Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

 

 

ULTIMO RATIO REGUM

Organization, Tactics, and Employment of Artillery in the Grande Armee, 1800-1815

By Kevin Kiley 

 

 Part 1: Those Indomitable Men of the French Artillery

 

'There had been kings who had made artillery their hobby; Napoleon was an artilleryman who made a hobby of breaking and making kings.'

John Elting

 

'If there is no one to make gunpowder for cannon, I can fabricate it; gun carriages, I know how to construct. If it is necessary to cast cannon, I can cast them; if it is necessary to teach the details of drill, I can do that.'
Napoleon

 

'Napoleon was a born gunner;…He used [his cannon] with a calm, sure skill, improving his techniques from campaign to campaign. As expert a lot of artillerists as ever rode together under the same banner grew up under him. There was Marmont, the imaginative, energetic young would-be aristocrat, who laid the guns that helped win Castiglione and Marengo but listened too much to his own ego and to Talleyrand. Another was awkward, honest Druout, son of a baker, the admired and utterly trusted 'sage of the Grande Armee,' who studied his Bible every day and often disapproved of his Emperor's actions but was always faithful. Eblé, son of a sergeant, a soldier when he was nine, taciturn and brusque, called his cannoneers 'my children' and knocked them kicking when they misbehaved. He built the Berezina bridges out of a will colder than the river's ice, saved the Grande Armée, and died thereby. Lauriston, born in India of a Scots refugee family, a polished gentleman and the artillery expert among Napoleon's aides-de-camp, commanded the great batteries at Landshut and Wagram. And there was Senarmont, the mauvais tete whose swiftly served guns ate up the Russian Imperial Guard and Spanish guerrillas alike.'
John Elting

  

'It is with artillery that one makes war.'
Napoleon

 

'…the victory which the artillery has prepared, then depends only upon the courage of the troops.'
Jean du Teil

 

'Get up close and shoot fast'
Foy

 

 

1000 Hours 30 October 1813, near Hanau, Franconia

The retreat from Leipzig had been a horse-killing nightmare. The artillery train drivers slept in the saddle as their weary mounts trudged down the rutted roads, following the gun team or caisson in front of them. The mounts of the horse artillerymen plodded along, foot artillerymen wearily walked, but the men, horses, and guns of the Imperial Guard artillery stuck together. It was march or die, and everyone from their commander, General Druout, to the newest conscript knew it. The veterans put their heads down and their shoulders into it, veteran cavalrymen and horse artillerymen periodically dismounted and led their horses, to save them in case of emergency

Down the road from Hanau mounted couriers drove their lathered mounts to spread the alarm. The turncoat Bavarians, with the help of some stray Austrians and Cossacks, were blocking the way home and the weary, dispirited, and depleted corps of MacDonald and Marmont, numbering barely 7,000 survivors were heavily outnumbered.

The sacré Bavarians under the Wrede were attempting to stop the retreating units of the Grande Armée from crossing the Rhine and getting home and that would definitely not do.

Orders came as shouted commands up and down the column. The artillery of the Guard, including forty-eight of the Emperor's 'pretty girls', his 12-pounders, were immediately ordered forward. Druout shouted some quick instructions to his subordinates and pounded up the road with his aides-de-camp to reconnoiter battery positions for his artillerymen and their deadly guns. Company commanders hastily conferred with their lieutenants and NCOs, and these latter trotted up and down their company columns, shaking and cuffing awake the exhausted train drivers as well as their cannoneers. The column came awake, shouldered their packs and muskets and humped forward, the train drivers urging their dead-tired horses forward one more time. It was an emergency and everyone knew it.

Down the road they came, trace chains rattling against caisson and gun carriage, the Guard foot artillery running to catch up, bearskins bobbing along the column in the autumn bleakness. Druout's hard-riding aides directed the companies into their selected positions, and battery commanders and first sergeants bellowed out commands, as company drummers beat la Diane, the long roll, and train trumpeters playing their calls to direct the gun teams into the appropriate maneuver, veteran horses knowing the calls and not needing urging from their drivers.

Forty-eight deadly 12-pounders swung into position, trails were dropped by cannoneers, and the companies laid their pieces to their capitaines' commands. The situation was desperate, the exhausted line infantry had been driven back in desperate fighting to a distant tree line. At the urgent command, 'Feu!' the Guard companies opened a deadly fire against the enemy infantry, causing considerable loss and denting their offensive.

The Old Guard infantry was ordered forward, the Chasseurs advancing in open order as skirmishers, literally hissing their disgust at their late allies, the Grenadiers deploying in line, attacking the allies in an irresistible flood-a bayonet-tipped, bearskin- topped line of huge veterans, who had the look of 'disciplined banditti.'

Allied cavalry massed and charged the Guard artillery companies. Trails swung round, canister loaded, and again the bronze mouths belched fire, smoke, and death, mowing down the allied horsemen in ranks. Their charge carried the survivors among the artillerymen, who grabbed muskets, rammer staffs, and handspikes, knocking shocked cavalrymen out of their saddles as they defended their guns. Almost immediately, the French Guard cavalry was amongst them, driving the allies back or sabering them where they stood. The artillery companies were saved, and they continued their pounding of Wrede's improvised army.

In the Grande Armée's rear came the Guard's artillery parc, escorted by the respected and feared élite gendarmerie of the Guard, led and commanded by the deeply respected General Radet, the Grande Armée's Provost and another of the Empire's 'iron men.' On reaching the battlefield, and staying behind the battle line, Radet had circled the artillery trains and parc for all round defense, the two battalions of Guard infantry accompanying him spread out inside this perimeter. A roaming horde of Cossacks, sighting this seemingly easy, and quite tempting, target, came out of the woods at the dead run, their horses straining at bit and bridle. As quick-witted as he was tough, Radet manned the available guns with his infantrymen, greeting the Cossacks with point-blank canister that dropped scores of Cossacks and horses. Surprised and broken, they broke and fled, the hard riding; tough gendarmes rode out in pursuit, gathering prisoners and hopelessly scattering the shattered remnants.

 

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: January 2001.

 

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