First constructed in 1668 and then again in 1697, this model of Ath in Flanders measures nearly 200 square feet. Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, the engineer responsible for all fortifications in France directed the siege of Ath, taking the city in only two weeks. Credit: A. Lonchampt, Centre des Monuments Nationaux, ALC 80/625.
The model of Montmélian shows the devastation inflicted on the village (center left) and its fortifications during the siege by French General Nicolas Catinat in 1691. Credit: A. Lonchampt, Centre des Monuments Nationaux, ALC 80/540.
Continental Artillery crew from the American Revolution handling a cannon.
The shortage of French land-service artillery seems finally to have been resolved by the end of the seventeenth century. Jamel Ostwald’s recent study of Vauban’s legacy shows a significant increase in all types of artillery, as well as a greater reliance on firepower to shorten sieges. Ostwald also observes a flowering of what he calls ‘martial vigor’ – probably the same aggressive spirit that so impressed the Italians in 1494–5 – which could sometimes carry fortifications by a swarming escalade with scant regard for casualties (amongst the attackers) or for the scientific and casualty-averse approach to siege tactics advocated by Vauban – what Blomfield has called grande finesse. Ostwald collected detailed artillery statistics for twenty-five sieges between 1697 and 1712. The dates mark the ‘perfect siege’ of Ath (Vauban’s masterpiece in delivering a rapid result at remarkably light cost) and the fall of Bouchain, one of the keys to the Ne Plus Ultra lines. An astonishing 288 cannon were assembled for the assault on Douai (1710), but only 16 for the attack on Zoutleeuw (1705). If these two potentially distorting figures are excluded, an average of 64 cannon and 34 heavy mortars were employed by the attacking forces, not counting howitzers and the much lighter Coehoorn mortars. These figures should be compared with those for the operations against La Rochelle in 1573, when the crown ‘made a supreme effort, perhaps the greatest of the entire civil war period, assembling some 42 cannon and great culverins … double the size of the field trains which had marched with the army in the first three civil wars’. However, ‘None of the siege operations in 1574–75 deployed more than about twenty heavy guns.’
The War of the Spanish Succession saw massed artillery beginning to play a more active role on the battlefield as well as in sieges. Marlborough concentrated most of his own allied artillery into ‘grand batteries’, which at both Blenheim (1704) and Malplaquet (1709) amounted to some forty guns – capable of delivering an intense bombardment in the area he wanted to establish as the focus for battle – whilst reserving his cavalry for the decisive move elsewhere. For Ramillies (1706) the Allies brought as many as 120 guns against 70 for the French. Marlborough’s grand batteries, of course, fell well short of the artillery strengths that would be marshalled for battles in the Seven Years’ War, and when Frederick the Great learned how to use artillery and solved Prussia’s procurement problems, ‘grand batteries’ were employed in ever increasing numbers. Napoleon (himself originally a gunner) made progressively more use of artillery in his later campaigns: Leipzig (1813) saw Napoleon’s 700 guns pitted against combined Allied artillery strengths of between 915 and 1,500 guns by different counts. If the first artillery revolution of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries introduced a powerful new weapon, one has to look some two centuries later for a second turning point in the ability of commanders to use artillery to decisive effect in both siege and field warfare.
This second artillery revolution turned on its manufacturing base. France experienced consistent shortages because its foundries were fragmented and dispersed all over the northern provinces in small units, poorly financed, and run as private enterprises with only limited state support. Although Richelieu indeed attempted to prioritise the navy, the navy itself remained chronically under-gunned. Ships coming into port often had their guns removed and reinstalled in ships about to put to sea, both extending their turnaround times and reducing the battleworthy strength of the fleet to well below the number of sea-worthy vessels. England and the Netherlands, by contrast, pioneered the use of centralised gun-casting (respectively, from the Ordnance Office in the Tower of London and the Mechelen arsenal) and the use of cast-iron (in place of the much more costly bronze) artillery. The Burgundian Netherlands originally sourced iron ore from near Liège, but Protestant Holland later used state and private money to fund mines and foundries in Sweden, where iron was available in large quantities. Late- fifteenth and sixteenth-century England initially exploited the iron industry of the Weald of Kent and Sussex, where (with the help of specialists from northern France and the Low Countries) the ore proved well suited to cannon-casting. This was the first of the industrial developments that would give eighteenth-century England a strong lead in arms production.
New powers, however, often faced an uphill task in establishing an arms industry on the scale demanded by modern warfare. In the mid fifteenth century the Ottomans, later to be perhaps the most prodigious deployers of artillery in Europe, relied on experts from central Europe. The Prussian arms industry was launched by Frederick William I with a powder mill and arms factory at Spandau. However, most of the raw materials had to be imported: iron from Sweden, tin and lead from England, components such as gun-locks from Holland. The private firm of Splitgerber and Daun was founded in 1712 and evolved into the main state provider, developing a primitive production line capable of turning out 300 muskets a week. Cannon-founding, however, proved endlessly problematic until in 1757 a Dutchman introduced the latest technology of casting the barrels solid – thus eliminating blow-holes and other weaknesses – and then boring them out to the desired calibre with water-powered drills. Although Prussian arsenals produced some 1,500 artillery pieces between 1741 and 1762, Swedish guns were still imported in large numbers and efforts continued to be made – all without success – to discover the secrets of the Swedish manufacturing processes and so reduce the state’s reliance on foreign expertise.
These fragments from the economic history of arms production provide a partial explanation for the persistent shortages of the heavy guns that transformed the early-modern art of war. When available in the right numbers and properly supported with men and munitions, their impact could be devastating. Only by the late seventeenth century, it seems, were these conditions satisfied regularly enough for massed artillery to feature prominently in battle-plans or to overwhelm properly designed and well-armed bastioned fortifications with offensive firepower. Another century was to pass before the battlefield killing potential of artillery was to escalate dramatically once again with the introduction of shrapnel. In its early centuries, however, artillery remained an unreliable asset – like modern close air support, enormously powerful and frequently highly effective, but all too often not there when it was most wanted.