Thursday, May 26, 2011

Various Interesting Things About The Napoleonic Era Part III

Killing On The High Seas

The battleship was the most complex machine of that era, requiring hundreds of sailors in addition to the many specialists (armorer, cook, cooper, surgeon, carpenter, etc). This is a machine (which, I know, sounds a bit wonky, one doesn't think of something that doesn't have an engine or at least a very prominent smoke stack to be a machine; a bit of rope, some sail, and alot of wood hardly constitutes one) which controlled the only means of overseas trade, --from the West or East Indies, from the Americas-- and therefore of wealth, and therefore, ultimately, of power. They were the Star Destroyers of their time.

Killing was done very simply, and much like on land, but with more cannons, heavier cannons. Iron balls of death that weighed as little as 6 to as much as 45lbs would be hurtled at the enemy. If you didn't get maimed or die outright from those, you'd die from splinters of all things, being broken off by impact and hurtling through the air to do the most untoward things to your major arteries, your lesser known internal organs, and generally spiling your blood all over the deck.

If they didn't kill you with roundshot they'd switch to grapeshot or canister shot, which would turn those massive beasts into the sort of shotguns you'd use to hunt elephants if you were interested in both killing the elephant and liquifiying its remains at the same time.

And if they didn't kill you with cannon fire (incidently, while you tried to do the same), they'd board you and you could both have an all out brawl trying to sever important bits off each other using axes and pikes and cutlasses. There was no room on a boarding action for any grace or parry or swordsmanship, much like when infantry would do a bayonet charge, it was all gutter fighting, moreso infact, since there was less room to move, and a drop into the ocean meant a drowning more often than not (many sailors never bothered how to swim, reasoning it was better to die quick than prolong it (this is as if all the sailors were the visitors from Alien Nation, touch water and you die, and you're surrounded by water)).

All the while this was happening they'd often have sharpshooters, as much as they could be, seeing as they had to use smoothbore guns, in the tops of the rigging to shoot down on you as you fired your cannons or steered the ship or tried not to be killed by screaming masses of iron being propelled by explosions.

It was a bloody, vicious affair, a fight of artillery at close range, full of a tsunami of noise and smoke and general chaos that generally accompanied war at that time.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Various Interesting Things About The Napoleonic Era Part II

Ah, you thought I'd given up on this dusty topic that can only be of interest to people who collect ascots and have an enduring love of Coronation Street. How wrong you are.

Killing - On Land
Whereas now all you need is a few billion dollars worth of laser guided ordnance dropped from tens of thousands of feet lit up by an elite military team that has more hours training in Killing The Enemy With Dental Floss than I have spent being alive, in the Napoleonic Era, killing was all about cojones. Not that modern day or soldiers in Korean and Vietnam and WWII etc etc didn't have cojones. But in the Napoleonic Era that's ALL there was. No real tactics perse, or situational awareness, it was more or less a gigantic game of chicken.

You had three main groups in a land battle: cannons, cavalry, and infantry. They work in a sloppy rock papers scissors fashion. Infantry can beat infantry, cannons soften or beat infantry. Calvary can, in certain circumstances, destroy infantry, but in other circumstances, the reverse is true. Calvary, from what I can tell, tries to stay out of the way of cannons altogether. Then you have different grades of calvary (lancers, heavy cavalry, cuirassiers, oh god you're falling asleep already), and different grades for the other two roles in the army. But we won't get into that.

But we were talking about cojones,and games of chicken. In that time, there is no 'spotting' the enemy, finding the ambush, looking for IEDs. The enemy is wearing some ridiculously garish uniform, marching in a very large group (column or line) right at you. They are marching at you because muskets are only accurate (for generous definitions of 'accurate') at about 50 yards. I think you're at about 50/50 for whether the musketball will even hit you. So the enemy marches at you, you can see your likely death walking in cadence.

Behind them are their cannons firing iron balls (between 10 and 24 lbs) at you. You have to march at them, doing the same thing, hoping that an cannon ball doesn't find you and decapitate you or cripple your or disembowel you in a shockingly sloppy manner. I mean, the cannons will most LIKELY not hit you. Unless the gunners are good, and learn how to graze the shot, meaning the shot hits the first line, then bounces, but not too high, and keeps doing carnage all down the column.

And all the while you march, and your best friend gets his legs removed at the pelvis and that annoying bloke who still owes you 10 shillings cops it some upper crust officer is yelling at sergeant to yell at you to close ranks. That's right, fill up the space left by the careening ball of death that just left guts and viscera all over your already garish uniform.

And then you finally get in range. You all move together. Present arms, fire, load, veeeeeeery slowly. A really well trained infantryman could fire 3 shots in a minute. After the first or second volley there's smoke everywhere, you can't actually see your enemy are are just firing into smoke, hoping that the smoke is parted for a musketball coming from their side to you.

That, I'll humbly submit, takes cojones. Loading, firing, staying with your platoon.

At some point, the calvary might charge you. Big, massive beasts, trained to trample and bite (although, what with the trampling, I'm sure the biting doesn't worry you so much), and ontop, some enormous fellow from the upper crust who has had better food and better training than the poor fellows he's about to ride over. Infantry. Usually peasants or thieves or murderers, the general trod-upon of society.  So this upper crust fellow is knee to knee with his fellow calvary men, charging you, swinging an enormous cavalry sabre to cut across your face or to sever your spine.

But remember that thing I said about 'in certain circumstances'? Well, there was one thing the infantry could do, which was form a square. Outer layer of soldiers put their muskets to the ground, bayonets facing out, the second and third ranks fire. Horses, for some inexplicable reason, will not charge into pointy sticks.

And, here again, cojones comes into play. If you hold the square, with your mates, you're ok. You're safe. If you panic,if you all start to break and run, well. That's what calvary is made for. Running down broken and scattering infantry. Complete slaughter.

Next post, Killing on the High Seas.