Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics


The Guard Foot Artillery in Action

Napoleonís Foot Gunners: The Guard Foot Artillery

Role of the Guard Foot Artillery

By Paul Dawson

The Guard artillery , especially the foot batteries, was unique in the French artillery arm. At Austerlitz and Jena, artillery concentrations were invaluable, but were no larger than the size of a single division, introduced by Napoleon when he became First Consul. The static use of artillery in this manner was well known, but what marked the use of the artillery at Austerlitz different was the use of the Guard artillery to fill the gap between the corps of Lannes and Soult. The same tactic was used at Jena a year later. However the development of mass artillery by uniting artillery divisions into a single corps, had an almost insurmountable obstacle in its way, in the form of jealousy between divisional commanders. Fancy new ideas like corps artillery tactics were all very well, these men would argue, but without its artillery a division was locally vulnerable. It was only in exceptional cases therefore that the average corps would concentrate its guns. If the concentration of artillery in line corps was not being enthusiastically embraced, then a way around the reluctance of the commanders had to be found. By increasing the artillery army of the Imperial Guard, the concentrations of these guns could grow, since the Guard was free from the organisational limitations of the line. From the start the Foot Artillery of the Guard had been designed by Napoleon to intervene en masse after the battle has developed, and hence it was not used in the type of desultory outpost work on which the guns of the Line were often dispersed. At Eylau, the Guard was able to assemble 40 guns, whilst St Hilaireís division could only muster 18, and Senermont had to be content with just 19. This was to be the pattern for the role of the Guard artillery in latter battles of the Empire - the guard armed with 12 pounders providing the nuceleus for ever bigger artillery concentrations. At Wagram, 100 guns formed a massed battery, which convinced the Emperor that only 36 guns or more could obtain a really decisive result against the enemy. After Friedland and Wagram, Napoleon started to think in terms of massing 80 to 100 guns, and to find these guns he turned to the Guard. It would be the foot guns of the Imperial Guard that would intervene at the climax of a battle in a direction thought to offer the greatest chance of decisive results. The expansion of Guards foot artillery to over 100 guns was a deliberate act by Napoleon so he could deploy an artillery corps en masse, under his direct command, where and when he wanted the guns. Eighteenth Century conventions had traditionaly placed artillery batteries into a general pool of units, which were then parcelled out to temporary corps commanders. Even with this method, commanders could and did mass artillery instead of distributing it in small groups along the line. At Marengo and Aspern-Essling, the Austrians employed artillery en masse, as did the Russians at Eylau. The technique of massing artillery was not unusual. What was unusual was that the French Army, as part of Napoleons reorganisation of the army as First Consul into a modern division structure, created semi-autonomous artillery formations, which were under the command of smart, aggressive young artillery officers. These comparatively young men were accustomed to the democratic air of the Revolution. They did not hesitate to tell their commanders, " Let me go do this, it will work...," behavior which was discouraged in other armies of the time. Also Napoleon and several of his senior generals were experts at maintaining the offensive tempo on the battlefield, including the efficient coordination of artillery fire. All of these factors, coupled with new, relatively lightweight cannon of Gribeuaval and Marmont's reforms breathed new life into the French Artillery, turning it into a potent offensive weapon.

The presence of officers leading and coordinating massed artillery formations was one of several important factors in the superior performance of French Artillery at this time. The Russians were no strangers to massed artillery, yet only in 1813 were officers commanding corps level artillery reserve formations appointed. Before this, artillery reserves seem to have been rather nebulous affairs, made available to army commanders to use however they saw fit. While this certainly allowed for massing of guns, it did not allow for very much innovation or independent thinking among the batteries themselves. It also prevented the coordination among batteries which results from central control. When Prussia finally put their troops into the field in 1813, it was along the lines of the new Russian organization, which was beginning to increase the number of independent artillery officers and formations. The British Army and Austrian armies at this time continued to use the old pool system, parcelling out individual batteries to brigades or divisions. And while the individual batteries were well led, there was little coordination among them.

Artillery tactics came of age. The Guard artillery was no longer a reserve as at Jena, and could claim to be one of the great deciders of battles. The object of the artillery was not to kill men or dismount guns in isolation but to make gaps appear in the enemy lines, stop his attacks and to support those launched against him. To achieve this, concentration was the secret, only possible with the foot batteries of the Guard.

The Guard Foot Artillery in Action

The first spectacular example of the Guard artillery being used en mass was at Wagram, where towards the middle of the day the artillery was brought up to support the hard pressed army of Italy. Together the two units mustered 102 guns, and was deployed along a mile front, and succeeded in halting Kollowrath's advance against the French Left-Centre. These guns were then turned on the offensive to clear the Austrians away from the villages of Aderklaa and Sussenbrunn. The centre was held by Drouotís heavy foot batteries and the light horse guns of díAbovile on the flanks. The French engaged the Austrians in a duel creeping nearer to his line all the time. However, the Austrians brought down effective fire on the French Guns and Skirmishers, the guard horse artillery lost 15 guns before they could get into action. Within half an hour the Austrian guns had been silenced, and much of their infantry had retired from its advanced positions; but this did not amount to victory.

The mass battery at Wagram failed due to several factors; the poor layout of the battery in a convex formation rather than concave, with light guns on the flanks and heavy holding the centre all firing into a fixed point; the lack of cooperation between Drouot and díAoboville, and perhaps most importantly there was not coordinated infantry follow up to the bombardment.

The same criticism can be made of Napoleons reluctance to allow the Guard Infantry to exploit the breach made in the Russian lines by the massed artillery.

The development of massed artillery batteries firing at a single point represented the deterioration from the more flexible tactics of earlier battles. With massed artillery, battery commanders could no longer view their operation at a local level as they were used to, but were forced to fit in to an altogether higher framework of control and command, which on occaision did not live up to expectations.

In 1813, the Guard artillery , along with the rest of the Imperial Guard became a major battle formation. Therefore the Guard artillery was increased with a particular emphasis on 12 pounder and 6 inch howitzers. Where ever the Emperor went, the Guard artillery followed. It decided the outcome of most of the battles of 1813/14, as it was able to be brought into action where and when the Emperor ordered. In Germany, the guns of the Guard played a decisive role in the successful battles of Weissenfels, Lutzen, Bautzen (where Drouot earned the promotion to divisional general), and on October 16 at Wachau where Drouot commanded a battery of 150 guns, the majority of which came from the Guard. From October 16 - 19, Drouot was at Leipzig fighting, sword in hand, in the midst of his Guard gunners. For this service, Drouot was made a Count of the Empire on October 24, 1813. He gained the victory at Hanau (October 30) in clearing the enemy from the road to France.

At Lutzen, 60guns of the Guard artillery appeared from behind a masking ridge; stopped the victorious enemy in its tracks; and prepared the way for Napoleonís infantry counter attack. However, a new weakness appeared in the use of artillery in this way, as the infantry quickly over ran the beaten zone cleared by the guns, resulting in only a limited French advance.

Marmont's central attack at Bautzen was supported by 76 guns; at Dresden, the Guard was committed on the second day around Grosse Garten, and cleared the enemy in a wide zone to their front. However this advantage was squandered when the guns were ordered to retire. A similar experience occurred at Liepzig, where a mass of 80 Guard guns, including 32 12 pounders blew a convincing hole on the enemy line, but the advantage was not fully exploited.

The Guard was more successfully employed at Hanau, where Drouot deployed 15 guns opposite the enemies main line. First he cleared the woods with two battalions of Guard infantry skirmishes, then defiled through them with 15 guns in such a position to take the enemies artillery in the flank. Behind the screen of skirmishes he deployed the remainder of the Guard artillery, totalling some 50 guns. Noticing this danger, General von Wrede gave his Bavarian cavalry orders to charge the French batteries, and were only saved by a timely charge from the cavalry of the Guard, namely Guards díHonour and Grenadiers a Cheval. Drouot directed his batteries to fire over the heads of the French Cavalry, driving the enemy infantry back with heavy casualties. At Hanau, Drouot had 65 guns.

In 1814, the campaign in France provided the Guard artillery with new opportunities to shine: La Rothiere (February 1st), Champaubert (February 10), Vauchamp (February 14), Mormant (February 16), Craonne (March 7), Laon (March 9-10). After Arcis-sur-Aube, Drouot was elevated to Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor (March 23). However, due to the speed to manoeuvre in the campaign, the foot batteries of the Imperiale Guard came up too late for most of the other battles or were obstructed by thick mud. At Bar sur Aube, the foot artillery employed double horse teams to move the guns at all.

With the return of Napoleon in 1815, Drouot was commissioned to urgently draw up reports on the artillery and the organization of the Guard. His opinion was also solicited for nominations. The movement of troops went so well that just over a month later, by June 16, he received the order to "immediately march the Imperial Guard infantry, cavalry, and artillery to Fleurus." Drouot was in unison with his Emperor as he knew that war was imposed upon him by the fear which the other sovereigns maintained under the likes of Talleyrand, Fouche and others who had been generously promoted by Napoleon.

The Artillerie-á-Pied de la Garde was finally successfully deployed by Drouot at Ligny, where it battered the Prussian centre which contributed to the route of Blucher's Prussians. The final battle in which massed artillery was used was Waterloo, but here its success was hampered, as at Bautzen, by the wet ground, which not prevented the cannon balls from bouncing but also made it too treacherous for the easy manoeuvre of both guns and infantry.




Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2003


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