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The Napoleonic Wars 1792-1815

Clearing weapons. Morning drills

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Clearing weapons. Morning drills

Postby jf42 » February 17th, 2015, 9:57 am

Strange as it may seem, one of my most long-standing impressions, since I first read David Howarth's account of Waterloo, 'A Near Run Thing' when thirteen or so, is the sound of popping musket fire along the line, as soldiers cleared their weapons on the morning of 18th June 1815 following the night's rain.

Howarth states that this was not the accepted practice, which was to draw the old charge by hand before re-loading the musket with a dry cartridge. However, firing the old round off, presuming that this was still possible, was evidently a quick and effective alternative and it seems that that officers and NCOs winked at the short-cut- at least on the morning of Waterloo.

Evidently, this was not an innovation introduced spontaneously on the 18th June. What I would be interested to learn is whether there are accounts of this practice taking place in earlier years.

I am curious at what the practice may have been when troops routinely 'Stood To' before dawn after they had spent the night in the field 'sleeping on their arms.' Would they as a matter of course extracted the old rounds from their weapons in order to be ready to meet an early morning attack?

Thanks,
JF
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Re: Clearing weapons. Morning drills

Postby Louis » February 17th, 2015, 11:06 am

I think you'll find it was very common.
As a re-enactor of nigh on 30 years, I cant tell you how much of a pain it is to use the worm.
'Tireballe' in French.

First, if you have one, you have to not of lost it, especially if you've just been in action.
It is usually stored in a small pouch on the back of the cartridge box, like a purse, so it needs fishing out. If not you have to borrow one. Even then it may not fit the thread of your ramrod.
Then the actual job of drawing out a round is extremely fiddly.
The paper cartridge has been compressed by ramming remember, so if your worm is not the sharpest it can be tough going. It takes a lot of experience to get it right and can take many minutes which seem like an age, especially when you want to line up and march off.

As a Sgt, I don't encourage firing off the round, as worming is a vital skill each man should be able to perform. Obviously the officers at the time would have frowned upon it but after a wet night on picket I think its quite understandable.
But If its not safe or suitable to do so, like in close proximity to a crowd or in camp I will insist that the soldier does his best to 'worm out'. Usually met with a sigh and a grumble.

A fresh pan of priming powder and tightening of the flint can usually shift the dud round.
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Re: Clearing weapons. Morning drills

Postby jf42 » February 17th, 2015, 12:03 pm

Louis, thank you. That is just the practical perspective I was hoping for - and 'Worm' was the word I was struggling to recall.

I should be interested to know, until any contemporary accounts surface, what you think the position would have been for battalions lying out in the field - as opposed to outposts on piquet- when standing to? Unless the night had been positively wet, that is after just the usual nightime dews and damps, would troops have been required to reload as a matter of course at 'stand to' when contact with the enemy was imminent?
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Re: Clearing weapons. Morning drills

Postby Louis » February 17th, 2015, 1:15 pm

Black powder's big failing, is it is very susceptible to rain or damp.
You would not want to stack loaded arms 'en facaux' or leave for any period of time.
Wet or otherwise. Ive seen muskets go off when dropped too.
As now, you would not want to have a loaded weapon in camp.
You will always have more trust in a fresh cartridge in a clean barrel.
Would you trust one that's been there all night?

You can read many accounts of muskets not firing when needed.
Until you have spent a few years with one,
you wont understand what a complicated piece of machinery it is!

I can only say from experience and as you ask 'for battalions' is a bit of a wide assumption,
I cant answer for everyone, but its still only 20 seconds or so to load a fresh cartridge.
So the pickets could easily buy enough time for the main force to load up.
There is no advantage at all to having a loaded weapons overnight.
Would you risk losing 1000 rounds because the locks became soaked by rain or dew?
Attachments
inspection.jpg
Inside of a 'Giberne'. Man on the left has tireballe in the centre. (with a screw to protect thread) Also has 2 gun tools. Man on right keeps possessions in small tin. Note the stitched on pocket on the outside that holds these tools. Both have oil bottles that fit in a drilled hole in the wooden box inside.
inspection.jpg (127.3 KiB) Viewed 394 times
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Re: Clearing weapons. Morning drills

Postby Josh&Historyland » February 17th, 2015, 2:28 pm

I was wondering about the barrel cleaning a few days ago. I must confess that I've only heard of it happening at Waterloo. However this seems unlikely. Is it substantiated by several accounts or one? I get the impression that the firing of the old round in the morning must have been a practice used by pickets rather than whole regiments. Firstly because as le bon sergent says the waste of over 500 rounds. Plus there is no evidence that battalions (in the Duke's army) would have been loaded when they made camp. The 17th was an affair of cavalry, and though at first no one was sure wether the action at QB would be resumed. It's highly unlikely every regiment had been ordered to load with ball.
Where wastage is the main problem with the firing of entire regiments, the problem with Pickets doing it (when not facing a general action in which case the enemy already knows you are there) is that the position of the outpost will be given away.

I'm sure that you know in the British service the worm (wire brush and turnkey) were suspended from the front straps of the haversack.

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Re: Clearing weapons. Morning drills

Postby Louis » February 17th, 2015, 3:43 pm

Josh, the worm and gun tool items are too valuable to be on display all the time.
What you are thinking of is the vent pick and brush. Put in place for ease of use during battle.
Even then when not in use, you would want these packed well away till needed.

Don't make a mistake of seeing a painting and and thinking this is the normal wear.
The French army were issued with a pin called an epinglette.
This you can wedge into the cartridge box between the wooden box and outer casing.
During the Revolutionary wars, soldiers began to use metal chains to hang them from coat buttons,
but these could go rusty and stain uniforms, so brass chains were introduced.
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Re: Clearing weapons. Morning drills

Postby jf42 » February 17th, 2015, 4:23 pm

Yes, that makes perfect sense.- that it was the piquets clearing their weapons on the morning of June 18th, not the whole battalions. My error, for not going back to re-read Howarth before posting.

However, as I type that, it occurrs to me that a piquet in front of the army, not in line of sight, would not want to be loosing off their weapons willy-nilly since the sound of gunfire served to alert the main body that the enemy were at hand.

As a possible answer to that conundrum, although I haven't looked into this in detail, I have the impression from recent reading that a pre-arranged signal of cannon fire from guns attached to piquets (e.g.. a multiple of two shots from a pair of battalion guns), could provide a more definite indication that the enemy were engaging an out-post. Does that chime with you gentlemen?
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Re: Clearing weapons. Morning drills

Postby Josh&Historyland » February 18th, 2015, 12:39 am

Louis wrote:Josh, the worm and gun tool items are too valuable to be on display all the time.
What you are thinking of is the vent pick and brush. Put in place for ease of use during battle.
Even then when not in use, you would want these packed well away till needed.

Don't make a mistake of seeing a painting and and thinking this is the normal wear.
The French army were issued with a pin called an epinglette.
This you can wedge into the cartridge box between the wooden box and outer casing.
During the Revolutionary wars, soldiers began to use metal chains to hang them from coat buttons,
but these could go rusty and stain uniforms, so brass chains were introduced.


Sorry chaps, my mistake. I did mean the wire brush and pick. Interesting assumption that I saw it in a painting. I've seen very few that include them. It was merely a faulty memory form a book about Napoleonic kit, which I have checked and have seen my error. How embarrassing, thanks for setting me straight though. :oops: (This is what you get for not having a book to hand at the right time)

jf42 wrote:Yes, that makes perfect sense.- that it was the piquets clearing their weapons on the morning of June 18th, not the whole battalions. My error, for not going back to re-read Howarth before posting.

However, as I type that, it occurrs to me that a piquet in front of the army, not in line of sight, would not want to be loosing off their weapons willy-nilly since the sound of gunfire served to alert the main body that the enemy were at hand.

As a possible answer to that conundrum, although I haven't looked into this in detail, I have the impression from recent reading that a pre-arranged signal of cannon fire from guns attached to piquets (e.g.. a multiple of two shots from a pair of battalion guns), could provide a more definite indication that the enemy were engaging an out-post. Does that chime with you gentlemen?


Can't say for Waterloo JF. Wellington didn't want his artillery firing, I've heard of guns being fired to give alarms before though, and in the case of Waterloo, perhaos the picquets letting off their rounds in this fashion was the reason some thought it to be singular, it gave them a start as it where?

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Re: Clearing weapons. Morning drills

Postby jf42 » February 18th, 2015, 10:30 am

No, I didn't mean Waterloo, Josh. As you say, Wellington's orders to the guns is well recorded. The allusions to which I referred come from earlier, mainly the 1790s, noted in passing; well, alas, not noted, so I would have to trawl back to confirm the impression.

Howarth does couch his reference to the clearing of weapons in terms of its potential to give the wrong impression but does not say that was in fact the case.

The Duke and his staff, riding out in the morning to inspect the line, had reached the crossroads and were negotiating the obstacle of the sunken lane: "As they put their horses one by one at the slippery bank, the popping of musketry could be heard from the fields all around them. sounding almost as if a battle had begun. But this was only the infantry, clearing the charges that had lain in their muskets all night, a tedious job if you did it as it had to be done in barracks, but easy if you fired your musket into the air."
(A Near Run Thing ' p.54)

You''ll note that Howarth does not, after all, specify that the firing came from infantry piquets, perhaps because his source did not. It would be interesting to know what source, or perhaps sources, the detail came from.
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Re: Clearing weapons. Morning drills

Postby Josh&Historyland » February 18th, 2015, 12:16 pm

I was wondering that too, I've heard the story many times but never heard the source.
The sounding of alarm guns is still vaguely familiar but, you know how one reads and doesn't usually have a notebook and pen in hand!

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