Close Order in the French and British Armies (1853-1920)

In France and Great Britain, millions of men and women have practiced and observed close order exercises and drills, most often in the form of a military parade. But few have chosen to write about this activity, and most often it is without a deep analysis or even a detailed description of their experience of this key practice in military spaces. At the basis of this research is an observation: in present-day military institutions, the first stage in all basic training programs remains the learning of close order exercises, even if they are no longer used it in battle.


Poster produit en 1915 par le Parliamentary Recruiting Committee britannique. Source : Imperial War Museum (Londres)

Poster produced in 1915 by the British Parliamentary Recruiting Committee.

For it is an activity whose roots lie deep. As of the 16th century linear formations were designed so as to maximize the shooting capacity of rudimentary firearms. These formations were practiced by Gustavus Adolphus during the Thirty-Year War (1618-1648) and were then gradually imposed without exception, in all armies. It is precisely this legacy of more than two hundred years that the French and British armies are about to question, proceeding from the disaster that resulted from the use of close columns during the Crimean War (1853-1856). The shooting range, precision and firing rate of firearms and artillery increased significantly between the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. In face of this “modern” shooting power, dense formations dissolve and become useless in the range of enemy fire. Confronted with this “modern” firing, military thinkers of these two armies are not inclined to recommend the persistent presence of the close order. What roles did or will it play not only in training, but also for ceremonial purposes or in combat. Was it out of date or not, useful or superfluous? Did it transform the soldier into an obedient “machine”, did it train individuals capable of acting as a group?