Reflections on soldiering…in the 18th and 21st centuries

Recently I completed my first ‘tactical engagement’ with my ‘new’ unit, the 35th Regiment of Foot, a Revolutionary War reenactment group (well, a whole lot more than that but you can check out the link for more details).  While I’m very new to 18th century military reenactment, I think I’m beginning to make some interesting compare and contrast observations between the 21st century military and our 18th century ancestors.

Drill and ceremony:  I figured that since I had 20 years of marching and drill behind me, that would be the easiest part of my transition to my new unit.  Unfortunately, while one can see how modern drill and ceremony is derived from the 18th century, it’s different enough that I have to unlearn US Army methods and relearn how to march and act the soldier. That’s tougher than it sounds since most of this has passed from conscious thought to muscle memory.

So, for example, in the US Army when you execute a left or right face you turn on the heel of one foot and the toes of the other.  According to 18th cen. British drill, you have to move your right foot (into the arch or heel of the left foot) and pivot on both heels.  Doesn’t sound like a big deal, right?  It is, though, as doing it wrong will become very apparent if you’re standing in the midst of people who are all doing it the other way.

In the modern army, when you march you have some space all between you and other soldiers (generally an arms length both to your sides and in front and behind you).  In British Army drill (and from now on when I say British Army drill or something similar I mean 18th cen.) there is no such space.  You are shoulder to shoulder while standing and marching.  Again, doesn’t sound complicated but my natural inclination is to get a little room for maneuvering.  I suppose feeling your comrades on either side of you gave you a sense of security as you were closing to within 100 yards of an opposing force aiming their muskets at you but the desire to maneuver (or at least have the option to maneuver) is pretty strong.

The other thing that’s striking is how little independent action seemed to play.  In the modern military, even a lowly private is given a sector of fire and expected to be able to select and engage targets with some autonomy.  This was very different in that the unit derives its power from mass action and you only get mass action (with musket or bayonet) through uniformity of action.  So, our sergeant would maneuver us around the battlefield and have us fire in volleys, effectively merging us into on entity. You can talk about feeling like a pawn on a chess board but this type of fighting really drives that feeling home.

This was also my first time firing a black powder weapon only having some verbal instruction beforehand.  I was surprised just how easy it was to operate my musket. A few minutes of instruction and off I went.  I wouldn’t recommend that method if we were actually shooting something but since we weren’t using musket balls and nothing was coming out of the barrel (except some smoke and fire), regular firearm safety rules were adequate.  I’m looking forward to getting some actual marksmanship practice under my belt so I can compare that with the learning curve one encounters with modern weapons.  Today, a new soldier generally spends one or two full weeks on rifle familiarity and practice.  Day after day of shooting, cleaning and shooting again.  Hundreds (probably thousands) of rounds are expended in order to reach a minimum standard of proficiency.

The Long Land Pattern Brown Bess musket The Long Land Pattern Brown Bess musket (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Expectations for accuracy with a Brown Bess are much lower with a modern assault rifle so I imagine you can get to ‘adequate’ much quicker since any targets are going to be closer and there wasn’t nearly the same emphasis on individual marksmanship.  Stay tuned.

Likewise, there was something quite satisfactory about conducting a bayonet charge (I suspect a lot of that had to do with the fact that there weren’t any rounds coming towards us).  The British were renowned for their bayonet charges during the Revolution and I got a hint of why they were so feared.

As an aside, if you happen to go to an 18th century reenactment you may find yourself asking the people there if all those clothes are uncomfortably hot.  Invariably, they will tell you ‘No’ and that the use of natural, breathable fabrics makes them quite comfortable.

That, dear readers, is a load of crap.  There’s no way layers of cotton, linen, wool and wool is cool.  It may not be quite as hot as you expect but it’s still plenty hot.  Modern uniforms have come a long way in helping the soldier moderate their temperature.

Next:  Equipment and maintenance….(or, Holy Crap, this is a lot of work!)

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