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Warfare for Writers - 5 is another in the series graciously permitted by Timons Esaias for distribution by me from his lectures.
What is a "line" ?
In army terms, a line is a formation in which each soldier, or artillery piece, or horse or chariot is facing forward, and the other members of the unit are side-by-side. If a second line of soldiers/horses/guns is behind the first, this is called a double line or a two-man line. There can be triple lines, and so forth, but the nature of a line is that it is wider than it is deep. In the old days, when most military vessels were oared (galleys) and their major ship-to-ship weapon was the ram, a naval line was the same as an army line, vessels shoulder-to-shoulder, facing forward. We now call this formation line abreast. With the invention of the cannon, however, the business end of the ship was actually its sides, so the "battle line" got turned 90°, and ships moved nose to tail. So now a line on land is the opposite of a line at sea.
What is a "column" ??
The column is the "opposite" formation from a line, and can be created simply by having everyone in a line formation turn 90° to the right or left, in place. In the part-wrestling-match that is close combat, this formation is used to break through the enemy, or at least push them around, by piling up against them. If people in the front are killed, they can be replaced by folks immediately behind, without stopping to reorganize. A column is generally deeper than it is wide, though starting in a solid square was quite common. The column also applies more "peer pressure" on the troops in it to stay in formation. (It takes more discipline to stand steady in a line than it does in a column, because there are fewer folks behind you to make you stay.) Each line in a column or in a multiple-line formation is called a rank, and the rows of guys from front to back are called files. Since these formations are made up of the most common soldiers, this is where our expression "rank-and-file" (meaning the grunts who do the real work) comes from.
Which flank is which?
The "right" and "left" of a unit is judged as you would a person, as they face forward. When arrayed for battle one generally faces the enemy. Your right will be to your right, and opposite your right will be the enemy left.
Enemy Right Enemy Center Enemy Left
Your Left Your Center Your Right