Saturday, 7 January 2017

Talavera 208 - French Horse Artillery

It was the great artillery reformer Jean-Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval who designed the standardised artillery equipments that served the French army so well during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.

Lt. General Jean Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval,
French artillery officer and engineer
1715 - 1789

The principle of standardisation is an accepted norm in military circles today, but in the eighteenth century it was a truly revolutionary concept.

It was however the increased mobility that the Gribeauval system granted to French artillery forces that really delighted the gunners with the removal of the lavish ornamentation that previously encrusted gun barrels, he managed to pare down the weight by up to 45% in some examples. Even with a slightly heavier more robustly built carriage the weight saving still amounted to about 20% over older systems.

Horse artillery crew in action c1807 using the prolong rope attached to the limber - Print after Dorel
Alongside these improvements were added a robust design of carriage with iron instead of wooden axles and with added ropes and levers the guns could very often be fired whilst still attached to the limber and horse teams, but without the need to move the gun on and off the limber each time, very useful when conducting a fighting retreat or a rapid movement to close range. Whilst the design of the split trail and rounded base prevented the recoil of the gun embedding the trail into soft ground.

The development of horse artillery equipped with the lightest versions of the Gribeauval four and later six pounder guns together with crews mounted and able to ride alongside the drivers and limber teams enabled artillery to accompany cavalry brigades and complete the combined arms teams that characterised the mobility of Revolutionary and Napoleonic warfare over that of the preceding century. With enemy infantry forced to form square by the approach of enemy cavalry, the horse artillery could move in rapidly to blast the closed up infantry and break up their defence.

French horse artillery gunner and driver
The video clip below really illustrates well the Gribeauval artillery system used by the French horse and foot artillery teams. This demonstration group are dressed as foot artillery gunners but the orders and crew placements together with the mobility provided by the drivers and team give a good idea as to how these artillery groups would have operated and the speed that they could be brought into and out of action. 

The cannon were categorised according to the weight of shot they used so originally the pieces consisted of the 4, 8 and 12 pounder brass cannon alongside 6 inch bore howitzers, designed to lob shells at targets behind objects or defences and very useful for setting light to defended buildings.

The foot batteries referred to as "division"in the French army were organised around six guns of the same type and two howitzers, very often using the heavier 8lbr and 12lbr guns and the horse batteries around four guns, usually the 4lbr alongside two howitzers.

It normally took eight specialist artillerymen to serve all calibre's of gun and thirteen to crew a 6" howitzer including two bombardiers to set fuses if shells were being used.

The effective or battle ranges for the different gun models are quoted from Guibert's "Essai Generale de la Tactique - 1803".

Detail of French Horse Artillerymen - Rousselot

In 1801, following complaints from French general officers about the performance of the 4lbr and 8lbr pieces versus enemy 6lbr guns, General Marmont, the Inspector General of Artillery was prompted to write to First Consul Bonaparte.

The principle issues were that the 4lbr gun was a poor weapon when using case shot and the 8lbr gun was too heavy as a medium field piece compared to enemy 6lbrs and that alongside other reforms to the Gribeauval system a 6lbr gun should be produced which would be more effective than the 4lbr and equally mobile and was almost the equal of the 8lbr in fire-power.

Napoleon, an artillery officer himself, always took a close interest in his artillery arm, even to the point of positioning the odd gun or two himself
This report provoked the interest of Napoleon, a gunner by profession himself, to set up a Commission of General Officers on the 29th December 1801 to evaluate the situation and to come forward with proposals.

On the 2nd May 1803 the commission proposed what became known as the Year XI System which among other recommendations proposed the replacement of the 4lbr field gun with a 6lbr long and short barrelled gun.

Of all the reforms under the Year XI System it was arguably the introduction of the 6lbr gun that had the most impact, given that the new system was not universally well received with the principle complaint that much ammunition and resources were already in place for the original Gribeauval pieces.

Year XI would continue to be a 'bone of contention' up to 1810 when Napoleon set up another review that confirmed that the 6lbr gun would be the principle reform to come out of the Year XI System condemning the other recommendations as largely unsuitable.

The rough difficult terrain encountered in the Peninsula persuaded the gunners to use lighter pieces than would normally be the case in the rest of Europe and so the foot batteries would often leave the 12lbr guns in the park preferring the 8lbr and later 6lbr long guns for use in the Spanish interior.

It was the 6lbr that became the principle weapon of the horse artillery, although it was not uncommon to still see the 4lbr in service particularly with allied contingents with, for example, the artillery elements in the German Division being issued 4lbrs as replacements for their own guns on arrival at Bayonne in 1808 before their march into Spain.

Detail of French Drivers - Rousselot
Alongside the Gribeauval reforms the other major influence on the effectiveness of French artillery in general and horse artillery in particular was the professionalising and incorporation of the drivers into a military corps as opposed to the civilian drivers of the previous century.

Civilian drivers were  all militarised on 3rd January 1800 as the "Artillery Train", ensuring that horse teams would enter a battle and that ammunition wagons would be kept close at hand to resupply the guns.

Each gun would have its own team together with two reserve caissons of ammunition carrying about one-hundred and seventy rounds per gun.

In addition to the guns and caissons each battery would include one spare gun carriage and team, one mobile forge and one vehicle for tools and spare parts. Thus there might be around twenty vehicles supporting a typical horse battery.

Interestingly there was, until 1809, the year of Talavera, no French drill manual for manoeuvring their gun batteries, and the one there was was an unofficial publication
  "Projet d'Ordonnance Provisoire pour l'Artillerie, Contenant l'Ecole et les MaManoeuvres d'une Batterie de Campagne"
published by General Officers following the Battle of Wagram that year.

It was not until the more common use of multiple massed batteries as one of the key French tactics that French gunners felt the need to issue a drill manual for individual batteries, but still without official principles for using guns in mass formations.

The French concentrated the bulk of their forty plus pieces at Talavera into a mass battery atop the Cerro de Cascajal designed to support their main attack against the British line on the opposite Cerro de Medellin and in the flatter ground lining the bank of the Portina stream. An Ensign in the 3rd Guards noted the ferocity of the bombardment.

"a tremendous cannonade - shots and shells were falling in every direction - but none of the enemy were to be seen  - the men were all lying in their ranks, and except at the very spot were a shot or shell fell, there was not the least motion - I have seen men killed in the ranks by cannon shot - those immediately around the spot would remove the mutilated corpse to the rear, they would then lie down as if nothing had occurred and remain in the ranks, steady as before." 

Paradoxically horse artillery, so useful in the very forefront of battle, was also ideal in the reserve role; ready to be committed by the General who spotted a weakness in the enemy line. I suspect that will be the role of these guns in the forthcoming games

My French horse artillery are composed of figures from the AB range supplied by Fighting 15's with a link to them in the side column.

The colour combination I mention in the video clip for painting my French equipments consist of:

Base Coat - 75% Russian Uniform, 25% Black
First Highlight - Russian Uniform
Second Highlight - 75% Russian Uniform, 25% Off White
All colours are Vajello.

If you have enjoyed viewing and reading this post then add to your enjoyment by popping over to the "Talavera 208 Just Giving" page using the link below and make any contribution you care to, towards a great cause, Combat Stress, and enjoy the warm feeling that will come knowing you have added to the good in the world; not to mention the thrill when you see these models in action this year, and a message from me thanking you for your support. 

Cheers all 

Sources used in the creation of this post:
French Artillery - Patrick Griffith, Almark
French Napoleonic Artillery - Micheal Head, Almark
Napoleon's Guns 1792-1815 (1) Field Artillery - Rene Chartrand, Ray Hutchins, Osprey Vanguard
Artillery Equipments of the Napoleonic Wars - Terence Wise, Richard Hook, Osprey Men at Arms
Painting War 2, Napoleonic French Army Rafael Perez
Talavera Wellington's First Victory in Spain - Andrew W Field


  1. Interesting post and nice pictures!

    1. Thanks David, glad you enjoyed the read

  2. Nice post and excellent paintjob!

    1. Cheers Phil, I really enjoyed this project and I find it interesting to see how my painting has changed since I did the original horse team.

  3. Absolutely beautiful! Really like the look of these guys. Have noted down your colours for the French woodwork too. Very useful, thanks.

    1. Thanks Rodger. If you want to get some ideas on colour options I would recommend the "Painting War" French Army book.

  4. Great post - very informative and filled with nice pics of outstanding minis! Cheers!

  5. Bravo!

    I like the combination of your detail imagery with the historical reference information.

  6. Great looking batteries, and nice background!

    1. Cheers Peter, glad you like them. I'm looking forward to seeing them en mass.

  7. Replies
    1. Thanks Jon, the AB figures are a joy to paint.

  8. Excellent read Jonathan, love the troops, those limberes ate really special. I'm rereading chandlers campaigns of napoleon at the moment and you get a bit about the artillery and train in there. Love the vid. Are you on youtube yet? Would be great to see you troops on there will your thoughts on them and how you did them.

  9. Brilliant, love the video, really brings then to life. Great work on the limber team with the traces. I have a number of these to do myself. Keep getting them out, dreaming about them and putting them away till a later date 😶

    1. Hi Paul
      Thanks mate, you had me going there for a minute thinking if the YouTube was playing up.
      Yes the artillery limbers are all about topping and tailing the French and British collections as my original Napoleon at War basing meant I had sufficient guns painted up for Talavera but converting to two gun batteries meant I needed more teams. Thus I have just a couple of British teams to do which I will post on with last French foot limbers and that's those collections done. Then on to the Spanish.
      Also playing with some Blue Moon wagons which I think you have built as well. They are lovely models but having to scratch build some drivers - more anon.
      I am enjoying playing with the video, thanks for the nudge.

    2. You know I didn't spot it was on youtube! I seen the red and white button however for some reason it didn't open up into youtube only in your blog link. I did a search for the title just now and see you have a few other vids. I'll check them out after work Jonathan!

      Great to see you on youtube!!!