Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

The Artillery of System An XI

Napoleon's Re-action to the Recommendations

By Paul Dawson

The committee proposed that henceforth the field army should be armed with 6 and 12 pounder guns, and a 5.6inch howitzer; for mountain campaigns a short 6 pounder, and a light 5 inch howitzer. New caissons, new carriages, and new field forges were put into production.  Article 4 of the report details changes to the siege and garrison artillery. New 24 pounder, 12 pounder  and 6 pounder  were to be introduced along with  new 324 mm, 216 mm and 152 mm mortars; and 405 mm perriers. Gassendi was critical of these new weapons and complained that the new 24 pounder was not as good as the old one.

Napoleon, was in favour of these changes, as he believed that Gribeauval was at error:

“The 10-inch mortar has been suppressed, and the 8-inch and 12-in Preserved. The 8-in., which throws a 40  pound . shell, is an excellent mortar: it is the true siege mortar. The 6-inch mortars appear necessary, both for the attack and defence of places. These mortars, which do not weigh 100 pounds., have the greatest effect in trenches and covered ways. A field artillery park should have twenty of these which can be used with 5½-inch shell, and may be useful against redoubts and villages and thus save the howitzers, the fire of which is very destructive to their carriages. The question of the 12-inch and 10-inch mortars is not yet decided. The 12-inch throws a 150  pound . shell, the 10-inch only 100  pound . In this respect the 12-inch is to be preferred. Since we have an 8-inch it is useful to have one with far more power, but M. de Gribeauval had abolished the 12-inch and adopted the 10-in., because he thought that the calibre of 8 or 9 inches was the best for long ranges. The mortars which were cast at Cadiz had less than 9 inches. More experiments are still required, and if they confirm the old ones, to the effect that the longest ranges are obtainable between 8 and 9 inches, we should then abolish the 8-inch and substitute for them the new calibre. Of course the mortar should have a cylindrical Gomer chamber and the lightest possible for short ranges and beds for long ones.  We should have thus 3 mortars: the 5½-in., the new model between 8-in. and 9-in., and the 12-in.  A mortar shell of the new model would not weigh more than 60 pounds. That is not a sufficient weight and would cause one to feel the want of the effect of a 12-inch shell. Long-ranging mortars are only useful at particular points of the coast or in places destined to defend a particular point, for the fire is so uncertain, long and difficult that it can be of no use at ordinary times. It was on the occasion of the bombardment of Cadiz that mortars were cast at Seville with a range of 3000 fathoms. The coasts of Flushing, Ile d’Aix and Hyères were armed with these. These mortars, joined to the special carriages which were given to the coast guns to enable them to fire at 45o, were a sufficient defence to drive off the English whenever they attempted to cast anchor in Hyères roads.”

Gassendi was not the only critical voice, but his was the dominant voice.  Thus he has coloured our view of this system, especially the 6 pound  carriage, listed under article 16. Gassendi noted in 1819 that:

‘The carriages made by M. Gribeauval have been reduced in weight and therefore strength’

This point has been stressed further by modern historians, (e.g. Chartrand) that on campaign that the carriages broke up, and could not stand the rigours of campaign. However, I have found no contemporary source for this assumption. Indeed, the new carriages were lighter, but had more reinforcements. Gribeauval’s carriages tended to break between the two trunion positions, and the same place on the howitzer carriage, as it took most force, and was reinforced under the new system with iron strapping at this point. Indeed, Gassendi has always been seen to oppose An XI, but Eugene Hennebert writing in 1887 qoutes Gassendi as saying that the reduction of calibres from 8 to 6, was a logical step, and batteries were easier to organise and supply with munitions. Gassendi also supported the reduction of guns per battery from 8 to 6, a view shared by Napoleon, who wanted only four gun batteries.

The unit of artillery is the division (battery): for horse artillery 6 guns; for field 8. The officers, N.C.O.'s and gunners of a company are sufficient for its service. It would be better, were it not determined otherwise by the details of artillery, to form a unit of 4 guns, because a battery of 8 guns is already too numerous not to be often divided; but what forces the adoption of the larger unit is on account of artificers, spare stores, forges, &c. In taking a unit of 4 guns all that would be doubled; the extra expense involved would not be compensated by the advantage attaching to the 4-gun unit.”

In Spain, 3 divisions of Guard Artillery were attached to the Guard Infantry, each regiment having a 4 gun battery of  6 pounders.  However, if one compares the committee’s drawings for the new 6 pound  carriage, and that for the Gribeauval 4 pound  carriage, one finds that the carriage from the front to the aiming curve is the same size, the only difference being in the diminuation of the trail towards pintle plate. At this point the Gribeauval gun measures 8.5 inches and An XI 7.5 inches. The rear skids are more rounded and shorter. One can not see how the loss of 1 inch off the depth of the carriage can make it fundamentally weaker.

Again the new 12 pound  carriage was as robust, if not more so than Gribeauval. Gribeauval’s carriages had a very marked aiming curve on the top line, whilst in AN XI this was virtually eliminated. Also, the wood work on An XI is thicker in parts than Gribeauval. The overall shape of the carriage changed, which enabled the 12 pound  to have great elevation than before, the trunion positions were moved closer together, and the metal axel had a wooden ‘shock absorber’ around it. This lack of elevation was another of Napoleon’s complaints with Gribeauval. The shape of the rear skids also changed. This new more rounded shape meant, that rather than having to have two men on hand spikes at the rear of the gun to lift the carriage for advance or retreat, it could simply be dragged, the rear skid acting like a ski. The old Gribeauval rear skids did work to an extent, but often dug into the ground. Practical tests carried out by Assocation Britannique de la Garde Imperiale for a U.K. TV documentary clearly demonstrated this. It was found that the An XI carriage was superior when being dragged. Lifting the carriage seriously fatigues the gun crew, eliminating this was a practical step forward in man management. 

Napoleon however, appears to have been fundamentally in favour of the new carriage and 5.6howizter:

The 6-inch howitzer is too wasteful: it consumes as much powder as a 24 pounder shot. They have rightly replaced it by a howitzer of 5 inches 6 lines; this slight difference of 6 lines gives a great advantage. The waggon holds 75 rounds, whilst that of the 6-inch only holds 50, and in supposing that the 5½ -inch shell be inferior to the 6-inch the question comes to this: which would you rather have, one 6-inch howitzer or two 5½-inch ones. But the 5½-inch shell is already preferable to the 6-inch one. Gribeauval's carriage was altogether faulty. It has been altered, and rightly so, for there has been a gain of 100 per cent. in transport, and lightness given to both the carriage and the howitzer. But the latter still requires improvement: it should have a greater range, which might be obtained by lengthening it. There should be two sorts of howitzers, one to combine with the 6 pounders, the other with the 12 pounders. The latter must have the inconvenience of greater weight, so as to obtain the greatest possible range from the form of the chamber, length, thickness of metal, &c. All these drawbacks are amply compensated in a reserve howitzer by the range being increased to the utmost. The field howitzers of the Boulogne Camp had that advantage.  It is equally necessary that the existing 12 pounders. should have an increased range, not that changes in the gun are necessary, but in the carriage, which should admit of greater elevation being given to the gun. Parks should also have 12 pr. Grenades  which would weigh . . . . to be used with the 12 pounders. Every waggon should contain some of these grenades in place of common shell. This is contrary to Gribeauval's principle, which however is false. There are a thousand circumstances in war where it is requisite to open fire at a very long range, whether from one bank to the other of a wide river, or to hinder the enemy from encamping and occupying a position which can only be attacked from a distance. Finally it is a real disadvantage not to reply to an enemy's fire. We look however to artillery officers not to fire uselessly, for we pretend in no way to attack the fundamental principle that to open fire at a long range under ordinary circumstances is to burn ammunition and to destroy its effect.  Guns of higher calibre than 12 pounders. are very useless. We have acted wisely in suppressing the 16 pounder which the Prussians and Austrians still drag about.”

An XI 12 Pound Carriage. The Old Gribeauval Barrel Was Retained under the New System.


Gassendi was also critical of the moving of the ammunition chest (Gargoussier or Coffret depending on which manual you read). Under An XI, the chest was moved to the limber (avant train), where the driver was seated. The chest was also larger, so more rounds could be carried. However, Gassendi saw this as a disadvantage to the gun crew. Again, one wonders if this was a legitimate complaint. According to the 1786, 1791, 1799, and 1809/10 drill manuals, when the gun was cleared for action (Approvizonez le Batterie), the chest was taken from the carriage and carried 20 paces behind the gun and placed on the limber. If the chest is already on the limber, 20 paces behind the gun, would not this make getting the gun into action quicker?

Auguste de Lespinasse writing in 1800 stressed the need for pack mules to carry ammunition. This view was also supported by Napoleon:

“A limber, containing but 15 rounds of 6 pounder and 6 rounds of shell, is a very slight provision. It is thought that the waggons of a battery should follow the guns, to obviate the inconvenience of successive fire on issuing from a defile. Two pack-mules, carrying 2 boxes of 12 pounder ammunition or 15 rounds of 6 pounder each, or . . . of shells, could follow a gun without being in the way or retarding the movement of the other guns. Every 6 pounder would thus find itself with 60 rounds including the contents of its limber, before the arrival of the waggon. The advantages of two pack-mules per gun or howitzer are numerous. The supply of the 6 pounder can thus be carried to 200 rounds, and that with a single waggon. The waggon might keep out of fire, lessen the number of accidents which throw disorder into a battery, and save the lives of many men and horses. As every mule carries 24 rounds these would be the first source of supply, and the limber would remain untouched, as it should be, for the moment of retreat or as a last resource. The fireworker would take the ammunition from a mule within reach of the gun, but out of the line of fire; the other mule would be further in rear. These mules might pass to and fro, deposit their boxes and go to the waggon for new ones, an arrangement which would require that the shells should be carried ready fuzed in the waggons. It would be an advantage for the artillery and for the army to keep the waggons far from the enemy’s fire, in ditches, ravines or defiles, which would cause an army to be much lighter in its movements and upon the field of battle. The disadvantage would be inappreciable in retreat, since as soon as its boxes were empty the waggon might commence its retreat 4 or 5 hours before the end of the day. Every division (battery) should also have 4 pack-horses or mules loaded with infantry ammunition, so as to be able to supply the skirmishers without having recourse to the waggons. The places where the most infantry ammunition will be consumed will be woods, and hillocks where waggons could not get and where pack-animals are of very great service. Often even on plains the waggon meets with many difficulties: it cannot move because the ground is too soft, and when after much effort the gunners get their pieces into action, it is advantageous not to tire the waggon horses. The more one sees of war the more one understands the utility of having a fourth of the ammunition supply carried on a mule’s back.”

Given Gassendi’s and other senior generals concern’s over the new system, Napoleon ordered the cessation of constructing guns to the new system on 9 November 1805. A second committee was formed to discuss the situation. A report was presented to Napoleon on 10 January 1809. They reported that the innovations of the An XI System had not lived up to their expectation and had created a logistical nightmare in having both the new system and Gribeauval in use concurrently in the same army and in some cases the same battery (see French Artillery in 1807 for clarification of this). The committee suggested that the production of the new system should cease and return to the Gribeauval system. However, nothing was done until a third committee was formed, in January 1810, nominally headed by General Nicholas Songis (1761-1810). Songis had been an officer in the Corps Royal d’Artillerie (1779), Capitiane (1787), Chef-de-bataillon Armee du Nord (1793) Chef-de-brigade Armee d’Italie, fought at Castiglione, made commander of the Artillery Park of the Armee d’Oreint, commanded at the siege of Saint-Jean-d’Arce, and was nominated by Napoleon as General-de-Brigade (May 1799), commander in chief of the artillery of the Armee l’Orient (July 1799), made General-de-Division (January 1800), and returned to France at the end of 1801. He was made First Inspector General of Artillery on 1 February 1805, commander in chief of the artillery of the Grande Armee and the Armee d’Allemagne in 1809. He retired from the army on 15  June 1809 and died on 27 December 1810. Songis, as one of Napoleon’s oldest comrades, felt that he had been overlooked by Napoleon. As Songis had retired, the committee was in fact headed by General Lariboissiere, who was in the Regiment de la Fere at the same time as Napoleon, and was one of his oldest friends, succeeded Songis as First Inspector General in February 1811. The committee, however, did not vote to totally abolish the new system, and retained the 6 pounder, hardly surprising given Napoleon’s view on this matter:

“The 4 pounders and the 8 pounders have been rightly suppressed. Gribeanval simplified and experience has proved the necessity of further simplification. We have progressed in that direction. The 8 pounders and the 4 pounders  were often employed in the wrong place: the ammunition of 8 pounders was expended where that of 4 pounders would have sufficed. It was a very considerable loss if transport is considered, it was 2 rounds instead of 1. Often there were only 4 pounders when 8 pounders were required. There is no line officer, nor even artillery officer, who can well grasp the opportune moment and determine if 8 or 4 pounders should be employed, and even if he could, he is obliged to utilize what he has at hand. A single calibre is therefore sufficient for field work, then there can be no uncertainty. The 12 pounder in either system remains in reserve to be employed with premeditation by general officers, either of the line or of the guard artillery.”





Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2004


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