Of Open Files

Ample evidence exists which indicates that the British Army adapted itself to service in North America in uniform, tactics, and exercise. This article will address what the necessities of War did to the familiar "In three Ranks...The Files at four Inches Distance" formation ordered by HIS MAJESTY'S MANUAL EXERCISE OF 1764.

By 1775 the file interval had been relaxed to six inches, as indicated by the instructions for dressing printed on the last page of the H. Gaine edition of the Manual Exercise, New York, 1775: "In dressing Ranks, the Soldiers must observe, to stand upright, and without stooping to cast their Eyes smartly to the Right and Left, and see the Third Man's Breast, taking care to keep Six Inches distance between the Files."

As early as 1776, official recognition was given to the use of open files, as evidenced by this quotation from the ORDERLY BOOK OF GENERAL HOWE, Boston, 29 February 1776: "Regiments when formed by Companies in Battalion, or when on the General Parade, are always to have their files eighteen inches distant from each other, which they will take care to practice in the future, being the order in which they are to engage the enemy." This order was reinforced later the same year, as quoted from the ORDERLY BOOK OF GENERAL HOWE Halifax, 26 May, 1776: "The Grenadiers and Battalions in the Line are to form in the future in three ranks, with the files as formerly ordered, at 18 inches interval."

By 1777, it can be seen that the British Army had adopted a two rank formation with open files. GENERAL BURGOYNE'S ORDERLY BOOK (Edited by E.B. O'Callaghan, Munsells Historical Series No. VII, Albany, 1860) mentions on Page 4; orders for 20 June 1777, specifies lines of two ranks with open files. HADDEN'S JOURNAL AND ORDERLY BOOK (Edited by H. Roger, Albany 1884) covering Burgoyne's campaign, states on page 75: "...according to the present established rule of open files and two deep." General Sir Henry Clinton's THE AMERICAN REBELLION (Edited by W. Willcox, Archon, 1971) says on page 95: In reference to Howe's final policy of two ranks and open files, it is noted that Clinton did not implement any change in the formation because: "We have always succeeded (with) it; the enemy have adopted it; they have no cavalry to employ against it..."

Charles T. Kamps, Jr. in his paper FILE SPACING REVISITED, provides this passage explaining the change in formation: "The reasoning behind the evident change from the "doctrinal" three rank, closed files formation to two ranks at open files is perhaps best summed up by Frederick Wyatt, Curator and Librarian of the School of Infantry, Warminster, in his book, THE BRITISH INFANTRY 1660-1945 (Poole: Blandford Press, 1983): "The basic tactical requirement in North America was for a looser, more flexible system, based on small bodies of men fighting in rough lines, often of one rank and never more than two; the third rank had never been of great value as far as fire power was concerned, and in thick country it became a positive menace. Extension was everything, so that if you could lap round the flanks of your enemy you were well on your way to beating him.

Unfortunately for those of us attempting to re-create the exercise of the British Army in the later parts of the War, the exact mechanics of opening and closing files was not well recorded. We shall attempt to reconstruct the method by which the ancients did so by reference to existing period sources, coupled with a dash of common sense.

We shall start by assuming that our formation (platoon, company, regiment, battalion) is at the shoulder, in two ranks, at close order. The question is; How do we open our files in a uniform, regular, and orderly fashion, and what are the commands used to do so? A clue to the mechanics of opening files is given in John Williamson's THE ELEMENTS OF MILITARY ARRANGEMENT, AND OF THE DISCIPLINE OF WAR; ADAPTED TO THE PRACTICE OF THE BRITISH INFANTRY (London, 1782) Vol. 1, page 54: "In close order, the officers and serjeant fall into the ranks with the private men, which are one pace distant from each other. The files are at half a pace distant, or half the length of an out-stretched arm. That is the regular distance on parade, but in the field the files may be opened or closed as exigencies may require."

This shows that by 1782 it was common to form with a close order file interval of around fifteen inches. What is useful to us here is the mention of an out-stretched arm. If the soldiers in our formation were to side step to the left while stretching their right arm out so that their closed fist just touches the shoulder of the man to the right of them, they would have spaced themselves out to a file interval of about two feet.

What command would be used to have the men do this? For an answer we shall look at the LIGHT INFANTRY DISCIPLINE by Maj-Gen William Howe, Sept. 1774 (microfilm copy in the National Army Museum, London).

Word of Command


Battalion form at order

The files to be at two feet intervals

Battalion form at open order

The files to be at four feet intervals

Battalion form at extended order

The files to be at ten feet

Given the understanding that At Order means open files, and At Close Order means closed files, we can now open and close the file intervals in our formation. To open files, give the command:Company (Platoon, Battalion.), Form at Order, March!- the men of the front rank turn their heads to the right, and raise their right arms, side stepping to the left far enough that their closed fist just touches the shoulder of the man to their right. The right hand man of the front rank stands fast. The rear rank does not turn heads or raise its arms, but covers off behind the front rank. Halt!- the men turn their heads to the front and drop their arms.

To bring the men back to Close Order, the command is given: Company (Platoon, Battalion), Form at Close Order, March!- the men turn their heads to the right, and side step to the right until they are at their normal (close) file interval. Halt!- the men turn their heads to the front.

When opening files in large formations, such as several platoons or companies, care must be taken to leave enough of an interval between each unit so that the files have room to extend.

When dressing the men at Order (in open files), upon the command: To the Right, Dress!, the front rank turns their heads and raises their arms as they did when forming. On the command: Halt!, they drop their arms and turn their heads to the front.

The formation may be ordered to Form at Order! while assembling, in which case they do not form at Close Order and extend themselves, but rather form up at Order.

When the formation is at Order, there is little need for the front rank to kneel when firing, for there is ample clearance for the rear rank. The front rank should therefore fire as a single rank, and the rear rank should fire as a rear rank, that is, making the step forward with the left foot.

Marching, turning, inclining, and wheeling will of course require more attention from the soldier to maintain his proper dressing, but with practice this can be achieved.

This article was inspired in large part by the efforts of Charles T. Kamps, Jr. with his rich correspondence about file spacing, and includes material provided by Michael Grenier of the 64th Foot, Vincent J-R Kehoe of the 10th Foot, Stephen Belyea of the 74th Foot, and Mark Nichipor of the NPS, all of whose research and effort are greatly appreciated.

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