Cavalry Pt. 1


Of all of the military arms that took part in the war the cavalry is perhaps the most ridiculed, but is that a fair assessment?



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Premium Episode 3. This episode is on, what I think is an interesting topic. And I am going to let the authors of one of the sources for the episode introduce it with this quote from his work entitled Fire and the Sword “The metaphor of the charge against machine guns, or of the incompetent Victorian cavalry general attempting to control a tank battle, has spread beyond military studies into the general vocabulary of historians and readers of history, as a touchstone of all that is reactionary, foolish, and futile. It is probably too well established ever to be removed.” This whole thing started with a question that I saw on the internet one day while eating my lunch about the role of cavalry during the war. This led me down the usual internet rabbit hole until I ended up reading two doctoral dissertations. One of these was by David Kenyon titled “British Cavalry on the Western Front 1916-1918” and the other was from Stephen Badsey by the name of “Fire and the Sword: The British Army and the Arme Blanche Controversy 1871-1921” which you have already heard from. Both of these dissertations are actually available for free online and I have put a link to both on the Patreon post and at History of the great if you want to check them out. Be warned though that they are about 800 pages combined and they are not exactly the most lively reads. Reading them caused me to be a bit more critical about my view on cavalry during the war and how I have presented it on the podcast. I sort of took for granted what I had read from many historians in countless books, that cavalry was worthless, pointless, and a drag on the armies in the field. That narrative is what you will hear if you read any popular book on the war pretty much ever written. It is pretty difficult to find an author who spends any time at all talking about the cavalry beyond the three downsides that we will talk about here in a bit. This tendency to ignore the cavalry almost completely plays into one of the most persistent storylines of the last 100 years, the story of the incompetent British cavalry generals who, through their ignorance, cost the lives of thousands of British soldiers. So that little trip through the internet is why we are here, and this will probably be part one of a three part series of premium episodes on cavalry during the war. This episode we will look at the primary issues with the cavalry that you will always hear about before talking about the evolution of the British cavalry and its doctrine in the decades after the Franco-Prussian war. Next time we will continue that discussion to bring the cavalry up to the start of the war and into the early engagements before the battle of the marne. Finally, in part three we will look at the last two years of the war, from around the time of the battle of the Somme until the armistice in 1918. One note, as I feel like I have said many times before, this will be almost 100% focused on the British cavalry during the war, that is just the sources that I have available to me. And the source pool is also quite small, for reasons that I mentioned earlier. My goal with these episodes is to give you some really good information to chew on so that hopefully you are better prepared to draw your own conclusions on whether or not cavalry really did have any role on the battlefields of the first world war.

The first source that I mentioned, and the one that does a great job of introducing this topic is British Cavalry on the Western Front 1916-1918 by David Kenyon. Kenyon starts his work with this quote “The Marquis of Anglesey opened the final volume of his History of the British Cavalry in 1997, with the words “Justice has never been done to the part played by the cavalry in France and Flanders during the years 1915 to 1918.”” And right from the beginning it is very clear what Kenyon is attempting to accomplish with his dissertation. He is seeking to convince the reader that the cavalry of the first world war not only had a reason to exist but were also useful to the armies on the Western Front, and to directly contradict many histories which would lead you to believe that they were worthless. He tries to do this by showing the contributions of the cavalry arm of the British Armed Forces during 4 distinct operations during the last 2 years of the war. The attack on the Somme in 1916, the attacks at Arras and Cambrai in 1917, and the spring and summer offensives during 1918. Now before we move a more detailed look at the evolution and actions of the cavalry we will first talk about the three topics, that Kenyon refers to as myths, that should be familiar to anybody who has done any reading about the Western Front.

The first myth is the criticism of many generals of the British army because they came from the cavalry. Most of this focus is on General Douglas Haig, who led the British army for so long and also happened to be a long time cavalry officer. “[The] argument runs that Haig was a figurehead of a wider group of out-of-touch 19th century cavalry officers who gained their positions due to mutual support and, to a man, proved incapable of dealing with the technological and intellectual challenges of a conflict on the scale of the Western Front.” This is a storyline that runs through almost every history of the war, especially those written in the first 50 or so years after the end of the war. They all talk about how slow the British commanders were to react to the new style of warfare that they found themselves in embroiled in and how they kept groups of cavalry behind the line to exploit the breakthrough that never came. This trend has started to change in recent decades, this presumed incompetence, but it is a very difficult view for most readers and historians to shake. One of the best quotes that I have seen when discussing this myth, and how it simply is not correct, is from Ian Malcolm Brown who wrote British Logistics on the Western Front, which is currently a very expensive book that I would love to have a look at. In this book Brown said “The very idea that Britain, France, and Germany (as well as Austria-Hungary and Russia) all managed simultaneously to produce a generation of complete incompetents at the highest levels of command is patently ludicrous.” If you follow this thinking, and you start to re-evaluate the competency of the British generals at the front, then it stands to reason that a thorough re-examination of the role of cavalry is also required. If they were competent at their job, and they thought that the cavalry were useful, maybe there was something to it?

The second myth is the fact that machine guns, simply by the fact that they existed and were used, made cavalry completely worthless. As a person who plays many video games you often hear this relationship being referred to as a “hard counter.” While it is true that machine guns may have made it difficult for cavalry to execute the large and densely packed charges that were present in the Napoleonic wars the cavalry did adapt, which is something that we will discuss in detail during the second half of this episode. The cavalry leaders were fully aware of the possible threat that the machine guns posed and so they changed their tactics to minimize the threat. They also saw the machine guns as an advanttageous weapon that they could use to make the cavalry more effective, not less. Before the war the Cavalry Training manual that the later generals Haig and Sir John French helped create would say that “The characteristics of machine guns as described in the previous section render them valuable for employment with cavalry” and this was the view of many before the war. It was believed that machine guns could be moved into positions of maximum efficiency quickly by the cavalry, and they could then disrupt the infantry so much that the cavalry would be even more successful. This idea makes some sense, as shown throughout the war, one machine gun placed in the right position was absolutely devastating to any infantry within range. It is also important to look at tests done before the war on just how effective machine guns would be and the results were disappointing for the machine gunners. Most of the casualties to the machine guns during the war occurred against men greatly slowed by obstacles and exposed to a pre-positioned, prepared machine gun. A cavalry unit would never be charging an entrenched machine gun across a battlefield covered in barbed wire. The fact that the war devolved into those fighting conditions was certainly not foreseen by any of the European armies beforehand. In the open field, with the weight and difficulty of setting up the machine guns, the cavalry would have been far more effective, as some actions early in the war would show.

The third myth was that the cavalry used an inordinate amount of supplies for their usefulness. The men and horses were not used for large portions of the war, but they still had to be fed, both the riders and the horses, which theoretically robbed some supplies from the infantry and artillery. It is a fact that keeping the cavalry well supplied was a considerable challenge for all armies, and not just on the battlefields of the first world war. In the British colonial wars there were many instances where they just could not supply enough food for the horses, causing them to be completely ineffective or in severe cases causing many horse casualties. It is also true that fodder had to be brought to the horses, because during hard travel of training the horses required far more food than just some grass here and there if they were to keep their strength up. To get enough grass by grazing would have taken a huge amount of time, something that could not be afforded. Bringing the food to the horses could be problematic, however, it was not some huge black hole of resources. One of the statistics that is thrown out is that there was 5.8 million tons of fodder shipped to France during the war and only 5.2 million tons of ammunition. This can easily be used to show that the cavalry used more supplies than the artillery! However, this does not properly convey the situation and if you dig deeper there is a different story. At the beginning off the war the cavalry represented just 34.4% of the horses in France, and by 1918 that number would drop all the way to just 6%. So a huge amount of that fodder went to horses that were not employed by the cavalry, and a bit part of those horses were employed by the artillery. All three of these concepts will be touched upon through all of these episodes, so it is best to file them away for now as we discuss the evolution of the British cavalry doctrine prior to 1914.

The second source used heavily in these episodes is another doctoral dissertation entitled Fire and the Sword: the British Army and the Arme Blanche Controversy 1871-1921 by Stephen Badsey. For those wondering, like I did, what Arme Blanche means, it translates roughly into cold steel. However, in our context and the context of cavalry discussions it is related to the idea of the cavalry charging and engaging the enemy with a lance or a sword. Sort of the classical image of cavalry handed down since ancient times. The main purpose of the dissertation by Badsey is to review the cavalry controversy that was present in the decades leading up to the war, then discuss a bit about what happened during the war, before closing out with the post war controversy. The controversy over the role of cavalry in modern warfare was an old argument that started well before the first world war did. Badsey traces the evolution of cavalry thought in England from the middle of the 19th century which is where you really have to start if you want to dig deep into the role of cavalry after 1914. One very important reason why you have to start there is because that is when so many of the generals in 1914 were brought into the cavalry and their thoughts formed. Generals like Sir John French and Douglas Haig will all play a part in our story. There were 3 wars in the 19th century that Badsey examines to discuss their impact on British doctrine: The American Civil War, The Austro-Prussian War if 1866, and the Franco-Prussian war. Each of these displayed different ideas of what cavalry could be in the middle decades of the 19th century. The problem was, they did not really help when the war came around in 1914 since they were so far in the past. During that time there had been a huge number of advances in technology and military thought, without a way to test out those theories that had developed. The Primary point of contention among theorists at the time was whether the cavalry would continue to be used in the classical sense, which involved lances, swords, and a hell of a lot of guys riding horses straight at the enemy. If this was not the case, maybe they would look more like mounted infantry with rifles and tactics revolving around movement, scouting, and skirmishing on foot. Badsey summarizes “The controversy was over the role of cavalry in future war. The generally held view is that the arme blanche charge was obviously obsolete, and that cavalrymen clung to it for social and sentimental resaons; British military leaders of the First World War are therefore condemned for their belief in cavalry.” The conversation would evolve and sway back and forth for over 40 years before 1914. And this becomes something of a forgotten era of discussion “It is therefore remarkable that, virtually without exception, modern historians have found the issue straightforward. They condemn the defenders of the arme blanche as fools, and praise the advocates of the firearm as prophets” The problem, as Badsey states it, is that most authors assume that the arme blanche was so obviously obsolete that it does not require much discussion in modern material, which in turn greatly simplifies all of the developments before 1914 that very much pointed to the fact that it was not obviously obsolete. So in the interest of history, we will now dig far deeper into these evolutions starting with what the British learned from those three wars in the 19th century.

The first war on the docket was the American Civil War, fought between 1861 and 1865. As a sidenote, if you are wanting to know way more about the American Civil War, check out the podcast Civil War: 1861-1865 over at I have been listening to it for years now and I think they do a very good job, although be prepared to REALLY dive deep into some topics. Anyway, the problem with the American civil war was that it was fought by Americans in America. That may seem like I am handing out a bit of a slight, but actually it is just a fact. The American army did not have as long of a tradition as the European armies, and had a much more recent and powerful guerrila style warfare tradition. This often involved more flexible fighting forces engaging on terrain that many European generals would have tried to avoid. These factors counted even moreso for the cavalry which on both sides rarely charged the enemy lines in the European Style and were often found fighting with rifles, carbines, and revolvers instead of the sword. Because of these facts it was difficult for European theorists to draw much information out of these engagements, or at least they thought as much. When they did try to draw conclusions they decided that instead of it being any technological or tactical advancements that changed how the American cavalry fought it was instead of terrain present. This is somewhat the theorists in Britain seeing what they wanted to see, or in this case discarding what they did not want to see. They could have seen how effective mobile, rifle wielding, mounted infantry were in the spacious areas of America, but instead they did not. They did also point out though that there were several instances where the defeated armies were defeated partially because they lacked cavalry to scout and support the infantry, the best example of this being at Gettysburg. Next up was the Austro-Prussian war. This war showcased cavalry that the British could really identify with as they used European styles of lances and sabers. Unfortunately there were not many engagements in which the cavalry were involved, this was balanced out by some interesting developments that came about during the battles that they were involved in during the last few months of the war. The primary development was the abandonment by the infantry of the tactic of forming squares to receive an attack by the cavalry. This tactic had been used for many many years and involved the infantry unit forming a square, generally 3-4 ranks deep, and arranging themselves so that they could fire on all sides while also being able to protect themselves with the bayonets on their rifles, which they used like pikes. There are many famous examples of squares in the history of warfare, but perhaps the most applicable and famous for this example would be the British squares on the ridge at Waterloo. But really, that example only comes to mind for me because I just finished a book on Waterloo a few weeks ago. The reason that the squares were not formed by the Prussian army near the end of the Austro-Prussian war was because of the introduction of the Dreyse rifle, which was a breechloading rifle. This allowed the Prussian to fire faster, but it also gave them a reputation that was probably bigger than the reality. This reputation caused the Austrian cavalry to withhold the charge not because of the consequences in front of them, but because of the perceived consequences. This was concerning for everybody around Europe as breechloading rifles because the standard because “British commentators concluded that if Cavalry were told they could never charge breechloaders, they would never try, even on occasions when it was possible.” It would only take a few more years for the Prussians to be in another war, the Franco-Prussian war. During the Fanco-Prussian war the French cavalry did not make a good name for themselves. They often neglected their scouting duties, leaving French commanders ill informed, only to then become obsessed with the charge, thereby executing them over ground that made any positive result impossible. The Prussians on the other hand executed several successful charges in the old style, like that at Mars la Tours which got the most attention after the war. One fact that was a worrying trench though in all of these wars, and that only got worse during the Franco-Prussian war was, due to the size of the cavalry units involved, the wastage of horses was reaching almost unsustainable levels. Horse injuries and deaths were something that was bound to happen, it was just inevitable, but the state of warfare was bringing those casualties up higher and higher. For example, in just 8 months the Prussian armies had to replace a million horses due to injury, exhaustion, or death, a million. In a long war the number would grow even higher, mostly due to pushing the animals too far while simultaneously not providing them enough fodder. This was a lesson that, really, the armies would never learn. It was not out of pure neglect, but also from ignorance, as the industrial revolution gathered steam horses had become less and less essential in everyday life, this meant that in the large conscript armies you often had men going into the cavalry with far less equestrian experience. This also meant that there were less horses in society to make good the casualties, something I am sure we will discuss later. With all of these lessons learned from all of these wars, the British now had 40 years after the end of the Franco-Prussian war in 1871 to ponder on them and try to figure out what they thought should happen with their cavalry in Europe for the next war which could happen at any time. So let’s just pick up the story in the early 1870s.

After 1870 the conversation did not immediately become a discussion about how the cavalry had no place on the modern battlefield instead the conversation was mostly around what precisely the role of cavalry should be. One of the most popular theory among non-traditionalists, with traditionlists defined as those people who wanted cavalry’s role to remain the same, was to convert all of the British cavalry into light cavalry. Light cavalry were used for scouting for the army and some light skirmishing, the one thing they did not do was execute charges on the battlefield against the infantry. This final function was the primary sticking point in pretty much all discussions. Even though the viability of the entire concept was under discussion it did not stop the traditionalists from continuing to develop tactics around its use. During this time they made some important changes to cavalry tactics, specifically around the regulations for the distance at which a charge should be started and how many men should take part. The hope was to get the cavalry in close before launching a charge, sort of the similar concept as jumping off trenches for the infantry. The goal was to help prevent this problem described by Badsey “A cavalry charge could only succeed under certain rare conditions, notoriously difficult to judge. But the cavalry must be committed to the charge, and to heavy casualties if it failed, when its leaders were too far away from the enemy to know absolutely if these conditions prevailed.” One of the reasons that the arguments over cavalry were so intense was because there was a belief that good hard charging cavalry, if trained to use the gun like light cavalry and infantry would no longer be good hard charging cavalry. I guess it was thought that some part of imparting that cavalry spirit to the men was to give them no other option. As I mentioned earlier, even though there were these arguments and these tactics changed there was no way to test them, no way to prove theories or experience mistakes, and this made the arguments cyclical in nature. Each generation of cavalry officers would have the same set of arguments and discussions as the ones before them, pulling from the same sources and drawing the same conclusions. There was only one hope of breaking this stalemate, and that was the British colonial wars and the experiences of the officers participating. The experiences in these conflicts did little to advance the case of keeping the heavy cavalry around, but proved the great value of light cavalry with their ability to scout around during campaigns seen as priceless. The colonial officers were also known for their tendency to improvise with their troops in the search for the greatest value from their cavalry and infantry. This led to some units of infantry either being mounted or trying to combine the heavy and light cavalry into a hybrid type good at both roles, in fact, this type of fighting, this hybrid style of having infantry riding horses able to deploy quickly to areas of the battlefield and beyond and in fact this tactic developed in several different theaters independently. The implementation of either mounted infantry or a hybrid style of cavalry was never perfect though, due mainly to the differing tools that the heavy cavalry, light cavalry, and mounted infantry needed to perform their different jobs optimally. For example heavy cavalry needed large horses and large men, capable of charging a short distance with a lot of heavy equipment while light cavalry needed horses with endurance and to carry as little weight as possible. At this time a fully loaded heavy cavalrymen might be putting 300 pounds on his horse, including his person, which was a completely unsustainable weight for long marches and could destroy a horse in a matter of days. So when it came time to arm these hybrid cavalry units, which might theoretically scout or charge, the answer the different on an almost unit to unit basis. The weight concerns were so critical that many items that were only used while fulfilling heavy infantry functions were discarded. When the officers who had pioneered these styles came back to England they began to discuss their experiences and began to codify some of the techniques. They also became extremely concerned with terminology and the very specific differences between the heavy cavalry, light cavalry, mounted rifles, mounted infantry, etc. etc. The cavalrymen were concerned that they were heading down the road of being converted into mounted infantry, which would cause them to lose their distinct identity. General Wolseley, commander of the British army at this point would say “there is a tendency on the part of cavalry officers to imagine that when men lecture them on the uses of mounted infantry that it is a sort of personal attack on the cavalry service.” For our American listeners, I would compare this situation to the reason why the United States Marine Corps insists on maintaining its own air assets, when I am sure that the Air Force and Navy would be happy to provide them the help. Part of the reason that mounted infantry would become all the rage in the 1880s was due to the budget cuts experienced by the British Army, and cavalry was expensive. The British kept just a small number of cavalry units on the highest levels of alert, but they still had problems funding them properly. It got so bad that the cavalry, that could even be horsed, both active and reserve, if they were all mustered together would only be able to provide about half of the numbers that they were supposed to be able to call up if a war started. This was a huge concern obviously, and part of the solution was to create more mounted infantry. This was a great way for men to be horsed and mobile, but at a greatly reduced cost. A similar number of mounted infantry were less than half the cost of the number of cavalry to train and maintain. They were also only given a fraction of the amount of training on a horse, generally just a few weeks a year, mostly just so that they could ride without falling off. But it did increase the number of men who could theoretically be put on a horse and able to use the advantages that it provided.

I will close out this episode by talking about the real cavalry killer, technology, or at least supposedly. Lets start first with rifles. By the 1890s all the armies of Europe were equipped with breechloading rifles, but so were the cavalry. In fact the British cavalry were just as well equipped in this regard as the infantry, boasting the latest carbines from Lee-Enfield and Lee-Metford. As for accuracy, the cavalry were just as good as the infantry, even winning some shooting competitions. These gave both the infantry and cavalry greater shooting ranges on the shooting range, however it was often found that the theoretical maximum ranges of these guns were rarely able to be used on the battlefield because men simply could not see that far. The other supposed cavalry killer the machine gun was actually seen as a useful tool instead of the great cavalry killer. It was thought that the machine gun, carried by a horse and positioned before the cavalry attack would be a very useful weapon against densely packed infantry units. In this was it would not be used much different than artillery during earlier wars. The idea was the use a combination of artillery and cavalry to put the infantry in an unwinnable situation. The best tactic to deal with artillery was to spread out, but the best way to stop cavalry was to group up. It was possible that the machine gun would be even better than the artillery for this role due to its greater accuracy and ability to be brought closer to the action. Because of these technological changes, and the tactical changes discussed earlier the Cavalry Drill book used to train new cavalry units in the British army would be rewritten, and two of the men in charge of that effort were none other than future generals Haig and French. This rewrite contained several important directives but maybe the most important was that, while the cavalry charge was still a valid action, it should only be done against infantry that was in lose order, from a short distance, originating from behind cover, and against a flank. So a pretty complex set of requirements that would, honestly, be difficult to meet fully. The rewrite of the drill book also put a much greater emphasis on small unit cavalry action, with squadrons being used as the base unit for many maneuvers instead of the larger brigades or battalions. Dismounted action still occupy a relatively small piece of the puzzle though with only 11 pages dedicated to it, and only 8 days per year prescribed for dismounted practice. The changes from the colonial wars and the move away from strictly heavy and light cavalry and instead a move towards a hybrid medium cavalry style was implemented during the late 1880s. All of this meant that the British cavalry that would enter the 20th century were very different than that which was used in the Napoleonic wars, even though it is sometimes difficult for us in 2016 to separate the two in our mind. The cavalrymen also tried to communicate how drastically everything was changing, but they were not very effective. According to Badsey “They were not very good at communicating this though, they were practicing charges with small numbers of cavalrymen in loose formation…But to critics the very mention of “the charge” or “the cavalry fight” evoked images of the big knee-to-knee brigade display” And these critics, for the first time going outside of the intimate circles of army and cavalry officers that had been participating in the debates so far, were about to make the cavalry debate a much larger issue in Britain as the clock ticked over from the 19th to the 20th century.