Napoleonic Era Warfare

Let’s take a break from socioeconomics for a bit. It’s been fun, and I’ve obviously been very passionate learning about it, but I have an older love for the 19th century. You might have noticed this when I spent over 4,000 words singing a love song for the London sewer systems. I’ve picked up a ton of random trivia about it, so I want to just do a little ramble through the trivia I find interesting.

But I think one of the most interesting ways to look at history is warfare. Warfare is the culmination of a society’s engineering and social technologies in a way that is hard to find elsewhere. As a friend once said to me so neatly; “When something is invented, the first three questions will be; Can I kill someone with it? Can I have sex with it? Can I sell it?” and it’ll be asked in that order.

You can see a nation’s priorities emerge, too, because progress doesn’t happen in a straight line. Sometimes it even regresses.

Take, for instance, artillery and the history of the Armstrong gun.

The Armstrong gun is one of the first pieces of modern artillery seen on the battlefield, by which I mean it was a rifled breech-loading cannon that shot a conical shell. Originally tested in a 3 pounder variant, it was ordered all the way up to 110-pound equivalents for naval batteries, and the 12 pounder Armstrong gun was used extensively in New Zealand in 1863 — against the Maori — and in Japan in 1868 for the Boshin war. The larger variants were used to devastating effects against the Chinese navies during the Second Opium War, 1856-1860.

In short, it was a glorious phallic symbol of British colonial and technological supremacy abroad.

But notice I don’t note years after 1870. Did it become outclassed? Actually, no. In 1865 there was a commission into breech loading guns and, even before the commission was finalized, breech loaders stopped being ordered, and the British went back to using muzzle-loading ball-cannons. Why?

They were much cheaper to buy, and much cheaper to buy ammunition for.

Breech loading guns had never burst, killing their crews. They were more accurate and had greater range. You could clear a dud shot easily — muzzle loaders required men to be lowered inside the barrel to attach a remover, dreadful business. But they were too expensive.

Armstrong compromised by designing a ball that had studs around it, so you could have rifled muzzle-loading cannons. The British army and navy used rifled-muzzle-loaders until the 1880s.

What changed?

Here we get to another one of my favourite bits of history. The HMS Warrior.

In 1860 the British navy launched the HMS Warrior, a 40 gun toting, steam powered ironclad. Beautiful monster of a ship. 40 Armstrong guns too, the 110 pounder variant. What does ironclad mean? Well, it means that as well as the usual wooden hull, it had 4.5 inches of wrought iron armour plating on the outside of it.

No navy could pierce that. Most cannons in the world couldn’t penetrate that armour within fifty yards, let alone at the usual broadside distances of ship-of-the-lines. It’d be like taking a tank to the battle of Agincourt.

So why is it one of my favourite pieces of history?

Because it only lasted fifteen years in service. Britain’s naval might was basically unchallenged at this point in history because of its ship-of-the-line dominance. But with the Warrior’s construction, they’d made wooden navies completely obsolete. Britain’s industrial domination wasn’t as total as its naval superiority, so they could only produce these new iron ships as fast as their rivals.

The Warrior, built to ensure Britain’s naval superiority, had destroyed it, which necessitated stronger cannons, which is why you start seeing the really big Krupp guns show up in worlds’ fairs at this point.

These guys make elevators now. From blowing things up to going things up.

So what was the point of a three or a six pounder gun, what the Armstrong was originally ordered as?

That actually goes back to Frederick the Great, of Prussia. I’m cheating a little here: Frederick’s accomplishments were actually in the late 18th century, but he helped define Napoleon’s tactics

Military advances come in two ways: Technology and doctrine. Technology is the tools and doctrine is how they’re used. For instance, cannons were used in warfare for centuries and well and truly through the medieval period, but we tend to think of them as a post-renaissance weapon. Why?

Because the technology was there, but the doctrine wasn’t.

Frederick the Great is a fantastic example of doctrine catching up to technology. Frederick was the first to realize that cannons, in 18th century warfare, were devestating but misused. Their most obvious usage was skirmishing: Drawing and goading enemy forces into fighting at a disadvantage, or suffer being withered away with impunity.

Frederick realized that cannons were most effective when fired into the flank, or along columns. This was usually used by stationary armies attacking approaching ones: Armies marched in narrow columns, which you could skip a cannonball down like a bowling ball through pins. Actually, skimming was very common. Shooting a cannonball along the ground at a shallow angle caused it to bounce, and then roll, rather than sinking into the earth.

Inconveniently though, when the battle actually started the enemy tended to form long lines, and cannons were far less effective until the distance could be closed for canister shot — think a coffee tin filled with ball bearings.

Frederick realized something very important: It wasn’t the size of the cannon that mattered, but how you used it. The size of the cannon was far less important than the position it could be fired from.

I guess you could say that six-pounders were glorified sawn-off shotguns in the same way that a revolver is a glorified Pez dispenser. They were designed to be light enough that they could be carried at full speed on horseback — thus their name ‘galloper guns’.

A galloping guns’ purpose was to be moved into position on an enemy’s flank, out of range of musket fire — aiming wasn’t invented until the 1830’s, and that’s not entirely a joke — and fire a few flanking shots.

Then… run away, reload, repeat on a different flank.

So that was the purpose of the smaller breech-loading guns. “Galloping guns”. Ambush artillery.

It wasn’t until the Duke of Cumberland, and the 19th century, that you saw cannons be manned in ‘V’ shapes across battlefields, aiming in diagonal paths to try and flank the mainline infantry with the heavier artillery. Until Cumberland, it was plinking away in straight lines.

This is also why cavalry was so fierce at this point. Muskets were only effectively used in a 50yd range — soldiers weren’t taught to aim, they were only taught to reload as fast as possible — and that 50yd range can be closed terrifyingly fast on horseback.

A thick line of men is vulnerable to artillery fire, but can do something called ‘forming square’ — the unit makes a spear wall of bayonets in a square shape — making itself far more resilient to cavalry. A thin line of men is far more resilient to cannonade, but was vulnerable to cavalry, who’d mop them up.

Actually, a fun story from the Napoleonic wars in Spain. The first cavalry charge of the French against the English was the first cavalry-on-cavalry battle most of the infantry on both side had seen. A ceasefire for the infantry lines was called so they could see the charge play out.

In a heated battle, two lines of thousands of men stopped shooting at each other, waved each other down, pointed at the horses, nodded a gentleman’s agreement to each other and watched.

This sort of thing was more common than you might think. One of Wellington’s riflemen was caught by a senior officer taking a bead on a French troop and then, at the last second, pulling his rifle wide and firing. When asked what the bloody hell he thought he was doing, he replied;

“I can bag a Frenchman any day. It’s not often I can get a good rabbit for the pot.”

I keep talking about Napoleon. I mean, the era is named after him. Just how good was he?

He fought sixty battles and only lost eight of them. Seven wars were declared on him by all of Europe, and he won five. This is largely due to the fact that he led an army that voluntarily fought for its state. While opposing monarchies relied heavily on conscription, Napoleon’s officers could point to its national borders and say: “You see those people? They would make you serfs again.”

A commenter on the Patreon side pointed out this as the opposite of the case;

I’m afraid this is backwards. The French Revolutionaries invented universal conscription. Napoleon was a genius, military and otherwise, but a big part of the reason he was able to defeat the rest of Europe was that he was the first to fully implement universal conscription. His enemies used volunteers (with some press-ganging, hence the US-British War of 1812), so every other country had much smaller armies than France.

But there’s a large point to consider here of; Why could the French get away with universal conscription when their enemies couldn’t? Especially the French, who had just proven themselves capable within their lifetimes of overturning their own government? Universal conscription, according to political scientists Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, is not an option for rulers who have legitimate fears of arming the majority of their populace.

Regardless, it was an effective recruiting tactic, and I think my favourite example is of the Hundred Days. After Napoleon had been defeated and incarcerated in Elba, he managed to smuggle himself back onto the mainland and raise an army again. The army he raised was fiercely loyal, even now.

When he was stopped by royalists in Grenoble he stood in front of them, ripped off his shirt, and said: “If any of you will shoot his Emperor, here I am.” Nobody shot him, and they all joined him for his fateful march to Waterloo.

As an aside, Napoleon’s government was responsible for the invention of canned food, in 1810, for military purposes. So that’s cool. Apparently the can opener wasn’t invented until 1856.

Napoleon also had a system of promoting men on merit, and pioneered rewarding individual soldiers with medals for valour. This was unprecedented: Officers were supposed to be the aristocracy who bought in to the role, or gentleman volunteers who worked up the ranks.

You see, it was thought (outside of France) that a common man had no aptitude for leadership, and only the aristocracy was suited for it. A veteran of twenty years was less likely to make it to lieutenant than some toff who showed up and asked the commanding general nicely.

And the common soldier would respect them more, as it was believed the aristocracy really were a better class of people. Literacy was a superpower, after all. Think of how much you know just from being able to read little esoterica articles like this, that you don’t really think of yourself as knowing.

The French, meanwhile, were all about that revolution and dissemination of knowledge and individual merit and what have you. Their armies were better led and better fed for a long time, which is why you see them dominate for as long as they did.

Now, interestingly enough, that was true at the start of the war, but not so much the end. And this is where I get back to saying that aiming wasn’t invented yet.

Wellington’s rifle division — also known as the green jackets or the light division — was different to the rest of the armies of the world. Light infantry could take cover, run about the battlefield, and pick their own targets in a period where most battles were decided by two volleys from line infantry, then a charge with fixed bayonets. The light infantry’s goal was to take out the officers of the enemy.

And… they did very good at that, actually. Devastatingly well, as the officers were often on the front lines. By the end of the peninsula war, where Wellington turned Napoleon back, the French leadership had been obliterated by British snipers.

Napoleon’s light troops, by comparison, weren’t taught to aim and were given the dragoon’s smoothbore carbine as a weapon, which had a front sight but no rear sight. It was mostly valued for being light. They were brilliantly commanded, and had fantastic morale, so they were fantastic right up until they came across Wellington’s Rifles.

Their party trick was the Baker rifle — a well-made rifled musket — and actually aiming.

Oh! Ah, dragoons, for clarification, were mounted infantry. Mounted infantry? Isn’t that just cavalry? Well, no, actually, their job was like that of the galloping gun. Ride a unit of infantry behind an enemy’s flank, dismount, form a line, then cut the enemy down from behind while your frontline pins them in place. Napoleon loved this tactic, and his dragoons were his favourite soldiers.

So! How effective was this whole… indepentent shooting-and-aiming tactic?

A man of the 95th Regiment wrote: ‘Eight out of ten soldiers in our regular regiments will aim in the same manner at an object at the distance of three hundred yards , as at one only fifty . It must hence be evident that the greater part of those shots are lost or expended in vain; indeed the calculation has been made , that only one shot out of two hundred fired from muskets in the field takes effect, while one out of twenty from rifles is the average.’

From Mark Urban’s “Rifles”

The consistent accuracy of the rifles meant that the French would lose officers at a rate far exceeding British attrition. In a battle where the British lost a tenth of their commanders, the French might lose half or two thirds to these ‘cowardly assassins’.

Aiming, and drills to practice it, weren’t made standard doctrine until the 1840s, forty years after the supremacy of the rifles was proven, and only after decades of the Rifles proving their tactics superior.

For years, though, it was argued the lessons learned by the green jackets were inferior to the solid line and the bayonet charge.

The societal technologies weren’t there yet though, despite results. The Rifles would go down in military history, and became legendary figures… but line infantry warfare, and the British reverence for the bayonet on the modern battlefield, would last until the Boer war.

It was believed that each commoner in the British ranks was but a ‘rusty blade’, and it was only standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his fellow man would he not break rank, and become something greater than himself. That his resolve would hold.

What the rifles taught, and what modern understanding shows, is that it’s far better for morale that a man be kept moving, and it’s only in times where he stops to think that fear and dread kick in. Times like, say, when he’s waiting for permission to shoot a rifle he hasn’t been taught to aim.

The technology for marksmanship was present. The societal idea of individual merit didn’t match up to it, however.

In fact, during the Boer war, the lessons of the rifles were learned only by Britain’s enemies. While the farmers had bought brand new cordite rifles and cannons from the Germans — smokeless! — they could sit on nearby hills and plink away at the British soldiers, who

1) Were instructed not to duck, take cover, or otherwise sully their uniform. Taking cover would only encourage cowardice.

2) Were trained to look for, and aim at, smoke.

Think about that. The second Boer War was fought in 1899-1902, and the British empire lost to a bunch of farmers plinking at them. Almost a hundred years after Waterloo!

The British were using Enfield-Martini rifles at this point, similar to what they’d be using going into the Great War, but the social technologies had failed to keep up with the military ones.

Actually, let’s go back a little bit, if we’re talking rifles. I want to talk about the Dreyse Needle Gun a moment. The 1841 needle gun was named so to hide how revolutionary it was… the needle referred to its firing pin.

That’s right, you’re looking at the world’s first significant breech loaded rifle, and the first bolt action at that.

So, why is this so significant?

The British didn’t see it. The British army looked at it in 1850 and deemed it ‘too complicated and delicate’ for service use, and went with the French muzzle-loading Minie rifle instead. Around the same time they’re ignoring breech-loading cannons as well, if you’ll recall.

Its rate of fire was significantly greater. A rifled muzzle-loader might make two or three shots per minute, but the bolt-action rifle was consistently hitting six to twelve, accurate to a range of 1,000 meters. Still, what are we missing here?

You can reload a bolt-action from a prone position.

Think about that for a moment. The French and British governments were shown the Dreyse rifle, something the Prussians would use to great effect in the next few years, because they were only capable of seeing how they could integrate it into their current practices. The Crimean war in 1853 would be fought with muzzle loading muskets, and muzzle loaded cannons.

British generals would believe in the superiority of their French Minie rifles — rifled muskets that shot bullets instead of balls — over the Russian muskets, Minie rifles integrating so well into the tactics of the time. It was a direct improvement.

But the Prussians, and later the Boers, quickly learned that if a soldier shot from a prone position, it was much harder to shoot back at them. They could take cover more effectively, were far more resilient to artillery fire, and…

Well, that required having faith in your light infantry.

The moral of the Needle rifle then is, Prussia took the rest of Europe lying down, and it was to Europe’s detriment.

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