"The infantry and cavalry complained that the gunners
gave themselves airs because the Emperor himself
had been a gunner."
French Artillery Under Napoleon.
From time immemorial, soldiers in the French army had referred to cannon with a nickname that mingled familiarity and revulsion - le brutal - and they were surely right. (Barbero - "The Battle" p 101).
The Napoleonic artillery was a product of the change in French military theory that followed humiliations of the Seven Years War (ext.link). Especially painful was the defeat at Rossbach where 42.000 French and their Allies were trashed by 21,000 Prussians under Fredrick the Great. The French artillery in that time was according to the "system" of de Vallerie. The cannons were strongly built, very powerful, but very ornate and far too heavy to handle in the field. The old system was gradually replaced by so-called Gribeauval System. The new guns were designed for more rapid movements, on and off the roads. Gribeauval stressed mobility, hitting power and accuracy. His important innovation was the elevating screw used to adjust the range of the cannon by raising or lowering its breech. Another innovation was the prolong. It was a heavy rope 30 feet long and used to connect the gun and its limber when it was necessary to fire while retiring or to unlimber the gun while crossing some difficult obstacle.
The French artillery was divided into several sections:
In 1805 were 8 regiments of foot artillery (régiments d’artillerie à pied)
In 1805 were 6 regiments of horse artillery (régiments d’artillerie à cheval)
There were 2 battalions of pontoniers. They were assigned by companies to each army corps, the Cavalry Reserve and its field train's headquarters. When their heavy pontoon wagons were held up by bad roads, they could improvise bridges out of any available boats, rafts built from demolished buildings or empty wine barrels. In 1805 were 2 bataillons de pontonniers.
In 1812 were 19 companies of artificiers (the 19th was made of Spanish dererters and POWs). The artificiers were specialists in the construction and repair of gun carriages and other vehicles. They served in artillery arsenals and with the artillery batteries in the field.
In 1813 were 6 companies of armorers (the 5th was made of Dutchmen). The armorers repaired weapons of all types. They served in the artillery arsenals and with artillery batteries in the field.
When Napoleon became the First Consul he established a large artillery staff under his own control. Officers from this staff supervised the production of ammunition, cannons and howitzers, operation of the artillery schools and the armament of fortresses. Officers from this staff served in the field armies, army corps and fortresses. The artillery organization of the Army of Egypt was the precursor to ideas which Bonaparte would put into practice in 1804-1805 in the Camp of Boulogne. It was a distribution of artillery between the cavalry and infantry divisions and the reserve. The number of guns brought into battle increased with every year:
In 1805 at Austerlitz the French had the following ratio of guns:
And in 1812 at Smolensk:
The French also used captured pieces, Russian, Prussian, Austrian and British.
Napoleon was very interested in British shrapnells.
One howitzer and 2 waggons filled with shrapnells were captured at the
battle of Albuera (1811). Napoleon ordered General Eblé, to have experiments carried out
to determine the mode of loading these shells. Thenceforth Napoleon attached great importance
to their property of bursting on graze and projecting their contents as far as possible.
In contrast to all monarchs, Napoleon was a gunner and he knew what he was doing.
He graduated as an artillerist officer in 1785 and in 1791 entered the II/4th Regiment of Foot Artillery as a lieutenant. Bonaparte received his Captain's commission in 1792 and was stationed with his company in Grenoble. In 1808 in Spain, Bonaparte, already as emperor, met his old colonel. Chlapowski writes: "An old artillery colonel was sitting in the orderly room with me. When the Emperor alighted from his carriage and entered the room and saw that the old man did not recognize him, he said: 'Don't you know me, colonel ? Yet it was you who had me locked in the guard house !' This colonel had been a captain in the artillery battery in which Napoleon had first served as a second lieutenant. So Napoleon now introduced himself as sub-lieutenant Bonaparte, and added that he was increasing the old man's pension." (Chlapowski - p 42)
The artillery enjoyed an unprecedented popularity among young men in France seeking career in the army. The infantrymen and cavalrymen complained that the gunners gave themselves airs because their First Consul and then Emperor himself had been a gunner.
Quality of Napoleon's Artillery
In 1812-1813 the artillery suffered horrible losses in horses and equipment. During the reatreat from Russia the gunners and horses were weakened by overwork and poor feeding. It was exhausting to haul the pieces through mud or deep snow. After 1812 the quality of artillery began gradually decreasing, de Gaulle acurately described it: "1,200 cannon had been left behind in Russia and almost as many at Kulm, on the Katzbach and at Leipzig, without counting those that were abandoned by the roadside in Germany, Spain and Italy, and even France. For the wood of which the gun-carriages and wheels were made, instead of being seasoned, as formerly, for 10, 20 or 30 years, now came from newly cut timber; as a result it warped, split and bent." - General de Gaulle
In 1815 the raising of artillery was beset by some frustrating difficulties, and there was very little time. Napoleon rebuilt the artillery of the Guard but did little to the rest of the artillery. There was no lack of cannons, but trained gunners and horses were in short supply. Despite the poor shape the French artillery still was able to impress even the enemy. Captain Mercer of British Royal Horse Artillery wrote: "The rapidity and precision of this fire [French guns at Waterloo] was quite appalling. Every shot almost took effect, and I certainly expected we should all be annihilated."
The ammunition wagons for every cannon and howitzer were equipped in a similar manner. (During campaign the gunners used whatever strong horses they got or found.)
"The chief factor that limited the use of cannon in the early modern era, particularly on the battlefield, was their weight. In the 1620s, the barrel alone of a 34-pounder weighed 5,600 pounds, and the cannon on its carriage required 20 horses to pull it and a crew of 35 to serve it. Artillery train possessed neither their own draft animals nor their own teamsters. ... At the beginning of the reign of Francois I, the French possessed a bewildering variety of at least 17 calibers ... French regimental pieces proliferated after 1635. ... Battlefield tactics required lighter, more mobile pieces ... " (Lynn - "Giant of the Grand Siecle" pp 501-503)
Jean Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval (ext.link) introduced the following changes in the French artillery:
The new guns combined with the technological changes assured that the French artillery was the best in the World. These improvements boosted morale of the gunners which already had a long tradition of professionalism. Napoleon wrote: "The 4pdrs and the 8pdrs have been rightly suppressed. Gribeaval simplified and experience has proved the necessity of further simplification. ... The 8pdrs and the 4pdrs were often employed in the wrong place: the ammunition of 8pdrs was expended where that of 4pdrs would have sufficed."
Napoleon however was unhappy with the new carriages: "Gribeanval's carriage was altogether faulty. It has been altered, and rightly so, for there has been a gain of 100 per cent. in transport, and lightness given to both the carriage and the howitzer. But the latter still requires improvement."
The Gribeauval System was very innovative for that times as it gave the French an advantage of making many items interchangeable for repairs and mainteinance during campaign. In 1792 the first regulations of the artillery service appeared.
System of Year XI.
The System of the Year of XI cconsisted of the following types of guns:
Although certain parts would be interchangeable, Gribeauval System still required 25 different size of wheels and different size of caissons for each caliber of gun. It was not what Napoleon expected from his artillery. In 1803 the Gribeauval System was replaced by the System of the Year XI.
According to John Elting tooling up for the new weapons took time and was only well begun by 1805. (Elting - "Swords Around a Throne" 1997 p. 258) Unfortunately the constant wars forced the use of the old guns (Gribeauval System) or mixing them with the new guns (System of Year XI), which increased the spare parts problem. The new 5.5 inch howitzer required 2 powder charges to the 3 required by the old 6.4 inch howitzer.
The mountain artillery was improvised when required, no permanent units being organized. The mountain artillery was used in Tyrol, Dalmatia and Spain. On such occassions the howitzers were either mounted on strengthened sleds (6pdr and even 12pdr howitzers) or disassembled "into several mule loads" (only for 3 or 4 pdrs).
Gribeauval's caissons were front-heavy and thus still awkward vehicles for Napoleon's taste.
The carriage/cannon of the new system was lighter than that of Gribauval System.
It was important for the maneuverability of the Napoleonic artillery.
Below is comparison of net weight of the carriage and cannon:
System of XI Year:
On picture: French foot gunner in campaign dress, 1815.
The gunners marched on foot and their officers were suppose to march with them. Only those of officers who were 50-years old and more were entitled to horses. But according to French sources (for example Tousard) and regulations there is a provision for mounting foot artillerymen on gun team horses as early as 1809. The gunner was armed with musket of dragoon model, bayonet and a short infantry saber. He wore dark blue coat with dark blue lapels and collars. The drummers customarily wore red coats with dark blue lapels. All gunners and drumers wore either dark blue breeches (parade, review) or dark blue trousers (campaign, battle).
There were 8 (administrative) regiments of foot artillery (régiments d’artillerie à pied) of 22 (tactical) companies each.
The companies were scattered among various armies. For example in 1812 the 3rd Regiment had 8-9 companies in Spain, 2-3 in Netherlands and the rest in France, Germany and Russia. In 1810 was formed 9th Regiment of Foot Artillery.
Foot artillery companies, or batteries, consisted of 100 to 120 men with 6 cannons and 2 six-inch howitzers. During a longer campaign the company would be reduced to 3 or 4 guns as there were losses among the gunners. Fewer gunners were able to serve fewer guns. * (read more) Napoleon was not too happy with the 8 guns batteries. He wrote: "It would be better, were it not determined otherwise by the details of artillery, to form a unit of 4 guns, because a battery of 8 guns is already too numerous not to be often divided ..."
In 1807 company of foot artillery (8 pieces) consisted of:
Each company had fanion.
In 1815 company of foot artillery (8 pieces) consisted of:
Additionally each company had 4 metal workers, 4 ouvriers, 13 woodworkers and artificiers.
There were discussions on the internal order of company (battery) when on the move. Napoleon wrote: "Artillery officers have differed in opinion as to whether the 8 guns with their limbers
should march past, the wagons following behind the 8th gun, or whether each waggon
should follow its gun." In general, artillery officers prefer that the waggon should follow the gun. They fear the waggon may make a mistake and get lost amid the perplexities and circumstances of a battle. They feel the want of obtaining every possible security that the waggon shall not be far from its gun, and they can find no other means than by keeping the waggon always under the eye of the No. 1 of the gun."
On picture: French horse gunner in 1815, by Clive Farmer in Adkin's "The Waterloo Companion"
The horse gunners and their officers were mounted. Each gunner was armed with a light cavalry saber and 2 pistols attached to the pommel of his saddle under its sheepskin cover. Prussian King Frederick the Great, organized the first batteries of horse artillery under the name of "flying artillery". Some of the French officers had seen them and were very impressed. In the beginning of 1792, the first 2 French batteries of horse artillery were formed. The French horse artillery has made great progress since that time. While their primary service was with cavalry divisions, Napoleon also would assign companies of horse artillery when possible to each of his army corps because their mobility made iit possible for them to react to changing battlefield developments much more rapidly than foot artillery could.
The horse artillery should be placed that it can move freely in any direction. Their job always quickly being to make a hole in the enemy line with the break through being the task of the infantry and cavalry. When the enemy advanced in line, the artillery should fire from the flank in order to achieve the most desirable effect. During attack the artillery was to accompany the cavalry. There was no infantry square to withstand artillery fire at close range.
In 1807 France had 6 regiments of horse artillery each of 3 squadrons x 2 companies each. Every regiment had 1 depot company. In 1814 each regiment had 4 squadrons x 2 companies in the field, and 1 depot company. In 1810 was formed from the Dutch the 7th Regiment of Horse Artillery.
When a train company, with the drivers, horses and limbers, was merged with an
artillery company (guns and gunners) it became mobile and was known as a
In 1815 company of horse artillery (6 pieces) consisted of:
There were also 4 metal workers and 4 ouvriers.
In 1800 Bonaparte created the artillery train. It was very important
part of every army as it was responsible for ammunition. Before Bonaparte the
men in artillery train were civilian contract drivers. They took good care of their
horses and were more obedient than soldiers. But soldiers-drivers looked better on
parade and were not scared as much in a battle as were the civilians. At the battle
of Novi the civilian-drivers panicked and abandoned all wagons, caissons and guns !
The soldiers-drivers were former cavalrymen, wounded or unfit for service.
Sometimes foreigners were accepted as drivers, especially if they were strong and knew horses.
Among the foreigners were especially many Dutch and also Prussian prisoners.
The French train driver was armed with a carbine, a short infantry-type saber, and a pistol. They were expected to take a hand in protecting themselves and their ammunition wagons if attacked by Cossacks, Spanish or Tyrolean guerillas etc. The color of the train troops coat was officially iron grey.
In 1805 France had 10 bataillons du train d’artillerie. Each battalion consisted of 1 elite company and 4 center companies. The elite company (best draft horses and drivers) was assigned to a battery of horse artillery. The center companies were assigned to foot batteries.
The drivers rode on left hand horses.
In 1805-1807 artillery train company had:
There were also 2 blacksmiths and 2 harness makers.
In 1815 artillery train company consisted of:
There were also 2 blacksmiths and 2 harness makers.
The ammuntion was also kept in the small "coffer" attached to each gun's trail. The ammunition in the "coffer" (Gribeauval System) consisted of:
The French army used two kinds of wagons designed to carry a supply of ammunition:
‘caisson à munition’ (ammunition caissons) and ‘charette-caisson’ (ammunition wagons). The ammunition caissons and wagons were painted in olive-green, metal and wooden parts, including the wheels. The oil paint increased the resistance of the wood
against the damp and bad weather.
This caisson could also carry ammunition for the new 6pdr cannon of System Year XI.
The 4pdr caissons was designed to carry ammunition only for the light 4pdr cannons and infantry muskets:
General Drouot - The Monk-Soldier
He had become a living legend to the men who wore the blue, a figure who elicited an almost mystical devotion. Praying and fighting appeared to be his idea of the whole duty of man.
Antoine Drouot was born at Nancy on January 11, 1774 to a family of bakers; he was one of 12 children of Claude Drouot. Antoine Drouot wrote: "My parents attempted above all to inspire me with religious feeling and to give me a love of work and virtue." Drouot was a man with Spartan tastes. In order to spare parents' budget, he covered the distance between Nancy to Chalons on foot and entered the exam room wearing his walking clothes. Because of his good grades, Drouot was named lieutenant in the 1st Regiment of Foot Artillery.
Antoine Drouot had quick mind and was one the most remarkable artillerists the world has ever produced. In 1804, he requested service in Boulogne where Napoleon was creating the Grand Army. In 1805 Drouot was in Cadiz (Spain). Between 1805 and 1807 he managed the arms factory at Maubeuge and factory at Charleville. In 1808 Drouot was promoted to major. In December he became the commander of the Foot Artillery Regiment of the Guard. The Emperor kept him for great emergencies. In battle Drouot - dressed in an old uniform - stood in the midst of his guns and directed their fire. His quiet and grave demeanor, his steadfastness, reminded one of the mighty strength of his artillery. When Drouot received an order to bring up his guns, he moved fiercely and steadily.
In 1809 Drouot commanded a massive 100-gun battery at Wagram. In 1812 he participated in the invasion of Russia and fought at Borodino. In that year Drouot was awarded with Order of the Legion of Honor. In 1813 he was promoted to the rank of general de brigade. In this year Drouot fought at Weissenfels, Lutzen, Bautzen, Dresden and on October 16 at Wachau near Leipzig. Meanwhile he was promoted to the rank of general de division. At Leipzig Drouot commanded a huge battery of 100-150 guns deployed on the Gallows Height. He gained the victory at Hanau in clearing the Bavarians from the road to France. In 1814 Drouot and his artillery fought at La Rothiere, Champaubert, Vauchamp, Mormant, bloody Craonne, Laon, and Arcis-sur-Aube. Among the 2,000 volunteers that Napoleon was authorized to take with him for his guard on Elba Island was Drouot. Drouot participated in the 1815 campaign but no longer commanded his beloved artillery. At Waterloo Napoleon would take his advice, as an experienced gunner, when he advised to 'wait until the ground had dried out after the rain for the guns to manoeuvre.' Drouot would ever afterwards reproach himself for having lost Waterloo by allowing the Prussians time to come up. (Austin - "1815 - the return of Napoleon" p 289)
"He was a man of considerable courage, integrity and endurance who acquired the nickname 'Sage de la Grande Armee'. During the appalling conditions of the retreat from Moscow it was said that he was the only man in the army to shave in the open daily with a mirror propped up on a gun carriage. A bachelor, who limped as a result of a foot wound (his only injury) received at Wagram, he had been fighting almost continuously since 1793... he was described by Marshal Macdonald as, "the most upright, honest man I have ever known, well educated, brave, devout and simple in his manner." (Adkin - "The Waterloo Companion" pp 12 & 201)
Sappers, Miners, Pontoniers and Pioneers.
The French military engineers (sappers, miners, pontoniers etc.) enjoyed a great reputation. (Small groups of them rendered invaluable service to the Continental Army during American Revolution against the British.) The best officers of the engineers came from the polytechnic school and the school of application. The Napoleonic engineers had been better equipped and organized than the Austrian, British and Russian engineers for many years. They were all well trained under professionally qualified officers. Chlapowski writes: "... I was sent 30 French sappers, commanded by a sergeant, and ordered to take these men and my two companies [of infantry] and eject the enemy [Prussians] from Zblewo. ... [I] selected an advance guard from my Polish troops. But the French [sappers] straight away requested permission to lead off, very politely explaining that older soldiers should set an example. ... These Frenchmen moved so fast that my men had difficulty keeping up." (Chlapowski/Simmons - p 19)
In Egypt with Bonaparte were 800 engineers (sappers, miners etc.) under GdD Cafarelli-Dufalga and Colonel Sanson. In Italy the engineers were commanded by Colonel Chasseloup-Laubat, and in the famous training ground Camp of Boulogne by Marescot. In 1805 the engineers of the I Army Corps were under Colonel Morio, in II Army Corps under GdB de Lery, in III under GdB Andreossy, in IV under Colonel Poitevin, and in V Army Corps under GdB Kirgener. In 1809 during the campaign against Austria, the engineers were commanded by Bertrand. From 1809 several French army corps had one battalion of sappers and one company of miners under command. This establishment included 35 wagons carrying 1,700 pickaxes, 1,700 spades, 680 axes, demolition equipment etc.
The most known engineer in the Napoleonic army was General Henri Bertrand (1773-1847). He was an engineer by training and a longstanding imperial aid. "... immensely loyal ... His great success in the field was the construction of the pontoon bridges across the Danube in front of Aspern-Essling during the Austrian campaign in 1809 ... he accompanied the Emperor to Elba. He was present at Waterloo and was at Napoleon's bedsite when he died on St.Helen, having remained with him throughout his exile." (Adkin - "The Waterloo Companion" p 12)
Bridges Over Mighty Danube River
Bridges Over Frozen Beresina River
Sources and Links.
Elting - "Swords Around a Throne"
Broughton - "French Artillery Regiments and the Colonels Who Led Them."
Adkin - "The Waterloo Companion"
Susane - "Histoire de l'Artillerie Francaise" Paris 1874
Bowden - "Napoleon's Grande Armee of 1813" Chicago 1990.
Chlapowski - "Memoirs of a Polish Lancer" (translated by Tim Simmons)
photo by Korfilm
Artillery Tactics and Combat
Cannons and Howitzers, Gun Crew, Battery, Ammunition
Deployment in Battle, Accuracy of Artillery Fire
Attacking and Defending Artillery Positions
Napoleon, His Army and Enemies