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Nothing is more destructive than the charge of artillery on a crowd.
The best generals are those who have served in the artillery.
God fights on the side with the best artillery.
Great battles are won with artillery.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon's Artillery

Napoleon changed artillery - an often quoted sentiment is that of Wellington at Waterloo - "He is moving his guns around like they were a pair of pistols!" Sweden had invented light field artillery but Napoleon brought its usage to a new level. Napoleon, who was above all an artillery officer, owed his first successes to this weapon. It was thanks to the talents of his gunners that he took Toulon in 1793 and that he began to make a name. It was with cannons that he faced the Royalist revolt against the Directory and gained the nickname "General Vendémiaire". Once in power, Napoleon was therefore the most able to know how to intelligently reform this weapon from which he is born and which he knows perfectly well, having held all the posts, from simple gunner (as part of his training at the military School of Paris) to general. In 1803, when Napoleon became the first Consul, he decided to simplify the Gribeauval system further by limiting the number of calibers used. The goal is simple, always more standardize to always improve repairs and supply.

In the days when cannons could out-range the short fire of muskets, Napoleon would mass his highly mobile artillery forward of his lines of infantry, and with relative impunity from enemy small arms, batter the opposing line with direct fire. At the right moment he would pass his infantry through his guns and carry the position with the bayonet. The French emperor depended heavily on his artillery. His battles opened with the sound of gums from the divisions, soon followed by those of the corps. Before he launched his main attack, the greater part of his army artillery reserve would rush to the front. An intensive bombardment would pulverize the opposing line at the point of assault. If fortune handed Napoleon the right to pursue a broken enemy, his horse artillery supported the cavalry. If fate withheld its favor, then artillerymen delayed to cover the army's withdrawal.

The importance of field gun on the Napoleonic battlefield was a derivative of their range advantage over infantry muskets. Napoleon heightened the advantage by an aggressively mobile exploitation of his artillery arm. Canister fire was most deadly against exposed infantry. Gunners could use canister at ranges as great as 600 meters; however, its effectiveness increased as the distance diminished. In contrast, at ranges beyond 250 meters the infantry musket was nearly useless. Unless an ungallant enemy hid himself, gunners preferred low trajectory fire.

With the start of the American Civil War, the romance of the bouncing light artillery piece, rushed by mounted gunners to fire here and there between appracahing lines of infantry, was cooled by the deadly fire of the rifle. Infantry tactics were altered as men instinctively sought cover against the deadly accurate rifle bullet. Trenches eventually became the comon form of defense, and the main attack became costly.

At the commencement of the 18th century, French artillery had made but little progress. The carriages and wagons were driven by wagoners on foot, and on the field of battle the guns were dragged about by ropes or remained stationary. Towards the middle of the century some improvements were made. Field guns and carriages were lightened, and the guns separated into brigades. Siege carriages were introduced.

From 1765 onwards, however, Gribeauval strove to build up a complete system both of personnel and male'riel, creating a distinct matériel for field, siege, garrison and coast artillery. Alive to the vital importance of mobility for field artillery, he dismissed to other branches all pieces of greater calibre than 12-pounders, and reduced the weight of those retained. His reforms were resisted, and for a time successfully; but in 1776 he became first inspector-general of artillery, and was able to put his ideas into force.

The field artillery of the new system included 4-pounder regimental guns, and for the reserve 8- and 12-pounders, with 6-inch howitzers. For siege and garrison service Gribeauval adopted the 16-pounder and 12-pounder guns, 8-inch howitzer and 10-inch mortar, 12-, 10- and 8-inch mortars being introduced in 1785. The carriages were constructed on a uniform model and technically improved. The horses were harnessed in pairs, instead of in file as formerly, but the manner in which the teams were driven remained much the same. The prolong (a sort of tow-rope) was introduced, to unite the trail of the gun and the limber in slow retiring movements. Siege carriages differed from those of field artillery only in details. Gribeauval also introduced new carriages for garrison and coast service. The great step made was in a uniform construction being adopted for all materiel, and in making the parts interchangeable so far as possible.

Gribeauval's standardization of French artillery calibers extended to improved artillery limbers, caissons, and ancillary equipment. Yet the most important Gribeauval reform was the quantitative increases; a typical French field army had its artillery support increased from 60 to 160 medium caliber cannon. Napoleon was very lucky to rise to prominence at a point when the French artillery had marked quantitative and qualitative advantages over all its opponents. Indeed, Napoleon recognized the value of the new field artillery and made it the centerpiece of his Grande Armée.

During the long wars of the French Revolution and Empire the artillery of the field army by degrees became modern field artillery. The practice of hiring civilian gunners to man the pieces was not corrected until Napoleon, himself an artilleryman, put an end to the practice. The development of musketry in the 16th century had taken the work of preparing an assault out of the hands of the gunners. Per contra, the decadence of infantry fire-power in the latter part of the Seven Years’ War had reinstated the artillery arm. A similar decadence of the infantry arm was destined to produce, in 1807, artillery predominance, but this time with an important difference, viz. mobility, and when mobility is thus achieved came the first modern field artillery.

Napoleon increased the number of artillerymen and their support in the form of ammunition supply, horses, carriages and carts and so on. Napoleon introduced lighter carriages and guns. Napoleon's artillery was lighter and much more mobile than most other nations' field artillery at this time, allowing him to move them up with his infantry in battle. The field artillery of the 18th century was, if anything, more powerful than that of Napoleon’s time; it was the want of mobility alone which prevented the Prussians from turning to good account an opportunity fully as favourable as that of the German artillery at Sedan.

Napoleon standardised his guns - the 12-pounder [12pdr] foot artillery became standard of his army. This meant that cannonballs were interchangable and guncrews could be moved from one gun to the other. His guns were more organizationally more mobile than those of his enemies, as he could move them with his innovative corps organisation (where each separate corps had infantry, artillery and cavalry to fight even if alone). The 12pdr was heavier than earlier light field artillery (which often was 3 or 6pdr) and had a longer range than them, while still being mobile like light field artillery. Napoleon's guns had a longer range and heavier punch.

During the era of Napoleon I the movement of artillery to a more desirable position would often depend on the firmness of the earth, thereby allowing the field pieces to be moved into position. For this reason Napoleon was unable to break through the British lines at Waterloo. Bonaparte frequently waited for the course of a battle to develop before he committed his artillery, in this way he could move the massed pieces to the desired location with the result that the artillery then became the decisive factor of the battle. Tlie opposite of this tactic was the combination of massed concentrated artillery that Napoleon used to stop or hinder the advance of an enemy by a heavy bombardment, thereby giving his troops the time to decide the right opportunity for victory. The allied leaders were sometimes slow to learn from the old master, but in the battle of Leipzig when their massed guns surprised Napoleon by opening fire, he commented, "At last they have learned something."

The final production of the field artillery battle, usually dated as from the battle of Friedland (June 14, 1807), saved the situation for the French. Henceforward Napoleon’s battles depend for their success on an “ artillery preparation,” the like of which had never been seen. Napoleon’s own maxim illustrates the typical tactics of 1807— 1815. “When once the mélée has begun,” he says, “the man who is clever enough to bring up an unexpected force of artillery, without the enemy knowing it, is sure to carry the day.”

The guns no longer “prepared” the infantry advance by slowly disintegrating the hostile forces. Still less was it their business merely to cover a deployment. On the contrary, they now went in to the closest ranges and, by actually annihilating a portion of the enemy’s line with case-shot fire, “covered” the assault so effectively that columns of cavalry and infantry reached the gap thus created without striking a. blow.

This “case-shot preparation," of course, involved a high degree of efficiency in manoeuvre, as the guns had to gallop forward far in front of the infantry. The want of this quality had retarded the development of field artillery for 300 years, during which it had only been important relatively to the occasional inferiority of other troops. After Napoleon’s time the art of tactics became the art of combining the three arms.

Up to the introduction of rifled pieces, the Napoleonic case-shot attack was universally and justly considered the best method of fighting, and in the transition stage of the matériel many soldiers continued to put faith in the old method, — hence the Prussian artillery in 1866 had many smooth-bore batteries in the field.

The horse artillery formed the boldest and skilfullest riders of its army, and they will take a particular pride, on any grand field-day, in dashing across obstacles, guns and all, before which the cavalry will stop. The tactics of horse artillery consist in boldness and coolness. Rapidity, suddenness of appearance, quickness of fire, readiness to move off at a moment's notice, and to take that road which is too difficult for the cavalry, these are the chief qualities of a good horse artillery.

Choice of position there is but little in this constant change of places; every position is good so as it is close to the enemy and out of the way of the cavalry; and it is during the ebbing and flowing of cavalry engagements, that the artillery, skirting the advancing and receding waves, has to show every moment its superior horsemanship and presence of mind in getting clear of this surging sea across all sorts of ground where not every cavalry dares, or likes to follow.

But the grandest results were obtained by the reserve artillery in great and decisive battles. Held back out of sight and out of range during the greater part of the day, it is brought forward in a mass upon the decisive point as soon as the time for the final effort has come. Formed in a crescent a mile or more in extent, it concentrates its destructive fire upon a comparatively small point. Unless an equivalent force of guns is there to meet it, half an hour's rapid firing settles the matter. The enemy begins to wither under the hailstorm of howling shot; the intact reserves of infantry advance — a last, sharp, short struggle, and the victory is won.

Page last modified: 22-08-2019 18:28:46 Zulu