relatively short range at which smooth bore muskets could accurately hit a target, added to the slow reload (2 to 3 rounds per minute), meant that massed formation firing was essential for maximising enemy casualties. The line was considered as the fundamental battle formation as it allowed for the largest deployment of firepower. Troops in skirmish formation, though able to take cover and use initiative, were highly vulnerable to cavalry and could not hold ground against advancing infantry columns. Line infantry provided an 'anchor' for skirmishers and cavalry to retreat to if threatened.
Against surrounding enemy cavalry, line infantry could swiftly adopt square formations to provide protection. Such squares were hollow (consisting of four lines), unlike the pikiners' and old-style musketeers' square.
Movement in line formation was very slow, and unless the battalion was superbly trained, a breakdown in cohesion was virtually assured, especially in any kind of uneven or wooded terrain. As a result, line was mostly used as a stationary formation, with troops moving in column formations and then deploying to line at their destination. Usually for movement and melee attacks, columns would be adopted.
Line infantry was trained in the manual of arms evolutions, the main objectives of which were fast deployment of a line, rapid shooting and manoeuvre.
Training and recruitment
Line tactics required a strict discipline and simple movements, practised to the point where they became second-nature. During training, the drill and corporal punishments were widely used.
Line infantry quickly became the most common type of infantry in European countries. Musketeers and grenadiers, formerly elite troops, gradually became part of the line infantry, switching to linear tactics.
Arms and equipment
In the middle of the 17th century, the muskets of line infantry had bayonets added. Bayonets were attached to the muzzles of muskets and were used when line troops entered melee combat. They also helped to defend against cavalry.
At the end of the 17th century, muskets were replaced by lighter and cheaper infantry fusils with flintlocks, weighing 5 kg with a caliber of 17.5 mm, first in France and then in other states. In many countries, the new fusils retained the name "musket". Both muskets and fusils were smoothbore, which lessened their accuracy and range.
The bulk of the line infantry had no protective equipment. Only the former elite troops could keep by tradition some elements of protection, for example, the copper mitre caps of grenadiers.
Line infantry and other contemporary types of infantry
Initially line infantry was only a small part of infantry, because it was originally vulnerable to hostile cavalry. Pikiners were the majority of infantry and were known as heavy infantry. A significant part of infantry consisted of old-style musketeers, who did not use the linear tactics. However by the middle of the 17th century line infantry already provided about half of the infantry in most Western European armies. After the invention of the bayonet, line infantry could defend itself from the enemy's horsemen. The percentage of pikiners fell gradually. In 1689 the Austrian army got rid of pikiners. In 1703 the French army did the same. In 1699-1721 Peter I converted almost all Russian infantry to line infantry. Line infantry now comprised the bulk of the infantry of European armies.
Besides line infantry, there were elite troops (royal guards and other designated elite regiments) and the light infantry. Light infantry operated in extended order (also known as skirmish formation) as opposed to the close orders (tight formations) used by line infantry. Since the late 18th century light infantry in most European countries mostly consisted of riflemen (such as the German Jäger), armed with rifled carbines and trained in aimed shooting and use of defilades. Line infantry, whose muskets with bayonets were heavier than carbines, became known as heavy infantry and were used as the main deciding force.
In France during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars the division into the Guard, line infantry and light infantry formally continued to exist, but line regiments and "light" regiments had identical weaponry (smooth-bore fusils) and tactics. Napoleon distrusted rifled firearms. However, both line and "light" regiments each included a battalion of tirailleurs or voltigeurs expected to act as skirmishers as well being able to deploy into line.
The Russian infantry of 1853 comprised 110 regiments. 52 of which were line infantry, 10 regiments were Guard, and 46 regiments were light infantry (42 Jäger regiments and 4 infantry carabinier regiments). However, only a part of the Russian light infantry were equipped with rifles.
In the 19th century the percentage of riflemen in European armies increased, and the percentage of line infantry equipped with muskets fell. In the American Civil War both Northern and Confederate armies had only a few line regiments. However, France, due to Napoleon III, who admired Napoleon I, had 300 line battalions (comprising an overwhelming majority) even in 1870. Although the French line infantry received Chassepot rifles in 1866, it still was being trained in the use of closed formations: line, column and square, which was changed only after the dethronement of Napoleon III.
In the years after the Napoleonic Wars, line infantry continued to be deployed as the main battle force while light infantry provided fire support and covered the movement of units. In Russia, Great Britain, France, Prussia and some other states, linear tactics and formation discipline were maintained into the late 19th century (examples: Crimean War, Franco-Prussian War).
With the invention of new weaponry, the concept of line infantry began to wane. The Minié ball (an improved rifle ammunition), allowed individual infantrymen to shoot more accurately and over greatly increased range. Men walking in formation line-abreast became far too easy a target, as evidenced in the American Civil War. By the end of this conflict breech-loading rifles were adopted, which gave the individual shooter even greater increased rate of fire as well. In the 1860s, most German states and Russia converted their line infantry and riflemen into the united infantry, which used rifles and skirmish tactics. After the Franco-Prussian War both the German Empire and the French Third Republic did the same. However, Great Britain retained the name "line infantry", although it used rifled muskets from 1853, breech loading rifles from 1867, and switched from closed lines to extended order during Boer wars.
The growing accuracy and rate of fire of rifles and the invention of the Gatling gun in 1862 and the Maxim machine gun in 1883 meant that close orders of line infantry would suffer huge losses before being able to close with their foe, while the defensive advantages given to line infantry against cavalry became irrelevant with the effective removal of offensive cavalry from the battlefield in the face of the improved weaponry. With the turn of the 20th Century this slowly led to infantry increasingly adopting skirmish style light infantry tactics in battle, while retaining line infantry drill for training.
Retention of "line infantry" title
While, as detailed above, linear battle tactics had become obsolete by the second half of the nineteenth century, regiments in a number of European armies continued to be classified as "line infantry" (or cavalry). This designation had come to mean the regular or numbered regiments of an army, as opposed to specialist or elite formations. Accordingly the distinction had become one of traditional title or classification without significance in respect of armament or tactics. As an example the Belgian Army of 1914 comprised 14 regiments of Infanterie de Ligne (line infantry), three of Chasseurs a pied (light infantry), one of Grenadiers and one of Carabiniers. Similar differentiations were made in the majority of European armies of the period, although English-speaking authors sometimes use the designation "line infantry" when referring to the ordinary infantry of some other countries where the exact term was not in use. The modern UK army retains the traditional distinction between "line infantry" and "the Rifles" on ceremonial occasions for historical reasons, although all are armed with rifles and none use linear tactics. Equally, infantry of most 21st-century armies are still trained in formation manoeuvre and drill, as a way of instilling discipline and unit cohesion.
- Guy Derie, page 21 "Les Soldats de Leopold Ier et Leopold II", D 1986/0197/03
- R. Pawly & P Lierneux, page 4 "The Belgian Army in World War I", ISBN 978-1-84603-448-0