Author: Dick Cheney.
Original Thread: Napoleon’s Grand Battery: Desperation or Tactical Revolution?

“Great battles are won by artillery,” so says the god of war. But the history of the French Grand Battery is a murky one at best. Arguably there was no such thing as “The Grand Battery,” as it wasn’t an actual unit. When a grand battery was formed, it usually resulted when the Guard’s reserve artillery was combined with 3 or more batteries already concentrated at the division level. This of course resulted in a temporary arrangement of 50 or more guns, creating what is better described as a super battery. Super batteries obviously, while rare, were not first used by the French in the Napoleonic Wars. Russia and Austria each had their own artillery reserves, and had massed super batteries together at Elayu (1807) and Aspern-Essling (1809). The largest concentration of field guns ever (pre-WWI) also belongs to the Coalition, who formed a massive battery of 220 guns at Leipzig in 1813.

See also: The Twelve Largest Batteries of the Napoleonic Wars

To say then that super batteries were a genius invention on the part of Napoleon, would be inaccurate. And by no means a complete list (or precise counts), the timeline above is accurate. Napoleon did not employ anything close to a grand battery until the Battle of Wagram (1809) and would not use super batteries with any frequency until the final two years of the Napoleonic Wars.

The so-called Grand Battery – as a beloved tactic of Napoleon – is therefore a myth, until at least 1809. And to complicate the issue, there were no formal doctrines or written procedures for massing batteries of this size at any point in the Napoleonic Wars. Only after Wagram do you get an unofficial manuscript for maneuvering large batteries.

Why then the sudden adoption of super batteries on the part of Napoleon? While certainly the steady increase of artillery in the Grande Armee and Napoleon’s enemies had something to do with it, it doesn’t explain the whole story. Super batteries in a way, seems like a betrayal of the Gribeauval system, which had attempted to do away with slow and immovable artillery trains by standardizing artillery guns across the French army. Its success lay in light and maneuverable field pieces, along with horse artillery, that could keep up with the infantry and cavalry. The ability to keep up of course, and advance to areas on the battlefield wherever needed, is obviously diminished with so many artillery pieces parked together.

The loss of smaller, flexible artillery batteries, in favor of quantity and huge concentrations of artillery, would also seem to run counter to the Corps System and its emphasis on mobility and combined arms. Creating super batteries in the field meant increasing the number of field guns and doubling the number of caissons in the Grande Armee, which, prior to 1809, had enjoyed living off the land and capturing artillery pieces from defeated enemies. While in the field, combined arms was limited to wherever the grand battery was. Once the infantry or cavalry outran the range of the guns, they were on their own. The decisive attack at the decisive point – if there ever was one– would also have to come from an opening barrage the infantry or cavalry could exploit; an all-out feu d’enfer on the enemy’s main line followed by an attack en masse, a very blunt but inflexible way of fighting.

When we ask Napoleon then, what happened at Wagram, and why the sudden change in tactics, two theories are sure to emerge. One tells of desperation following Wagram, and the other of an artillery revolution. Both narratives, however, are tied to the rise of artillery in decisive actions.

The revolution theory surely begins with the Gribeauval System, which was based on the swift handling of artillery field guns by Frederick the Great, and battles like Rossbach and Minden. Its main aim was to standardize artillery construction and design, but it also had the benefit of creating semi-autonomous artillery units under the command of actual artillery officers. The militarization of artillery trains, and creation of semi-autonomous units, led by young and aggressive field officers, was therefore the key to making artillery a recognized combat arm in the French army. Napoleon himself, who was an artillery officer and student of Du Teil, understood that artillery should be concentrated at decisive points and that it should target enemy infantry. Artillery officers were therefore encouraged to concentrate their fire as part of a combined arms attack. The practice of massing guns at least, and using artillery offensively, had already been established. And concentrated artillery fire had proven its worth offensively at Austerlitz and defensively at Jena.

Yet even Napoleon couldn’t have imagined the artillery shocks that awaited him. At Elayu, an unprecedented number of field guns had wrecked an entire corps within minutes. Over 5,000 men, and 40% of its strength gone. At Freidland, French artillery acting alone had charged the enemy’s advance guard and obliterated it with close range round and canister shot. And at Aspern-Essling, a super heavy artillery concentration had turned back the entire French army, leading to Napoleon’s first defeat in over a decade. The rise of artillery as a decisive combat arm, capable of acting alone, and defeating armies -and not just men- through sheer destructive firepower must have at least made some impression of a revolution on a stunned Napoleon.

At Wagram however, desperation ensues. Needing to save his army from an Austrian onslaught, Napoleon deploys his artillery reserve to create what is arguably his first “grand battery.” At close range, the effects of canister and grape shot were indisputable. Mass artillery concentrations had proven to work decisively when firing at close range, as they did at Elayu and Jena, and this time was no different. Napoleon had grasped that super batteries -to include firepower- could turn back an enemy army, and it would save him. But what about the offense? Could a mass concentration of guns also provide the same destructive power at long range, and most importantly, accuracy, at the decisive point? Could it blow a hole in the enemy’s line, forcing a breach? Weren’t super batteries the natural evolution of French artillery tactics already in place? And weren’t all men, as Napoleon believed, equal before cannon?

Napoleon at the Battle of Wagram 1809

Whether or not super batteries were actually able to blow holes in the lines of Napoleon’s enemies is beyond the scope of this OP. Napoleon however, appears to have believed after Wagram – at some cost to combined arms– that artillery fire alone could decide battles. At Wagram, a mass assault was ordered with the same grand battery that had thus far succeeded in saving the battle for Napoleon. Macdonald’s corps would follow up a massive artillery strike with an assault on the enemy’s line. Yet timely Austrian reserves, along with the failure to protect the super battery from skirmishers and counterbattery fire meant that the results were mixed. Some historians say the assault ultimately worked, some point to failures, and others point to Davout’s own flank attack as the real reason for victory. Whatever the case may be, Napoleon would win a costly victory at Wagram, but the awesome legacy of super batteries used in preparation for the final assault would continue. Yet either out of trust, or desperation, or even perhaps out of spite of everyone else except the artillery, it would be the Imperial Guard who would be ordered into the breach, and it would be Napoleon himself who would decide the point of attack – the point where his enemies would face the unstoppable combination of mass artillery fire and the Imperial Guard.

But why? Why make artillery, along with super batteries, the focus of French tactics after Wagram? Critics contend Napoleon did so out of necessity. The quality of the Grande Armee had steadily eroded prior to Wagram, and by the time of the Russian campaign, close to half its force was made up of foreigners. The disastrous invasion only hastened its decline, and the loss of so many experienced veterans, along with so many horses and cavalry men meant that Napoleon needed to fill his ranks with more artillery. Increasing the number of guns in the Grande Armee gave Napoleon a chance to compensate for weak and unproven recruits who could not be counted on to maneuver or hold their ground under fire. Napoleon likely recognized too that he was badly outnumbered, decades of war had left him surrounded by enemies, and the political sphere in 1813 looked as bleak as ever. If then elite forces, maneuver, and grand strategies could no longer be decisive in the face of overwhelming odds, then maybe artillery would be. To win, Napoleon would once again revolutionize war. No longer would the strength of armies be measured by their size, but by the firepower they could unleash.

In the end, it was probably out of both desperation and revolution that Napoleon pinned his hopes on artillery. At Waterloo, the deciding factor was the ground was initially too wet to bring artillery guns forward, and that Wellington had successfully positioned his forces to mask any point of weakness where an artillery attack could be made effective. But the decision to forgo maneuver, at Waterloo, after Wagram and elsewhere, in favor of spectacular grand assaults with artillery and artillery barrages, must speak volumes of the man who planned them. There can be no mistake, super artillery barrages were meant to soften the enemy in preparation for a final assault. “Soften” being an extremely poor choice of words for the killing power of artillery. The intent of the grand batteries of Napoleon were thus to destroy the opposing army, gone were the days where routing and maneuvering for position mattered. The fact that Napoleon continued to use the column, his reserves, the Imperial Guard, and the cavalry, in his follow up attacks also demonstrate his resolve not to preserve his forces, or hold something back, but to achieve a decisive outcome. Never has a general been so utterly dedicated to the planned annihilation of the opposing force. Not even Alexander, with all his personal recklessness, ever fated the lives of so many of his soldiers to achieving absolute victory over Darius. In this regard, Napoleon stands alone. The greatest battlefield general in history. An absolute butcher, all too addicted and tempted by the false allure of grape shot and decisive battle.
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