Thursday, August 19, 2010

Counter Battery Tactics at Waterloo

Another in a series of articles taking a look at the reality of the Napoleonic battlefield particularly so that we can consider whether our wargame rules are really reflecting this reality. This time we look at they way artillery were countered on the battlefield both direct artillery counter battery fire and infantry skirmisher fire.

Here is an interesting extract from the report made by Captain d'Huvele on the Hanoverian Battery of Major Braun at Waterloo, this is taken from "Waterloo Hanoverian Correspondence Volume 1" by John Franklin well worth reading:

Towards 2 o'clock we were ordered to deploy... 

Hardly had we arrived on the height when the howitzer's ammunition cases were set alight by one of them enemy shells, and exploded into the air. The howitzer was destroyed, while 1 serjeant, 1 gunner, and 4 horses were killed and 1 serjeant, 2 gunners, 1 driver and 2 horses were wounded

Towards 3:30pm an English 9-pound battery reinforced the left wing of our Hanoverian Battery. But two cannon from this battery were destroyed within a very short period of time and several ammunition wagons, which stood immediately to the rear, exploded; two other ammunition wagons were damaged in such a way that they could no longer be used. The English Battery moved from this position shortly thereafter and a considerable amount of ammunition was left behind.

So within the space of an hour and a half 3 guns are knocked out, no doubt this is a hot part of the battlefield but thats pretty effective French counter battery fire.

He continues:
We were the subject of incessant fire from the enemy's Tirailleurs, who pushed forward to within a short distance from the battery and maintained themselves without being repelled by our infantry, and we were also cannonaded heavily by the enemy's artillery which was positioned on the heights opposite. The fire from the enemy Tirraileurs was most harmful to the battery, because it was not protected. The loss the battery sustained in wounded increased, and it should be noted that this was mainly due to the fire from the enemy Tirailleurs. The rocket battery remained for about an hour on its position and it also suffered considerable losses during this time.

Towards 6 o'clock in the evening the battery had been reduced to such an extent, due to the number killed, wounded and those who had carried their wounded comrades to the rear etc., that only 3 cannons were manned and could be operated. However this small group of brave men diminished every moment, so that towards 6:30pm I had to ask some of the Scotsmen to help serve the cannon.

Note the effectiveness here of skirmish fire, they have effectively lost another 4 guns in the space of 2 to 3 hours due to it. Maybe this was during the phase of cavalry attacks and their own skirmish line was withdrawn leaving the artillery more exposed than it would otherwise have been.

At this time three cannon belonging to the enemy horse artillery moved up which fired at the battery with canister. But after a few shots from our Hanoverian Battery one of these cannon was destroyed and the others withdrew. After several of the Scots had been injured or killed, only one cannon remained active (it was manned by 2 serjeants, 2 corporals, and 5 gunners). They fired the last of the ammunition, despite the fact that a serjeant had been sent to obtain more at about 3 o'clock in the afternoon, but he had not returned.

Again counter battery fire was pretty effective here in quickly knocking out one of the French guns but equally skirmish fire then wore down the battery and they have been effectively put out of action. How often in your won games do you see a battery put out of action from skirmish fire alone.

It was towards 7:30pm when the last cannon finally exhausted the last of the ammunition and was ordered by Major-General Sir James Kempt to withdraw. The brave Scots helped limber the guns, as the artillerymen had insufficient strength left to do this. The cannon on the right wing had to be left, because there were not enough horses and because one of the wheels was broken.

So the battery is withdrawn but half of it remains stuck on the field because of no limbers, if the withdrawal had been part of a general retreat then these piece would have been effectively lost.

Now lets look at another account, Marbot in his memoirs talks of a counter battery tactic that he first came up with at Leipzig in 1813, but used "with great effect two years later at Waterloo" here he recounts its use in 1813:

Then I tried a new plan, namely, to send troopers, well apart, to fire at the enemy's gunners with their carbines. This made the enemy also send out skirmishers, and when skirmishing was thus going on between the lines the enemy's guns could not fire on us for fear of hitting their own people. Ours were of course similarly hampered; but to get the artillery silenced on even a small part of the line was all in our favour, as the enemy was far superior in that arm. Moreover, our infantry was just then at close quarters with that of the enemy in the villages, and the cavalry on both sides had nothing to do but await the issue; so it was of no use for either side to be smashing up the other with cannon-balls. A skirmishing engagement, in which for the most part more powder is burnt than damage done, was a much better way of spending the time. Accordingly, all the colonels followed my example, and much bloodshed was saved. All the cavalry colonels of the 2nd corps approved so highly this plan of economising human life that we all agreed to employ it on the 17th.

Although Marbot is not always the most reliable of witness's this was a tactic used at Leipzig, none the less its an interesting use of skirmishers, it again underlines there importance on the Napoleonic battlefield and it does show how artillery, powerful though it was, could be countered.

So enemy skirmirmish fire seems to be very effective indeed but it can be neutralised by your own skirmish line. You need to get your skirmish line out and push them up and then they can do significant damage unless of course your opponent neutralises your line with his own, maybe you can drive him off with your cavalry but do you want to fritter away your cavalry against skirmishers. You start to get the feeling that there is a whole series of interconnected options here and a price to pay for each giving a much more varied structure to the deployment.

Also artillery counter battery fire seems very effective when used, though artillery is more often given other targets in support of infantry or cavalry attacks.

The Duke Of Wellington allocated these positions to the batteries personally, along with the strict orders not to engage the enemy artillery  except in the case of emergency, but only to let the troops  moving against  our position feel  our potency, and to be economical with our ammunition.
Captain Cleeves 4th KGL Foot Artillery Battery.

The Duke Of Wellington, who visited us on a number of occasions, personally ordered me not to exchange fire with the enemy artillery.
At this time a strong enemy artillery battery of the highest calibre fired at us from a position 1,200 paces away, but because of the order I received from the Duke of Wellington, I did not return fire.
Major Kuhlmann  2nd KGL Horse Artillery Battery

Many rules make counter battery fire at the level of  "don't waste your time" it seems more the case they generally had more important things to do with the ammunition available.

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