|Mitrailleuse and crew in 28mm - gun and crew from Wargames Foundry|
Mitrailleuse! Yay! Mitrailleuse! This is a 28mm Reffye Mitrailleuse and crew, all figures from Wargames Foundry and their outstanding "Franco-Prussian War of 1870" range.
Today the French word "mitrailleuse" roughly equates to "machinegun" in English - there are a lot of modern weapons you can apply the term to. Back in 1870, however, it applied to this specific weapon, thought to be a real ace in the hole for the Army of Napoleon III. Most of the information I have found speaks of how the French treated the weapon as some sort of state secret, so secret that it impaired the training and proper use of the weapons when war with Prussia came in the summer of 1870.
|Great sculpting by the Perrys as always - particularly love the gunner figure|
It was fired using a hand-crank. The bullets were 13mm, and were loaded onto a plate placed into the rear of the weapon. There are no rotating barrels or anything like that, but rather a series of individual barrels inside a larger tube that otherwise approximates the shape of a light cannon common to that era. I found a neat video here
that offers an idea of how the weapon was fired. In an era where weapons were single-shot (I mean, getting rifled and dangerous, but still) and when troops in Europe still moved around in dense lines and columns, one can imagine how this sort of weapon could have been devastating.
|One of the gunner figures is sporting a carbine|
In the end it did not have much impact on the battlefield, much less a decisive one. So many things went so wrong so fast for the French army in the Franco-Prussian war, and "should have made better use of the Mitrailleuse" is generally one of the top parts of any set of talking points in a review of the French defeat. The French gunners had little training with them, the French commanders had little understanding of their potential, and the doctrine of their use was based on using the weapons as artillery pieces. They were seen, essentially, as an alternative to an artillery piece firing grape shot, rather than something that would work closely with the infantry. As such, they were deployed like artillery, and not attached directly to infantry formations.
The weapon was tricky to use at range - it threw off a lot of smoke, and it was hard for the crew to track the effectiveness of their shooting when operating at artillery-style ranges (even short ones). Meanwhile the big plumes of gun smoke that appeared when in use made the Mitrailleuse batteries easy to spot - and they seemed to have been priority targets for the lethal Prussian breech-loading artillery, who duly hammered them as soon as they spotted them on the battlefield.
|Excessive use of Tajima tufts...no wonder I run out of them so quickly....|
While there is quite a lot to criticize when looking back at the performance of the French Imperial Army in the Franco-Prussian War, I think picking on the Mitrailleuse is a touch too easy for we of the Monday-morning-quarterbacking-military hobby-types today. Of course, as wargamers, we can perceive the Mitrailleuse within its proper place on the spectrum in the evolution of military weapons. It's a rapid-firing, proto-machinegun, and we ask - why didn't the French use it that way? The French infantry already could out-range and out-shoot the Prussian thanks to their superb Chassepot rifles - just imagine how much tougher those French infantry battalions would have been with a battery of Mitrailleuse right up there in the line! When you consider the later 19th century overall, and think of the deadly effect the Nordenfelt and Gatling guns had in the various Colonial conflicts that flared up in the period, the French use of the Mitrailleuse seems extra bonkers.
But the contemporary military planners of the day did not have that context...they were coming to this as something to augment artillery. In hindsight, it was not that successful, but I can kind of see what the French were going for, and why they went about it - not sure the excessive secrecy was helpful, as it impaired the training and deployment, and understanding of the commanders regarding how these might be employed. On the other hand, the performance of the overall French high command was so dismal in 1870-71, I don't think the Mitrailleuse could really have changed what happened.
|Prussians in sight...|
In gaming terms, this will be fun to use on the table for several reasons. For one, I feel like it's a bit of an iconic piece for the setting and the period - players will see it and immediately think Franco-Prussian War. Second, we can do "what-if" type situations where the Mitrailleuse is deployed, perhaps due to evolving or accidental circumstance, in a much more "front-line" position - and do this in a "Black Powder" mass-battle setting, or a skirmish setting. Finally, use of these early proto-machinegun type weapons, it's always fun to have rules for jamming and other mishaps, and see what happens when the players start employing them...