Wednesday, January 10, 2018

How Effective was Artillery in the Kabinettskriege Era?

Reenactors portray Royal Artillerymen at Brandywine

Dear Reader,

Today we are going to examine the effectiveness of an important branch of service in eighteenth-century armies: the artillery. There is a seeming contrast of information regarding the accuracy of cannons in the eighteenth century. Just how effective was artillery on the battlefield during this period of history? Allow me open with two anecdotes to illustrate this point. In the first anecdote, Frederick II "the Great", took a careful interest in the disposition of one of his guns, aiming it and hitting the target.
"'There you are,' said the king, 'you don't bother to aim properly, otherwise you would have hit it.
'You can't always rely on it,' said a veteran gunner.
'Just let me show you!', riposted the king, and he aimed the cannon once again. They fired the gun, and this time the ball followed a totally different path."[1] 
Here, we see the random and unpredictable nature of eighteenth-century artillery and the micro-managing aspects of Frederick's personality.  In the second anecdote, a trained professional, Bombardier Kretschmer, is a bit more consistent:
"General Saldern, seeing the damage caused by the enemy battery, rode up to our gunners. 'Bombardiers' he said, 'if you can knock out those guns, I'll give you 10 Thalers.' [5 months wages for an enlisted man] Our bombardier, named Kretschmer...replied, "General, it won't take long." His first howitzer shell landed in front of the battery, forcing the Austrian gunners to fall back for a moment, giving us time for another shot. With this second shot, Kretschmer hit the Imperial ammunition caisson... now the enemy left their battery. The general immediately reached into his pocket and gave Kretschmer [his reward], saying, "that was a good hit."[2] 
In the first example, cannon fire seems almost random, even if the artillery is being carefully aimed. In the second, skilled gunners conduct accurate and devastating counter-battery fire. Which is more representative of Kabinettskriege artillery?

Reenactors fire a Prussian 12-pound cannon
In answering this question, we turn to a number of well-respected authorities. Christopher Duffy, as always, provides a great mass of material on European armies of the mid-eighteenth century. For those interested in the technical aspects of cannon during the Seven Years' War, there is no better source than Christian Rogge's blog on the subject. In English during this period, it was common to refer to artillery as "guns," and I do so several times in this post. So: how accurate and effective was eighteenth-century artillery?

In brief, artillery was quite effective, even out to 800 yards, if firing at large bodies of men.  When targeting single individuals, or troops using cover and concealment, artillery was somewhat less effective, particularly during the American War of Independence.  In addition, throughout the period, as a result of Austrian and French artillery reforms, artillery became more effective.

Although perhaps comparatively less effective than rifled artillery in the mid-nineteenth century, cannons still played a dominant role on Kabinettskriege battlefields, particularly in the latter portion of the period. The Swedish Army of Charles XII did not value artillery, perhaps as much as it should have. Relying on swift-movement and aggressive tactics to win the day, Charles and his army took four cannons with them to the battlefield at Poltava, compared with the Russian eighty-six. Charles should not suffer to much blame, as many military theorists undervalued artillery, particularly in the early and mid-Kabinettskriege era.

Prussian Artillerymen from the Von Schmalen studies
Eighteenth-century military observers often undervalued the role of their cannon, leading to statements such as Mauvillon's comment, "cannon fire does no great damage during a battle, and that it is a proverb among our military men that you have to be specifically foredoomed if you are to die of a cannon shot...".[3] Such statements by military intellectuals ignore the power of cannon on the battlefield, even before 1750.  Sampson Staniforth, a common soldier in the British Army, recalled his experience at the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745:
"And in the mean time, the French batteries playing upon us, did us much hurt. We wheeled off, in order to get into the plains of Fontenoy. I had not marched far before we met a horse without his rider, and the lower part of his head taken off by a cannon-ball. A little after, I saw one of the guards lie dead ; and soon after, many more. We still advanced, and drew up in line of battle, in the plain of Fontenoy. The French before us were intrenched up to the neck, and many batteries of cannon were playing upon us. I was in the front rank, and the left-hand man joining the Dutch. We stood there, till the Dutch turned their backs and marched away. I was then left exposed to a battery on the left, and the batteries and small arms in the front. Soon after our regiment, with some others, were ordered to advance and attack the French in their trenches. We marched up boldly; but when we came close to the town of Fountenoy, we observed a large battery ready to be opened on us. And the cannon were loaded with small bullets, nails, and pieces of old iron. We had orders to lie down on the ground; but for all that, many were wounded, and some killed."[4]
 How can we account for this discrepancy between theory and practice? To a large, Mauvillon is correct that very few infantry were killed by solid-shot (non-explosive "cannon-balls") while advancing in line. These balls could be effective out to 900 yards, as they were at the Battle of Torgau. Howitzers sometimes fired explosive shells which could affect a large area. Artillery fire killed a much larger number of men when the gunners began to use canister: large numbers of smaller balls which turned the cannon into a giant shotgun. This type of ammunition became increasingly effective at under 300 yards, still outside the optimum range of musket-fire. Christopher Duffy asserts that " Canister was the tactical equivalent of machine gun fire, and in the Seven Years War it probably inflicted more casualties on the Prussian infantry than any other weapon."[5]

 Canister fire sometimes was able to repel large bodies of enemy infantry, even when the artillerymen in question were unsupported by friendly infantry. Captain Georg Pausch found himself in this rather unenviable position during the second battle at Saratoga in 1777: the Battle of Bemis Heights.  Pausch's two cannons kept up a heavy fire on the enemy, even as his infantry support collapsed:
"Now I and my cannons... held the respect of the enemy, who was before me, with cartridges for some time. How long the infantry left me alone, I cannot say with certainty.... [we] began firing alternately with canister and balls, whatever the piece would take...[the enemy] pushed forward vigorously towards my cannons, in the hope of silencing them. This effort failed twice, and was prevented by firing canister. Two cart-loads of ammunition were fired by my cannons, and I had started on the third. My cannons were so hot that no one could place a hand thereon."[6]
Pausch and his gunners were eventually overrun in the process of trying to move the guns to a safer position. Canister, then, even if only fired by two six-pound cannons, was capable of delaying enemy infantry.

Even firing round shot at longer ranges could have a devastating effect if enough cannons were present. The only example of a great infantry assault knocked back primarily by artillery, à la Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, comes at the Battle of Torgau in 1760. 10 battalions of Prussian grenadiers emerged from the woods in front of the Austrian Army and were quickly devastated by the firepower of massed Austrian guns. As a result of their reforms from the 1750s, the Austrian artillery system was probably the best of the eighteenth century. Frederick the Great agreed with this assessment, saying that the Austrian artillery was, 'as fine as it can possibly be."[7] Although it is possible that the Prussians took 24,000 casualties in the whole of this battle, 5,000 men were cut down in the first half-hour of this initial infantry assault.[8] This figure is astounding because the Austrians were firing round shot at over 800 paces rather than canister at close range. The exact number of cannons involved in the bombardment is unclear, but the Austrian army as a whole had 275 guns at this battle.

Temporary Matrosses on loan from the King's Regiment
When massed, or firing canister, cannons could knock back infantry assaults. They were also especially deadly when the enemy was formed in marching columns or the guns managed to fire on the flanks opposing troops. At St. Lucia in 1778, British Lt. Colonel Francis Downman had an ideal target for his guns:
"We are well in formed that the French did not lose less than 2,000 men during their stay on shore, and a very great number of them by cannon shot. The battery I had the honour to command on the attack of the 18th, did great execution. I received the thanks of Generals Grant and Medows, the latter called me his best ally. I had a fine situation for galling the French army as they marched to the attack in columns, I had them then charmingly, and while forming, and after being formed, and also in their retreat. I kept up as heavy a fire as I could on their flank which was presented to me the greatest part of the action. My shot in this situation swept them off by the dozens at a time, and Frenchmen's heads and legs were as plenty and much cheaper than sheep's heads and trotters in Scotland. Three of my guns were cracked during the action, one of them is rendered totally inservicable, the others will do at a pinch."[9]
Cannons did indeed suffer malfunction if used heavily, as both Pausch and Downman indicate. Despite this, artillery could be safely be fired twice a minute. Christopher Duffy asserts that the Austrians could safely fire four rounds a minute: as fast if not faster than a musket. [10] Eighteenth-century gunners were aware of the need to fire quickly: at Bemis Heights, Georg Pausch noted that his guns were not overrun because he guns made three shots for every one fired by British twelve pounders nearby.[11]

A Sargeant of the King's Regiment aims a gun at Fort Niagara

Gunners were often, as we saw with Bombardier Kretschmer above, called upon to duel with their opposite numbers. Various military authorities have strong opinions on counter-battery fire. Frederick the Great appears to have encouraged it in the 1750s, but wrote against it in the 1780s.[12] The American guns at the Battle of Brandywine appear to have engaged in extensive counter-battery fire, particularly while covering the retreat of troops late in the day.[13]

So- having shown that guns could be effective in some circumstances: let us move to moments when they were not: against individual targets, or against dispersed groups of soldiers in concealed positions. Sometimes, cannons could be used against individuals. Famously, King William III of England was slightly wounded by a cannon shot just before the Battle of the Boyne. However, I can think of nothing comparable to the veritable assassination of Leonidas Polk by rifled artillery in the American Civil War. Against troops in concealment or rifle-armed troops, gunners could swiftly run into trouble. In the Battle of Freeman's Farm, Lt. James Hadden lost 19 of his 22 gunners to enemy fire. When enemy troops were not on the advance, or in open terrain, artillerists struggled to destroy the enemy, or even drive them from concealment.

Reenactors portray Royal Artillerymen

Infantrymen knew that gunners were perhaps their greatest foe on the battlefield, and often took steps to preserve themselves. Throughout the eighteenth century, British troops frequently laid down under artillery fire, a practice which may have been adopted by the Russian Corps of Observation at Kunersdorf in 1759. It is possible that the Prussians used a different method to avoid artillery fire: continuous movement. During a rearguard action at Hochkirch in 1758, General Saldern,
"caused the regiments to move to the right or left whenever he saw cannon shot falling among them. In this advantageous manner, he made the retreat in a sort of zig-zag motion and lost barely 130 men in the retreat, notwithstanding the overpowering enemy and hail of bullets... Saldern's eyes were always moving between the enemy, the regiments, the surrounding terrain, and a place of safety and order."[14] 
Despite these measures, artillery remained a decisive force on eighteenth-century battlefields, possibly causing more casualties than any other branch of service during the Seven Years' War. Kabinettskriege artillery, far from adding dignity to an ugly brawl, added to the violence and chaos of already indescribable battlefields.

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns


[1] Anonymous, Beträge zu dem Anecdoten, 17. (Translation is Christopher Duffy's.)
[2] Ernst von Barsewisch, Meine Kriegs-Erliebnisse, 115-6.
[3] Mauvillon, Histoire de la derniere guerre de Boheme, Vol II, 101. (Translation is Duffy's.)
[4] Thomas Jackson, Lives of the Early Methodist Preachers,  Vol IV,  125.
[5] Duffy, Military Experience in the Age of Reason, 217.
[6] Georg Pausch, Georg Pausch's Journal and Reports of the Campaign in North America, 87-89.
[7] Duffy, Instrument of War, 290.
[8] Duffy, Army of Frederick the Great, 303.
[9] Downman, The Services of Lieut.-Colonel Francis Downman, 105.
[10] Duffy, Instrument of War, 290.
[11] Pausch, Journal, 87.
[12] Duffy, Army of Frederick the Great, 184.
[13] Downman, Services, 33.
[14] Carl Daniel Küster, Characterzüge des Preussichen General-Lieutenants von Saldern, 12-13.


  1. I think I read once that the French commander at the Boyne was killed by artillery.

  2. Very enlightening article, I appreciate your inclusion of a bibliography too.