Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Sans cavalerie, les batailles sont sans résultat*

French 4th Hussars at the battle of Friedland, 1807 - Edouard Detaille
The regiment forms in column of squadrons. The men and the horses are on edge, they have moved closer to the action. The men hold their mounts under close control as the beasts toss their heads and paw at the ground. All can sense they are about to be committed to battle. This feeling is reinforced as the troopers watch the regimental commander ride down the line, looking at his men, judging their morale and their readiness in a glance.

In the near distance there is a ragged line of infantry, staggering as another volley of cannon fire rips through their ranks. They are barely visible through the drifting powder smoke, but General Milhaud has seen them, his aides scramble to get the brigade formed.

Now all is in readiness, the squadrons begin their advance at the walk. The horses are being held in check by their riders, just barely. The four-legged warriors know what is coming as well as the men who now draw their sabers. The trot is ordered. The enemy infantry now notice what is bearing down on them.

Their officers frantically try to get their men into square, their own cavalry is nowhere to be seen. Their supports have vanished. Many of the men start to look over their shoulders. The sergeants are literally beating the soldiers into formation.

Then the trumpets sound, the cavalry break into a gallop as they fling themselves towards the wavering foot soldiers.

"En avant! Vive l'Empereur!!"

The sabers are lowered, the hooves of the big horses can be felt shaking the ground, the trumpets sing their brazen song.

It is too much...

"Rettet euch! Fliehen!" is heard above the thunder of hooves against the torn turf, the first Austrian infantry regiment breaks. The men try to flee but are cut down from behind. Some raise their muskets aloft butt end up, but there is no mercy, there is no time to take prisoners.

Those attempting to surrender are cut down where they stand.

This battle is over.

Painting by Keith Rocco Source

*Without cavalry, battles are without result. - Napoléon I, Empereur des Français

In the time before vehicles were used in combat, in the time before the machine gun, in the time before the rifled musket, cavalry was a key component of a well-balanced army. One could indeed argue that cavalry was a critical component of an army.

Robert E. Lee discovered this on the march to Gettysburg. The Army of Northern Virginia advanced blindly into enemy territory as the cavalry, under J.E.B. Stuart was nowhere to be found. The Confederates had very little idea of where the bulk of the Army of the Potomac was located.

In olden times, when most of the army marched on foot, cavalry was essential to discover the whereabouts of the enemy and to mask one's own movements from the prying eyes of the enemy cavalry.

Cavalry was also useful in the final phases of a battle.

As the toll taken by the battle grew, infantry units would become exhausted. Whittled down by casualties and sheer fatigue, it took a supreme effort of will to continue to stand and fight. At just the right moment, a charge by heavy cavalry could cause those exhausted infantry units to fall apart.

Then the swords would start to rise and fall, the slaughter would begin. The harvest of Mars.

In battles "back in the day" most of the casualties suffered by a defeated army occurred at the end of the battle. Provided the victor had sufficient cavalry to pursue and harass the defeated army.

If not, simply fall back, lick your wounds and regroup. Ready to fight another day.

Friedland, 1807 - Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier

With cavalry, the pursuit could last days.

After Jena and Auerstädt, where the Prussian Army was soundly defeated by the French, the Emperor's cavalry stayed on the heels of the Prussians. They were so demoralized, fortresses which had yet to hear a shot fired surrendered to men on horseback.

At one time cavalry, in the form of the armored knight, dominated the battlefield. Infantry tactics developed slowly over time, mostly in order to defeat cavalry. Infantry being much less expensive than cavalry.

For many centuries it has been coin that governed the size of one's army, not the availability of recruits.

Over time the use of horse cavalry faded away. They were used by the Russians and the Germans, to a lesser extent, throughout World War II.

Now the ethos of the cavalryman lives on in the armored cavalry and the air cavalry. These soldiers carry much of the swagger of their ancient counterparts.

Though the days of mass cavalry charges have ended, horses still find a way to assist man in his struggles. It all depends on the circumstances. Horses can still go where vehicles can't. A horse, like its rider, can live off the land. Vehicles can't.

"US soldiers on horseback 1991 Afghanistan"
Photo by Master Sgt. Chris Spence, FOB-53/U.S. Army, United States Special Operations Command

The cavalry lives on.


  1. You may find this interesting.

  2. More great stuff Sarge. You've now got me reading about that "yerpean stuff" and I'm enjoying the heck out of it.

    To paraphrase Santayana and Plato, only the dead horses have seen the end of war.

    1. But the dead horses, are they doomed to repeat it?

      Heh, "yerpean," love it.

    2. If they keep hanging out with humans, I fear that they are.

  3. Of some tangential interest: The bugle call (yes we still have them) on carriers for "Pilots man your planes": is "Boots and saddles" from the old US cavalry days. Traditions!


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