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Seven Years' War and the Marlburian Period: What Were the Differences?


As many other wargamers who play multiple "tricorne" periods, I sometimes wonder whether the presence or absence of turnbacks on the coats really justifies painting all those extra figures. In this article, I would like to point out what I see as the primary differences between the Marlburian period and the later battles of the Seven Years' War, in the hopes that the writers of wargames rules will capture these distinctions, and provide us with rules sets that reflect these nuances. (That way, the 500 25mm Marlburians I just bought won't make my Seven Years' War armies redundant!)

The primary sources I am drawing on are Chandler's "Warfare in the Age of Marlborough," Brent Nostworthy's "Anatomy of Victory," Christopher Duffy's excellent books, and various other articles and books, by Pat Condray among others.

Fire Combat

It will be noted that wooden ramrods were used by most troops as late as the War of the Austrian Succession, first being abandoned in favor of metal ones by the Prussians. Wooden ramrods have the effect of slowing down the firing of infantry, and I believe that fire was generally much better controlled and more deliberate during the Marlburian period than during the Seven Years' War and after. Generally speaking, during the later period, all acounts indicate that after a controlled volley or two, troops started firing as quickly as they could, in a "rolling fire." If we read the famous account of the exchange between the two Irish regiments at Malplaquet - the one in Allied pay, and the other French - we find that the Anglo-Irish fired a series of controlled volleys, while advancing by platoons. This sort of "advancing fire" is only possible if you have control over individual volleys, which makes a good deal more sense if the slower rate of fire is mandated by the use of slower wooden ramrods.

Much has been written about infantry fire drill, but it is not safe to assume that the "fire by platoon" system pioneered by the Anglo-Dutch and Prussians during the Marlburian period was generally adopted by all other nations, even during the period of the Seven Years' War. If you look closely at what happens to infantry firing by ranks - especially with metal ramrods - you will quickly understand why the French fired their muskets and then went in with the bayonet: they would simply be shot to pieces by an enemy using an organized platoon fire. However, the "cold steel" doctrine stayed with the French well after the Marlburian period, and the same is true of the Austrian army. Arguably, there was much less standardization in these armies than there was in the smaller, more centralized forces of their opponents. It is also true that French platoon-fire systems were not as effective as those of the British, at least during those years leading up to the Seven Years' War.

If I were to characterize the differences between platoon fire and fire by rank, I would accord the following major benefits to the platoon fire system:

If we examine the platoon systems used during the Marlburian period, we find that there were a greater number of platoons, and that greater control was exercised over them, than during the SYW. Typically, by the end of the Seven Years' War, even the Prussians used only volley fire by the entire battalion, followed by a reliance on rapid fire at will ("rolling fire"). While there were certainly cases where four separate firings were maintained, two was more typical, and one was the norm. I believe that what we are seeing here is the fact that (a) controlled fire was less important than the sheer speed allowed using metal ramrods, once the first devastating volley had been delivered; and (b) lower troop quality and levels of training - and less practice with live fire - meant that there was no way to achieve a level of fire control such as was the norm during the Marlburian period. Armies such as the Austrains and the French typically had less live-fire exercise, and less overall training, than the British and the Prussians.

What this boils down to is that during the Seven Years' War period, it is unlikely that we would see the same emphasis on fire control that characterized the earlier period. Fire-fights become more deadly, because more lead is flying around, and troops get more easily out of control once rolling fire starts, but even in better-trained armies such as the British the controlled fire of the Marlburian period is probably inappropriate.

Infantry Evolutions and Deployment

The marching capabilities of armies across this time period are most heavily affected by the advent of cadenced marching - that is marching to a drum-beat rather than simply cranking along and trying to stay in step with your fellows. While advances in this area were made by different armies at different times, it is a fact that cadenced marching was not practiced by any of the contestants during the Marlburian period. This resulted in less control, and it meant that what a battalion was capable of was more limited.

During the Seven Years' War, all armies used cadenced marching as a way of better controlling their infantry formations. This meant that they were capable of some maneuvers that were not possible during the earlier period:

Note that Frederick's oblique order was made possible by the speed with which the Prussians could form column from line, facing the flank, and then reverse the process. While cadenced marching helped, what really allowed Frederick to use this "secret weapon" was sheer drill!

I believe from reading battle accounts, and looking at the terrain that certain battles were fought over, that during the Marlburian period, troops in close order were generally not packed quite as closely together, and that "loose order" was more common during the Marlburian era. We see this in the tightness of uniforms, which become a major hindrance to movement if your neighbor is on top of you, and we see it in the fact that the woods at Malplaquet, for example, did not totally disorder the attacking Allies, which tended to be the case over similar terrain during the later period. The absence of cadenced marching would account for this, too: Marlburian troops were not as reliant on marching in lock-step, becaus they weren't as able to do it.

The Role of Artillery

There are two main differences here: (1) Use of battalion artillery; (2) Use of field artillery. Battalion guns during the Marlburian period were 2# or 3# pieces that could be manhandled alongside the infantry, and that were manned typically by infantrymen and controlled by the battalion to which they wewre attached. The Bavarians show us that, while they called their 6# guns "battalion guns," they had to leave them behind when they advanced. I would argue that anything heavier than a 4# - even when rendered lighter by better carriages and casting during the SYW period - is too heavy to truly function as a battalion gun. Throughout this period, we see artillery pieces becoming heavier in weight of shot, and fewer and fewer countries using battalion guns as a standard part of their equipment. What might be considered "battalion guns" during the SYW probably functioned more like light artillery pieces, simply because they would be deployed and controlled by gunners, rather than by infantrymen (see next point).

Field artillery generally became heavier in weight of shot as well - Frederick liked to use 12# and 18# (and mortars, as a response to the heavier entrenchments that came into use during the SYW); he also invented horse guns during this period. During the Marlburian period, artillery is basically deployed once, and then ceases firing as the battle moves beyond it - while there are exceptions, artillery would typically be masked by the advance of friendly troops. It's ability to move on the battlefield should be effectively nil, because civilian drivers would simply move themselves out of harm's way. Obviously, this is not true during the Seven Years War, if we look at the accounts of battles: while artillery was not extremely mobile on the battlefield, it did maneuver, which was not the case during the Marlburian era.

Cavalry Tactics

There has long been a debate about what French cavalry tactics were like during the Marlburian era, and the general concensus today is that French cavalry sometimes used pistols as they charged at a slow trot, and sometimes stood in a wall and fired, as was the Austrian practice. In some cases, they may have attacked at a fast trot. The Anglo-Dutch cavalry went in at the fast trot, and did not use pistols at all. It is obvious that Frederick revolutionized cavalry tactics during the SYW era. Prussian cavalry, trained like the French during the Marlburian era, started to attack first at a fast trot with swords, and then to gallop for an increasing distance before contact. The Austrians, who had learned to form a solid wall, stop, and use their pistols - a survival tactic against the swarms of Turkish cavalry - had to copy the Prussian tactics as the SYW advanced, and the same was generally true of the French and British, etc.

When we look at what this does to the "feel" of a battle, we need to examine the effects of cavalry combat not on cavalry, but on infantry. The cavalry combat throughout the 18th century would generally be decided before the infantry combat was, and then the exposed flanks of the loser would be exploited. What we see in cavalry-versus-infantry combat, however, changes. Squares, while still not common during the SYW, were much more common than during the Marlburian era. Frontal assaults by cavalry become much more effective: while controlled volley fire could still stop frontally-charging cavalry, the ability to control that volley foire was somewhat degraded, and the terrorizing effects of a cavalry charge were worse. The horse moved faster, too, which gave less time for fire to be effective. In SYW games, the frontal cavalry charge should take these factors into account. Cavalry will be more or less effective based on their doctrine, but as the SYW went on, the advantage conferred by the faster attack with cold steel generally got cancelled out by the enemy's use of the same tactic.

Troop Types

It should be noted that there are two troop types conspicuously present during the SYW period that are completely absent from the Marlburian battlefield: skirmish infantry and light cavalry. While it is true that there were two regiments of "hussars" in the French army during the earlier conflict, they were not generally used in the line of battle, but reserved for scouting and similar functions. It should be noted that because of the rebellion in Hungary during the earlier period, the croats and hussars that Austria fielded during the SYW were not available. (The term "light cavalry" during the Marlburian period generally meant "unarmored heavy cavalry".)


While probably not comprehensive, this article hopefully has captured the main differences between these two periods for those who write rules or modify them. I believe that the feel of a Marlburian game should be different from that of a Seven Years' War game, and I encourage gamers to look further into these distinctions, particularly pointing at Nostworthy's and Chandler's excellent books, each of which discuss both periods. I generally prefer the earlier period, because it places much more emphasis on the commander's skill, particularly if rules reflect the ability to use one or more firings, and capture the effects of having to reload. But I do love the SYW, too!

I like painting tricornes, and I like to know that those turnbacks *do* make a difference. If our wargames are to reflect historical reality at any level, then it is not enough to simply make a couple of minor changes. The differences discussed here had a real impact on how commanders made decisions on the field of battle, and deserved to be recognized by our rules.

Note: The following was received in e-mail from Phil Thomas (PTh2338400@aol.com) and has, in my opinion, much merit. I quote the e-mail here as food for thought:

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