FIREPOWER COMES OF AGE
by James Burbeck
During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars which swept Europe between 1792 and 1815, the small professional armies of the Eighteenth Century quickly gave way to large national armies composed of draftees. This same period saw artillery transformed from a specialized profession overseen by "mechanics," into a major service branch capable of dominating battlefields. An example of this is the French Army of Italy, which in 1796 had 60 artillery pieces to its credit. Sixteen years later, at the Battle of Borodino, the artillery for both sides totaled nearly 1,200 guns which fired an average of 15,000 rounds per hour during the course of the day's fighting. And that was on a mere two mile front! Many factors combined to bring about this fundamental change; decades of technical improvements, improved grand-tactical doctrine and the rise in status of artillery officers. But how exactly was artillery of this period employed? How did it function during the confusion of combat? And most of all, what factors led to the rise in status of artillery from a belittled specialist branch to that of a new god of war?
Improvement and Changes
The artillery pieces used during the eighteenth century were large and clumsy affairs, whose great weight barely allowed their transport over European roads. Most field armies were not yet capable of moving their own artillery, so the guns were pulled around by civilian contractors who by nature avoided organized violence as much as possible. Because of this unhappy arrangement, it was not unusual for gunners to manhandle or "prolong" their artillery pieces onto a battlefield. Once in place, the heavier guns commonly moved very little during the course of a battle, especially if the terrain was rough. Despite these awkward arrangements, and partially because of them, most European nations sporadically continued to improve their artillery arms. Many of these efforts were focused around specific individuals who through genius, influence, or both, managed to push through various improvements in both design and employment of artillery.
Beginning in the late 1760s, the artillery used by the French Army was completely redesigned along scientific principles by Jean Baptiste Grimbeauval, who standardized all construction and design. This resulted in lighter, more manageable cannon and better quality barrels and ammunition. The Russians also designed new artillery at this time, creating the Licorn artillery howitzers, which were ancestors of later dual purpose field pieces. In 1805 they standardized their main gun calibers to just two sizes, a notable departure from that army's otherwise archaic lack of contemporary standards. In 1792, Sir William Congreve introduced the block trail to Great Britain's Royal Artillery. This block trail was another breakthrough for artillery, further lightening the artillery carriages and improving their handling through the efficient design. Most nations at this time also began constructing gun/limber designs which allowed gunners to ride with the guns. These individual breakthroughs; French standardization and professionalism, Russian dual purpose guns, and British carriage designs, coupled with numerous other changes, helped to lay the foundation for modern artillery design and employment.
By the time France plunged into revolutionary chaos in the early 1790s, its army artillery had been brought up to the latest standards, and many new gunners and officers trained in their employment. Even during the Revolution, the artillery arm continued to make its presence felt, and the fighting at Valmy and St.Roch were only two incidents which highlighted the continuing influence of the many trained artillerists and engineers in the face of terror and upheaval. After 1800 the French artillery service especially benefitted from the fact that their new Commander-in-Chief, Napoleon Bonaparte, was one of these very same artillery officers who had exerted so much influence on revolutionary fighting. Combined with the sweeping technological and organizational changes begun before the revolt, this assured that the French artillery service was the state-of-the-art for its time. These improvements boosted morale in a branch of service which already had a long tradition of professionalism. The end result was more aggressive battlefield tactics and ensuing success which ushered artillery away from a supporting position into a decisive and highly destructive role all its own.
The scale artillery piece shown at right is typical of the Grimbeauval designs of the late eighteenth century. Reducing the "windage" gap between the shot and the inside diameter of the barrel allowed a reduction in barrel mass over previous models. This, coupled with the use of bronze for the barrel allowed for a lighter carriage assembly for the gun. These field pieces were half the weight of their predecessors, which enabled turn-of-the-century artillery officers to maneuver their gun sections in ways scarcely conceivable thirty years before. Unlimbering time was usually less than one minute, and most artillery pieces included a ready supply of ammunition in small chests carried across the gun trail.
The example shown here is a 12pdr, the heaviest standard field caliber used during this period. Such heavy guns would usually have a bore diameter of approximately 11½ centimeters. For comparison, the lighter 6pdr pieces would have a bore diameter of around 9¼ centimeters. For transport, the bronze barrel was hoisted into a lower set of trunnion cut-outs, thereby moving the piece's center of gravity toward the middle of the limbered assembly. This allowed gun teams to move over uneven ground with less chance of overturning. Before battle, the piece would be un-limbered and the barrel would be moved into the forward firing position. Strange though it may seem, there were occasions when the relatively slow artillery units would be left behind with their guns if they could not keep up with the rest of an army. In Spain, one column of French troops abandoned their artillery park when the guns could not fit through a narrow roadcut. As the infantry moved ahead, the gunners used picks and tools to manually widen the rock walls of the roadway. Once on the move again, gunners took turns walking ahead of the column with a limber axle as a gauge to assure passage of the guns behind! The orphaned artillery column ended up far behind the main force and barely survived an attack by partisans.
Eighteenth century conventions usually placed artillery batteries into a general pool of units which were then parceled out to temporary "column" commanders. Even with this method, commanders could and did mass artillery instead of distributing it in small groups along the line. Austrian commanders used massed artillery at the battles of Marengo and Aspern-Essling, and the Russian use of massed artillery at Eylau is well known. The technique of massing artillery was not unusual. What was unusual was that the French Army, as part of their reorganization of the army into a modern division/corps structure, created semi-autonomous artillery formations which were under the command of smart, aggressive young artillery officers. These comparatively young men were accustomed to the democratic air of the revolution. They did not hesitate to tell their commanders, " Let me go do this, it will work...," behavior which was discouraged in other armies of the time. And it should not be forgotten that Napoleon and several of his senior generals were experts at maintaining offensive tempo on the battlefield, including the efficient coordination of artillery fire. All of these factors, coupled with new, relatively lightweight cannon breathed life into the behavior of battlefield artillery, turning it into a potent offensive weapon. Only the tendency for the French army to get itself into outnumbered situations allowed its opponents to bring great numbers of cannon onto the field, partially negating the French artillery's newfound strength.
The presence of officers leading and coordinating massed artillery formations was one of several important factors in the superior performance of the French artillery arm at this time. The Russians were no strangers to massed artillery, yet only in 1813 (very late in the wars) do their organizations show specific artillery officers commanding corps level artillery reserve formations. Before this, artillery reserves seem to have been rather nebulous affairs, made available to army commanders to use however they saw fit. While this certainly allowed for massing of guns, it did not allow for very much innovation or independent thinking among the batteries themselves. It also prevented the coordination among batteries which usually resulted from central control. The Austrians at this time demonstrated the same tardiness in forming semi-permanent artillery formations, while the Prussians had precious little army left after their 1806 defeats. When they finally put their ragged troops into the field in 1813, it was along the lines of the new Russian organization, which were beginning to use independent artillery officers in increasing numbers. The British Army at this time continued to use the old pool system, parceling out individual batteries to brigades or divisions. And while the individual batteries were well led, there was little coordination among them.
Battlefield Deployment and Use
The positioning of artillery was of the utmost importance. While common sense may lead one to believe that high ground is always the best place from which to fire, this was not the case during the Napoleonic era. Artillery usually fired iron balls, called roundshot or just "shot," which was most effective when fired at a level trajectory about chest high. If allowed to pass straight through ranks of men, the shot could cause enormous destruction. Ultimately the ball would bounce several times and begin rolling, still capable of tearing off feet or breaking ankles. If fired from high ground, or on a steep trajectory, the shot would hit the ground at such an angle that even if it hit anyone, the "bounce zone" would be much shorter. As a result, artillerists usually sought areas of flat, hard, open ground, devoid of obstacles or irregularities. It was across these areas of hard, bare ground that artillery could grind an assault dead in its tracks! One benefit of high ground would have been the slow approach it forced on attacking units. Artillery stationed on high ground was, if time allowed, placed behind makeshift redoubts and issued plenty of shotgun-like case rounds to use against enemy units as they toiled upslope. This ammunition is now commonly called grapeshot, even though true grapeshot was a special heavy caliber ball ammunition used only by navies of the period. Case shot was made in two basic types; light case and heavy case. Light case was used at close range, and was composed of 60 to 120 small balls enclosed in a thin cannister which broke apart as the artillery piece fired. Heavy case was employed at longer ranges than light case, and was composed of roughly 30 to 60 larger balls in a similar container. Both types of case could tear gory paths through the ranks of vulnerable units, so it is not surprising that frontal attacks on case-armed artillery was one of the most unpleasant of duties.
Artillery batteries (usually called companies at this time) appear to have had the natural tendency to fire to their immediate front. People who do military simulations for this period may be familiar with the common practice of converging the fire of several batteries onto single targets, even at long range. The evidence points against this as any common practice. The few accounts available indicate that artillery batteries had an overwhelming tendency to fire what might be called "area fire" to their front. The occasions when fire was converged onto narrow points seem to have been when the targets were well defined, such as buildings, active enemy artillery batteries or very specific lone units. Even then this was when the guns were handled by well trained gunners who could think clearly while being shot at. This is not to say that artillery at this time did not concentrate their firepower, certain commanders were reknowned for their ability to concentrate artillery fire. But the overwhelming tendency in the heat of combat was for the gunners to fire straight to their front.
Another problem with target selection was battlefield smoke and the possible difficulty of identifying friend or foe. According to eyewitness accounts, some period artillery batteries could not tell the difference between friendly and enemy troops as close as 800 yards if they were engaged. This helped to negate the theoretical maximum range of 1,500 yards for larger guns. Once they did begin firing, artillerists would likely continue firing even though their own smoke blocked the view to their front. The resulting impression is one of massive confusion which could only be avoided through coolness of thought and the powers of observation on the field. Also, the maintenance of fresh reserves, even artillery reserves, develops a whole new meaning when faced with images of such confusion. Even if the reserves were not perfectly fresh, those who had been kept at a distance from the main action would have a better chance of evaluating their situation.
Upon firing, an artillery piece would create a huge explosion which pushed its projectile out of the cannon barrel and through the air toward the enemy, usually whistling and whining the entire way. The gun carriage would be viciously thrown back several feet by the recoil of the explosion, after which the hot gun had to be "run up" again to its original position and carefully but quickly reloaded. A calm gun crew would reposition the gun before preparing to reload. At Waterloo, Captain Cavalie Mercer's horse artillery battery was firing so feverishly at one point, that the guns were not run back into their positions after firing. This eventually caused the guns to become tangled with each other back among the caissons and limbers, which were by then immobilized due to the loss of half of their horses. It certainly demonstrates that during the confusion of battle, a battery can become terribly disordered. At this point in the battle, Mercer's battery had come under enfilade fire from a Prussian artillery battery, an odd situation which may have inflicted unusual disorder on the unit. It does bring another factor to light; the effects of artillery fire itself.
The effects of Napoleonic artillery fire on humans could be terrifying. While modern weapons may or may not tear and rend, artillery roundshot was virtually guaranteed to cause dramatic and gory casualties. The cannonballs themselves were subsonic, and lobbed slowly through the air, loudly whistling as they approached. Even at the end of its effective range, rolling shot would bowl men over and cause widespread injury. If flying shot hit a horse, it was not just a matter of the horse falling over; the ball might strike the saddlebags, scattering the contents in every direction as the horse went spinning, splattering pieces of the animal closely behind the chunks of leather and cloth.. At close range, artillery fire would punch holes straight through entire sections of units. During the battle of Waterloo, British artillery fired "doubleshot" charges (one charge of cannister backed up by a round of shot) at point blank range into advancing French heavy cavalry. In one case, the entire front rank of cavalry was taken down, stopping the assault only because none of the following troops could make their way over the heaving pile of men and horses to their front! The cuirass at right belonged to Antoine Faveau, a Carabinier trooper killed at Waterloo. The photograph explains itself, the main feature being the cannonball hole punched completely through both front and back halves of the steel cuirass!
Another feature of the battlefield was damage to the artillery batteries themselves. When people hear the word "damaged" they think of dead men and damaged guns, neither of which prevent the rest of the survivors from moving on. However, a battery with a third of its horses killed could be totally immobilized. Again taking Mercer's example (Captain Mercer's account of the Waterloo campaign is an exceptionally clear telling of period artillery in action), 140 of his battery's 200 horses were killed at their final deployment point. He noted that all of these dead horses had to be freed from the harnesses before the living horses could be re-grouped into effective teams. A battery could completely lose its mobility as well as receiving damage to the cannon and crew.
The turn of the Nineteenth Century saw artillery used in ways which presupposed the Post-Industrial Revolution use of big guns. The aforementioned Battle of Borodino was so notable for its use of firepower, that a Russian messenger observed in his crossing of the battlefield, that he had to keep his mouth open in order to stabilize the pressure from the firing of the guns. Starting with this period, the military world was to become steadily more familiar with the phenomenon of so many guns firing at once that everything turned into a never-ending, high pressure rumble. This is something taken for granted today, but it was relatively unusual 200 years ago. The Napoleonic era's most famous artillerist did once comment that he would use thunderbolts if they were available, but one wonders what his wildest dreams really contemplated for the future.