When the Horses Still Pulled the Guns: Thoughts Comparing “Great War” and Civil War Artillery

Lately I’ve been writing a series of posts over at Bring the Heat discussing World War I artillery.  Thus far I’ve only showcased the “light guns” used at the divisional level:

In future installments I plan to look at the howitzers used at the divisional level, infantry guns used at regimental and lower levels, along with the larger guns at corps and army levels.  Oh, and I’ll have to say a piece about the trench mortars and other “exotics” entering the mix around that time – anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns.

On the “gun” side, technology refreshed several times between 1865 and 1917.   The guns firing over the trenches in France were much removed from those which worked over similar trenches at Vicksburg, Atlanta, or Petersburg.  However there are many practices and applications which are not far removed from the 1860s.  Consider this view of a M1917 gun setup in traveling order:

Yes the gun hooked up to a limber with ammunition chest.  The spoke wheels enhance the “Civil Warish” look. And perhaps even more so with views of the guns towed into action:

That’s a French designed M1897 75mm gun, towed by horses.  Take off the gun shield and at first glance this is reminiscent of Civil War photos.  Well… except for those hats and leggings.

But the point these two photos drive home is that horses still provided field artillery its mobility.  Sure, tractors and trucks were used (and the Americans were a bit more lavish about that in some regards) in 1917, but those had not replaced real horse power.  Manuals of the time period retained chapters on selection, training, and care of horses for artillery.  Designers still considered the practical draft of four- and six-horse teams as weight restrictions.  Guns still used pole or stock trails so as to make towing by horses easier.  And the gun section still needed a limber with ammunition chest, caisson, and traveling forge among other additional rolling stock.  Thus, from a distance a battery in the field had some similarities to the Civil War organizations.

I also find more to compare than just the horses and wheel spokes.  When planning to enter the war in France, Army officers had to figure out the right ratio of artillery to support infantry.  They noted the combatants currently engaged employed on average six guns per thousand infantry for a quiet sector, and between eight and twelve for very active sectors.

Recall back in 1861, General William Barry felt three pieces per thousand infantry was sufficient.  Yet in application the Army of the Potomac fought its great battles with four or six guns per thousand infantry.    And those were raw organizational numbers.  A handy example – Cemetery Ridge on July 3 – saw a ratio more akin to the “active sector” described in the World War I planning.

Despite fifty years of technical advancements, doctrine refinement, and organizational changes, artillery employment held to some planning constraints and preferences….

…. and horses still pulled the guns.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

3 thoughts on “When the Horses Still Pulled the Guns: Thoughts Comparing “Great War” and Civil War Artillery

  1. Interesting. 1000 troops was very roughly the strength of a regiment, which was functionally the equivalent to today’s battalion. So one battery to a battalion of infantry. Roughly the same ratio as today!

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