Cavalry Pt. 3


Part 3 of our examination of the role of cavalry during the war



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Premium episode number 5. This is part three on our discussion of the cavalry during World War 1. I realize this is part 3 and we have not yet gotten to 1914, but that changes today. In this episode we will discuss the events leading up to the first world war and the cavalry changes that occurred in that decade that put the British in the position they were when the war started. We will then spend some time discussing the events of 1914 and 1915. This episode also sees the introduction of another source into these episodes. You may be wondering why that it is only on the third episode that I am starting to use this source, and that is pretty much because I only found it a few weeks ago. This source is another Doctoral Dissertation written by Stephanie E. Potter entitled Smile and Carry On - Canadian Cavalry on the Western Front 1914-1918. This is a great, and extremely detailed, look at the role of the Canadian cavalry units on the Western Front during the war. Which is great for us because the Canadian cavalry would play a critical role in several of the actions over the 4 years of conflict. Here is a quote from the introduction of Smile and Carry On “The presence of Canadian Cavalry on the Western Front has often been forgotten, ignored, or written off with a single word ‘obsolete.’ However, an examination of the role of Canadian Cavalry on the Western Front reveals that cavalry was far from obsolete in the Great War. When employed according to doctrine the cavalry was able to operation as expected on the Western Front in reconnaissance, pursuit, and delay”

Before we get to the war we need to finish up our discussion of the evolution of the British cavalry doctrine. Last episode we left off with Roberts retiring from the position of command in chief and really, at that point most of the really interesting discussions had already happened all of the big discussion had happened about how the cavalry would be armed, or how they would act on the battlefield, and now the conversation moved onto more practical matters. For example there was a committee created to study the weight that the cavalry was carrying. This had been a huge issue during the Boer War, just like for men every pound that was carrying on the back of a horse mattered if they were going a far enough distance. After some time spend looking into the matter the committee shuffled some items around and was able to cut 2 stone off the total weight carried by the cavalry, for the non-British people in the audience, who don’t use units of measure like “stone” that equates to about 28 pounds. That is a pretty considerable amount and made a real world difference, they were also able to increase the amount of ammunition carried by the cavalry from 30 to 50. This is just one of many changes that were made to update the cavalry and improve them on a logistical level. There probably would have even been more except for the fact that there were economic issues that slowed the whole process down. Remember that this was around the time of a lot of technical innovation, and in fact the infantry and the artillery were in more desperate need of refitting and improvements. This resulted in the cavalry getting the short end of the budget stick for many years, starting as early as 1902 drastic action was taken like the suspension of cavalry recruitment just to save money. One of the other problems that the British cavalry leadership also sought to correct was just how bloody expensive it was to be an officer. This problem, along with the purchasing of commissions, that the British had been trying to get rid of for years, is something that is probably foreign to the modern military, at least in Western Countries. In 1903, the cost of being a cavalry officer in the British army was estimated to be about 500 pounds a year, this was a huge amount of the salary for the officers and it meant that many very qualified candidates could not afford to be officers, even though they deserved it on the basis of merit. Most of these expenses went into items that were not strictly related to being in the cavalry but were expected semi-official or official activities like social functions, equipment, travel, and other social obligations. When the process of trying to bring this number down in 1904 got going many of the rich cavalry volunteers actually resigned because one of the big benefits for them was all the prestige that came along with all of those activities that they were spending money on. Or maybe they just really liked polo, I am not 100 percent sure. The reforms brought the expenses down to about 300 pounds during 1903, which was a good reduction but it was still expensive. One quote from the group that put these new regulations in place that I quite liked was “Our cavalry must be officered. We may require from the candidates either money or brains. The supply is most unlikely to meet the demand if we endeavour to exact both.” This did not completely fix the problems and this would continue to prevent some men from being cavalry officers, but at the very least it lowered the bar. A few years later a study of why there were never enough cavalry officers came away with a conclusion that the top three reasons was the low pay, the cutting of social activities, and the ridicule of the cavalry in the press. We talked quite a bit about the press last episode, and how they had just lit into the cavalry after the Boer war, so I do not think it bears more discussion now. As for the costs, obviously they still had work to do, however not much progress would be made before the war started. One of maybe the best change was made in 1905 was the formation of a permanent Cavalry Committee to try and unify and push forward cavalry doctrine, training, and recruitment. They also sought to solve more technical challenges. In the same year the Cavalry Journal was founded to try and formalize the debate among the thought leaders, in the first issue there was an article titled “The Place of Fire Tactics in the Training of British Cavalry” which sought to answer “Is the rifle or the sword the principal weapon of Cavalry” with the cheerful response “whichever you like to call so, provided that you are equally prepared to use either.” Which I think is a great summary of the general trend after the war. I have a ton of research notes for the period between 1902 to 1907, I almost made an entire episode out of it until I realized that it really was not very interesting and I would be repeating myself, so I think now I am just going to move things forward.

The period between 1907 to 1914 saw the specific tactics, equipment, and cavalry thought crystallize into that which the British would go into the war with. A couple of concepts that were very important to these discussions are the following. First, a war was likely to happen in Europe and the British might be fighting in it with the British Expeditionary Force, and the cavalry would be going along with that. Second, there would be large cavalry engagements to start the war before the infantry got involved. These fights would be between large groups of cavalry on the flanks of the larger armies. Third, nobody ever thought that the fighting would completely bog down. Most people thought that the fighting would look much like the Franco-Prussian war, just with more men. That war had been fought with large armies but was still mostly mobile with flanks to turn and scouting to do. When you take these thoughts and theories about how war was going to be fought it is easy to see how Haig would state these reasons for why he believed the cavalry would not shrink in importance but grow in importance in the next war. First, the extended nature of the modern battlefield meant that there would be a huge variety of cover to favor the concealed approach of cavalry. The increased range and killing power of modern guns, and the great length of time during which the battle would last, would augment the morale exhaustion of the men. When the men start to lose morale they become demoralized they easily panic, and you can induce that panic when, say, a group of cavalry is charging down at you. Finally, the longer the range and killing power of modern weapons, the more important the rapidly of movement became, because it reduced the amount of time that the men would be under the fire of said weapons. One problem that Haig and other generals would have to contend with, which had just been exacerbated by the past decade of talk about the role of cavalry, was the problem not of enemy morale but morale in the cavalry arms itself. This extended into the military in various ways, like here is Ian Hamilton discussing the problems for cavalry during a set of maneuvers. “The fact is that they are afraid of Umpires. If they charge, some Umpires will declare them all dead men. If they dismount and use their rifles, other Umpires will accuse them of having lost the Cavalry Spirit, when in peacetime seem to them even worse than annihilation.” One way they tried to increase morale in the cavalry was to increase training on the charge. That was sort of a revival of belief in the charge during this time period which stemmed partially from the belief that there would be some epic cavalry on cavalry fighting at the beginning of the war. This made the charge, and the belief by the cavalry that it could work, important as explained by Spencer Jones in From Boer War to World War Tactical Reforms of the British Army 1902-1914 “Indeed, some felt that the cavalry could achieve a tactical advantage if it were able to compel the enemy to dismount through either fire or maneuver, thus depriving it of its mobility. Furthermore, electing to dismount against aggressive, mounted cavalry carried the risk of being swept away by an enemy charge before it could be stopped.” All of these small changes in process and procedure were important because it would be instrumental in creating a group of cavalry that was good at small unit actions that required tactical flexibility and small unit precision. This would be proven when the war started. Here is Stephen Badsey again “Although the firepower versus steel debate produced strong opinions and controversial statements that sometimes bordered on the polemical, it resulted in reforms that ultimately produced a highly trained and tactically astute cavalry force that performed well in the critical opening battles of 1914”

So the war started and the cavalry went to France. Before I dig into this, I want you to think back to the first 2 episodes of the show and then all of the things I have talked about today. We have talked a lot about the general merits of sabers and lances, of rifles and machine guns. We have spent a long time talking about horses on the battlefield in just about every aspect. One thing we did not talk too much about was large unit logistics and large unit command and control. This was a huge problem for the British because the cavalry force that would be in France when the fighting started, and especially by the end of the year, was far larger than anything the British cavalry had tried to deal with before. There were over 10,000 cavalry in the BEF in August 1914, a huge number relative to what the British had dealt with before, and a much higher percentage than at any point for the rest of the war. None of the commanders had ever led anything larger than a Brigade and while they had spent the last 20 years arguing vehemently about the role of the cavalry on the battlefield everybody seems to have forgot to create a staff and officers to wield such a large force. This meant that when they got to France they were in some ways making it up on the fly. General Allenby was put in command of the cavalry division in France and had to essentially create a divisional staff from scratch. This made cohesion very difficult, and it would be even worse in the coming months as more troops arrived. This was not that different than the problem that the British army as a whole was trying to deal with and they grappled with the problems for putting so many men needed on the field in 1914. For the first few months of the war the conflict actually resembled the Franco-Prussian war far more than it resembled the fighting just a few months later. The density of men on the front was very small, even in the areas of the attack, and especially in the artillery, all were just a tiny fraction of what they would be later. Many of the actions that the cavalry took part in at this time involved covering the retreat of the BEF using a combination of mounted and dismounted actions. There was also a lot of scouting and reconnaissance. Countless of these small actions were fought by squadrons of cavalry against the Germans and a full catalog would take a very long time, but needless to say they came in an endless array of slightly different fighting. Sometimes it would be dismounted like that of the 15th Hussars at a bridge near the town of Maroilles as remembered by Ted Fowler, one of the men who took part, “We sent our horses back. We could see Germans creeping across the bridge and we fired away at them but they kept coming. Close enough for me to see a man with big Kaiser moustaches. He came running forward and I was sort of sorry when I shot him down. Then the Berkshires came up and we went back.” There were other instances where there were cavalry charges against the Germans, for example at Cerizy there was an action by the 12th Lancers where they were able to outflank a German position with a squadron and some machine guns. While these troopers were distracting the Germans another squadron was able to use some cover to get in close to the enemy, and then they charged, here is a quote from the account of one of the men “it took us well under thirty seconds for us to emerge from the re‥ entrant and gallop over the German position. The Germans got off one volley – which wounded the lancers’ CO and killed the squadron leader – but were wiped out by sword, lance and pistol.” This action was a good example of how good the British were at combining both dismounted and mounted action to the best effect. All of these small conflicts slowed the German advance down, but it had the effect of wearing the cavalry down. They were often getting just a few hours of rest every night, and had little time to rest the horses. When the counter attack began at the Marne there were many squadrons who could not properly participate due to the state of their horses, some of which had literally worn through their horseshoes, with few replacements to go around. As the battlefield began to stabilize after the race to the sea the cavalry were unable to be used for their mounted abilities and due to the crippling shortage of infantry most of the cavalry would spend the last few months of 1914 stuck in trenches holding the line. This would include a huge role in the First Battle of Ypres where they were forced into the line and helped to stop the German attack. During the winter of 1914-1915 most of the cavalry was replaced in the trenches by infantry and they continued their training. This included the men from Canada, who had brought their horses over the 18 day voyage from Canada. All of the cavalrymen would go through a lot of training over the winter, with a huge focus put on proper methods of trench digging. This was important because the cavalry would spend a good bit of the next 3 years digging a lot of trenches and forming other working parties at the front.

On the whole ,1915 would be a year of huge disappointments for the cavalry. 1914 had been an okay year, they had impressed both their own infantry and the enemy with their skill and speed during the retreat. They had answered the urgent call of the infantry and had helped to hold the line when they were needed most. Then, for the early parts of 1915 the cavalry would be a huge help behind the lines, training and even more often forming working parties. When the spring came many units, including the Canadian cavalry, were instructed to ask their men if they would consent to fighting dismounted for the foreseeable future. The request, when it was passed down to the men was generally met with enthusiasm. I am sure by this point most of them just wanted to get back into the game. They would then go in and hold the line for a few weeks at a time, generally on some of the less active sectors. One of the benefits of using cavalry in this role, at least occassionally, was that they were pretty much the only troops that had been given a noteable amount of training before the war in reconnaissance and observation. All the men at the front had to do it, but very few of them had actual training hours into it before the war started, and even less when the territorial divisions started to arrive. There were some plans to try and use the cavalry at Loos, in a mounted run through the theoretical gap created by the infantry, but in what would become the typical problem the infantry never came close to meeting their goals. This meant that the cavalry was never even committed to the fighting. One of the problems for the cavalry at Loos and in later actions was that the British, right up to and most importantly including Haig, wanted to keep the cavalry in large units and put them under the command of Army leadership. Often this meant that even when they might have been useful in an action at the front they were not given the order to move forward until too late. We have talked at length several times about the difficulties of communicating from the front to the rear during an attack, and this was just exacerbated when looking for situations to use the cavalry. These moments were often fleeting, but without squadrons and regiments being put under the command of local commanders there was little that could be done. It would take the British almost all the way until 1918 to learn that this was not the optimal method of command. For now, the cavalry would spend most of the year either in the trenches, improving the trenches, or serving in an administrative and communications role. For the Canadians it would be 1916 before they would be reunited with their horses Here is Stephanie Potter discussing it “Despire the obvious limitations for cavalry, all ranks were still anxious to be remounted, and anticipated a return to mobility. Meanwhile, all were willing to fight dismounted when necessary and serve where they were needed, a clear reflection of the versatility the mounted arm could offer.” Their command would write in late 1915 that the men “Although most anxious to serve where they were wanted, the men were naturally most anxious that they should not be permanently separated from their horses. They had done everything they have been asked to do bravely. This would seem to be an added reason for the redeeming a particularly binding promise given to them on high Official authority.” The Canadians would be remounted in January 1916, just in time to start training for the Somme, where they would once again find themselves in a less than active position.