Prussian Artillery Doctrine 1870-71

By Martin Tomczak

This article was originally published in the June 1988 issue of "Wargames Illustrated" magazine under the heading "Rules for the Use of the Prussian Artillery 1870-71". It is reproduced here with the permission of the Editor Mr Duncan Macfarlane and has been altered slightly for the Internet ( I have omitted the original opening and closing paragraphs which were aimed at the wargaming readership, and I have inserted the paragraph headed "Summary" and two pieces of information which I have come across since the article was originally published ).


Many books and articles about the Franco-Prussian War comment at some point on the fact that the German artillery outclassed the French artillery at all times on the battlefield in terms of its effectiveness, and that it played a major role in winning the battles for the German armies. This German preponderance reflected the differences between the countries in the development of heavy industry, doctrine, and the way in which military organisations respond to new developments and experience. This article presents the Prussian artillery doctrine on the outbreak of war in 1870, and shows the the importance placed on the artillery in the conduct of a battle. The article will conclude with some notes on the opposing French artillery.


The Use of Artillery in Battle

The details which follow represent the doctrine with which the Prussian Army ( or to be more precise the Army of the North German Confederation, although this consisted largely of the Prussians ) went to war in 1870. This doctrine emerged from the experiences of 1866 and the new possibilities opened by the introduction of steel, rifled, breechloading field guns.

In 1870 the field batteries were equipped with 4 and 6 pounders ( horse batteries always had 4 pounders ), with 6 guns per battery. In June 1870 it was ordered that from then on 6 pounders were to be designated "heavy", and 4 pounders "light".

It should be pointed out that methods of using artillery differed slightly in some details in other German contingents.

In 1866 the Prussian artillery had been placed too far back in the columns and had generally arrived too late to support the infantry in the early part of the battles, thus the infantry frequently had to operate without any artillery support. The reason for keeping it back down the columns was that it would be deployed behind the bulk of the infantry on the battlefield. The two remedies in the new doctrine that were to overcome these shortcomings were that a strong body of artillery was to be included in an advance guard ( Avantgarde ), whether of a division, corps or army, and the former practice of holding a reserve of artillery was to cease. The main body of artillery was to march near the front of its columns so as to be able to intervene in a battle as early as possible.

In 1870/71 a few mistakes occurred initially - for example at Wissembourg the batteries were kept some way down the columns and could not intervene rapidly - but these were quickly ironed out and the new doctrine was henceforth applied very successfully.


Specific Tasks of the Artillery in Battle

Within the "ordre de bataille" of a Corps, the 4 and 6 pound batteries were attached partly to the divisions, and partly to the reserve ( corps ) artillery.

As a rule each of the 2 infantry divisions received 4 foot batteries, the cavalry division 1-2 horse batteries, and the reserve artillery received 4 foot and 1-2 horse batteries.

In general terms the divisional artillery had the following tasks:

- To prepare the battle for other troops by covering their deployment;

- To support the other troops by engaging the enemy artillery and drawing their fire on itself, and by firing on advancing enemy columns.

The reserve artillery, which will as a rule become involved in the battle later, had the following tasks:

- To reinforce the divisional artillery where necessary, and chiefly

- To occupy important points at the decisive moment, from where its use en masse and the effect of this lead to a favourable outcome of the battle, or in a defeat halt the enemy advance.

With the divisional artillery the batteries again have different tasks depending on whether they are with the Avantgarde, the Gros ( main body ) or the Reserve ( if such is present ).

The number of batteries with the Avantgarde depends on its strength and the tactical conditions. If the division is fighting independently, the Avantgarde should have 1-2 batteries. If it is linked to others in an ordre de bataille the size of the Avantgarde might vary considerably according to the situation, as will its complement of artillery. When numerous cavalry are with an Avantgarde it could even include horse artillery.

The immediate task of the Avantgarde artillery is to cover the deployment and any approach connected with it ( for example debouching from a defile ). It should therefore take up position at suitable points where the other troops will later deploy, and from here fire on the enemy artillery and keep their attention away from the deploying troops. In doing so it must note the approaches and deal with any enemy movement over them.

From these tasks follows:

- That for the initial deployment an especially mobile artillery is to be used, which can take post rapidly, preferably 4 pounders.

- That the artillery should be very near to the front in the order of march, as a rule behind the Tete and in front of the main body of the Avantgarde so that it can deploy as soon as the Tete has scouted or cleared the terrain.

It must be noted that the Avantgarde artillery will usually face more numerous enemy guns, and often at long ranges. It is therefore desirable that 6 pounders support the 4 pounders as soon as possible, because of their greater effect at long ranges.

If the Avantgarde is intended to occupy an area of ground rapidly this will be done by cavalry with horse artillery present if required.

Batteries with the main body or reserve will advance to support the Avantgarde artillery, or appear at threatened points, or enter the battle with the main body or reserve and support them. For the first two of these tasks 4 pounders are very suitable, whereas both 4 and 6 pounders are equally suitable for the third.

The artillery with the main body and reserve is less endangered than that with the Avantgarde, and can safely march behind the Tete of each column, which will mean that when ordered forward they will not reach the battlefield with exhausted horses.

Following from the tasks of the reserve artillery:

- 4 pounder and horse batteries are especially suited to carrying them out through their mobility;

- It is not so far forward in the order of march that it will become engaged in the uncertain initial to-and-fro fighting, but is near enough to be available when called for.

Artillery in connection with a cavalry corps - such a corps could be set up to undertake movements around an area, or operations against the enemy`s flank or rear, or to halt an enemy advance in the event of a defeat, or a pursuit after a victory.The horse artillery must be used to support these actions, especially when the enemy uses artillery or mixed arms, and when the terrain does not permit full use of the cavalry`s strength. The artillery will have the following tasks:

- To cover the cavalry`s deployment

- To prepare their attack

- To prevent a beaten enemy rallying

- To provide a rallying point for the cavalry

- To secure the holding of specific points in the defence.


Importance of Terrain for the Artillery Battle

The following terrain features are to be noted:

1) An open, flat area without villages, woods, etc., permits the deployment and movement of troops in all directions and also the most effective use of the artillery. It is also helpful to cavalry and the artillery will require strong protection.

2) If such an area is heavily cut up by streams, ditches, sunken roads, etc. the artillery and cavalry lose their superior mobility relative to the infantry. The infantry will be forced into frequent formation changes, these are very dangerous under enemy fire.

3) A plain covered with woods, settlements, etc. hinders the artillery and ties it to the roads. Although mobility is reduced, movements are also hidden, and the artillery must be carefully protected by the other arms.

4) If such a plain is also cut through by streams, marshes, etc. the infantry becomes decidedly superior to the other arms. The artillery loses a high degree of its mobility and effect, and most of its independence.

5) Higher ground is very important for the artillery battle, and lower heights with gradual slopes are more suitable than higher areas with steep slopes. The former permit easy deployment on the position and mobility in all directions, the latter do not. As regards effect of fire and observation of this, and observation generally, all higher ground is helpful, in addition ( if used properly ) it can provide cover and prevent the enemy observing the results of his fire.

6) Steep-sided valleys, depressions, etc. reduce the artillery`s mobility and effect in that they make measuring distances and observation difficult.

7) Water, marshes, etc. hinder artillery movement, but are helpful as cover to the front and flanks. Marshes to the front can reduce considerably the effects of enemy fire ( but should not restrict forward movement too much ).

8) Woods reduce mobility and effect to a high degree. Deployment either in or opposite a wood is unfavourable.

9) Ditches, gardens, enclosures, settlements, buildings and defiles all create difficulties for the artillery because they pose obstacles to movement and provide the enemy with strong points which are mostly difficult to take from him.

10) It follows from the above that certain points are important when judging terrain in the light of the artillery battle:

- The observation which it affords

- Security to the front and flanks of the battery against both an enemy approach and the effects of enemy fire

- How suitable or not it is with regard to the artillery`s effect.


General Rules for the Artillery in Battle

1) The long range of the rifled guns permits some freedom of choice in their deployment, but requires great care in finding cover when under fire from rifled guns, so as to avoid heavy losses. Uneven ground, embankments and other features should be used if running roughly at right angles to the line of fire, particularly in the defence.

2) If time permits natural cover should be increased by man-made features, if the former is not present the guns should be dug in.

3) More important than cover is deploying for maximum effect and positions must be taken that provide good observation, accurate measuring of distance, and a full view of the effect of fire.

4) Taking post on high ground in open terrain offers decided advantages. In defence however the slopes falling away to the front must be covered.

5) All oblique positions which can easily be flanked are to be avoided even at extreme range.

6) During all movements on the battlefield close columns and grouped formations must be avoided, and a column with extended intervals is to be used whenever the terrain permits. When moving within enemy range a faster pace is to be used and cover used when possible, otherwise heavy losses can occur.

7) Firing must not begin at too great ranges. Although the guns are accurate at well over 3,000 metres the judging of distances at these ranges is difficult and observation of fire very uncertain. Firing over 1,500 metres is generally wasteful, unless particular circumstances demand it or the size and composition of a target warrant it.

8) If fire opens at long ranges, a battery may later find itself short of shells at close range in important moments.

9) Conserving ammunition is an important principle that must be adhered to. The guns permit very rapid firing, however good shooting requires a calm crew and precise aiming. At shorter ranges firing can be faster, since conditions are better for it. The urgency or importance of a task might demand a higher rate of fire. When firing at fixed objects, if no real success is visible or it is done at long range, a slow rate is to be maintained.

10) To ensure the ammunition supply the first line of ammunition wagons must be near at hand, preferably to the side and under cover so as not to catch fire aimed at the battery.

11) Every pause during which a battery is not under fire must be used to bring up ammunition. Even if under fire the battery must be replenished at the latest after half its stock is used up.

12) Firing over other troops should be avoided, and if done at all, then done with great caution.

13) Columns and squares should be fired on ideally down their longest sides, batteries from the flank or at an angle.

14) When selecting from the various enemy targets, the most important is that which at a particular moment poses the greatest danger to friendly troops, or the destruction of which will contribute most to reaching a decision. To bring about a decision the batteries must fire on the same targets, and not each at a separate one.

15) Frequent changes of position are damaging, especially within enemy artillery range as it can not then take place without losses. Moving forwards or back over short distances should be avoided as the accuracy and range of the guns makes it unnecessary.

16) Taking the artillery within enemy small arms range is wasteful, since the artillery`s effect depends on its material and this should be protected. However if great objectives can be achieved by doing so it should be prepared to go within small arms range.

17) In defence it is a major responsibility of the artillery to find points which dominate the surrounding area or which through their situation result in the holding of the battlefield itself depending on their being held. The most dominant of these points are to be occupied with 6 pounders, which can then develope their full potential against the enemy columns and their deployment, beginning at long ranges. The distance to various points which the enemy will have to pass should be judged in advance and confirmed with ranging shots. From such a position the enemy can be kept under fire for the whole time of his approach, and be held up by well-aimed fire while crossing obstacles. Such positions must be defended hard, down to the use of canister. The 4 pound batteries will support the troops during the various small actions during the battle and support their attacks. The reserve artillery will be brought against the main enemy advance at the appropriate time and place. Having dealt with this they will then leave the battle to the other troops.

18) Covering a retreat after a defeat is one of the artillery`s most important tasks. It must exploit every useful piece of terrain, and endeavour to gain time for the retreating troops. The accuracy of the guns will often make this fairly easy, a few hits on a chosen target can delay the enemy. The artillery must in particular draw all or at least some of the enemy artillery fire onto itself. The 6 pounders should operate on the line of withdrawal, the 4 pounders more to the flanks.


Some Experiences from the War

During 1870/71, only two 6 pounder barrels were destroyed by enemy fire, along with 14 gun carriages. Eleven limbers were destroyed and 7 heavily damaged. Sixty-nine shells and 650 bagged charges ( Kartuschen ) became unusable during transport, the latter mostly through damp.

The percussion fuse proved very reliable, and very few dud shells were recorded.

Canister was used for self-defence by artillery more than 40 times, in half of these incidents the canister drove the enemy off.

Shrapnel was used by only a few Bavarian and Saxon batteries, and later in the war by Prussian batteries.

Up to now 600 metres had been regarded as effective small arms range, this now doubled because even at 1,500 metres French Chassepot fire caused casualties in gun crews. The battle had to be begun and carried through at much greater distances than before.

Shellfire was frequently used at 3,000 metres and more, at 1,800 to 2,000 metres a significant effect was noticeable and at the most frequent range of 1,100 to 1,800 metres enemy troops were often forced to retreat from their positions or cease advancing and retire. The enemy very rarely got to nearer than 600 metres - an eye-witness recorded how 30 guns of the Garde during the Battle of Gravelotte-St.Privat defeated a French divisional attack, in column from Amanvillers. The column came over a hill and the first ranging shots hit it at 1,900 metres, and heavy fire opened. The same happened at 1,700 metres, and then at 1,500, 1,300 and 1,100. Only at 900 metres did the attack break down and the enemy retire.

At short ranges the shells often had a devastating effect, and in addition to the material effect the moral effect was considerable.

The superiority of heavy over light guns was noticed in a greater moral effect and through their greater effects against stationary objects.

The greater mobility of light batteries opposed to heavy was demonstrated over difficult ground. Elsewhere the mobility of both proved adequate. The horse artillery demonstrated fully the characteristics for which it is noted.

The entire range of equipment proved highly usable on the battlefield. Only two 6 pounder and twenty-five 4 pounder barrels became completely unusable, sixteen 6 pounder and fifty-seven 4 pounder barrels were temporarily so, mostly through fires in the barrels.

A French commentator wrote that the mass use of artillery gave the Prussian infantry "an immediate and insurmountable superiority". The French batteries still went into action one at a time, and this meant that there were never enough French guns in position to achieve fire superiority. The reserve batteries at the rear of the French columns never came into action in time whereas the Prussian corps artillery was if necessary engaged, like divisional artillery, as soon as an action began.

The Saxon artillery, totalling 14 batteries at Gravelotte-St.Privat, fired a total of 2,235 rounds. Soon after at Beaumont it fired 7,324 rounds.

In wartime a complete Feld-Artillerie-Regiment of 90 guns made up the artillery of an Armee Korps.



The Prussians had had some unfortunate experiences with their artillery in 1866. They had taken the field partially equipped with old smoothbore cannon, and were still not fully clear about how best to use the new rifled guns. For this reason the artillery had been very active indeed in the years between 1866 and 1870 in seeking to perfect its use of the new material, develop suitable tactics and maximise its firepower. By 1870 it was armed only with new breechloaders which outclassed the French artillery in terms of accuracy and quality of ammunition. The old concept of an artillery reserve had been done away with and the artillery now instead opened the battle and prepared the way for the infantry assault. It also sought to achieve great effect by massed fire and therefore would either seek to deploy guns in large groupings of up to 100 or more or at least try to bring concentric heavy fire down on a target. The artillery had succeeded in establishing the idea that the loss of a gun in the midst of battle was no longer regarded as dishonourable, and as a result was now able to fully commit itself on the battlefield, fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with the infantry. The artillery now became the major arm on the battlefield, and scored great successes wherever it was able to fully deploy and given time to take effect. Later in the war when the German infantry was numerically inferior it came to rely more on the artillery, for example at Coulmiers, Beaune-la-Rolande, Villepion, Lisaine, Mont Valerien. At the Lisaine the field artillery was supported by a number of guns from the siege train at Belfort.


Some Notes about the French Artillery

We conclude with some points about the opposing French artillery. Initially the French fielded 164 6-gun batteries, comprising 38 horse and 94 driving batteries with 4 pounders, and 32 driving 12 pounder batteries. The guns were bronze, rifled, muzzle-loaders of the La Hitte system, which proved a sensation when used against the Austrians in 1859. The 4-pounder was sighted up to 3,200 metres, although the maximum range is claimed to have been 4,600 metres.

The French lagged behind Prussia in the development of steel, and for cost reasons the supporters of bronze had a strong case - bronze barrels could be easily melted down and recast. However they had already begun development of breech-loaders before 1870. In 1867 the Director of the gun foundry at Bourges, Reffye, constructed a bronze breech-loader known officially as Canon de 7 rayé se chargeant par la culasse. The figure 7 referred to the weight of the shell, around 7 kilogrammes. The shell had an effective percussion fuse, and the gun also fired shrapnel. This new gun was only cast from late 1870 in larger quantities. Through contributions from the public 1,500 were to be cast in Paris ( during the siege ); 800 were actually produced. Further quantities were made in the provinces and were used among other things to equip new formations of the Loire Army. A German eye-witness recorded how it equalled the German guns in accuracy, and effect.

A final point of interest about the French artillery concerns the fuses on the shells - these gave the shells bursting zones limited to 1,350 to 1,550 metres and 2,650 to 2,850 metres.

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Original article © Wargames Illustrated 1988 1