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"French Horse Artillery limbers (1790's) - civilian drivers?" Topic

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Duke of Plaza Toro10 Feb 2011 8:45 p.m. PST

One of those little dilemmas that crops up from time to time that I am hoping someone can help me with please.

For most of the Wars of the French Revolution the French army relied on civilians and private contractors to drive its artillery limbers (until Napoleon finally militarised them in 1800-01). However, Haythornthwaite claims (both in his Osprey #199 – ‘Napoleon's Specialist Troops' and his ‘Weapons and Equipment of the Napoleonic Wars') that French HORSE artillery limber drivers "were always soldiers, never civilians".

This sounds plausible for a variety of reasons, but Haythornthwaite is directly contradicted by the likes of John Lynn ("Neither were the drivers soldiers, not even in the horse artillery." – ‘Bayonets of the Republic') and Paddy Griffith ("[civilian drivers]…caused relatively few problems to the horse artillery, whose soldiers were a self-conscious elite and would stand for no nonsense from attached civilians." – ‘The Art of War of Revolutionary France')

So – who is right?

Lest We Forget10 Feb 2011 9:15 p.m. PST

Lynn doesn't cite his source used for that comment in his book. His book is based on his doctoral dissertation (I have the book, but read his dissertation before he finished the book). He may have a citation in his dissertation. The Osprey book is a general secondary source. You would need some original source confirmation to be more certain. Lynn obviously used French sources for his dissertation and thus comments in general secondary sources would not hold as much weight. I'm not sure how much orginal French research the late Paddy Griffith did. Hopefully someone who can read French, has access to sources, and is familiar with the period can assist. Interesting question.

I just checked another secondary source (Roger's "Napoleon's Army") and on page 75 he claims "Horse artillery, on the other hand, had their own horses and soldier drivers; but this branch was not included in the old regular army." No source provided. It would be interesting to discover if the claim of "soldier drivers" for HA is being repeated by various secondary sources over the years.

Brownbear11 Feb 2011 3:57 a.m. PST

According to kevin Kiley the train was only militarised around 1800.
See his articles at link

As he is a regular visitor to TMP maybe he can gives his sources

10th Marines11 Feb 2011 4:10 a.m. PST

I have seen no evidence that the drivers for the newly-created and organized French horse artillery arm were artillerymen or soldiers. So, until actual evidence to the contrary is produced by anyone, it is my opinion that the French horse artillery drivers were civilians until January 1800 when Napoleon created the artillery train.


Personal logo Artilleryman Supporting Member of TMP11 Feb 2011 4:44 a.m. PST

If you think about what horse artillery had to do as opposed to foot artillery it makes sense that the drivers would be soldiers from the start. Whereas foot artillery drivers would simply have to lead or ride their horses into position at a plod, in the horse branch, quick manouvers would be required in conjuction with the cavalry and that would require training and discipline. Certainly when Britain formed the RHA, its drivers were soldiers from the start.

Femeng211 Feb 2011 9:08 a.m. PST

Horse artillery compagnies consisted of artillerists AND drivers. Foot artillery compagnies consisted of artillerists. Train compagnies were the drivers. Soooooo?

Duc de Limbourg11 Feb 2011 11:31 a.m. PST

Can someone please give the organisation of a French horse artillery company. I'm Very interested in that. Up to now I have never seen one for thisearly french revolutionary period.
The Dutch horse artillery I presented in the historical data of afaik only consisted of the crew of the artillery pieces themselves so they also had no train attached. I'm trying to find more about them also.
jan, DdL

Duc de Limbourg11 Feb 2011 12:42 p.m. PST

To give some more information about the Dutch horse artillery of this period:
In 1793 it was raised of 2 brigades each of 2 companies each of 6 officers, 7 NCO, 7 corporals , one trumpeter, 80 gunners and 5 workmen (smith, carpenter, wheelmaker etc). So no added train personnel.
Each company should have 4 6pdr, 2 3pdr and 2 24pd houwitzers.

Of the guns, the crew was:
6pdr: 1NCO, 1 corporal, 7 gunners, 2 horse holders and 3 drivers (so limber of 6 horses)
3prd: 1 NCO, 1corp, 7 gunners, 2 hors holders and 2 drivers (limber of 4 horses)
24pdr houwitzer: 1 NCO, 2 corp, 6 gunners, 2 horse holders and 2 drivers (again limber of 4 horses)
Remark: horseholders and drivers were not mentioned in organisation. Of the 80 gunners of a company, 54 would be manning the guns according to the above organisation which leaves 26 gunners. The drivers and horse holders totals 36 so I think the 26 gunners were used as amunition carriers etc.

But now the practice:
For the campaign of 1794, the horse artillery needed to be ready but was understrength and it was decided that one company (instead of the 4 mentioned) would be made ready. The first and second brigade needed to deliver both men for this company who had to be be mounted and armed.
Added to this, each brigade had to deliver 1 corporal and 10 men to act as drivers for the gun limbers. It is mentioned that this had to be expierenced men because manoeuvring the guns was difficult.
About th the crews for caissons and other wagons is not spoken, so these had to be hired from sollicitors.

Additional note:
Mentioned is, that in the period of the Batavian Republic (after 1795) the manner in which the field train was formed stayed the same: men and horses for the train were hired in time of war. But this was changed for the horse artillery; although men and horses were hired, this was also during peacetime. This seperate arangement was changed in 1801 when permanent train personnel were added to the artillery; every artillery brigade received a train division; for each company 25 train servants and 25 horses.

source: "de Geschiedenenis van de Rijdende artillerie" 1968

jan, DdL

XV Brigada11 Feb 2011 2:15 p.m. PST

Dear JCHadderton,

I think there are two different periods here. Lynn and Griffith are writing about the Revolutionary period. I haven't read Haythornthwaite but he appears to be writing about the Napoleonic period. I think it is quite likely that they are all right.

Napoleon (then 1st Consul) established the Train d'Artillerie by Decree of 13e Nivose An VIII (3 January 1800) with its organisation described in the Decree of 16e Thermidore An IX (4 August 1801). Prior to that I think the train was provided by private contractors.



abdul666lw11 Feb 2011 2:33 p.m. PST

The painting of the battle of Marengo (june 14, 1800) by Lejeune picture show a battery of the horse artillery of the Consular Guard: the drivers are clearly in uniform.

Now, even contemporary painters are not error-proof: the same Lejeune in his painting of the battle of Borodino link gives French cuirassiers 'caterpillar' helmets they were to receive only under the Restoration…

10th Marines11 Feb 2011 4:28 p.m. PST

As the original question concerned the French practice perhaps this will help.

As has already been stated by a few of the posters, the French artillery train was created by Napoleon in January 1800. As far as I have found there were no train drivers except for civilians, for either foot or horse artillery, before that date. There is a very interresting painting by LP Sergent of horse artillery going into action during the period of the Revolutionary Wars and the drivers are civilians. It can be seen on page 110 of the book La Patrie en Danger 1792-1793 by Tranie and Carmigniani.

Job also did an excellent drawing of a horse artillery gun team at the gallop during the period of the Revolutionary Wars-and the drivers were civilians.

The Battle of Marengo took place on 14 June 1800, five months after the creation of the artillery train, and it is logical that they were in action by that time.

Are you sure that the cavalry you mentined that are pictured in Lejeune's portrait of Borodino are French? There were plenty of allied cavalry present with the Grande Armee in 1812.

It should also be noted that the French artillery train were not artillerymen-they were soldiers who were drivers, which is why their uniforms were different. The artillery gun companies were 'brigaded' with a train company during wartime and these two companies formed what would now be called the artillery battery. The elite companies of the train battalions (each one of which would 'double' itself in wartime) went to the horse artillery gun companies. That 'brigading' of the two companies, gun and train, was also the reason that the train company commanders were lieutenants (they were initially sergeants in 1800) and the battalion commanders were captains.

So, the bottom line is that prior to January 1800 artillery drivers were civilians and not soldiers. And, when created, the train troops belonged to their own organizations, a train company and train battalions.


XV Brigada11 Feb 2011 7:36 p.m. PST

Dear Jean Louis,

The drivers in Lejeune's painting of Marengo seem to be in the grey uniform of the Train. The 'cuirassiers' in painting of Borodino are carabiniers.



abdul666lw11 Feb 2011 11:22 p.m. PST

the 'cuirassiers' in painting of Borodino are carabiniers.

Alas not – carabiniers had red caterpillars -they appear at the head of the massive cavalry column.
Bavarian cuirassiers looked like French ones but with a black caterpillar, but even if some were at Borodina they could not make up most of this mass of cavalry!
I believe Lejeune painted Borodini on the 1820 and took inspiration from contemporary cuirassiers.

XV Brigada12 Feb 2011 10:06 a.m. PST

Dear Jean Louis,

I looked again at the painting and you are quite right. I now see the 'cuirassiers' at the left of the picture with some lancers. There are carabiniers in the centre. My apologies!


xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx12 Feb 2011 11:05 a.m. PST

If the Austrian artillery is anything to go by, much depends on precision. It is right to say that Austria's entire Fuhrwesen (horse transport) was militarised in 1808, but that was the entire organisation. Previously, it was a mix of civilians, who would drive the ammo and food wagons from the depots up to the main army etc., and military drivers, who would do the more dangerous work in the front line. Their job was to drive horse teams and as such, they do not appear (until 1808) to have been considered "real soldiers" who had done drill and weapons training. However, the 1757 artillery drawings clearly show drivers in white uniforms and kasketts. The drivers are "militarized" in 1771 as part of the Lacy post-7YW reforms and the best men were allocated to the Cavalry guns division in 1783.

The French horse artillery was a rather ad hoc organisation, but quite possibly the drivers would be regarded as little better than civilians by the soldiers and as military personnel by the average peasant dans la rue. Paddy Griffiths says in The Art of War in Rev France that many men "in the horse artillery" came from the cavalry, (which is presumably why the French went for the mixed mounted and Wurst riders approach?). Each battery, he says, required 6 guns, 144 horses and at least 74 men equipped and armed as cavalry together with a leavening of civilian drivers. He then goes on to say that Revolutionary suspicion of all supply services meant that the "artillery transport organisations" remained in civilian hands until 1800. There were a few military "conductors", who were supposed to supervise the civilians, but they were a small minority. It rather looks like the tricky bits were done by soldiers, mostly ex-cavalry, in uniform, while the transport and supply plus quite a few foot battery teams were civilian.

10th Marines12 Feb 2011 5:43 p.m. PST

The cuirassiers in Lejeune's painting look like Westphalian cuirassiers which were definitely present at Borodino.

I can't see Lejeune making such a thumping error as suggested and he undoubtedly knew what French cuirassiers looked like in 1812.


von Winterfeldt13 Feb 2011 12:14 a.m. PST

Lejeune – shows Westphalian cuirassiers, as for Marengo – in the 1800 campaing the artillery train did already wear the uniform, confirmed by the excellent book about the army of Moreau – by Albrecht Adam.

Duke of Plaza Toro13 Feb 2011 7:42 p.m. PST

Gentlemen – thank you for all your responses (those of you who actually stayed on topic grin ) My apologies for not coming back to this sooner – I have been off-line for the past couple of days.

I was aware of my over reliance on secondary sources – which is why I asked the question here to see if anyone with better knowledge and/or a better library could shed some light on things. I think Kevin Kiley (10th Marines) has got closest to the answer (thank you K – enjoyed reading your articles on the napoleon-series) and, as he says, with no apparent evidence to the contrary, all limber riders – Foot AND Horse – should be civilian contractors prior to 1800.

This was my gut instinct from the start, but Haythornthwaite's statement about pre 1800 Horse Artillery riders "always" being military pulled me up short and had me wondering what his evidence might be to support such a definitive and seemingly confident statement! Does anyone know I wonder?

I am aware that some of you have misgivings about Haythornthwaite's skills as a historian – but for me he gets most things right and so I would at least like to know why he said it. (A quick aside here to XV Brigada – Bill – yes, it's a minor miracle when an Osprey on the French ‘Napoleonic' army acknowledges anything that happened before 1796 – 1800, but in this case the context of Haythornthwaite's comment WAS the Revolutionary Wars period).

Again my thanks to Kevin for pointing out the picture in ‘La Patrie en Danger 1792-1793'. The reproduction of the picture in my copy is a bit fuzzy, but yes – with a little eye of faith – the limber and caisson riders are certainly wearing clothing different from the hussar style uniforms worn by the horse gunners. (The Marengo painting mentioned does indeed post-date the militarisation of the train, or at least occurs in the middle of the process. Napoleon issued two decrees concerning the militarisation in 1800 and 1801 as XV Brigada notes – and so that painting is not reliable).

So unless anyone has anything else to add – civilian drivers for early French Horse Artillery it is then. But…

The grey area in all this – as alluded to by Artilleryman (and in passing by Dave Hollins) is the specialist nature of what the Horse Artillery did and the logical assumption we might make that their civilian drivers would have had to be made of much sterner stuff than their brethren in the foot batteries. Paddy Griffith's suggestion that being a "self conscious élite" the French Horse Artillery "stood no nonsense from attached civilians" has a ring of truth about it. I can well imagine that Horse Artillery units often hand picked their civilian drivers – favouring ex-cavalrymen or someone with a military background when they could get them, and those civilian drivers who were assigned to them who lacked the appropriate ‘back-bone' for the work were soon ‘swapped' for more suitable candidates from the general train. As part of this process I can also imagine that the drivers would be constantly reminded by the strutting Horse Artillery gunners that they were now part of an élite unit and inevitably some were handed a military hat or a spare military jacket and told to wear it with pride! Or – to put it another way – the civilian drivers in Horse Artillery units became ‘militarised' by association (and this might have included some aspects of their appearance as well).

This is, of course, all pure speculation on my part, but not beyond the bounds of reason I think. Anyway, thanks once again for the replies. If anybody has any further thoughts on this (or evidence!) I would love to hear them. Haythornthwaite's comment still troubles me a little….

John Chadderton
Eureka Miniatures

XV Brigada14 Feb 2011 5:47 a.m. PST

Dear JCHadderton,

I see. I didn't realise that. I would like to see some confirmation of Mr Haythornthwaite's comment regarding Revolutionary War period HA drivers. Like you it troubles me too.


10th Marines15 Feb 2011 7:11 p.m. PST


I believe that Haythornewaite has developed into an excellent historian. Some of his earlier work has flaws and errors, but that happens to all authors and/or historians.


Duke of Plaza Toro15 Feb 2011 7:40 p.m. PST


Yes – I have a lot respect for Haythornthwaite. It's easy to shoot a few holes in some of the Ospreys but without his efforts over the years the study of this period would be a lot poorer.

His comment on page 75 of 'Weapons and Equipment of the Napoleonic Wars' – "Unlike the 'foot' batteries which had to employ civilian drivers until the foundation of the Artillery Train, horse artillery always had their own drivers." (published 1979) I suppose might count as "earlier work" as you put it? The Osprey #199 'Napoleon's Specialist Troops' (page 13 "Horse Artillery drivers were always soldiers, never civilians.") was first published in 1988. Interestingly, he is less specific (just talks about the problem of civilian drivers – with no reference to horse artillery in particular) in his ‘Napoleonic Source Book' (published 1990).

I would love to know what the basis was for his original statements.

Thanks again for your help.

John Chadderton
Eureka Miniatures

von Winterfeldt16 Feb 2011 12:26 a.m. PST

In the book

Tranié, Carmigniani : Napoléon Bonaparte, 1ere Campagne d'Italie, there is a painting, I think by Lejeune about crossing the bridge at Lodi, certainly with horse artillery, a bit in the rear – a horse artillery train, showing a different dress than the horse artillery.

p. 66 / 67

Also on page 125 a painting by V. Adam, Castiglioni, also with civilian drivers.

Also I don't understand what Haythornthwaite means by own drivers – also the foot artillery had their own drivers – being attached to their company, hired civilians.

In case horse artillery did have permanent drivers they should show up in the etat de service, which they don't.

I would also love to see the source he puts his statement on – but unless he cannot back it up it is an unsourced claim and therefore rated as speculation.

So, in my view – soldiers are unlikley to be horse artillery drivers – up to the establishment of the artillery train in 1800.

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