Facing an Empty Battlefield: (Re)Creating Physical Proximity through Close Order Drill in the French Infantry (1870-1918)

Monday, 16 July 2018: 16:10
Oral Presentation
Jean-Philippe MILLER-TREMBLAY, Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), France
This paper explores the notion of physical proximity in the French infantry from the franco-prussian war to the first world war through the study of one military technique: close order drill. Until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, its practice was the keystone of combat preparation, until the breech-loading magazine rifle, the machine-gun as well as quick firing artillery brought major changes on the battlefield. Fighting in close order became progressively unfeasible as well as unthinkable, as it became clear that such compact formations would mechanically dissolve when facing modern firepower. However, the instruction of close order drill endured. Indeed, it was regularly practiced when at great distance from the enemy, that is from the first steps of infantry training on the barrack square all the way to marching when out of reach of an enemy’s weapons. Its persistent presence, even through the first world war, can be partially explained by looking at its ability to (re)create physical proximity between troops fighting on a more and more empty battlefield.

The current historiography focusses on its obsoleteness as a military technique. Consequently, its diverse ceremonial, training as well as combat purposes remain unstudied. By confronting instruction manuals, essays on tactics and war diaries of soldiers, the modernity of close order drill in the French infantry will thus be uncovered. This work contributes to the cultural and military history of tactics in the 19th and 20th century.