Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

 

Some Notes on the Royal Artillery in the Peninsula 1808

By Anthony Leslie Dawson

The Royal Artillery in the Peninsula campaign was in a most parlous state for want of equipment, stores and most notably, horses. The majority of these problems do not appear to have affected the Royal Horse Artillery, who appear to have been better equipped. This all impacted upon the tactical organisation of the artillery, as well as its usage.

Field Equipment

 The state of the artillery on 1st November 1808 is recorded in a letter from Lieutenant-Colonel William Robe, in the Peninsula.

He lists a total of 52 field guns and howitzers:

Medium 12-pounders   9   New pattern
Long 6-pounders 5   New pattern
Light 6-pounders 21 New pattern
Light 3-pounders 4    Old
Heavy 5 ½ inch Howitzers  4 New pattern
Light 5 ½ inch Howitzers 9 2 Old, remainder new

 

The reference to “new” and “old” pattern relates to the block-trail compared to the double-bracket carriages. The block-trail carriage had been designed in 1775 by General Thomas Desaguliers (5 January 1721 – March 1780) who had been Superintendent at Woolwich Arsenal. The design was based upon a light carriage captured on Martinique in 1761. Under the auspices of the Marquis Townshend, Master of the Ordnance, the block-trail was introduced for the light 6-pounders and heavy 3-pounder field guns in 1777 and in the same year William Congreve, Commander of the Royal Military Repository (the training school for Artillery Officers at Woolwich) prepared a drill manual for it. The block-trail was “extended” to the heavy 6-pounder and the 5 ½ inch howitzer  by the Duke of Richmond in 1788 when gun carriages and vehicles “on Desaguliers 3-pounder Principle” were universally introduced, the key feature of which was a cast-iron axle and a standardised wheel size of 5 feet for all vehicles.  It was adopted as the standard carriage for the embryonic Royal Horse Artillery in 1792 when we find that 12-, 6- and 3- pounders as well as the 5 ½ inch howitzer were thus mounted.

The Royal Foot Artillery, in 1797 received a gun carriage designed by Major James Butler. The double-bracket carriage and Desagulier’s block-trail were in use side by side, the latter principally by the Royal Horse Artillery, until at least 1811. By 1813, according to Adyes’ “Pocket Gunner”, all guns and vehicles were of the “New Pattern” i.e. the block trail.

From the list by Robe, it can be observed that by 1808 the Desaguliers block-trail carriage was almost universally used by the artillery; only 6 out of 52 pieces were on the old double-bracket carriage which Robe considered “…totally inapplicable to the service”.  The howitzers on their old carriages “...may be put to use here, by forming a reserve Brigade with the extra Guns of the German Artillery.”

These returns also confirm that the 5 ½ inch howitzer was indeed mounted on the block-trail carriage, a fact that has been often refuted by many commentators on this subject.

It has long been considered by artillery historians or commentators on the subject, that the Royal Artillery in the Peninsula lacked any field guns that could match the French 8- and 12-pounders; it is obvious from these returns that the British did have 12-pounders in the field brigades and therefore would have had guns that were able to reply to them. The British had and used a 12-pounder field gun.

Furthermore, it has long been suggested that the 9-pounder Blomefield was introduced to the Royal Artillery c.1809 in order to provide a weapon to match the French artillery – which we now know they were already able to do. Captain, later Sir, Thomas Blomefield was the Inspector of Artillery from 1780 and his system of ordnance was introduced in 1784. It was based around gun tubes of 17 calibres in length for the heavy pieces and 13 calibres for the light and siege pieces. The Blomefield 9-pound gun had a gun tube 5 feet 11.4 inches long (i.e.17 calibres) and it weighed 13cwt 2qrs. The calibre was 4.200 inches. The weapon was under development in the 1790s as tests were being carried out at Woolwich during the first half of that decade.

In fact, the 9-pounder was adopted in Spain, say Lieutenant Colonels Robe and Harding, due to the simple fact that they had a similar effective range to the 12-pounder, but more importantly, only required 8 horses to move them, as opposed to the 10 needed for the 12-pounder. The argument that the 9-pounder was adopted to match the firepower of the French artillery, therefore, is incorrect. The accusation that the 12-pounder was too heavy to be of use in the field Brigades only appears to hold true for Spain, and it is likely that had sufficient good quality horses been available the weapon would have continued in service.

The returns from the Peninsula provide an intermediary view of this situation, showing that the double-bracket carriage had almost superseded the double-bracket carriage by 1808.

Robe recommended that the light 3-pounders be returned to England or to Gibraltar and replaced with weapons mounted on carriages “of the present type” i.e. the block trail. A letter from Robe of 23rd March 1809 notes that the light 3-pounders were “fitted” for cavalry and were attached to them: “Captain Lawson’s Company will have Light 3-pounder Brigade with the Cavalry, as soon as it can be put into movement”. Interestingly, Lawson was an officer in the foot, not horse, artillery.

Robe also recommended the use of the 3-pounder which was used with the Light Infantry and to good effect in the West Indies, but with their limbers altered to “make the draft double”.  Their wheels were smaller and the axles narrower, which were thought to be “answer very well in this Country…The span of the Wheels being less than Common will answer the wain roads…”  Might these be the ‘Light Infantry’ 3-pounders introduced in the 1770’s?

Criticism was also levelled at the ammunition wagons, the two-wheeled ammunition cars and the ‘old pattern’ limbers:  the weight of them was not borne evenly and importantly it was all thrust directly onto the horses, causing them to suffocate or have back problems.

During the Peninsula, the artillery was also short of many support vehicles; due to a lack of ammunition wagons etc the artillerymen had to carry gun powder barrels on their shoulders from the magazines. Furthermore the “Forge-carts are almost all of the oldest pattern, and are of a dead weight to us”. Robe ordered one forge cart to be made up using local timber, and ordered a further 6 to be sent out from Woolwich “...of the most newest and approved form. With the miserable set we have here, it is only increasing expenses to the country and multiplying our labor. The low wheels are abominable.” He considered that the 1788 rolling stock was far superior: “The plan of the frame of the Limber-Waggons is the most proper”. Of the forge cart he says it was based upon the limber wagon design “… the folding sides being fixt to it, and the pole lengthened, to admit turning. The limber boxes serving to carry the tools of the wheeler and collar maker”.

The remainder of the artillery in November 1808 were all “refitting in the Arsenal, and will be immediately applicable for service”. Despite the guns and carriages being refitted, the artillery had a lack of stores and equipment; Robe says they “...were compleat for service, except in Harness, and some Stores which had been applied to the use of the Army going forward, and of which an exact account preparatory to a Demand, is now making”.

The foot artillery was organised into four Brigades as follows:

1st Brigade    4 Light 6-pounders, 2 light 5 ½ inch howitzers
2nd Brigade  5 Light 6-pounders, 1 light 5 ½ inch howitzers
3rd Brigade 5 Medium 12-pounders, 1 heavy 5 ½ inch howitzer
4th Brigade  5 Long 6-pounders, 1 heavy 5 ½ inch howitzer

The light artillery, attached to the cavalry had four light 3-pounders and two light 5 ½ inch howitzers, which were all on the double-bracket carriage.

The Royal Horse Artillery at the same date consisted of two troops, each armed with five light 6-pounders and one 5 ½ inch howitzer.

There were also three brigades of Royal German Artillery. The official title for this corps appears to have been either ‘King’s German Artillery’ or ‘Royal German Artillery’, both of which appear in contemporary letters &c. Their equipment was “…now in Good Order” and like their British counterparts “requiring only the harness and stores to replace what has been used, for which a return is now preparing”.

The Royal German Artillery mustered the following pieces:

Medium 12-pounders  4
Light 6-pounders  12
Heavy 5 ½ inch howitzer 
2
Light 5 ½ inch howitzer    2

Unlike their British counterparts they were all of the new pattern. One must also note that the RGA “Brigades use eight Pieces of Ordnance each, except the 12-pounder; four guns are kept in reserve.”

In other words, the RGA had two eight-gun brigades and a half-brigade of four 12-pounders, which acted in affect as a miniature Park. However, due to the lack of horses, they were “manned in a similar way to the English companies”, i.e. six guns per Brigade, and the spare guns were transferred to the Park or to garrison duties.

The five Brigades of artillery at Lisbon on April 9th 1809 consisted of:

Light 3-pounder Brigade  4 light 3-pounders
1st Light 6-pounder Brigade  5 light 6-pounders, 1 heavy 5 ½ inch howitzer
2nd Light 6-pounder Brigade  4 light 6-pounders, 2 heavy 5 ½ inch howitzers
3rd Light 6-pounder Brigade  2 light 6-pounders, 1 heavy 5 ½ inch howitzers
Heavy 6-pounder Brigade  5 heavy 6-pounders, 1 heavy 5 ½ inch howitzer

The reduced size of some of the Brigades was not due a lack of materiel but quite simply of horses to draw them, which will be discussed in more detail below.

Horses and Transportation

The quality and quantity of the horses available to the artillery in Spain was an eternal source of worry, even as early as 1808-1809. Due to the poor roads, or lack thereof, and the climate, Robe ordered that all horse-teams be increased:

“Every Artillery Carriage for Service in this Country, and Spain will require to be Drawn by Six horses; the Long 6-pounder guns by eight; and the 12 pounder guns by ten.

Each Light 6-pounder in Brigade therefore without more ammunition carried on its cars, must have 14 carriages, with six horses each, which, with the Riding and Spare, will amount to 110.

The Long 6-pounder in the like manner will require 123 and the 12-pounder Brigade 165”

He added, “Experience has shown that no less a number can move them in the hills and bad roads of this country!”

2nd Captain Richard Bogue of the RHA in his diary mentions that in order to “preserve” the horses available, that guns, carriages and limbers were transported on large bullock-carts.

In 1808 Wellesley wrote on 8th August that he was “Obliged to leave Spencer’s Brigade of Guns behind for want of means of moving them” and on the 11th of the same month notes that he ordered 150 Mules to move them, but that they hadn’t been supplied. At a tribunal in November 1808 Wellesley states they he only had sufficient horses to move two brigades of the “lightest” six-pounders and one of 9-pounders.

Robe wrote in November 1808 that he had some 57 artillery horses and 6 mules, and that

“The Sick of these were reported to be in a very bad condition, and nearly the whole of them to be unserviceable from lameness, age and sore backs”

The lack of horses, and the poor condition of those in service, meant that out of the eight Brigades of foot artillery in the Peninsula, only four of them had horses to move their guns: the Brigades of Captains Bredin, May, Gesenius and Teiling had no horses. Lieutenant-Colonel Robe in a letter of 6th March 1809 says that the

“Those with my two Brigades are short in numbers, and much too light in weight, and the Commissary General has mentioned to Head Quarters the almost impossibility of supplying us here”.

Indeed, the quality of British artillery horses had been raised as early as 1801 by Major General Lawson. He indicates that the draught animals were “rejected horses from the Dragoons…” Even the best horses were no match for those of the French cavalry, let alone their Horse Artillery. Furthermore, not only were the horses bad, but their number insufficient to make the transportation of the artillery anything like effective. An anonymous commentator suggested that the only way that British artillery horses could “better the Service” was by them being “boil’d to make Glue”.

In April 1810, Major Alexander Duncan was writing to the Deputy Adjutant General in Woolwich that

“We are at present entirely without the means of acting with a Light 6 pounder Brigade, that was sent here from Lisbon, in consequence of the want of Horses. There are also two 3 pounder Brigades. Captain Owen gave a receipt for one of them, in hopes of being able to act, as Mules were promised, but as no such promise has been kept, the Brigade remains useless.” Duncan also requested “What can be sent from England, I take the liberty of saying must be complete in Horses, Drivers and Camp equipage, and I fear we must in a great measure, if not entirely, depend on England for Forage”.

Duncan was still expressing his dismay at the lack of official action to the problem of providing artillery horses and feeding them over a year later, and demonstrates the improvised measures to keep the artillery moving. For example, Brigades were reduced from six to four guns; Alexander Dickson and Richard Bogue indicate that in some instances Brigades were reduced to three.

“Isla de Leon (Cadiz). 6 March, 1811.

Sir,

I have now the satisfaction of making a report to you of our proceedings since the 21st February, which my unceasing occupation from that time has hitherto prevented me from stating in detail as they took place.

On the 21st we sailed from Cadiz, embarking our three Brigades, viz. Captain Hughes, with three six pounders and one Howitzer; Captain Roberts with the same, and Captain Gardiner1 with three nine pounders and a howitzer. From our scarcity of horses and the necessity of attaching six to each six pounder & its Carriages, and eight to each nine pounder, we were obliged thus to curtail the Brigades. On the 25th and 26th, the army arrived and landed at Algeciras and proceeded to Tarifa, the road to which being impracticable for Artillery, the guns and horses went round by sea, and the Detachments marched. As many mules as we could get together here in addition to our horses, were embarked for the conveyance of our reserve gun ammunition and that for the troops, trusting that as we advanced in the country we might purchase or procure others, but in this I was disappointed, so much so as to be obliged to leave at Tarifa a gun from each of the six pounder brigades1 (the General being particularly desirous that the nine pounders should move complete) in order to forward a sufficient quantity of rifle and musquet ammunition.”

The lack of horses meant that not only was the British army in the Peninsula chronically short of artillery, but that the artillery that did have horses was not up to strength and could not move at their fastest rate. Furthermore, the companies were grossly under-strength due to illness, some companies being reduced to 50 all ranks.

From stores indentures by Harding dated January 1809 one sees that he was requesting “ammunition for eight pounders” in addition to that for light 6-pounders. The use of 8-pounders by the British is also confirmed by Bogue. Were these guns Spanish pieces or captured from the French?

Conclusion

To conclude, therefore, one can say that the lack of British artillery in the Peninsula was not due to small numbers of gun in use by the army, but due to the lack of horses to transport them. Various improvised schemes appear to have been adopted, such as moving the guns and limbers on bullock carts or dismantling them and man-handling them. It would also appear than any horse or mule that could be drafted into artillery service, was, such was the chronic shortage of animals. This shortage ultimately led to the reduction in the size of the Brigades, in some cases by half.

The ‘New Pattern’ or block-trail carriage was nearly in universal use by the foot artillery by 1808, and that the 5 ½ inch howitzer, long thought to have been mounted on a double-bracket carriage was indeed mounted on the block-trail. The associated support vehicles, however, had not yet reached such a level of employment, with the majority of them being of the old, i.e. pre-1788, pattern.

Furthermore we can observe that the 12-pounder was used by the Royal Artillery as a field gun and that the 9-pounder was not adopted as a means to counteract the French artillery, but to save on the number of horses used to move the artillery.

Bibliography

Adye, R.W. The Bombardier and Pocket Gunner. 7th EditionLondon; 1813.

Caruana, A.B. "The Introduction of the Block-Trail Carriage". Canadian Journal of Arms Collecting, vol. 18 no 1; 1980. Pp 3-16

Congreve, W. Several Methods of detaching Artillery Men to Pieces of Ordnance for the Field and Garrison Service.1778.

Congreve W. An Account of some of the cases in the Practice of Artillery which must be taught by the Officers of the Royal Military Repository, Woolwich.1800.

Dickson, Alexander. "The Field Artillery Carriages in the Peninsula". The British Indian Military Repository vol iii No. 1824; Calcutta; 6 July 1824. Pp 136 to 147

Graves, D.E. Personal Communications; 2006.

Lawson."Memorandum of Artillery Arrangements and Alterations made in Carriages, Harness  and Ammunitions &c". Proceedings of the Royal Artillery Institute. vol. XII no. 4 Woolwich; 1884. Pp 207- 220.

Leslie, J.H. The Diary of 2nd Captain Richard Bogue RHA 1808 to 1809. Woolwich; 1908.

Public Records Office, Kew. Board of Ordnance papers, WO 55/1195 “letters from Officers – Foreign” and WO 55/1201 “letters to Officers – Foreign”.

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: February 2006; updated August 2011  

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