The Power of the Gun: A Historical Review
“While Napoleon Bonaparte smashed his way through Europe with the power of his guns, Napoleon III lost his kingship after a crushing defeat in the battle of Sedan in 1870 when French artillery was hopelessly out-gunned by that of his Prussian adversaries.”
A study of past battles conveys in no uncertain terms the vital role that was played by the artillery. Although, space will not allow writing a more detailed and comprehensive account, reference to a few important battles should be adequate to remind us of its battle-winning role in each one of them.
The English startled their French opponents in the Battle of Crecy, in 1346, when rudimentary guns were first employed in combat. According to historian Giovanni Villani of Florence, the English mixed with their archers “bombs which by means of fire darted iron balls for the purpose of frightening and destroying the horses and this kind of missile caused so much noise and tremour that it seemed like the thunder from heaven, whilst it produced great slaughter amongst the soldiery and the overthrow of their horses.”
Villani’s account of the devastating effect of gunfire appears to be exaggerated. The success derived from the employment of guns was perhaps more psychological than real. Be that as it may the gun had made its impact on the battlefield and it is to Europe that credit must go for pioneering its development.
Two famous battles of medieval Europe at Breintenfeld in Saxony, in 1631, and at Rossbachk, in 1757, were won by the Swedish King Adolphus and by Frederick the Great of Prussia respectively by employment of the latest guns in large numbers. The artillery also played a predominant role in the victory at Gettysburg, in 1863, during the American Civil War. While Napoleon Bonaparte smashed his way through Europe with the power of his guns, Napoleon III lost his kingship after a crushing defeat in the battle of Sedan, in 1870, when French artillery was hopelessly out-gunned by that of his Prussian adversaries.
At home, in India, Babur routed the numerically superior army of Ibrahim Lodi, the ruling monarch of Northern India, with effective employment of his artillery, in the First Battle of Panipat in 1526. Broadly, Babur’s tactical plan at Panipat was to roll the Afghan wings on to the centre, thus creating a killing ground for his gunners, deploying his guns en-masse to achieve maximum concentration of artillery fire. As Lodi’s troops advanced to attack, the Mughal cavalry executed a well timed enveloping movement. Outflanking the Afghans from the sides, a portion of the cavalry attacked the enemy’s rear. Simultaneously, the Mughal left and right wings charged the enemy’s flanks. Pressed from three sides, the Afghans converged to the centre. Lodi had fallen into the trap. Babur’s audacious plan had worked.
The day of the artillery had arrived. Ustad Ali and Mustafa, along with their Rumi and Persian gunners were quick to engage the enemy thus concentrated. Within a matter of a few hours the Afghans fell by the thousands. Frightened by the gunfire, Lodi’s elephants turned back in confusion, trampling their own troops. A mighty army was thus laid to dust, with 20,000 dead. The rest fled the battlefield.
A significant event which had gripped Babur’s mind to set about developing his artillery arm was the Battle of Calderan fought between the Sultan of Turkey and Shah Ismail of Persia on 23 August, 1514. The Shah had relied mainly on the strength of his cavalry and the Turks on their artillery, the best in contemporary Asia. In the battle that followed, Shah’s cavalry could not resist the fire that was poured upon them by the Turkish artillery and so lost the day.
The Mughal guns brought them victory again, in 1527, in the Battle of Khanua, 30 miles south west of Agra, against the Rajputs. In a sense, the battle at Khanua was of greater significance than that at Panipat. At Panipat, Babur had defeated the titular Emperor of Delhi, Ibrahim Lodi. At Khanua, on the other hand, he faced a powerful Rajput confederacy which was making a bid for Hindu supremacy, after the decay of the Turko-Afghan Sultanate. The Confederacy was headed by the one-eyed Rana Sangram Singh of Mewar, a hero of many military actions, crippled by a broken leg, deprived of one arm and with nearly eighty battle wounds on his body. The strength of the Rajput Army was about 80,000 men. The Mughals, initially, were about 25,000 strong, but with the defection of over 25,000 horsemen of an Afghan chief, their numbers doubled. Nonetheless Rana Sangram had a distinct numerical superiority.
The Confederacy, however, was without artillery. The impact of guns in the Mughal victory at Panipat must have been fully known to the veteran Rana. And yet he had decided to give battle without any gun support. Was it a desperate gamble to stem the tide of Mughal conquests in India? Or was he forced to fight because of a political expediency? Whatever the reason, Sangram Singh is said to have vowed that he would not return to Chittor, his capital, unless victorious. So certain he was of victory. This brave Rajput leader had, however, overestimated his army’s capability. He had also failed to visualise the full effect of Babur’s artillery in the ensuing battle. Time and again military leaders have lost the day by not fully grasping the significance of new means of warfare and changed tactical doctrine. Centuries ago, Babur’s ancestor, Chengez Khan had overrun Russia and half of Europe, exploiting the mobility and shock tactics of the cavalry. In 1527, Babur was to win his second decisive victory by making full use of at Khanua artillery.
So did Babur’s grandson, Akbar The Great, display the power of the gun in the capture of the Fort of Ranthambar, in 1568, deemed impregnable by contemporary methods of warfare. Dismantling some pieces of his light artillery, he moved them on top of a neighbouring hill, reassembled the guns, and ordered an intense bombardment of the fort. The defenders were taken aback by this volume of fire from a position that was least expected, lost heart and Ranthambar surrendered.
In the Third Battle of Panipat, in 1761, the sharp-shooting light artillery of Ahmad Shah Abdali, the Afghan invader, swept through the Maratha ranks causing havoc and bringing about a crushing defeat to the strongest power in contemporary India. Maratha artillery on the other hand, was both out-dated and poorly handled, firing 800 metres behind the Afghan lines. Had the latter possessed comparable artillery, the Maratha infantry, which had achieved near success in attack, would have turned the Afghan right flank. Victory in this decisive battle would have made the Marathas the masters of Hindustan. Strange indeed are the ways of history, for whereas the victorious Abdali had to rush back home due to internal troubles, and the Marathas were left with a weakened army, it was the English who were to be the eventual gainers to rule India for the next one hundred and fifty years.
The well-equipped artillery of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, on the other hand, helped him to retain the strategic fort of Attock, after a glorious victory in the Battle of Chuch, in 1813. At one stage when the battle was going in favour of the Afghans, it was the Sikh gunners who rose to the occasion to save the day. Holding their fire till the “opportune moment”, they faced the charge of the Afghan cavalry in a great display of military skill and the will to fight, as wave after wave of enemy horsemen charged at Sikh guns at full gallop. In a devastating inferno of cannon and grapeshot, the Sikh artillery took a heavy toll of both rider and horse. Demoralised, the Afghan cavalry turned back in confusion and took to flight. This first major victory of Ranjit Singh helped open the gates for further Sikh conquests in the North-West.
While writing about the Sikh artillery, mention must be made of an equally decisive role played by it in the capture of the Multan Fort, in 1818. For some days the outcome of the seige of the fort by the Khalsa army hung in the balance, with stiff opposition from the defending Afghans. Finally a breach was made by Sikh cannons. The making of the breach is a soul stirring episode, worthy of mention. It has been recorded by Ghulam Jilam, who was spying in the Sikh camp, in his book, Jang-e-Multan, (the Battle of Multan).
During the bombardment of the fort, a Sikh gun lost one of its wheels. The gun commander felt that if he could fire a few more cannons, the fort wall could be breached.
There was no time for repairs and delay was very dangerous. He, therefore, proposed to his gunners to lay their shoulders under the axle on the broken side. The proposal was accepted by the rest. One by one the brave gunners, led by the gun commander, went forward to lay down their lives and it was after the 10th or the 11th shot, by when the entire gun detachment had been sacrificed under the gun axle, that a breach was made in the fort. Akali Sadhu Singh rushed to the spot with a sword in his hand, shouting Sat SriAkal, to proclaim victory of Sikh arms, with his soldiers following him inside the fort. And thus the Fort of Multan eventually fell to the Sikhs, mainly on account of this unique spirit of self-sacrifice by a gun detachment for the cause of their nation.
In the First World War, French gunners redeemed their honour, (which as mentioned earlier, they had lost in the Battle of Sedan) with the introduction of the 75 mm gun, called the “Nasty 75”. It was the French artillery which was then primarily responsible for the allied victory in the First Battle of the Marne, in September 1914, firing over 100,000 rounds in less than two days. In the reduction of St. Michael’s salient near Paris, again in September 1914, the allies mustered 3010 guns of all calibres and pumped in an unbelievable one million rounds in a four day battle, bringing the opposing Germans to their knees, through the sheer weight of explosives.
Mortars, on the other hand, had not made much impact on the battlefield till their employment by the Germans against the Belgian Fortress of Liege, in August 1914. Repeated German attacks had been repulsed by accurate fire of the fortress guns, as the forts themselves had proved invulnerable to the fire of German field guns. It was the huge “siege mortars” with solid steel heads that eventually reduced the Belgian resistance. Hitting almost vertically, the mortar bombs penetrated the thick concerte masonry and so, unable to withstand the effect the Belgian embattlements crumbled.
At the time of the German invasion of the USSR, in 1941, the Red Army did not possess adequate armour to face the German Panzers. It was primarily the Russian artillery, employed in a direct firing role, which took the brunt of enemy’s tank assaults. Commenting on the part played by Soviet gunners, Marshal of the Soviet Union K Rokossovsky writes in his book, The Soldier’s Duty, “Long before the war, our party and its Central Committee foresaw the role and importance of artillery on the battlefield and took steps to provide the nation’s Armed Forces with the most up-to-date ordnance. Highly qualified commanders were trained at artillery officers’ schools, advanced training and retraining courses and the Artillery Academy. It is to the credit of the higher command of the Soviet Artillery that its quality and standards of training of its officers and men far surpassed those of the artillery of the armies of all capitalist countries. Our artillery proved this all through the Great Patriotic War. From the outset, artillery was the principal means of opposition to the enemy’s tanks, which overwhelmed us in numbers and mobility. The artillery won unfading glory in the Battle of Moscow, and this holds in full measure for the artillery units organic to the 16th Army and those that co-operated with it. Our gunners trusted implicitly in the power of their weapons, and this kept the crews going inspite of the frequent danger of being crushed by tanks rolling en masse towards their positions. When circumstances demanded it, crews continued to deliver fire to the last shell and the last gun, successfully repulsing the enemy’s furious attacks.”
As the war progressed and guns and ammunition started rolling out from Soviet factories in greater numbers, the Russians began to place more and more reliance on their artillery. As earlier mentioned, to Stalin the artillery was the “God of War” There is no better example of the faith that Stalin reposed in his gunners than the crucial Battle of Stalingrad during mid-1942. In this battle, while the opposing forces were almost equally matched, the Soviet Command managed to build up an artillery superiority of 10:1 (as compared to 3:1 in infantry and 2:1 in armour) in the direction of the main effort, during the Soviet counter-offensive, inflicting a crushing defeat on the enemy. Stalin’s above dictum had also made a deep impact on the Soviet commanders, and the rank and file of the Soviet Army, as they saw for themselves the results achieved through the power of the gun in each successive battle.
Russian artillery thus continued to be employed en masse. It’s bombardments lasted upto 1-3 hours before commencing assaults. Rokossovsky writes, “The main thing, of course, is to overwhelm the enemy with artillery fire in the initial stages of the assault, demolish his system of defense and demoralize the defending troops. The infantry and tanks attacking in the wake of the rolling barrage had the task of penetrating the tactical depth, with the final breakthrough to be carried out by Army level second echelons and mobile formations… And now we were adequately supplied with artillery ammunition, thanks to the heroic efforts of the Soviet people to provide their armed forces with everything needed to hasten victory. Our logistic personnel carried out a tremendous amount of work to provide the artillery gun positions with more than double the normal supply of gun and mortar shells.”
In the Battle of Kursk, 5 July to 23 August 1943, the Soviet artillery fired more than seven million rounds during the counter-offensive phase. The gun density during the battle varied from, 120 to 220 guns to a mile. And this increased to an unbelievable 300 guns and mortars during the Battle of Kiev and the enlargement of bridgeheads across the Dnieper in October 1943.
Whereas, artillery had a special place in the Soviet tactical doctrine, wherein “an attack without fire preparation is not an attack but a crime,” it’s employment by the other armies of World War II and the importance they attached to the power of the gun was no less significant. A few examples of the number of guns employed during some major battles would be of interest.
In the most fateful battle for the Allies at El Alamein, in October 1942, the British 8th Army under Montgomery had mustered about 1000 guns. The battle zone was heavily fortified and held in strength. The front was limited with no flank to turn. It required the employment of artillery in its heaviest concentrations before the forward inrush of tanks and infantry. Montgomery believed, as Bernard Shaw said of Napoleon that “cannons kill men.” The effective employment of artillery at Alamein paid handsome dividends.
During the Allied invasion of Italy, 600 guns – field, medium and heavy – were allotted to 13 British Corps during Operation Baytown, in September 1943, to ensure victory. In the Third Battle of Cassino, in March 1944, a divisional attack on Castle Hill was supported by 610 guns, with about 6,00,000 shells fired in the course of 11 days. The Fourth Battle of Cassino, in May 1944 (in which the British 8th Army and the US 5th Army took part), saw 1600 guns give a thorough plastering to every known German command post, gun position and infantry locality before the assault went in.
After the allied landings in Normandy, in France, 656 guns were employed to support a corps attack with three infantry divisions for the capture of Caen in July 1944. Caen eventually fell in allied liands, after a battle lasting 2 days. The allotment of artillery much surpassed that at Caen in the Battle of the Rhineland, when 4 Canadian Brigade Groups’ assault was supported by 450 guns. The fire-power provided to another brigade attack for the capture of Carpiquet, in July 1944, was about 497 guns. In both battles the objectives were successfully captured. Can one imagine otherwise with so much artillery supporting a brigade attack? It reminds one of a gunner cliche that “The artillery captures. The infantry holds.”
Before concluding, one more example of the quantum of artillery support during the allied advance through France, in terms of artillery units, would be of interest to the professional soldier. In the capture of Boulogne, 3 Canadian Infantry Division was provided the following:–
- Five field, seven medium and three heavy regiments.
- 9th Army Group Artillery.
- Divisional Artillery of 51 Infantry Division.
- Two 14 inch guns and two 15 inch guns of 540 Coast Regiment, Royal Artillery.
It is painful to comment that the planners of national defence, after India’s independence, failed to grasp the significance of the gun, while structuring the combat composition of the Indian Army, as this study of the 1971 Indo-Pak War, on the Western Front, so clearly reveals.
Book Excerpt: Indian Gunners at War: The Western Front – 1971.