Help identifying things

I’m finishing up my edits for the final version of my West Point History of Warfare iBook chapter on the War of the Spanish Succession. Eventually they’ll release it beyond those lucky cadets who get to read it for their course.

Among other tweaks, it was suggested I incorporate the following image and include various hotspots. Here’s a low-res version of the whole thing:


The image is available from the Rijksmuseum to view and download in all its gory and glorious detail (once you register). All rights belong to them, of course.

I’ve spoken about the bombardment of Gelder before, and will have plenty to say about it for this image. One of the features of the chapter, however, is to give the reader a sense of the nitty-gritty reality of war. And since I’ve personally participated in at least thirteen early modern sieges (and have the wounds to show for it), I’m obviously the expert who can explain what all of these things are.

And yet, somehow, I don’t know everything. In fact, there are a few things in this panorama of a bombardment battery that I don’t know. A few others, I have speculations. But we certainly can’t let the West Point cadets rely on guesswork.

Since I’m leaving for France in the morning, I don’t have time to look through my Saint-Rémy and various other artillery manuals right now. Thus I’m hoping someone already knows what these things are, and is looking to impress. (Bonus points if you can cite a source or point to other examples.)

To help contextualize, recall that this depiction of a battery is only a bombardment of a poorly-garrisoned town, not a full-blown siege, which means there aren’t approach trenches or saps, and the bombarding side likely isn’t expecting sallying troops to charge all the way to the battery across all that open ground. (See the appendix in my Vauban under Siege if you’re still unclear on the difference between a bombardment and a siege.)

Let the quiz begin.

First up, what are these bucket-like objects resting on the parapet in the guard trench in front of the battery? What were they used for? And please don’t say they’re helmets. (And I sure hope they’re not airing out their chamber pots either.)

Bombardement de Guelder 1703 buckets

Next up, I’m thinking this might be a mechanical planer of some sort (given the boards, possibly a rough pre-board in the back and an after-planing straight board in the front). Can anyone confirm?

Bombardement de Guelder 1703 planer

And what are these things on the ground at the bottom, which look like a metal container with some black cloth attached to their tops?

Bombardement de Guelder 1703 possible funnels

I’m guessing they might be funnels: I’d speculate the pliable cloth opening is pushed into whatever-size hole and then you tip up the container and gunpowder goes in – either down a muzzle or in a bomb. The other staff-like objects are for loading and cleaning cannon obviously.

Next question: What goodies do these little huts hold?

Bombardement de Guelder 1703 powder sheds

Less-likely speculation: are these fascine-topped huts gunpowder storage? In the entire image, there’s surprisingly little gunpowder that I can see, apart from (possibly) a few pony kegs. Admittedly, one would rather not have gunpowder lying around willy-nilly, but this strikes me as a very clean battery. There’s a solid-looking red shed on the far left that would be a logical place to store gunpowder barrels, but you’d think they’d have more illustration of gunpowder being transported to the different guns (unless maybe those funnel-like containers are actually gunpowder carrying case + funnel. Which might make sense now that I think about it).

More-likely speculation: Or perhaps the fascine-roofed sheds store pre-filled mortar bombs? I don’t see any obvious equipment (other than possibly the funnels) that indicates that they are filling the gunpowder-filled bombs on-site, so possibly they were delivered to the battery already full, or filled all at once, and then placed in the shelters for some minimal protection. The fact that these fascine sheds are directly behind the mortars, whereas the grates heating the red-hot shot are behind the cannon, might support this idea.

Final question: Who’s a brave doggie?

Bombardement de Guelder 1703 doggie

You are!


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6 responses to “Help identifying things”

  1. Frederik Dhondt says :

    I am afraid I can’t help you, but can only repeat my admiration for your thorough and most valued work on the War of the Spanish Succession. Can’t wait for the iBook to come out !

  2. Cliff Rogers says :

    It’s only guesswork, but I suspect the bowls might filled with water and are used to detect enemy mines. That technique was used at the siege of Caen in 1417, I believe, though I’m not sure the source. Re the sheds, why not both mortar bombs and gunpowder? Both ought to be kept in “bombproofs.” Funnels– in your period was powder put into guns in cloth sacks? That’s what they look like to me, measuring cups plus powder sack.

    • jostwald says :

      Thanks Cliff. I’d considered the mine detectors, though I’d only heard of the water detection trick used in China, so it’s good to know the Europeans used it too. But it still seems a bit odd:
      1) Why would they put them up on the rampart where you’d have to expose yourself to garrison fire in order to peer down into the bowls, rather than just put them on the ground, where they’d always be visible? And you’d have to be peering in them a lot if you were really concerned about mines.
      2) Why put them on the less-compacted rampart made of dirt, gabions, fascines, etc., which would (I’d think) be less likely to transmit vibrations from underground than the hard-packed ground behind the trench?
      3) It seems a bit of overkill to worry about mines in this case, since the battery was pretty far away from the place and the garrison wasn’t likely to conduct many sorties, much less mine all the way to the battery. I can’t recall any mines extending out very far beyond the glacis.
      4) Presumably those massive cannon salvos would also interfere with any such detection by making the water vibrate.
      Mine detection is the only thing I could think of, but its application seems really suboptimal, so I wonder if there’s something else.

      Of course all this assumes that the illustration was an accurate representation of the reality, and that we had fully rational actors! 😉

      There could be gunpowder in those fascine sheds, but the solid red structure on the left makes me think that’s where the main gunpowder supply was stored.

  3. jostwald says :

    Now that I look at that “mechanical device” more closely, most likely it’s not really a machine, but instead the workers look like they are manually assembling a carriage, possibly changing wheels on a gun carriage (the wheels look the same as those on the cannons firing, and you can somewhat make out the trail that the barrel would go on). Presumably that wooden plank is a ramp, or maybe used for leverage as elsewhere in the image. You can also see another setup on the far left of the battery (behind the last group of cannon firing). There’s also a carriage sans barrel right behind the red gunpowder hut; and on the very far left there’s, I think, a row of cascabels/breeches (the back end of the cannon, including the knob) on the ground.
    In other words, this was, not surprisingly, all about repairing cannon – accounts of sieges will often mention (in passing) the need to repair the most fragile part of the cannon barrel, the breech; overall, carriages were the easiest part of a cannon to be damaged and require repair.

    • jostwald says :

      I took the initiative to see if there were any experts about field artillery online – I had the brilliant idea to search for “artillery carriage”, and lo and behold, Google sent me to Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop, who also just happen to make carriages for replica (and maybe real) field artillery. Within a day the president of the company was kind enough to respond with his thoughts, which I include here:
      “The interesting detail is a plank of wood aligned as a ramp to a trough.
      My thought is field maintenance greasing axles, tightening fittings, assembly of a shipment or wheel maintenance.
      A common wheel maintenance is to soak the wheels in a wheel trough filled with linseed oil, this helped preserve and weather proof the wheel felloe.”

      So thanks to him, and I heartily recommend Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop for all your field artillery carriage needs!

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