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Military


Artillery - Early European History

Artillery (the 0.Fr. artiller, to equip with engines of war, probably comes from Late Lat. articulum, dim. of ars, art, cf. “ engine ” from ingenium, or of arms, joint), a term originally applied to all engines for discharging missiles, and in this sense used in English in the early 17th century. In a more restricted sense, artillery has come to mean all firearms not carried and used by hand, and also the personnel and organization by which the power of such weapons is wielded.

It is, however, not usual to class machine guns as artillery. Artillery, as distinct from ordnance, is usually classified in accordance with the functions it has to perform. The simplest division is that into mobile and immobile artillery, the former being concerned with the handling of all weapons so mounted as to be capable of more or less easy movement from place to place, the latter with that of weapons which are installed in fixed positions. Mobile artillery is subdivided, again chiefly in respect of its employment, into horse and field batteries, heavy field or position artillery, field howitzers, mountain artillery and siege trains, adapted to every kind of terrain in which field troops may be employed, and work they may have to do.

Immobile artillery is used in fixed positions of all kinds, and above all in permanent fortifications, it cannot, therefore, be classified as above, inasmuch as the raison d’étre, and consequently the armament of one fort or battery may be totally distinct from that of another. “Fortress," “Garrison” and “Fort” artillery are the usual names for this branch. The dividing line, indeed, in the case of the heavier weapons, varies with circumstances; guns of position may remain on their ground while elaborate fortifications grow up around them, or the deficiencies of a field army in artillery may be made good from the materiel, more frequently still from the personnel, of the fortress artillery. Thus it may happen that mobile artillery becomes immobile and vice versa. But under normal circumstances the principle of classification indicated is maintained in all organized military forces.

By 1350, firearms were common in all countries of western, southern, and central Europe. That artillery is of eastern origin, is also proved by the manufacture of the oldest European ordnance. The gun was made of bars of wrought iron welded longitudinally together, and strengthened by heavy iron rings forced over them. It was composed of several pieces, the movable breech being fixed to the flight after loading. The oldest Chinese and Indian guns are made exactly in the same way, and they are as old, or older, than the oldest European guns. Both European and Asiatic cannon, about the 14th century, were of very inferior construction, showing artillery to have still been in its infancy. Thus, if it remains uncertain when the composition of gunpowder and its application to fire-arms were invented, we can at least fix the period when it first became an important engine in warfare; the very clumsiness of the guns of the 14th century, wherever they occur, roves their novelty as regular war-machines.

It is clear that the chief and almost the only European use of guns at first was to batter the walls of fortifications, and it is not until later in the 15th century that their employment in the field became general. The introduction of field artillery may be attributed to John Hus, and it was in his Hussite wars (1419—1424) that the Wagenburg, a term of more general application, but taken here as denoting a cart or vehicle armed with several small guns, came into prominence. This device allowed a relatively high manoeuvring power to be attained, and it is found occasionally in European wars two centuries later, as for instance at Wimpfen in 1622 and Cropredy Bridge in 1644.

The greatest improvements were made by Charles VIII of France [r 1483-1498]. He finally did away with the movable breech, cast his guns of brass and in one piece, introduced trunnions, and gun-carriages on wheels, and had none but iron shot. He also simplified the calibres, and took the lighter regularly into the field. Of these, the double cannon was placed on a 4-wheeled carriage drawn by 35 horses; the remainder had 2-wheeled carriages, the trails dragging on the ground, and were drawn by from 24 down to 2 horses. A body of gunners was attached to each, and the service so organized as to constitute the first distinct corps of field artillery; the lighter calibres were movable enough to shift about with the other troops during action, and even to keep up with the cavalry.

It was this new arm which procured to Charles VIII his surprising successes in Italy. The Italian ordnance was still moved by bullocks; the guns were still composed of several pieces, and had to be placed on their frames when the position was reached; they fired stone shot, and were altogether so clumsy that the French fired a gun oftener in an hour than the Italians could do in a day. The battle of Fornovo (1495), gained by the French field artillery, spread terror over Italy, and the new arm was considered irresistible. Macchiavelli's Arte della Guerra was written expressly in order to indicate means to counteract its effect by the skilful disposition of the infantry and cavalry.

Cannon did excellent service in the field before hand firearms attained any considerable importance. When the arquebus and other small arms became really efficient (about 1525), less is heard of this small and handy field artillery, which had hitherto been the only means of breaking up the heavy masses of the hostile pikemen. The guns now usually came into action in advance of the troops, but, from their want of mobility, could neither accompany a farther advance nor protect a retreat, and they were generally captured and recaptured with every changing phase of the fight. Great progress was in the meanwhile made in the adaptation of ordnance to the attack and defence of fortresses and, in particular, vertical fire came into vogue.

One of the first effects of the improved artillery was a total change in the art of fortification. Since the time of the Assyrian and Babylonian monarchies, that art had made but little progress. But now the new fire-arm everywhere made a breach on the masonry walls of the old system, and a new plan had to be invented. The defences had to be constructed so as to expose as little masonry as possible to the direct fire of the besieger, and to admit of a strong artillery being placed on the ramparts. The old masonry wall was replaced by an earthwork rampart, only faced with masonry, and the small flanking town was turned into a large pentagonal bastion. Gradually the whole of the masonry used in fortification was covered against direct fire by outlying earthworks, and by the middle of the 17th century the defence of a fortified place became once more relatively stronger than the attack, until Vauban again gave the ascendant to the latter.

One of the first effects of the improved artillery was a total change in the art of fortification. Since the time of the Assyrian and Babylonian monarchies, that art had made but little progress. But now the new fire-arm everywhere made a breach on the masonry walls of the old system, and a new plan had to be invented. The defences had to be constructed so as to expose as little masonry as possible to the direct fire of the besieger, and to admit of a strong artillery being placed on the ramparts. The old masonry wall was replaced by an earthwork rampart, only faced with masonry, and the small flanking town was turned into a large pentagonal bastion. Gradually the whole of the masonry used in fortification was covered against direct fire by outlying earthworks, and by the middle of the 17th century the defence of a fortified place became once more relatively stronger than the attack, until Vauban again gave the ascendant to the latter.

Maurice of Nassau helped to develop the field gun, and the French had invented the limber, but Gustavus Adolphus was the first to give artillery its true position on the battlefield. At the first battle of Breitenfeld (1631) Gustavus had twelve heavy and forty-two light guns engaged, as against Tilly’s heavy 24-pounders, which were naturally far too cumbrous for field work. At the Lech (1632) Gustavus seems to have obtained a local superiority over his opponent owing to the handiness of his field artillery even more than by its fire-power.

More than 300 years after the first employment of ordnance, the men working the guns and the transport drivers were still civilians. The actual commander of the artillery was indeed, both in Germany and in England, usually a soldier, and Lennart Torstensson, the commander of Gustavus’ artillery, became a brilliant and successful general. But the transport and the drivers were still hired, and even the gunners were chiefly concerned for the safety of their pieces, the latter being often the property, not of the king waging war, but of some “master gunner ” whose services he had secured, and the latter’s apprentices were usually in entire charge of the material. These civilian “artists,” as they were termed, owed no more duty to the prince than any other employees, and even Gustavus, it would appear, made no great improvement in the matter of the reorganization of artillery trains.

With the final disappearance of the pike, about 1700, infantry fire-power ruled the battlefield. Throughout the 18th century, it will be found, when the infantry is equal to its work the guns have only a subordinate part in the fighting of pitched battles. At Kunersdorf (I7 59) the first dashing charge of the Prussian grenadiers captured 72 guns from the Russian army. Later the total of captured ordnance reached 180, yet the Russians, then almost wholly in flight, were not cut to pieces, for only a few light guns of the Prussian army could get to the front ; their heavy pieces, though twelve horses were harnessed to each, never came into action. This example will serve to illustrate the difference between the artillery of 1760 and that of fifty years later.



 
Page last modified: 19-01-2019 18:38:05 Zulu