French Artillery – Early Napoleonic Era


French artillerie a pied de la Garde & their 12 pounder smoothbore cannon.


French artillery doctrine can be neatly summed up in this passage from Tousard:

In defensive positions, place the large calibers in situations from which you can discover the enemy at a great distance, and from which the most extensive parts of its front are to be seen.

In attack, place these large calibers in the weakest part of your order of battle, consequently the most distant from the enemy; on the same side with the with the false attacks; on such heights which can, in securing them from insult, afford you the means of seconding the flanks of the real attack, and, if possible, batter de revers, the points which are attacked …

You should know the effect which you are to produce; the troops which you have to support; the points of attack, and take your positions so as not to impede your troops, nor occupy such where infantry could be more usefully employed than artillery. Avoid bringing your cannon too near and exposing them too much. Avail yourself of the disposition of the ground to cover your front, and especially your flanks; and, unless you are sure of a decisive effect, never trust your cannon from the protection of the troops.

Your crossfires should embrace the whole of the enemy’s position, and the ground he must march over to attack you. Let your fire be concentrated, that is to say, offer to the enemy only scattered subdivisions to fire at, whereas from your several positions you may batter the same object.

These same objects, in the defensive, are the Debouches, or openings of the enemy; the heads of such of its columns which threaten you; the ground in front of your weakest parts.

In the offensive; the whole front of the enemy’s army on which you should fire, in order to check and perplex him; and the parts which you intend to attack and destroy.

Force the enemy to make use of direct fire, before their crossfires might annoy your attacking troops; and, when forced to cease firing on the points which your troops attack, batter such of the enemy’s as are collateral to them.

Fire on an extent which covers the amplitude with the divergency of your shots.

Make your shot range the greatest dimension of a troop. Consequently, batter a line obliquely, or en echarpe, and a column with direct fire, but never trust your pieces from the protection of your troops.

Place your cannon so as to be beaten neither en echarpe, in flank, nor in the rear, unless you can shelter yourself, or have the certainty of producing the expected effect before you can be entirely disabled, and put hors de combat.

Before adopting a situation, consider the nature of the site, to avoid the miry, stony, and broken ground.

Secure to yourself easy means of advancing or retreating.

Choose positions not too much elevated. The maximum which is the most advantageous, is thirty or forty yards on six hundred, and sixteen on two hundred.

Avoid taking your situation behind your troops; your fire makes them uneasy, and presents two objects instead of one to the enemy’s fire.

Give at least thirty-six yards for each piece of your battery, unless the enemy may batter you en echarpe, under a very favorable angle; for they fire on a front, and not at a single piece.

Prefer positions from which you may batter the enemy for a longer time.

Never fire gun against gun, unless the enemy is under shelter, and his cannon exposed; moreover, unless your troops, being more annoyed by their fire than their troops are with yours, should be rendered incapable of performing their maneuvers.

Embrace with your fire the whole field of battle, or such part of it where the greatest number of their troops are collected, and do not fire on a contracted point.

Accelerate your firing so much the more as you may do it with more justness.

Make use of the grapeshot at shorter distances than such as are prescribed by the tables, if the field of battle is unequal, soft, covered, plunging, or plunged.

Spare your ammunition for a critical moment. Infantry, at quick time, march two hundred yards in three minutes; cavalry, at gallop, in half a minute.

Never abandon your cannon but when the enemy enters the battery. The last discharges are the most destructive: they may perhaps be the means of your preservation, but for certain those of your glory.

While the tumult of the Revolution did not affect the artillery officer corps as much as it had in the infantry and cavalry, 81 percent of the artillery officers on the Army List in 1789 emigrated. This left a burden on the remaining officers, such as Napoleon, and the NCOs, which was eventually filled to some extent. Newly commissioned officers also filled the void: Marmont, for example, expertly served and smoothly emplaced guns to support Desaix and Kellermann at Marengo in 1800, smashing the Austrian pursuit and helping turn defeat into victory.

Tactics employed by the artillery units in the Wars of the Revolution reflected what had been taught in the schools before the wars. Although not always successful, and many times outnumbered in guns and equipment by the Austrians, the French artillerymen learned their trade and supported their infantry brethren on the battlefields of the Republic. The horse artillerymen brought a new variable into the artillery/infantry equation, and Séruzier remarked that “they were renowned for their courage, and no less for their contentious spirit. They pushed esprit de corps far beyond the point of virtue and believed themselves infinitely superior to their comrades in the foot artillery.” Horse artillery were assigned to the cavalry as, according to Kilmaine, “it is the only way to make up for our scarcity of cavalry.” They fought alongside the clouds of light troops that screened attacks, closely supported attacking infantry in line or column, and in the advance guard of the army. They furnished the needed artillery fire with the support that sometimes kept a faltering attack moving. At the Battle of Wattignies in October 1793, a French concentration of five artillery companies, three horse and two foot, totaling thirty guns, paved the way for the decisive infantry assault: the three horse artillery companies accompanied the French infantry, while the two foot companies conducted counterbattery fire against the opposing Austrian artillery. The doctrine taught and written about before the wars was starting to bear fruit.

When the French phased out the divisions of all arms by 1800, artillery was still assigned to infantry and cavalry divisions. Artillery was initially employed to support the skirmishers in attacks, as well as being formed in multiple company batteries along the front of the army to support the infantry’s main and secondary attacks. One of the problems in the Revolutionary campaigns was that the French were many times outnumbered in artillery by the excellent Austrian artillery, and were many times outshot, as at Neerwinden in 1793.

Napoleon’s coming to power in 1799 gradually changed all that. The artillery arm was enlarged, and more guns were manufactured and issued to the gun companies. The Grande Armée of 1805, the best Napoleon ever led, was short of horse transport (which is an indication that Napoleon’s actual intention was to invade England), and the artillery was short of horses when it moved east to face the Austrian invasion of Bavaria. Not all the guns and ancillary equipment could be taken until the horse shortage could be solved. Davout had to leave some of his guns and artillery equipment at Mannheim during the French offensive, to be retrieved later.

After the Austerlitz campaign and subsequent peace treaty, Napoleon reorganized his artillery in a more logical manner. New guns of the Système AN XI, of which the 6-pounder, a new 12-pounder, and a 5.5-inch howitzer were being produced, and now were issued as soon as they were manufactured. What Napoleon wanted to do was issue every infantry division in the Grande Armée with two artillery companies. He also wanted one of them to be a horse artillery company if there were enough to go around. One horse artillery company would be assigned to every light cavalry division, and the heavy cavalry divisions would get two each, and all divisional artillery companies would be equipped with 6-pounders and 5.5-inch howitzers. An army artillery reserve would be formed, where most of the 12-pounders would be held. Additionally, corps artillery reserve companies would be held by the corps commanders. The 4- and 8-pounder Gribeauval guns would either be placed in the arsenals for storage as they were replaced by the new ordnance, or assigned to armies in secondary theaters, such as Italy and Spain.

In December 1814, General Ruty conducted a study that favored the older 8-pounder Gribeauval gun tube over the newer and widely employed 6-pounder of the Système AN XI. His main points were that the older piece was better and more accurate, that there had been no field testing comparing the two pieces, and that the weight saved by using the lighter piece failed to give it a decisive advantage over the older 8-pounder.

Ruty also found that the companies of each gun type were almost identical in size, and that the number of horses needed to haul both guns and their ancillary equipment was also nearly identical. He also came to the conclusion that:

The 8 caliber has, in all respects, an undeniable advantage over the 6-caliber. The use of the former, in preference to the latter, could not be put in doubt if we disregarded all economic considerations in the use of the resources. If, on the other hand, we proposed to coordinate with these last considerations, rather than with the first ones, the determination of the field calibers, the advocates of the old system would appose [sic] to the 6 caliber, the 4 caliber which, for the economy of the resources, obtains more advantages in relation to the 8 caliber. Yet, if the question was considered from only one of these points of view, it would be discussed in an incomplete and wrong way. In order to grasp the real point of view of the question, we must determine, in a more precise manner, the various purposes the cannon can serve in field warfare and then, examine if, for a definite sum of resources, the combination of the 8 and 4 calibers serves better these purposes than the intermediate 6 caliber.

Finally, Ruty stated that:

If the reasoning itself did not suffice to establish the advantages of the 8 caliber or the 6 caliber in the formation of the batteries… it would rely on the memories of the past to convey its undeniable advantages … Twenty years of brilliant success had sanctified it. Nobody can feel more inclined than an artillery officer to grant the personnel a share of merit it has to claim in these successes; yet it is for the same officer to judge to what extent the nature of the weapon has played a part in obtaining these successes. It seems impossible to deny that the material and positive superiority of a caliber more significant than the usually weaker caliber, had a lot to do with the superiority of our horse artillery batteries generally accepted at the time of the war currently being discussed. This opinion was so widespread that the gunners brought themselves reluctantly to renounce a weapon that so many reasons of pride and trust made it precious to them. They seized with eagerness the opportunity to take it back, wherever the 8 caliber was still accepted in the composition of field companies, in competition with the 6 caliber, which has been introduced in our armies only successively.

The addition of the new 6-pounder into the French artillery simplified many issues, such as ammunition resupply and the number of calibers used by the field armies. However, the Système AN XI was not fully implemented, only the 6-pounder and 5.5-inch howitzer being issued in large numbers. Furthermore, as has been noted, the new carriage for the 6-pounder was unsuitable and fell apart after hard campaigning, so the 6-pounder had to be remounted on the older Gribeauval carriages taken from the armories.

On campaign, French artillery was organized by company, the companies being assigned to a separate corps under a corps artillery chief who was usually a general officer. Companies of the same regiment did not necessarily serve together, or even in the same corps, though sometimes it was specified that they should. There was no battalion-level organization in the artillery regiments.

Corps artillery was organized with a corps reserve, and with every infantry division receiving one company of foot artillery. Those companies were also issued with four extra caissons to carry ammunition resupply for the infantry. There were also companies assigned to the army artillery reserve, that mission generally being taken over after 1809 by the larger Guard artillery. A typical artillery order of battle for a corps in the Grande Armée is represented by that of Davout’s III Corps at the Battle of Auerstadt on 14 October 1806.

The total authorized strength of the French artillery arm in 1809 at the height of the Empire was as described in the following extract:

The French imperial corps of artillery, at this time, is composed of eight regiments of foot artillery, and six regiments of horse artillery. The full complement of the first is two thousand five hundred and eighty- two men, including the officers, and the total of the foot artillery is twenty thousand six hundred and fifty-six men. The full complement of a regiment of horse artillery is five hundred and twenty-four men, and the total is three thousand two hundred and twenty-nine men.

Fifteen companies of artificers, ninety-two men including four officers, thirteen hundred eighty. Eight battalions of the train, the great complement of which is four hundred and seventy-seven men, and the total, including the officers, thirty-eight hundred and sixteen.

When the battalions of the train are put on the war establishment, they are increased to the same number of battalions, of six companies, each of ninety-nine men, sixty of whom are conscripts.

There are also two battalions of pontonneers of six hundred and ten men; officers, soldiers and artificers, total twelve hundred and twenty men.

Fourteen companies of veteran cannoneers, fifty men each, seven hundred men, and one hundred and twenty-eight garde-côte companies of one hundred and twenty-one men each, which give a complement of fifteen thousand four hundred and eighty-eight men.

The whole of the French artillery is thus forty-six thousand four hundred and eighty-nine men, including the officers. In this number are not included the sappers and miners, which were formerly attached to the artillery, and which now form part of the corps of engineers, the total of which is five thousand four hundred and forty-five men, exclusive of four hundred and twenty-eight officers, who compose the imperial corps of engineers.

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