Cavalry Pt. 2


Part 2 of our examination of the role of cavlary during the war



Hello everyone and welcome to history of the great war premium episode number 4. This episode is episode number 2 of re-evaluation of the British cavalry during the war. Last episode we discussed the roots of some changes in the British cavalry which began around the 1870s after the influence of the Franco-Prussian and American Civil Wars. This episode we will carry our narrative forward by looking at the experiences of the British during the Second Boer War. This war, unlike almost every other British colonial conflict would be a long and hard fought affair that would showcase some definite shortcomings in the British armed forces. The fallout of the conflict would have wide ranging effects on the British Army and Cavalry doctrine ono the path towards the Frist World War. Coming out of the war the argument over the future of cavalry would continue with most of the contention swirling around Commander in Chief Roberts who would be one of the primary critics of the cavalry after his experiences during the Boer War. Before we get too much into the fallout though, lets begin by discussing the events of the Second Boer War.

In his book From Boer War to World War: Tactical Reforms of the British Army 1902-1914 Spencer Jones would say “In the twelve years between the end of the Boer War and the outbreak of the First World War, the army underwent vast and important organizational and tactical reforms.” The war represented really the first time in a very long time that the British did not just roll over the enemy during a colonial war. In fact between 1857 and 1899 the British army had suffered over 100 casualties in a single action only twice, they were very one sided affairs. This meant that when the Second Boer War started, and then continued for quite some time, it came as a huge shock to the British Army, and the British society as a whole. It also caused more questions to be asked than if the war had just been another steamroll, or even if the war had went well but the cavalry had performed poorly. It was only in the complete failure of the British army to quickly handle the Boers that the amount of conversation could have been generated. One thing I want to point out here is that these reactions, questions, and changes went well beyond just the scope of the cavalry, even though that is is what we are focusing on exclusively today. The book by Spencer Jones that I just mentioned in fact has larger sections on the changes in the infantry and artillery than on the cavalry, but those discussions will be held until a later episode. One big benefit, that you will see here pretty soon, is that the British actually did a pretty good job of adapting to the situation in the theater during the war. The problems would lie afterwards when an attempt was made to reconcile and standardize all of those small and large changes that had been made during the war.

Before we get to the chronicle of the events lets first talk about the people that the British were fighting, the Boers. The Boer army was not an army in the traditional European sense where there were either large groups of professional soldiers or even larger conscript armies. Instead the Boers were loosely organized groups that could elect their own leaders. This election had the pleasant side effect of getting some really good leaders into place as the war went on. The Boer soldiers were almost entirely mounted on small ponies that were used for everything in the region. Usually each man would have two or three of these ponies, often they were their personal ponies. This resulted in a situation where they knew their animals and the ponies were well acclimated to the environment, which was very important as will soon be apparent. They were also small, which meant that they needed less fodder per animal when compared to the horses that the British would use. At a tactical level the Boers would often fight dismounted using rifles that they carried with them. They did not have any tactics that involved the mounted cavalry charge, in fact that carried no swords or lances or anything like that, generally they were only armed with rifles and sometimes pistols. At a strategic level they almost always refused any kind of pitched battle, instead they fought more of a guerilla war. There were battles and skirmishes early in the war, during the more conventional phase of the war, but these were generally small affairs with a few hundred men. After the relief of Kimberley the war would devolve into a true guerilla war which the Boers were fantastic at executing. Often the Boer units would even abandon geographical positions like the British would have put everything into trying to hold onto, like their capital and other cities. The British thought that these tactics represented cowardice, but the Boers just thought that it was smart to not put themselves in positions where the enemy would clearly outmatch them. These positions would have been any kind of pitched battle where the British infantry would come into play. This mindset and set of tactics would men that the war would last much longer than it otherwise would have, and it would cost the British much more in terms of money and men. The only way that the British could find to fight this type of war was to try and match the Boer mobility with mobility of their own and so huge numbers of mounted troops were brought in and deployed during the war. This came in the form of both Mounted Infantry and more traditional cavalry. This would represent the best expierement for figuring out if Mounted Infantry could truly replace the more traditional cavalry troopers.

Last episode we talked quite a bit about the early evolution of the mounted infantry concept, and they would be deployed in large numbers during the Boer War. The belief was that the mounted infantry would be valuable for their mobility in scouting and screening while at the same time be available to fight as dismounted infantry since they had the proper amount of firepower to make that happen. Some mounted infantry units were brought in from Britain but others would be created during the war and on the spot in South Africa. You see a lot more of these kind of in country unit creations once General Roberts took command of the British forces after the events of Black Week. To create these units he ordered each battalion of infantry to produce one company of mounted infantry. These men were then sent to be trained up for all of a week in their new role and then sent to the front. This created a situation where the men were not good horsemen due strictly to lack of training and experience. It was small things that they would end up getting wrong like not taking every possible opportunity to unsaddle horses, or not leading their horses instead of always ridding them, or not letting the horses graze on any available grass at any possible opportunity. All of these things were critical when supplies of fodder were scare and the horses were being pushed to the maximum. The mounted infantry always had a lot of things stacked against them, and one of them was simply their ad hoc nature. The men were detached from their normal units, but were at times re-integrated with those units, only to then be pulled back out, it just made the whole thing very confusing. They also just were not very good at one of their primary purposes, scouting and reconnaissance with Haig later putting it simply that “few ever became good enough riders to be fit for scouting work.” Because they were not very good at what they were doing it is almost necessary to question the overall wisdom of creating so many mounted infantry units early in the war before the guerilla portion of the conflict really got started. If the British were having a hard enough time supplying the mounted troops they did have, the one thing they did not need was more horses to feed that were not being optimally used. That would have been a great argument for disbanding some of the units if the other cavalry were doing a great job of reconnaissance, but, um…they really weren’t.

Reconnaissance was an extremely important role that had to be filled in the wide open spaces of the Boer War. Spencer again here “Although the arguments over the relative merits of firepower as opposed to the arme blanche dominated much of the cavalry reform debate, the Boer War had also demonstrated the difficulty and the critical importance of effective reconnaissance on a modern battlefield.” Part of the problem was just an overall lack of training in reconnaissance work in even long standing cavalry units. In 1895 the cavalry spent just 3 or 4 days per year practicing reconnaissance work. This is sort of understandable, I do not think many people would call reconnaissance work glamorous. This lack of training became more critical as technology advanced and inventions like smokeless powder and the longer engagement ranges of firearms made it more difficult, and more important, to observe enemy formations earlier. During the Boer War specifically the lack of cover on the plains of South Africa and the problem of keeping the horses supplied just made the entire process more difficult. I think there was an assumption both at the time, and even now as we look back to judge, that all soldiers have eyes so they would be naturally sufficient at reconnaissance. This mindset is an easy one to slip into but it does a huge disservice to how difficult reconnaissance can be. During the disastrous week of December 10-15 1899, which would come to be called as Black Week, most of the problems can be directly related to the British army not having the units that could perform proper reconnaissance. Both during the war and after the war there was a huge call to completely reform the reconnaissance training of the cavalry, and this was done, with an increased emphasis on map reading and observation techniques being at the top of the training curriculum. The reform in this arm, while it does not get as much publicity was critical. We honestly probably will not discuss it again, but it is one of the small changes from the war that would have an effect on the First World War, especially in the opening campaign.

While reconnaissance was a problem for the British another problem was simply just keeping their horses alive, and I am being literal here, it was a constant point of concern. During the early fighting there were at least a few intances where the British cavalry were able to ride down the enemy, especially right at the beginning when facing some of the few infantry formations in the Transvaal Army. Over time though the horses got worn down so much that it was no longer an option. There was a serious attempt to supply the number of horses that were constantly needed in South Africa but the Remount Department, who was in charge of these activities, found themselves strained to the breaking point. It did not help that before the war the Remount Department was seen as a great place to send ineffective officers that, for whatever reason, could not be straight up sacked. It probably would not have made a difference if they were the most effective officers in the world though, for a few reasons. First, even when there were enough horses to go around they were of a generally poor quality. Second, even when good horses were available they were not of the optimal type for the region. Instead of the smaller horses like the Boers used, ones that were more suitable to the environment, they were larger horses that were favored by many armies in more moderate climates. Third, and this seems to be the most important, the horses were not given the proper time to acclimate to the local climate. The veterinary services of the British Army believed that it would take at least 9 weeks after arrival for the horses to properly acclimate to the environment when arriving in South Africa. This was due to many reasons like the differences in climate and the interesting make up of the local varieties of grass for grazing. Most of the leading British cavalry officers believed that the horses only needed 3 weeks, often times they were not even given this much. It was not unheard of for the horses to be moved out to the front just a week off of the boats, this did the horses absolutely no favors. When they did eventually get to the front they were often not given enough food, with just 8 pounds of oats per day becoming the standard ration, the same amount as the smaller Boer ponies were getting. 8 pounds of oats for the British horses was almost starvation rations even if it was consistently available, and it would not be. Of the 500,000 horses that would be used by the British Army during the war, almost 350,000 would be expended and die during the fighting, that is a bit over two thirds. Even those that did not die would be so greatly compromised that they would be almost worthless, as we will soon discuss. I like this quote from Stephen Badsey “The cavalry’s success in solving the arme blanche problem, in understanding the relation between sword and carbine, had caused the Army to ignore the fact, attested to by commanders in war and in official documents, that an overburdened, starving, unfit horse, carrying a poor horsemaster, was useless in war no matter what weapons the rider carried”

This episode will not contain a full story of the Second Boer War, that would be multiple episode just by itself, we will instead focus on the most important campaign as it relates to cavalry during the war. This campaign was the relief of the Siege of Kimberley and its aftermath. The plan to relieve the siege was to send out a Cavalry Division, under the command of General French and the campaign would receive a huge amount of attention and analysis after the war. French was told by Generals Roberts and Kitchener that even if half of French’s men were lost in the campaign it would still be worth it as long as they got to Kimberley. The force would set out on February the 11th and they carried just 5 days of forage with them when they set out. This was important because it gave them essentially no margin for error when it came to getting to Kimberley and then re-establishing their connection to the supply train of the army. During the first 3 days of the advance 460 horses died or had to be dropped out of the line. The policy of the cavalry at the time was that if a horse collapsed it was shot rather than being left to possibly die. This has a slight humanitarian feel, leaving a horse to die a long and slow death is a horrible act. However, it also meant that horses that could have been saved and could have recovered if given some time to rest were instead killed. This also meant that at times, especially when the horses carrying extra fodder collapsed that the fodder might have to be left behind if it could not be redistributed. This was of course only a problem right at the beginning, because the problem of having too much fodder would not be a problem that would continue for very long. On February the 1th, just 4 days after setting out the Cavalry came under fire from 800 Boers and a few pieces of artillery. It was imperative for French and his forces that he not let the Boers slow him down given the fodder situation. He therefore sent out scouts to clear any fences and then led a charge of every single man under his command through the Boer line. The charge was led by two squadrons of lancers at the front but then everybody else was behind them. They charged forward and spent 4 minutes under fire from the Boer soldiers. By the theoretical calculations from before the war that included the firing rate and the probability to hit of the rifles that the Boers had in their very competent hands even if just out of every 5 rounds fired hit the target every single one of the British should have been dead well before they reached the Boer lines. As it was they suffered precisely 4 men wounded and two horses killed. Again that was precisely 4 wounded and not a single man killed.

During the course of the war this would be the best example of the classic cavalry charge for the British while the horses were still fresh enough to make it happen and it went perfectly. The British had taken the time to prepare the area of the charge, they had evaluated that the Boer troops were too spread out to properly stop them, then they had charged home and through the Boer lines. It was a textbook example of what a cavalry charge could and should look like. All of the critics would have found the results to be surprising. What they could not have known is that in their theoretical models on which so much of their criticism of the cavalry was based they had overestimated the actual hit rate of the firing of the enemy. They did not properly consider factors like dust, covering fire, and probably most importantly the psychological effects of having hundreds of men charging down on them on horses. I am instantly reminded of the scene from the Lord of the Rings movies where the Riders of Rohan charge down on the orc armies in from of Minas Tirith. There is a very specific movement when the orcs realize that the arrows are not going to stop them and riders are going to hit them full on. They all look around with a “what do we do now” look right before the riders him them, probably not unlike what would have happened to the Boer troopers at their similar moment. And yes, I really really like Lord of the Rings and if I am not careful I could talk about them for hours, so I should probably stop now before I get too much further in. I am focusing on this one action so much in this episode because it, and the other cavalry actions that were soon to follow would be the primary point of study after the war. Much would be made by the cavalry reformers of this charge and how it showed that a unit of cavalry, properly trained in the use of the lance and sword, could still be very useful even when confronted with modern rifles and artillery. Once French and his men were through the Boer lines they found the way to Kimberley open and they arrived there just a few days later. When they relieved the siege though the horses were in a very poor state, they had received no supply for 4 days beause the supply column protected by Roberts’ infantry had been successfully raided by the Boers. It would not be until February the 23rd, 12 days after setting out that normal rations would be restored to the horses, by which point almost the entire cavalry division was combat ineffective. For the rest of the campaign, and in their analysis after the war, there would be a lot of blame flung around between French and Roberts about who was to blame for this fact. Roberts would blame the horsemastership of the cavalry, while the cavalry would blame Roberts’ inability to supply them with the proper amounts of fodder. Regardless of whose fault it was, and even though they were in no state for further action the cavalry would leave Kimberley with the rest of the army on February 28th and a week later they would face a force of 6,000 Boers. What had started as 3,500 horses was now down to just 2,800 after a week, and they were now ordered to get around behind the Boers to cut off their retreat, even though they could barely get the remaining horses up to a trot. This inability for the horses to get to speed would allow the Boer force to retreat in good order, again something that Roberts would blame them for. Haig would write about the state of the cavalry on March 16th that “I have never seen horses so beat as ours this day. They have been having only 8 pounds of oats a day, and practically starving since we left Modder river on February 11th.” And still nobody would admit that it was their fault, and they never would. The fact that each side blamed the other was important because these were the actions from which conclusions would be drawn after the war. If you believed that it was the cavalry’s fault that they were in the state that they were then their failure to fulfill their role on the battlefield, to get around behind the enemy and cut them off is an indictment on the entire concept of cavalry. This was Roberts’ view, and the view of many of the officers that he commanded. Unfortunately for the men of the cavalry, and by that I mean the men who still believed that the cavalry charge was a necessary part of their training and dthey should not just be mounted infantry, the war would soon devolve into a guerilla campaign that would rob them of any ability to show any more instances of the charge. Generally for the rest of the war there would just be some light skirmishing between small units of horse mounted soldiers, either cavalry or mounted infantry. Most of their time would be spent just patrolling, which showcased the necessity of a mounted man on the battlefield, but mostly a mounted man with a rifle with little use for the sword.

The end of the Boer war would be a long time coming, but when it did finally arrive it would usher in another era of discussion about not just the cavalry but all facets of the British military. One reason for this, besides the general failure of the British army to quickly win the war, was how the latter stages of the war were fought. The large number of large skirmishing groups that wandered around the campaigning area meant that many men came out of the war believing in certain ideasa about how wars should be fought. A British Colonel Maude would say after the war that “The hardest task of all is to convince a man who has seen a good deal of active service, that the scope of his personal impressions and opportunities is not in itself sufficient to provide him with brains if he has none, or to over-ride the experience of thousands of others who have gone before him.” Many of the future World War 1 commanders would be in this group of men, future Generals like Smith-Dorrien and Rawlinson who we have already men and Allenby, Gogh, and Byng who have not yet made their mark on the main podcast. Another piece that was effected by this was that these men all made their names fighting mostly mounted infantry actions between small groups of rifled armed cavalry or mounted infantry on both sides. It was extremely rare that they would engage in a cavalry charge, and in many instances later in the war even the Boers were charging more than the British horsemen. This, coupled with Roberts’ belief meant that there would be a strong movement to make all British cavalry Mounted Infantry after the war, just like before the war. This even though there was not a failed cavalry charge to point to during the war, but there were not many examples of good cavalry charges during the war either. One interesting fact that ties into what we talked about last episode is that the British army was generally quick to discard the experiences of other armies as not indicative of the European Battlefield if those experiences did not fit within the preconceived notions of the British Army. However, when the British army was involved in such actions, even when the Boer war looked very little like any future European War, they were quick to start drawing conclusions. Unfortunately, officers in the infantry, cavalry, and their commanders were still not all drawing the same conclusions.

To understand what happened after the war it is important to understand the power of what historians call the Roberts Ring. The Roberts ring was a large group of British army officers, led by Roberts that had all risen through the ranks together, thanks partially to the patronage of Roberts himself. This included men like Kitchener and Rawlinson along with a slew of other Generals who would become famous, or infamous, during the First World War. This group was extremely powerful once Roberts became Commander in Chief of the Forces in 1901, coincidentally he would be the last Command in Chief. His group wanted mounted infantry, no charging, no lances, no swords, just infantry on horses basically. The other group was now advocating for a hybrid medium cavalry armed with rifles and either swords or lances. Roberts was able to move his own men into all of the critical positions in the army which allowed him to control items like training curriculum and procurement. Coupled with this disagreement in the armed forces was a flood of literature, both in the forms of books and in the press, criticizing the army’s handling of the Boer war. One of these pieces would be The Times History of the War by Leopold Amery which would receive a considerable amount of attention. It came out before the official history, which would be a bit less bias, which meant that it would have a very influential area in the public opinion. The conclusion of the piece was that the cavalry charge, in any form, was completely obsolete. There were of course publications on the other side as well. Part of the disagreement in this very public forum revolved around the state of the horses during the war, the anti-cavalry groups downplayed it and the pro-cavalry groups emphasized it. One noticeable way in which the entire conversation had changed when compared to before the war is that the debate was no longer over getting rid of the cavalry completely, the Boer war definitively showed that men on horses was still a part of warfare and had a place on the battlefield outside of their scouting and screening roles. So in some ways the argument was now more focused than before but the lack of precise terminology, like what exactly the differences were between medium cavalry and mounted infantry were, this distinction was difficult for laymen to comprehend, especially when it was coming from multiple different authors. This resulted in a polarizing effect where the public believed that the two groups in the army were much further apart than they actually were, and this drove the two groups further apart as well. This also meant that the cavalrymen became more and more defensive, and more and more touchy when it came to discussions about changing their role. One of the greatest bastions of this resistance did not even come from the regular cavalry, but instead from the Yeomanry. The Yeoman cavalry was a volunteer cavalry force made up of generally better off men from around the country. Since they were volunteers, Roberts had less control over this group and this meant that in 1901 when Roberts tried to take away their swords, and then tried again in 1904, he was unsuccessful.

It got to the point in 1904 where the Yeoman units appealed directly to the King to restore their right to carry a sword into battle. This would happen right around the same time as another incident though, and it would be even more important and would also represent the climax of the entire set of arguments about the role of the cavalry on the battlefield. Roberts would try to take the lance away. It all started in 1903 when the Elgin Commission was formed to investigate the Boer War and to deterine why it did not go as well as it could. Cavalry was certainly on the agenda but it was not the only thing. On the topic of the attrition rate of the horses they would say “The evidence before us confirms the view that the chief cause for the loss of horses in the war was that they were for the most part brought from distant countries, submitted to a long and deteriorating sea voyage, when landed sent into the field without time for recuperation, and there put to hard and continuous work on short rations” However, when it came to drawing a conclusion about the place of cavalry on the battlefield the commission ended on a bit of a limp note

“Most of the witnesses agree that in view of the great extension of the field of operations in modern warfare, an army should contain a much larger proportion of mounted men than formerly. There was, however, much diversity of opinion as to what should be the nature and armament of these mounted forces” Before the commission was even over Roberts would issue the order, in Early February, that would make the lance only used for escort, reviews, and parades but not during manuevers or during war. This order even came with a fancy memo from Roberts detailing the historical arguments for the removal of the weapon. It was almost an instant PR disaster for Roberts. The Times was flooded with letters from ex-officers and other former members of lancer regiments attempting to prove the value of the lance. These were not just non-name men from the small town in Britain they were local MPs and even members of the House of Commons. The argument would continue for quite some time, very much in the public realm as well. French and Haig would weigh in on it eventually with French saying “I do not attach so much important to the question of sword versus lance as some people do, but I think that the lance should be retained in the existing lancer regiments on the same principle that they are probably retained in the Russian Army by the Cossacks of the Don” with the reason being morale. Haig would say “We do not wish to deny that the firearm is a useful weapon. What Lord Roberts says about the American Army in a matter of combination of fire and shock admits our entire contention. We maintain that shock action can produce important effects and particularly in combination with fire action that the sphere of usefulness of cavalry is increased” It would fail due to historic reasons, morale reasons, and also just the general believe that it might still be necessary. It was a huge black eye on Roberts’ tenure as commander in chief and would play a role in his retirement the next year. The attempt to take the lance away would be the last true attempt to remove the arme blanche from the cavalry’s arsenal before the war. It would also represent a change in the movement of the cavalry arguments as they for the most part shifted to being more productive and centered around introducing improvements and reforms that made the cavalry better at their current role, instead of trying to change it. These reforms and improvements would continue right up to 1914, and we will talk about them next episode.