Cavalry Pt. 4


Part 4 of our examination of the role of cavalry during the war



Hello everyone and welcome to history of the great war premium episode number 6. This is our fourth and last episode covering the evolution and actions of cavalry during the first world war and in this episode we will cover the actions of 1916 until the end of the war. It was hoped that 1916 would be a big year for the cavalry on the Western Front. The Somme offensive was coming in the summer and the combined weight of the French and British armies would attempt to rupture the front and send the cavalry through the broken German line. Unfortunately for the cavalry, while they played a role in the planning for the Somme attack they ended up not playing any role in the attacks on July the 1st. They would be used later during the action on the Somme but they were still plagued by seemingly insurmountable problems, mostly around command and control of the cavalry units, and of course they were always beholden to the actions of the infantry, who were having their own special set of problems when it came to achieving their objectives. While the Somme would overall be disappointing for the cavalry it would be a critical step in the slow process of adjusting the cavalry, and most importantly the commanders involved, to how they should be used on the stagnant battlefields of the Western Front. One of the things that would constantly play in the favor of the cavalry in the last 2 years of the war was the fact that they had faced much lower rates of attrition than other units so as the war entered its third and fourth year it was one of the few units that had experienced men who had went through several years of intense training at the front. There were even cases in 1918 when officers and men that had been in the cavalry since the beginning of the war would take part. This meant that when the cavalry were finally called upon in 1917 and 1918 they would be some of the best trained and most experienced men in the entirety of the British Army.

The cavalry spent the winter of 1915 to 1916 doing a lot of training and reorganizing for the future. One of the big pieces of reorganization was the move of all of the machine guns away from the regiments and into a centralized machine gun squadron. This change mirrored what the British were also doing in the infantry units and putting all 12 of the Vicker’s heavy machine guns into a solid unit meant that their power could be better directed. To make up for the loss of the Vicker’s each regiment was given Hotchkiss guns, this was the less famous gun that filled the same role as the Lewis Gun did for the infantry. With this change not only was the overall firepower of the cavalry greatly increased but also the amount of firepower that could be concentrated in one area got a significant boost. Another large piece of emphasis for the training was working on how the cavalry could communicate with the British pilots in the air. This was a problem that everybody was trying to solve at this point in the war as communication with the air was the best way to then communicate with the artillery and the commanders behind the lines. The cavalry had some advantages over the infantry though such as the ability to take wireless sets with them as they moved forward. They also spent a lot of time working on using signal lamps to communicate. Another problem that the cavalry spent a lot of time on was how they could quickly and easily cross trenches. This was one of those problems that had not been well discussed before the war but had of course become critical since 1914. One solution was created by the Canadian Cavalry, specifically by the men of the Fort Garry Horse. Their solution was so good that it was decided that the men from Fort Garry would be turned into a special bridging unit that was then split up between other units with the expressed goal of getting the cavalry over trenches. To accomplish this goal they created a bridge that was split up into 4 sections each weighing about 50 pounds. These sections could be moved forward on horseback to a trench and then either assembled into a narrow bridge spanning 18 feet, just wide enough for the cavalry to advance over single file, for they could be placed side by side to allow for faster transit. Most importantly, and why the bridge was so good, was because the men could assemble it in about a minute, then disassemble it just as fast. This was a huge improvement over the other available bridging methods and would be critical if the cavalry was ever moved forward in an attack. With some of the problems solved it was time to discuss the precise role of the cavalry during the Somme offensive. On the 25th of June there was a discussion held between Haig, Rawlinson, and other generals to determine what the plan would be. Rawlinson thought that the cavalry were basically a weapon suited solely for the second phase of the fight, after the infantry had already achieved their objectives. Haig wanted them moved into the fighting earlier, soon after the first waves of the infantry went over the top. What neither could agree on were the objectives of the cavalry. Remember that they were still gunning for a massive breakthrough offensive that would aim at strategic objectives, but these did not really exist behind the German lines on the Somme therefore there just was not much for the cavalry to do other than to just attack. When it came to where to commit the cavalry there were a few considerations to keep in mind, the first was that the area had to be easily reachable and traversable by cavalry but it also had to be place where moving the cavalry up to the front would not greatly hinder other forms of traffic since there would be a lot of it going both to the front and to the rear. There were many ways that this problem could have been solved, one option was to break up the cavalry into smaller units to reduce the impact on other units and also to give them more opportunities to be used, but this was not the path that Rawlinson chose. He instead had the cavalry in one large group with one way forward to the front and then a single planned area of attack. All of this had to be decided before the attack started and it would be very difficult to change when the time came because while the cavalry was nice and mobile it would be hard to move them across the battlefield when all of the roads and paths would be so full of traffic. It would be possible, but it might take a very long time. Of course all of this planning and thought turned out to be wasted because of the disaster that was the July 1st attack. There were some areas of success but they were not the areas that the cavalry was planned to be used and so the cavalrymen spent the day sitting behind the line waiting to be called forward, a call that never came. It would not be until July the 14th, after two weeks of small piecemeal attacks that the cavalry would be used as a place called High Wood. During this attack the plan was for the infantry to push forward through the German second line at which point the cavalry would be called forward to push the attack onto and through High Wood. This action would involve the Indian and Canadian cavalry divisions. Before the attack started the two divisions were concentrated which was no small process since they were scatted over 20 miles of countryside and they used mostly small country paths and fields to move forward instead of dealing with the already heavily congested roads. When the infantry went forward in the attack they had some difficulties but did make it slowly forward. By the evening it was finally time for the cavalry to attack and forward they went. The 7th Dragoon Guards and the 20th Deccan Horse advanced towards High Wood. At 8Pm the Dragoons found a large group of Germans, and they charged them. The Germans quickly broke and fled with 16 killed and 32 captured. I can only imagine what the Germans thought as they saw horses charging towards them. The Dragoons kept advancing until they came under fire from the German machine guns in the next line of entrenchments. On their right the Deccan Horse found the same problem, they quickly advanced to the German Third Line which they found to be well defended and in good condition. With this new obstacle unassailable both groups of cavalry dug in and waited to be relieved by the infantry. During this action the cavalry had performed very well in an environment that many people believed that they would be annihilated. There was an intact German defensive line in front of them but they were still able to advance and attack more isolated German positions with success. During these attack they had lost just 8 men killed and 100 wounded. On the Western Front these numbers were basically rounding errors on casualty reports. With the battle of the Somme still raiging there were already discussions at headquarters about how cavalry tactics should be adjusted and some changes were made in late August. Liaison officers from the cavalry were sent to the headquarters of the infantry brigades that they were working with, this would greatly improve cavalry coordination with the infantry in the future. There was also the change that in the future the decision to move the cavalry forward would be given to the divisional commanders in the area, instead of the army commanders like before. This change would end up being largely theoretical for the near future, with army commanders not wanting to give up the authority. For the rest of the battle of the Somme, through no fault of their own the cavalry would find themselves sidelined because Rawlinson had decided that he did not want to use them and no longer included them in his plans. Even with the emphasis by Haig to try and get the cavalry back in the fighting they would spend the rest of 1916 sitting behind the front waiting for a call that never came.

As had been the case during each winter, during the winter between 1916 and 1917 the cavalry was taken off the line while conversations happened about their future. Haig wanted the training for that year to be focused on mobility and breakthrough which was great and all, but in hindsight training that would only be mildly useful. The more important piece of their training would be an increased focus on combined arms attacks with infantry. These were based around scenarios a lot like the action at High Wood, the cavalry would move forward with the infantry and then be used to quickly advance and capture local objectives. Once these were captured the cavalry would dig in and wait to turn over the positions to the infantry before doing it all over again. This was a big change from what the cavalry was envisioned to do before the war started, the thought had always been that they would go into action as an independent unit, not as an arm of the infantry. There were some problems for the cavalry during the winter completely unrelated to what the generals thought of their usefulness. First the winter was an extremely cold one which limited available training time there was also a very problematic outbreak of sarcoptic mange during the winter that hit a large number of horses. Large groups of the animals had to be quarantined for lengthy periods of time to try and contain the outbreak, some were even completely shaved of hair which would later be a problem when the spring weather was also quite cold. The action would start early for the cavalry during 1917 because in March the Germans would begin their slow retreat to the Hindenburg Line. Haig gave orders for the two cavalry divisions that were sent to pursue the Germans that they were to maintain pressure but also to not take huge risks and to minimize losses. The British were planning their own offensives at Arras and wanted to make sure they did not use too many resources pursuing the Germans. By the time the two divisions, the 5th and 6th, arrived in the area of the retreat instead of being used as a pursuit force they were just used to replace the exhausted divisional cavalry units that had already spent several days following the Germans. With so few men the cavalry was often forced to just observe and report where the Germans were and to make sure that they kept retreating. There were some small actions during this phase, but nothing huge, which the cavalry were greatly criticized for after the retreat was over. Most of the critics would site their lack of aggressive attacks and their inability to capitalize on the German situation as a huge blackmark against the 5th and 6th divisions. There were however limits to what they could do with so few men and with their orders from Haig to minimize risks and losses. Here is Cyril Falls, one of the authors of the official British histories of the war “It was perhaps unfortunate that the cavalry divisions were so carefully husbanded for the coming offensive during this phase; for the work done by the 5th Cavalry Division during the few days it was at the disposal of the Fourth Army was brilliant.” The Arras offensive was planned to begin as soon as the retreat was over, which was the whole reason that so few men were committed to the pursuit. During the Arras offensive the British would try something new with their cavalry troops. Instead of waiting behind the lines en masse they would instead be split up and moved forward close behind the infantry. Instead of a strategic goal of breaking through the German lines they would be used to provide quick reinforcements and to provide a renewed impetus to the attack once the first line of German fortifications had been taken. Along with this change the cavalry’s position of readiness was moved from far behind the front to an area between the original British and German lines. These were huge changes that greatly increased the cavalry’s changes of actually doing something during these attacks. A few days into the attack they would use this opportunity when the 3rd Dragoons launched an attack on the village of Monchy. “During a lull in the snowstorm an excited shout was raised that our cavalry were coming up! Sure enough, away behind us, moving quickly in extended order down the slope of Orange Hill was line upon line of mounted men covering the whole extent of the hillside as far as we could see. It was a thrilling moment for us infantrymen, who had never dreamt that we should see a real cavalry charge, which was evidently what was intended” The Dragoons were able to quickly move forward and through Monchy. They tried to continue their advance beyond the village but ran into another line of German machine guns and were forced to all back to the village and dig in. They then waited for the infantry to move forward to relieve them, but it did not happen soon enough. Shortly after the cavalry took up position in Monchy German artillery started hitting them hard. It was bad enough for the men in their defensive positions but it was completely disastrous for the unprotected horses. Soon Monchy was a slaughterhouse. Finally at about noon all of the remaining horses were moved out of the village, since it was clear that no further advances would be made. This attack at Monchy is probably the best example I have seen of the strengths and weaknesses of the cavalry during the war. They were great at moving forward quickly and securing a specific objective, but when asked to hold that position for a long time, against a determined artillery barrage, they were in serious danger of experiencing massive casualties among their horses. The next time for the cavalry to shine would be in late 1917 during the Cambrai offensive.

Cambrai would be the first battle where the British tried to combine the mobility of the cavalry and tanks into one coherent force. The cavalry journal would later say that “Of all of the cavalry operations on the Western Front, none met with more criticism than their ‘action’ or some say, ‘inaction’ at the Battle of Cambrai. Their failure to achieve success gave anti-cavalry critics the opportunity they had been seeking since 1915, and the result was censure by many, who neither knew their subject, nor the orders that were issued to the cavalry whom they condemned” The plan at Cambrai was to have the infantry and tanks breakthrough the German line, at which point the cavalry and tanks would continue to advance forward to take more ground. Overall there was not a huge amount of antagonism between the Tanks and the Cavalry, Badsey summarizes the thoughts of the cavalry as “like armored cars, but slower.” There was a decent amount of thought given to how they would interact on the battlefield. This included outfitting thanks with special tools to help clear away the wire to let the horses through. There was a bit more to think about with cavalry since the normal tactic of just smashing it down with the tank and letting the infantry walk over it was not sufficient for horses. These tanks had large grapnel hooks attached that they would pull behind them with the idea that the wire would be pulled away with them. This was not entirely successful, but was a good thought. The attack at Cambrai was a failure for a huge variety of reasons, it was not well supplied, there were not enough men with troops already committed to Ypres and the Italian front, the tanks and cavalry were entirely dependent on the infantry to capture some of the bridges over the canal which they had great difficulty in doing, it was almost impossible for anybody to communicate with the tanks, even other tanks. Most of the blame would for the failure would be placed on the cavalry, but it was probably only partially their fault. I think David Kenyon does a good job of summarizing “The conclusion suggested by these events is that cavalry-tank co-operation was certainly possible, but that it was very difficult to achieve ad-hoc except on a very small scale. … Mechanised warfare was in its infancy, and not only did the tank-men still have a great deal to learn, but there was also still plenty of room on the battlefield for the flexible battlefield mobility provided by the horse, as was to be demonstrated as the war moved into its final year” or here is Badsey taking it even further “The British could not know, at the time, that they were attempting what was to become in the course of the century one of the most notoriously difficult manoeuveres in warfare: trying to move an exploitation force as large as a division or larger rapidly through a slower moving force, against enemy opposition in the middle of a battle” Even during the second world war, when the tanks were far better and more maneuverable and they possessed a vast amount of combat experience moving tanks through infantry would still a difficult prospect, this was one of the very first times this many tanks were attempting to become an exploitation group, along with the cavalry, instead of just being simple infantry support vehicles. It was almost certainly doomed to failure from the beginning.

1918 would be a very different year of warfare on the Western Front. After the German attack in the spring the battlefield would start moving very quickly into new areas, something that had not happened since 1914. This slightly more open nature of war gave the cavalry many more chances to succeed on the battlefield. Unfortunately this did not happen until after the cavalry were once again greatly reduced in strength from 5 divisions down to 3. It is worth reminding that at this point in the war the French and German armies had no cavalry to speak of, so the British still had more than anybody else, but 3 divisions on the scale of the fighting in 1918, when hundreds of infantry divisions were involved, was just a drop in the bucket. The 2 divisions that were removed from the Western Front were either dismounted to man the trenches or were sent to the Middle East. When the Germans launched their attack in the spring all 3 cavalry divisions were attached to General Gough’s 5th army. They were given to this army because of how thinly spread the 5th army was, far thinner than the other British armies which is partially why the Germans attacked it. It was quite fortunate that this was where the cavalry were stationed because when the time came they were the perfect troops to help the infantry stem the tide of the German advance and to make sure the retreat did not turn into a complete rout. Right from the beginning the cavalry was split up and attached to various infantry formations to act as a covering force for the rest of the army. During this phase they did their normal scouting activities like reporting on the German’s positions, speed of advance, etc. and they also took part in some counter attacks to slow them down. The scouting was probably the most important part of their job during the retreat though, in such confusing times commanders values good information on enemy movement and strength than having a few more soldiers in the line. The quick counter attacks by the cavalry had their place though, and there were a huge number of small ones, far too many to cover here. One example of these type of actions was performed by the Canadian Cavalry Brigade when they were brought forward to attack a wood near the village of Moreuil on March the 30th. This was an important position because it was very close to the critical rail junction of Amiens. When it was decided to launch the attack the Canadians were actually almost 10 miles away but they were able to quickly move up into the area and launch their attack just an hour after they received their orders. The Canadians deployed three squadrons to attack the three corners of the wood that the Germans had very recently taken. Obviously woods are not great places for horses so what the Canadians did was right up and around the woods, then dismount and push forward the attack on foot. One of the great advantages this gave them, specifically from their mobility, was to get a group of machine guns into some advantageous positions on the flanks of the Germans, something probably not possible by any other group. This was a huge advantage because when you consider most machine gun actions during the war, the guns themselves were often very stationary, they were large and heavy and difficult to move so when used by infantry it was often impossible to move them around quickly without coming under fire. The cavalry did not have this problem and when they wanted to they could quickly and easily reposition their bases of fire. This gave them an advantage but did not instantly win this little action, instead it took several hours of fighting before the Germans had been pushed out of the woods. 300 Germans were retreating when they were spotted by a squadron of cavalry that was still mounted, and the squadron charged. In 30 seconds the 300 yards between the two groups was covered and the fighting became hand to hand. What happened next is a bit confusing as all of the first-hand accounts contradict each other in important ways, but what is known is that there were 24 Canadian and 70 German casualties. By taking the woods back from the Germans, even though it was only temporary, the Canadians were able to slow down the German advance by almost an entire day. It is a good example of the cavalry being able to quickly put men in positions to make a difference.

After the German attacks had been ground to a halt in the summer of 1918 the work began to start driving them back. This period of time was known as the Hundred Days, and in these three months the British, French, and Americans started attacking and kept pushing the Germans back all the way until the armistice on November 11th. For the British the first of these attacks was called the Amiens offensive and once again the plan was to use the cavalry to exploit the success of the infantry. Here is David Kenyon again “Rawlinson and his staff appear to have learned the lessons of Arras and Cambrai the year before. The new deeper defence systems used by both sides by this point in the war not only provided an environment with much more opportunity and freedom of movement for mounted troops, but also, their very depth created a necessity for forces which could advance faster than men simply on foot, to tackle the deeper recesses of the defensive system itself. This reflects a change from the vision of cavalry performing a ‘breakthrough’ function after the local tactical battle is complete, to one of their integrated participation in the tactical battle itself.” There would also be a new wrinkle in the attacks this time, and that involved a lighter and slightly faster tank, the Whippet. It was hoped that these tanks would be able to accompany the cavalry on deep attacks through the depth of the German defenses because while they were only slightly faster they had a much longer range. This came at the cost of armament though, they carried only 4 machine guns. When the attack started against the exhausted German troops there was almost instantly some success. The infantry quickly began to push back the Germans, and then the cavalry moved into action. Here is the official history of the 15th Hussars as they raced forward to occupy their objective, the old Amiens defensive line “There is little doubt that many felt that this moment was worth all the years of waiting. As the 15th swept past the position just captured by the Canadians, these latter leapt to their feet, and loudly cheered the regiment as it passed by. The distance to be covered was about two thousand yards, and almost at once the 15th came under machine-gun-fire, a few men and horses fell, but the momentum was gained, the forward rush continued, and in a remarkably short time all squadrons reached their objectives, dismounted and occupied the old trenches.” Even with some successes there were still problems with meshing the cavalry and tanks into a coherent fighting unit, which caused the attacks to be less successful than maybe they could have been. The simple problem was that the tanks were still simply too slow to keep up with the cavalry, but the cavalry absolutely needed the tanks at certain points to give them that extra fire power to punch through some German resistance. This created situations where the cavalry would race ahead, only to be stopped by a German position while they waited for the tanks to catch up, but which point the Germans would be ready and waiting for the attack which would bog down. Over three days the mix of cavalry, infantry, and tanks were able to meet their goals though and the cavalry suffered only around 1000 casualties. After the war the Cavalry Journal would say this about the action “These three days’ operations showed the great value of mounted troops in exploiting the success of a surprise infantry attack so long as the ground was such as to permit rapid movement [his italics]. It was not so much the actual enemy machine-guns that held up the cavalrymen in the latter stages, as the fact that the broken ground prevented manoeuvres to avoid and outflank these machine-guns. And it cannot be too strongly emphasised that the infantry and tanks were equally unable to cope with these conditions” With other advances occurring along the line the desire at all levels of the army for more cavalry, after years of wanting less, became very quickly apparent, the historian for the Oxfordshire Hussars “The moment the war became one of movement every unit in the army from the corps down to the platoon, began screaming for mounted troops to help them-their previous opinion of their uselessness having suddenly changed.” This caused the cavalry to be split up and much as possible and spread out among the British armies. For the next three months small units of cavalry would launch their small attacks all along the front when called upon. Here and there they would be used to outflank German machine guns and prepared positions, even under fire they were often successful. One of the crowning achievements happened on October the 9th when the 3rd Cavalry division advanced 8 miles on a front 3 miles wide, capturing over 100 machine guns and 400 Germans in the process. Soon after, German resistance was broken, and on November 11th 1918 the war was over.

We are not at the end of our discussion of the British cavalry during the first world war on the Western Front. As we have discussed over the last 4 episodes the role of the cavalry on the battlefield of France and Belgium in the early 20th century was discussed just as much at the time as it is now. However, it is very important as we look back and evaluate their performance to not fall into the easy trap of simplifying the actions of the cavalry in the war as men who did not know what they were doing, or were too stubborn to change from their preconceived ideas. The Western Front in the first world war was a puzzle that was insolvable for both sides for almost 4 years, and it was only at the very end of resources and after millions of casualties on both sides that it changed. The cavalry was just one very small piece of the extremely large armies in the field and they struggled in the way was as the infantry or the tanks did in trying to achieve some form of victory. As I look back and evaluate their role in the fighting I do not think that they did that bad. They had a certain set of tactical and strategic doctrines from both before and during the war that they refined and used appropriately when they were able. It was not their fault that those opportunities were few and far between due to circumstances outside of their control. At the end of the war, when maybe they could have made a big difference there were so few that it almost did not matter except in very local fighting. The purpose of these episodes though was not to convince me or the listeners that the cavalry were some amazing fighting force during the war, but instead to inform you about their actions to better equip you to make your own judgements, and give you some perspective to help you be more critical of historians who quickly dismiss them. I hope I have accomplished this goal. To end these four episodes I think it is best to pull quotes from two of the historians who have been fundamental to the creation of these premium episodes. First here is Stephanie Potter from the conclusion of Smile and Carry On - Canadian Cavalry on the Western Front 1914-1918 “The role of the Canadian Cavalry on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918 demonstrates that the mounted arm still had many things to contribute to modern warfare. While the employment of the mounted charge was not always possible or tactically relevant, cavalry played many other significant roles on the modern battlefield as intended and expected according to prewar doctrine. The inability to employ a single tactic does not prove the obsolescence of the entire cavalry arm. When employed according to doctrine, cavalry was tactically effective as an exploitation and protective force. " And here is David Kenyon from British Cavalry on the Western Front 1916-1918 “The question of whether ‘more cavalry, better led’ would have been helpful on the Western Front is ultimately like many counterfactual arguments, somewhat sterile, however it is reasonable to argue that the cavalry that was present, when it was offered the chance to get into battle, acquitted itself well, and showed that at brigade and regimental level it was an effective fighting arm.” With that, I think you for listening and I hope you will join me in our next premium episode when we begin a series of episodes looking at what it was like for the neutral countries of Europe in a World at War.