Article 3: Manoeuvres Spring Drills, Field days and Route Marching

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At the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign (1837) the army did not have a fully structured system whereby battalions in peacetime trained together in brigades and divisions. As we went through the 19th century the lessons learnt in our wars and campaigns led to a better training system. Rudimentary exercise camps were started in the 1850s and by the 1890s these had developed into regular manoeuvres carried out in the southern counties during the summer months involving almost the whole of the army stationed at home. Volunteer and Militia battalions joined the regular forces to create two armies, the Red Force and the Blue Force, one would be deployed for the defence of London and the other would be the attacking force. These manoeuvres were the culmination of training within the battalions started in the spring.



   While nowadays drill is purely ceremonial in Victorian times the movements learnt on the drill square were the formations and tactics of the battlefield. During the winter months training was eased up owing to the weather and ‘furlough season’ when the men were allowed to take their leave to return to their homes. As the year progressed and the weather improved ‘spring drills’ was inflicted on the battalion, the men were taken right back to the beginning of the drill book ‘this is the position of attention.’

The whole battalion paraded with the companies divided into squads, each under the command of a subaltern or sergeant as instructor, he formed them into a single rank. The commanding officer ordered what movement or exercise he wanted practiced and would only progress to the next stage when it was being done to his satisfaction. When this squad drill had been mastered they would reform and commence company drill, this would go on for a week or a fortnight.

Stillness between the movements was an absolute requirement, it was considered to exhibit strength and confidence, and on the battlefield this could give a valuable psychological advantage. The following quotation is from Marshal Bujeaud, it is his account of facing the English during the Napoleonic War;

Arrived at 1,000 yards from the English line our soldiers began exchanging their ideas in agitation, and hastening their march so that the ranks began to waver. The English, silent, with ordered arms, presented in their impassable immovability the aspect of a long red wall; an imposing aspect that never failed to impress the novices.

  Soon the distance becoming less, repeated cries of “Vive l’Empereur! En avant a la Baionntte!” sounded from our ranks. The shakos were raised on the muzzles of the muskets, the march became a run, the ranks got mixed, the agitation became tumult, many fired as they marched. The English line, still silent and motionless, and with arms still ordered, even when we were not more than 300 yards off, seemed not to be aware of the storm about to burst upon it.

   At this moment of painful expectation the English wall moved; they were making ready. An indefinable impression fixed on the spot a good many of our soldiers, who began an uncertain fire. That of the enemy, concentrated and precise was crushing. Decimated, we fell back, seeking to recover our equilibrium, and three formidable hurrahs broke the silence of our adversaries; at the third they were on us pressing our disordered retreat.

Tactics had not changed significantly in the ensuing years and this steadiness in the face of the enemy was still a highly regarded military attribute, drill to a high standard was required of all British soldiers in order to achieve it.


After company drill came battalion drill with its changing formation; column into line, line into square etc. once proficient at carrying out these movements on the square the battalion was ready to take to the countryside for ‘Field Days’ where these same manoeuvres were carried out on broken and uneven ground. Also practiced were the tactics of the time – retire, defence, advance, attack, outpost duties, skirmishing etc.

In London the Guards would exercise over Hyde Park, much to the entertainment of the general public, they would then carry out their mock battles into the streets and thoroughfares of Bayswater, the chaos and confusion that must have caused would not have been so entertaining, except to the troops. Blank rounds were issued and volleys fired just as they would be in a real fight. Other units were brought in, either to act as enemy or to work along side the battalion in brigade movements, militia and volunteer battalions were often used for this.


Regiments took great pride in their ability to march long distances and arrive in good order on the battlefield. It was the case on the slog through the Spanish Peninsular in the Napoleonic War, one hundred years later in the opening stages of the Great War the same regiments were still slogging along (in Belgium this time), and still proud if they could announce on their arrival “No stragglers.”

The conduct of the march was officially laid down, Queen’s Regulations for 1881 states: –

The Troops on home service are to be practiced in route marching during the winter months, in marching order; care being taken that every man parades with his full kit. The total length of march is not to be less than 8 or 10 miles. The march is to take place after the men’s breakfast, or about 9 o’clock so as not to interfere with the regular dinner hour. Every available soldier is to be in the ranks.

The greatest care should also be paid to the state and proper fitting of the men’s boots; special care being taken that boys and growing lads are not allowed to wear boots of too small a size. On the line of march men should always be made to wash their feet daily, and to soap their feet or the inside of their socks before starting.

‘Field Exercise 1877’ goes into more detail: –

Troops may march, either in columns of companies, half-companies, or sections, in quarter columns formed in mass or line, or in fours, according to the nature of the country. On all occasions, when marching out of camp or quarters, or when moving after a regular halt upon the march, each corps will march off by word of command, and with music.

The men must be perfectly silent, dress and keep the step, until the word ‘MARCH AT EASE’ is given by the commanding officer and repeated by the captains.

All words of command addressed to men marching at ease must be preceded by the word ‘ATTENTION’ upon which the men will slope their arms and take up the step; perfect order and silence being resumed until the word is again given to march at ease.

The words ‘ATTENTION’ and ‘MARCH AT EASE’, coming from the commanding officer, unless they are given as a command to the whole battalion, will be repeated by all the captains, who must speak loud enough to be heard distinctly, at least by the captain next to them in column, as they will have to take the command from each other in succession.

When marching at ease the ranks may be opened and the files loosened; but each rank, section or company must be kept perfectly distinct, and every man must remain in his place.

Column on the line of march should always move with as large a front as the ground will admit of. No battalion, company or section is at any time to defile or diminish its front’ or in any way to avoid any bad spot in the road unless the preceding battalion or company has done so. Whenever defiling is necessary, it must be executed with order and precision, as in manoeuvring on a field day, by the proper word of command preceded by the word ‘ATTENTION’.

When a bad place is to be passed, the majors and captains will go the head of their respective half-battalions and companies, to see that any orders that may be given are obeyed with regularity and steadiness. They will remain at the spot until the whole of their half-battalion or company has passed, and will then resume their stations at the rear, and give the words ‘MARCH AT EASE’.

No man is to remain behind or quit the ranks for any purpose whatever, without permission of the captain of his company. Officers are never to give permission to any man to quite the ranks except on account of illness, or some other absolutely necessary purpose. They must be particularly careful to prevent all men leaving the ranks for water. When water is required the column will be halted. The men who obtain permission to fall out for any other cause than illness, must invariably leave their packs and arms, to be carried by their section until they return.

It is of the greatest importance that the men should never be hurried on the march; they are to be instructed that they are never to step out beyond the regular step, still less to double, unless by word of command. When proper distances cannot be preserved without an alteration in the step, it must always be affected by making the head of each battalion or company step short. Companies must be kept intact.



The following is an account of a night march and successful attack by one battalion on a brigade camp in July 1889.

An advanced force had been sent from the Army Corps of the Invading Army at Aldershot, to Cowshot Manor, upon the 17th, as stated in the general idea. A battalion from this force marched in accordance with the instructions contained in special idea (red xviii), at 8.15 p.m., towards Chobham. Very great care had been taken by the commanding officer to carry out the orders to reconnoitre the enemy’s camp, and to ascertain the position of his outposts.

The reconnoitring officers became subsequently the scouts and guides of the column. The column first halted three-quarters of a mile south of Chobham, in consequence of a report that a vedette was posted upon the bridge, over the Hale Bourne, upon the north end of the town, the reliefs being more than a quarter of a mile behind. After some delay, this vedette, who had dismounted and was smoking, was surprised and captured by the attackers. The Cossack post to which the vedette belonged was placed at too great a distance to the rear to render assistance. The non-commissioned officers, however, sent a verbal warning to the camp of the impending attack, but the trooper lost his way.

The column immediately upon this passed through Chobham, and having dropped parties to clear all approaches and also to cover the retreat, turned to the eastward and directed its march with the most complete silence and regularity upon the southeastern extremity of Chobham Common. The column reaching this point at 12.20 a.m., was brought to a halt by a signal from the scouting officer, that a vedette was in the vicinity. In a moment the whole column halted, and sank silently into the heather. The vedette nevertheless challenged, and not being answered, galloped back to his post, which eventually warned the general in command, of approaching danger.

The column continued its advance, and turning northward, crossed the deep bog at Gracious Pond by a narrow path- the only possible passage. By 12.45 a.m. the column arrived 600 yards south-east of Staples Hill, and leaving the shelter of a dark fringe of trees, which had been followed for a considerable distance, it formed up in quarter column.

Bugle sounds were heard in camp, and it appeared as if the enemy was on the alert.

The scouting and reconnoitring officers now led the column direct towards the key of the enemy’s position. viz: Staples Hill. Which, visible against the skyline, made a very favourable objective. Silently and with great rapidity the column advanced up the hill, till, favoured by the slight haze, it closed upon the very centre of the camp and halted in front of the tents at 12.55 a.m. without any opposition.

General Remarks

The Umpire-in-Chief having considered the different accounts makes the following remarks: –

Invading Force

The arrangements of the commander of the column of attack were excellent; the silence and discipline left nothing to be desired. The rapid marching of the troops when the alarm had been raised, and speed had become necessary, was especially worthy of remark. No detail was omitted, paper in bags was carried, and connecting files were left at cross roads, not a light nor sound betrayed the march, the scouting officers by gestures pointed out holes and bad places, which warnings were silently passed on to the column. The quickness and silence with which orders were transmitted showed the thorough discipline of the battalion.

Defending Force

The intended disposition of the force for the protection of the camp was satisfactory, but its execution was not equally so. Alarm posts were indicated, but as the troops were only assembled at them after dark, viz: at 9. p.m., through an oversight one battalion never occupied the place assigned to it.

When assembling on the alarm posts there should be enough light to insure the regulations and instructions for encampment for 1888 para. 22 being carried out.

Upon the “alert” being sounded at the approach of the enemy, two battalions assembled at their posts. A third battalion did not hear the bugle, and its commanding officer having received a verbal order through a sergeant to turn out, hesitated to do so, until he should receive a written order to that effect. In the meantime the enemy entered the camp. All such orders given under similar circumstances whether verbal or written, should be instantly obeyed. The position of the Cossack post at Chobham was faulty in the extreme. It should have been placed at the cross roads immediately north of the Hale Bourne at Chobham, and the vedette should have been posted fifty or sixty yards only to the front. The mistake made by placing this Cossack post and the negligence and disregard of orders on the part of the vedette, led, in a great measure, to the completeness of the surprise that followed.

The bog near Gracious Pond, distance 1,800 yards, seems to have been assumed to be an impassable obstacle, but there is one good pass, by which the invading force crossed.

The alarm was given, and although the troops were partially on the alert, that part of the camp assailed nearest Gracious Pond was owing to the error noted above, absolutely unguarded.

Nothing could have been more complete that the surprise effected, and in the opinion of the Umpire-in-Chief this single battalion of infantry, well handled as it was, would have routed the field column and in all probability wrecked its camp.

By order,

C.W. Robinson, Colonel,


Aldershot, July 19th, 1889.

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