To Flank or not to Flank

Published: 21st August 2006
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Everyone has heard of the flank and knows it is something that you should attack. It holds magical qualities and a mysticism that if you attack an opponent's flank, and crack it, he will disappear as if he was fog with the morning Sun hitting him.

However, does this always happen? Is a flank attack always successful? The answer would have to be a categorical no. The annals are not only full of fantastically successful flank attacks, such as Chancerlorsville, but truly enormous disasters, such as the First Bull Run where the Union tried to out flank the Confederates.

So what makes a good flank attack? Why are some successful and others not? And why is flanking your opponent considered a good thing to do.

Before we look at these questions there is one point that should be clarified. That is the difference between a tactical flank attack and a strategic one.

A tactical flank attack is where a specific unit, such as a company or, in American Civil War, a regiment, finds itself fighting enemies both to the front and to the side. This, in essence, is what a strategic flank attack is intended to do but does not always achieve. A strategic flank attack is where one army intends to attack another army also from both the front and rear.
This may sound trivial but is important when the implications are considered.

For example, at Gettysburg, on Day2, the famous fighting for Little Round Top, was that a flank attack or not?

In the strategic sense, it was. Gen Lee was attempting to get units around the side of the Union left flank. But why did the attack fail? It failed, in my opinion, because the attack never became a tactical flanking attack. The famous 20th Maine Regiment managed to keep bending itself backwards so that at no time was it fighting enemy units from the side of its line, but always to its front.

If Gen Hood had been allowed to move units around Big Round Top, assuming no Union reinforcements were forthcoming, the 20th Maine would most certainly have been fighting a tactical flank attack and, most likely, would have crumbled, thus making the strategic flank attack successful.

Why is all the above important? It is important because when playing Line of Muskets if you, as a General, decide to make a flank attack, you must keep in mind that it is not sufficient to move troops to the side of the enemy. You must force the enemy's unit on their extreme flank to fight both troops to the front and to the side.

Why are both important? Simply speaking if a unit sees troops moving to attack them from the side, and no one to their front, they will simply wheel on you and your flanking troops will, instead of fighting the enemy's side, will be facing them head on. If, however, troops are sent both front and side, whichever way the enemy turns one of their flanks will be exposed. And, everything being equal, you should destroy that unit. Then you should be able to move along the line, destroying each unit in turn. At some stage the enemy should see the writing on the wall and run for the hills instead of having his entire army destroyed.

If you want to attack the flank of your enemy, it is a great strategy to pursue. But in order to force your opponent into such a position where his flank is exposed you must have units to the front as well as to the side, to hold him in position so that he does not just wheel on you and protect his flank. Or, in the case of the 20th Maine, keep wheeling backwards so that the flank can never be attacked.

Then there are tactical flank attacks. When the French Old Guard at Waterloo charged the British line they thought they were performing a head-on charge in order to crack the British center. And, if all the British units had stayed exactly where they were, they may well have achieved this. However, Colonel Colborne commanding the 52nd Regiment, decided to wheel his first battalion onto the flank of the Guard. At close range their muskets ripped holes in the columns of the Guard. For the first time ever Napoleon's Old Guard broke and ran.

This was much the same as on the Day 3 of Gettysburg. When Pickett's Division neared the Union lines, Gen. Hancock wheeled a brigade onto the Confederates' flank and unsettled the attack. I believe the attack would still have failed and this flanking maneuver merely hastened the destruction of the Confederates. However, when this flank maneuver was performed it was the coup de grace of the charging rebels.

Perhaps the most important thing to consider when attempting a strategic flank attack is; does your opponent know you are attempting this maneuver? If so, it is best not to try. Because they will certainly make sure you do not attack an unprotected flank. Most likely there will be some batteries placed in a very nasty position for your troops when the attack goes in. A flank attack done in stealth is always the best.

A tactical flank? That is often nothing more than sheer opportunism. A brigade wheeling onto the flank of an enemy brigade. Two brigades moving to engage opposite sides of single enemy brigade. The best way to stop this, naturally, is to maintain a continuous line of troops so that no individual flanks of any brigade are exposed.

This is why creating a hole in the opponents line with massed artillery can be so effective. When the hole is created you expose the flanks of the units to either side of the breach.

So the things to think about when considering a flank attack are;
Can the enemy see my flanking units?
Do I really know where his flank is?
Do I have enough troops in front of the enemy to hold him in position, and stop him from wheeling?

And the best defence to a flank attack? If you suspect you are about to be flanked it is often prudent to withdraw and thus not expose your flank.

Just a final word of warning. When setting out to make a flank attack make sure you know exactly where the end of your opponent's line is. Otherwise when you attack you might find it is you who is flanked and not your opponent. This is what happened to the rebels on Little Round Top as Col Chamberlain had detached a company out into the forest, away from his lines. During the final famous bayonet charge down the hill this company appeared on the flank of the rebels. The flanker became the flanked.

Chris Wilkins is one of the founder's and the editor of Tower Games. This website came from a long love of history, military and strategy games.

Tower Games lets people play great games across the internet through their browsers.

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