Artillery equipment –

Despite the reputation for excellence earned by the equipment of the Gribeauval system, a number of high ranking French artillery officers had serious concerns about its shortcomings after their experiences in the Revolutionary Wars. They considered the 4 pounder too ineffective and the 8 pounder too ponderous when faced by an enemy using 6 pounder batteries.


In 1801 Napoleon established a committee to study the subject. The conclusion of this committee was that any new French system should be based around 6 pounder batteries. These new guns would have much greater hitting power than the 4 pounder Gribeauval guns and only slightly less effectiveness than the 8 pounder. Their ammunition was not as bulky as 8 pounder ammunition, so more could be carried in the caissons. Best of all, they could use captured enemy ammunition. 


After two long years of trials, comparisons and argument, it was decided to introduce new 6 pounder and 12 pounder gun barrels as well as a new 24 pounder howitzer.  New caissons, limbers and gun carriages would accompany these.  Manufacture started in late 1803 and instantly caused a mini civil war in the artillery, with the horse artillery in particular refusing to give up their 8 pounder Gribeauval guns. I will not discuss the progress of this in fighting, suffice it to say that the new system was put through its paces on active service and it was this that convinced senior officers that the new system did have some important shortcomings. The most critical of these was the fragility of the axels on the system XI guns and carriages. Gunners had also complained of injuries while resupplying from the An XI limber ready boxes and requested a return to the removable ready box on the trail of the guns.


Napoleon established a second committee to study the problems and they concluded that changes did indeed need to be made to the artillery system.

Gassendi who led this second inquiry identified the An XI limber as a major weakness in the system. Having the ready box on the limber meant that the horse teams had to leave the gun to resupply from the caisson, thereby leaving the gun open to attack.  The horse teams also had to be exposed to danger from counter battery fire in order that the gunners could get their ammunition from the ready box on the limber.


It is at this point that many modern commentators assert that the solution adopted was simply to place the An XI gun tubes on the old Gribeauval carriages. Reading through the actual findings of the committee, the truth is much more involved than this. What was actually decided was to combine the best points of both systems and to develop a completely new one. This new system is often referred to as the System 1807 or 1808 (different sources vary in their terminology). The salient points are as follows –


·         The An XI 6 pounder, 12 pounder and 24 pounder howitzer barrels were to be retained.

·         The Gribeauval 8 pounder metal axel was to be used for all guns and rear wheels of carriages. Similarly, the axel from the Gribeauval 8 pounder limber would now serve all limbers and front wheels of carriages.

·          The whole of the new system would be based on two wheel sizes both taken from the Gribeauval system. The large wheels (146cm) would be fitted to all guns and rear sections of carriages while the wheels from the Gribeauval 8 pounder limber (114cm) would be used for limbers and front sections of carriages.

·         The Gribeauval 8 pounder limber, with modifications, would be reintroduced and used to carry all the guns in the new system.

·         The Gribeauval caisson would similarly be modified and reintroduced.

·         The ready box would be placed back on the trail of the guns.


Apart form the retention of the An XI gun barrels, this may look like a clean sweep for the Gribeuaval system, but in fact the gunners had expressed a liking for the An XI gun carriage. The ‘Ski trail’ on these tended to skim over the soft ground making it easier to move the gun. It was decided to keep the shape of the An XI gun carriages, to fit them with the Gribeauval metal axels and the metal furniture from the 8 pounder, and to place the ready box on the gun trail. The result is a carriage that looks, in profile, just like an An XI carriage but has all the metalwork from the Gribeauval 8 pounder, apart from the new barrels.


In reality the only way to tell the two systems apart from a distance, is to see the guns limbered. The system XI had a large ready box on the limber while the new system 1808, had a smaller ready box on the trail of the gun.


Peak production of system XI/1808 gun tubes occurred between 1807-10. During this period most Gribeauval and foreign equipment in the French artillery was replaced. The reforms were generally well received. Apart from the horse artillery that was now (very grudgingly) made to give up their 8 pounder guns, the gunners liked the new system. It remained the main French field artillery system until 1828.


Many experts will assure you that the new system was put into production and by 1812 no system XI equipment remained in service with the French artillery. I know for a fact that this is not correct. In 1813 Bernadotte gave his Swedes a French artillery battery captured by the Prussians at Gross-Beeren or Dennewitz, so that they could carry out comparative artillery trials. This equipment is still in existence and can be seen (if you are lucky enough to visit when it is on display) at the Army Museum in Stockholm. I was lucky enough to see a complete French 6 pounder sitting in the lobby. The carriage has had to be rebuilt but the curator assures me that it was done meticulously and is a faithful copy. More importantly, he showed me photos of one of the limbers that is now in a sorry state of repair due to its age. It is unmistakeably, a Sytem XI limber, as the ready box sits squarely on the limber. The picture that emerges is of the new equipment entering service alongside the System XI and slowly replacing it as the older system wears out. However, it is clear that System XI batteries were still in action in 1813/14 together with the new System 1808 batteries.


There are a few additional points that need to be made to complete the picture of the French artillery of this period. First of all, most authorities on the subject agree that the system XI caisson was never built in large numbers. As a result, the reintroduction of the Gribeauval limber is a moot point as it had probably remained in service throughout the period due to the lack of a System XI replacement.


Secondly, trials in 1803 established that the difference in performance between the new System XI 12 pounder gun barrels and the old Gribeauval 12 pounder barrels was not considerable enough to warrant the replacement of the Gribeauval barrels. The System XI barrels did outrange the Gribeauval barrels in trials, but only just. For this reason the Gribeauval barrels were kept in service and smaller numbers of the new barrels were produced. The Gribeauval 12 pounder barrels were simply placed on the new System XI or System 1808 gun carriages. Thirty-six 12 pounder barrels of each sort were captured by the Russians in the retreat from Moscow, indicating that there were approximately equal numbers of Gribeauval and System XI 12 pounder barrels in service at the time. Gribeauval 12 pounder barrels were still turning up even at Waterloo. The two 12 pounder French barrels on display at the top of the Sandhurst parade ground, supposedly captured at Waterloo, are both Gribeauval barrels.


Lastly, the An XI 24 pounder howitzer had been intended to replace all other howitzers in the field batteries.  A single howitzer calibre for use with both the 6 pounder and 12 pounder batteries. Although very successful in this role, in retrospect it was decide to keep some of the Gribeauval period 6.4in Longe Porte howitzers in service for use with a number of the 12 pounder batteries. This barrel was a French copy of a Prussian 10 pounder heavy howitzer.  We know that these howitzers certainly served with The Guard 12 pounder artillery batteries instead of the new An XI 24 pounder howitzer, but it may also have served in many of the foot artillery batteries. I have not been able to establish clearly how widely it was used within the 12 pounder batteries. These howitzer barrels seem to have been placed on modified versions of the system 1808 gun carriage for the 24 pounder howitzer.


There is a final and ironic twist to the story of the demise of the Gribeauval system and its replacement by the system 1808. In 1813 and 1814, with the losses sustained in Russia, artillery was needed quickly to resupply the army. New An XI Gun barrels were being produced at a faster rate than their gun carriages. In an effort to get some of these gun barrels to the army, Gribeauval 8 pounder gun carriages were taken out of storage and used to carry 6 pounder and 24 pounder howitzer barrels. So for a short period, some system XI gun barrels did indeed end up on authentic Gribeauval 8 pounder gun carriages!