‘That Devil Gribeauval’


Jean-Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval 1715–1789 and the Development of Artillery Systems in the Eighteenth Century.

The middle of the eighteenth century saw great innovations and improvements in field artillery. Holtzman in Prussia, Liechtenstein, Rouvroy, and Feuerstein in Austria, and Gribeauval, Maritz, and their lieutenants in France designed, produced, and fielded field artillery systems that changed the face of warfare and led directly to the mass mobile warfare of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

The Prussians led in the 1740s with light, sturdy field pieces and the ancillary vehicles that gave them the advantage over the artillery of other European armies. The performance of the Prussian field artillery in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–8) prompted the Austrian Wenzel Liechtenstein to reform and improve the Austrian field artillery. The next major European war, the Seven Years War, saw the Austrians spring a nasty surprise on their traditional enemies the Prussians with their new field artillery system.

Because of a shortage of qualified senior artillery and engineer officers, the French seconded qualified officers to the Austrian Army to aid its war effort. Jean-Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval was one of the artillery officers sent to help the Austrians and during his tenure with the Austrian army he served with distinction with the artillery arm, gaining valuable knowledge and information on the Liechtenstein system as well as distinguishing himself in combat with the Austrians against the Prussians. Gribeauval also reformed and trained the Austrian engineer arm, greatly improving its organization and efficiency, making the Prussian engineer arm a very poor second to the Austrian in the field and in sieges.

Innovative artilleryman, combat leader and commander, technical expert in artillery design and manufacture, all these describe Jean-Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval, the innovator and designer of one of the best artillery systems in Europe between 1740 and 1789.

Gribeauval’s scheme, which was first and foremost a field artillery system, the first official field artillery system developed in France, was designed for mobile warfare and would enable the French artillery to become the foremost artillery arm on the battlefields of Europe from 1792–1815.

Gribeauval was born in Amiens in 1715 of a family that had contributed both magistrates and soldiers to the service of the state. Fatefully, Gribeauval was born on the feast day of Saint Barbara (4 December), the patron saint of artillerymen.

Gribeauval joined the army as a volunteer in 1732, entered the artillery school at La Fère as a cadet in 1733, and was commissioned as an officierpointeur upon successful completion of the artillery course in 1735. One of his instructors at La Fère was the famous Bernard Forest de Bélidor, who had calculated that the ‘normal’ powder charges then being used for artillery pieces were too large and that they could be reduced by half without affecting range or accuracy. This important discovery would later greatly aid Gribeauval in the development of his field artillery system.

By 1743 Gribeauval had been appointed/promoted to commissaire extraordinaire in the artillery arm, and four years later became a commissaire ordinaire. Because of his developing expertise and technical knowledge Gribeauval quickly developed a reputation in all aspects of artillery, especially in the construction of ordnance.

In 1748, after combat service in the War of the Austrian Succession in both Flanders and Germany, Gribeauval designed a fortress gun carriage that was later copied throughout Europe. Gaining the notice of General Jean Florent de Vallière, hereafter referred to as Vallière père, the head of the French artillery arm who approved of his new design.

Gribeauval, however, recognized, as did other French artillerymen and many senior officers in the army in general, that the Vallière artillery system of 1732 was becoming obsolescent. The guns, gun carriages, and ancillary equipment were too heavy for rapid movement on the battlefield and could not keep up with a field army whose commander was intent on swift movement.

Most notably, the only standardization within the system was with the guns themselves, which were beautifully designed pieces with excellent range and acceptable accuracy. The design and construction criteria were not uniform throughout the arsenals and foundries. For example, wheels from Douai might not fit a gun carriage from another arsenal. And too many times the gun carriages and ancillary vehicles were constructed to suit the roads near that particular arsenal or foundry and might or might not work well on other roads. In short, uniformity did not exist nor did the interchangeability of parts. And the gun tubes were not yet uniform nor were they bored out from a solid cast gun tube, but from one cast around a core. Maritz’s new casting and boring methods were not yet adopted by the French Army, though they were by the French Navy, which had its own artillery organization.

Gribeauval was promoted in 1752 to captain and was given command of a company of miners. As the miners at this time were part of the artillery arm, artillery officers were at times given command of miner companies. That same year Gribeauval was ordered on an inspection trip to study the Prussian light artillery that had performed so well in the War of the Austrian Succession, and had given the Austrians so much trouble in the field.

The outstanding Prussian artillery officer Lieutenant Colonel Ernst Friedrich von Holtzman had developed a very mobile field artillery arm which Gribeauval was able to observe at first hand during manoeuvres and personally inspect the field pieces and ancillary vehicles. Gribeauval obtained plans for some of the Prussian field pieces and had one constructed for field tests when he returned to France.

In 1757 Gribeauval was promoted to lieutenant colonel of infantry and that same year was seconded to the Austrian Army, as war had come again to Europe and France and Austria were now allies against Frederick the Great. The Austrian Empress Maria Theresa had requested personnel support from France because of a shortage of senior artillery and engineer officers in the Austrian service. This was despite the significant artillery reforms done in Austria by Liechtenstein which completely revamped the Austrian artillery arm in an attempt to make it at least the equal of the Prussians they had faced in the previous war.

Gribeauval’s service in Austria was exemplary and distinguished. He served at the Battle of Hastenbeck and at the capture of Minden. He earned promotion to Oberstleutnant in the Austrian army in 1759. Distinguished service at the siege of Neiss the same year resulted in his being created an Austrian general officer, General-Feldwachtmeister, the equivalent of a French lieutenant general and he was noted as a ‘général de bataille … commandant de l’artillerie, du génie, et des mineurs’. Gribeauval was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Maria Theresa by a grateful Empress. Gribeauval’s sovereign, Louis XV, agreed with the honours and gave his consent to the promotion.


Schweidnitz: While this is a map of the siege in 1807, it clearly illustrates the fortress that Gribeauval defended so well in 1762.

Under the overall command of Marshal Loudon, Gribeauval directed the siege of Glatz and took the city by a daring, well-planned and well-executed coup de main. Gribeauval’s most distinguished service with the Austrians, however, was his defence of Schweidnitz, as the commander of the Austrian artillery and engineers in the garrison. Frederick himself was present and was impressed by Gribeauval’s technical skill. While the garrison of Schweidnitz was finally forced to capitulate, they had inflicted 7,000 Prussian casualties at a loss of only 1,000 Austrians. After the siege Frederick attempted to entice Gribeauval into his service, but he refused and when the war was over he returned to his duties in the French Army.

It is noteworthy and a great compliment to Gribeauval that he was considered an equal to his Austrian comrades in the artillery arm and was considered as a ‘collaborateur’ (equal colleague) of Prince Liechtenstein. Gribeauval had contributed to the improvement of the Austrian artillery arm and his work with the Austrian engineers gave them a firm technological footing as well as a definite organization and place in the Austrian Army that they had not previously enjoyed.

Even before his return to France, Gribeauval was chosen by the French Minister of War, the Duc de Choiseul, to work at revamping and reorganizing the French artillery arm and developing and implementing a field artillery system. Gribeauval probably began work on his new artillery system before he left Austria for France. What he wanted was a simple system of light, accurate field pieces that would emphasize mobility, hitting power, interchangeability of parts, and be of a modern design. Gribeauval wanted a field artillery system designed to fight the next war, not the last. Gribeauval was ordered to prepare a report on the Austrian artillery arm and submitted it to Choiseul, who was satisfied with the content and told Gribeauval to proceed with his planning and development.

Choiseul was not only Gribeauval’s patron in this endeavour, he was also his partner, as would be the innovative Swiss gunfounder Jean Maritz. Gribeauval was undoubtedly chosen for the task of revamping the French artillery arm because he had served with the Austrian artillery in combat and had closely observed the Prussian field artillery before the war. He was the only French artilleryman who had knowledge of both systems, which allowed him to develop a better field artillery system than either of those two powers.

Gribeauval, with Choiseul’s sponsorship, began the reform of the French artillery arm. His new designs – the gun tubes themselves, a new field artillery carriage design, and new ancillary vehicles – made the French artillery up to date and eventually the best in Europe by the outbreak of the French Revolution.

Gribeauval and Choiseul were confronted with one very large problem in the person of Joseph Florent de Vallière fils, the son of the originator of the Vallière artillery system and the Ordonnance of 1732. Vallière fils was the current Director-General of the French artillery and opposed Gribeauval’s new system vehemently, and the argument was long and bitter. Gribeauval officially tested his new field guns at Strasbourg in 1764, and their overall performance was just as good as that of the older, longer, and heavier Vallière pieces. The argument, however, divided the French artillery into the pro-Vallière faction-known as the rouges because of the traditional colour of the French artillery uniform (the waistcoats and breeches were red, the coats blue) and the pro-Gribeauval faction-known as the bleus because of the new uniform introduced by Gribeauval which was all blue, not just the coat. Initially, with the support of various general officers who not only wanted the artillery reformed but the entire army, and the Minister of War, Gribeauval’s new system was adopted by the French Army on 13 August 1765.

Still the long argument was not over. Vallière and his supporters pressed their case and once Choiseul was manoeuvred out of the War Ministry, the Gribeauval System was proscribed and Gribeauval and many of his supporters were either silenced or dismissed. However, over the next few years, the arguments resurfaced and Vallière fils died. Support for the older artillery system faded, and Gribeauval’s designs were finally reinstated. Gribeauval was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of St Louis in 1776 and was made First Inspector-General of Artillery on 1 January 1777. Gribeauval and his subordinates were able to continue their work and both the field artillery and siege pieces first saw employment and combat with General Comte de Rochambeau’s expeditionary force that deployed to North America in 1780 and were decisively employed in the York-town campaign in the autumn of 1781 which forced the capitulation of Lord Cornwallis’s army to the French and Americans effectively ending the War of the Revolution and guaranteeing the independence of the new United States.

The reforms instituted and carried out by Gribeauval affected every aspect of the French artillery arm. The first complete field artillery system in France was created with new gun tubes, gun carriages, and ancillary vehicles, along with equipment and innovations that improved gunnery, ballistics, production of guns and vehicles, and made changes in organization, uniforms, training, education, and artillery doctrine. In short, with two exceptions, Gribeauval covered field artillery ‘from muzzle to butt plate’ and created the system that would carry the French through the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

The two exceptions Gribeauval did not address were, first, the introduction of horse artillery, which he apparently intended to add to the new field artillery system once it was finally approved and any official or semi-official opposition was ended. Horse artillery was eventually introduced into the French Army in 1792 following the recommendations of Minister of War Louis Duportail. Second, the artillery train was not militarized and the dubious employment of civilian artillery drivers was retained. This would finally be remedied by Napoleon in 1800 as First Consul of France. The new artillery train was an efficient military organization that would be constantly expanded as the artillery arm grew larger over the Consulate and Empire.

The material and technical changes instituted by Gribeauval were impressive. Windage was reduced to a standardized minimum; screw-in gun vents were introduced; the prolonge and bricole became standard pieces of equipment for each gun crew. A new, simple hausse sight was developed that could be used with little training and could be kept mounted on the piece when firing. Brass wheel housings were manufactured to reduce friction when the piece was being moved, especially by manpower, and gave each piece a mechanical advantage, even though the new gun carriages were heavier than their foreign counterparts as all were equipped with an iron, instead of the usual wooden, axle. That was a major technological step forward.

Organizational, educational, and artillery uniform changes were also instituted. Gribeauval not only improved the technical education of French artillery officers, but also now had the non-commissioned officers school-trained as well. The French artillery was organized into permanent companies and regiments with new dark (or royal, and later imperial) blue uniforms. French artillery officers were educated not only in the traditional subjects of mathematics and technical drawing, but were also taught tactics, infantry as well as their own, and infantry/artillery cooperation was emphasized to them.

Gribeauval was an outstanding artillery officer who designed one of the most innovative and complete artillery systems in the history and development of artillery. He insisted on rigid production standards so that the gun tubes and all the vehicles from gun carriages to limbers to caissons were all built to the same standard. The parts were interchangeable within the ‘three calibres’ and the technical drawings that were distributed to all of the production facilities, the famous ‘Tables of Construction’, were finally published together in 1792, three years after Gribeauval’s death. While they were published posthumously, they were the product of Gribeauval’s work, which is why his name is on the publication.

As noted previously both the field and siege pieces of the Gribeauval System were taken to North America by Rochambeau and the French Expeditionary Corps and were used in combat at the siege of Yorktown. The system proved itself before the beginning of the Wars of the French Revolution and though Napoleon wanted the system replaced in 1802–3 by the new Système An XI, circumstances dictated that only two field pieces of that system, the 6-pounder and the 5.5-inch (24-pounder) howitzer, were produced in any numbers. What these new field pieces did in actuality was to supplement the Gribeauval System and not replace it.