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U.S. Army Artillery from the Napoleonic Era to the Civil War

 

cannons

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Since things are going to stay exciting this week in the realm of American politics and world events I decided to take it easy tonight and post a portion one of my Civil War texts, A Great War in a Revolutionary Age of Change. This section of that chapter deals with the developments of the American artillery branch from the Napoleonic period until the Civil War. 

I figured I needed to relax a bit and truthfully artillery gives me a serious woody. I started my military career as a forward observer in the National Guard back in 1981 before all the GPS and computer stuff and I tell you there is nothing like calling in 155mm artillery fire and seeing it obliterate a target. I know that sounds bad, but don’t knock it until you have tried it, and back in those days the life expectancy of a Forward Observer if we went up against the Soviets was measured in minutes so allow me that because I haven’t been allowed to do it since 1983 when I was commissioned as a Medical Service Corps officer and later became a chaplain. 

I am sure that there are some artillery geeks out there so if you know one please share this with them.

So anyway, until tomorrow.

Peace

Padre Steve+

The Gribeauval System, Napoleon, and the U.S. Army

Like the infantry and cavalry the technical specifics and tactics of the artillery of the United States Army had their roots in the Napoleonic era. Artillery theory “emphasized both the offensive and defensive role of field artillery, with the emphasis on the offensive role in support of infantry assault tactics.” [1] Much of this was due to how Napoleon, a master of artillery tactics, employed his artillery. Napoleon depended heavily on his artillery, he “liked to assemble them in a Grand Battery and use them as an offensive, as against a defensive weapon. At Wagram, in 1809, Napoleon had torn the heart out of an Austrian army with a Grand Battery of 112 guns.” [2] Napoleon would also use a tactic called the artillery rush in which just prior to launching an attack, “the greater part of his artillery reserve would rush to the front. An intensive bombardment would pulverize the opposing line at the point of assault.” [3] If successful he would unleash his heavy and light cavalry in pursuit of broken enemy formations, if not, the guns would cover the retreat of the assault troops.

Napoleon used the system of General Jean Baptiste Gribeauval (1715-1789) who was the real father of artillery in the French army. Gribeauval adapted the Prussian system of Frederick the Great for France. “He “undertook a complete overhaul of the French artillery system.” [4] He developed an entire artillery system for the French army including field, siege and coastal artillery manned by specially trained soldiers. These soldiers were trained in specialized artillery schools. Napoleon, who was trained in the artillery school of the Regiment La Fere in 1785, “used Gribeauval’s guns, equipment, and organization as steppingstones on the path to becoming First Counsel of France and later of a large part of Europe.” [5]

In order to improve mobility, Gribeauval standardized weapons in each arm of the artillery, and most importantly for field artillery he reduced the number of gun types found in different artillery units. He “selected 4-, 8-, and 12-pr guns, all plain unchambered pieces of 18 caliber length, and 6-in howitzers. All of these fired well-fitting projectiles with powder charges about one-third the weight of the shot.” [6] To increase accuracy he ordered that the bore of artillery pieces be drilled rather than case which “produced more exact tolerances within the bore and reduced the windage between the projectile and the bore’s wall.” [7] To enhance mobility he designed standardized limbers and caissons for his guns and all field artillery pieces were “mounted on the same basic carriage so that many carriage parts were interchangeable.” [8] Likewise, the Frenchman “introduced a series of innovations that aimed at improving the artillery’s accuracy. He introduced an elevating screw to adjust the guns range instead of a wedge, allowing for more precise ranging. Gribeauval also provided the gun crews with graduated rear sights. The elevating screw and the rear sight were seen as the most significant improvements regarding cannon in two hundred years.” [9]

One of the most important aspects of Gribeauval’s system was that it touched “nearly every aspect of cannon design, construction, carriages, and deployment, the so-called Gribeauval System served France into the Napoleonic Era. It was so far reaching that it also profoundly influenced artillery in other nations, including that of the emerging United States” [10] which adopted the Gribeauval System in 1818.

American Army officers had long been in the thrall of Napoleon and had been educated in Napoleon’s theory of war by Napoleon’s Swiss interpreter, Henri Jomini, through Denis Hart Mahan, the first military theoretician of the United States who had studied in France and taught at West Point. As such the army sent officers to France to study, among them was Lieutenant Daniel Tyler who went to France in 1828. He translated all of Gribeauval’s System and noted that the French were in the process of adopting British designs of weapons and accouterments, which they had found to be superior to the older designs. Tyler recommended that the Army continue with the Gribeauval System.

One of these advancements was the stock-rail carriage to mount artillery, which was superior to the Gribeauval designs. Janice McKenny, in her book The Organizational History of Field Artillery 1775-2003 noted that Tyler also translated copies of the French evaluations of British designs, and “obtained complete drawings and specifications of the Système anglais modié, which the Americans later named the “stock-trail system” after the design of the carriage. The new trail consisted of a solid block of wood, simpler and stronger than the old split-trail then in use by the American army, and was significantly superior in maneuverability.” [11] In response to Tyler, some American designers “began fabricating stock trail prototypes” [12] from Tyler’s drawings. However, it took over a decade for the Army to adopt the design, but once adopted the army would use the stock-rail system for its field artillery guns until after the Civil War.

This was in large part due to the work of Captain Alfred Mordecai, who traveled to France in 1833-1834 and collected data on the French development of the stock-rail system. His information, “which included detailed drawings, became the basis for U.S. prototypes of the design.” [13] An Ordnance officer, Mordecai went on to become head of the Frankford Arsenal and later was appointed to the Ordnance Board where he wrote the 1841 Ordnance Manual for the Use of Officers in the United States Army. Mordecai was instrumental in standardizing weapons types and carriages. The guns of his 1841 Pattern, 6- and 12-pound guns, as well as the 12-pound howitzer were all mounted on a standard carriage. Larger weapons, the 24- and 32- pound howitzers of the 1841 pattern were developed but did not see as much service due to their weight. Additionally, limbers and caissons were redesigned to lighten them and improve mobility. Though approaching obsolescence, many these guns saw action in early part of the Civil War and Confederate artilleryman Porter Alexander noted that the 24-pound howitzer was “his favorite gun”[14] for the effectiveness of its heavy shells and canister.

6pdrcarriagetravel

M-1841 6-Pounder Artillery Carriage and Limber

The artillery service in United States Army was organized like the French army into batteries of six guns, which in turn were detailed to brigades, regiments or battalions. The regimental system was adopted in 1821, following discussions by Secretary of War John C. Calhoun and Congress. As a result, the existing artillery of the army, “the Corps of Artillery and the Regiment of Light Artillery were consolidated to form the 1st, 2d, 3d, and 4th Regiments of Artillery. One of the nine companies authorized to each of the four regiments was to be equipped as light artillery…. The number of artillery companies was reduced from forty-two (thirty-two in the Corps of Artillery and ten in the Regiment of Light Artillery) to thirty-six in the four artillery regiments.” [15] The units were dispersed at forts as coastal artillery and depots around the country.

Most of the artillery companies of the period were maintained well below strength and none were organized as horse artillery. In order to give artillerymen practical experience and training working as part of a larger force, Calhoun and the Army established an artillery school at Fortress Monroe. This was an important step. The mission of the school was to provide artillerymen the necessary training in the science of gunnery and artillery tactics, which could not be accomplished in isolated posts. To ensure that the total force was trained the army determined that, “ten artillery companies were to be drawn from the four regiments and assembled as the Artillery Corps for Instruction. The faculty was to be selected from the artillery at large. Through a plan of rotation, all artillery companies were eventually to pass through the school. Cadets assigned to the artillery after graduating from West Point were to receive a year’s instruction at the school before joining their regiments.” [16] The school was closed in 1835 due to the demands for artillerymen in the increased number of coastal fortifications and the need for troops to serve in Florida against the Seminoles.

Though almost all artillery units participated in the war “for the most part, the artillerists were limited in employment to manning the numerous stockades erected to confine the Indians to the Everglades.” [17] Thus they gained no practical experience in their trade. In spite of this by the late 1830s a high percentage of the West Point faculty and staff were men who had served with the artillery in Florida. Major Richard Delafield, an artilleryman became Superintendent in 1838 and gave “artillery instruction wider curricular attention: an artillery “laboratory” would be set up, and practice with lightweight and mobile cannon would receive new impetus.” [18] In another move, Secretary of the Army Joel Poinsett decided to implement the provision of the 1821 regulations to establish four light companies. Using surplus horses from the war he mounted one company as horse artillery in which each crew member had his own horse or rode on the limber, and three as mounted units, “meaning that though the guns were horse-drawn, the cannoneers rode on the carriages or caissons or they walked. In theory the mounted units were to be employed with infantry as regular field artillery and the horse (or light) artillery was to be employed with cavalry.” [19]

The Apex of the Smoothbore

12 pound napoleon

12 Pound M-1857 Napoleons at Gettysburg

Most of the improvements in artillery design between the Napoleonic era and the Civil War were on focused on lightening the weight of the tube, developing better and more mobile limbers, and improvements to fuses and ammunition. During this time the smoothbore cannon reached the apex of its development. In the United States this was realized with the brass M 1857 12-pound Napoleon, which was developed from a French design, however the gun “embodied none of the recent advances in technology” and was “already considered obsolescent by the French Army.” [20] However, much of the choice was dictated by purchasing agents and the budget which required any new ordnance to be cheap. The Napoleon was intended to replace the 1841 patter 6 and 12 pound guns and the 12 pound howitzer. It was nearly 500 pounds lighter than the old guns and “though it was technically a gun, owing to its ability to fire canister and solid shot, the Napoleon was often referred to as a gun-howitzer for its ability to fire explosive shell.” [21] It would see its first action at the Battle of Bull Run and nearly 1,800 of these versatile cannon would be produced in Northern and Confederate foundries during the war. Despite its obsolescence it “proved to be the most popular field piece during the Civil War,” [22] and Union artillery General Henry Hunt later acclaimed the Napoleon as “the best all round field piece of this era.” [23]Robert E. Lee told the Prussian observer to the Army of Northern Virginia, Justus Scheibert: “Nothing surpasses… the impression of a battery of 12-pound smoothbores which approaches to within 400-600 paces of the enemy…. In such moment rifled artillery, the advantages of which in open country I fully appreciate, cannot replace the smoothbore.” [24] Some of these guns remained in service until 1880.

The Development of Rifled Cannon and Breechloaders

While the development of rifled, breech loading, and repeating rifles advanced the capabilities of the infantry in terms of firepower, range, accuracy and battlefield lethality, developments to modernize the artillery around the world lagged behind the rifled musket due to the economic costs involved. Because of the cost “no country would face the cost of re-equipment.” [25] This would begin to change in the mid-1850s as the experience of the Crimean began to give new impetus to weapons development.

However, a number of artillerymen and innovators began to experiment with breech loading and rifled cannon. These were not new ideas, and “when combined, they were first experimented with in England in 1745,”[26] but it would take another hundred years before Italian Major Giovanni Cavalli developed “a cast iron gun, its bore cut with simple two groove rifling to accept an elongated projectile fitted with corresponding lugs that mated with the gun’s grooves.” [27] As Cavalli improved his design others in Europe designed rifled guns. In France Colonel Treuille de Bealieu designed a similar gun to Cavalli; but which fired a cylindrical projectile. Napoleon III who was himself authority on artillery ordered brass smoothbores to be rifled on Bealieu’s design. [28] Swedish Baron Martin Wahrendorf “experimented with smaller, multiple-grooved rifling using lead-sheathed projectiles” [29] Cavalli’s guns were used by the Sardinian army, while the French deployed a number of theirs to Algeria and against the Austrians in Italy.

In the 1850s three English inventors, Charles William Lancaster, Joseph Whitworth, and William George Armstrong began to develop rifled guns. During the Crimean War the British Army modified some old large-caliber guns as breech-loaders. The “first British rifled ordnance consisted of a few old 68-pr and 8-in. cast iron guns, which were made oval and twisted in the bore and so converted to pieces rifled on the Lancaster principle.” [30] Some of these guns saw action during the siege of Sevastopol. Whitworth also produced a breech loading rifled cannon. His gun had a very long range and was exceptionally accurate, however the design was complex and temperamental, and the gun “ultimately proved impractical for general use.” This was in part due to their complexity and the “precise tolerances used in the manufacture… required meticulous maintenance by gun crews to avoid malfunctions, and even moderate bore wear led to jamming in the bores.” [31] A few Whitworth rifles were employed by the Confederate army during the Civil War, two seeing action in Richard Ewell’s Second Corps at Gettysburg.

Armstrong, proposed a lightweight rifled field gun, made of forged rather than cast iron to the Duke of Newcastle, Secretary of State for War in 1854. [32] His design incorporated features that remain today. “His rifled breechloader had multiple groves to distribute the twisting force equally around the projectile. The iron projectile was coated with lead to permit a tight sealing into the grooves. Later projectiles have employed copper rotating bands to produce the tight seal without leaving the deposits of lead which tended to foul the cannon.” [33] The only real issues with Armstrong’s guns was that his “breech-loading system was complex and rather advance of its time, and there were a number of accidents due to various mechanical weaknesses.” [34] Likewise, the early breech-loading systems “were so clumsy and slow to operate that a good crew could fire a muzzle-loader faster than a breach loader.”[35]

The United States Army began to examine the possibilities of rifled guns, but the process took time, and much struggle due to the bureaucracy and political infighting. “In the mid-1850s, experiments with the forerunners of rifled cannon began at Fort Monroe. In 1860, a board of artillery and ordnance officers was established to make further tests on rifling, and the board submitted its report late that year. It recommended that at least 50 percent of the guns at forts and arsenals be converted into rifles.” [36]

15inch-rodman-gun

15 inch Rodman Gun

During the same time period a number of Americans both military, and civilian, began to develop their own variations of rifled cannon for use in the U.S. Army. The most important of these were Captain Robert Jackson Rodman and Captain Robert Parrott. Rodman was a true scientist who understood both metallurgy and gunpowder. Rodman was instrumental in using his knowledge to design the largest guns of the era. Called Columbiads, these heavy guns came in 8 inch, 10 inch, 15 inch and even a 20 inch model. They were used in coastal fortifications. In the 1870s over 200 of the 10 inch model were converted to 8 inch rifles. The Rodman guns remained in service the rest of the century and are considered to be the best cast-iron cannon ever produced.

Parrott was the Superintendent of the West Point Iron and Cannon Foundry of Cold Spring New York. Parrott “became interested in rifled guns after the successes of Krupp in Germany. In the following years he applied his own skills to designing an American rifled gun.” [37] Parrott focused on improving cast-iron guns. He “developed a method for shrinking wrought-iron bands around the breech of a cast barrel.”[38] The band was designed to strengthen the cast iron barrel and “the final result was a relatively lightweight, economical gun and gave the Parrot rifle its distinctive profile.” [39] For field artillery use Parrot designed a 2.9 inch 10-pounder in 1861 which was modified to a 3 inch bore in 1863 to standardized ammunition with the 3 inch Ordnance Rifle. Parrot also designed a 20-pound 4.7 inch rifle for field service. Both models were manufactured in the North and the South and saw wide use with over 2,000 produced for the Federal government. When he was at VMI in 1860, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was “one of the first to test and recommend for adoption the rifled Parrott guns.” [40] At Jackson’s “recommendation, Virginia purchased twelve” of the new rifled guns. [41]

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10 Pound Parrot Rifle at Devil’s Den Gettysburg

Parrot also produced heavy guns used by the Navy for use on ships, and the Army for seacoast and siege weapons. The one problem with the Parrot rifles was the fact that the cast-iron barrel was brittle and prone to burst, especially those of large caliber, which made it unpopular among its crews and caused the Navy to withdraw them from service aboard ship. Porter Alexander reported that during the Battle of Fredericksburg that for the first and only time he had 30-pound Parrott rifles in the field and that during the battle “they filled a great want, until they, unfortunately, both exploded towards the middle of the day, one on the 37th round & one on the 42nd.” [42]

A civilian, John Griffen of the Phoenix Ironwork of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania,“pioneered the use of wrought iron in the construction of field pieces” [43] and patented his prototype in 1855. The designed was slightly modified by the Ordnance Department and adopted by the army in 1861. The weapon was known as the Ordnance Rifle and is had a bore of 3 inches and threw a 10-pound projectile. Unlike the cast iron Parrot, it was “constructed of tougher wrought iron, consisting of iron bands welded together around a mandrel and then lathed to a sleek, modern profile. It was then bored and rifled.” [44] The Ordnance rifles were light, easy to maneuver and beloved by their crews for their accuracy, and dependability. Phoenix manufactured over 1,000 of these weapons for the Federal government.

To be continued…

Notes

[1] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare p.21

[2] Ibid. Cornwell Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles p.165

[3] Nesmith, Vardell E. Stagnation and Change in Military Thought: The Evolution of American Field Artillery Doctrine, 1861-1905 – An Example United States Army Command and Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS 1976 p.5

[4] Kinard, Jeff Artillery: An Illustrated History of Its Impact ABC Clio, Santa Barbara, Denver, and Oxford 2007 p.148

[5] Stevens, Phillip H. Artillery Through the Ages Franklin Watts Inc. New York 1965 p.47

[6] Rogers, H.C.B. A History of Artillery The Citadel Press, Secaucus NJ 1975 p.58

[7] Ibid. Kinard Artillery: An Illustrated History of Its Impact p.148

[8] Ibid. Stevens, Phillip H. Artillery Through the Ages Franklin Watts Inc. New York 1965 p.48

[9] Garcia, Manuel R. The Pursuit of Precision in Field Artillery School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth KS 2010 pp.7-8

[10] Ibid. Kinard Artillery: An Illustrated History of Its Impact p.148

[11] McKenny, Janice E. The Organizational History of Field Artillery 1775-2003 Center For Military History, United States Army, Washington D.C. 2007 p.36

[12] Ibid. Kinard Artillery: An Illustrated History of Its Impact p.170

[13] Ibid. Kinard Artillery: An Illustrated History of Its Impact p.169

[14] Ibid. Alexander Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander p.182

[15] Ibid. McKenny The Organizational History of Field Artillery 1775-2003 p.32

[16] Ibid. McKenny The Organizational History of Field Artillery 1775-2003 p.34

[17] Ibid. McKenny The Organizational History of Field Artillery 1775-2003 p.34

[18] Longacre, Edward G. The Man Behind the Guns: A Military Biography of General Henry J. Hunt, Chief of Artillery, Army of the Potomac Da Capo Press, a Perseus Group, Cambridge MA 2003 p.28

[19] Ibid. McKenny The Organizational History of Field Artillery 1775-2003 p.38

[20] Ibid. Stevens, Phillip H. Artillery Through the Ages Franklin Watts Inc. New York 1965 pp.62-63

[21] Ibid. Kinard Artillery: An Illustrated History of Its Impact p.188

[22] Ibid. McKenny The Organizational History of Field Artillery 1775-2003 p.49

[23] Ibid. Longacre The Man Behind the Guns: A Military Biography of General Henry J. Hunt, Chief of Artillery, Army of the Potomac p.70

[24] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.257

[25] Ibid. Fuller The Conduct of War 1789-1961 p.89

[26] Ibid. Fuller The Conduct of War 1789-1961 p.89

[27] Ibid. Kinard Artillery: An Illustrated History of Its Impact p.222

[28] Ibid. Rogers A History of Artillery p.94

[29] Ibid. Kinard Artillery: An Illustrated History of Its Impact p.222

[30] Ibid. Rogers A History of Artillery p.94

[31] Ibid. Kinard Artillery: An Illustrated History of Its Impact p.223

[32] Ibid. Rogers A History of Artillery p.94

[33] Ibid. Stevens, Phillip H. Artillery Through the Ages Franklin Watts Inc. New York 1965 p.60

[34] Ibid. Rogers A History of Artillery p.94

[35] Ibid. Stevens, Phillip H. Artillery Through the Ages Franklin Watts Inc. New York 1965 p.60

[36] Ibid. McKenny The Organizational History of Field Artillery 1775-2003 pp.50-51

[37] Ibid. Kinard Artillery: An Illustrated History of Its Impact p.190

[38] Ibid. Stevens, Phillip H. Artillery Through the Ages Franklin Watts Inc. New York 1965 p.61

[39] Ibid. Kinard Artillery: An Illustrated History of Its Impact p.190

[40] Ibid. Gwynne Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson p.88

[41] Ibid. Nesmith Stagnation and Change in Military Thought: The Evolution of American Field Artillery Doctrine, 1861-1905 – An Example p.15

[42] Ibid. Alexander Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander p.172

[43] Ibid. Nesmith Stagnation and Change in Military Thought: The Evolution of American Field Artillery Doctrine, 1861-1905 – An Example p.14

[44] Ibid. Kinard Artillery: An Illustrated History of Its Impact p.192

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The Development of Artillery from the Napoleon Period to the American Civil War: Part One

cannons

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I’ve been working on revisions to one of my Civil War texts, A Great War in a Revolutionary Age of Change and decided to post one of those today. Hopefully tomorrow I will follow up with the second part of this section, which deals with the development of artillery from the pre-Napoleonic era to the beginning of the American Civil War. This is kind of a post for geeks who study the period.

I hope that you enjoy.

Peace

Padre Steve+

The Gribeauval System, Napoleon, and the U.S. Army

Like the infantry and cavalry the technical specifics and tactics of the artillery of the United States Army had their roots in the Napoleonic era. Artillery theory “emphasized both the offensive and defensive role of field artillery, with the emphasis on the offensive role in support of infantry assault tactics.” [1] Much of this was due to how Napoleon, a master of artillery tactics, employed his artillery. Napoleon depended heavily on his artillery, he “liked to assemble them in a Grand Battery and use them as an offensive, as against a defensive weapon. At Wagram, in 1809, Napoleon had torn the heart out of an Austrian army with a Grand Battery of 112 guns.” [2] Napoleon would also use a tactic called the artillery rush in which just prior to launching an attack, “the greater part of his artillery reserve would rush to the front. An intensive bombardment would pulverize the opposing line at the point of assault.” [3] If successful he would unleash his heavy and light cavalry in pursuit of broken enemy formations, if not, the guns would cover the retreat of the assault troops.

Napoleon used the system of General Jean Baptiste Gribeauval (1715-1789) who was the real father of artillery in the French army. Gribeauval adapted the Prussian system of Frederick the Great for France. “He “undertook a complete overhaul of the French artillery system.” [4] He developed an entire artillery system for the French army including field, siege and coastal artillery manned by specially trained soldiers. These soldiers were trained in specialized artillery schools. Napoleon, who was trained in the artillery school of the Regiment La Fere in 1785, “used Gribeauval’s guns, equipment, and organization as steppingstones on the path to becoming First Counsel of France and later of a large part of Europe.” [5]

In order to improve mobility, Gribeauval standardized weapons in each arm of the artillery, and most importantly for field artillery he reduced the number of gun types found in different artillery units. He “selected 4-, 8-, and 12-pr guns, all plain unchambered pieces of 18 caliber length, and 6-in howitzers. All of these fired well-fitting projectiles with powder charges about one-third the weight of the shot.” [6] To increase accuracy he ordered that the bore of artillery pieces be drilled rather than case which “produced more exact tolerances within the bore and reduced the windage between the projectile and the bore’s wall.” [7] To enhance mobility he designed standardized limbers and caissons for his guns and all field artillery pieces were “mounted on the same basic carriage so that many carriage parts were interchangeable.” [8] Likewise, the Frenchman “introduced a series of innovations that aimed at improving the artillery’s accuracy. He introduced an elevating screw to adjust the guns range instead of a wedge, allowing for more precise ranging. Gribeauval also provided the gun crews with graduated rear sights. The elevating screw and the rear sight were seen as the most significant improvements regarding cannon in two hundred years.” [9]

One of the most important aspects of Gribeauval’s system was that it touched “nearly every aspect of cannon design, construction, carriages, and deployment, the so-called Gribeauval System served France into the Napoleonic Era. It was so far reaching that it also profoundly influenced artillery in other nations, including that of the emerging United States” [10] which adopted the Gribeauval System in 1818.

American Army officers had long been in the thrall of Napoleon and had been educated in Napoleon’s theory of war by Napoleon’s Swiss interpreter, Henri Jomini, through Denis Hart Mahan, the first military theoretician of the United States who had studied in France and taught at West Point. As such the army sent officers to France to study, among them was Lieutenant Daniel Tyler who went to France in 1828. He translated all of Gribeauval’s System and noted that the French were in the process of adopting British designs of weapons and accouterments, which they had found to be superior to the older designs. Tyler recommended that the Army continue with the Gribeauval System.

One of these advancements was the stock-rail carriage to mount artillery, which was superior to the Gribeauval designs. Janice McKenny, in her book The Organizational History of Field Artillery 1775-2003 noted that Tyler also translated copies of the French evaluations of British designs, and “obtained complete drawings and specifications of the Système anglais modié, which the Americans later named the “stock-trail system” after the design of the carriage. The new trail consisted of a solid block of wood, simpler and stronger than the old split-trail then in use by the American army, and was significantly superior in maneuverability.” [11] In response to Tyler, some American designers “began fabricating stock trail prototypes” [12] from Tyler’s drawings. However, it took over a decade for the Army to adopt the design, but once adopted the army would use the stock-rail system for its field artillery guns until after the Civil War.

This was in large part due to the work of Captain Alfred Mordecai, who traveled to France in 1833-1834 and collected data on the French development of the stock-rail system. His information, “which included detailed drawings, became the basis for U.S. prototypes of the design.” [13] An Ordnance officer, Mordecai went on to become head of the Frankford Arsenal and later was appointed to the Ordnance Board where he wrote the 1841 Ordnance Manual for the Use of Officers in the United States Army. Mordecai was instrumental in standardizing weapons types and carriages. The guns of his 1841 Pattern, 6- and 12-pound guns, as well as the 12-pound howitzer were all mounted on a standard carriage. Larger weapons, the 24- and 32- pound howitzers of the 1841 pattern were developed but did not see as much service due to their weight. Additionally, limbers and caissons were redesigned to lighten them and improve mobility. Though approaching obsolescence, many these guns saw action in early part of the Civil War and Confederate artilleryman Porter Alexander noted that the 24-pound howitzer was “his favorite gun” [14] for the effectiveness of its heavy shells and canister.

6pdrcarriagetravel

M-1841 6-Pounder Artillery Carriage and Limber

The artillery service in United States Army was organized like the French army into batteries of six guns, which in turn were detailed to brigades, regiments or battalions. The regimental system was adopted in 1821, following discussions by Secretary of War John C. Calhoun and Congress. As a result, the existing artillery of the army, “the Corps of Artillery and the Regiment of Light Artillery were consolidated to form the 1st, 2d, 3d, and 4th Regiments of Artillery. One of the nine companies authorized to each of the four regiments was to be equipped as light artillery…. The number of artillery companies was reduced from forty-two (thirty-two in the Corps of Artillery and ten in the Regiment of Light Artillery) to thirty-six in the four artillery regiments.[15] The units were dispersed at forts as coastal artillery and depots around the country.

Most of the artillery companies of the period were maintained well below strength and none were organized as horse artillery. In order to give artillerymen practical experience and training working as part of a larger force, Calhoun and the Army established an artillery school at Fortress Monroe. This was an important step. The mission of the school was to provide artillerymen the necessary training in the science of gunnery and artillery tactics, which could not be accomplished in isolated posts. To ensure that the total force was trained the army determined that, “ten artillery companies were to be drawn from the four regiments and assembled as the Artillery Corps for Instruction. The faculty was to be selected from the artillery at large. Through a plan of rotation, all artillery companies were eventually to pass through the school. Cadets assigned to the artillery after graduating from West Point were to receive a year’s instruction at the school before joining their regiments.” [16] The school was closed in 1835 due to the demands for artillerymen in the increased number of coastal fortifications and the need for troops to serve in Florida against the Seminoles.

Though almost all artillery units participated in the war “for the most part, the artillerists were limited in employment to manning the numerous stockades erected to confine the Indians to the Everglades.” [17] Thus they gained no practical experience in their trade. In spite of this by the late 1830s a high percentage of the West Point faculty and staff were men who had served with the artillery in Florida. Major Richard Delafield, an artilleryman became Superintendent in 1838 and gave “artillery instruction wider curricular attention: an artillery “laboratory” would be set up, and practice with lightweight and mobile cannon would receive new impetus.” [18] In another move, Secretary of the Army Joel Poinsett decided to implement the provision of the 1821 regulations to establish four light companies. Using surplus horses from the war he mounted one company as horse artillery in which each crew member had his own horse or rode on the limber, and three as mounted units, “meaning that though the guns were horse-drawn, the cannoneers rode on the carriages or caissons or they walked. In theory the mounted units were to be employed with infantry as regular field artillery and the horse (or light) artillery was to be employed with cavalry.” [19]

The Apex of the Smoothbore

12 pound napoleon

12 Pound M-1857 Napoleons at Gettysburg

Most of the improvements in artillery design between the Napoleonic era and the Civil War were on focused on lightening the weight of the tube, developing better and more mobile limbers, and improvements to fuses and ammunition. During this time the smoothbore cannon reached the apex of its development. In the United States this was realized with the brass M 1857 12-pound Napoleon, which was developed from a French design, however the gun “embodied none of the recent advances in technology” and was “already considered obsolescent by the French Army.” [20] However, much of the choice was dictated by purchasing agents and the budget which required any new ordnance to be cheap. The Napoleon was intended to replace the 1841 patter 6 and 12 pound guns and the 12 pound howitzer. It was nearly 500 pounds lighter than the old guns and “though it was technically a gun, owing to its ability to fire canister and solid shot, the Napoleon was often referred to as a gun-howitzer for its ability to fire explosive shell.” [21] It would see its first action at the Battle of Bull Run and nearly 1,800 of these versatile cannon would be produced in Northern and Confederate foundries during the war. Despite its obsolescence it “proved to be the most popular field piece during the Civil War,” [22] and Union artillery General Henry Hunt later acclaimed the Napoleon as “the best all round field piece of this era.” [23] Robert E. Lee told the Prussian observer to the Army of Northern Virginia, Justus Scheibert: “Nothing surpasses… the impression of a battery of 12-pound smoothbores which approaches to within 400-600 paces of the enemy…. In such moment rifled artillery, the advantages of which in open country I fully appreciate, cannot replace the smoothbore.” [24] Some of these guns remained in service until 1880.

The Development of Rifled Cannon and Breechloaders

While the development of rifled, breech loading, and repeating rifles advanced the capabilities of the infantry in terms of firepower, range, accuracy and battlefield lethality, developments to modernize the artillery around the world lagged behind the rifled musket due to the economic costs involved. Because of the cost “no country would face the cost of re-equipment.” [25] This would begin to change in the mid-1850s as the experience of the Crimean began to give new impetus to weapons development.

However, a number of artillerymen and innovators began to experiment with breech loading and rifled cannon. These were not new ideas, and “when combined, they were first experimented with in England in 1745,” [26] but it would take another hundred years before Italian Major Giovanni Cavalli developed “a cast iron gun, its bore cut with simple two groove rifling to accept an elongated projectile fitted with corresponding lugs that mated with the gun’s grooves.” [27] As Cavalli improved his design others in Europe designed rifled guns. In France Colonel Treuille de Bealieu designed a similar gun to Cavalli; but which fired a cylindrical projectile. Napoleon III who was himself authority on artillery ordered brass smoothbores to be rifled on Bealieu’s design. [28] Swedish Baron Martin Wahrendorf “experimented with smaller, multiple-grooved rifling using lead-sheathed projectiles” [29] Cavalli’s guns were used by the Sardinian army, while the French deployed a number of theirs to Algeria and against the Austrians in Italy.

In the 1850s three English inventors, Charles William Lancaster, Joseph Whitworth, and William George Armstrong began to develop rifled guns. During the Crimean War the British Army modified some old large-caliber guns as breech-loaders. The “first British rifled ordnance consisted of a few old 68-pr and 8-in. cast iron guns, which were made oval and twisted in the bore and so converted to pieces rifled on the Lancaster principle.” [30] Some of these guns saw action during the siege of Sevastopol. Whitworth also produced a breech loading rifled cannon. His gun had a very long range and was exceptionally accurate, however the design was complex and temperamental, and the gun “ultimately proved impractical for general use.” This was in part due to their complexity and the “precise tolerances used in the manufacture… required meticulous maintenance by gun crews to avoid malfunctions, and even moderate bore wear led to jamming in the bores.” [31] A few Whitworth rifles were employed by the Confederate army during the Civil War, two seeing action in Richard Ewell’s Second Corps at Gettysburg.

Armstrong, proposed a lightweight rifled field gun, made of forged rather than cast iron to the Duke of Newcastle, Secretary of State for War in 1854. [32] His design incorporated features that remain today. “His rifled breechloader had multiple groves to distribute the twisting force equally around the projectile. The iron projectile was coated with lead to permit a tight sealing into the grooves. Later projectiles have employed copper rotating bands to produce the tight seal without leaving the deposits of lead which tended to foul the cannon.” [33] The only real issues with Armstrong’s guns was that his “breech-loading system was complex and rather advance of its time, and there were a number of accidents due to various mechanical weaknesses.” [34] Likewise, the early breech-loading systems “were so clumsy and slow to operate that a good crew could fire a muzzle-loader faster than a breach loader.” [35]

The United States Army began to examine the possibilities of rifled guns, but the process took time, and much struggle due to the bureaucracy and political infighting. “In the mid-1850s, experiments with the forerunners of rifled cannon began at Fort Monroe. In 1860, a board of artillery and ordnance officers was established to make further tests on rifling, and the board submitted its report late that year. It recommended that at least 50 percent of the guns at forts and arsenals be converted into rifles.” [36]

15inch-rodman-gun

15 inch Rodman Gun

During the same time period a number of Americans both military, and civilian, began to develop their own variations of rifled cannon for use in the U.S. Army. The most important of these were Captain Robert Jackson Rodman and Captain Robert Parrott. Rodman was a true scientist who understood both metallurgy and gunpowder. Rodman was instrumental in using his knowledge to design the largest guns of the era. Called Columbiads, these heavy guns came in 8 inch, 10 inch, 15 inch and even a 20 inch model. They were used in coastal fortifications. In the 1870s over 200 of the 10 inch model were converted to 8 inch rifles. The Rodman guns remained in service the rest of the century and are considered to be the best cast-iron cannon ever produced.

Parrott was the Superintendent of the West Point Iron and Cannon Foundry of Cold Spring New York. Parrott “became interested in rifled guns after the successes of Krupp in Germany. In the following years he applied his own skills to designing an American rifled gun.” [37] Parrott focused on improving cast-iron guns. He “developed a method for shrinking wrought-iron bands around the breech of a cast barrel.”[38] The band was designed to strengthen the cast iron barrel and “the final result was a relatively lightweight, economical gun and gave the Parrot rifle its distinctive profile.” [39] For field artillery use Parrot designed a 2.9 inch 10-pounder in 1861 which was modified to a 3 inch bore in 1863 to standardized ammunition with the 3 inch Ordnance Rifle. Parrot also designed a 20-pound 4.7 inch rifle for field service. Both models were manufactured in the North and the South and saw wide use with over 2,000 produced for the Federal government. When he was at VMI in 1860, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was “one of the first to test and recommend for adoption the rifled Parrott guns.” [40] At Jackson’s “recommendation, Virginia purchased twelve” of the new rifled guns. [41]

999130_10152038135167059_1801660138_n

10 Pound Parrot Rifle at Devil’s Den Gettysburg

Parrot also produced heavy guns used by the Navy for use on ships, and the Army for seacoast and siege weapons. The one problem with the Parrot rifles was the fact that the cast-iron barrel was brittle and prone to burst, especially those of large caliber, which made it unpopular among its crews and caused the Navy to withdraw them from service aboard ship. Porter Alexander reported that during the Battle of Fredericksburg that for the first and only time he had 30-pound Parrott rifles in the field and that during the battle “they filled a great want, until they, unfortunately, both exploded towards the middle of the day, one on the 37th round & one on the 42nd.” [42]

A civilian, John Griffen of the Phoenix Ironwork of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, “pioneered the use of wrought iron in the construction of field pieces[43] and patented his prototype in 1855. The designed was slightly modified by the Ordnance Department and adopted by the army in 1861. The weapon was known as the Ordnance Rifle and is had a bore of 3 inches and threw a 10-pound projectile. Unlike the cast iron Parrot, it was “constructed of tougher wrought iron, consisting of iron bands welded together around a mandrel and then lathed to a sleek, modern profile. It was then bored and rifled.” [44] The Ordnance rifles were light, easy to maneuver and beloved by their crews for their accuracy, and dependability. Phoenix manufactured over 1,000 of these weapons for the Federal government.

To be continued…

Notes

[1] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare p.21

[2] Ibid. Cornwell Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles p.165

[3] Nesmith, Vardell E. Stagnation and Change in Military Thought: The Evolution of American Field Artillery Doctrine, 1861-1905 – An Example United States Army Command and Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS 1976 p.5

[4] Kinard, Jeff Artillery: An Illustrated History of Its Impact ABC Clio, Santa Barbara, Denver, and Oxford 2007 p.148

[5] Stevens, Phillip H. Artillery Through the Ages Franklin Watts Inc. New York 1965 p.47

[6] Rogers, H.C.B. A History of Artillery The Citadel Press, Secaucus NJ 1975 p.58

[7] Ibid. Kinard Artillery: An Illustrated History of Its Impact p.148

[8] Ibid. Stevens, Phillip H. Artillery Through the Ages Franklin Watts Inc. New York 1965 p.48

[9] Garcia, Manuel R. The Pursuit of Precision in Field Artillery School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth KS 2010 pp.7-8

[10] Ibid. Kinard Artillery: An Illustrated History of Its Impact p.148

[11] McKenny, Janice E. The Organizational History of Field Artillery 1775-2003 Center For Military History, United States Army, Washington D.C. 2007 p.36

[12] Ibid. Kinard Artillery: An Illustrated History of Its Impact p.170

[13] Ibid. Kinard Artillery: An Illustrated History of Its Impact p.169

[14] Ibid. Alexander Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander p.182

[15] Ibid. McKenny The Organizational History of Field Artillery 1775-2003 p.32

[16] Ibid. McKenny The Organizational History of Field Artillery 1775-2003 p.34

[17] Ibid. McKenny The Organizational History of Field Artillery 1775-2003 p.34

[18] Longacre, Edward G. The Man Behind the Guns: A Military Biography of General Henry J. Hunt, Chief of Artillery, Army of the Potomac Da Capo Press, a Perseus Group, Cambridge MA 2003 p.28

[19] Ibid. McKenny The Organizational History of Field Artillery 1775-2003 p.38

[20] Ibid. Stevens, Phillip H. Artillery Through the Ages Franklin Watts Inc. New York 1965 pp.62-63

[21] Ibid. Kinard Artillery: An Illustrated History of Its Impact p.188

[22] Ibid. McKenny The Organizational History of Field Artillery 1775-2003 p.49

[23] Ibid. Longacre The Man Behind the Guns: A Military Biography of General Henry J. Hunt, Chief of Artillery, Army of the Potomac p.70

[24] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.257

[25] Ibid. Fuller The Conduct of War 1789-1961 p.89

[26] Ibid. Fuller The Conduct of War 1789-1961 p.89

[27] Ibid. Kinard Artillery: An Illustrated History of Its Impact p.222

[28] Ibid. Rogers A History of Artillery p.94

[29] Ibid. Kinard Artillery: An Illustrated History of Its Impact p.222

[30] Ibid. Rogers A History of Artillery p.94

[31] Ibid. Kinard Artillery: An Illustrated History of Its Impact p.223

[32] Ibid. Rogers A History of Artillery p.94

[33] Ibid. Stevens, Phillip H. Artillery Through the Ages Franklin Watts Inc. New York 1965 p.60

[34] Ibid. Rogers A History of Artillery p.94

[35] Ibid. Stevens, Phillip H. Artillery Through the Ages Franklin Watts Inc. New York 1965 p.60

[36] Ibid. McKenny The Organizational History of Field Artillery 1775-2003 pp.50-51

[37] Ibid. Kinard Artillery: An Illustrated History of Its Impact p.190

[38] Ibid. Stevens, Phillip H. Artillery Through the Ages Franklin Watts Inc. New York 1965 p.61

[39] Ibid. Kinard Artillery: An Illustrated History of Its Impact p.190

[40] Ibid. Gwynne Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson p.88

[41] Ibid. Nesmith Stagnation and Change in Military Thought: The Evolution of American Field Artillery Doctrine, 1861-1905 – An Example p.15

[42] Ibid. Alexander Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander p.172

[43] Ibid. Nesmith Stagnation and Change in Military Thought: The Evolution of American Field Artillery Doctrine, 1861-1905 – An Example p.14

[44] Ibid. Kinard Artillery: An Illustrated History of Its Impact p.192

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A Quiet Remembrance: The Fall of Dien Bien Phu May 7th 1954

French Prisoners

On May 7th in Hanoi a small remembrance was held to mark the fall of Dien Bien Phu and honor the victor, 101 year old General Vo Nguyen Giap at his home.  It was one of the few remembrances held anywhere marking that battle which was one of the watersheds of the 20th Century. A half a world away in Houston Texas a small group of French veterans, expatriates and historians laid a wreath at the Vietnam War Memorial.  In Paris an ever shrinking number of French survivors gather each year on May 7th at 1815 hours for a religious service at the Church of Saint Louis des Invalides to remember the dead and missing of the French Expeditionary Corps lost in Indochina.  This battle is nearly forgotten by time even though it and the war that it symbolized is probably the one that we need to learn from before Afghanistan becomes our Indochina.

French Major Marcel Bigeard at Dien Bien Phu. A revered leader he died in 2010

On May 8th 1954 the last of the French garrison of Dien Bien Phu surrendered to the Viet Minh following the surrender of the main garrison the previous day.  It was the end of the ill-fated Operation Castor in which the French had planned to lure the Viet Minh Regulars into open battle and use superior firepower to decimate them.  The strategy which had been used once on a smaller scale the previous year at Na Son would prove to be the Göttdammerung of French colonial rule in Indochina.

French Paras landing at Dien Bien Phu

The French had thought they had come up with a template based on Na Son in how to engage and destroy the Viet Minh which had in the years between 1945 and 1954 had turned an insurgent force into a strong Army capable of taking on large French forces.  As a result the French decided that they would attempt to draw Giap’s Army into open combat where their superiority in heavy weaponry and in the air could be used to destroy the Viet Minh. The plan was called the “Air-land base.”  It involved having strong forces in a defensible position deep behind enemy lines supplied by air.  At Na Son the plan worked as the French were on high ground and had superiority in artillery and air forces.  They were also were blessed by General Giap using human wave assaults which made the Viet Minh troops fodder for the French defenders.  Even still Na Son was a near run thing for the French and had almost no effect on Viet Minh operations elsewhere in Indochina while tying down a almost a full division of troops and a large portion of French air power. They inflicted heavy losses on the Viet Minh but did not destroy them.

The French command assumed that they had found a way to defeat the Viet Minh.  They decided to repeat the strategy used at Na-Son at the remote the remote town of Dien Bien Phu near the Laotian border.  The French desired to use Dien Bien Phu as a base from which they could conduct offensive operations against the Viet Minh and to draw Giap’s forces into a conventional fight that they thought they could win.  Unfortunately the French chose badly. Dien Bien Phu lay in a marshy valley surrounded by mountains which were covered in dense nearly impassible jungle.  It was a poor location to conduct offensive operations from and a worse place to defend.

Viet Minh Main Force Regulars

The French elected to go light on artillery and due to the terrain it had to be deployed in nearly open conditions with neither cover not concealment.  Unlike Na Son the Dien Bien Phu air head was at the far end of the range of French aircraft, especially relatively weak tactical air assets.  French logistics needs were far greater than the French Air Force and American contractors could supply.  The French strong points in the valley were exposed and not mutually supporting and as such Giap and the Viet Minh were able to close with and attack each strong point in time overwhelming each after valiant French resistance.  The terrain was so poor that French units were incapable of any meaningful offensive operations against the Viet Minh.  As such they could only dig in and wait for battle.  Even so many positions were not adequately fortified and the artillery was exposed. The French garrison was a good force.  It was comprised of airborne units, the Foreign Legion, Colonial Paratroops (Marines), North Africans from Tunisia and Algeria as well as Vietnamese troops.  Many of the officers including Lieutenant Colonel Langlais and Major Bigeard commander of the 6th Colonial Parachute Battalion were among the best leaders in the French Army. Others who served in Indo-China including David Galula and Jacques Trinquier would write books which would help Americans in Iraq.  Unfortunately the French High Command badly underestimated the capabilities and wherewithal of the Giap and his divisions.

Giap rapidly concentrated his forces and built excellent logistics support.  He placed his artillery in well concealed and fortified positions which could use direct fire on French positions. Giap also had more and heavier artillery than the French believed him to have.  Additionally he brought in a large number of anti-aircraft batteries whose positions enabled the Viet Minh to take a heavy toll among French Aircraft.  Giap also did not throw his men away in human assaults.  Instead he used his Sappers (combat engineers) to build protective trenches leading up to the very wire of French defensive positions.  In time these trenches came to resemble a spider web.

Without belaboring this post the French fought hard as did the Viet Minh.  Many French positions were overwhelmed by accurate artillery and well planned attacks.  The French hoped for U.S. air intervention, even the possibility of using nuclear weapons against the Viet Minh.  They were turned down.  Relief forces were unable to get through.  The garrison died, despite the bravery of the Paratroops and Legionaries.  The French garrison was let down by their high command and their government and lost the battle due to inadequate logistics and air power.  The survivors endured a forced march of nearly 400 miles by foot to POW camps in which many died.  Many were subjected to torture and group discipline.  Few French caved to the Viet Minh interrogations but some would come away with the belief that one had to use such means to fight the revolutionaries.  French and their Algerian comrades would apply these lessons against each other within a year of their release.  French soldiers and officers were shipped from Indo-China to Algeria to wage another protracted counterinsurgency.  Militarily they had all but won the war when their government pulled out. French troops, especially the Legionaries and Paratroops felt betrayed by their nation, much like many Vietnam Vets felt about the United States government after that war.  I find today that both our government and people are caring for our returning troops in a far better manner than the past.  Even still the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan share almost a spiritual link to our American and French brothers in arms who fought at Dien Bien Phu, the Street Without Joy and places like Khe Sanh, Hue City, the Ia Drang and the Mekong.

The lessons of the French at Dien Bien Phu and in Indo-China were not learned by the United States as it entered Vietnam.  In fact the US Army made a conscious effort to ignore the advice of those that they called “losers.”  It was an arrogance for which we paid dearly in that war.

Despite our efforts in Afghanistan and the valiant sacrifices of our Marines and Soldiers we seem to have difficulty learning the lessons of the Vietnam Wars.  Old habits die hard, counterinsurgency done right isn’t sexy and there are no easy formulas to make it work.  What works in one country may not work in another as we are found when we tried to emulate our counterinsurgency success in Iraq in Afghanistan.  Despite a lot of institutional resistance from traditionally minded Army officers we were able to apply the lessons of counterinsurgency in Iraq and work with Iraqis to make that country more secure than it was before we took this type of warfare seriously.  Despite its continued problems Iraq is doing better and will likely do well in the long run as it recovers from the damage caused by the war.  They have known civilization since antiquity and are a proud people.  Someday I hope to take up the invitation of Iraqi friends to go back as they say as a tourist.

I am concerned about Afghanistan, despite the killing of Osama Bin Laden in neighboring Pakistan because it seems that the Taliban spring offensive is off to a good start.  U.S. and NATO Forces in Khandehar and Helmand Province have been placed on a higher alert and confined to their bases following a major assault on the Afghan provincial government installations in Khandehar.  The Taliban and other Afghan insurgents are only concerned with Afghanistan and even though Bin Laden is dead the deepening rift between the United States and Pakistan will likely ensure that they will enjoy military, personnel, financial support from many in Pakistan including the Intelligence agency in the remote and ungovernable northwest territories of that country which are a safe haven much like Communist China was for the Viet Minh.

Will there be a situation where an isolated NATO garrison is overrun by Taliban forces as French forces were in Indochina?  An isolated outpost was nearly overrun at Wanat in July of 2008 and at two isolated outposts near the Pakistani border in October 2009.  One would hope not, but we cannot underestimate the Afghans and their ability to adapt to NATO tactics and weapons.   Their predecessors successfully drove out the Soviets, the British, the Persians and the Greeks.  Dien Bien Phu is a warning from history not to leave troops in places where their exposure leaves them vulnerable.

But even more Dien Bien Phu serves to remind us that in such wars it is not always the highly trained and organized Western forces that win.  These are local wars and once the momentum shifts to the insurgent they are difficult to turn around.  In a sense the French were trying to do what we are trying to do now in taking the fight to the enemy.  It turned out badly for them and it could turn out badly for us.  I hope that we don’t forget.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Dien Bien Phu- Reflections 55 Years Later

VIETNAM DIEN BIEN PHU

French POWs from Dien Bien Phu being marched into captivity

On May 8th 1954 the French garrison of Dien Bien Phu surrendered to the Viet Minh.  It was the end of the ill-fated Operation Castor in which the French had planned to lure the Viet Minh Regulars into open battle and use superior firepower to decimate them.  The strategy which had been used on a smaller scale the previous year at Na Son.

The French had thought they had come up with a template based on Na Son in how to engage and destroy the Viet Minh.  The plan was called the “Air-land base.”  It involved having strong forces in a defensible position deep behind enemy lines supplied by air.  At Na Son the plan worked as the French were on high ground, had superior artillery and were blessed by General Giap using human wave assaults which made the Viet Minh troops fodder for the French defenders.  Even still Na Son was a near run thing for the French and had almost no effect on Viet Minh operations elsewhere while tying down a light division equivalent and a large portion of French air power.

The French took away the wrong lesson from Na-Son and repeated it at Dien Bien Phu.  The French desired to use Dien Bien Phu as a base of operations against the Viet Minh.  Unfortunately the French chose badly. The elected to occupy a marshy valley surrounded by hills covered in dense jungle.  They elected to go light on artillery and the air head was at the far end of the range of French aircraft, especially tactical air forces which were in short supply.  Likewise French logistics needs were greater than the French Air Force and American contractors could supply.  French positions were exposed and not mutually supporting.  The terrain was so poor that French units were incapable of any meaningful offensive operations against the Viet Minh.  As such they could only dig in and wait for battle.  Even so many positions were not adequately fortified and the artillery was exposed. The French garrison was a good force.  It was comprised of Airborne units, Foriegn Legion, Colonials (Marines), North Africans and Vietnamese troops.  Many of the officers including LtCol Langlais and Major Bigeard commander of the 6th Colonial Parachute Battalion were among the best leaders in the French Army. Others who served in Indo-China including David Galula and Jaques Trinquier would write books which would help Americans in Iraq.  Unfortunately the French High Command badly underestimated the capabilities and wherewithal of the Giap and his divisions.

Giap rapidly concentrated his forces and built excellent logistics support.  He placed his artillery in well concealed and fortified positions which could use direct fire on French positions. Giap also had more and heavier artillery than the French believed him to have.  Additionally he brought in a large number of anti-aircraft batteries whose positions enabled the Viet Minh to take a heavy toll among French Aircraft.  Giap also did not throw his men away in human assaults.  Instead he used his Sappers (combat engineers) to build protective trenches leading up to the very wire of French defensive positions.  In time these trenches came to resemble a spider web.

Without belaboring this post the French fought hard as did the Viet Minh.  Many French positions were overwhelmed by accurate artillery and well planned attacks.  The French hoped for U.S. air intervention, even the possibility of using nuclear weapons against the Viet Minh.  The were turned down.  Relief forces were unable to get through.  The garrison died, despite the bravery of the Paratroops and Legionaries.  The French garrison was let down by their high command and their government and lost the battle due to inadequate logistics and air power.  The survivors endured a forced march of nearly 400 miles by foot to POW camps in which many died.  Many were subjected to torture and group discipline.  Few French caved to the Viet Minh interrogations but some would come away with the belief that one had to use such means to fight the revolutionaries.  French and their Algerian comrades would apply this lessons against each other within a year of their release.  French soldiers and officers were shipped from Indo-China to Algeria to wage another protracted counterinsurgency.  Militarily they had all but won that war when their government pulled out. French troops, especially the Legionaries and Paratroops felt betrayed by their nation, much like many Vietnam Vets felt about the United States government after that war.  I find today that both our government and people are caring for our returning troops in a far better manner than the past.  Even still the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan share almost a spiritual link to our American and French brothers in arms who fought at Dien Bien Phu, the Street Without Joy and places like Khe Sanh, Hue City, the Ia Drang and the Mekong.

bigeard_instruction_sautLtCol Bigeard at Dien Bien Phu

The lessons of the French at Dien Bien Phu and in Indo-China were not learned by the United States as it entered Vietnam.  In fact the US Army made a conscious effort to ignore the advice of those that they called  “losers.”  It was an arrogance for which we paid dearly, Despite the efforts of General David Petreus and others these lessons have not been completely learned by western military organizations.  Old habits die hard, counterinsurgency done right isn’t sexy.  Despite a lot of institutional resistance from traditionally minded officers we have, thanks to General Petreus had a good amount of success in Iraq. I believe that Iraq will do okay in the long run.  Someday I hope to take up the invitation of Iraqi friends to go back. I am concerned about Afghanistan. It  has the potential to be Vietnam in the mountains.  I do hope and pray that we will figure Afghanistan out.  Will there be a situation where an isolated NATO garrison is overrun?  One would hope not, but we cannot underestimated the Afghans and their ability to adapt to NATO tactics and weapons. A year or so ago the Taliban came close to overrunning an American Coalition Outpost (COP).   Dien Bien Phu is a warning from history not to leave troops in places where their exposure leaves them vulnerable.

Last night at the ball game, Ray and Bill, the Vietnam vets who man the beer stand on the concourse behind home plate gave me a small memento.  A small wooden coming from the Virginia Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America.  On the back side a simple message: “Welcome Home.”  Something that they did not get when they came home.  My dad came home in 1974 after back to back 11 month deployments, one of which he was at An Loc, besieged for 80 days.  He never talked about it.  I go home next week.  My dad is slowly dying and doesn’t have that much longer left, his physician cannot believe that he is still alive.  I have to help my mom with funeral arrangements, some hospice stuff, billing issues with the insurance company and the nursing home.  My dad had expressed his desire to be buried at sea in the Gulf of Tonkin.  He told my brother he wanted this because it had the most beautiful sunsets he had ever seen.  I do hope that we can fulfill that wish.  As a Navy Chaplain I know I can work out the burial at sea, and pray that somehow I will be able to take him where he wants to go.

Thank you dad.  Thank you Ray and Bill and all my Vietnam era friends and mentors, from the California Guard, SSG Buff Rambo, SSG Mickey Yarro and Colonel Edgar Morrison.  Thanks also to SFC Harry Zilkan, SFC Harry Ball, 1st Sergeant Jim Koenig, Colonel Donald Johnson and Sergeant Major John Butler.  I especially thank my former parishioners at the Fort Indiantown Gap Chapel.  Charlie, Ray, General Smoker, Scotty and the rest of you.  Thanks also to my Battle of Hue City brothers, Barney, Limey, General Pace, Sergeant Major Thomas.  Thank you also to the French officers who did so much for their country and were treated so shamefully.  A number of these men have passed on but I will not forget them.  Others I have lost contact with. Please take the time to thank the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in your lives.  May no other veterans have to endure what all of you endured at the hands of your countrymen. May God bless all of you.

Peace, Steve+

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