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Congreve's Rockets

Waterloo 200
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/ Add Artefact by: Richard Tennant BCMH

Date added: 3 Aug 2016

Congreve’s Rockets

A system of rockets was pioneered and developed by Colonel Sir William Congreve (1772-1828). He started the development in 1804 and in early September 1805 conducted at trial at the Woolwich marshes, witnessed by Prime Minister Pitt and his cabinet. They were so impressed with the demonstrations that they wanted to proceed immediately with the inventor’s plans. In the following year there were trials, where they were used to attack shipping at Gaeta, near Naples, as well as twice against Boulogne. Congreve’s rockets were henceforth considered to be fit for further service. A year later, in 1807, a rain of 300 rockets reduced much of Copenhagen to ashes. However, a further field-trial the same year with the second Egyptian campaign proved to be unsuccessful.

Congreve accompanied Lord Cochrane in the fire-ship, rocket and shell attack on the French Fleet in Aix/Basque Roads on 11 April 1809. Shortly after the Basque Roads expedition the first bonafide rocket ship appeared. This was the HMS Golago (sometimes written as Galgo or Golga), a captured Spanish vessel which was fitted at Deptford with twenty-one “rocket scuttles” in her broadside.

Since Colonel Congreve was friendly with the Prince Regent he was able to press for them to be sent to the Peninsular for further field trials. The Duke of Wellington was not at all optimistic, but was prepared to give them a trial in 1810. They were not a success and were withdrawn, but when they were offered again in September 1813, Wellington willingly agreed that they should be sent. However, he later admitted to Lord Bathurst that he was more interested in the horses that went with them since, as he wrote ‘I do not want to set fire to any town, and I do not know any other use of the rockets.’ Other events, however, would show that, deployed correctly, rockets could be extremely effective.

By 1813 the rockets were available in three classes :

Heavy – being carcass or explosion rockets between six and eight inches in diameter; the largest weighing three hundredweight.

Medium – being from 42-pounder to the 24-pounder inclusive.

Light – being from 18-pounder to the 6-pounder.

The medium and light rockets could be case shot, shell or carcass. The usual size for support of infantry was a twelve–pounder case shot which had an extreme range of some 2000 yards. They could be fired from a wheeled bombarding-frame, from a portable tripod, or even from a shallow trench or sloping bank.

Their most famous successes were at the Battles of Göhrde and Leipzig in September/October 1813 where they devastated massed infantry by being fired at short range. In North America they were regularly successful when deployed in the same manner by the Royal Marine Artillery Rocket Brigade. Their ease of transport in small boats was also used to advantage in February 1814 for the defence of the Bridge of Boats over the River Adour, to the west of Bayonne, in southwest France. They were also used to good effect at the final battle of the Peninsular War outside Toulouse on 10 April 1814.

At Waterloo the 2nd Rocket Troop RHA had been re-equipped with cannon; rockets only being used in place of the normal howitzer. As it turned out, this was a good decision, as the high standing grain screened all objects to their front, thus negating the effect of ground-fired rockets. During the battle the Troop fired many more projectiles from its guns than it launched rockets. The figures were – round shot 309, spherical case 236, canister 15, but only 52 rockets.

The historian Richard Glover arrives at, what is probably, the best summary and conclusion : ‘Here must be recognised one of the unfortunate results of the deplorable subdivision of the British Army. The Ordnance Department invented the rocket, therefore it naturally became the arm of some Ordnance troops. It failed because its effective range was essentially that of a small arms weapon, however far an individual rocket might carry under ideal conditions. Its portability might have made it an ideal supporting arm for the infantry battalion commander to have under his control. Had a dozen men in each infantry battalion been trained to use rockets, and equipped with no more rounds than one packhorse could carry, they might have made a very different Waterloo. A wasted opportunity may then be the verdict on Congreve’s rockets.’

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