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
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. 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
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.
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
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.
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.
A trend to more mobile field artillery had been initiated in other
European nations. In 1741-1742 in
The Austrian and Prussian advances and innovations were introduced
The poor performance of the French army during the recent conflict
set off a program of military reform in
Gribeauval immediately took this work in hand. He chose the Royal
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,
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. 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
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. 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
By 1770, the greater part of Gribeauval's work was done and his reward
was promotion to lieutenant-general. Unfortunately he lost two powerful
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
Except, it would seem, on the far side of the Atlantic in the wilds
(To be continued)
 Wright, Robert K. The Continental Army.
 Ibid, 129.
 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)
 Picard and Jouan, L'artillerie francaise, 20-25, 55-66. Nardin, Gribeauval, 20-24.
 Nardin, Gribeauval, 103-104. Kiley, Kevin., Artillery
of the Napoleonic Wars, 1792-1815.
 Nardin, Gribeauval, 104-106; D.E. Graves, Ed., De
Scheel's Treatise on Artillery.
 Anton Dolleczek, Geschichte der oesterreichishen Artillerie .
 Nardin, Gribeauval, 35-100.
 Nardin, Gribeauval, 101-131; Kiley, Napoleonic Artillery, 54-56.
 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.
 Nardin, Gribeauval, 119-138; Mattie Lauerma, L'artillerie
de Campagne Française pendant les guerres de la revolution.
 Florent de Vallière, Joseph. Traité de la
défence des places par les contre-mines, avec des reflexions
sur les principes de l'artillerie.
 St. Auban's major work was Mémoire sur les nouveaux
 See Guillaume Le Blond, "Artillerie,"
"Canons de bataille"
and "Affûts," Supplement au dictionnaire
 See in particular Du Puget's Essai sure l'usage de l'artillerie
dans la guerre de campagne et dans
 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
 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.
 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