French Artillery – Napoleonic Wars I

0200, 20 June 1809: 40 miles west of Ingolstadt, Bavaria

The green Berline carriage rumbled like a juggernaut through the Bavarian countryside towards Ingolstadt. A large, specially modified vehicle, fitted with large, strongly built artillery wheels, it was escorted by grimly silent light horsemen uniformed in light green. The horses were lathered and showing the strain of the pace, and the carriage and escort finally pulled up in a clatter of hooves and trace chains in the next small village, where it was known that a French relay station had been set up.

Slowing down gradually on the cobblestoned street, the entourage still made enough noise to wake the dead, and the bone-tired troopers were near enough to the village cemetery for some of them to take a wistful look at the garden of stone in the moonlight. Villagers who were awakened by the awful clatter peered out of their shuttered windows to see the cause of their interrupted night’s sleep. One angry villager was about to shout down to them when he saw who it was that stepped down from the Berline. Another such spectator was the local Burgomaster, who lived across from the temporary relay station.

Opening his shutters and gazing into the street, he saw a very familiar scene. The team horses were being efficiently exchanged with a relief team, the only light being provided by the half moonlight and a few large lanterns. Still, it was light enough to see clearly. The troopers of the escort were watering and feeding their mounts, taking a little time to sip warm wine that had hastily been brought from the nearby inn. Even though it was hard to tell colors in the false light, the Burgomaster could see the escort was uniformed in faded, dust-covered light green, instead of the remembered dark green and scarlet. This puzzled the Burgomaster, especially when one of the NCOs started to berate a trooper for not being able to control his mount in fluent, idiomatic German. The officer who had dismounted from the carriage was wearing a nondescript grey overcoat and a small hat, though he was wearing riding boots. He was talking to another officer, who was more impressively dressed in dark blue trimmed with gold and had just dismounted beside the carriage. While they were talking, an older officer stepped down from the carriage, and the two men turned to engage him in conversation.

Suddenly the routine was interrupted by a courier clattering down the cobblestoned street, coming from the direction of Ingolstadt. Reining in his sweating horse, the junior officer dismounted, saluted the trio of senior officers, and gave the officer in the grey overcoat some type of dispatch. Tearing it open and glancing at it, he motioned to one of the escort who had a lantern to come closer, briefly read the contents, and barked quick, succinct orders, in French, to the rest of the party and escort.

Frenzied activity followed the officer’s last syllable. The replacement team was run into place and hitched quickly into place, and the escort swung into their saddles and formed up. Watching the two senior officers get back into the carriage and slam the door as the third mounted his horse, the officer in charge merely motioned his hand forward and the entire column lurched forward carrying the Emperor Napoleon deep into the German night on his way to once again face the enemies of his Empire—this time the formidable Archduke Charles and his Kaiserlichen.

Shaking his weary head, the Burgomaster could only feel vaguely sorry for the Austrians, who had once again invaded his country two weeks before. The terrible vengeance of the Grande Armée, led by the Emperor of Battles, was once again being unleashed on the enemies of the Empire. The Burgomaster had seen it before, and it was not pretty.

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Across Europe they strode like a Colossus. Ragged, undisciplined volunteers, johnny-raw frightened conscripts and sullen regulars, led sometimes by unwashed sans-culottes générais, commissioned former sergants-major, and the vicious, sometimes helpful Representatives on Mission against the armies of the kings. Under execrable conditions, their officers, under threat of a “Republican Shave,” imprisonment, or the seemingly overwhelming numbers of enemy men and guns, whipped them into shape to defeat the enemies of the Republic who had placed La Patrie in danger. The survivors of these campaigns, which used up men wholesale, always moved forward by force of character, or the character of their commanding officers. These were the men that shaped the armies of the Republic, their tactics, organization, and training. Their remnants were iron men, honed by defeat and hardship, and they led the “wolf breed” of the Revolution through years of bitter struggle and hard-won victories. Somewhere along the grim road, they became professional soldiers and knew no other life. From their ranks came an individualistic, practiced, and hard group of men that were the artillery generals of the French armies.

Napoleon was the only head of state who took the field as commander-in-chief of his armies, and as commander of the Grande Armée. The Allied sovereigns at times also took the field. Alexander was present at Austerlitz, and thought himself in command. Frederick William III was the nominal commander-in-chief of the Prussian Army, was present at Auerstadt in 1806, and displayed admirable courage on the battlefield, but he did not assume command until after his field commander, the Duke of Brunswick, had been mortally wounded:

The Grande Armee was the trenchant instrument with which Napoleon reshaped both Europe and the art of war. Swift-marching, furious in the attack, grimly enduring, high-hearted, stubborn in disaster, it still ranks among the few greatest of the great. It also was many men of many different nations—many heroes, not a few cowards, and the multitude who were neither but did their duty as they saw it… The Grande Armee was Napoleon’s unique creation. He worked steadily at improving its organization, tactics, and weapons . .. Just as it was his creation, so it was his home. He was another solider there among soldiers, a father among his children. He could talk to them—collectively or man-to-man—in their own speech (not excluding a few popular expletives) and was an expert at the blague (blarney) or a quick fight talk. The Grande Armee gave him strange nicknames: “Le Tondu” (The Shorn One), “Father Violet,” and “John of the Sword.” Together, they put fear into the souls of Europe’s kings and foreign generations—a terrible reality and an enduring legend.

Napoleon was also the only period commander-in-chief who was an artilleryman. Scharnhorst, who was chief of staff to Brunswick in 1806, chief of staff to Lestocq in early 1807, and later chief of the Prussian General Staff, was also originally an artilleryman, but he was not an army commander, nor the commander of his adopted nation’s armed forces. Being an artilleryman, Napoleon took more than a normal interest in his army’s artillery; he was a moving force behind its development. Some of his artillerist generals, such as the du Teils were his teachers, and some, such as Gassendi, were senior to him. Others, such as Marmont, “grew up under him” and were also comrades of long standing.

Napoleon was also the consummate artilleryman, and “at heart, Napoleon was a gunner … Probably he never was, in his inner life, far from that at any time.” Proof of this was his finding Lannes’ artillery the night before Jena and sending it on its way. It would be interesting to find out what he said to the artillery officers who left the column stuck in the ravine and in the lurch while they went “off looking for supper.”

Part of the artillery Napoleon inherited both as a commanding general and later as head of state was

… full of the most ridiculous fiddle-faddle. They never consider the good of the Service … The junior officers in the ministry sprinkle holy water [make empty promises] and our country suffers … I have received only forty horse artillerymen, who have not seen combat and are without horses. Send me therefore six companies, and do not trust the execution of that measure to the officers of the [artillery section], since it takes them ten days to expedite an order, and they probably would be stupid enough to draw them from Holland, with the result that they would not arrive until October.

Upon becoming First Consul, one of the first things Napoleon did was to reorganize the artillery staff and establish a large artillery staff at army level that was responsible to him and him alone.

The French had five types of troops that were considered to be artillerymen. These were the horse and foot artillery (artillerie à cheval and artillerie à pied), pontonniers, artificers (ouvriers), and armorers (armuriers). Along with these troops, the artillery train (Train d’Artillerie) was established in 1800 to haul the guns and artillery vehicles (see Chapter IV). There were eight regiments of foot artillery, which formed the greatest part of the artillery strength of the Grande Armée. Each regiment was composed of twenty companies. Napoleon organized a ninth regiment of foot artillery, and increased the companies in each regiment to 27 or 28 companies per regiment. A company of foot artillery was composed of five officers, six NCOs, one drummer, and 81 enlisted men. There were six regiments of horse artillery, each of eight companies by 1814. Each regiment was given a depot company in 1807. A horse artillery company was composed of four officers, five NCOs, two trumpeters and 65 enlisted men. Each horse artilleryman was armed with a sabre and two pistols. While most were assigned to the cavalry divisions, Napoleon also tried to assign as much horse artillery to the different corps of the Grande Armée as possible, usually one per corps. Having all personnel individually mounted gave the horse artillery an immense advantage over the foot artillery in mobility, and they could be used in more fluid situations or react to emergencies much more quickly.

Gun crews by regulation were to be partly made up of assigned infantrymen, although there is no evidence that this was a permanent arrangement. It happened in an emergency, as at Essling and Wagram in 1809, artillery losses being so heavy that the Old Guard infantry was asked for volunteers to man the guns. Coignet mentions that, at Wagram, everybody volunteered to get into action. Gun crews numbered fifteen for the 12-pounder, thirteen for the 8-pounder, eight for the 4-pounder, and thirteen for the 6-inch howitzer. The crew for the new 5.5-inch howitzer remained the same when it was introduced with the new AN XI guns, and the 6-pounder had a crew of thirteen, the same as for the 8-pounder it replaced.

Pontonneers (pontonniers) belonged to the artillery and not to the engineers during this period. They were commanded by artillerymen, such as Eble, and not only were able to “throw” a pontoon bridge across a water obstacle, but also were capable of building trestle bridges. They were initially formed and organized at Strasbourg in 1792, and were originally an undisciplined group of Rhine River boat and bargemen. A second battalion of pontonneers was organized on the Rhine during 1796–97 and a third in Italy in 1800. The 2nd and 3rd Battalions were amalgamated in 1801. From then until the end of the Empire, there were between six and fourteen companies of pontonneers, not including the Imperial Guard.

One company of pontonneers was assigned to each corps d’armée, to the Cavalry Reserve, to the army Grand Parc, and to the Guard (which eventually had its own). A pontonneer company could “throw” (construct or emplace) a bridge of between 60 and 80 pontoons over a waterway in about seven hours, the length of this bridge being from 350 to 500 feet. Pontoons were carried on long two-wheeled wagons called hacquets, which were fitted to the usual artillery limber in the front to make it a four-wheeled wagon. Other wagons carried the ancillary equipment, such as planks, anchors, etc., needed to finish a bridge.

The pontonneers’ finest hour was undoubtedly at the Berezina in 1812, when their herculean efforts built two trestle bridges under extreme conditions, allowing the Grande Armée to escape from Russia. The pontonneers suffered ninety percent casualties in that gallant performance. Equally as impressive was the massive effort for the second Danube crossing in 1809, where they built a 179-yard-long pontoon bridge and swung it out from under cover and had it in place in five minutes for the troops to rush across.

The ouvriers d’artillery were the artificers—skilled workmen who built and repaired the artillery’s vehicles and gun carriages. They were assigned to the arsenals and the parks, though some of them got into action. In 1801 there were fifteen companies of them, and in 1810 eighteen. The armuriers d’artillerie, or armorers, were the personnel who worked on and repaired weapons. There were five companies of them by 1810 and they usually served in the arsenals and parks.

The Grande Armée had no permanently organized units of mountain artillery, though it was certainly used when required. Foot artillery was trained to be able to employ any type of gun, and these were the companies assigned as mountain artillery when needed. Mountain artillery comprised light guns and carriages, usually specially designed to be broken down into mule loads. All guns and equipment, as well as ammunition, were carried by mules. Captured Austrian pieces were used as mountain artillery, mounted on specially designed carriages, as well as Piedmontese 3-pounders. Some tools, such as a folding handspike, were also designed for use with mountain guns:

These light three pounders were mounted on two kinds of carriages; those taken from the Piedmontese had wheel carriages; the French made use of them, but constructed none of this first kind: the other were of French construction, and had chevrette carriages. The wheel carriage, however, appears the most preferable, because the piece stands higher, its service is more easy, and is not so liable to overset as the chevrette carriage, when the piece is fired; the weight is the same, but is of more difficult construction. Both can be carried on mules, each weighing about one hundred and twenty pounds. The wheel carriage has an iron pointing plate, which is fixed with a hinge at the head of the carriage, and, by means of a bolt which traverses both the flasks at the other end, can be placed at three degrees of elevation. This, with a very short pointing screw, gives the facility of leveling the piece either much above or much below the horizon, which in mountains is very important. The button of the piece is hollowed; the end of the pointing vice is forkated [sic] in two branches, each of which have a hole to receive a bolt, which, passing also through the button, prevents the jerking of the piece when it is fired.

There was also a portable field forge that could be packed on mules in boxes for transport with the mountain artillery. The number of mules needed for a 3-pounder section of two guns was eighteen, and for a 4-pounder, thirty-three. The number of gunners per section was six and sixteen, respectively.

DuTeil, in his treatise, stated that, based on experience in fighting in Corsica,

In extreme situations, where the ordinary carriages are not practical, one will instead supply the guns with sleds, which will fulfill the dual capacity for moving on the bad roads, such as are seen when traveling in the Alps, and also facilitate the emplacement of the cannon, for the fire from these sleds will be executed better than that done from the regular carriages.

Also, it had to be understood that, in mountain warfare,

It is, therefore, just as necessary in mountain warfare, as in that of the plain, that the artillery be well-conditioned, such as we have adopted. One can rest assured that no obstacles will be able to hinder the rapid operations of the entire army, as was the case formerly … Whatever the objective of the army’s conduct in the mountains, one cannot doubt that the artillery is an indispensable necessity. Can this war not be considered similar to a battle for a strong position, for who are better in the attack or the defense of positions, for reducing obstacles, and for the forcing of passages, than the artillery?

Mountain artillery was used successfully in Italy, in the Tyrol, and in Spain. For the Marengo campaign, artillery needed to be taken over the Alps. Regular field artillery was taken, and the carriages to get the guns over the mountains and through the snow proved to be unsatisfactory.

What the French artillerymen did, therefore, was to hollow out tree trunks for the gun tubes and drag them over the mountains.

French artillery employment and doctrine were based on infantry/artillery cooperation. This was taught in the excellent French artillery schools and was emphasized by the du Teil brothers and Gribeauval. Napoleon would also remark on how the French were to employ their artillery, and it peppers his correspondence:

A system of regular war requires a large quantity of artillery. Everywhere a regiment goes you need artillery. You must have as much artillery as your enemy, based upon four guns per 1,000 infantry and cavalry. The better the infantry, the greater the need to be careful of it and support it with good batteries. The greatest part of the artillery should be with the infantry and cavalry divisions, the smallest portion in reserve. Each gun should have 300 rounds, not counting the small chest. That is the normal expenditure for two battles.

It is necessary to be familiar with artillery … I believe that every officer ought to serve in the artillery, which is the arm that can produce most of the good generals… To be a good general you must know mathematics; it serves to direct your thinking in a thousand circumstances.

The artillery staff must serve with greater activity on the battlefield. It is up to the artillery commander and staff officers to place the guns in position and to withdraw them, to anticipate the expenditure of ammunition, to correct poor sites that the company officers select, and finally to have artillery perform the duty that it has always done with such distinction.

It is the duty of artillery general to understand all for the operations of the army, insofar as he is forced to provide the different divisions with arms and ammunition. His contacts with the individual battery commander in each division enable him to know everything that is going on.

As for the artillery, I think that the first inspector will have given the necessary instructions so that the duty for that is followed with the greatest activity. My intention is that in each regiment of mounted artillery notice will be taken of those gunners sighting the piece who hit the most targets, that you take similar note of the men working with mortars and howitzers who have lobbed the most shells into the circle, and those who will have fired the most shells.

From September 2nd to the 7th, each of these regiments will send its ten best gunners to La Fère, where they will be trained in large artillery drills consisting of firing siege guns, field artillery on their carriages, howitzer and mortar batteries, hot shot, and every other kind of fire, in order to determine which of these eight regiments will supply the best man who aims a gun.

—Napoleon to Berthier, 25 March 1803

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.

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