I blame the First World War! Well, that and the English Civil War re-enactment groups (yes, all of them – I’m not prejudiced!). Oh, by the way, I have deliberately said “on the battlefield”. In sieges some things are very different…
Artillery, Guns, Great Ordnance… whatever you want to call it. When you read modern accounts of the great battles of the English Civil War you frequently hear of ‘artillery bombardments’ or ‘pounded with artillery’ or similar delightfully florid phrases. Yet strangely, when you read contemporary accounts of the same battles by eyewitnesses, artillery is mentioned incredibly rarely!
Almost all of us can readily bring to mind the account of the aftermath of the First Battle of Newbury, when Atkyns records seeing an entire file of foot killed by a single round. BUT the point about this is that is was so remarkable that it was felt worthwhile to record it. Generally, you just do not hear about more than one or two examples. And yes, I do know about the Quartermaster of the Prince of Wales at Edgehill who was killed by a cannonball. But the comment is an aside; it was the only damage done by the Parliamentary guns to the whole first line. Whether it was the only damage is irrelevant – this was the only damage that it was felt worthwhile recording! (Incidentally the Quartermaster’s post is in the rear of the Troop so the ball had passed over the whole line to hit the poor man.)
Okay, so why do I blame re-enactors and the First World War? What is my point?
To take these in reverse order. If you go to any Civil War re-enactment you will see the artillery drawn up ‘wheel to wheel’, which – to a re-enactor – seems to be about two feet from hub to hub. You will also see guns dashing around the field like some mad light infantry. Both of these horrible inaccuracies colour our concepts.
We don’t have any regulation from the 17th century for artillery placement but we do know that in the 18th century, before the advent of a new level of artillery doctrine during the Napoleonic Wars, the normal frontage for guns was 19 yards. That’s not feet that’s yards! Each gun was expected to be allocated FIFTY-SEVEN feet of space. This frontage actually fits well with what we know of English Civil War deployments when there are references to a pair of guns being placed between battalions. If a battalion is, say, 500 men (the usual size) and the usual practice is followed of the space between battalions being equal to that battalion’s frontage, then the frontage/space is around 80 yards (depending on depth and whether the battalion has closed, etc). In truth, that does probably allow for three or (just possibly) four guns but the gap would then be (to 17th century minds), quite congested.
- So here we have our first point: Guns were widely spaced and their effectiveness reduced by having no overall fire control.
The second point, and one that is directly the result of re-enactor practice, is that 17th century (and in most cases also 18th century) guns are positional! They are taken to the lines unlimbered (yes, Civil War guns, DID have limbers). All of the supplies are dumped around them and the horses are taken back to somewhere safe. There are lots of reasons for this practice and “the drivers were only civilians and fled at the first sign of trouble” is a VERY minor part. For a start, if gun horses were standing around near the guns, and a 12pdr gun was allocated nine horses for its movement (excluding any required for the ammunition and equipment), they would be an obstacle to a second line looking to move up through the guns. Such a number of horses would undoubtedly also take a number of casualties and horses were considerably rarer and more valuable than men. Taking them to the rear would mean that when you have won the battle (and no general enters a battle not expecting to win (well unless you are French anyway)) you can move your guns on. Even if you win you are going to have a problem moving your guns if you have lost half of your horses in the action.
Anyway, I can hear the re-enactors screaming at me that it is possible to move guns because they have done it – fair comment. Let me ask though if when their crew of four of five men wheeled that little 3pdr (or even a 6pdr or 9pdr) they also remembered to move the large barrels of powder that 17th guns needed to actually fire? Or they remembered to move the water barrels/buckets necessary to swab out? Or – and most importantly – the actual pieces of 6, 9, or 12 pd shot, plus the caseshot? You cannot just move some, you have to move it all. Forty pieces of round shot and 10 of case plus the powder will require some moving. Re-enactors do not have to cope with this problem but just imagine that you have wheeled your gun forward (or sideways, it doesn’t matter) 250 yards, you then have to return to get the powder and the shot. If this is a 9 or 12pdr, you aren’t going to be carrying more than one piece at a time. You get my point? Yes, it may have been theoretically possible but the practicalities (as well as the actual inherent concept of artillery doctrine for the period) mean that – to all intents and purposes – it isn’t going to happen.
“But what about Blood at Blenheim?” I hear you cry. Again it is remarked upon because it was such a unique feat PLUS Blood had a lot more manpower to use than simply the gunners alone. This is what made it possible – manpower than was not actually being used at that time. Even with this, he only managed ‘several guns’ (I have never found an undisputed number of them).
- So here we have our second point: Guns are positional. When they are there, they aren’t going anywhere else.
This leads to a related point. The very non-manoeuvrability of guns is why they are so easily captured once positioned. This coupled with the very fact that gunners and matrosses simply do not fight hand-to-hand – ever!!! Picture the situation… you’ve fired your gun and the damned Cavaliers/Roundheads are still coming. You might be lucky and get off another shot (assuming that everyone around you is feeling as brave and confident as you), but then you are facing some very unhappy men. You have your sword (if you are lucky) or maybe a long piece of blunt wood (aka a rammer). He has a pike or sword or musket and you are 50-odd feet from the nearest other gun. There you are with your four or five mates facing maybe 400 of them. To stay and attempt to defend the gun would make you either totally suicidal or a basket-case. Even at Waterloo, Wellington ordered his gunners to abandon the guns and take refuge with the squares (I know Mercer did something different; there is nearly always one exception, but even Mercer’s men didn’t attempt to actually fight!).
Just to prove my point, at the Second Battle of Newbury, Essex’s Foot took an entire battery of emplaced guns frontally, without experiencing exceptional casualties. I don’t think that the gunners were there when the foot actually reached the entrenchments and guns…
Side-note: Civil War case shot was a ‘case’ of tin (or very occasionally wood) simply filled with musket shot. It’s laid down in the warrants. It’s not the handful of loose metal so beloved of Hollywood and fiction writers. Highly effective, but given the frontage of a gun and the frontage of a battalion of foot/squadron of horse, you aren’t going to take out more than some of the attacking force. Most are going to be outside of the arc and if you are still there trying to reload when they arrive….
- Gunners/Mattrosses are sensible guys. They do not try to fight against much larger numbers of unhappy enemy troops. They run. Often, it seems, in good time and without trying to get off that last round….
So if we take all that, where does the First World War come in?
When we hear of an ‘artillery bombardment’ – whether at a distance or, indeed, over open sights – it is impossible not to bring to mind the First World War newsreels of the artillery. Round after round of continuous fire; crews stripped to the waist loading and firing as fast as the gun rolls back into position. By 1918, the British Artillery was firing up to one million (that’s 1,000,000) rounds per day. That is what we think of as an artillery bombardment. It is not what our 17th and 18th century ancestors thought of, or even what they conceived of.
When the Artillery Train was put together for the expedition to confront Monmouth’s Rebellion in 1685, the ammunition allocated to it was 40 rounds of ball and 15 rounds of caseshot per gun. If we take that a gun could fire two rounds a minute without effort (and three if rushed), then they could have fired off all of their ammunition in less than 20 minutes. That’s all of their ammunition for the whole campaign.
The Monmouth Rebellion (and please can we drop the highly inaccurate and anachronistically moronic ‘pitchfork rebellion’?) was a small expedition, but ammunition provision during the Civil Wars wasn’t significantly higher.
When in May 1643 the Royalists organised a marching train for the forthcoming campaign, the 19 pieces were allocated only 50 rounds of ball and 20 rounds of case each (for some reason, the Saker received only 10 rounds of case). When a single 12pdr piece had been sent to Maurice earlier the same month it was sent with 40 rounds of ball and 10 of case. A train of six pieces was organised for Rupert in July, and its ammunition supply was 50 rounds of ball and 10 of case shot per gun.
In 1644, when the King drew out a train for the campaign which resulted in the battles of Cropredy Bridge, Lostwithiel and Newbury II, the 15 pieces received – in most instances – only 20 rounds of ball and 10 of case.
None of these allowances give for any length of ‘bombardment’ but do suggest that the contemporary concept was for only a very small amount of artillery fire since there are no instances of resupply of ball in the field. Interestingly, I have never come across civil war artillery running out of ammunition during an action, although it certainly happened in siege conditions.
- Last point: Guns had quite a small ammunition supply. What fire they did put down was almost all in the opening minutes of an action and even then must have been at selected targets – case shot excepted.
Artillery was effective if you had to face it but our concept of its use and effectiveness in the 17th century is heavily coloured by our 20th century experience and our 21st century minds. Our ancestors had a very different view of it. As a final thought, at Wurschen in 1813, Major Louis Vionnet’s battalion of the Imperial Guard was kept under a “sustained fire of shot and canister” from the Russian batteries for “six hours” – the battalion lost 69 men in the whole battle.
(Incidentally I am not “having a go” at re-enactors. More people have been brought to an interest in the Civil Wars by the Sealed Knot than by any numbers of Gardiners, Clarendons or even – dare I say it – Peter Youngs. AND yes, I understand the need to present a spectacle will sometimes override what is historically correct. My point is that we must be very careful what lessons we learn from re-enacting, invaluable though the best of those lessons may sometimes be).