First Victories: Orders of Battle

First Victories: Orders of Battle

We would like to begin our previews of the upcoming First Victories: Wellington versus Napoleon game with a look at the Orders of Battle.

In the horse and musket period, Order of Battle literally meant the order in which units should form the line of battle. The Order of Battle as laid out below was practiced from companies within a battalion to divisions within a corps and to armies within a multinational force.

The position on the right was considered the post of honor, which was given to the senior unit. The historical method has the most senior unit on the right, second most senior on the left, third most senior on the left of the most senior unit, fourth most senior on the right of the second most senior and so on.

For playability, the ordering used in the Brigade Game is less complex than the historical method, because it is quite easy to get confused. For game purposes, the exact ordering does not matter as long as it is consistent. The order of seniority from most to least is shown in the Command Displays which show all the relevant information about who belongs to what brigade, division, corps and army.

Forming line of battle with the senior unit on the right was called the normal, or natural order of battle. It was acceptable practice to form line of battle in inverted order, with the senior unit on the left. However, not all generals were comfortable with this and the French General Meunier, had written as late as 1808 that many generals were still unfamiliar with the advantages of allowing deployment into inverted order.

This diagram shows the ordering for normal and inverted order as used in the game.

Forming with the senior unit on the right, or left, is all well and good, but why does that matter to me Joe Wargamer or Joe Historian? It mainly has to do with how an army deploys from its order of march to line of battle. The terms start to get a little confusing and when people first encounter it and can be confounded by too many lefts and rights. If Joe Wargamer and Joe Historian, really want to understand how C&C worked during this period then understanding order of battle is a key element. More on this after some further explanation of the terms.

A grand column can be formed right in front, or left in front. Right in front means that the senior unit,(i.e. the unit on the right end when in line of battle) is the lead unit of the grand column. Conversely, left in front means the unit on the left end of the line of battle is leading the the grand column. In period literature, a grand column that is right in front may also be referred to as leading by the right. Likewise, a grand column that is left in front may be referred to as leading by the left.

The importance of who is in front has implications for deploying from grand column into line of battle and for ploying back into grand column from line of battle. A grand column that is right in front, that wishes to deploy into line of battle in normal order, must deploy to its left. Deploying to its right would end with the senior unit on the left of the line of battle. That is OK, but if the officers, rank and file are not familiar with operating in inverted order confusion may result when the perform additional evolutions. The game handles this by applying a detrimental DRM to evolution checks when in inverted order. The opposite case is true when leading by the left. That is, the grand column must deploy to its right to form line of battle in the normal order.

Let’s review a couple of historical cases to demonstrate the importance of knowing right from left.


At the battle of Roliça, Wellesley planned a double envelopment of Delaborde’s forces which were deployed in the plain near the village of Roliça.

On 7th of August, Wellesley issued the following General Order regarding the army’s Order of Battle.

Major General Spencer’s corps having joined the army, the regiments will be brigaded as follows from the right:

Wellesley’s Disposition of August 7

The foregoing will be the general formation of the brigades in one line, excepting that the light brigade [Fane’s] will be ordered to take post in front or in rear, or on either flank, according to circumstances. The cavalry will be in reserve, and posted as may be necessary. A half brigade of artillery will be attached to each brigade of infantry. Howitzers will be attached to the 1st, 2d, 5th and 6th brigades, and the 9 pounder brigade will be in reserve.

He goes on to discuss matters of command assignment of various officers, provisions and the convening of a Court Martial, but these are not relevant to the present discussion.

A couple of things immediately stand out about the disposition. The Light Brigade, is not part of the normal order of battle. It stands apart and is to be positioned “according to circumstances.” Thus, Wellesley will tell them where to be as needed. The Portuguese Brigade is not included, because they were not officially under Wellesley’s command. Details that were to be worked out in the future.

The disposition outlines the normal, or natural, order of battle. They are listed in order of their deployment from right to left, with the senior brigade on the right, second most senior on the left, 3rd most senior on the left of the most senior, and so on. Typically the regiments within the brigade are ordered in the same fashion, but are not listed here in that manner. Note that there is a typo in the order of battle published in Wellington’s Dispatches. Nightengall commanded the 3rd Brigade.

In the Brigade Game we have the notion of ordering the units, but it is slightly simplified to simply order in seniority from right to left. This was a design simplification and for speed of play. If players want to follow the exact ordering used historically, they may do so, but it is easy to get confused. The important thing to remember is the senior unit is, almost always, on the right when the brigade is deployed in line of battle.

It is important to note that the commanders of the brigades were assigned in order of seniority. Having Spencer as second in command allowed General Hill to be the most senior brigade commander and his brigade is numbered as the first. This matter of honor, often created puzzles for commanders to find officers of the right seniority to command a brigade or division already in the field.

When confronted by Delaborde at Roliça, Wellesley altered his dispositions, in an After General Order (AGO), to suit the situation. This was his order:

The army will move off from their present ground at half past 4 o’clock tomorrow morning, and assemble in contiguous columns of brigades, right in front, in the plain on this side of the castle at Obidos [about three miles north of Roliça].

Here he specifies that the army marches right in front, which means that the senior brigade, Hill’s first, would be in front. Habitually, each brigade would order its regiments in the same order with right in front. For Hill’s brigade that is the 5th Foot. In Brigade Game terms, each brigade would be in Grand Column, with a Right in Front marker.

According to Wellesley’s post battle dispatch to Viscount Castlereagh, Wellesley altered his disposition again, before marching off to Roliça. In this letter he states that the army formed up into three columns, as described previously and marched off at about 7 o’clock. Supposedly, once he formed his army into one long column which had formed up at daybreak, he then split it into three to form the left, right and center columns. Once, in front of the French positions the center column deployed into Line of Battle and advanced. The left and right columns continued forward in Grand Column until they reached their flanking positions.

One last thing to note is that on the left flank Bowes’ Brigade marched left in front. This was so that if Loison appeared on their left the brigade could form forward to its right. Ferguson’s Brigade, leading the left column, was still right in front, meaning his deployment would be to his left. This was done so that the two brigades could form line of battle one behind the other, with Bowes in the second line, in the minimal amount of time. Had both brigades been formed in the same manner, Bowes’ Brigade would have to march some distance to come on line with Ferguson.


At Vimeiro, Wellesely had moved to the coast to cover the landing of Anstruther’s and Acland’s brigades. Junot’s forces were attempting to engage and defeat the British forces, before they could be substantially reinforced by even more British troops which were expected to land in the near future. Wellesley had drawn his forces up on a small hill near the village of Vimeiro.

Understanding how Wellesley’s battalions were deployed can help explain some of the events in the narrative and are illustrative of the command and control methods during this period. Refer to the figure below. The British deployment is unusual for a couple of reasons. Anstruther’s Brigade was nominally junior to Fane’s Brigade and thus would properly have been on Fane’s left. However, Fane’s Brigade was the Light Brigade and, per Wellesley’s orders, stood outside of the order of battle to be used where needed. In addition, Anstruther’s and Acland’s Brigades having just arrived in theater were not formally assigned positions in the order of battle. Besides these anomalies, Anstruther’s Brigade was also deployed in an unusual manner. His normal order of battle, from left to right, would have been 2/43 – 97 – 2/52 – 2/9 Foot. Instead they formed an inverted double line of battle with the center battalions in first line and the flank battalions in the second line. Inverted meaning that they had the senior units on the left of the line of battle, in the sense that it is inverted from the normal ordering with the senior unit on the right.

The British usually marched in column of sections at quarter distance. A section was half a company, meaning that the column was half a company wide. Each section of the column was 1/4 the distance of the length of a section behind the section to its front. The total length of the battalion column was 1/4 the length of the battalion when in line formation. It was quite compact in width and depth, but not closed up tight, which allowed for easy and rapid maneuvering. However, it was not a fighting formation. So in the following diagram the British units are shown in double grand column with all the units of each column packed tight in a single hex.

As Anstruther moved to his deployment area he could have crossed at the bridge, or since it was August and the water was low, he could have forded the Maceira. If he forded the river, he could have already been formed in the necessary double grand column to deploy into double line of battle that was his final deployment on the hill prior to the commencement of hostilities. For simplicity, let’s assume he forded the river and was already in double grand column. How to form double grand column from road column is left as an exercise to the reader and can be worked out on the game map.

A further piece of information is that Anstruther’s second line was formed in open column formation. This would allow the second line battalions to quickly form into line if threatened from the flanks. It was quite common to have battalions, and brigades, formed in open column when on the flanks to respond quickly to emerging threats. The easiest method to form in this manner was for the double grand column to march parallel to the desired deployment area and then form into line of battle. It is likely that they remained in quarter distance columns until they reached the location where they wished to form line of battle and then spread out into open column. The yellow arrows shown in the figure, illustrate the path they might have taken. There are other ways such a line of battle could be formed. Howie Muir, in his excellent chapter of Inside Wellington’s Peninsular Army, provides another possibility, but I believe the method I have proposed is the simplest, and therefore, most likely.

Complicated maneuvers, such as this, make it clear that battalion commanders were not simply passed orders indicating where to place their battalion. Doing so would result in pandemonium as each battalion made its way, as best it could, to its assigned location. Rather, the maneuvers were carefully regulated to allow the formations to arrive on the fighting ground in the best possible order. Time was of the essence and Anstruther’s Brigade was moved from the western ridge to its location on Vimeiro Hill while the French were approaching the battlefield. The Brigade Game command system provides the structure to conduct these maneuvers in a historical manner.

Placing the pieces on a map and studying the situation can help explain the battle. Understanding the how, helps us understand the why.

Terry Doherty
Author: Terry Doherty