The artillery of Napoleon's Grand Army

The artillery of Napoleon's Grand Army


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OfficerArtillery nicknamed in Toulon the " captain cannon », Napoleon will make this learned weapon improved by Gribeauval a centerpiece of its tactics. During'Empire the number of guns will continue to increase ... At the same time, the number of artillery-related injuries ... 200 French guns at Eylau, 500 to Wagram… 120,000 to 130,000 cannon shots fired at Moskva, maybe 150,000 to Leipzig. Vomiting their fire across Europe, the guns draw their lethal power from technological advances and the talents of artillerymen and battlefield mathematicians.

The simplified Gribeauval system

The revolutionary army had inherited an efficient artillery set up under the Ancien Régime by Jean-Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval (1715 - 1789). The Gribeauval system made it possible above all to have a very mobile field artillery with lightened cannons that could be dragged by the force of the horses or by that of the men thanks to the extension, a rope allowing to maneuver the pieces of artillery with arms, in particular under enemy fire when the horses were taken to safety. The extension also allowed firing while leaving the barrel hanging on the horses: this made it possible not to damage the front end and to retreat quickly. The Gribeauval system also ensured the standardization of calibers, thus making it possible to rationalize supply. These calibers were five in number: the 12, 8, 6 and 4 pounder guns. The number corresponding to the weight in pounds of the projectile, to give another idea a 12-pound ball was 12.5cm in diameter and required an approximate powder charge of 4.25 pounds). There were in fact different types of projectiles used:

- The full balls, sent at 800 or 900m for a 12 pound gun (practical distance, puts the balls could be propelled to 1600m), which simply mow down whatever they encounter, either directly or by ricochet. Good gunners can even adapt the angle of fire to increase the number of ricochets and thus increase the damage in the enemy ranks: with a tube placed horizontally a little propel a cannonball at only 300m, but which will ricochet on 1,680 m ... This type of projectile is the most commonly used. To get an idea of ​​the penetration of this type of projectile, you should know that a 12 to 500m ball could theoretically pierce a 2m earth parapet or a 40cm brick wall.

- Firing balls, which are hollow balls filled with powder and fitted with a wick. The ball is thus propelled and explodes when the fuse is consumed. To use this type of projectile, the gunners had to calculate the time it would take for the ball to travel the distance between the barrel and its target, and adjust the size of the fuse accordingly. If the fuse is too short the bullet will explode in the air, if it is too long the bullet will only explode a moment after being dropped to the ground and reckless enemies can tear the fuse off.

- Red balls, which are full balls heated in ovens and which have an incendiary effect.

- Rowed cannonballs which are in fact two cannonballs connected by a chain, used mainly for dismasting ships.

- The grape-gun boxes, which are tin cylinders filled with small, Biscayan cast iron bullets, having an extremely deadly effect on infantry and cavalry at close range. For ever more devastating effects, some artillerymen would have combined a full ball and a box of grapeshot ...

Napoleon, who was above all an artillery officer, owed his first success to this learned weapon. It was thanks to his talents as a gunner that he enabled the capture of Toulon in 1793 and that he began to make a name for himself. It was still with cannons that he put down the royalist revolt against the Directory and obtained the nickname "General Vendémiaire". Once in power, Napoleon is therefore the most able to know how to intelligently reform this weapon from which he came and which he knows perfectly well for having held all the positions, as a simple gunner (as part of his training at the military school of Paris) to the general. This was done in 1803 when Napoleon, who became First Consul, decided to further simplify the Gribeauval system by limiting the number of calibers used. The goal is simple, always more standardize to always improve repairs and supply. Marmont explained thus:

« The simplest artillery is the best. If one caliber could meet all needs, and one car could be used for all transportation, that would be perfection. But this is not so: artillery must produce a variety of effects; these effects being recognized, it is necessary to determine the calibers which correspond to them, by limiting their number to what is strictly necessary; because whenever two calibers can be used for the same purpose, there is one too many, and therefore it is harmful, due to the complication it brings to supplies, spares and replacements »

The commission of experts headed by d'Abboville (who commanded the artillery at Valmy, but also at Yorktown during the American Revolutionary War) only keeps two calibers for the field guns: the 12-pounder gun for its long range, and the 6 pounder gun, more manageable, and used by other armies of Europe thus allowing to refuel on the catches of war (in this connection there was a small tip: the French 6 guns were of a caliber in fact slightly larger than those of other European armies, which certainly lost precision when using cannonballs taken from the enemy, but which completely prevented the enemy from using French cannonballs) . Howitzers and mortars are each limited to one caliber, always with a view to rationalizing supplies. The only problem is that in wartime it was not possible to change all the guns and that this so-called Year XI system only added to that of Gribeauval already in place, paradoxically creating a little more heterogeneity. Napoleon also set up a military artillery train, eliminating the need for civilians who were reluctant to post the pieces too close to the fire ...

On the eve of the Russian campaign, in 1811, a new commission studied British innovations in terms of shrapnel buses (exploding in the air by firing balls) and Congreve rockets. The Congreve rockets will in fact hardly ever be used by the French army, although it took some from the English during the sieges of Rochefort and the Ile d'Aix and some were built afterwards. the attack on Copenhagen. The tests made by Brûlard in Hamburg were disappointing and the project never came to fruition.

Realizing the major importance of this weapon, Napoleon slowly increased his artillery fleet. While during his campaigns in Italy he had only 1.5 cannon per 1,000, he will have 2 in 1807 and 3 in 1812.

Field artillery

Field artillery falls into two categories: foot artillery made up of companies of 8 guns, and horse artillery, more mobile, with companies of 6 guns.

Field artillery on foot requires a large staff, recruited by conscription, like the rest of the army. A 12-pounder gun needs about 13 or 15 men, tasked with various tasks to ensure rapid and safe fire. After each shot, the piece that retreated is brought forward. The chef de piece then points the barrel horizontally, either alone with levers or with the help of assistants if it is a large caliber piece. This done, he orders the room to be loaded: one of the servants passes a swab soaked in water and vinegar through the barrel while another blocks the light (the hole through which the powder is set on fire): this operation makes it possible to briefly clean the barrel and above all to extinguish any embers which could cause the charge of powder that is about to be introduced to explode. At the same time the barrel is pointed, then the loader places the powder charge in the mouth of the part, the swab servant turns his tool to the brush side, the ram, and pushes the cartridge to the bottom of the barrel.

To avoid any accident, one of the servants keeps his finger (with a small leather shield) on the light so that in the absence of oxygen no embers come back to life. Once the cartridge is positioned (it contains the powder and the ball), a servant pierces it with a disgorger (metal rod fitted) and introduces the twist through the light (a primer filled with fusing composition). All that remains is to set fire to the quill with a fire lance so that the powder explodes and the pressure released expels the projectile. If under ideal conditions, in training, without aiming and without ball, the French artillerymen could reach 13 to 14 rounds per minute; in real conditions on the battlefield the rate of fire was around 2 to 4 rounds per minute. Note that the higher the rate of fire a cannon heats up, thus risking the spontaneous explosion of powder. If possible, then the room should be watered (but there is not always water within reach on the battlefield) or simply let it cool down. "A certain amount of time" during which the room remains silent, hence the advantage of using the battery parts to maintain a continuous fire.

In the event of an enemy attack, the artillerymen owe their salute only to the heavy fire of their guns and / or their tactical position on the battlefield, supported by infantry or cavalry. However, as a last resort they are equipped with a rifle (either the standard infantry model, 1777 modified An IX, or the shorter model intended for Dragons and Voltigeurs) and a short saber (either the saber-lighter or swords adorned with an eagle's head). The mounted artillerymen have a light cavalry saber.

If the artillery and its caissons are drawn by horses, the last maneuvers, or the adjustments following the evolution of the course of the battle, are sometimes carried out by force of arms using ropes. The art of gunners in the field is to constantly adjust fire at a sometimes moving target. They are helping themselves to do this with an increase, another innovation from Gribeauval ...

The sheer weight of these guns (880kg for the tube of a 12-pounder alone) sometimes reduces the mobility of the artillery, especially when the roads are muddy, potholed, and narrow. On several occasions, the roads had to be redone to allow the artillery to pass, notably for the battle of Jena where Napoleon directly supervised the work.

Siege, land and coast artillery

To lead a siege, the Grande Armée has specific cannons such as 8-gauge howitzers, weighing 540kg. The latter are characterized by a curved fire allowing to reach the enemy behind its ramparts. We used shotguns (already weighing 21kg without the powder), but the caliber after all reduced for a siege weapon did not necessarily satisfy the artillerymen. In addition, the large powder charges used in this type of gun tended to put them out of service prematurely. In 1810 the armaments commission sought to solve this problem by producing more robust howitzers: the following year new parts were melted down in Spain, in Seville, and took part in the siege of Cadiz. It is therefore envisaged to generalize the use of larger caliber buskers, 24 or even 36.

In addition to the howitzers, the besiegers also have mortars, such as the 10-gauge mortar weighing more than 780kg and being able to propel 1,600m for "small range" pieces (2,200m for large range pieces) an explosive projectile of about fifty kg. These bombs can be propelled behind enemy ramparts where after a few deadly ricochets they explode, throwing lots of shards around. But they can also be used to destroy enemy defenses, prevent the besieged from repairing or neutralize local artillery.

These two pieces are only examples, even if the tendency is to rationalize the French army has a multitude of calibers of siege weapons.

The siege artillery will show its effectiveness during the Napoleonic campaigns as in Danzig in 1807 with 80 pieces deployed, in Valence taken in 1812 thanks to the mortars of Suchet, put especially in Spain where the resistance of the Iberian cities gives in face to the French artillery as in Zaragoza in 1809 (60 cannons and 12 mortars) or in Tarragona in 1811.

The coast artillery had a significant role for a French Empire at almost permanent war with the leading naval power in the world: the Royal Navy British. The coastal pieces were intended to pass the taste to the latter of approaching too closely the shore. In 1813 the coasts of France, Belgium and Holland pointed 23,500 guns to the sea. Among these artillery pieces, we find mortars, but also all types of guns. The coast artillery is not called upon to move, nor to serve intensely. This is reflected in particular in the choice of gunners. We could not monopolize the cream of the French artillerymen in this way, so the coast artillery was served for sedentary companies, but also by veterans unfit for active service. The coastal artillery is not, however, deprived of innovations as evidenced by Colonel de Villantroys' howitzer cannon reaching a range of 4,000m!

Field artillery is not overlooked either, including mortars similar to those used in sieges. They still allow you to shoot over the ramparts ... But this time in the other direction ... For the guns positioned on the ramparts we use barrels different from those of the field guns, higher, allowing to shoot over the parapet and not by embrasures. This makes it easier to aim, but also exposes more parts.

Artillery on the battlefield

There was no formal instruction regulating the actions of artillery on the battlefield, everything was done with the experience passed down from campaign to field by senior and talented commanders. In times of war, a foot artillery division might have only 6 pieces, and a horse artillery division 4, always divided into sections of 2 pieces.

Arriving on the battlefield the pieces advanced in line (the maneuvers of the column in the line are quite similar to those of the cavalry), each followed at 30 or 40m by its caissons. When the order sounded " In battery! ", The line stopped, we unhooked the front end which was going to join the caissons behind. All parts were to be aligned at axle level with a distance of about 8m between each barrel. Theoretically, large caliber guns were placed on the right wing and howitzers on the left wing. Of course the terrain and the circumstances that can modify this device. The mounted artillery was also connected to the horses by the extension, so that it could be withdrawn quickly.

While the maneuver had changed little since the Ancien Régime, the way in which artillery was used gradually changed. The artillery was no longer seen as a simple support to the firepower of the infantry, it became (Guibert had already advised in his " General tactical test In 1777) truly an offensive weapon. Artillery must be mobile and focused to focus its fire on a specific point on the battlefield and create the breach that can be exploited by infantry or cavalry. The idea is also to show a certain recklessness, and not to be afraid of losing parts, by approaching (or letting approach) the enemy at short distances so that the effects of salvos are even more deadly. . On June 9, 1793 at the Battle of Aarlon the Sorbier battery (which would later serve in the Imperial Army) approached the Austrian lines at 50m! The artilleryman Bonaparte who became general of the army of Italy was a fervent supporter of the daring and innovative use of artillery as he showed at the battle of Castiglione (August 5, 1796) by sending Marmont to prepare the assault on the heights of Monte-Medolano by boldly deploying its cannons. The latter says:

He put all the mounted artillery under my command: it consisted of five companies serving nineteen pieces of cannon, and intended to play an important role. The enemy had a higher caliber; I could only wrestle with him by getting very close, and although the country was united, there was a defile to pass before I could deploy to the proper distance. The enemy's cannon balls were coming into this pass, which was quite wide; I crossed it in sections of two rooms; after leading the company in which I had the least confidence, I launched my column at full gallop; the head was crushed, but the rest of my artillery deployed quickly and placed themselves within very close range; sharp, well-directed fire dismantled more than half of the enemy's guns in a short time; the infantry also suffered from my cannon, some of my fire was directed at them; Finally, the Serrurier division arrived at the right time […] the battle was won from that moment ».

The French artillery specialized in these daring attacks at terribly short distances that went far beyond what Guibert had dared to propose. During the Battle of Waterloo, Commander Duchand rushed forward with his guns on the English lines, so much so that Napoleon and his staff were initially deserting… But it was not: Duchamp s 'paused for a last moment to turn his pieces over and open fire: at 25m!

Another example during the Battle of Friedland (14 June 1807) where the artillery was able to stand up to the enemy almost alone, without the support of the infantry and the cavalry, even if it was at the cost of very heavy losses. General Sénarmont with 36 guns advanced 400m from the Russians to open fire, the enemy artillery retreating a little, he advanced 200m from the enemy, fired, and went to position 100m from the enemy line. It was then taken under fire from enemy cannons and relentlessly attacked by Russian infantry which it could only hold back by maintaining continuous fire! He had to deplore in this action 56 men killed or wounded. But how many dead on the Russian side when we know that 2,816 cannon shots were fired at close range against battalions in close ranks?

For further

- HAYTHORNTHWAITE Philip & FOSTEN Bryan, “Napoleon’s specialist troop”, Osprey n ° 199, 1988. (in English)

- PIGEARD Alain, Dictionary of the Grande Armée, Editions Tallandier, 2002.

- PIGEARD Alain, "The Napoleonic artillery and the genius", Tradition Magazine HS n ° 23, 2002.

- SOKOLOV Oleg, The Army of Napoleon, Editions Commios, 2003.


Video: Napoleonic Artillery Tactics