Paris Gun





A map of Paris showing the fall of projectiles and casualties: killing 256 (corrected figure) and wounding 620.

The forest of Crepy-Fourdrain concealed sinister secrets. Deep inside the primeval woods was a naked concrete command post next to a man-made clearing. Its stark, cold walls, dripping with dew from an early morning fog, contrasted garishly with the greenery and chirping of springtime. Uniformed men entered and walked to a map table, then peered outside at their colossal charge. Clinking and clanking as it cranked to higher degrees of elevation, a monstrous metallic tube seemed to rise out of the misty forest floor. Over 100 feet long and weighing 200 tons, the creature waited for sustenance. Cranes hoisted a brass-tipped projectile! “Toi, toi, toi—do your job, Jeanette!” said one artilleryman affectionately, as the shell disappeared into one end.

Inside the bunker a phone rang. It was the OHL, ordering the giant gun to fire on Paris, 128 kilometers to the southwest. The order to shoot passed down the line. Thirty heavy artillery batteries stood ready to fire their guns simultaneously to provide a camouflage of sorts to prevent immediate counter-battery fire. At 7:09 a.m. on 23 March 1918, the salvo went skyward with a roar. One shell left the others far below, rocketing into the icy stratosphere at 2 kilometers per second. After 21/2 minutes it reappeared in the skies high above Paris. Thirty seconds later it plummeted into the City of Light.

The gargantuan “Paris gun” shot 320 shells at the French capital that spring and summer, most exploding in the inner city. Its mission was to break enemy morale as German shock divisions broke through allied lines and drove on Paris. The very existence of this hideous, high-tech cannon was a cruel mockery of the outmoded military world that had practiced its prescriptions for victory on the plains of Konitz 37 years earlier. But it was also a sign and symbol of the German Army’s rapid adjustment to the brave new world spawned by Plevna, as well as by the Great War. Would it be enough?

Germany had some success with ultra-long-range artillery during World War I, notably with the so-called ‘Paris Gun’. The Imperial German Navy, which constructed and manned them, called them the ‘Kaiser Wilhelm Geschütz’, and they were used sporadically from March to July 1918 during the massive and so nearly effective German counter-attack in Picardy to bombard the French capital from the region north of Soissons over 100km (60 miles) away. They were 38cm (15in) naval guns, as mounted aboard the battleships of the day, sleeved down to 21cm (8.25in) with liners whose rifling consisted of deep grooves within which lugs on the shell located, a method first adopted in the early days of the development of the rifled gun in the 1840s. This same method was to be employed in the very long-range artillery pieces developed in Germany for use in World War II – the K5 battlefield weapons and the ‘strategic’ K12, built to fire on England from the French coast – though the shells of these guns were rather more sophisticated. Heavily over-charged, they projected their shell into the stratosphere where, meeting little air resistance, it could extend its trajectory considerably. The use of a far heavier charge than the gun had ever been designed to employ soon caused the barrel to wear out – it seems that 25cm (10in) of rifling was destroyed with every round fired, and that a barrel’s life was just 50 rounds in consequence – and it then had to be rebored or relined. The Paris Guns, with three mountings and seven barrels, which were employed serially, fired just 303 rounds towards Paris, slightly more than half of which (183) actually landed within its boundaries, killing 256 and wounding 620. These results made the entire project highly cost-ineffective, except in propaganda terms. Though these first-generation ultra-long-range guns were to enjoy only limited success, they did, albeit imperfectly, solve the problem of how to bombard high-value area targets with relative impunity from outside the range of counter-battery fire. In more modern times they would be sickeningly vulnerable to air attack, since they presented big targets, were hard to conceal, and impossible to move at very short notice, but in 1918, despite a huge campaign to locate them, they were never found. By the time the Allies overran the Forest of Crepy, where they were located, there was no sign of them left save their concrete emplacements. Another problem – and many said a more pressing one – remained: how to subdue organised defensive positions like the modern fortresses of the Maginot Line, which ran down the French-German border, in the shortest possible time. For this, a task which was to be undertaken at shorter range, an approach which can almost be characterised as ‘brute force and ignorance’ was all that was necessary, and the guns in question were no more than straightforward developments of the siege guns which were some of the first weapons deployed in 1914.


To the south-east, seventy-five miles away, lay the great city of Paris; beginning its busiest weekday, the people irritated over another raid alarm during the night, but still feeling secure with the French lines intact from La Fere around the Laon Corner and east past Soissons and Rheims.

The gunnery officer, with his expert technicians, made a careful and final minute examination of the great gun. 50 many times they had done this, but one can never quite satisfy himself that so valuable a weapon is in perfect condition. The test powder case entered perfectly; the firing mechanism worked perfectly; the elevating and traversing mechanisms were in perfect order; the azimuth and elevation instruments, delicate affairs and easily injured, were taken from their cases and fitted to the carriage and to the socket connected with one of the cradle trunnions.

The orientation and ballistic officers were busy checking their calculations of the firing data. It would be horribly embarrassing if the first shot were to miss Paris through a blunder in the calculations. It was frosty, and the powder was a degree under temperature; so a 50.5-kilogram forward charge was ordered. Cold powder does not build up to pressure . so rapidly, so a slight extra charge was necessary. The middle and base charges weighing 75 and 70 kilograms were fixed, already made up. The forward charge was quickly weighed out, bagged, and ready. All were kept in the storehouse until needed, to keep the temperature at the proper point.

It was rapidly approaching seven o’clock. The weather forecasters thought the fog would hold for a part of the day, but one must not take unnecessary chances on being seen. The discharge of the gun and other guns in the corner would be heard over the line only seven miles off, and ‘planes would be up all too soon. The commanding officer therefore ordered the smoke-pots to the north lighted so that there would be a good screen over the whole corner in an hour. The gunnery officer called up the batteries north and south to inquire if they were ready; they were, and were standing by for his signal. Those guns would set all French sound-ranging instruments jiggling so violently that the discharge of the great gun would be undecipherable on their record charts.

The order for loading was given, and all sprang to with a will. The projectile was hauled over on the ammunition track, hoisted to the loading platform, and its tray locked to the massive gun-breech. The crew that had done this in practice so often fitted the rammer carefully to the base, slid the projectile forward to the end of the powder-chamber, carefully turned it to fit into the grooves in the gun, and then, with a mighty heave, rammed it home. The powder- charges were already coming up to the loading platform; the first was slid into the powder-chamber, then the second; each was pushed forward into place with the rammer. Then two tiny pressure gauges were fitted into special sockets in the wall of the chamber, and the brass-cased base-charge was put in. The gunnery officer with his sergeant inspected every move critically; the order to close the breech was given, and, with the turning of the crank, the huge block of steel moved across, sealing in the projectile and powder. The block was locked in place, and the crew scrambled down from the platform. The sergeant inspected and set the firing mechanism and signalled” All’s ready” to his officer. At once the switch was closed, and, with the hum of the elevating motor the great gun began to rise to its firing position.

What an impressive, awe-inspiring sight! The massive carriage, twenty-five feet high, and a gun whose length equalled the height of the average ten-story building slowly raising its muzzle far above the tree-tops. All of this in a clearing in a wood, early on a foggy morning, with a death- dealing instrument to be sent to far-off Paris in a few minutes. How could one describe the emotions? Were they those that would be experienced as the switch is about to be closed in a death-chamber for an execution; or as a great battleship is ordered into action? Perhaps both.

The gun was up; everyone was out of the way who had no special function. The elevation was carefully set, checked by a special quadrant and by a second gunner. All was ready. The gunnery officer had all batteries on the ‘phone, and when he received the final signal that the elevation had been checked he called to all to stand by for the order. At exactly 7. 17am he gave the order on the ‘phone; instantly heavy guns, north, south, and west, fired practically in unison; in a second the order -to the Paris Gun sergeant. With a terrific, crashing roar the great gun belched forth a huge cloud of orange-red smoke and incandescent gas. The projectile had gone. The great gun recoiled violently in its cradle, came to rest, and then slowly slid forward into battery.

At once the elevating motor was set going, and the gun slowly descended to be inspected and loaded again as before. Meanwhile the seconds ticked off as the projectile mounted to unknown heights in its Bight toward its target. From a position of rest in the gun it had been set into motion with violent twisting and pushing. A million pounds pressure had been exerted on its base while it travelled up the gun. There had been a terrific straining to set it turning at the rate of a hundred revolutions per second before it left the gun so that it would remain head on throughout its journey. In a fiftieth of a second it left the muzzle of the gun at a velocity of 5260 feet per second, a mile per second, and with the energy of 8,000,000,000 foot-pounds. As the projectile emerged into the air it encountered a pressure of two thousand pounds from the force attempting to stop it. In twenty-five seconds it was twelve miles high and in air only one-tenth as dense as that at the surface of the earth. It had lost heavily in velocity getting through that layer of dense air; from 5260 to 3000 feet per second. And the temperature had dropped below anything experienced on earth, at least to 70 degrees below zero. In ninety seconds it was at its maximum height, twenty-four miles, and turning over. There was no air to speak of up there. For at least fifty miles of its range it travelled in a virtual vacuum. The velocity at the top of its path had dropped to 2250 feet per second. And then it began its downward journey. It gained steadily in velocity, until at the twelve-mile level it had regained the 3000 foot- seconds it had before. But there began the real resistance to its flight; its velocity increased slightly, 75 foot-seconds, and then it began to slow up even while falling.

At the gun officers were studying their watches; 150 seconds; 160; 170; in just a few seconds, at the 176th, at some place in Paris that projectile would strike and burst. With what effect? Not for forty-eight years had the great city of Paris been shelled. Not since 1870, when the besieging German Army fired more than a million solid shot, some hot, and spherical shell into the city. In a few seconds it would again be a city bombarded by German guns. Perhaps in that great city from which the projectile was now only ten seconds, eight seconds, distant, certain people were walking toward a corner, to walk into the projectile or out of danger. One hundred and seventy-six seconds; 7.20. The projectile had burst.

Before the cloud of smoke from the discharge had floated away over the trees the elevating motor was bringing the gun slowly down to its loading position. Two of the crew at the breech crank slid the great block slowly to the side. As was expected, the brass case of the base-charge had been almost melted away; the base was thick and heavy, and most of that remained. But it would not be possible to use these cases again, as with the ordinary gun. As soon as the case was removed there was a rush of air through the bore that swept out the remaining gases. The bore was hastily inspected, the pressure gauges removed and tossed down to the waiting ballistic officer, and, after swabbing out the powder-chamber, the crew at once entered, placed, and rammed the next shell. As soon as it had been rammed they measured the distance from its base to the breech face of the gun with a special gauge provided for that purpose. This was a part of the procedure in calculating the weight of the next charge of powder. No addition would be made to the charge of powder for the first four and a half inches of advance of the point of stopping of the shell. But as soon as the advance equalled 4.5 inches the powder-charge would be increased by 2.2 pounds. Then when the advance had progressed 100 millimetres, or 3.94 inches, further, and for each hundred millimetres thereafter an additional kilogram of powder would be added. So the measuring of the point of stopping of each shell would be an invariable part of the procedure in loading and calculating the powder-charge.

Again was the gun unique. In no previous gun had such instruments as pressure gauges been employed to learn the probable point in range at which the projectile struck and to correct the calculated weight of the powder for the next charge. The gauges were quickly opened, and the tiny cylindrical pellets of copper removed and measured with a micrometer gauge. Those pellets had been cut from bars of copper which had been compressed under a definite pressure. The pellets had been machined carefully to the diameter and length which they had before the gun was fired. When the gun was fired the terrific pressure of the gases in the gun passing through a tiny hole in the end of the gauge, a hollow cylinder of steel, forced a piston within down on the copper, crushing it slightly. The new and reduced lengths of the copper pellets then indicated the maximum pressure of the gases in the gun for that shot. From the range-table it should have been 59,000 pounds per square inch for the corrected range of 67. 1 miles. But the gauges said that the pressure had been only 53,800 pounds. This was perhaps to be expected; a cold gun. Seven and a half pounds extra powder were quickly added to the variable powder-charge, and the bag sewn up for loading. The crew then fell to with enthusiasm to finish loading the second charge.

Meanwhile the ballistic officer continued his calculations to learn where the first shot had probably fallen. He found that it had probably burst at a distance of seventy and a quarter miles from the gun. This was plotted on the map and found to be up in the north-east section of Paris proper, probably in the region of the Boulevard de la Chapelle or Quai de Seine, provided, of course, that it had not deviated far to the right or left. Not at all bad for the first shot from a cold gun. Perhaps the extra powder would land the second closer to the centre of the city. It was not probable that there had been much deviation to the right or left, for there would be but little drift to these projectiles. Since the rifling of the gun had a right-hand twist, the projectile rotated in a clockwise direction, considering it from the rear; but the atmosphere through which most of its 92-mile path passed was so rare that there could be but little of the usual drift or deviation to the right for a right- hand rotation.

The unique device, the pressure gauge, which revealed to the gun crew approximately where each shot had fallen almost as soon as it had struck, was a fair substitute for the air observer’s reports in its effect on morale. It was an indispensable accessory in conducting the fire of so unique and valuable a weapon. As the crew scrambled down from the platform after loading the second round they examined the map eagerly and with enthusiasm over the result.



Boer Forces


Boer militiamen at Spionkop


Transvaal State Artillery

The forces the Boers were able to put in the field in 1899 were largely volunteers, burghers or citizens who were obliged to serve in a commando, their basic military unit. The professionals amongst them were members of the Staatsartillerie (State Artillery) or the Politie (police). In addition, supporters came from overseas to become members of existing commandos or to form their own brigades. On the outbreak of war the Boer forces comprised approximately 55,000 burghers, 1,200 artillerymen, 2,000 police and 2,000 foreign volunteers, plus some 400 support service personnel, of whom perhaps 35,000 were in the field.

Boer military action was based on the commando system. This had been contrived to meet the needs of a farming people extending their land-holdings in the face of opposition from indigenous peoples. The country was arranged in local districts and each district had to provide a commando, manned by its citizens or burghers. Every man between sixteen and sixty years of age was liable to serve, those between eighteen and thirty-four going first, then those up to fifty years and, in the last resort, those up to sixty years. The system created formations of different sizes. Thaba ’Nchu commando numbered 98 men while Pretoria had 2,832. Commandos were sub-divided into wards, each of which elected its commander, a Field Cornet who might have an Assistant Field Cornet to aid him.

The Transvaal (South African Republic) State Artillery was a well-disciplined force, uniformed, and commanded by Lieutenant-colonel S. P. E. Trichardt. It numbered 733 men and was equipped with four 155mm Creusots (Long Toms), four 120mm Krupp howitzers, fourteen 75mm quick-firing guns and five other 75mm guns. There were twenty-two 37mm Maxim-Nordenfelt Pom-Poms and another twenty-two guns of various kinds. The Orange Free State Artillery was just as professional but smaller, with 474 men, and much less well equipped. It had fourteen breech-loading 75mm Krupps and seven 9-pounder rifled breech-loading Armstrongs, together with seven other old guns. It was commanded by the Prussian-born Major F. W. R. Albrecht.

The ZARP, Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek Politie or South African Republic Police, were 1,545 strong. The Johannesburg Police were particularly unpopular with the uitlandersor incomers who left to fight on the British side as a result of the oppressive treatment the latter had endured before the war. These men, like the 150 Orange Free State Police, were well-disciplined and professional.

In the course of the war, particularly in the guerrilla phase, the commandos tended to break up because of casualties and departures. The remaining men formed units of their own such as the Afrikander Cavalry Corps which Commandant Malan put together to oppose the invasion of the Transvaal. The scout, Danie Theron, of whom Christiaan De Wet thought so highly, headed a formation known as Theron’s Scouts and there were a number of similar units.

The foreign volunteers were formed partly from men already in South Africa and partly from people who came expressly to fight in the Boer cause. Amongst the former were the German Corps, the Hollander Corps one of the Irish Brigades and the Scandinavian Corps. To these were added the French, Americans, Italians (including Lieutenant Count Pecci, nephew of Pope Leo XIII), Russians and Swiss. Mohommed Ben Nasser, a Muslim, came from North Africa and eventually became a Transvaal citizen. Few corps were composed entirely of the nationals of the country after which they were named, as the story of the Russian volunteers illustrates.


Boer formations were held together more by mutual agreement than by any European concept of military discipline imposed from above and sanctioned by law. This made them difficult to control and command, vulnerable in times of hardship and formidable when the spirit of battle was upon them.

European soldiers had great difficulty in understanding the way Boer commandos behaved. The burgher, the citizen soldier, was commanded by an officer he had had a part in electing; the Field Cornet was simply first among equals and could be replaced in another election. Commanders were the social equals of their men and were often their neighbours or members of their own family, quite unlike the hierarchical structure of a European regiment. A burgher might decline to participate in an action he thought unwise or excessively dangerous, or absent himself from his unit entirely, even knowingly breaking the law, in order to attend to the harvest. When they did fight they did so because they chose to do so. It follows that commanding a commando was always something of a gamble.

Nominally discipline was based on the commando acts of the parliaments of the South African Republic (Transvaal) of 1898 and the Orange Free State of 1899. These laws laid down punishments of fines or imprisonment for breaches of military discipline. In fact many offences were allowed to go unpunished or merely admonished, and imprisonment was rarely used given the shortage of manpower. Various field punishments were devised. Saddle-pack involved the miscreant’s walking around the camp carrying his saddle, rifle and other equipment for a set length of time or number of circuits while his comrades jeered, a tiring and humiliating experience. The oxhide punishment involved being tossed in the air from an oxhide from a newly slaughtered animal manipulated by ten men. Gun riding was more serious. The convict, sometimes trouserless, had to sit astride a gun barrel, with hands and feet tied, in the heat of the day. He might eventually collapse because of the awkward posture and excessive heat. Alternatively he might be tied to a wagon wheel to cook in the sun for a while.

Beatings were administered casually, and a commander might use his sjambok, his whip, in the heat of the moment, but there was also a formal use of corporal punishment. Men might be sentenced to a given number of lashes with a harness or offered the alternative of paying a fine or enduring a given number of lashes with a sjambok.

The American Military Attaché, Captain Carl Reichmann, summed up the situation when he said, “Having complied with the law calling him [the burgher] into the field, he yielded cooperation, not obedience”.

For what were seen as acts of treason the death penalty was exacted. Deneys Reitz reports that a Cape Colonial, one Lemuel Colaine, joined Commandant H. J. Brouwer’s commando on the pretext of having been imprisoned by the British. When Colaine subsequently went missing, Reitz says, “No particular notice was taken of his absence, as the men were constantly riding off to visit farms, or look up friends at distant outposts, and it was thought that he had done the same”. They had a rude awakening when the man led a British raiding party against them. Not long afterwards Colaine was caught in an attack undertaken by Jan Smuts’s men and the General ordered him to be shot. A grave was dug and, after being allowed time with a minister, Colaine was executed.

When peace overtures were being made by the British in January 1901 the Landdrost, or district magistrate, of Griqualand West, J. J. Morgandaal was held captive when undertaking an embassy to Senior Commandant C. C. Froneman. Morgendaal’s action in advocating peace with, or surrender to, the British led Froneman first to beat him and then to shoot him. It was said that Christiaan De Wet looked on, but there is no mention of the incident in his book. Another execution was that of Meyer de Kock who had helped set up the Burgher Peace Committee in Pretoria. He was on a mission to Commandant-general Louis Botha when he was captured. He was shot on 12 February 1901.


Although most of the Boer fighters were conscripts or volunteers, they were not untrained. The ordinary life of the farming Boer demanded competence as a marksman and skill in horsemanship, not just riding but all aspects of caring for a horse as well. In addition, competitions and field days were used to build on these skills and to bring town dwellers up to standard. However, apart from the States Artillery and the Police forces, the Boers were an amateur army.

Marksmanship of a high standard was encouraged by holding Wapenschouwsor rifle meetings, also known as Bisleys after the British rifle championships, at which cash prizes were awarded. Ammunition was issued free for this purpose, as were 200 rounds when, just before the outbreak of war, the Boer government exchanged new Mauser rifles for the burghers’ old Martini-Henrys and wanted to ensure the owners were familiar with their new weapons. These competitions took place two or three times a year as did Field Days on which various martial activities were undertaken. A mock battle might take place or a number of simulated attacks were undertaken on supposed enemy positions. In the period immediately before the outbreak of war the frequency of field days increased and they became common once again during the guerrilla phase when boredom was a problem during the numerous periods of inactivity.


Although the Boers are best known for their mobility and evasiveness, they did change their tactics during the war. At times they carried out lightning attacks, and at others they took up siege warfare. They used trenches in defence and concealment in the field, but also, on occasion, made attacks very like classic cavalry charges. They were versatile and opportunistic which sometimes gave them the advantage, but they were also poorly disciplined and easily discouraged and their lack of staying power let them down.

At the outbreak of the war the Boers moved quickly in a large number of quite small groups, permeating the British defences and eventually surrounding their enemies in Kimberley, Ladysmith and Mafeking. From Ladysmith, in Natal, they might have gone on to the coast at Durban, but the determination of their aged leader, Commandant-general Piet Joubert, failed and they fell back to defend the Tugela River against the force seeking to lift the siege. The events in Natal illustrate the first phase of the war.

In siege situations the Boers depended on tactics such as cutting off supplies to the besieged, shelling the towns indiscriminately with their guns and occasionally attacking on foot. They were aware of the dangers of illness and, at Ladysmith, were in the process of building a dam to cut off the Klip River, the supply of drinking water. At the same time they had agreed a neutral zone for the sick at Intombi camp and adhered to their promise to leave it safe. Neither the British nor the Boers appeared to see any inconsistency in doing this while shelling civilians – men, women and children.

In defence the Boers made excellent use of the ground, exploiting natural cover and making it difficult for the British to locate the source of rifle fire when smokeless powder was used. In Natal they made their traditional good use of high ground which, on the Tugela where they overlooked the lowlands from which the British approached, worked well until General Sir Redvers Buller perfected his tactics of giving his infantry limited objectives and close artillery support. On the approaches to Kimberley, on the other hand, the terrain was flat and open with occasional kopjes, mesa-like hills, and a few rivers. Here the flat trajectory of the high-velocity rifle was exploited by firing from concealed positions in trenches. This tactic worked until the British achieved superior mobility and were able to outflank the Boer positions, at which the defenders abandoned their trenches and moved off.

In the guerrilla phase of the war the main aggressive effort went into disrupting communications by blowing up bridges, breaking up railway tracks and intercepting supply-wagon trains. At Waterval Drift on 15 February 1900 Vecht-general Christiaan De Wet captured a supply train with a third of the British oxen and a full four days’ supplies. However, he was so keen to squirrel away his plunder that he was fatally slow in moving to the support of Assistant Commandant-general Cronjé at Paardeberg. As the war continued and Boer supplies by railway from Portuguese East Africa were cut off, the need to acquire clothing, guns, ammunition and even food from the British was added to the incentives to ambush and cut out small contingents of their enemies. By that time, having no permanent territory under their control, the Boers had nowhere to keep prisoners. They therefore took to uitskud,literally ‘shaking out’, that is, stripping the British and releasing them naked to find their way back to their comrades.

On one occasion the attempt to promote disease was purposely undertaken. Bloemfontein was supplied with water from waterworks at Sannaspos to the east of the town. It was to destroy these works and to deny clean water to the town and both civilians and military there that De Wet went there on 31 March 1900 and, by chance, encountered Brigadier-general R. G. Broadwood. The fact that he won a famous victory there and that the waterworks survived should not obscure the fact that the increase of typhoid (enteric) fever in Bloemfontein was De Wet’s primary objective.

On their Field Days, their training days, the Boers practised charging towards an objective and opening fire upon it, either from horseback or dismounted. These tactics were rarely used in the field but some examples exist, such as at Blood River Poort in northern Natal where Commandant-general Louis Botha worsted Lieutenant-colonel Hubert Gough, and at Rooiwal where Lieutenant-colonel Robert Kekewich destroyed a force of 1,500 Boers who charged him. Deneys Reitz gives a graphic account of the foot charge made by the Boers against the Northumberland Fusiliers at Nooitgedacht and the attack on Wagon Hill at Ladysmith also involved Boers advancing under fire, though the terrain precluded a charge as such.


Pretorius, Fransjohan, Life on Commando during the Anglo-Boer War 1899–1902 (Cape Town, Human & Rousseau, 1999); Reichmann, C., Report on the Operations of the Boer Army (Washington, 1901); Slocum & Reichmann, Reports by Cpts. Slocum & Reichmann of Boer War,U.S. National Archives file number 858–2, 1900.

Hall, Darrell, ed. Fransjohan Pretorius and Gilbert Torlage, The Hall Handbook of the Anglo-Boer War (Pietermaritizburg, University of Natal Press, 1999); Wessels, André, “Afrikaners at War”, Boer War: Direction, Experience and Image,ed. J. Gooch (London, Frank Cass, 2000).

Marix Evans, Martin, The Boer War: South Africa 1899–1902 (Oxford, Osprey Publishing, 1999); Pretorius, Fransjohan, Life on Commando during the Anglo-Boer War 1899–1902 (Cape Town, Human & Rousseau, 1999).

WWI Antiaircraft Weapons


German Fliegerabwehrkanoneflak, or antiaircraft artillery, known to American fliers as “flak batteries.”

At the start of World War I, dedicated antiaircraft (AA) weapons were rare. France possessed two armored cars that carried the Soixante-Quinze (75mm) field gun, and Britain had a handful of motorized 3-inch, 20-hundredweight (cwt) guns but lacked an army unit dedicated to the AA mission. Germany led the way with 6 motorized and 12 horse-drawn 77mm guns controlled by the German Army Air Service.

This paucity of AA weapons and units is not surprising, as airplanes were few and were employed primarily in unarmed aerial reconnaissance. As aircraft types matured throughout the war and aviation missions multiplied to include bombing, artillery spotting, and ground attack, however, AA weapons became increasingly important and diversified.

All powers employed machine guns as AA weapons. Germany used 37mm and 9mm versions, whereas the Allies employed 8mm Hotchkiss light machine guns mounted on tripods. Machine guns had a high rate of fire and were comparatively cheap compared to AA artillery but were ineffective above 1,000 meters (about 3,280 feet) and inherently inaccurate because of the lack of fire-control systems.

During the war, Germany continued as the leading country for AA artillery. Until 1917 its main AA gun remained the 77mm, which had a relatively low muzzle velocity of 1,600 feet per second (fps), although an 80mm gun firing at 2,600 fps was available in smaller numbers. In 1917 Germany introduced an 88mm gun (forerunner of the famed 88mm gun of World War II) with a muzzle velocity of 2,575 fps. Higher muzzle velocities enabled shorter flight times to the target and quicker response to changing altitudes and bearings for the targeted aircraft.

Germany also relied on captured Russian, Belgian, and French artillery pieces. French 75mm guns proved popular and were rebored to take German 77mm shells; Russian 3-inch field guns became the German 76.2mm flak—the German acronym for Flugzeug Abwehr Kanone (aircraft defense cannon). In 1918 nearly half of German AA artillery consisted of captured guns. The practice of converting these captured weapons accounts for the bewildering assortment of 40 types of guns and 20 different calibers that Germany employed by war’s end.

While France relied on the Soixante-Quinze (75mm) throughout the war, Britain developed a range of AA guns. The most common gun remained the 3-inch, 20 cwt with a muzzle velocity of 2,500 fps (this was also the main gun used by the United States), but the British also employed (among others) a 1-pounder “Pom-Pom” gun; a 12-pounder; a 13-pounder, 9 cwt; an 18-pounder; and a 75mm. By November 1918, Britain employed 480 AA guns to defend British airspace; more than half of these were 3-inch, 20-cwt models.

Rapid-fire artillery was only one aspect of AA weaponry. Equally important were fuzes, types of shell, searchlights, sound detectors, tethered balloons, and fire-control devices. At first, gunners set fuzes by cutting them to length. By 1917, mechanically timed fuzes enabled shells to explode after a preset time of flight. Most shells produced fragments to maximize dispersion, but high-explosive and incendiary shells (the latter dispersing chunks of flaming thermite) proved effective against larger targets such as zeppelins.

Searchlights were essential in illuminating zeppelins and bombers, thereby enabling directed AA fire at night. Sometimes the searchlights temporarily blinded pilots, leading to loss of control and crashes. Sound detectors gave enhanced warning of approaching aircraft and improved coordination among AA batteries. Tethered balloons, which could be connected to form weblike barriers, disrupted air attacks and channeled enemy aircraft into corridors defended by AA batteries.

Fire-control devices were most important to improving AA success rates. The Germans developed stereoscopic binocular systems to improve tracking and slant-range prediction; the British and French developed similar optical sights. Binocular sighting devices made feasible directed fire, which largely superseded the earlier method of barrier fire (basically, filling an area of the sky with as much lead and steel as possible).

Statistics bear out the effectiveness of time-fuzed munitions combined with improved ranging and fire directors. In 1914, German AA gunners used an average of 11,500 shells to shoot down a single aircraft; by 1918, they had cut the average to 5,040 shells. Despite improvements, AA fire control remained more art than science because of the inherent difficulties of tracking and hitting a target maneuvering in three dimensions.

In devoting the greatest resources to AA weaponry, the Germans reaped the greatest rewards. By the end of 1917, air defenses in Germany proper included 104 heavy and 112 light motorized flak guns, 998 horse-drawn and fixed flak guns, and 416 searchlights. By November 1918, the German Air Service fielded nearly 2,800 flak guns (30 percent in defense of Germany, the remainder on the Western Front) with 718 searchlights serviced by 2,800 officers and 55,000 enlisted men. Overall, Germany shot down 1,588 aircraft. The next highest national total was that of France, with about 500, while British Expeditionary Force gunners claimed 341 kills, and Italy claimed about 150 kills. U.S. AA gunners, arriving late in the war, claimed 58 kills.

Further Reading

Delsert, Bernard, Jean-Jacques Dubois, and Christian Kowal. La Flak, 1914–1918. 2 vols. Guilherand Grange, France: La Plume du Temps, 1999.

Hogg, Ian V. Anti-Aircraft: A History of Air Defense. London: Macdonald, 1978.

Hogg, Ian V. Anti-Aircraft Artillery. Marlborough, Wiltshire, UK: Crowood, 2002.

Routledge, N. W. History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery: Anti-Aircraft Artillery, 1914–55. London: Brassey’s, 1994.

Westermann, Edward B. “Fighting for the Heavens from the Ground: German Ground-Based Air Defenses in the Great War, 1914–1918.” Journal of Military History 65 (July 2001): 641–670.

Westermann, Edward B. Flak: German Anti-Aircraft Defenses, 1914–1945. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2005.

Red Army Artillery–Anti/tank 1943



Teploye, 8 July 1943. by
Steve Noon 

By the fourth day of the battle for the Kursk salient, Model hoped to capture the heights around the village of Teploye and put a major dent in the Soviet second line of defence.
After initial skirmishing, 4th Panzer-Division mounted an all-out attack with Kampfgruppe Burmeister, supported by the last three operational Tigers from schwere Panzer-Abteilung 505, panzergrenadiers, artillery and Stukas.
The Soviet defenders were well prepared and heavily entrenched behind deep minefields and supported by dug in tanks from 79th Tank Brigade.
Here, a platoon of PzKpfw IVs from Panzer-Regiment 35 and a single Tiger I attack a Soviet held hill, defended by dug in tanks and anti-tank guns. Despite heavy German bombardment and Stuka attacks, the Soviet defence remains unbroken. Three Pz IVs were destroyed during the attack and many others damaged. The Soviets lost at least four T-34s and one KV-1 in this action, plus a number of anti-tank guns.
Unable to break through, the battle at Teploye was to symbolise the high-water mark for Model’s forces.


When the Red Army moved to the offensive, more sophisticated guns and howitzers were required. Light and medium mortar production declined by the end of 1942. The heavier mortars were special-purpose artillery pieces, and their numbers grew in the final years. During the war new types were introduced, the M1941 82 mm, the M1943 120 mm, and a heavier model, the M1943 160 mm. Production of 82 mm and 120 mm mortars increased in 1942. In the first half of the year, 45,485 82 mm mortars and 10,183 120 mm mortars were made; in the second half, 55,378 82 mm and 15,164 120 mm mortars. In 1943 the production of all types of mortars declined to 69,500, and in 1944 only 7,100 were made. Losses on the battlefield were apparently minor. The new mortar regiments used heavy mortars. Later mortar production also provided rifle divisions with heavier mortars and replaced losses. Total production from 1941 to 1945 was 351,800, compared to 79,000 produced by the Germans.

The number of artillery divisions increased from 25 on January 1, 1943, to 28 on April 1 and then declined to 25 on July 1. The guards mortar divisions with rocket launchers remained at 7. Some 17 new independent artillery brigades were formed, but the number of independent artillery regiments declined from 271 on January 1, 1943, to 234 on July 1, the result of converting many artillery regiments to the role of tank destroyers or combining them into the new brigades.

One artillery role that was completely overhauled was the tank destroyer function. In 1942, the antitank guns were formed into destroyer brigades with two or three mixed regiments of 76 mm, 45 mm, and 37 mm guns plus a rifle battalion armed with antitank rifles. Three of these brigades were at times joined to form a destroyer division. The division was too large to control, and the mixture of guns in the regiments was a challenge to the regimental commander. In April 1943, the destroyer division was eliminated, and some destroyer brigades were reorganized as tank destroyer brigades containing two 76 mm gun regiments and one 57 mm or 45 mm gun regiment.

The most crucial factor in the defense at Kursk was the distribution of the antitank guns. In Zhukov’s proposal to Stalin on April 8, 1943, he stressed the need to strengthen the antitank defense of the Central and Voronezh fronts by moving units from other sectors. To control the increased number of antitank guns, new tank destroyer brigades were activated, providing central control of 60 to 72 guns. By July 1, 1943, 27 of the brigades (including 81 regiments) had been formed and 24 were at the front. A few of the old-type destroyer brigades continued in action at Kursk. The tank destroyer brigades played an incredibly significant role. The brigade commander controlled the antitank defense of a sector, creating antitank strong points with four or more guns and with interlocking fire with other strong points. The brigade commander held a reserve that could move swiftly (the guns were drawn by trucks, not horses) to any threatened point. The front commander could also hold a brigade or more in reserve to counter any tank penetration of the first line of defense. A brigade with 60 guns was sufficient to stop a panzer division, though the brigade might lose most of its guns in the process if the Germans used Tiger tanks to combat the antitank guns.

Beginning in April 1943, the Soviets formed 30 antitank battalions to be assigned to the tank and mechanized corps. The battalions were armed with 85 mm towed antiaircraft guns on special mounts with crews trained as antitank gunners. The 85 mm gun was a match for the 88 mm gun on the Tiger. Many, although not all, of the tank and mechanized corps at Kursk had been reinforced with 85 mm antitank battalions. Other battalions were still in training in the Moscow Military District.

The Russians continued to have faith in the antitank rifle, a long high-velocity weapon firing a 14.5 mm projectile. The Degtyarev antitank rifle had a muzzle velocity of 1,010 meters per second and could inflict damage on the Panzer III or on the tracks of the heavier German tanks. An example of the antitank rifle organizations was the 121st Independent Antitank Battalion established in March 1943 near Moscow. The men had been inducted in the winter of 1942–43 from the classes of 1923, 1924, and 1925 and were 18 to 20 years old. The enlisted men came through the 131st Replacement Regiment and the officers from a school at Pokrov near Moscow. The battalion had three companies, each with 70 men and 18 to 20 antitank rifles. On April 5, 1943, less than a month after being formed, the battalion was sent by rail to Staryi Oskol and from there marched to Korotscha. Later the battalion was assigned to the 69th Army.

The increase in artillery, tank destroyer, and antiaircraft units in the first six months of 1943 radically altered the firepower of the Red Army, especially the creation of the 27 tank destroyer brigades and 36 antiaircraft divisions. Both of these units were essentially defensive formations to protect the troops from German tank and air attack. The lessons of 1942 had been well learned. The troops could not be left defenseless in the face of German tanks and aircraft, as happened in Ukraine in the summer of 1942. The Soviet high command saw the problem and applied solutions.

Artillery at the Battle of Le Cateau




On the morning of 26 August, the Germans arrived and heavily attacked II Corps (General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien). Unlike the Battle of Mons, where the majority of casualties inflicted by the British were from rifle fire, Le Cateau was an artilleryman’s battle, demonstrating the devastating results which modern quick-firing artillery using shrapnel shells could have on infantry advancing in the open. The British deployed their artillery in the open, about 50–200 metres (55–219 yd) behind their infantry, while the German artillery used indirect fire from concealed positions. With the guns so close to their infantry, the British had unintentionally increased the effectiveness of the German artillery-fire, because shells aimed at the British infantry could just as easily hit the British artillery.

After the thundershowers that covered II Corps’ retreat, Lieutenant General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien took the calculated risk to stand and fight on 26 August 1914 instead of continuing to withdraw. With four German corps plus cavalry marching forward, a gap opening on the right flank between II Corps and Sir Douglas Haig’s I Corps, and only a weak French covering force on the left flank, II Corps faced a stiff fight as dawn broke. The encounter would go down in history as the battle of Le Cateau.

II Corps had three infantry divisions in the line, deployed along a ridge, and they would fight two different types of battle. The 5th Division, on the right, had an open flank, and Smith-Dorrien’s orders to stand and fight arrived late, so the troops had less time to select good positions and dig in. The 3rd Division (centre) and the 4th Division (left) had more time to pick their positions carefully and dug themselves in a bit with the rudimentary ‘grubbers’ the men carried. With mist covering the ridge during the night, the men of the 5th Division ended up selecting positions that were on the forward slope – when daylight came, they were able to see the enemy but their positions were visible to the enemy. This left the 5th Division in a weak position. The division’s artillery commander, Brigadier General John Headlam, compounded the problem. Following standard pre-war British practice, he decentralised his forces and attached a brigade of field guns (each brigade comprising three six-gun batteries) to each of the infantry brigades. Ordinarily, Headlam would still have the field howitzers (another three batteries) and the single heavy battery of 60-pounder long-range guns under his command, but he also split up the howitzer brigade, sending one battery to the 3rd Division and one battery forward, keeping only one battery, plus the heavy battery, as a reserve. Not only did the 5th Division’s artillery get split up, but it deployed far too far forward, in many cases amid the infantry.

In contrast, the 3rd and 4th Divisions deployed the bulk of their guns well behind the infantry and out of sight of the Germans. They would have to rely on signals (wig-wag flags, couriers or telephone messages) to know where and when to fire and they would have a harder time adjusting their fire or switching targets, but they were under cover and harder for the German artillery to hit. The trade-off was somewhat less firepower in exchange for better odds of survival, and surviving one day meant being able to provide firepower tomorrow. A few guns were deployed forward, up with the infantry, but staying silent until the advancing Germans were close enough to blast with shrapnel; some of these forward guns were disguised with corn stalks, since the crops had been cut but not gathered.

The forward guns were sited there for various reasons. Beyond the inevitable communications problems, most guns had only a modest range. Battles were expected to be fought at fairly short ranges, and the British 18-pounder field guns had been optimised accordingly: the guns were built for high-velocity but low-trajectory firing and could not elevate more than 16 degrees, which restricted their range to about 3.7 miles. That expectation and design encompassed another assumption: that shrapnel would be the key munition. (The actual weapon of artillery is the shell: guns, howitzers, mortars and rockets are simply delivery mechanisms.) Shrapnel lost effectiveness as the shell’s velocity dropped, and since the Royal Artillery believed so heavily in shrapnel the lack of long range hardly bothered them. Indeed, so strongly did they believe in shrapnel over high explosive (HE) that the 4.5-inch field howitzer had its HE shells designed to match the ballistic performance of shrapnel, although that reduced their bursting charge and thus effectiveness. II Corps had no heavy artillery (6 inches and over) at Le Cateau because the British Army was divided in its thinking about the employment of artillery in modern warfare: there were sieges and field battles, and the two did not mix. Heavy artillery was only for sieges, and the Siege Train (four batteries of 6-inch howitzers and two batteries of 9.45-inch howitzers) was still mobilising in Britain. A final expectation was that artillery should fight right up in the front line; the honorable thing was for the gunners to risk their lives alongside the infantry (and cavalry), and that was the only way to attain the recognition and glory of being in combat. This idea harked back to the Napoleonic wars, and while it had been beaten out of the Royal Artillery in the Boer War, it had crept back into the thinking.

Reports note that the 5th Division gunners whistled while they deployed their guns alongside the infantry. They would be fighting alongside their comrades, just as their predecessors had done for centuries. One of the brigade commanders told his subordinates ‘fight it out here; there will be no retirement’, but they were facing new battlefield conditions. Indirect fire would replace direct fire as the leading cause of casualties in the Great War, and why that happened can be seen on the battlefield of Le Cateau.

As the gunners prepared themselves, the Germans were moving south and west. They had found the seam between II and I Corps, and III Korps was feeling its way forward. But the Germans also saw the 5th Division troops on the ridge. The 72nd Infanterie Regiment moved into Le Cateau, catching some British rearguard piquets. The British flank was obvious to the German commanders and two more regiments moved into action to turn the flank while three more pinned down the 5th Division from the front. More troops were ordered to move deeper into the British rear, but they moved slowly through the day and did not influence the battle. Meanwhile, as the flank attack unfolded, German artillery observers did their job from the hills north of Le Cateau. From about 6am there was ruth-lessly methodical German fire moving from target to target on the ridge, preparing the way for the infantry attack. The British guns fired back, aiming at the German muzzle-flashes about 5,000 yards away, and managed to silence some of the German guns – but only some of them and only for a time. More German artillery arrived (and deployed) and German counter-battery fire began to tell. High explosive and ‘universal’ shells (a German compromise between HE and shrapnel) were bursting over the British positions, hitting command posts, cutting telephone wires, killing and wounding; soon direct hits were knocking out some guns. Nevertheless, the remaining British guns opened fire when the German infantry started advancing, although all they could do was force the Germans to spread out. A few casualties and a little delay were about all that was inflicted on the Germans, and they may have been willing to pay the price to learn more about the British defences. By 9am the Germans were feeling their way around the British flank and preparing their frontal assault, and had perhaps 200 guns deployed in an arc around the men of the 5th Division.

From 9am to noon the battle raged fiercely. A British pilot noticed more and more German guns moving forward, but there was nothing he could do about it. The Germans were shelling the British batteries and, since the guns were up close to the infantry, the infantry collected some of the near-misses. But the British gunners stayed in action, blasting away at the German infantry; one German infantry officer paid tribute to their gallantry: ‘Regardless of loss, the English artillery came forward to protect their infantrymen and in full view of our guns kept up a devastating fire.’ The Germans tended to march into action in companies and then deploy into skirmish lines, and the advancing companies made easy and juicy targets, and for a time one British battery was blasting a German platoon with every round fired. On the receiving end, the Germans complained that ‘as we went forward only dead and wounded were to be seen in our firing line’. During lulls in the infantry attack, the gunners would switch back to bombarding the German gun positions. Some batteries fired off their ammunition, and wagonloads had to be brought forward from the ammunition columns. About noon the Germans paused to regroup, while their drumfire bombardment continued. The British infantry was learning to tell the ‘whizz-bang’ 77mm field guns apart from the booming 150mm howitzers, which burst with black smoke and earned the nickname ‘Jack Johnson’ after a heavyweight boxer.

If Headlam could have surveyed his position at about 1pm he would have found his right and centre savaged; over half the guns were out of action as German shells slammed in from front and flank. An observer described the ‘throb of noise from our left flank. We all looked instinctively in the direction of Le Cateau where the Montay spur was overhung by a bank of white and yellow smoke, punctuated by angry flashes.’ The 5th Division’s left was better off, with most guns still in action and the two batteries in the rear busy firing at German artillery. On the right flank German machine guns were only 500 yards from the British infantry; a subaltern in 122 Battery, RFA described the ‘pop-pop-pop-pop of a machine gun and a perfect hail of bullets’. Another German assault might break the line. Smith-Dorrien was hastily consulted and the division was ordered to pull out; II Corps had given the Germans a bloody nose and bought time to continue the retreat. Now they had to solve the problem of getting the guns back from the forward positions under relentless German artillery and small-arms fire.

Headlam saw that the 5th Division’s position was now untenable and he ordered the horse teams forward to withdraw the guns. Men of the 1/Royal West Kents stood and cheered, waving their caps, as the horse teams trotted forward. Shells were still falling, and several teams were blown to bits on their way forward, men and horses scattered by shellfire, mangled and screaming. A few batteries had picked positions in folds in the ground and they typically escaped lightly, but several batteries were up forward in the open. As the horse teams swept over the crest of the ridge, the Germans redoubled their fire. In some cases infantry and machine guns were close enough that bullets punched through the gun-shields, and small-arms fire added to the rain of shells. Few guns could be extracted; some had taken direct hits, others had too few men left to hook them into the limbers, and sometimes – despite the most gallant efforts – the hail of fire was simply too much. Gunners fired off the last rounds from guns that could not be withdrawn, then smashed the sights and pulled the breechblocks to deny the Germans anything more than a trophy. As the German infantry finally started forward, some groups were silhouetted on the ridgeline offering the British reserve batteries easy pickings. One ‘mob’ eight deep was hit with a flurry of howitzer shells. British observers saw the group ‘disperse’ but what they would not have seen was individual soldiers being blown apart.

The net result was the loss of 27 guns, over one-third of the 5th Division’s total. At least 22 artillery officers and 180 other ranks were lost, along with 257 horses. The gunners (and of course the infantry) had fought with great gallantry, and the Germans never managed to organise an over-whelming attack. II Corps had fought to win time, to check the German advance so the retreat could resume, and they succeeded in creating a ‘stopping blow’ that forced the German 1st Army to slow its advance. The British withdrawal started at about 2pm, and the Germans resumed their advance the next morning, allowing the BEF enough of a head start that it would not be overwhelmed by superior numbers and firepower. The next morning the infantrymen showed their appreciation of the gallant gunners, and the battlefield effectiveness of the guns: ‘Exhausted as they were by the long night march, many men stepped from the ranks as they marched past to give a silent pat to the guns drawn up by the roadside.’1 But regardless of the 5th Division’s gallantry, need they have suffered such heavy losses? Was there a more effective way to fight than deploying the guns up with the infantry and literally fighting side by side?

Unlike the 5th Division, the guns of the 3rd Division, in the centre of the line, were deployed in depth, Brigadier General Frederick Wing making the best use of the terrain. Instead of pushing the guns forward, all except four were deployed behind the ridge; those four were used as direct support guns, and all four were written off. The gunners’ role was to wait silently until the British outpost in the village of Caudry had been pushed back and the first major German attack developed. Then they would open up and blast away. They were expendable, but they would defeat an attack and shatter the attacking battalions.

The early German shelling did little damage in the 3rd Division zone except for knocking out telephone lines, obliging the observation posts to send messages back by galloping messengers – not much different than communications a century earlier. But in return the British guns could not find the German batteries either and both sides fired fairly blindly; at one stage a German airplane flew over and apparently dropped a message back to the German gunners, because their accuracy improved for a time. Infantry targets were another matter, and the British guns could readily hit the advancing German infantry. Their movement was slowed, but never stopped; there were simply too many Germans and if they were willing to take risks they could filter forward in skirmish lines. Not even a month into the war, the infantry’s enthusiasm was undimmed, with casualties correspondingly high. As the morning wore on, German counter-battery shelling continued, not so much aimed fire as simply searching places where the British batteries might be. The German 5.9-inch (150mm) howitzers were an unpleasant surprise, especially for infantry in villages: in stout houses they were generally immune from field guns but these heavy howitzers could literally pulverise buildings. But this level of firepower was only useful if there was a target. The infantry, grouped together in the villages, could be hit, but the British guns were scattered behind the line and were thus tougher targets; German fire thus only ‘flecked the landscape’. This searching fire was expensive in ammunition and time, and the British guns remained in action, hitting German infantry at ranges as close as 2,000–3,000 yards, but the Germans nonetheless closed in on Caudry.

By 1pm the Germans had taken Caudry and were moving past Inchy. The 8th Infantry Brigade had only a thin line, but the artillery (including a British howitzer battery that simply fired on Inchy, needing no more specific target) held the Germans. In mid-afternoon, as the 5th Division was struggling to get its guns away, a German attack was massing around Inchy but the four forward guns (camouflaged until then) now opened up. They fired off several hundred rounds of ammunition, each shell showering the Germans with 375 shrapnel balls. The Germans were blown back, suffering terrible casualties, and were sufficiently disorganised to enable the British infantry (and the gunners from the forward sections) to withdraw with minimal loss.

The 3rd Division’s withdrawal was straightforward. Artillery leapfrogged from its scattered locations to cover the retreat, and almost no guns were lost except for the forward sections. For all the damage they did to the Germans, the 3rd Division’s artillery lost only three men.

Medieval Armor And Weapons




Cold Steel Arms: Axe heads, maces, morningstars

The armor worn in France throughout the medieval period was directly derived from that worn in the Migrations Period by the leaders of Germanic war bands, and its basic structure, which included a shield, helmet, and coat, changed little between ca. A. D. 100 and 1150. In the early period, the shield (Lat. scutum, OFr. escu) was normally constructed of wood covered with leather and reinforced with strips of bronze or iron centered on a hemispherical metal boss that covered the grip. Down to ca. 1000, the shield was usually ovoid or round and about three feet in diameter. A round shield of similar construction continued to be used by infantry into the 15th century, but a longer and narrower shield of Byzantine origin, shaped like an elongated almond, was introduced in the 11th century for use by heavy cavalry and predominated from ca. 1050 to 1150. The normal type of helmet (MHG helm, OFr. helme, MidFr. heaume) in the period before 1150 took the form of a more or less convex cone, most commonly constructed from four or more triangular sections of metal or some other hard material bound by iron bands. It was usually supplied with a nasal bar and until ca. 750 with hinged cheek plates as well.

The coat was almost always made of mail (OFr. maille), a mesh of interlocking iron rings of uniform size. The names most commonly given to the mail coat in the period before ca. 1300 were derived from the Old Germanic word *brunaz ‘bright’: Lat. brunia, OFr. brunie or bro(i)gne. Down to ca. 800, no protection for the neck was generally worn, but in the 9th century it became customary to wear a mail hood with attached shoulder cape over or partially under the mail coat and under the helm. This caped hood was apparently known as the halsbergen ‘neck guard’ in Frankish and by a derivative word variously spelled halberc, halbert, (h)auberc, etc. in Old French. This word (in English in the form “hauberk”) has been applied since at least the 17th century to the mail coat or brogne itself, but this was an error of the antiquarians, and historically it had designated only the caped hood as long as the latter was still in use—that is, until the 14th century. The hood proper, which was often attached directly to the brogne, was called the coiffe, and from the 12th century onward the brogne with attached coiffe was called an haubergonne.

Helmets and mail coats were expensive, and before ca. 800 they were worn only by kings, nobles, and their most distinguished companions-in-arms. In the 9th century, however, they came to be distributed to the ordinary members of royal and noble military retinues, newly named vassals, and from ca. 950 they were to be characteristic of knights, who were always expected to appear for battle in the most complete and up-to-date armor.

The period 1150–1220 saw the first major changes in the form of armor used in France since the Frankish conquest. Most of these changes were in the direction of increased protection for the body, already begun with the adoption of the long shield. In the late 12th century, the sleeves of the brogne were extended from the elbows to the wrists and finally acquired attached mittens. Mail leggings, or chausses, though occasionally worn earlier, similarly came into general use among knights ca. 1150 and were worn to ca. 1350. Also ca. 1150 began the custom of wearing a surcoat (OFr. surcote, cote a armer)—a loose, generally sleeveless cloth coat probably borrowed from the Muslims— over the coat of mail. The surcoat was universally adopted by ca. 1210 and worn thereafter until ca. 1410. Throughout this period, it was commonly emblazoned with its wearer’s heraldic “arms,” but these new ensigns were primarily displayed on the shield— which between 1150 and 1200 also lost its traditional boss, between 1150 and 1220 was made progressively shorter and wider, and between 1200 and 1250 was given an increasingly triangular shape through the leveling of its upper edge.

Although the traditional conical helm continued in use until ca. 1280, several new forms emerged in this period that were destined to supersede it. The most important were the flat-topped “great” helm, which between 1180 and 1220 evolved to enclose the whole head in a cylinder of steel pierced only by slits for seeing and holes for breathing, and the close-fitting hemispherical bascinet, which emerged ca. 1220. The great helm survived with little further structural change from 1220 to 1400, and from ca. 1300 its apex was often provided with a distinctive heraldic “crest” (cimier) of wood or boiled leather, worn primarily in the tournaments to which, by 1380, the helm was restricted. The bascinet was at first worn under the helm and over the coif of the mail hood, but from ca. 1260 the hood was increasingly replaced with a mail curtain (the camail or aventail) suspended from the outside of the bascinet, and the bascinet thus augmented gradually replaced the clumsy great helm as the principal defense for the head in real warfare. In consequence, the bascinet became steadily larger and more pointed, and acquired in the last decade of the 13th century a movable “visor” (vissere) to protect the face.

The eight decades between ca. 1250 and ca. 1330 witnessed a major change in the history of European armor, stimulated in large part by the development of weapons capable of piercing mail: the gradual introduction of pieces of plate (at first of whalebone, horn, and boiled leather, as well as of the iron and steel that ultimately prevailed) to cover an ever larger part of the mail. By 1330, every part of the body of a knight was normally protected by one or several plates, including a poncholike “coat of plates” concealed by the surcoat. By 1410, the various pieces of plate, including a breastplate and backplate instead of the earlier coat of plates, were all connected by straps and rivets in an articulated suit, or “harness,” of polished steel. After ca. 1425, this “white” armor was usually worn without a surcoat or any other covering.

The adoption of elements of plate to protect the body steadily reduced the importance of the shield, which between 1250 and 1350 diminished steadily in size until it was only about 16 inches in height. Even this diminished shield was finally abandoned between 1380 and 1400. A new form of shield called the targe, of similar size and structure but roughly rectangular in outline, concave rather than convex, often deeply fluted and cusped, and provided with a notch, or bouche, for the lance, was introduced in the same two decades, but it was used primarily in tournaments, and knights of the 15th century seem to have done without any shield in battle.

The only offensive weapons commonly borne by the Frankish warriors who seized power in Gaul in the 5th century were the lance, or framea, of sharpened ash; the barbed javelin, or ango; and the throwing ax, or frankisca. The lance or spear, whose more expansive form, equipped with an iron head, was destined to displace the sharpened form and survived with little basic change until the end of the Middle Ages and beyond—for many centuries the only weapon generally available to ignoble as well as noble warriors.

Kings and the leaders of war bands also carried swords, usually of the long, straight, double-edged type called in Latin spatha, first developed by the Celts of Gaul ca. 400 B. C. and later borrowed by Germans and Romans. As the Old French use of espee for “sword” suggests, the spatha (whose blade was ca. 30 inches long) was ancestral to most of the later forms of sword developed in western Europe, of which some thirty-three types and subtypes have been recognized by scholars, four of them antedating A. D. 600. Around 600, the Frankish king and nobles temporarily abandoned both spatha and frankisca in favor of a machete-like single-edged sword called a saxo, whose 18inch blade permitted it to be used for stabbing and even throwing as well as slashing; but under Viking influence the spatha, which the Scandinavians had continued to use and develop, was reintroduced into Frankish lands and quickly became the principal weapon not only of the rulers and nobles but of the rank-and-file members of the new heavy-cavalry units ancestral to the knights of the 10th and later centuries.

Lesser weapons were also employed by knights after 1050. Special forms of ax, hammer (bec), mace, club, and flail were introduced in the 12th and 13th centuries to supplement the sword, but it was only after 1300 that these were both fully developed and commonly used. Most knights and squires also carried a stiff dagger on their sword belt after ca. 1350. All of the knightly weapons were used by the nonknightly combatants who could acquire them, but among the base-born infantrymen a number of weapons scorned by the knightly class were also employed. The simple bow, despised by most Germanic tribes outside of Scandinavia, was little used in France outside of Normandy before the 14th century, when six mounted archers were included in the “lance,” or standard tactical unit of the royal army. The crossbow, or arbaleste, was reintroduced into France ca. 950 and was commonly used thereafter to ca. 1550, primarily by special infantry units placed from ca. 1200 to 1534 under the overall authority of a grand master of the crossbowmen (arbalest[r]iers). After ca. 1350, the bow and crossbow were supplemented on occasion by a primitive handgun. In addition to these projectile weapons, the infantryman of the 14th and 15th centuries had at his disposal new forms of polearm, which were in essence lances with special forms of head.



Playing a major role in medieval warfare, artillery evolved parallel to the art of fortification. Although Roger Bacon introduced gunpowder to the West ca. 1260 and the English used cannon at Crécy in 1346, it took a further century of experimentation before cannon supplanted trébuchet (i. e., tension) artillery. Improvement of explosives, projectiles, and guns was impeded by the difficulties in obtaining adequate amounts of matériel and equipment. But by 1400 cannon had come into regular use, and the final campaigns of the Hundred Years’ War made their superiority unmistakable. Either protecting sappers or breaching walls themselves, they became an indispensable tool in sieges. In response, defense tactics and military architecture changed rapidly after 1450. Governments were compelled to modernize fortifications, and every town was driven to acquire artillery for its own defense.

Following French use of artillery at Formigny (1450) and Castillon (1453), where cannon were shown to be useful on the field as well as in siege warfare, the Valois monarchy led the way in the perfection of technology, in the development of an institutional infrastructure, and in the exploitation of the full potential of the new arms. Gaspard Bureau, maître de l’artillerie for Charles VII, formed a permanent force of cannoniers that grew steadily thereafter. Limited range, inadequate rates of fire, and immobility limited reliance on artillery for the remainder of the 15th century, and cannon remained auxiliary to cavalry and infantry in the army of Louis XI. Only the triumphs of Charles VIII, who made dramatic use of artillery in Brittany and in the Italian campaign of 1494, removed all doubt that only armies with adequate artillery could hope to prevail in modern warfare.


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.