Tag Archive | artillery

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!

Always check your ammo? Try the chamber

Some cannon just refuse to believe the war is over. Take for example this cannon sitting in a shed in New York’s Central Park, said to originate aboard the H.M.S. Hussar during the American Revolutionary War.


My amateur opinion is that a few hundred years of rust and the effects of New York humidity on the gunpowder probably neutralized this threat a few years back. But what do I know.

The article says it was last fired over 200 years ago, so either the journalist’s math was off by a century, or some 19C gunner screwed up.

Trenchard in the Trenches

[Cross-posted from SMHBLOG, but with a few images since I’ve seemingly lost the ability to add them to SMHBLOG.]

An earlier post at the SMHBLOG on Trenchardism naturally prompts this early modernist to muse on the early modern art of bombing civilians. Consider it a late Christmas present.

Like many aspects of warfare, the early modern art of bombardment was quite similar to the theory and practice of its modern counterpart, only on a smaller scale. The practice of launching nasty objects over tall walls is as old as catapults, and it has always been easier to hit the broadside of a town than precisely strike a specific point on a wall. Almost as soon as gunpowder weapons made their appearance in 14th century Europe, warmakers envisioned their use against towns.

As powder and projectiles increased in performance and availability, gunners targeted the inhabitants of fortified places as well as the walls they sheltered behind. Solid shot could pulverize stone walls, while iron cannonballs heated glowing red over an iron grate (“red-hot shot”) threatened to set buildings ablaze inside the town. In the 16th century, the parabolic trajectory of bombs fired from mortars made bombardment more efficient, particularly after bombardiers (eventually) figured out how to light the bomb fuse from the ignition of the main powder charge in the tube. Ever-growing arsenals, supplemented by yet more technological advances, significantly expanded the use of bombs throughout the 17th century: the French development of the bomb ketch under Louis XIV made coastal bombardments a more practical matter; howitzers’ arcing trajectories could also target the interior of a town; while the development of the man-portable Coehoorn mortar allowed thousands of double-grenades to rain down on a besieged garrison, and any unfortunate inhabitants as well.

Bombardment of Gelder, 1703

The Art of Bombardment, Gelder 1703

A few other “inventions” were even more fanciful. As one 1688 periodical reflected on the state of the early modern military art:
But this Age affords more refined Wits, and better fitted for Malice. They have invented Bombs, Balls and Carcasses, full of all nocent [harmful] things, Nails, Knives, Sharp-pointed Contrivances, Grapples, Pistols firing, and several other Diabolical Inventions; which shot up into the Air from the Mouths of the Brass Mortar-pieces, upon their falling burst with such a Violence, as immediately occasions a Total Ruine among the Besieged, and to their Houses; and when the Cities, are of a small Extent, their Havock and Destruction presently forces them to lay down their Arms, and no longer to resist their fury.
But of all Inventions of this Nature, that seems most marvellous of certain Mortar-pieces, which by the force of people and Instruments fill’d with Wind, throw certain great Bombs made of six round and Convex Iron Plates, wherein are contain’d twenty five persons well provided with Arms. These Bombs may be shot into the Enemies Fortresses four times in an hour, and by this means fill them so invisibly with such a vast number of Soldiers, (since twelve Mortar-pieces of the same Bulck will be discharg’d each time) that the Place will be presently taken; for their Sergeants can in an Instant draw them up in good order, and make them seize on the Sentinels and Guards, and by this means obtain a more certain Victory, then ever did the Romans by their Bucklers, or Clypeus Contextus, since they can enter the Towns without any resistance.” Early modern air cavalry, Trojan Horse style.

Mortar firing, c. 1672

Mortar firing, c. 1672

Bombardment technology developed slowly, but the justifications for the semi-indiscriminate attack on civilian population centers remained constant, and are familiar to us today. Most garrisons were quartered among urban civilian populations, and while mortar fire might have been relatively accurate, the ability to distinguish military from non-military targets within a town was limited. Nor was such discernment a priority, since early moderns believed that the bombardment of towns could achieve positive tactical objectives. First, indiscriminate bombardment was used as a threat – declare your neutrality, deliver up the demanded ransom, and nobody needs to get hurt. If compliance was too long in coming, or perhaps if a message needed to be sent, bombardment might serve as a punishment, witness Louis XIV’s 1684 bombardment of Genoa, an Italian port-state that had dared to assist France’s Spanish enemy. On a narrower tactical level, as our quote above suggests, targeted bombardment of a garrison’s barracks and posts might sap the defenders’ morale. But more widespread destruction could also cause the enemy harm – whether the intent was to burn the fodder magazines and mills within the town, or to create a more general conflagration that damaged the enemy’s ability to continue the war through lower tax revenues and destroyed infrastructure. In wars of attrition, such destruction could be its own objective. But, fortunately for contemporaries, this was not the age of the chevauchée: bombardment was rarely used with wild abandon, likely due only in part to the arguments of the cooler heads, who noted that destroying too many towns made little sense if the attacker intended to occupy them and extract their resources.

Even though early moderns refrained from spreading fire and death across the enemy’s lands as a matter of course (at least after the Thirty Years War), the tactical application of bombardment was standard practice. The need for speed encouraged most besiegers to accelerate their attacks by lobbing exploding carcasses in among the townspeople. Besieged burghers, after all, were just as ‘guilty’ for allowing garrison troops to continue their defense, even if they didn’t actively support the garrison. The suffering of innocents appears to have been a non-issue for most military practitioners well into the 18th century, and for many civilian observers as well. Neither Louis nor his Secretary of War Louvois apparently gave much thought to the civilian casualties caused by the bombardment of Luxembourg, nor did the English overly concern themselves about the citizens of Saint-Malo, Dieppe or Dunkirk – the inhabitants of these ‘pirate nests’ facilitated the war effort, and they further benefited economically from the prizes captured by French privateers.

Coehoorn-type mortar (note the handles)

Coehoorn-type mortar (note the handles)

Not even the Christmas season overrode such military expediency. Towards the end of December 1708 the Duke of Marlborough received a civilian deputation from the besieged town of Ghent (population 51,000) begging him to save their homes from destruction. Grinch that he was, the Duke informed them that “since they had brought this misfortune upon themselves by their own folly or negligence [Ghent had had a small British garrison in its castle that was surprised earlier in the year], they must either assist us against the garrison or expect we should use all manner of extremity to reduce them to their duty.” Red-hot shot pelted the town for several hours until the French garrison beat the chamade and negotiated their surrender. Civilian suffering wasn’t always the primary objective of early modern bombardment, but it often was a supplemental tactic. Humanitarianism rarely provided a check on such methods.

Same as it ever was, just on a smaller scale. Like modern airpower theorists, early moderns sometimes hoped that a massive bombardment of the enemy capital would quickly force them to their knees, and on rare occasions it might actually work (as with Genoa in 1684 and Algiers the same year). More often, however, early modern bombardment was intended to terrorize the civilian population on a city-by-city basis, usually coupled with an attempt to capture the town. As so often happens, military capability slides inevitably into military use, with theoretical limitations on war preempted by immediate military expediency. Whether a Coehoorn mortar, a B-29 or a Predator drone, it’s usually easiest to shoot first, and chalk up ‘collateral damage’ to the vagaries of war.

Bomb exploding in town

Bomb exploding in town

Cannon I have barely seen

Photo of a baby cannon fired during a 2007 Revolutionary war reenactment at the Nathan Hale Homestead.

The cannon was tiny (you can almost make out the kid in the smoke, with fingers in his ears). I assume it wasn’t intended to be a replica of a real cannon, or was it?

Also, anyone know if this is an accurate representation of how much smoke an early modern cannon would give off? I’m not a reenactor and haven’t attended many events, so I don’t know if original gunpowder recipes are actually used, or if reenactors like to add lots of smoke, à la Hollywood explosions…

[EDIT: Since I raised the question, I might as well give you all a better view of the cannon in question:

A one-pounder perhaps?]

Cannon I have known

Or, Phallic Symbols on Parade!

I’ll start off this random collection of cannon I’ve photographed over the years by combining it with the quality control issue raised in a previous post.

First up, an Austrian mortar burst while besieging Lille (France) in 1792. It’s located in Lille’s Musée des Cannoniers, which also has, they say, one of the only Gribeauval guns (with carriage and limber) still in existence.

Austrian burst mortar, c. 1792

I suppose they should have pissed on it.

All photographs under Creative Commons license.

Guest Question: Fortress artillery

John Grenier (that’s GREN-ee-er or GREN-ee-ay, as you like it) asked a question in the comments, so I’ll move it here for greater visibility. I’ll give my answer in the comments, and others can chime in as well.

“OK, so I’m looking at the Oct 1756 intelligence reports from Rogers’s Rangers on the forts at Crown Point and Ticonderoga. One of RR’s prisoners reported that Ti held 33 guns (12 18#ers, 12 15#ers, and 9 8#ers) and Crown Point held 18 total, with 18#ers being the largest. I know that is miniscule compared to the numbers in most forts in Flanders, but then again, Crown Point and Ti were (are?) in the middle of nowhere. I wonder, is there some kind of ranking order (1st-rate thru 6th-rate, etc.) for forts, no? Where would a fort with 33 smallish guns, and another with 18, fall in the scheme of things? Of course, these were pretty much stand-alone operations — no mutually supporting forts (unless you consider Ti and CP), garrisons, and magazine systems to help in times of siege. It’s clear by the fall of ’56 that the earl of Loudoun (the Britrish CINC) knew he did not have the transporation system that would allow him to get enough men, guns, and materiel in front of the forts for a siege (yet Montcalm was able to do so the next summer, and had already done so at Oswego). Anyway, just looking for a little context, and I figure this is a good place to ask. Cheers”