ULTIMO RATIO REGUM
Organization, Tactics, and Employment of Artillery in the Grande Armee, 1800-1815
By Kevin Kiley
Part 3: The Organization and Battle-Tactics of French Artillery
While the artillery was organized in regiments, the basic tactical unit was the company, which was trained to handle any type of artillery issued to it, and was normally assigned a 'division' of guns when taking the field.
Artillerymen were considered elite troops, and collected the traditional haute-pay of elite troops. They were on the average bigger than their infantry and cavalry comrades, serving the guns being grueling, hard work, not just in combat, but before and after, having to clean the guns, fouled by hours of firing, and maintaining the tubes, carriages, and vehicles. The vehicles and carriages might appear strong and sturdy, but prolonged firing and travel over execrable roads could quite literally shake the vehicles apart. In today's parlance, the artillery arm was 'maintenance intensive.'
Serving the guns necessitated long hours at 'crew-drill.' First, the gun had to be brought into position, unlimbered, laid and sighted, the tube 'swabbed', the vent 'thumbed' (to block the entrance of oxygen and thereby preventing an accidental ignition), the tube loaded and rammed, and finally fired; after manually running the gun back up into its firing position, the loading and firing exercise had then to be repeated. Undoubtedly it could have looked like a 'keystone cops' exercise to the unskilled eye, but there was method in the madness, and good crews could get off four rounds per minute in emergencies, while the 'sustained rate of fire' for most lighter guns was two per minute, that for a 12-pounder being one per minute. Interestingly, crew-drill through the years has changed little. The vent is no longer 'thumbed' to prevent premature discharge, and the round is put in the other end, but all in all, it is just about the same.
At the beginning of the Revolutionary Wars, the drivers and horse teams for the artillery were hired civilian drivers. This was not only awkward, it was dangerous. In the middle of a fight, the civilians might decide things were getting just a little dangerous and depart, leaving the gunners on their own to save or move their guns as best they could. This was particularly inconvenient for the new horse artillery arm, organized in 1792, which was an excellent idea and innovation, but could quickly be converted to 'foot' artillery after the shooting started.
Napoleon fixed this upon becoming First Consul in 1800. The 'artillery train' was militarized, becoming the excellent train d'artillerie, with its own distinctive uniform, and organized into battalions. The companies were parceled out in wartime, matching up to artillery companies, and through long service together, became crack, battle-tested units. It also gave the foot companies trumpeters, which the battery commanders undoubtedly found to be very helpful, especially as their drummers might not always be available as they were on foot like the gunners.
Horse teams were harnessed two abreast, and then hitched in tandem. The train drivers rode the left-hand horse of each pair, controlling both paired horses. It was difficult work, definitely not for lightweights. Twelve-pounder guns were assigned six horses to pull them and their limbers; the other guns got four. At least one of the 12-pounder caissons per gun was also given a six-horse team-all others were allotted four horses.
Soldiers who had been wounded in the hand in 1813, and were not suitable for either infantry or cavalry duty, were assigned as replacements for the train. It must have been hard, brutal work for those maimed troopers, but they served efficiently and bravely. It also had to be rough having to sit under fire and not being able to shoot back. A good degree of the effectiveness of the French artillery of the period has to be credited to the efficiency and valor of the artillery train.
French Napoleonic artillery was composed of the following branches: artillerie à cheval (horse artillery), artillerie à pied (foot artillery), pontonniers (pontoon bridge troops), ouvriers (artificers), and armuriers (armorers). The associated organization that will be covered here is the train d'artillerie. Regiments were administrative in nature. Starting with eight regiments of twenty companies each of foot artillery, Napoleon ended up with nine regiments of twenty-seven to twenty-eight companies. Horse artillery was organized into six regiments of what finally became eight companies each. The gunners were all mounted and were armed with a brace of pistols and a light cavalry sabre, and generally were uniformed as light cavalry, although in the traditional all dark blue (imperial blue under the Empire) of the artillery.
There was also horse and foot artillery in the Guard. Starting with horse artillery, two companies in 1804 (along with two train companies), it became a regiment in 1806. The foot artillery regiment, complete with band and an impressively uniformed tambour major, was organized by Druout in 1808. Wearing shakos, albeit with cued and powdered hair at Wagram in 1809, it got visored bearskins the next year, similar to those of the elite gendarmerie. The Guard artillery became the Grande Armée's formidable artillery reserve, contributing mightily to the success on the battlefield.
Foot artillery generally walked beside their pieces as already stated, while horse artillerymen, as the use of the arm matured, became mounted individually, each gunner with his own horse. Pontonniers developed from Rhine River boatmen in 1792, being organized in Strasbourg. Another battalion was organized on the Rhine frontier in 1797-1799, and a third was formed in Italy in 1800. Napoleon reorganized them into two battalions in 1801, their strength usually between six and fourteen companies. There was a row between the engineers and artillery about who should own the pontonniers, the artillery finally winning out. Their commander in Russia in 1812 was Eblé, who 'having the appearance of an ancient Roman,' 'could make artillery units and bridges alike out of the most unpromising materials.' He called his devoted troops 'my comrades' but, 'kept strict discipline-with his fists, if necessary.' That odd fish Bernadotte, aptly referred to him as 'a man out of Plutarch.' On campaign, the pontonniers were assigned one company to each corps, the Guard, the Cavalry Reserve, and the parc. A company could 'put in a bridge of from sixty to eighty pontoons (very roughly, 350 to 500 feet long) in seven hours.' They could also improvise bridges out of what was available, as in the first Danube crossing in 1809 before Essling, and were also capable of building trestle bridges, as was done at the Berezina. They were valuable and flexible troops, their 'finest hour' coming at the Berezina. Ninety percent of the 1st Battalion died of exhaustion and exposure after the crossing.
The ouvriers were responsible for vehicle construction and repair, working in the arsenals and accompanying the parc on campaign. There were nineteen companies by 1812, one of them of Spanish prisoners of war. The armuriers repaired weapons, serving in both arsenals and the parc. There were six companies by 1813, one of them Dutch. All of these units, except for the train which wore gris de fer, faced dark blue, wore the artillery uniform of dark blue, with different distinctions, (facings, cuffs, braid, etc.). Only the Guard artillery wore the bearskin-bonnet and colpack, respectively, for the foot and horse artillery.
Initially, when the Revolutionary armies were organized permanently in divisions, but not into any higher organizations such as the corps, which developed in 1800 as the organizational echelon between division and army, artillery was assigned to the divisions. Forward thinking commanders, such as Napoleon, Hoche, and Morear, started keeping an artillery reserve for the use of the army commander. This became doctrine with the advent of permanent army corps organizations in both the Armée du Rhin and the Armée de la reserve in the Marengo and Hohenlinden campaigns in 1800. This also gave the artillery staffs at army level something constructive to do. Corps commanders would assign companies to their divisions, and also keep some as a corps reserve.
From time to time, regimental artillery companies were authorized and organized between 1809 and 1812. These were sometimes referred to as 'battalion guns.' They generally were authorized two guns per company, the men to man them and the train to pull them and their vehicles also to come out of the infantry regiment. Generally, they were not a success, and as all the battalion/regimental guns were lost in Russia, they were not reactivated. The intention in organizing them was to give the regiments, which had gradually gotten larger after the 1808 reorganization of the infantry battalions, added punch and the ability to perform semi-independent operations. Generally, it appears they weren't too skilled and were more of a nuisance than an asset. General Merle, who commanded a division in Oudinot's II Corps in Russia, in 1812, remarked that regimental 'artillery has poor drivers and poor horses. It daily blocks the roads, impedes the march of the regular artillery, and deprives the ranks of seventy to eighty bayonets which would do the enemy much more damage than these poorly served cannons which cannot march.' Some, though, such as the two-gun company of the Swiss Battalion de Neufchâtel, served well and ably, but lost heavily in Russian and was not reformed for 1813.
Tactics, as developed and recommended by Gribeauval and the du Teil brothers, were taught in the excellent artillery schools. There was, however, 'no official regulations governing its tactical employment' (although the Guard did publish one for their use in 1812). Standard operation procedures were developed by both the corps artillery commanders and the corps commanders themselves. Artillerymen generally attempted to emplace their companies on slightly elevated ground; too high an eminence would leave considerable dead ground in front of the position which couldn't be covered by the guns, leaving them vulnerable. Generally, overhead fire was not used with friendly troops. Fuzes for shells were generally unreliable, and premature detonations could cause friendly troops to turn hostile. Also, it could unnerve untried conscripts.
The tactical employment of French artillery could be considered reckless. Guns were considered to be the 'standards' of the artillery company. Their loss was as serious as losing an eagle. However, to gain a decisive advantage, guns were risked by corps and company artillery commanders, and by Napoleon himself. Guns would be 'fought to the last extremity', especially on defense. Artillerymen would engage enemy assault columns 'head on.' French commanders would seldom engage in counterbattery fire, or an 'artillery duel' if you will. Their targets were the enemy troop formations, especially the infantry. If the enemy's artillery was doing particular damage to friendly infantry and cavalry, or it was appreciably hurting their own artillery, French commanders would mass their artillery against the enemy artillery, knocking it out either gun by gun, or battery by battery. This was done effectively to the Russian batteries across the Alle River at Friedland in 1807 in support if Senarmont's attack. Guns accompanied infantry attacks, horse artillery would go in with the cavalry, unlimber close to the enemy and open a brisk, accurate fire on the opposing formations. The best example of this was in the mud and mess at Dresden in 1813. The ground being too wet and muddy for cavalry to charge effectively, Napoleon doubled up his horse teams. The threat of French horse artillery induced Austrian squares to surrender.
Field artillery ammunition was generally of three types: roundshot, exploding shell, and anti-personnel. Roundshot was effective against fortifications and troop formations. Generally speaking, the planning range for artillery, regardless of caliber was eleven hundred yards. Range for roundshot could be doubled by ricochet fire, which was best accomplished with a low trajectory and hard ground. The round would hit the ground and bounce into the enemy formation. This could be seen by the targeted opposing infantry and had to be unnerving. The round also was very destructive, even when rolling slowly. It was something akin to a shot-put projectile, and Coignet is very convincing with his description of it hitting the Guard infantry in 1809 at Essling. Shell was effective even on the ground, as a hissing shell rolling around could really be unnerving to even veteran troops. Anti-personnel ammunition came in two types: grapeshot and canister. Grapeshot was over sized musket balls wrapped around a wooden spigot and covered with cloth or canvas. Canister was a can full of musket balls. Both came apart upon the discharge of the piece, converting the gun into a giant shotgun. At close range, gunners would load two rounds of canister into the gun for greater effect. The results could be ruinous to men and horses.
In conclusion and to sum up, the artillery arm of the Grande Armée was gradually built up and carefully developed to become a 'combat arm of decision' on the battlefields of the Empire. It was skillfully employed by combat tested commanders, the like of which probably will not be seen again. Senarmont, leading the I Corps artillery forward 'at the gallop' to within slingshot range of the Russian center at Friedland, knocking over 4,000 grenadiers in twenty minutes, blowing away a counterattack by the Russian Guard cavalry for good measure, half his gunners down and the Russian center in tatters; caught in a defile with his guns in by guerrillas in Spain, he ordered action front, flank, and rear, cutting down the astonished Spaniards and saving his artillery. Druout, the 'honest, awkward gunner' leading the artillery assault at Lützen, that rolled into point-blank range of the allied center, unlimbered and open fire, shattering the allied line and paving the way for the Guard's attack that turned a nasty surprise into a victory. Eblé, artilleryman and pontonnier, who built the bridges across the ice-choked Berezina 'out of a will colder than nature', accompanying the relays of his pontonniers and sailors into the river each and every time for construction or repair, dying of exhaustion at the end of the retreat. Lauriston, one of Napoleon's expert Generals Aides-de-Camp, who formed and led the great battery at Wagram, suffering heavy casualties supporting Macdonald's attack that shattered the Austrian line 'at first impact.' Finally, the artillerymen, commanded again by Druout, that manhandled their pieces to within point-blank range of the allied line at Mont St. Jean, demolishing English regiments that had to stand in square and take it, the French artillerymen being supported by aggressive French infantrymen deployed as tirailleurs en grandes bandes, and surviving French cuirassiers that forced the allied infantry to remain in square or be ridden down. The battery commander at the Berezina, his wooden leg being shot off by a Russian artillery round, calmly told one of his gunners to get a replacement out of the battery wagon, and continued giving his fire orders. At the bitter end, fittingly it was an Old Guard foot company attempting to stem the allied pursuit from Wellington's ridge at Waterloo, when, out of ammunition, they went through the motions, pretending to load and fire, again at point-blank range. The allied pursuit momentarily halted, convinced by their bluff. The veteran gunners bought their comrades a few more minutes to get away by their gallantry and sacrifice.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: February 2001.
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