Cornelius Redlichkeit’s disappearing gun carriage; on recoiling, the small carriage runs down to inclined plane, counterbalanced by the heavy roller. From Scheel’s Memoirs d’Artillery published in Denmark, 1777.
After the Restoration, artillery appears to have vanished from sight in England, for Macaulay tells that when William of Orange landed (1688) the apparatus he brought with him, though such had been in constant use on the continent, excited in our ancestors an admiration resembling that which the Indians of America felt for the Castilian harquebuses’. This ‘apparatus’ consisted of ’21 huge brass cannon which were with difficulty tugged along by 16 carthorses each’.
One of the other causes of artillery’s poor standing at the time was that the force rarely belonged body and soul to the Army. The problem of maintenance of such an expensive and technical force in peacetime, already touched upon, was still unsolved. A limited number of professional gunners were retained, together with a number of guns, and when war broke out this cadre was augmented by a scratch collection of labourers and drivers to serve under the gunners. A great difficulty lay in the fact that these reinforcements were hired civilians rather than soldiers, and when things got too hot for them, they frequently de- camped, leaving guns and gunners to manage as best they could. Sooner or later this misfortune befell most armies, and sooner or later the fact was accepted that the expense of forming a permanent corps of artillery simply had to be borne. In this way the entire force, gunners, drivers, fire- workers, matrosses and other peculiar incumbents were subject to the same military discipline and imbued with the same martial spirit as the rest of the Army.
The War of the Spanish Succession (1702-13) shows some leanings towards a resurgence of flexible artillery employment which had been for- gotten since Gustavus’s time. Marlborough, to everyone’s surprise, revealed himself to be one of the greatest soldiers of history, and like all good generals he had a sound appreciation of what could and could not be done with the various component forces under his command. At Blenheim, after being repulsed four times in frontal attack, he moved a battery of guns across the River Nebel, and this moving of guns in the course of the battle contributed in no small measure to the day’s eventual success.
At the Battle of Malplaquet, which was won at the cost of 12,000 dead, the decisive stroke was again an artillery manoeuvre; having penetrated the French centre, Marlborough ordered the ‘Grand Battery’ of 40 guns to advance into the heart of the French line where, wheeling to face the flanks, they opened a withering fire of case and grape-shot on to the French cavalry who were waiting, behind their infantry, to begin the counter-attack charge. This destruction of the French reserve decided the battle. No doubt had other opportunities offered, ‘Corporal John’ would have made more use of his guns, but circum- stances were sometimes against him; for example at Oudenarde we are told, ‘few pieces of artillery were brought up on either side, the rapidity of the movements of both (armies) having outstripped the slow pace at which these ponderous implements of destruction were then conveyed’.
When Marlborough fell from grace after the war, the armies of the world had perforce to wait for another great captain before any further improvement was likely. It fell to Frederick the Great to take the next step. In 1759 he formed a brigade of horse artillery armed with light 6- pounder guns, with a view to providing a force of artillery which could manoeuvre with and keep up with his cavalry. This he found necessary by virtue of his appreciation of the function of cavalry. Frederick’s father had, more or less as a hobby, created an enormous and highly disciplined army which he was too solicitous to hazard in actual warfare. But when the son succeeded his father he found an instrument to hand with which he was able to impress his mark on the whole of Europe. An outstanding soldier and never averse to trying something new, on his accession he found himself in charge of a cavalry force which had been trained to manoeuvre into position, then form into line and fire at the halt. While this tactic provided them with excellent firepower, it con- verted them into little more than mounted infantry, and Frederick, appreciating that movement was the fundamental feature of cavalry action, soon abolished this tactic and trained his cavalry in the use of lance and sword. Having removed their firepower, he had to replace it; he rediscovered Gustavus Adolphus’s principles, expanded them and invented horse artillery.
The measure of this innovation can be gauged by the fact that at this time the only mobile artillery in use on the Continent was the ‘Battalion Gun’, a misguided innovation due to Gustavus which had been perpetuated by those who knew no better. These were light guns dragged along by the marching infantry; they were a species which propounded a dilemma. Either they were light enough not to impede the infantry’s rate of march, in which case they were too light to have much effect when fired; or they were heavy enough to provide a worthwhile lethal effect, in which case they encumbered the infantry and slowed their advance. Usually the bias was to the latter case; had Gustavus lived he would undoubtedly, in due course, have recognized the defects and abolished the battalion gun, but in the event they remained to encumber armies until Frederick’s horse artillery showed how mobility and firepower could be brought together.
Frederick’s ideas took time to implement, and in the interim the tactics of the day had their effect on the artillery. Frederick’s ideas on tactics were easier for the average soldier to assimilate than his ideas on reorganization, and his tactical thinking came to dominate the armies of Europe; drill and discipline his armies had, and won wars. Drill and discipline therefore became the be-all and end-all of military thinking, and war developed into a matter of position and manoeuvre, for with drilled and disciplined troops some elegant manoeuvres could now be performed. The defending army selected its position, made its dispositions, and sat there waiting attack. Their artillery was entrenched with it, and it was rarely called upon to move in the course of a battle. The attackers, for their part, secure in the knowledge that nothing short of divine intervention would tempt the de- fenders from their position, could move at leisure. ‘They marched and countermarched, broke into column and wheeled into line with a gravity and solemnity that in our times would provoke a smile’, a Victorian analyst wrote. This sort of armed gavotte reached its zenith at Fontenoy with Lord Charles Hay’s infamous invitation to the French to fire first. But the system was accepted as the only method of fighting, and it remained the doctrine until Napoleon reintroduced mobility, which upset several people. ‘In my youth’, complained an elderly Prussian officer, ‘we used to march and countermarch all summer without gaining or losing a square league, and then we went into winter quarters. But now comes an ignorant hot-headed young man who flies from Boulogne to Ulm, and from Ulm to the middle of Moravia, and fights battles in December. The whole system of his tactics is monstrously incorrect.’
The general result of this dilatory tactical system was to produce a tendency to improve the accuracy and effect of artillery fire to the detriment of mobility, leading to the gradual adoption of heavier guns of larger calibre. But in spite of this trend there were one or two attempts to produce more practical weapons from time to time, at- tempts which prevented artillery from sinking entirely from sight. One rather eccentric innovator was the Chevalier Folard who decided to design a lightweight gun and produced a short 24- pounder. With a 28-inch barrel it weighed only 15 cwt, a startling change from the conventional 24-pounder of the day which was 11 feet long and weighed 45 cwt. Unfortunately when constructed and fired, it blew up; this regrettable result so upset the good Chevalier that he came to the conclusion that artillery was incapable of any improvement, and he proposed the complete abolition of the arm, replacing it with mobile ballista and catapults.
Folard’s disillusionment with the state of artillery led him to advocate equipping the troops with this catapulte de campagne instead.
Perhaps nothing better illustrates the poor state of artillery at this time (1723) than the fact that Folard’s ridiculous proposals were seriously considered. Even such an astute intelligence as Benjamin Franklin was swayed by Folard’s arguments and in later years urged upon General Lee the suppression of artillery and the reintroduction of archery.
However, this was the lunatic fringe. At the same time as the Chevalier was advocating a return to catapults, others, more versed in artillery fundamentals, were also taking a look at the light- weight gun. The first move was in Germany in about 1725 when a number of 8-pounder and 4-pounder guns were mounted so that they could be brought rapidly into action and fired without detaching them from the horse. Their firepower was inferior but the balance of advantages was in their favour, lightness compensating for poor lethality. What the horses thought about the idea is not on record. The ‘Galloper Guns’ which appeared in the 1740s were a further and more practical development of this idea; the carriage was made with shafts which could act as a trail when the gun was in action.
Unfortunately, while the galloper gun calls up a dashing image the reality was less stirring. The design well illustrates the confusion between light- ness and mobility. The gun was light and mobile, no doubt of that. But the flaw in the system was that while the guns were capable of rapid movement they did so at some disadvantage; the ammunition was on heavy carts and the gunners were mostly on foot. So for all the lightness, mobility was still absent.
Marshal Saxe suggested provision of this Amusette’ in considerable numbers, but the idea failed to catch on.
Marshal Saxe was the next to try his hand; he had a high opinion of the power of artillery but a poor one of its mobility. ‘It is unlikely that the artillery will ever move faster; it is impossible that it will ever move slower,’ he is reputed to have said. And to remedy the deficiency he proposed the ‘Amusette’, a species of heavy musket firing a half-pound ball and drawn by hand, to be distributed in large numbers across the front of the battle. Nothing seems to have come of this suggestion, but it was echoed a few years later (1762) by another Frenchman, M. de Bonneville. He proposed a 1-pounder breechloader which, according to him, could be loaded and fired on the move. This idea also never seems to have reached the field of battle.
Another idea which failed was M de Bonneville’s mobile 1-pounder breech-loader.
In these years of tactical ferment, one is entitled to ask if there had been any technical advance in the material of artillery. Fortunately, here the picture is brighter. This side of the matter was in the hands of the gunners themselves, and, with a certain faith in the rightness of their calling they applied themselves to improving the tools of their trade. No matter that the generals and marshals were incapable of handling the guns or appreciating their worth; when the day came that their talents were recognized, the gunners would not be found wanting. The guns themselves were long and ponderous still, due to the powder. Slow burning, it demanded a long and thus heavy barrel to develop its full force. There seemed to be no way round that problem, but there were other fields to be explored.
The gun carriage, two wheels joined by an axle-tree and with a trail to support the weight and the shock of firing, had superseded the gun cart in the fifteenth century, and in about 1500 came the first gunnery instrument-the gunner’s quadrant. This is reputed to have been invented by the Emperor Maximilian I, and was no more than a 90-degree quadrant with one side extended, carrying a plumb-bob. Since degrees were not yet known, the quadrant was arbitrarily marked off in ‘points’. By placing the extended side in the cannon’s bore the weapon could then be elevated or depressed until the plumb-bob indicated the desired point to achieve the required range. With the gun horizontal the plumb-bob reached the end of the scale, from whence comes the term ‘point-blank’.
Having a scale of points and equating them to ranges demanded the production of some form of table ot ranges and elevations, and this was some- thing the gunner had to find out for himself, for guns were individual weapons and not mass produced. All sorts of minor variations in dimensions could be found between two nominally identical guns, and in addition every gunner was idiosyncratic about how much powder he used, how he rammed it, whether he used a wad and so forth. Thus it was necessary for him to take his gun out and actually fire it at the various points on the quadrant, measuring the result of each shot and recording it for his future use.
The actual task of elevating the gun was done by heaving it up or down by the use of levers or handspikes, inserting wooden blocks beneath the breech to hold the required angle; the blocks were soon refined into a wedge which gave more precise control, and the ultimate system came in about 1578 when John Skinner, ‘one of the Queen’s Majesty’s Men’ invented the elevating screw, which gave finer control. Some early guns, as can be seen from the illustrations, used an. arc perforated with holes to position the breech end of the gun, but this was only suited to the lighter types of weapon. Whichever system was used, there were, as yet, no sighting arrangements; the gunner merely looked over the line of the gun, elevated by means of quadrant and range table, and hoped for the best.
In the ammunition field, Stefan Batory, King of Poland, is credited with the introduction of red-hot shot in 1579. This device, more useful against ships and property than against men, required some dexterity on the part of the gunners to fire it without doing themselves harm. The iron shot was heated to redness in a furnace; the gun was loaded with a charge of powder and a tight-fitting dry wad rammed down on top; then, with great rapidity, a wet wad was rammed down, followed by the red-hot shot, whereupon the gun was touched off-before the shot burned its way through the wads and did the job itself. Primitive as it sounds, it remained a standard item of ammunition until the smoothbore gun disappeared from the scene in the nineteenth century.
In 1588 comes the first record of the use of hollow cannon balls filled with gunpowder, these being used to shell Bergen-op-Zoom, thus translating the explosive effect of the powder to the target and bringing new meaning to Bacon’s observation that ‘These substances can be used at any distance we please, so that the operators escape all hurt from them, while those against whom they are employed are suddenly filled with confusion.’ The operators did not entirely escape all harm though; the explosion of the powder at the target was brought about by internal friction when the shell struck its target, and often an equal friction was developed when the shot was launched, so that the explosion took place at the beginning of the trajectory instead of at the end. One Sebastian Halle proposed a way round this in 1596 by the use of a wooden peg inserted into the shell and containing a filling of gunpowder, which would be ignited by the explosion of the charge and then burn away to ignite the shell contents at the end of the trajectory, but his idea was not followed up for many years; one drawback to the development of such a ‘time fuze’ was the simple question of calibrating such a device when no accurate method of measuring small intervals of time existed.
At sea the use of ordnance had made a slow start. Sea battles for the most part were simple and bloody affairs in which one ship grappled to an- other and the crews fought it out hand to hand, and the use of cannon was confined to short-range fire with peterara and the like, loaded with ‘langridge’-scrap metal and small stones-to repel the boarders. It was not until the middle of the fifteenth century that the use of cannon as offensive arms, to reach across the intervening water and damage the enemy before he could come to grips, became a standard practice. Among other reasons, the bulk and weight of the contemporary long- ranging gun was a considerable problem, and not until the general introduction of cast-iron guns and corned powder allowed the development of handier weapons did the sailors take kindly to burdening their craft with cannon.
By the time of Elizabeth I the seagoing cannon was an accepted item, and so far as the gun itself was concerned its advance paralleled that of land artillery. The principal difference lay in the question of adapting the weapon to the ship-the gun carriage or mounting. The first ship-board guns appear to have been simply barrels laid in a wooden trough, the trough being fixed to the ship and the barrel free to recoil in it, controlled to some degree by ropes or chains. This was later changed, when it was appreciated that increasing the mass of the recoiling parts decreased the violence of recoil, to firmly attaching the cannon to the trough and allowing both to recoil. Then, some time in the sixteenth century, came the addition of wheels, or trucks, to the trough, and from this rough beginning the ‘truck carriage’ or ‘ship carriage’ evolved.
The truck carriage was, in fact, far from the perfect answer, and even its champions had to admit that it had its defects. The system of con- trolling recoil by the ‘breeching rope’ was primitive; if the tackle securing the gun broke loose in a storm, the task of catching and securing the runaway was extremely hazardous and if not done quickly could well lead to greater disasters. More than one ship lost with all hands had her foundering attributed to the guns breaking loose in a storm. The attachment of the breeching rope and running-out tackle invariably caused the gun to jump on firing, to the detriment of accuracy, and the sailors had to step lively to avoid being struck by the recoiling gun or caught up in the festoon of ropes and tackle. But having said all that, it had to be admitted that the truck carriage was simple, robust, easily repairable by the ship’s carpenter and did its job. Since nothing better offered, the truck carriage was to stay in service until the nineteenth century with very little improvement.