The deadly fire, Colonel Ardant Du Picq notes, is the fire of skirmishers:
In group firing, when the men are grouped into platoons or battalions, all weapons have the same value, and if it is assumed to-day that fire must decide engagements, the method of fighting must be adopted which gives most effect to the weapon. This is the employment of skirmishers.
It is this class of fire, indeed, which is deadliest in war. We could give many examples but we shall be content with the two following instances, taken from General Duhesme.
“A French officer who served with the Austrians in one of the recent wars,” says General Duhesme, “told me that from the fire of a French battalion one hundred paces from them, his company lost only three or four men, while in the same time they had had more than thirty killed or wounded by the fire of a group of skirmishers in a little wood on their flank three hundred paces away.”
“At the passage of the Minico, in 1801, the 2nd battalion of the 91st received the fire of a battalion of Bussi’s regiment without losing a man; the skirmishers of that same organization killed more than thirty men in a few minutes while protecting the retreat of their organization.”
The fire of skirmishers is then the most deadly used in war, because the few men who remain cool enough to aim are not otherwise annoyed while employed as skirmishers. They will perform better as they are better hidden, and better trained in firing.
The accuracy of fire giving advantages only in isolated fire, we may consider that accurate weapons will tend to make fighting by skirmishers more frequent and more decisive.
For the rest, experience authorizes the statement that the use of skirmishers is compulsory in war. To-day all troops seriously engaged become in an instant groups of skirmishers and the only possible precise fire is from hidden snipers.
However, the military education which we have received, the spirit of the times, clouds with doubt our mind regarding this method of fighting by skirmishers. We accept it regretfully. Our personal experience being incomplete, insufficient, we content ourselves with the supposition that gives us satisfaction. The war of skirmishers, no matter how thoroughly it has been proven out, is accepted by constraint, because we are forced by circumstance to engage our troops by degrees, in spite of ourselves, often unconsciously. But, be it understood, to-day a successive engagement is necessary in war.
However, let us not have illusions as to the efficacy of the fire of skirmishers. In spite of the use of accurate and long range weapons, in spite of all training that can be given the soldier, this fire never has more than a relative effect, which should not be exaggerated.