Sgt. Leftfoot's Musing & Maneuvering: The Oblique Step

By Sgt. Addison P. Leftfoot

"The oblique step is of great use on many occasions, and renders several of the evolutions much more simple and easy; by it you always preserve your front, and avoid wheelings and other motions, that are very dangerous to be attempted, when near an enemy; besides the not losing any time, as the whole body keeps still marching, and advancing forwards."

— Norfolk

Greetings, fellow soldiers! Today, we are going to dissect The Oblique Step, a maneuver that has the power to impress and intimidate our wicked opposition, as well as serve a valuable strategic function if done properly. Currently, when we execute this maneuver, we are often reduced to looking like we're skipping off to see the Wizard. In this article, we will hear from Lord Norfolk as well as the good Baron on this topic, who will enlighten us as to the proper methods of performing this command, as well as provide qualified insight to make us look good while doing it.

Before covering applications of The Oblique Step, first we must all gain a clear understanding of exactly where our feet belong when executing the maneuver, thereby avoiding the need to constantly prop up the confused and stumbling "Scarecrows" among us.

We will begin with Steuben's explanation of the command:

"In marching obliquely to the right, the soldier steps obliquely with the right foot, bringing up the left, and placing the heel directly before the toes of the right foot, and the contrary when marching to the left; at the same time observing to keep the shoulders square to the front, especially that the shoulder opposed to the side they march to does not project, and that the files keep close."

Note that while marching obliquely to the right, the left leg does not cross over in front of the right. Once the left foot is planted based on the progression made by the right, the right foot can again proceed without being inhibited by having to go around the left leg, à la The Monkees or dancing the Hora.

Norfolk goes into a little deeper detail about this maneuver:

"...when you step with the left foot, you carry it across, setting it down even with and before the point of the right foot, the left toe pointing to the front; and then step obliquely to the right with the right foot, advancing it towards the front, and setting it down before, and about six inches to the right of the point of the left foot, the toe pointing obliquely to the right..."

With Norfolk, we are again placing our left heel directly in front of the right foot, however with the feet positioned as he describes, we can better understand how to orient our feet to ensure continued momentum to the right as well as the stability of keeping the body straight to the front.

Additionally, Norfolk adds a footnote, so to speak, that describes the length of the steps as such:

"The oblique step is likewise distinguished into the short, the long, and the doubled step. The steps, however, must be rather shorter, on account of the obliquity. and the long step must not be above eighteen inches."

Of course, they were shorter then.

Seriously, though, if we are to consider the "long step" to be the diagonal step of the leading foot, then we have to keep in mind that an 18 inch diagonal, six inches to the right or left of the toe of the planted foot, is not a long stride. An oblique movement is more subtle than many units would have you believe. With this in mind, those in command need to be looking ahead and anticipating movements in order to execute a proper oblique movement.

Now, our feet have a general understanding, so to speak, of where they need to be. Next, we will concentrate on keeping the top of our bodies facing forward. Steuben noted to be careful that "the shoulder opposed to the side they march to does not project." Continuing with our example of the marching obliquely to the right, this means we need to be reminded to keep our left shoulders back, since they will be drawn forward by our gait.

Small errors in a maneuver, not unlike certain anachronistic fads, can be quickly magnified throughout the line. Therefore, this complusion to angle ourselves slightly toward the direction of the incline often results in a half wheel, with the left flank advancing while the whole is marching obliquely to the right and vice versa, as Norfolk notes, "they are exceedingly apt to do."

To remedy this, Norfolk suggests that the men look to the left when inclining to the right, and vice versa. Most of us look left during a right wheel in order to maintain a straight line and advance equally based on the outside flank. The concept is the same here.

Both Norfolk and Steuben advise that The Oblique Step be practiced at the common step (two feet long and about seventy-five in a minute) as well as the quick step (also two feet long, but one hundred and twenty in a minute) in order to be able to use the maneuver effectively on the field.

In addition to utilizing The Oblique Step in its own right, Steuben describes one occasion for using the maneuver specifically in Chapter VI, Article 5, which covers breaking into sections, as well as reforming, a company.

"Sections! Break off!

Upon which the section on the right inclines by the oblique step to the left, and that on the left, following the former, inclines to the right, till they cover each other, when they march forward."

Note that this implies equal responsibility on both sections to move toward the center. The left section does not stay in place until the right is in front of it, nor does the right continue forward in hopes that the left will catch up once they are in place.

"Form Company!

The first section inclines to the right, shortening its step, and the second to the left, lengthening its step, till they are uncovered, when both march forward, and form in a line."

With all this chatter about shortening and lengthening steps, we should note that this is relative to the fact that Norfolk clarifies the standard long step of the move as being 18 inches. Also, notice that the first section is not merely marking time while the second section does the work; both sections are moving obliquely to accomplish their goal.

Steuben concludes Chapter IV, article 5, with the following:

"Two or more companies may be joined to perform the company exercise, when they have been sufficiently exercised by single companies, but not till then; the inattention of the soldiers, and the difficulty of instructing them, increasing in proportion with the numbers."

While this is intended to encourage the practice of breaking off and forming companies using The Oblique Step, I think it also serves as a good reminder that each unit needs to stay focused and practiced on their drill in order for the Line to serve effectively as a whole. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link and all that.

So, rather than tottering off to Oz or auditioning for a 1970s novelty band, the Line, with a clearer and more universal understanding of The Oblique Step coupled with a renewed passion for drilling on the company scale, will be better prepared to outmaneuver and defeat our scurvy British foes in the future.

Copyright © 1998 Sgt. Addison P. Leftfoot. All rights reserved.