Back during the era of Frederick the Great, infantry combat was much about enduring artillery fire (gory, but short-ranged and slow-firing) and fearing cavalry so much entire infantry battalions changed formations to be able to survive a cavalry assault whenever they saw cavalry.
Muskets had incredibly short effective ranges and even within these the inaccuracy was so great there was little point in adding sights to a musket. You couldn't see much after the first few shots anyway - same blackpowder smoke issue as every year on January 1st, 0000 to about 0300 in many cities of Germany (just even more of it).
Military theoreticians of the time (= Generals and Field Marshals) often advocated to get over with it quickly; march to the enemy, fire one salvo, then assault with multiple battalions using the bayonet.
It was simply and in some cases reasonably effective, for such battalion on battalion fights often ended with a rout of the less resolute battalion.
You could rarely stop a resolute battalion with musket fire, so placing much emphasis on the close fight was a necessity even for the tactical defence.
|Illustration of a scene during the Battle of Mollwitz, 1741|
The close fight was considered decisive, while the stand-off exchange of lead balls was rather frustrating. This was rather misleading for the decision isn't always once it's there; the preparations and circumstances for a fight may be decisive without making such a spectacular impression as did masses of troops advancing till one line dissolves in a rout. Still, entering close combat clearly helped to accelerate the battle.
This was then, when ranged weapons were still quite frustrating.
It changed later on, as ranged fire lethality multiplied insanely while close fight lethality was not developing much and melée lethality even declining.
Army leaders began to value firepower more after the invention of the powerful smokeless powders, and it became more preferable to seek decision in ranged combat - at least if you had the heavy weaponry and logistics to see promise in this path. Some armies were more enthusiastic about it than others. By the mid-20 h century the close fight was considered messy and the long-range fight (albeit claiming more lives) became more inspiring to many.
Just look at the 'visions' of future (or modern) combat; how often are they about two men crawling into position to throw a hand grenade through a window? I recall a lot of visualisations of soldiers shooting stuff through windows instead. The close fight - that has become the messy thing which you cannot influence as much as you want.
Today (and ever since at the latest 1950 in my opinion) we may see two kinds of armies in a given conflict; those which believe it's safe to stay at a distance and those who believe the opposite.
Staying at a distance is obviously relatively safe if your enemy hasn't much heavy weaponry or generous logistics. Staying close was relatively safe when your enemy had, for many heavy ammunitions cannot be employed at short range without much risk to friendlies. This applies to a nuke as much as to mortar fire. The Soviet Union didn't expect to lack heavy weapons or logistical support, but it still divided combat into a zone of at most 300-400 metres and another zone beyond. The reasoning was that within 300-400 metres there could not be much indirect fire support applied on a regular basis. Infantry armament was thus required to cover this range spectrum.
Infantry-centric armies of the post-WW2 era have often 'hugged' superior firepower opposition; within rifle range, but preferably with cover against rifles.
This pattern may disappear soon, for guided ammunitions reduce the safe zone by a lot, especially if the better-equipped force is serious enough to keep its safety requirements low.
Close combat on a battlefield is often understood to be especially lethal (and the kill ratio difficult to influence). This assumption is in my opinion one of the drivers behind the unease with which the close fight is being treated, in addition to the problem that long range fires superiority doesn't count so much at short combat ranges.
I would like to point out a different problem or strength of close combat, tough. It's no earth-moving discovery for sure, but I feel it's rarely being taken into account.
Let's say there are two villages with each adjacent woodland, separated by a few hundred yards of open agricultural area. Two units face each other, both have some sensors, some indirect fire support and their infantry weapons at hand.
They wouldn't see much of their opponents. A few dumb or ill-disciplined soldiers will demonstrate their comrades the hazards of stupidity and then there will effectively be an empty battlefield. The ranged fires - sniper shots, machinegun fire, shells or mortar bombs - is not going to do much. Sure, it would if they met on an open field, but that's why they don't.
Now assume one commander decides to attack, arranges for some smoke on the agricultural area and rushes with his men across to seek a close fight. Most of his firepower would become almost unusable; rifles, the infantry's grenade ammunitions and bipod machineguns would form the mainstay of the firepower now. That's a far cry from the impact of a sophisticated 155 mm DPICM MRSI or similar* fire mission, for sure.
Still, losses would mount and if the troops don't get bogged down (which does happen often) in the woodland they will reach a rather quick conclusion of this tactical encounter.
Why? Well, it's easy to hide from people from afar, but very hard to do so close up. You can pull it off (with foxholes, discipline and camouflage), but hardly as an entire battalion in daylight.
The close fight's ability to counter the enemies' hiding capability (which became a necessity in face of modern heavy weaponry) is rarely emphasised in statements about the close or the stand-off fight (as far as I can tell, which is anecdotal evidence).
To me it appears as if we've come full turn in regard to the need to appraise the close fight as the kind of fight which reveals who loses more (and who "wins"), and relatively quickly so.
The reason for coming full circle in regard to the close fight is a different one than during the age of muskets and bayonets, though; it's not the lack of stand-off firepower, but the inability to aim it at opponents who have long since been forced to drop their colourful regimental uniforms in favour of disappearing in the landscape.
It is understandable that many become obsessed with making those enemies visible again - there are fortunes to be made in related businesses - but whatever is accomplished in this field will first and foremost provoke countermeasures.
Maybe we should look at this much less in terms of sensors and radio networks in pursuit of being able to aim stand-off weaponry well again.
Maybe we should pay more attention to
(1) proficiency in the close fight (ours and theirs)
(2) exploiting the restrictions imposed by existing stand-off firepower and sensors on the enemy's repertoire (such as relatively low mobility, for you don't tend to move much while hiding)
(3) pursuing the decision prior to the tactical engagement, on the operational level**
I'll never be hired for 'strategic communications' by an arms maker, ever.
*: Translation from Milspeak to English: "Hell breaks loose on an area as large as multiple football fields for about ten seconds."
**: My personal focus.