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Rate of Fire Isn't Everything
When slow is fast
Imagine that you are standing in close order infantry formation with hundreds of your closest friends on a slope like the one occupied by the Royalists who came under Parliamentary fire for an hour at the Battle of Edgehill. The eponymous feature of Edgehill was the operatic landform behind Charles; this terrain made for a dominating visual, but it has left his army (you, in this thought experiment) exposed to artillery fire.
Imagine there are two small field pieces ranging upon your unit as they open fire. Their aim is not perfect, but your unit is not a hard target to hit. Firing “only” fifteen shots an hour, this battery proceeds to bombard your position with thirty flying balls of iron weighing three pounds each. Armor will be useless. If one of these cannon balls strikes you, you will probably die. You will at least be crippled.
Here comes the first shot. Perhaps it misses, but not by much.
Two minutes later, the second gun fires a shot that kills one of your friends and badly wounds two more.
You have a couple of minutes to pray. But for the record, is this rate of fire too slow? Or not slow enough?
BOOM. More of your friends are dead, or dying, very close by. The smell is indescribable. You hope that is sweat trickling down your face, and not some liquid that used to be part of a human being.
While you simmer for the next two minutes, perhaps you will wonder why it is taking so long for someone to order a movement. Another unit can hold this position for a while, can’t they? It would be nice to get away from this danger.
Or perhaps you are angry and you want to go stop the guns from killing you.
You would prefer to fly, or you might prefer to fight, yet you are ordered against instinct to stand. You and your friends have been ordered and mustered to this place so that you can defend it for the king.
Upon reflection, it may occur to you that either action will put you in further danger. A well-drilled unit that retreats in good order to ground beyond the range of the cannons will likely survive, but may find itself on disadvantageous ground against approaching infantry and/or cavalry. Trees, undergrowth, and other terrain can break up a unit’s cohesion, making it vulnerable to attack. A unit that advances in hopes of revenge, or glory, may find it, but also risks defeat.
BOOM. This one hit farther away. There is shouting. Mumbling. Someone is cursing now, and a friend just ran past you. It’s all a bit confusing for a moment, but things settle down again. Someone with rank is reassuring you that it’s all right.
So. Dear reader: does this rate of fire still seem “too slow” to you?
BOOM. Turns out that your commander was wounded, probably mortally. You learn this in a murmur down the line as a cannon ball skips nearby you, striking sparks on a stone and maiming someone. Is it true? Now instead of watching the gunners, you may be glancing around to see what the truth is.
Does this rate of fire seem slow?
Or does your time holding this position with your regiment seem to be getting longer, stretching out in time?
Every two minutes, another big iron sphere crashing through your formation. How slow is that, really?
Slow enough for comfort?
Maybe it actually is too slow.
Perhaps even agonizingly slow?
Is the bombardment slow enough that, as your friends are slowly reduced, you might begin to question the value of courage and honor and duty, and perhaps consider making a break for some place that is safe from cannonfire?
After all, you have two minutes to get away in relative safety before the next cannon blast.
Or perhaps you are still angry enough to think about rushing forward in those two minutes between shots. You might at least get to the guns, and stop the gunners from killing any more of your friends, but of course then you will be attacking their position, and their friends will be there to defend them.
Perhaps you are in charge of a platoon, and you have waited for orders while under fire going on sixty minutes now. Do you have time to withdraw in good order before the next volley? Do you have the strength to attack? Is the enemy cavalry lurking nearby rather than, say, racing after the baggage train like Rupert’s cavalry at Edgehill?
Colonel Young says that artillery was too slow in the English Civil War to have much effect on battles. As intended, one hour of bombardment at Edgehill forced the Royalist infantry to make a decision: withdraw or attack.
They could not stand still under that hail of metal any longer, however ‘slow’ the colonel thinks it must have been.