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#WavellReviews “A History of Artillery” by Jeremy Black

Available here from Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

Artillery systems and ammunition are in the public consciousness to a level not seen since the 1915 ‘Shell Crisis’ during the First World War, which contributed to the toppling of the UK’s Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, in 1916.  Daily Ukraine briefs and rolling 24-hour news coverage outline in near real-time what is happening, and, along with combat footage from the front line, we have been reminded about the devastating effects of artillery.  We have become desensitised to the shattered equipment and broken bodies that effective artillery delivers on an enemy force.  The ‘analysis’ provided, often by defence commentators or generalist journalists, has inevitably led to a Top Trumps approach to capabilities, equipment, and stores comparison.  The general public is more aware of the effects of artillery than arguably ever before but do they, or we, really understand it and its history?

A History of Artillery by Jeremey Black is a thematic historical assessment of artillery; whilst it opens and concludes with the conflict in Ukraine, it focuses on explaining the development of guns and gunnery over the past 1500 years.  Its introduction includes an academic approach to describing what artillery is and what it isn’t.  A question that has multiple answers if modern definitions and practical application are rigorously applied.  Interestingly, Black also includes systems and weapons that pre-date artillery – such as catapults, trebuchets, and other siege weapons – which are directly linked to how early gunners thought about the application of firepower.  Throughout the book linkages are also made to artillery systems at sea, anti-tank guns, and anti-aircraft guns, explaining how tactics, techniques, and procedures were shared and developed.  Whilst this book covers a vast period, it has enough detail to be highly informative without getting bogged into the minutiae.  For those who do want the details, the book includes comprehensive footnotes easily accessible at the end of each chapter.

Jeremey Black is a well-known historian and has produced several books focused on providing an expansive analysis of a topic, articulating its wider impact on war and conflict.  His style is more academic than narrative (you will not find detailed retellings of tales and vignettes in this book) but you will find detailed and precise chapter notes that explain his comments and allow the reader to dig further into his analysis and comments.  You can hear more about where A History of Artillery fits into the author’s wider body of historical work here.

The book is expansive both in terms of time and what it covers.  The development of artillery, both how it effected conflicts and critically the key technological changes, are tracked around the world with detailed explanations of how different nations tackled the Gunnery Problem.  Revolutions in performance, such as rifled barrels and the standardisation of production are covered, along with more subtle changes such as the block trial, developed by Lt Gen Sir William Congreve (the father of the famous Congreve), which enabled RHA units to come into action far quicker than before.

Black argues that artillery has not always played as important a part in warfare as we often presume, going as far as to say that in the 17th Century, it was not a decisive factor in many wars and conflicts.  This argument is well presented in a logical format and demonstrates the balance of Black’s wider arguments.  History may well be written by the winners, but it is also fair to say that it focuses on successes or things that cause change.  Black argues that the successes of scientific development and industrial standardisation, along with the Christian European practice in the mid-18th Century to share information in print, should be placed within the context of the time.  Up to this point the trial and error approach of many things in life, including the development of weapons, resulted in many failures that we all too often forget about.  Military history from the 15th to the 18th Century is replete with commanders bemoaning the utility, function, and all-round performance of their artillery arm.

To conclude, books about artillery often define artillery systems by the wars and battles that the capabilities were used in.  Noting that artillery is, after all, armed science, this book, whilst taking a chronological approach to explaining the developments of artillery, places science and technological development at the heart of explaining why things occurred.  Whilst the wars and battles that define the story of artillery are used throughout – crucially explaining that so often these events are the catalyst for change – the book has a well-rounded feel to its prose. 

Many readers will be familiar with General Bailey’s Field Artillery and Firepower (2004), which offered a detailed assessment from a tactical and technical perspective of Gunnery, and more recently, Colonel Musgrave’s Firepower: Making 21st Century Warfare Decisive (2021) which covered a contemporary understanding of Firepower.  Black’s A History of Artillery nicely fills the gap in understanding how we ended up where we are today.  It is a welcome addition and well worth a read both for those who like the detail and for military generalists.

The Wavell Room Team

The Wavell Room Team are a bunch of enthusiastic individuals who believe strongly in constructive debate, discussion and openness in order to arrive at a sound, non-bias and informed position on many subjects.  The team are all volunteers and support this non-profit in their own time.

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