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"Attacking artillery?" Topic

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937 hits since 11 May 2018
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redcoat12 May 2018 9:15 a.m. PST

Hi all!

May I please ask whether anyone has any inkling whether C18th armies (or influential individual writers/theorists within them) had particular doctrines as regards how to *attack* enemy artillery on the *battlefield*?

My own vague suspicion is that guns were too valuable for their loss to be too lightly risked in combat and that, when enemy infantry or cavalry approached within effective musketry/charge range of them, 'brigades/batteries' of artillery would commonly have been withdrawn to the rear. (The exception, I suspect, would have been guns in fixed defensive positions, which would more commonly be fought to the last extremity and, possibly therefore, overrun.) Or am I quite wrong? Were guns simply too immobile before the end of the century to be pulled out of the line like this?

In addition, is there much evidence of what happened when infantry or cavalry *did* manage to overrun guns that they might not expect to hold? Surely they did not have the capacity to 'spike' these guns in the middle of a combat? (I doubt even the artillerists themselves had this option.)

Any suggestions not least for good, specific reading recommendations would be received very gratefully!! Thanks in advance, all.

Frederick Supporting Member of TMP12 May 2018 10:14 a.m. PST

18th century artillery was not very mobile – in fact, most armies used civilian contractors for their artillery train and hence once guns were unlimbered for a battle, they often stayed unlimbered at whichever spot that was. Lots of guns were lost in the Seven Years War (131 by the Austrians at Leuthen) – including the first horse artillery battery, formed by Fredrick the Great and lost in action, subsequently re-formed

When guns were over-run I suspect they were usually left until after the battle when they could be recovered; not sure but I doubt the usual infantry or cavalry unit could spike them

Fridericus12 May 2018 10:29 a.m. PST

At least in the second half of the century artillery was already very effective. Just have a look at the battles of Trenton and Monmouth: If artillery was massed in a battery there is no possibility for infantry to overrun the guns. Actually the American War of Indenpendence was in the end decided by French artillery at Yorktown.
A different thing is a single cannon; it certainly could be taken by infantry, to be spiked with bayonetts. This spiking could however be removed by trained gun crews, but that would take its time.
Cavalry was a different problem for artillery, their approach was too fast, and the only way out for the crews was to retreat to the squares of supporting infantry units.

redcoat12 May 2018 10:43 a.m. PST

Thanks, Frederick & Fredericus!

I am aware that the American commander Gen. Greene ordered his (three?) 6pdrs to withdraw before the collapse of the rebel line at the Battle of Hobkirk's Hill in 1781 presumably these were light enough pieces to be manhandled away, presumably on prelong ropes. The same guns were also pulled out of the defeat at Eutaw Springs, I believe.

Fredericus's point is well taken. Christopher Duffy says that case/canister probably caused more Prussian casualties in the SYW than any other weapon. And, returning to the theme of the Battle of Hobkirk's Hill, Lord Rawdon decided to attack Greene, did he not, largely because a deserter told him that the American artillery was *not* then with the army?

So, as to my original question: if, as the century wore on, marching straight at an enemy artillery 'battery/brigade' was asking for disaster, did infantry/cavalry have particular doctrines for attacking them? i.e., would infantry try to knock down the crew with musketry *rather* than a bayonet charge?

gamershs Supporting Member of TMP12 May 2018 11:59 a.m. PST

For the 7YW the majority of the guns in this period were with the infantry (battalion guns)and were of smaller caliber. These guns were mostly crewed by the infantry with only a cadre of trained gunners. I suspect they would have stayed with the units they were assigned to.

The battery guns were heavier and were transported by civilian contractors (except in the Austrian army). Once setup they tended to stay put. If threatened, I suspect, the gunners would abandon their guns if they were about to be overrun.

After the 7YW the battalion guns slowly disappeared and the guns were organized into batteries with military transport. It would be up to the battery what they would do if attacked.

redcoat12 May 2018 12:38 p.m. PST

Good points, gamershs!

Regarding battalion guns, I suppose the way guns were used in most battles of the the American RevWar (two or three guns together at time?) was pretty much in line with the use of battalion guns in the European campaigns of the SYW.

For example, I have been flicking through Cubbison's "The Artillery Never Gained More Honor: The British Artillery in the 1776 Valcour Island and 1777 Saratoga Campaigns." This has a wealth of detail on the British artillery in the American RevWar. I was esp. interested in the description of the experiences of the four British guns posted in intervals between the four battalions of the British centre at the Battle of Freeman's Farm (Two 6pdrs under Captain Jones, and two more under Lieut. Hadden). In short, Cubbison shows (pp.108-9) that, every time the British battalions were driven back, the artillerymen accompanied them, carrying away their equipment. When the British recovered and counterattacked, driving the Americans back in turn, the artillerymen returned to their guns, resuming their operation.

In short, when their own infantry pulled back, the British artillerymen with each pair of guns did not remain with the pieces (to hold off the Americans with case shot or to die in the attempt); nor did they try to withdraw them (until the last American advance towards the end of the battle, when it proved too late to do so). Nor in their turn could the Americans pull the guns away.

This commentary above should not imply for a moment any lack of resolution on the part of the RA men with those four guns: by the end of the action, 36 of 48 were dead or wounded, not to mention Capt. Jones who was mortally wounded.

Interestingly, Cubbison quotes (p.112) a British officer, Digby, who recorded that Lieut. Hadden's cap was shot through the front while Hadden was trying to 'spike up' the guns. But this is contradicted by Hadden's own account (p.110), which says his cap was shot through while he was applying to Brig. Hamilton for more men to operate his guns, and in which he explains how he was unable to evacuate them pursuant with his orders.

Can one assume that the main way the Americans overwhelmed the British guncrews was with musketry (incl. rifle fire)?

historygamer12 May 2018 6:58 p.m. PST

So the question would be then, can you cite another battle where this happened, or was this a one off?

Gunfreak Supporting Member of TMP13 May 2018 1:12 a.m. PST

The immobility of 18th century artillery seems to be overstated.
Seems more like a doctrinal thing.
Blood managed to get heavy artillery over bogs and streams at Blenheim.
At Leuthen the big bromers of prussia moved many times.

The inactivity of heavy artillery before the French revolution.
Can only partly be explained by the actual weight.
I think just as much as to do with "well that's how we do it"

redcoat13 May 2018 2:16 a.m. PST

Let's look at one or two other examples of what happened when guns were attacked in RevWar battles, starting with the Battle of COWPENS.

At Cowpens the British had two light guns (3-pounders), which deployed *separately* at different points in the British line (probably one in the very centre, the other in the middle of the 7th Regiment on the British left).

In Babits, 'A Devil of a Whipping' (great book!!), Babits reconstructs in detail the successful American counterattack, in which these two light British guns were lost. These were, in effect, left fatally isolated by the withdrawal/collapse of the British line around them.

Babits first (p.120) quotes Col. John Eager Howard's account, in which he says he noticed the guns, 'advanced a little at the head of the line', and ordered one of his captains, Ewing (presumably meaning, with his men), to seize one of them. Babits then cites an anonymous contemporary account that claims that another American officer, Capt. Anderson, beat Ewing to the gun. Melodramatically, the account claims Anderson used his spontoon to vault onto one of the guns, to avoid being caught in the gun's imminent blast; and from where he then 'spontooned' the artillerman holding the match. (This all sounds rather imlausible to me, but it would be a good example of the kind of flattering 'superman' tale that has generally been accepted verbatim in so much RevWar historiography.)

Babits then (also p.120) cites John Eager Howard himself, who related how, at the *other* gun, he personally intervened to save the gunner with the portfire from being bayoneted.

Babits makes the claim that *all* the RA men were killed or wounded, with four contemporary citations in support. It would be useful to be able to confirm this claim, or to contest it.

In the next chapter, Babits cites (p.127) James Simons' 1803 letter to Col. William Washington, in which Simons related that in one of their charges Washington's dragoons "overtook their artillery, whom you immediately made prisoners; but the drivers of the horses who were galloping off with two three-pounders, you could not make surrender, until after repeated commands from you, you were obliged to order [them] to be shot." Babits doubts Simons' account, regarding the capture of the crews, preferring Howard's aforementioned account and reiterating that the British artillerymen were *all* laid low *defending* the guns.

Can anyone add to this sequence?

historygamer13 May 2018 4:04 a.m. PST

So in both instances cited, weren't the guns unsupported then? If so, I'm not sure they demonstrate so much a recipe on how to attack guns as they show guns are extremely vulnerable without supporting infantry.

Overall, I think your original assertions are correct.

redcoat13 May 2018 5:09 a.m. PST

Yes, historygamer, you are right: in the event of a catastrophic collapse of the infantry line, as at Cowpens, the guns were effectively lost. They could not repel a determined attack, which could take them in one or more flanks, as well as frontally.

If the outcome was looking dubious, the commander had a fleeting chance to get the guns out, by ordering them to be withdrawn as Greene did at Hobkirks Hill. Although he would have liked to have done the same at Guilford Courthouse, weeks earlier, it is clear from Babits and Howard, '"Long Obstinate and Bloody": the Battle of Guilford Courthouse' that this could not be done because the four guns' limber horses had been killed (pp. 165-66).

I'd much like to know what happened to the guns at the Battle of Eutaw Springs – both British and American. When the British line gave way, I imagine they were left behind. When the British recovered, and swept the Americans back, I imagine they were retaken. Anyone know what happened to each side's guns? Did Greene get them away?

Brechtel19813 May 2018 5:58 a.m. PST

There is an excellent book about British General Phillips, who was Burgoyne's second in command in the Saratoga campaign. He was an artilleryman and the book somewhat conveys the issue of artillery mobility during the second half of the 18th century.

Where a Man Can Go: Major General William Phillips, British Royal Artillery 1731-1781 by Robert Davis.

Phillips employed his artillery at one battle, I believe it was Minden, as an attacking arm during the Seven Years War.

The period of the 1740s through the 1760s was a period of great artillery innovation beginning with the Prussians in the 1740s, the Austrians in the 1750s, and the French in the 1760s.

The Prussians created a field artillery arm which dominated the Austrian artillery in the War of the Austrian succession. The Austrians countered by developing their own field artillery arm which both surprised and outfought the Prussian arm in the Seven Years' War. The French had no field artillery until after the Seven Years' War and their development surpassed both that of Prussia and Austria.

The British artillery followed its own line of development and was the model for the American artillery in the War of the Revolution. Artillery employment in that war was necessarily sparse because of the terrain and the available pieces.

Interestingly, some of the American artillery was driven not by civilians, but by artillerymen, and that continued into the US Army as they developed before the War of 1812. The US artillery arm was the only one that used actual artillerymen, and not train troops as artillery drivers.

The British went to military artillery drivers in the 1790s and the French in 1800. The Austrians, Prussians, and Russians also militarized their train troops during the period.

Virginia Tory17 May 2018 9:22 a.m. PST

>So the question would be then, can you cite another battle where this happened, or was this a one off?

Freeman's Farm was unique. The guns were exposed and their support was rather overextended.

The Americans never actually took them, not for any length of time before being driven back again.

Musketier Inactive Member18 May 2018 9:26 a.m. PST

As for disabling a gun, I believe only gunners would carry the reqisite equipment (soft metal nails and a hammer), though regimental pioneers might, too. This would mostly happen in siege situations, when a sortie was undertaken with the specific aim of spiking a battery.
However there were other ways to disable a gun in a hurry. A bayonet has already been mentioned; thrust in the touchhole and broken off, it would require re-boring the hole. Another technique was to wrap a roundshot in a soldier's hat and stuff it down the barrel, preventing loading and firing.
Also, taking away all loading and firing equipment as described meant that the piece couldn't be used immediately, with the added advantage of not damaging the gun itself. For added insurance, British gunners at Waterloo were instructed to take along one of their piece's wheels when retiring, so that no one could drag it away.

Brechtel19818 May 2018 10:38 a.m. PST

For added insurance, British gunners at Waterloo were instructed to take along one of their piece's wheels when retiring, so that no one could drag it away.

Besides Gomm, who was a staff officer and not an artilleryman, where do you have evidence that this was done. Seems to me it would take too long.

von Winterfeldt22 May 2018 7:24 a.m. PST

battalion guns were completley mobile, at least the Prussian ones and the superb Austrian ones, those in the front line – were always in great danger to get lost, when the infantry was defeated and indeed there were losses in great numbers of battalion guns.

Personal logo Der Alte Fritz Sponsoring Member of TMP22 May 2018 8:56 a.m. PST

I think that the old civilian drivers running away with the horses and limbers chestnut is overused and probably doesn't apply to the SYW in many cases. The Austrians and Prussians had their own artillery train drivers during the SYW.

I'm not sure that there was a doctrine for attacking cannon. Prussian batteries were approximately 10 cannon. I don't know what the number is for other countries.

There are accounts of Zorndorf mentioning that the left wing Prussian battery was over run by the Russian counterattack and when they were run off by the Prussian cavalry attack, in turn, the guns were trapped between both lines and they remained so for the rest of the battle.

At Kunersdorf the Russian artillery crews abandoned their guns on the Muhlberg, but carted off their ammunition so that the Prussians could not use them during the battle.

At Hochirk the Austrians over ran the Prussian battery that was located at the edge of the town, the attack was so sudden that the Prussians abandoned all equipment and ammo which allowed the Austrians to turn the guns around and fire them at the Prussians.

There are so many different situations that it is difficult to draw any conclusions about what might be typical.

Winston Smith Supporting Member of TMP22 May 2018 9:03 a.m. PST

Being "instructed" to take a wheel away is one thing. Being able to do it in the heat of battle is quite another. If it were done, surely we would have heard about it.
Taking the rammers and sponges and other portable and necessary knickknacks back when the gunners retire is one thing. But a wheel?

dantheman Supporting Member of TMP22 May 2018 11:37 a.m. PST

Any good references for how artillery was used in the SYW?

Brechtel19822 May 2018 12:46 p.m. PST

As already posted, perhaps this might help:

Where a Man Can Go: Major General William Phillips, British Royal Artillery 1731-1781 by Robert Davis.

For the Austrians you might want to take a look at Instrument of War and By Force of Arms, both by Christopher Duffy.

For the Prussians try The Army of Frederick the Great by Christopher Duffy.

Lastly, this might also help: The Military Experience in the Age of Reason by Christopher Duffy.

23rdFusilier Supporting Member of TMP23 May 2018 3:18 a.m. PST

"Cubbison's "The Artillery Never Gained More Honor: The British Artillery in the 1776 Valcour Island and 1777 Saratoga Campaigns."

Just finished reading this. Truly outstanding book. Much better then the bio of Phillips.

nevinsrip Sponsoring Member of TMP23 May 2018 3:47 a.m. PST

At Saratoga, the Riflemen were ordered to shoot the gunners and eventually the British ran out of gunners.

AT Cowpens, it was Washington and his mounted men who scattered the artillerymen. The Continental Line then mopped up and claimed the guns.

At that time of the battle, McDowell's Riflemen were on the extreme American right pouring it into the Highlanders and 7 th, from the woods.

42flanker23 May 2018 5:54 a.m. PST

Even Cardigan's Light Brigade, charging the Russian guns at the battle of Balaclava- "attacking a battery in front, contrary to all the usages of warfare and the customs of the service..' (not to mention the "cannon to the left of them, cannon to the right of them" and several battalions of infantry) succeeded in taking the guns and killed most of the Cossack gunners- albeit at considerable cost. It was only the Russian cavalry beyond- and, some would argue, the lack of support from the Heavy Brigade- that forced them to withdraw.

It is just unfortunate that the battery wasn't their intended objective.

Brechtel19823 May 2018 6:20 a.m. PST

Cubbison's book is excellent and I forgot to mention it. Well done.

Brechtel19823 May 2018 1:46 p.m. PST

At Saratoga, the Riflemen were ordered to shoot the gunners and eventually the British ran out of gunners.

Which action? Saratoga consisted of two battles-Freeman's Farm and Bemis Heights. Saratoga was not one action.

AT Cowpens, it was Washington and his mounted men who scattered the artillerymen. The Continental Line then mopped up and claimed the guns.

The decisive part of the battle was conducted by Howard's Continentals and it was they who took the guns. Washington's cavalry supported Howard, but it was Howard's action that silenced and took the guns, not Washington's. The artillery horses may have been shot and disabled by Washington's troopers, but Howard's attack was the decisive one.

At that time of the battle, McDowell's Riflemen were on the extreme American right pouring it into the Highlanders and 7 th, from the woods.

McDowell's unit was attacked by part of the 71st and the dragoons commanded by Ogilvie. McDowell's command was driven back, but had gained time for the American main line. McDowell's men 'pouring it in' is an exaggeration.

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