The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 8: February 2008



"For want of this precaution ... so many Men lose their Arms:" Official, Semi-Official and Unofficial American Artillery Texts, 1775-1815

Part 4: "Rouges et bleus:" The French Artillery and its Literature, 1700-1800

By Donald E. Graves

Author's Note: The Introduction and the First Part of this ten-part series was published in the inaugural issue of the online War of 1812 Magazine and by the second issue, which appeared in February 2006, the series was complete up to Part 3 which was an examination of Royal Artillery training and texts, c. 1750-1850. Unfortunately, shortly thereafter, the author moved and the remaining parts, which existed only in hard copy, were misplaced. They only re-surfaced in the last few weeks so, after a long hiatus, I shall now continue the series.

We left Henry Knox and his Continental gunners puzzling over the table of contents to John Muller's Treatise of Artillery. This useful, if somewhat dated work was, however, not the only assistance American artillerymen received from Europe during the Revolutionary War. In the spring of 1777 the brig Amphitre arrived from L'Orient with a shipment of war materiel and a group of French military volunteers engaged by Silas Deane, the Congressional representative in Paris, to aid the colonists in their struggle. Unfortunately, the military pretensions of these advisors seem to have been as high as their personal quality were low -- it was noted (by another Frenchman) that many were deeply in debt or had experienced other problems in French service and had been sent abroad by their commanding officers "with deliberately inflated credentials in order to be rid of them." [1]

These volunteers were led by Major Philippe Tronson du Coudray who Deane had provided with a generous financial contract and the title of "General of Artillery and Ordnance" in the Continental Army with the rank of major-general.[2] As this effectively put him over the hard-working Henry Knox, du Coudray's appearance touched off a dispute in the ranks of the Continental Artillery that was only resolved after much negotiation that led to du Coudray accepting a lesser position as major of artillery. The du Coudray "affair" was only completely settled when the man drowned while trying to cross the Schuykill River in September 1777 but it created a certain distaste for foreign advisors in the ranks of the Continental Army and Congress. Thankfully for the colonists' cause, later imports from Europe included such first-class professionals as Steuben, Lafayette and Pulaski as well as two junior officers who will feature in our story: Louis de Tousard (1749-1817) and Thaddeus Kosciuszko (1746-1817).

Philippe Tronson du Coudray usually warrants only a brief (and negative) mention in the history of the Revolutionary War but he played a more important role in the history of the French artillery. Du Coudray was a major participant in the great controversy that took place within the ranks of that service between 1765 and 1775 over the reforms implemented by Jean-Baptiste Vauquette de Gribeauval (1715-1789). Unfortunately, to properly comprehend that controversy and its relevance to the history of American artillery, we have to make yet another lengthy detour to examine its origins, course and results -- and the best starting point is early 18th century France.

During the latter part of the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715) and the early part of that of his successor, Louis XV (1715-1784), the artillery arm of the French army had gradually been put on a more professional basis beginning with the permanent formation of the Régiment Royal-Artillerie in 1693 and continuing with its organization, by 1722, into five battalions garrisoned at la Fère, Metz, Strasbourg, Grenoble and Perpignan. Each of these garrisons operated a small school for the technical training of officer cadets and the most highly regarded of these institutions was that at la Fère where Bernard Forest de Belidor (1693-1766) served as an instructor. Belidor, whose publications have been noted earlier in this series, had through actual experimentation worked out accurate tables of fire for all types of ordnance in French service and had discovered that the best range for a given type of ordnance was not necessarily achieved by the largest propellant charge. By 1732, when a 17-year-old cadet named Gribeauval arrived at la Fère, Belidor had a reputation as the leading European authority on the new science of ballistics.[3]

Belidor's advances were coupled with a major reorganization of the materiel of the French artillery undertaken by Jean Florent de Vallière (1667-1759), the senior artillery officer of the army. Like most European powers, French ordnance in the late 16th and early 17th century had consisted of a bewildering variety of calibers and different types for each calibre, a source of much confusion and inefficiency. Vallière suggested that the number of calibers in service be reduced and regulations prescribed for their casting so that all pieces of one calibre would be uniform in size and appearance. This was not exactly a new idea as it had been earlier suggested by others and in England at the same time, Borgard and Armstrong were carrying out a similar exercise.[4]

The details of this système Vallière were laid down by a royal ordinance in 1732. In future the French field and siege artillery would consist of only five calibers of guns (4, 8, 12, 16 and 24-pdrs) with each calibre being uniformly cast. This was a step in the right direction but Vallière did not regulate the construction of carriages and auxiliary vehicles such as caissons, limbers and wagons. There being no uniform regulations, each of the French arsenals construct such items as they thought best and only too often what they thought best was not every good. The other problem was that, although Vallière had reduced the weight of French ordnance between 40 and 50%, his new pieces, ever the lighter field types, were still big and heavy and the awkward progress of the artillery was often an impediment to the movement of French armies. The Vallière weapons themselves were good and could dominate the battlefield if they got there -- the problem was getting them there.[5]

This was particularly true of the so-called "light" 4-pdr field piece which was manifestly unsuitable for mobile warfare. In 1740 the French artillery tested an example of a Swedish light 4-pdr. gun which possessed two innovations: an elevating screw attached to the breech and a ready-use ammunition chest mounted between the brackets or two slabs of wood that formed the trail of its carriage. This canons à la suedoise were introduced into service in the 1740s and saw extensive service during the Seven Years' War of 1756-1763. The greater part of the French field artillery in that conflict remained, however, the massive weapons of the système Vallière which proved so cumbersome that one French marshal, de Broglie, re-bored the 8 and 12-pdr types in his army as 12 and 16-pdr guns, respectively, in an effort to render them less awkward.[6]

A trend to more mobile field artillery had been initiated in other European nations. In 1741-1742 in Prussia , under the direction of an Oberst von Holtzmann, new and radically lightened field guns were introduced into service and their mobility and rate of fire came as an unpleasant surprise to their Austrian opponents who decided to follow suit. Under the overall guidance of Prince Joseph Wenzel von Liechtenstein (1696-1772), the senior officer of the Imperial and Royal Artillery, but under the particular guidance of the aptly named Oberst Andreas Feuerstein (1697-1774), Austrian ordnance went through a radical upgrade. When the process was completed, there were three types of field guns (3, 6 and 12-pdrs) and they were both smaller and lighter than their predecessors. Liechtenstein and Feuerstein went a step farther than Vallière and Frederick by extending their reforms beyond the weapons themselves, carriages and vehicles, to the organization of the artillery in the field. It can thus be said that the Liechtenstein system, which was officially adopted in 1753, was the first complete field artillery system in the world. [7]

The Austrian and Prussian advances and innovations were introduced into France by Jean-Baptiste Gribeauval who had reached the rank of lieutenant-colonel of artillery in 1755 when he was sent on a delicate mission to study and report on the materiel of the Prussian artillery. Gribeauval was chosen for this assignment because he had demonstrated a flair for the technical aspects of his profession and had re-designed and improved the carriages of the French coast artillery and had conducted several tests on experimental weapons. The Prussians held nothing back from Gribeauval during the course of his 3-month tour and, on his return to France , he submitted a lengthy memorandum on what he had observed but concluded that the Prussian field artillery was too light for use in action. Having familiarized himself with the Holtzman system, Gribeauval next got a close look at the Liechtenstein when he was sent to Austria in 1758 as a technical advisor on artillery. He fought with Austrian forces in the field during the Seven Years' War and rendered distinguished service which, on his return to France in 1763, brought him the appointment of inspector-general of artillery.[8]

The poor performance of the French army during the recent conflict set off a program of military reform in France that was guided by the Duc de Choiseul, French minister of war from 1764 to 1772. The artillery had been cause of particular complaints and Choiseul and his chief assistant, the Sieur Dubois, had received a number of memoranda from serving officers with suggestions for improvement. This correspondence prompted Dubois, with Choiseul's approval, to send out a 60-page circular letter listing 48 major problems with the artillery, to two senior and two junior artillery officers, asking for suggestions for improvements. Gribeauval was one of the senior officers who received this communication and his reply was the most lengthy and comprehensive because he suggested changes not only to the materiel of the artillery (including replacing the aging système Vallière with an entirely new system) but also to its organization. Choiseul knew that changes had to be made but he was reluctant to move too fast as he was aware the système Vallière was favoured by a majority of French artillery officers for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that Vallière's son, Joseph-Florent de Vallière (1717-1776), who disliked any change to his father's work, was the Director-General of Artillery with considerable power over the matter of promotion. It being clear, however, that changes had to be made, Choiseul seized on the temporary absence of Vallière the younger on a technical mission to Spain , ordered Gribeauval to cast experimental models of new field pieces and test them against the weapons of the older system.[9]

Gribeauval immediately took this work in hand. He chose the Royal Foundry at Strasbourg to cast the new pieces and they were manufactured according to his designs with additional advice from Jean Maritz II (1717-1790), the Inpector of Foundries. Maritz, a Swiss who had entered French service in 1740 was the son of man with the same name who had introduced the practise of casting a gun tube solid and then boring it out rather than the older and less certain method of casting it around a mould which formed the bore. Maritz was also a skilled mechanic who was able to translate Gribeauval's ideas on carriage construction into physical reality. These new carriages incorporated a number of innovations adopted from Austrian, Prussian and Swedish ordnance including a ready-use ammunition chest between the brackets of the trail, elevating screws for more accurate laying and, in the case of the larger calibers, two pairs of trunnion holes, a rearward pair for movement and a forward pair for action. The new equipment was ready by the spring of 1764 and it was pitted against the older materiel of the système Vallière in a series of carefully controlled tests held at Strasbourg. The result was that, although the older weapons had a somewhat longer range, the new experimental pieces were their equal or superior in all other respects. [10]

Having the evidence he needed, Choiseul now ordered Gribeauval to commence a major reform of the artillery arm and Gribeauval displayed impressive industry in doing so (aided no doubt by the fact that he was too intelligent ever to get married). He replaced the old 4, 8 and 12-pdr field guns with the new designs, retaining modified versions of the older pieces for siege, garrison and coast artillery. The new field carriages were provided for the field calibers and Gribeauval also re-designed the caissons and attendant vehicles. He introduced into service the prolonge, a 40-foot rope that could be attached to a gun carriage enabling it to be manoeuvred with ease by its horse team without having to limber it -- a fine advance on the clumsy drag ropes previously used. Changes were also made to the organization of the artillery, which was organized into permanent companies that manned one type of weapon. Gribeauval overlooked nothing, he prescribed gun drills for each type of weapon and even changed the uniform of French gunners who now exchanged their traditional red breeches for blue breeches. It took some to accomplish this large programme but when it was complete, France possessed a well-organized artillery arm equipped with a system of ordnance that was remarkable for its mobility, utility, uniformity and simplicity.[11]

So far, so good but it was not long before voices -- and powerful voices -- were raised in protest. The first shot was fired by Vallière the younger when he published one of his father's treatises on counter-mining and appended to it some "reflections" on the "principles of artillery" which criticized the système Gribeauval.[12] This set off a hotly-contest war of words as artillery officers and commentators sprang to the attack or defence of Gribeauval and from 1768 to 1774 many publications appeared as the controversy grew in tempo. The officer corps of the artillery split into two camps: the "bleus," who favoured the new system and included most of the technically-minded officers; and the "rouges" who were vehemently against the new system and consisted of officers who respected the work of Vallière the elder or were afraid of the influence of Vallière the younger on their promotion prospects. To avoid both censure and censorship, most of these polemics were published anonymously in Holland or England but all were ultimately available for sale by the publisher/bookseller Jombert in Paris, and for the knowledgeable it was a fairly easy thing to ascertain their authorship. The leading "rouge" author was Antoine Baratier, Sieur de Saint-Auban (b. 1712), whose vitriolic and personal attacks -- prompted almost certainly by the fact that Gribeauval had outstripped him in the promotion stakes -- against the reformer verged on the hysteric.[13] But Saint-Auban also knew the value of good public relations and took the trouble to have some of his pamphlets published by the Academy of Science in Paris and to solicit letters of reference from such prominent persons as Frederick the Great of Prussia. Saint-Auban also had important allies. When a supplement to the Encyclopédie appeared in 1776 containing articles on artillery subjects that were anti-Gribeauval, they bore the signature of Guillaume Le Blond, a professor of mathematics and author of several works on artillery -- and, more importantly, one of the tutors of the children of Louis XIV.[14] More balanced criticism came from the pen of Edme-Jean-Antoine du Puget (1742-1801) who was interested not so much in the technical side of artillery as its tactical employment in battle.[15] Gribeauval contributed some written efforts in his own defence, mainly in the form of memoirs to the secretary of war, but the greater part of the paper rounds fired off by the "bleus" were written by Captain Philippe Tronson du Coudray, his protégé and foremost adherent, who would (as we know) come to a watery end in the Schuykill River of Pennsylvania.[16]

This paper furor franciscus was followed closely and read with great delight by the artillery officers of other nations as the published literature provided a wonderful fund of useful technical information. Captain Heinrich Othon von Scheel of the Royal Danish Artillery (1745-1808) rendered this fascinated audience a great service by collecting the major literature of the controversy (tactfully changing his name to Henri de Scheel) and publishing it as Memoires d'artillerie in 1777.[17] De Scheel's book was in two parts: the first was a detailed description of the technical innovations of the système Gribeauval and included tables of construction and numerous plates taken from those reproduced in the Supplement to the Encyclopédie printed in 1776-1777; the second consisted of excerpts from the main published titles of the controversy to which De Scheel appended copious annotations. The result was an impressive and popular reference work and it made a name for von Scheel that led to him being appointed to the staff of the Prussian Kriegsakademie in Berlin. We have not heard the last of this studious Dane.

By 1770, the greater part of Gribeauval's work was done and his reward was promotion to lieutenant-general. Unfortunately he lost two powerful protectors when Choiseul left office in 1772 after running afoul of the king's current mistress while the secretary's chief assistant, the Sieur Dubois, died of illness. Choiseul's replacement, Monteynard (1720-1782), was a weak and vacillating man who, that same year swayed by the power of the "rouges" and in the name of economy directed that a return be made to the système Vallière and the old organization. It was too late, however, as many of the older pieces had been melted down and since the re-organization was almost complete, any attempt to turn back the clock would have resulted in chaos. In 1774 the controversy was conclusively settled after a board consisting of four marshals of France dispassionately examined all the evidence and decided that the système Gribeauval should be re-instated -- this was done in 1777 and the système Gribeauval, with some modifications and additions, more or less remained in service for the next half century.[18]*

At this point it should be noted that the French system of education for artillery officers did not differ all that much from that for Royal Artillery officers. Prior to being commissioned and joining a unit, prospective gunner officers had to attend a course of instruction at one of the six, later ten, artillery schools where, as with the RA, their course notes were intended to form their major reference work. French gunners, however, were fortunate in having a more extensive published literature to consult, much of which will be discussed below. One might add that, as the great Vauban was French and France conducted more sieges than any other European nation in the 18th century, French military engineers were regarded as being among the best in the business. By 1789, when the Revolution commenced, setting off a train of events that would ultimately cause a world war, the French artillery and engineer corps were universally respected in the western world.

Except, it would seem, on the far side of the Atlantic in the wilds of North America, to which we will now return after an absence that has been entirely too long.

(To be continued)


[1] Wright, Robert K. The Continental Army.  Washington, 1983, 129n.

[2] Ibid, 129.

[3] Picard, Ernest and Jouan, Louis., L'artillerie francaise au XVIIIe siècle . Paris, 1906, 2-3, Pierre Nardin, Gribeavual. Lieutenant général des armées du roi (1715-1789) Paris, n.d., c. 1983, 14-20, 27

[4] Picard and Jouan, L'artillerie francaise, 20-25, 55-66. Nardin, Gribeauval, 20-24.

[5] Nardin, Gribeauval, 103-104. Kiley, Kevin., Artillery of the Napoleonic Wars, 1792-1815. London: Greenhill Books, 2004, 25-76, provides a useful overview of European artillery development in the 18th century.

[6] Nardin, Gribeauval, 104-106; D.E. Graves, Ed., De Scheel's Treatise on Artillery. Bloomfield: Museum Restoration Service, 1984, 6.

[7] Anton Dolleczek, Geschichte der oesterreichishen Artillerie . Vienna, 1887, 321-322; Kiley, Napoleonic Artillery, 59-64.

[8] Nardin, Gribeauval, 35-100.

[9] Nardin, Gribeauval, 101-131; Kiley, Napoleonic Artillery, 54-56.

[10] Nardin, Gribeauval, 121-130. For a comprehensive discussion of the 1764 trials in English, see Tousard, Louis. American Artillerist's Companion or The Elements  of Artillery, Volume 2. Philadelphia, 1809, 9-23.                   

[11] Nardin, Gribeauval, 119-138; Mattie Lauerma, L'artillerie de Campagne Française pendant les guerres de la revolution. Helsinki, 1956, 13-17. Graves, Ed., De Scheel, vi-vii.

[12] Florent de Vallière, Joseph. Traité de la défence des places par les contre-mines, avec des reflexions sur les principes de l'artillerie. Paris, 1768.

[13] St. Auban's major work was Mémoire sur les nouveaux systèmes d'artillerie. Amsterdam, 1775. This was actually the printed version of a lengthy written memorandum that St. Auban had very tactlessly sent to Choiseul in 1768.

[14] See Guillaume Le Blond, "Artillerie," "Canons de bataille" and "Affûts," Supplement au dictionnaire encyclopédie. Paris, 1776.

[15] See in particular Du Puget's Essai sure l'usage de l'artillerie dans la guerre de campagne et dans celle des sièges par un officier ... ( Amsterdam, 1771) and Réponse de l'auteur de l'Essai sur l'usage, etc., a l'auteur d'un livre intitulé Artillerie Nouvelle. Amsterdam, 1773.

[16] Nardin, Gribeauval, 159-180, has a most useful discussion of the polemical literature for and against the système Gribeauval.

For no other reasons than that this literature has apparently not been collated since 1795 and because it took me a long time to do it, I will now list the main published titles of the polemical literature, arranged chronologically and with authors identified where possible. Note the many archaic spellings: Joseph-Florent de Vallière, Traité de la défence des places par les contre-mines, avec des reflexions sur les principes de l'artillerie Paris, 1768; Philippe Tronson du Coudray, Observations sur un Ouvrage attribué à Vallière, intitulé Traite, etc. Hague, 1770; E.A. Du Puget, Essai sur l'usage de l'artillerie dans la guerre de campagne et dans celle des sièges par un officier ... Amsterdam, 1771; [Du Coudray], Observations et expériences sur l'artillerie. Alethopolis, 1771; Anonymous [possibly Saint-Auban], Lettre en réponse aux Observations attribué à Vallière, etc. Amsterdam, 1772; François-Jean Mesnil-Durand, Observations sur la canon par rapport à l'infanterie en général et à la colonne en particulier, suivres de quelques Extraits de l'Essai sur l'usage de l'artillerie, avec la réponse ... Amsterdam, 1772; [Du Puget], Procès-verbal des épreuves faites a Douay sur les portées de pieces de 4 longues et de celles de 4 courtes de nouveau modèle. No date but certainly before 1772; Anonymous [but possibly Du Coudray or Du Puget], Suite de la lettre d'un des plus anciens lieutenans à l'auteur des Observations sur un Ouvrage attribué à Valière, ou procès-verbal des épreuves faites aux écoles de Doui sur les portées de pieces de quatre longues et de celles de quartre courtes de nouveau modèle. Amsterdam, 1772; [Du Puget], Recueil de quelques petits ouvrages qui peuvent servir de supplement à l'Essai sur l'usage de l'artillerie (1772); [Du Coudray], L'Artillerie Nouvele, ou Examen des changemens faits dans l'artillerie françoie, depuis 1765, par m. ci-devant lieutenant au corps d'Artillerie (Amsterdam, 1773); [Du Puget] Réponse de l'auteur de l'Essai sur l'usage, etc., a l'auteur d'un livtre intitulé Artillerie nouvelle Amsterdam, 1773; Anomymous, L'état actuel de la querrelle aux l'Artillerie, our Exposition des discussions qui on encore lieu sur les changemens faits dan l'Artillerie par le nouveau système Amsterdam, 1774; [Saint-Auban], Collections des mémoires authentiques qui on eté presentés aux maréchaux de France ... aux sujet de l'Artillerie Alethopolis, 1774; [Du Coudray], Quatorze lettres d'un officier d'artillerie et un officier générale sur les questions qui agitent l'artillerie relativement aux changemens faits qu'on y a fait dupuis 1764 ... Amsterdam, 1774; [Saint-Auban], Mémoires sur les nouveaux systèmes d'artillerie (3 vols, Paris, 1775); [Du Coudray], L'Ordre profond et l'Order mince, considerés par raport aux effets de l'Artillerie Metz, 1775; [Du Coudray?], Réponse de l'auteur de l'ouvrage l'Artillerie nouvelle ... Amsterdam, 1776; François-Jean Mesnil-Durand, Réponse à la brochure intitulée: L'ordre mince et l'ordre profond consideré par rapport aux effets de l'artillerie Amsterdam, 1776; [Guillaume Le Blond], "Artillerie," "Canons de bataille" and "Affûts," Supplement au dictionnaire encyclopédie Paris, 1776.   

[17] De Scheel, Henri. Mémoires d'artillerie, contenant l'Artillerie nouvelled  our changements faits dans l'artillerie francoise* en 1765. Avec l'exposé et l'analysé des objections qui ont été faites a ces changemens. 2 vols, Copenhagen, 1777. A second edition was published by Magimel in Paris in 1795, an American edition was published as A Treatise of Artillery: Containing a New System, or The Alterations Made in the French Artillery, since 1765 was published in Philadelphia in 1800 but this was only the first volume of the 1777 and 1795 editions. In 1984, a new edition of the 1800 American title, edited by the present author, was brought out as De Scheel's Treatise on Artillery. Bloomfield: Museum Restoration Service, 1984.  

[18] Nardin, Gribeauval, 163-180, has a most illuminating discussion on the opposition to Gribeauval's reforms and the return to the système Vallière. On the longevity of the système Gribeauval, see Persy, N. Elementary Treatise on the Forms of Cannon & Various Systems of Artillery 1832, reprinted Bloomfield: Museum Restoration Service, 1979, 19-21. For a discussion to the modifications, alterations and additions to the système Gribeauval, see Napoleonic Artillery, 37-41.