Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics




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

By Kevin Kiley 

Part 2: The Roots and Development of Napoleon's Favored Arm

Down through the dusty roads of history the artillerymen of the Grande Armée rode proud. Through the foothills, vineyards, and mountain passes of Italy and the Tyrol, across the fertile plains of and dark forests of Germany, the frozen misery of Russia, providing their expert and accurate fire support in two directions to cover both the crossing and the rear guard at the Berezina. From the parched sands of Egypt and Syria, though the mud, mist, and misery of that short, hopeless campaign in la patrie, finally to a rain-soaked field in Belgium, these gunners, seasoned veteran and conscript, stood by their guns proudly and defiantly, (sometimes watching the Emperor laying a gun himself or booting reluctant, awkward conscripts back to their duty) their own commander and Emperor being a gunner himself. They walked or rode behind their 'pretty girls'; the drivers of the train pulled the guns and stood stoically by under fire holding their gun teams ready, or, as at Friedland and other bloody fields, they pulled their guns forward 'at the gallop' towards the enemy to unlimber and watch the gunners open fire at point-blank range, knocking down Russian grenadiers and British infantrymen alike.

Rethinking the Form & Function of Artillery

After the disastrous defeats of the Seven Years' War, French officers, completely unhappy with the results, went to work with a will to improve their army, quite literally from 'muzzle to butt plate.' The artillery arm was no exception. While de Broglie, Guibert, Mesnil-Durand, and their comrades wrote, argued, and experimented, experienced artillery officers, led by Jean-Baptiste Gribeaval, attempted to revamp the French artillery completely. What was needed, and was soon recognized as such, was a completely new system of artillery to replace the dated and obsolete Valliere system of artillery that had proved unsatisfactory when matched against those of the other continental powers. Gribeaval and others realized that artillery had to be mobile, light, and have the ability to move around the battlefield drawn pulled by a minimum or reasonable number of horses and men.

This study of the artillery of the Grande Armée will be limited to that deployed with the field armies during the period. What will not be discussed are the coast artillery, siege artillery and mortars, or fortress artillery, except where it affected the field operations of the Grande Armée and the development of the artillery arm.

What was developed, and soon became known as the Gribeauval system, was an entirely new family of field artillery, consisting of 4-, 8-, and 12-pounder guns; a new 6-inch howitzer, and the ancillary equipment to support and maintain them in the field. New carriages were designed, for both cannon and howitzers, as well as limbers and caissons to go with them.

Still, interchangability of parts was still something of a problem. There remained twenty-five different sizes of wheels and there were different sizes of caissons for each type of gun. There was also the problem of 'encastrement' where the 8- and 12-pounder gun tubes had to be moved forward on the gun carriage when being made readied for firing. This caused considerable delay for gun and battery emplacement and could cause problems in an emergency (the howitzers and 4-pounders didn't have this problem). This was necessary because of the balance of the piece, and had to be reversed when the artillery companies were on the road. Therefore, the gun tubes had two different positions on the carriage at different times: one for movement and one for firing. For short moves on the battlefield (and undoubtedly for longer ones as neither commanders nor crews wanted to hump gun tubes all day), the gun tube was left in the firing position. Lastly, there was nowhere on the avant-train (gun limber) for the cannoneers to ride.

These problems came to a head during 1802-1803. Napoleon established an artillery committee, which included both Eblé and Marmont, mandated to simplify construction and reduce the number of calibers employed with the field armies. What came out of it was a new 6-pounder, which replaced the 4- and 8- pounders, and a new 5½ inch howitzer, sometimes called the 24-pounder. Along with these new field guns came redesigned and improved caissons, limbers, and gun carriages. The committee also recommended a new 24-pounder siege gun, light enough to accompany the Grande Armee into the field, as well as a light 3-pounder mountain gun and a light 5 ½-inch howitzer, also for mountain work.

Redesign of the Artillery

By the time the great wars of the Empire commenced, the design and production of both the new 6-pounder and the new howitzer was ongoing, and as they were produced, they replaced the 4- and 6-pounders, which went into the arsenals, but subsequently saw extensive service, especially in Spain. The other recommendations generally never got beyond the drawing board for two reasons: there were excellent captured artillery pieces in abundance, and the demand for more weapons probably exceeded the French ability to produce the required number, especially after the beginning of the constant 'second front' in Spain from 1808 onwards. The heavy losses in Russia also complicated the problem. The manufacture of the new rolling stock never caught up with the Grande Armée's needs, and the use of both the older Gribeauval equipment and the newer 'System of the Year XI' continued through the end of the Empire and its wars. Interestingly, the fledgling United States Army adopted the Gribeauval system in 1809, but their artillery drivers were artillerymen, not troops of a different, but related, arm. The United States, thanks to consummate professional Winfield Scott, would also adopt the excellent French Reglement of 1791 for its infantry drill in 1814.

Reforming the Use and Service of the Artillery

To accompany the technical improvements of the artillery equipment came equally innovative doctrinal changes, inspired both by Gribeauval, who had served with the excellent Austrian artillery during the late unpleasantness of the Seven Years' War, as well as by the du Teil brothers, Pierre and Jean-Pierre, who would educate and train Napoleon in his formative years as a young artilleryman.

Because of the limitations of the Valliere 'system' and the mental inflexibility of French commanders and tacticians, the French artillery was seen merely as a support weapon that, once emplaced on the battlefield, could influence only what was within sight and range. The du Teil's wanted the French artillery to become a combat arm of influence on the battlefield, equal to its comrades in the infantry and cavalry. Consequently, they emphasized mobility, striking power, and accuracy, as did Gribeauval. Guibert, in his Essai de Tactique, also agreed, to a limited extent, as related by Robert Quimby:

'Artillery must be mobile and able to change its positions when necessary during the course of a battle, either to maintain its prolongations, or to concentrate on some decisive point. It needed to seek accuracy above all else, especially at long range. This was more important than speed of fire. As one shortened the range, which made accuracy greater, one could increase the rate of fire. Artillery should never be used in counterbattery action, except when there were not troops to fire upon. The true targets of the artillery were the enemy's troops and the works which covered them. Its purpose was not merely to cancel out the enemy's artillery but to cooperate with the troops in winning a decisive success.'

Jean du Teil echoed this innovative concept, and along with the new changes wrought by Guibert in equipment and mobility, they echoed:

'One will see that these changes have rendered the tactics of artillery more skillful, its principles more enlightened, more susceptible to being developed, and to being adapted to all the actions of war. In considering the relations which it can have with the tactics of infantry, one can judge that, relying upon each other, they become formidable, the one by the other. It results from this union and from this reciprocal support, that our enemies will triumph with difficulty over these great advantages, whose harmony so evidently constitutes the strength of armies.'

Du Teil defined both the 'emplacement and service of the guns' thusly:

'The execution of artillery is the art of emplacing it, of directing its fire, of doing the greatest possible harm to the enemy, and of giving the greatest possible protection to the troops that it sustains. Troops and artillery ought to protect each other. It is indispensable for the artillery to know the tactics of the troops, or at least the results of their principle movements, and the effect, more or less great, which it ought to produce on any maneuver, judging its [the maneuver's] importance, and of the necessity of accelerating its fire or of changing position. It is not less important that infantry and cavalry officers, who have to command all arms, and by consequence artillery, should know the range of the various guns, the manner of emplacing them, and the general results of their execution.'

Both the du Teils insisted on the concentration of both guns and their firepower on a single point or target. If multiple targets were to be engaged, they should be attacked one at at time, or, depending on the organization of the artillery for combat, different 'batteries' might be given different targets, moving onto the next as each was destroyed or neutralized.

'Does it not follow further, that it is necessary to concentrate on the principle points and upon the weak parts which are most threatened, the greatest quantity of fire?'

'It is necessary to multiply the artillery on the points of attack which ought to decide the victory, relieving the batteries which have suffered, replacing them by others, without the enemy's being able to notice it, nor to prevail from an advantage which redoubles his ardor, and discourages your troops. The artillery thus sustained and multiplied with intelligence, procures decisive results.'

'It is necessary to assemble the greatest number of troops, and a great quantity of artillery, on the points where one wishes to force the enemy, while one threatens attacks upon the others. One will impose upon him by movements and false attacks.'

The conservation of ammunition for both general engagements and battery defense was a concern to the du Teil's in their instructions.

'…the conservation of munitions is one of the most important objectives in the execution of artillery…The principal rules for the serving of artillery were to proportion the fire to the importance of the objective, to husband one's munitions, and conserve them for essential and decisive moments.'

Napoleon generally allocated a double approvisionnement (basic load) of ammunition for each gun, between 300 to 350 rounds. The Grande Armée might go hungry, but it never would run out of ammunition. The closest it ever came to doing so was at Leipzig in 1813, when its trains were cut off from the main army. This was one of the reasons Napoleon decided to withdraw from this battle of attrition, not, as commonly believed and written about, because he was defeated by the allies. That only became a truism after the Elster bridge was blown prematurely owing to the incompetence and cowardice of a senior artillery officer and a colonel of engineers.

Napoleon's Influence

Napoleon, thoroughly trained by the du Teils, embraced their common sense approach wholeheartedly. His employment of cannon during the empire grew with experience, and the artillery arm became a dominating force on the battlefield.

He was scathing, however, regarding the top-heavy and somewhat pedantic artillery staff that the army had as early as 1796. As commander of the Armée d'Italie in 1796 he wrote the following to the Directory:

'The Corps of Engineers and the Artillery are full of the most ridiculous fiddle-faddle. They never consider the good of the service…. The junior officers in the ministry sprinkle holy water [make empty promises] and our country suffers…I have received only forty horse artillerymen, who have not seen combat and are without horses. Send me therefore six companies, and do not trust the execution of that measure to the officers of the [artillery section], since it takes them ten days to expedite and order, and they probably would be stupid enough to draw them from Holland, with the result that they would not arrive until October.'

Things changed when Napoleon became First Consul, and the artillery and engineer staffs became much more efficient, although they continued to be somewhat large, as they were not only responsible for accompanying the Grande Armée in the field, but to staff the depots and to supervise the manufacture of ammunition, both for the artillery and the infantry, the construction of carriages and other vehicles, and the artillery in the fortresses, which was considerable.

French Artillery in ActionWhat Napoleon did accomplish after accession to power as First Consul and later as Emperor, was to ensure that each corps of the Grande Armée had a general officer as its artillery chief, as there was an artillery chief at army level, something that was not practiced in the allied armies until much later, giving the artillery an equal voice on the corps commander's staff. This ensured the artillery would not be parceled out piecemeal and could be used en masse on the battlefield. Perhaps this was epitomized and best manifested by Senarmont with his wild and very effective artillery chevauchee at Friedland in 1807.

Napoleon's view of artillery in general and of the artillery officer in particular are singularly interesting:

'The organization of the artillery is the most urgent, because of all the combat arms it always requires much more time to get ready. It is always the artillery that holds up the formation of armies.

'Great battles are won with artillery. It may be true that good infantry is the nerve of the army, but if it has to fight for long against superior artillery it would become demoralized and be destroyed…

'The formation and function of artillery…profoundly influences our modern tactics for success in battle, and almost exclusively it dominates the capture and defense of modern fortresses. In siege warfare, as in the field, artillery plays the principal role: it has wrought a complete revolution.

'My system of regular war requires a large quantity of artillery. Everywhere a regiment goes you need artillery. You must have as much artillery as your enemy, based upon four guns per 1,000 infantry and cavalry. The better the infantry, the greater need to be careful of it and support it with good batteries. The greatest part of the artillery should be with the infantry and cavalry divisions, the smallest portion in reserve. Each gun should have 300 rounds with it, not counting the small chest. That is the normal expenditure for two battles.'

'It is necessary to be familiar with artillery…I believe that every officer ought to serve in the artillery, which is the arm that can produce most of the good generals…To be a good general you must know mathematics; it serves to direct your thinking in a thousand circumstances.'

'The artillery staff must serve with greater activity on the battlefield. It is up to the artillery commander and staff officers to place the guns in position and to withdraw them, to anticipate the expenditure of ammunition, to correct poor sites that the company officers select, and finally to have artillery perform the duty that is has always done with such distinction.'

'The best generals will be those who move up from the field artillery. It is the duty of an artillery general to understand all of the operations of the army, insofar as he is forced to provide the different divisions with arms and ammunition. His contacts with the individual battery commander in each division enable him to know everything that is going on.'

The Emperor further stated, looking back at the lost battle of Leipzig in 1813:

'If you have only six guns for each division that is not enough. You need a dozen. One wages war with artillery.'

'Every day convinces me of the great damage that has been done to our armies by removing the regimental guns. I desire therefore that in the organization, each regiment will have two 3-pounders; but, during the time that we should have only guns and ammunition for 4-pounders, you will give them 4-pounders. The gunners, horses, and men of the train will be supplied by the regiments.

'Never forget that in war all artillery must be with the army and not in the park. Had I possessed 30,000 artillery rounds at Leipzig on the evening of 18 October, today I would be master of the world.'

That last paragraph is undoubtedly an overstatement, but he very well could have been master of central Europe again, with the allied ears once again beaten down around their socks.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: February 2001.


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