Rank and File

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Rank and File

RANK AND FILE. In both the American and British armies, the term "rank and file" meant the enlisted men present in the line of battle with weapons in their hands ready to fight, including corporals and privates but not sergeants and drummers. In tactical terms, "rank" referred to the men standing more or less shoulder to shoulder facing forward next to each other and forming the front of a unit. In the linear formations used until the middle of the nineteenth century, a unit could be drawn up with a depth of several ranks. Every effort was devoted to maximizing the firepower that could be brought to bear on the ground directly ahead of the unit. In a three-rank formation, for example, the front rank would kneel (either ready to fire or presenting bayonets to hold off cavalry), the second rank would stand and fire in the gaps of the first rank, and the third rank would stand and fire in the gaps of the second rank, over the heads of the men in the first rank. Gradually from the last decades of the seventeenth century, the number of ranks was reduced, as commanders experimented with gaining breadth of formation at the expense of depth, until by the time of the War for American Independence, regiments in formal battle order in North America were typically arrayed in a depth of two ranks, the rear rank firing in the gaps of the front rank. "File" referred to the group of soldiers standing more or less directly behind each other, from the front rank to the rear rank of the formation.

                            revised by Harold E. Selesky