Was the Napoleonic era cavalry armour effective against firearms?

Was the Napoleonic era cavalry armour effective against firearms?

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During the Napoleonic wars in Europe, many heavy cavalry units still retain the use of armours, for example, French Carabiniers-à-Cheval below,

How effective were these to protect the cavalryman against enemy fire, like muskets or rifles? Did they effectively reduce the casualties from gunfire, or were they just used to protect against non-firearms attack like swords? Or were they just used for ceremonial/prestige reasons?

As a melee fighter, heavy cavalry would have depended on armor to block melee weapons once they got in range, and that alone would justify its use. As far as effectiveness against firearms the best I've ever found is that quality armor of the time was somewhat effective against small arms and muskets at range, though muskets could easily penetrate at close range. While I haven't been able to find exact distances, I would expect this also gave Heavy Cavalry a range where musket fire was ineffective and they would be able to close before infantry could reload.

Rifles of the period had longer range and took longer to reload, which would indicate they were more effective against armor though it may have been a wash due to longer reload times, but I can't conform that. Rifles and rifle companies were also far less common at the time so the decision to wear armor was likely based more on fighting musket armed soldiers as that was the more common opponent.

Without getting too involved in a discussion of terminal ballistics, the Napoleonic period armour certainly offered some protection against firearms, but it was only effective up to a point. This picture shows a a French cavalry cuirass (a breastplate worn as body armour) from Waterloo on display in the Musée de l'Armée:

A cannonball from a British 9lb cannon can do a lot of damage!

Further down the scale, a simple musket-ball could also kill an armoured cavalryman at that time. This is the cuirass of Lieutenant Colonel Achambault:

Looking at the state of his cuirass, you probably won't be surprised to learn that he was killed while leading the 9th Cuirassiers during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.

Now, I've also seen plenty of cases where Napoleonic period armour shows dents from musket balls that didn't penetrate. In those cases it most definitely saved lives and prevented serious injury. The guy in this cuirass probably survived this shot:

Without the armour, he would certainly have had a much worse day.

Just to add a note about cannons: fragmentation is a very common source of injury -- be it wood splinters, bone, rocks, or shrapnel from the shell -- link, graphic images of wounds. This could have impacted the desire to wear armour. However, wikipedia and Body Armor: Cuirass and Helmet seem to indicate that fragmentation/shrapnel was not a factor at all in wearing armour.

If this link works, see picture of a Napoleonic era Cuirass (armed cavalryman's breast plate) with what appear a hole in it made by a cannon ball, apparently on entry and exit:

Cuirass hit by cannon ball

I doubt the cuirassier wearing it survived.

As for muskets, I have certainly read of how at the battle of Waterloo, when French heavy cavalry, with armoured breast plates like the cuirass above and metal helmets, confronted British infantry, men noticed a distinctive rattling sound of musket balls bouncing off the metal armour, suggesting that it did protect against small arms fire.

However, as far as I know, unlike in the Middle Ages men, were never armoured head to foot nor did horses have armour. My guess, only, is that armour in this period was particularly although not exclusively for protection against the swords and lances of enemy cavalry.

The latter, attacking from roughly the same height, and keeping their guard up against counter-blows, would most often land blows on the upper part of the cavalryman's body, hence armour being mainly on chest, back and head. The arms were presumably less protected because they needed to be freer to hold the reins and wield a sword.

The early Napoleonic cuirassier cuirasses were intended to withstand three musket shots at close range. This was never achieved in practice. Later the official standard was for the cuirass to withstand one musket shot at long range. Elting, J.R. Swords Around a Throne (1988) p. 230.

The cuirass was effective at stopping long range musket balls, but not those received at shorter ranges. In the evening after the Battle of Quatre Bras, Colonel Frederick Ponsonby, commander of the British 12th Light Dragoons, examined the corpses of French cuirassiers and was gratified in finding many with musket ball holes in their cuirasses, one with no less than three. Haythornthwaite, P.J. Napoleonic Cavalry (2001), London, p. 59.

Yes, it did help.

Even now, soldiers use helms and vests. Only helm, as it was found during the WWI, decreases the number of KIA in troops. (But increases the number of wounded) http://www.geom.uiuc.edu/~lori/mathed/problems/sloanA307.html

M-1 helmet worn in World War II had saved 76,000 American infantrymen from serious injury or death (https://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/08/a-heads-up-about-helmets/)

Of course, more armour brought more safety. But it was expensive, so, used only for more expensive troops, such as heavy cavalry, engineers, grenadiers in some countries.

The first horses to be tamed for human use were not like the ones we know today. With shorter legs and weaker backs, they were not able to carry an armed man. The first effective cavalry were therefore not men riding horses, but men riding chariots.

Around 1800 BC war chariots were developed in southern central Asia, combining innovations in construction and horse handling. Strong enough to carry a driver and a missile armed warrior, yet light enough to move quickly around the battlefield, they added speed and shock attacks to the armies of Mesopotamia, Egypt and others.

German Cavalry II

Firearms of all kinds had indeed made the battlefield more lethal. That was true enough. Cavalrymen, such as the Prussians at Rossbach, recognized “that a well-timed musket volley could destroy an entire regiment.” They also knew, however, that musketry, rifle-fire, or artillery could create opportunities for the cavalry’s decisive engagement, provided that cavalry commanders appreciated “the complexity of the [late eighteenth-century] battlefield.” More than ever before, “precise maneuvers, speed, boldness, and timing” would determine the mounted arm’s success on battlefields where “the margin of error separating cavalry success and failure” grew ever narrower. This lesson applied not only to Prussian or other German cavalry, but to all the military horsemen of Europe.

These issues became acute between 1800 and 1815, for European cavalry “reached its apotheosis” during the reign of Napoleon I. In his campaigns, cavalry performed those functions—often with consummate skill—that still remained to it on battlefields now coming to be dominated by the emperor’s beloved artillery, if not quite yet by truly accurate, long-range volleys from rifled firearms. These roles consisted of screening the French armies’ movements and strength from spies and opposing forces. The cavalry also carried out reconnaissance and prepared the conditions for the concentration of divergent French columns at the point of contact with the enemy. Finally, the French horsemen became the ultimate pursuers of broken enemy formations, though the latter were almost never broken by the cavalry itself. Despite the awful psychological effect of a massed cavalry attack made at the gallop, Napoleonic-era infantry squares, bristling with bayonet-tipped muskets and often supported by guns, could only rarely be smashed by direct mounted assault. Nevertheless, Napoleon may be said to have resurrected the cavalry’s operational role from its relative diminution in the eighteenth century as reflected in the declining ratio of cavalry to infantry, despite the cavalry’s contributions in such famous early eighteenth-century battles as Blenheim (1704) and, later, Rossbach. Napoleon added skirmishing to the cavalry’s remit and, in the 1790s, was one of the first French commanders to employ effective horse-artillery. The latter innovation gave genuine speed and mobility to the “king of battle,” greatly increasing the striking power of mounted formations. Furthermore, by disrupting the enemy infantry’s formations, a properly coordinated artillery barrage, whether from field guns or horse batteries, could still make possible the European cavalry’s ultimate self-expression, namely the pressing home of attacks with the arme blanche. At the very least, it was assumed that dragoons and carabiniers could close sufficiently to employ their own shoulder-fired weapons or pistols. Nevertheless, even Napoleon’s superb cavalry could not overcome the iron logic of gunpowder weaponry, as demonstrated with such terrible magnificence in the futile attack by fully 10,000 French horsemen against the allied squares at Waterloo. Not even such a grand failure, however, served to dislodge the cavalry from the armies of Europe, if for no other reason than that no substitute for it existed in the missions noted above. Only the cavalry could rapidly execute the vital tasks of long-range reconnaissance, screening, flanking, liaison, and pursuit. Nothing less than the advent of reliable wireless communications and internal-combustion propulsion would truly change that calculus and even then, the cavalry’s departure from the scene “was slow, uneven, and reluctant.”

Thus, throughout the second half of the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century, the cavalry—indeed military horsepower generally—could still claim a place on the battlefields of Europe. In the last great cavalry war of Western European history, the Franco-Prussian War, both France and the German States routinely employed light and heavy cavalry at both the tactical and the operational level, though not, as shown below, with equal effectiveness. Later, in World War I, all of the major European armies still marched with huge numbers of cavalry fully integrated into their combat formations, though as the reader will see, nascent motorization (particularly armored cars)—not to mention more effective, long-range artillery and machine guns—vastly restricted what the cavalry might still accomplish, at least on the Western Front. By contrast, on the Eastern Front from Courland and East Prussia to Rumania, horsemen still enjoyed a considerable prestige and found themselves usefully employed both tactically and operationally.

Charge of the 1st Bavarian uhlans, 1914

Nevertheless, not even the events of 1914–1918 completely removed cavalry and horse-powered transport from European armies. We are particularly concerned with the fact that this remained so in Germany. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the Reichsheer of the Weimar years and, later, the Heer still conceived of important tactical and operational roles for the horse, both in combat and in logistics. Both organizations would plan accordingly, notwithstanding a great deal of propaganda to the contrary. Consequently, when Hitler’s government willfully plunged Europe into the greatest war in its history, the German Army still possessed hundreds of thousands of horses in its establishment and not just for pulling supply-wagons, field-kitchens, artillery, and ambulances. German cavalry also went to war in 1939, not as a mere horse-mounted anachronism but as a matter of some necessity.

One might well argue that that reliance on horses by the Reichsheer and the Nazi-era Heer was misplaced. Germany’s military leaders, so the argument would run, ought to have done otherwise. Such an objection is fair enough in the abstract. In this matter, however, as in all historical inquiry, the primary question—as formulated by a noted authority in German military history—should not necessarily address what the German army ought to have done regarding the cavalry’s employment. Rather, the question should account for why the German army did what it did. Why still use horse-mounted troops after 1918? Why after 1925, when motorization was becoming a reality? Why after 1935, when the first panzer divisions were being raised? Why, ultimately, even in 1945, when literally thousands of horse-soldiers still found themselves in action?

Of course, cavalrymen were only as good as their horses, and this treatment of the German cavalry therefore also touches upon one of the great and enduring bonds in the human experience: that between the horseman and his mount. Having moved steadily away from regular, close contact with large animals since the middle of the twentieth century—except among a continuously dwindling number of farmers or perhaps from the safe side of a zoo’s enclosures—Western society has become largely ignorant of the profound interaction between horses and humans. Notwithstanding the undoubted commercial successes of recent occasional books, plays, and feature films (the British National Theatre’s 2009 triumph War Horse and the U.S. films Seabiscuit and Secretariat come most immediately to mind), horses since 1945 have become the perceived preserve of a “horsey set” of racing owners and/or breeders, huntsmen, or the simply rich. This perception remains current despite the fact that in the United States alone the equine population stood at well over five million at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In the United Kingdom the figure totaled perhaps one million at the same date, though it remains somewhat unclear whether that number resulted from recent natural accretion or severe undercounting in earlier surveys. Given such numbers, particularly in the United States, and based upon the author’s own experience, it seems clear that very substantial numbers of horses certainly do not live a life of luxury in racing stables and hunt clubs, nor do they live quite so far apart from their human companions as one might think. Nevertheless, actual contact between those huge numbers of horses and the larger human population in whose midst they live remains minimal for human society as a whole.

Of all the ties binding humans and horses, surely the most poignant and nearly the oldest is the one existing between the military horse and the mounted warrior. If not quite as ancient as warfare itself, this bond is nearly so. But war remains, and has always been, a hard business. Physical destruction abounds. Men, women, children—and animals—die. Of course, no moral equivalence between the death of a horse and that of a man, woman, or child is intended. The assertion of any such equivalence would be grotesque. Nevertheless, the deaths of horses can be piteous. They know real fear. They feel real pain. They seem to suffer real loss. Their size and their very nearness to their riders make their suffering all too palpable, all too visceral, when they are seriously or mortally injured. That nonquantifiable but vivid characteristic called “heart,” the inner quality possessed by so many horses that drives them on even at the risk of injury or death, can show itself most heroically when they die. Horses worn out by their lives’ exertions can be utterly composed and evidently ready when they go to their graves. The author has seen this firsthand. Those not yet ready to die can fight for life and very often do. The author has seen this as well. Cavalry horses’ training could itself sometimes be brutal, but so was the task to which they were set by their human masters. The numerous instances of those same horses’ noble behavior in combat (other words simply do not fit) nevertheless attest to a quality far beyond simple, enforced obedience. Just as many of their riders did, just as many soldiers have always done, such horses often showed their most profound dignity when their own lives hung in the balance. Is this mere cavalry romanticism, mere horseman’s anthropomorphism? Perhaps it is. Certainly many cavalrymen viewed their mounts merely as equipment to be discarded without further ado when injured or to be replaced without a second thought when killed. Others evidently felt differently. If not, why have war horses, so far as we can reckon, always had individual names from the earliest times down to the vast mounted forces of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century? Beginning in the Napoleonic period, most cavalrymen were literate. Consequently, it was “the first period where the personal relationship between the military horse and the soldier was recorded” in substantial numbers of accounts. The relationship could prove, and was shown to be, as intense as any between humans. Those accounts also provide the first substantive indication of a tale quite likely as old as the military horse itself, a tale of a very special bond forged in the crucible of war, a tale of fierce joy in life and unbearable heartache in death.

Cavalrytales blog

Maybe, in the case of protective clothing for the military, that’s a good thing!

Carabinier (left) and Cuirassier

You might think that in the 19th century, long after heavily armoured knights thundering across the battlefield had disappeared forever, body armour was completely discarded. But that’s not strictly true, though nowadays it might not seem much like protective clothing to us.

I’ve blogged before about French cavalry Cuirassiers and Carabiniers. As well as brass or steel helmets these regiments of heavy cavalry were issued with steel breastplates – cuirasses – and matching backplates. Ignoring its weight, which became a problem if the cavalryman was unhorsed, this armour proved effective protection against sword-strokes and even long-range musket fire. Not cannon fire, though, as the picture below shows. Oops.

Buffalo-hide cuirasses, occasionally worn by British officers, owed their use to the thick leather overcoats of a century before.
These were private purchases, most often worn, it would seem, if a man had previously been wounded in the body.

Standard-issue clothing gave a certain amount of protection. British cavalry were instructed to overtake fleeing enemy infantry to cut backwards at them with their swords. The reason becomes clear when you consider what the infantry wore.

They carried a backpack make of cow-hide – with the hair still on it. Presumably this made a more comfortable pillow when the men bivouacked(!) The pack was usually strapped on over a heavy wool greatcoat. Underneath all this the infantryman wore his wool uniform jacket, over which was a pair of leather cross-belts to carry ammunition pouch and bayonet. Even without underclothes, all this wool and leather made it pretty difficult to cut through to the man beneath with a single sword-stroke or thrust.

Cavalrymen also wore thick wool. Arms and heads were their most vulnerable points as enemy horsemen tried to disable, if not kill them. British hussars soon found their fur caps (busbies) fell off at the first opportunity. They had no straps to anchor them. Even if the headgear stayed on, it was made with no reinforcement. French light cavalry headwear was fitted with iron hoops inside which might just be enough to deflect a killing or disabling blow. And British heavy cavalry bicornes were soon discarded in favour of a metal helmet which at least offered some resistance to an opponent’s blade. As well as not disintegrating when it rained. Which it did, in Spain and Portugal – a lot.

Another way French cavalry improved their protection was to roll their cloaks before an action, strapping them over one shoulder. This produced an effect similar to the infantryman and his pack – a multi-layered pad of thick material across the back. Thick enough to deflect a sword-stroke, maybe.

French dragoons also wore gauntlets with heavy leather cuffs. Hands and arms were a favourite target for swordsmen, even if inadvertently. Short leather gloves worn by most light cavalry weren’t really that protective – of necessity the material had to be thin enough for the wearer to have some ‘feel’ of the reins. The sword hilt was supposed to offer some hand protection, but both the British heavy and light cavalry sabres were fitted with a narrow knucklebow useful for punching your opponent in the face (apparently a favourite close-quarter tactic) but pretty hopeless as as a guard.

Admittedly the heavy sabre also had a circular hand-guard, but troops often ground half of this away because it cut uncomfortably into the leg when the sword was carried in its scabbard.

Of course, none of this protection was much use against firearms. There were no ceramic plates, no kevlar nothing guaranteed to stop a bullet. Stories abound of lucky escapes, of shots being stopped or deflected by personal effects. Books (especially Bibles, which was quite apt) and pocket watches were pretty common saviours. The relatively slow speed and large size of musket balls meant their paths could be altered drastically by buttons or epaulettes. Unfortunately, these properties also meant if they did strike home terrible wounds could result as they bounced off bones and internal organs.

Some men actually suffered serious injuries, not from shots themselves, but from metal buttons struck from their own, or even others, clothing. Or, more horribly, other casualties’ body parts. In fact many soldiers’ anecdotes from the Peninsular war are so unlikely-sounding they would be barely believable if included in a novel. So if you happen to be reading a story of the times and think ‘that can’t possibly have happened’, it probably did.

The reason I started thinking about body armour, and thence this post, is slightly obscure. Cavalry stirrups of the period were attached to the saddle with a leather strap, much as they are today (the stirrup leather). The buckle of this strap sat about halfway down the front of the cavalryman’s shin when mounted, and the spare end of the stirrup ‘leather’ was looped across in front of the buckle a couple of times. This protected the buckle with three or four thicknesses of leather and is always assumed to have been done for that purpose. After all, cutting your opponent’s stirrup leather disables his fighting ability in the same way as cutting his reins would.

But what if it’s not about that at all? What if the folds of leather over the buckle are not to protect the fitting itself but to deflect a sword cut aimed at the rider’s shin? Makes more sense, doesn’t it?

Of course we’ll never really know. The reason for looping the leather in that fashion wasn’t written down in any treatise on cavalry equipment. Not one I’ve come across, anyway.

Because at the time it probably fell under the general heading, ‘assumed knowledge’. You know – stuff which came naturally. Commonsense to people who lived then but which we’ve largely forgotten today – for example, the fact that big, noisy machines (eg. cars, lorries) can frighten horses. Especially when they speed past just a couple of inches away.

This Secret Weapon is How Napoleon Nearly Conquered Europe

The Emperor's elite cuirassiers and carabiniers dominated the battlefield with shock tactics.

Napoleon’s innovative concepts for the equipment and employment of heavy cavalry also diffused, unevenly, across Europe. The Austrian cuirassiers, who were the best and largest force of armored cavalry in Europe until that time, were cut by a third in 1802. However, the Austrians also began brigading together their remaining heavy cavalry in 1805, in imitation of Napoleon’s heavy cavalry reserve. The Russians formed heavy cavalry brigades in 1807, and the Prussians in 1813. Armor also became steadily more common on the battlefield during the Napoleonic era, with Russia re-issuing heavy-cavalry armor in 1812 (having withdrawn them in 1801) and Prussia re-adopting armor in 1814–15.

Perhaps appropriately, the history of Napoleon’s cuirassiers, who were known as hommes de fer, is ironic. In the least charitable interpretation, Napoleon’s cuirassiers are a prime example of “buggy whip” misinnovation, in which an organization continues to innovate along an established technology arc after that technology is no longer useful. After all, Napoleon’s armored cavalry force reached its numeric peak in 1810, shortly after its last decisive action at Wagram in 1809. Much like post-WWII airborne forces, they survived off imperial favor and organizational inertia long after they ceased to be useful. At the same time, even misinnovation is a form of innovation, and Napoleon should receive more credit for his innovative use of cavalry. It won him many battles, and he was far from the last commander to argue that cavalry remained useful in the face of increasingly effective artillery and small arms. Moreover, it represented the application of tried-and-true ancient technology to achieve novel requirements—that is, delivering the shock tactics newly available to post-Revolutionary France after it mobilized the full resources of the French state. The so-called “revolutionary military change” of the Napoleonic era was not a steady march towards recognizable military modernity. As Napoleon knew well, ancient principles and technology were still perfectly useful on his “early modern” battlefield.

Question about Cavalry vs Napoleonic square

Curious then how the advocates of the musket over the longbow in Elizabeth England never really mentioned that, isn't it? Instead, they pointed out the superior range and lethality of the musket, as well as its superior general utility (can be fired from behind cover, prone, etc). Frederick the Great remarked that it took two full years to make an infantryman, who trained in far more varieties of tactical evolutions than any previous armies, and soldiers in the Early Modern period often served for life training was not the issue.

Using a weapon in a deeper formation is often a liability musketeers could countermarch, and in a more deployed order, could cover greater breadth with fewer men. When the French fought Russian archers at Dresden, they noted how the depth of the Russian formation forced them to shoot into the air without any real accuracy, and falling only under their own weight, the arrows had little killing power left.

If the longbow was superior even on an individual level alone, you wouldn't have seen men with them listed as unarmed during the Elizabethan period. The musket was just a better weapon, and the actual experiences of soldiers across the world over the course of hundreds of years bears this out if you bothered reading them instead of repeating unsubstantiated canards.

They are arguing these points because they don't need to argue the other points - the musket is superior for modern warfare because it does not need extensive laws and institutions to raise a muster of longbowmen capable of using war longbows as a unit. These institutions decayed in England, and without them, large numbers of longbowmen could not be raised and above all not replaced when disease took its heavy toll. It can be noted that Benjamin Frankling in 1776 suggested that the Virginia Militia led by Charles Lee be equipped with pikes and longbows.

It was artillery rather than the musket that killed the longbow as a battlefield weapon, as shown by the Battle of Castillon 1453. The fact that the continental powers, who had used the crossbow easily switched to using muskets also made it close to impossible to find arrow materials and fletchers on the continent to supply an English army.

An army with musketmen were more effective than an army with longbowmen, but not because the musket was on its own superior to a longbow on the field of battle, but because it allowed less vurnurability to artillery, was easier and cheaper to train men to use and easier and cheaper to supply. The fact that the institutions needed to supply longbowmen were degrading did not help either.

Fabius Maximus


They are arguing these points because they don't need to argue the other points - the musket is superior for modern warfare because it does not need extensive laws and institutions to raise a muster of longbowmen capable of using war longbows as a unit. These institutions decayed in England, and without them, large numbers of longbowmen could not be raised and above all not replaced when disease took its heavy toll. It can be noted that Benjamin Frankling in 1776 suggested that the Virginia Militia led by Charles Lee be equipped with pikes and longbows.

It was artillery rather than the musket that killed the longbow as a battlefield weapon, as shown by the Battle of Castillon 1453. The fact that the continental powers, who had used the crossbow easily switched to using muskets also made it close to impossible to find arrow materials and fletchers on the continent to supply an English army.

An army with musketmen were more effective than an army with longbowmen, but not because the musket was on its own superior to a longbow on the field of battle, but because it allowed less vurnurability to artillery, was easier and cheaper to train men to use and easier and cheaper to supply. The fact that the institutions needed to supply longbowmen were degrading did not help either.

103. [The Council to the Justice of Peace]. Transmit schedules of recusants in their respective counties their principle houses they are themselves secretly and suddenly to visit, and take possession of their arms and armour, to be restored to them at such time as they shall dutifully conform themselves to the laws, in resorting to the church. They are to appoint honest persons in like manner secretly to disarm recusants of the meaner sort, leaving fitting proportions of bows and arrows and black bills for defence of their houses. They are to bestow the armour in their own houses till further directions. Any recusant suspected of conveying away armour should be examined on oath. Any recusant not in the schedule is to be proceeded against the yearly revenues and the value of goods of recusants are also to be impartially certified.

In plain English boils down to "People whom we don't trust (cos religion!) take their guns but leave their bows."

This is from a missive issued in Elizabethan times when the English were still using the same system to raise the militia as had provided the longbow armed yeomanry whom Henry V took to France or had fought at Flodden and yet by the time of Kett's Rebellion such yeomanry rather failed to stand up to arquebus armed troops. The point is of course there is a difference between Benjamin Franklin talking out of his arse and people whose day job it was to ward the country from rebellion who had experienced soldiers in their midsts.

The reason use of the longbow decayed was quite simply because the long gun be it musket or carbine was better. Bow Vs Musket is an interesting blog that has sadly stopped posting it would seem but has amassed a great deal of evidence on the transition between bows and firearms not simply in Europe but across other corners of the globe detailing for example accounts from the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592-98 or are we going to be presented with the notion that archery somehow had decayed there too at the exact same time?

The thing is though we can find countless examples of smaller or equal sized gun armed forces defeating their bow armed opponents which strongly suggests that something more was going on than simple easier training. Further we have the example of the Janissaries who converted from the bow to the musket long before the abolition of the Dervrsime and their decline as a corps.

Weaponry: Lancers

For almost two hundred years, from about 1630 through the eighteenth century, Western Europeans had discarded the lance for use in mounted combat. During the Napoleonic wars, this long-ignored tool of the horse soldier was reinstituted on the battlefield, although heated disputes about its military suitability soon followed.After the Anglo-Danish conflicts, including the Norman Conquest in 1066, mail-clad feudal horsemen ruled the battlefield for roughly 250 years. Armor-protected knights charged on horseback wielding lances ten to eleven feet long (cut down to as short as five feet by both the French and English at the Battle of Agincourt). The age ended with the rise of the bowmen in the fourteenth century. While the devastating volleys of English longbow men had initiated the change at Crecy on August 26, 1346, it was massed bodies of pikemen that really thwarted cavalry charges, as they did at the Battle of Pavia in 1525. Widespread use of gunpowder made the knight’s charge futile, even suicidal, by the 1560s.

Horsemen turned to the wheel-lock pistol themselves. The Schwartzen Reiter (Black Riders) employed mounted volley fire and countermarch tactics (the caracole), although by about 1630 the cavalry was replacing unreliable and short-range pistols with swords and sabers. Sweden’s King Gustavus Aldolphus, for example, abandoned the lance in favor of arming his cavalry with swords and pistols during the Thirty Years’ War. In a relatively quick period of time, all but the peoples in Europe who had been under Eastern influence, such as the Russians, Hungarians, Cossacks, and Poles, abandoned lancers.

The lancer began reappearing in European armies almost unnoticed. The Hapsburgs formed a lancer regiment shortly after acquiring parts of Poland in the third partition of that nation by Austria, Prussia, and Russia in 1795. They raised a second regiment in 1798, and another in 1801. Russia converted a number of light cavalry formations into lancers in 1803. Both countries enrolled Poles and Lithuanians exclusively in their new lancer units. The prowess of these peoples with the lance gave the Hapsburgs and the Russians a ready pool of skilled and well-trained lancers.

In Western Europe, the greatest impetus for reintroducing lancers came from France. That country had not employed mounted troops with lances since the days of Herman Maurice, marshal de Saxe, in the mid-eighteenth century, and even these amounted only to a meager number of Polish volunteers and adventurers. De Saxe used them for scouting and raiding the French army did not even officially recognize them.

After Napoleon conquered Prussia in 1806, he marched his Grande Armée into what had been Poland. As he traveled from Poszan to Warsaw, a guard of honor — one hundred mounted Polish nobles — accompanied the French leader. From them he learned of the famous Winged Hussars, who, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, carried fifteen-foot-long lances and rode specially bred steeds to victories over the Turks, Russians, and Swedes. After arriving in the Polish capital, the emperor marveled at the expert manner in which Polish cavalrymen handled their lances.

A reading of de Lessac’s book De l’Esprit Militaire, which stressed that the ‘true weapon of the cavalry was the lance, convinced Napoleon to create his own regiment of lancers from Polish volunteers. Although designated under the decree of March 2, 1807, as the Regiment de Chevau-Legers Polonais de la Garde, it did not obtain lances until after the Battle of Wagram in 1809. It was renamed in 1811 Le 1er Regiment de Chevau-Legers Lanciers de la Garde Impériale, the first lancer unit in the French army, and a component of the emperor’s Imperial Guard.

From this beginning sprang a dramatic resurgence in lance-equipped mounted regiments among the armies of Europe. The Austrians formed their third regiment in 1813. By the end of the Napoleonic wars, Russia maintained twelve regular lancer regiments, plus dozens of irregular Cossack regiments and squadrons sporting the weapon. By 1815, Prussia had eight lancer (or uhlan, a Polish word) regiments, as well as a squadron attached to the Guard. Further single squadrons or companies of lancers were added to nonlancer regiments in all the armies of Europe, to give those units more shock power. Examples include Russian hussar regiments and the French 31st Chasseurs a Cheval, all usually armed with saber, carbine, and pistol as well as a lance.

Napoleon, spurred on by the energy six Allied Polish lancer regiments expended during the Austrian campaign of 1809 (especially at Wagram), two years later formed nine regiments of this category of troops (called the French lancers) by converting six existing French dragoon regiments and one chasseur regiment, as well as the old Lancers of the Vistula. These regiments of the line were soon followed by three more such organizations that became members of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard. Uniformed in hussar fashion, they generally carried lances measuring six feet nine inches long, light cavalry sabers, and pistols into combat.

Yet the French cavalry regiments generated controversy about their effectiveness in battle. The officers and enlisted men first questioned the efficacy of using lances on the nineteenth-century battlefield. Many of these critics had participated in the Napoleonic wars. As light cavalry, lancer units were expected to be able to scout and skirmish with enemy horsemen. However, critics pointed out that the lance was virtually useless against cavalry in close quarters — it was more of a pole than a weapon — and it prevented the user from either retreating or advancing rapidly.

Advocates of the lance insisted that it came into its own when horsemen charged opposing cavalry, especially on level ground where the attacks had ample space to maneuver. The frightful impact of a body of lancers moving at twelve to fourteen miles an hour toward the enemy, they reasoned, would always overthrow the adversary. The shock of collision would propel the lance right through the enemy, cause the survivors to flee, and allow the lancers to rally and move back to the safety of their own lines.

Opponents countered that in most engagements cavalry charging against other cavalry was forced to slow its attack once contact was made, and a melee would inevitably result. In that situation, the lancer with his long, cumbersome weapon would be at a considerable disadvantage against an opponent briskly wielding a saber.

Such was the experience of Lieutenant Tomkinson of the 16th British Light Dragoons in the Peninsular campaign of 1811. On September 25, Tomkinson’s regiment met the lancers of the Vistula Legion before the town of Azava. As the lancers trotted toward the Light Dragoons, the Redcoats spurred on against them, driving them back. Advancing at the charge this time, the legionnaires were countercharged by Tomkinson’s regiment and fled before making any contact.

Tomkinson believed the fight at Azava demonstrated that in a melee, after the tight formations disintegrated — the typical outcome when cavalry units collided — riders armed with sabers would win over lance-hampered soldiers, as the shorter weapons were easier to handle. In a general combat, the lancer became a much more clumsy fellow…his weapon was more difficult to manage and his ability to control his mount suffered accordingly. In addition, the lance might become embedded in an enemy soldier or horse and be of no further use.

Lance devotees argued that lancers could defeat enemy cavalry in a melee. On June 17, 1815, during the Waterloo campaign, French lancers were working their way through the Belgian town Genappe. As they debouched from the village, British light cavalry and then heavy cavalry attacked them, both units armed with sabers. According to French sources, the lancers easily beat back the first enemy assaults, but additional attacks caused the lancers’ line to break. British versions of the event say the heavy cavalry of the Union Brigade prevailed in close hand-to-hand fighting, forcing the French from Genappe.

French lances themselves may explain how at Genappe and in other cavalry engagements, horsemen equipped with sabers could best Frenchmen with lances. Commenting on the poor quality of French lances, General Antoine de Brack, a veteran of the Napoleonic wars, pointed out: The ash of which the staff is made is so heavy that it makes it difficult to handle….The wood does not, by its strength, compensate for this disadvantage for being cut in blocks and the grain crossed, it breaks easily. French lance construction was so defective that a few sword blows would weaken the weapon to such an extent that the next hit could crack it and render it useless.

Proponents of the lance insisted that due to its longer reach vis-à-vis a saber, the lancer would have a decided advantage over the swordsman through intimidation as the two sides rushed toward each other. The weapon’s morale affect is the greatest, de Brack extolled, and its thrusts the most murderous of all the armes blanches [sharp-edged cavalry weapons]. The Prussian cavalry authority Jean Roemer pointed to instances where lancers had been successful against opponents equipped only with sabers. These included General M.I. Platoff’s six hundred Cossacks of the Don who held off, for a short time, the French at Eylau Denizoff’s Cossack Guards who severely punished the French cuirassiers at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813 and the French lancer regiments under Colonel Bro that did so much damage to the British Household and Union cavalry brigades at Waterloo that the two units were rendered hors de combat.

However, to be truly effective against the saber, regardless of de Brack’s and Roemer’s opinions, the lancer had to be an expert with his weapon — and his opponent had to be a less-experienced horseman.

Nevertheless, seldom were the lancer units highly skilled, and even when they were there was no guarantee that the lancers would prevail. In his memoirs, Baron Jean-Baptiste-Antoine-Marcelin de Marbot discussed a classic example of the saber winning out over even the best lancers. Marbot, colonel of the French 23rd Chasseurs a Cheval at the Battle of Polotsk on August 26, 1812, found his light cavalry regiment, armed only with sabers, face to face with well-trained, veteran lancer units of the Russian Cossack Guard Cavalry. He reported that during the encounter:

My regiment met with more resistance from the Cossacks, picked men of large stature, and armed with lances fourteen feet long….I had some men killed and many wounded but when, at length, my troopers had pierced the bristling line of steel, all the advantage was on our side. In a cavalry fight, the length of lances is a drawback when their bearers have lost their order and are pressed closely by adversaries armed with swords which they can handle easily, while the lancers find it difficult to present the points of their poles.

Thus, the perceived advantage of the lance as a tool that could accurately strike its intended target before the rider came within saber range could never be fully realized or exploited against enemy cavalry, even under the most favorable conditions for its use.

However, if the protagonist favoring the lance found himself on shaky ground when it came to fighting against cavalry with sabers, he stood on firm terrain when the discussion turned to lancers engaging infantry. In 1815, Sergeant James Anton of the 42nd Highlanders found himself facing French lancers at the crossroads town of Quatre Bras. Describing his feelings afterward, he said, Of all descriptions of cavalry certainly the lancers seem the most formidable to infantry, as the lance can be projected with considerable precision and with deadly effect without bringing the horse to the point of the bayonet….

Napoleon’s marshal Auguste Frederic Louis Viesse de Marmont, a veteran corps commander of the Grande Armée, expressed the same feeling when he noted after Waterloo that The lance is the weapon for cavalry of the line, and principally for those destined to fight against infantry. He added that cavalry armed only with sabers will be stopped by enemy bayonets before they can strike a blow themselves, and thus will be repulsed, whereas the same line of cavalry, furnished with a row of pikes [lances] which stand out four feet in front of the horses will rout the foot soldiers.

Of course, lancers unfortunate enough to be subjected to sustained musket fire from the target infantry, especially infantry formed into squares, faced almost certain defeat unless they had cannon or infantry support. If the soldiers in a square could not fire, however, they were also easy prey to the lancer. Such was the case at the Battle of Dresden, when a heavy rain the night before the battle of August 17, 1813, made it impossible for the infantry to discharge their flintlocks. The mud was so deep that the cavalry could attack only at a quick walk. With about fifty lancers leading his brigades in a third assault on two huge Austrian infantry squares, French General M.V.N. de Fay Latour-Maubourg’s troopers came within a few feet of the enemy, who could not fire their weapons. The lancers methodically proceeded to spear their way into the squares, breaking them completely.

The same situation presented itself at the Battle of the Katzbach River, August 22-26, 1813, fought in a heavy downpour. The 23rd Chasseurs a Cheval, armed with sabers, repeatedly attempted to break a Prussian infantry battalion’s square and failed, even though the Prussians could not fire a single round at the French. The impasse was resolved when the French 6th Lancer Regiment crushed in the front of the Prussians at the first charge because of the advantage of their longer weapon.

Lancer enthusiasts particularly appreciate the destruction of Sir John Colborne’s British infantry brigade of Stewart’s 2nd Division at the Battle of Albuera on May 16, 1811. Three of the four battalions were sent forward in line formation during a violent storm. Blinded by rain and deafened by the thunder and clatter of hail, the English were surprised when the 1st Vistula Lancers and the 2nd Hussars struck their flank just as they were being raked in front by musket and cannon fire. Within minutes, Colborne’s command lost fifty-eight officers out of eighty and twelve hundred of its sixteen hundred enlisted men. Their attackers, numbering only eight hundred, suffered two hundred casualties.

Nevertheless, those dismissive of the lance argued that only when the infantry could not respond with musket fire due to poor weather, or on those rare occasions when infantry found themselves surprised and unable to form a square, was the lance effective against steady troops. They even suggested that the lancers attacking Colborne’s flank caused less loss than did the enemy fire to their front.

Regardless of the examples of lancer usefulness and uselessness during the Napoleonic wars, European militaries continued to employ lancers after 1815. Great Britain raised its first lancer regiments in 1816, using them against the indigenous peoples of the empire. When World War I broke out in 1914, all the major combatants fielded lancer formations. Of course, they quickly discarded them when barbed wire and machine gun fire prevailed on the battlefields.

Just as in the seventeenth century, the evolving technology of war doomed the lance, along with the horse-borne trooper who carried it into battle.

This article was written by Arnold Blumberg and originally published in the Winter 2006 edition of MHQ. For more great articles, subscribe to MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History today!

What was the best cavalry?

Was just reading about Poland's Hussaria ( Winged Hussars) and was just very surprised that they were that good. They could fight anyone ( Turks, Russia, Sweden and few other ) and were successful due to their quick charges. Even with being outnumber 5:1 against Russians in the Battle of Kluszyn during the Polish–Muscovite War they easily won. How would you rank them? I think they were truly an elite during their Golden Age.

You can´t compare cavalrys.

In a head on fight, 100 medieval knights would crush 100 curasiers or hussars of the napoleonic wars.

But the napoleonic cavalry would have faster horses and wear no armour (are lighter) so they would never attack medieval knights.

And Mongol cavalry, although they had no chance against medieval knights would evade them and use their numbers against them.

So with cavalry, it is all a question of circumstances.

And. Nepoleonic cavalry generally also carried firearms. Plate and mail would not survive.

Fun fact: The french calvary which was later used by Napoleon was founded by a Hungarian nobleman, based on the Hungarian hussaria. He is known as Ladislas Ignac de Bercseny, or Bercsényi László Ignác. He is the ⟺ther of the french hussares' To this day, the 1st houssars parachute regiment's march song is a Hungarian folk song.

Napoleonic cavalry would stomp medieval knights, because they had organic horse artillery. They had the thunder of cannons for their sabers.

Feel like it's probably the Mongol horse archers. Considering their absurd dominance over anyone they came into contact with.

Yes, until field artillery shut them down.

Their uniforms were also amazing. They must have been terrifying to see at full gallop.

I don't think you can compare them to be honest as Cavalry development was an evolution process. The Mongols and Tartars were unique in history for their effectiveness. Build on that and you get Cossacks and Hussars. Different era's and different tactics evolved to counter the threat. Technology has a part to play with Cavalry as well with the evolution of the Saddle/Pommel and Stirrups aside from the weaponry deployed against a particular enemy.

It depends on terrain, just like pretty much every instrument of war. Light cavalry are at a severe disadvantage in terrain that doesn't permit a ton of movement (a field surrounded by woods for example). However, it's the same thing for heavy cavalry in very open terrain. In a relatively enclosed area, French knights from 1400 AD would slaughter Mongolian horsemen, but the Knights could be whittled down to nothing in a wide open plain.

You also have to take into account horse here. The Mongols, for example, used (and still do) a much smaller horse than what a wealthy knight would ride into battle. Mongolian horses are short, stocky things which lends itself well to long distance travel. However, you aren't going to get anywhere near the close range performance of a Courser or Destrier.

What weapon set would we choose? Lance, sword, or bow all have their weaknesses. Horse archers have great mobility, but lack the range, power, or missile density that foot archers provide. Swords don't provide the reach that a lance does, but aren't nearly useless in a close range fight. You can probably carry two of the three, but adding a third would probably mean you wouldn't be carrying a shield.

How about armor? Horses are massive targets, and pretty easy to hit with missile fire if they aren't moving. Armor will keep your horse alive, but it was heavy and expensive.

I would say the best cavalry is the one that is most suited to where they are fighting.

Iɽ put the Winged Hussars up pretty damn high on the list of best cavalry because they don't show up until sixteenth century and start winning battles by cavalry charges. This is a good hundred years or so after Agincourt, after gunpowder makes its entrance, and after pike formations became common. And the Winged Hussars kept winning battles into the Eighteenth Century!

Unable to defeat the Poles, Tatars sent Polish-speaking Lipka Tatars to convince the Polish troops to surrender. When the Polish commander refused, the Tatars withdrew to Kamieniec Podolski and gave up on the entire invasion, having gained nearly nothing despite large troop numbers.

Casimir Pulaski came to the United States and formed Pulaski's Legion, forming the American Cavalry into an unstoppable force.

I am half-Polish and never though much of it, until I decided to look up the history and find out how awesome they were. It seems like Slavic people are underrepresented (excluding Russia) in history and science since it took active looking to find anything, even though they are there.

Thinking the question through the question of who had the best cavalry is a moot point given the greater effect of battlefield tactics and military strategy on outcomes and maybe conflates two separate questions: who had the best individual horse soldiers, and who utilized cavalry battle tactics against their peers (setting aside the issue of the progressive dominance of firearms) most effectively? It's a fun question. For my money, the Mongols take the second point- if only because they demonstrated dominance against all of their Chinese enemies on a range of terrains (they were great at sieges too) and decimated European/Polish mounted knights in the field who had superior forces, armor, and home turf advantage. In fact, the Europeans were decimated by what was effectively a Mongolian flanking force, sent to protect the much larger force en route to attack Hungary (for a great [read], (http://www.historynet.com/mongol-invasions-battle-of-liegnitz.htm) look at the battle of Liegnitz. They lost due to poor field discipline/organization and battlefield tactics, of which the Mongols were simply in another league.

The Mongols as a military force demonstrated tactical and strategic superiority as well as battlefield discipline, and in numbers that exceeded any other standing army (perhaps 1 million solders at peak), until the 1700's.

As far as individual horse soldiers and riders go, I might put my money on the Comanche Indians circa 1750-1880, who ran circles around both the Spanish in Mexico and other Indian tribes in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado to the extent that they were able to delay both Mexican northward colonization and Texas western settlement for 50 to 100 years with as few as 150,000 tribesman- perhaps 15 to 30,000 mounted warriors at any given time. Deadly with both bow and lance, they easily defeated every other Indian tribe they conflicted with, and were so capable on horseback that entire villages (men, women, children, and gear) were able to outride and evade mounted American cavalry- using Indian guides- for years. One witness described a battle tactic where individual riders would hook an ankle over the neck of their horse, then swing under, and release multiple arrows from a protected position underneath the horse's neck. I mean come on. That's movie stuff. They could also execute effective battlefield tactics (against other mounted horsemen) in parties of several hundred or more warriors. Individual war parties could and did cover 500-700 miles - from New Mexico to Kansas in a period of days or weeks, leading both the Spanish and American armies to consistently overestimate their numbers. They were highly territorial and were fully cognizant of the risk of encroachment of both the Spanish and the Americans. For information and an all around good read, check out Empire of the Summer Moon. The Texans for a time, and later the US Army, defeated them through attrition and superior weaponry once repeating firearms appeared on the battlefield scene. But man for man, horse for horse, and weapon for weapon, people who knew claimed that the Comanches were the best mounted cavalry then in existence. Individually, they probably spent more time on horseback, and on a war footing, than even individual mongol mounted soldiers many of whom were at least partially sedentary. But again, they could not defeat- and were not culturally prepared for- massed numbers and battlefield tactics involving tens of thousands of soldiers.

History Of Cavalry – Early, Middle and Modern History

CAVALRY, a term formerly restricted to military forces mounted on horseback, is now often broadened to include mechanized and armored, and sometimes airborne, forces. With the decline of the horse in warfare these have assumed many of the characteristics and missions of the earlier cavalry. The basic characteristics are mobility and shock, which often are decisive in battle. Other than attack, missions include reconnaissance, counterreconnaissance, delaying action, raid, and pursuit.

The term “qavalry,” which is derived from the Latin word for horse (caballus), came into general use during the 16th century to denote all types of mounted troops. These included dragoons, who rode to battle but usually fought dismounted light cavalry, or hussars, used primarily for reconnaissance, screening, and liaison missions and heavy cavalry (sometimes called cuirassiers), used primarily for shock effect. These same distinctions persist in mechanized and armored cavalry. The “armored infantryman,” or Panzer grenadier (German), for example, is descended from the dragoon, riding to battle in an armored personnel carrier but usually fighting on foot. Of the major armies of the world, only the Russian and the Chinese Communist retain any major quantities of horse cavalry.

Early History.

The development of cavalry followed the breeding of horses large and sturdy enough to carry an armed man. By about 772 b. c. lancers and mounted bowmen had begun to appear in the Assyrian army, but the Persians were apparently the first to employ horsemen with bow or javelin as a principal arm. The first use of cavalry in appreciable strength in western Europe seems to have been Leuctra, Greece, in 371 b. c., when Epaminondas used it to secure his flanks. Philip II of Macedon (reigned 359-336 b. c.) was the first to employ cavalry as an arm of decision. Fixing the enemy by frontal attack with a powerful infantry phalanx, he would destroy his fore with a cavalry charge against a flank. Inheriting Philip’s army and traditions, Alexander the Great (reigned 336-323 B.C.) scored notable successes with cavalry against the Persians and Indians.

Since the fighting in this era devolved mainly on the front rank of compact formations, a few horsemen riding bareback, holding rejns and gripping with their knees, might penetrate the first rank or so, only to be pulled from their horses by men in the interior of the phalanx. Since horses were relatively scarce and valuable, only the wealthy nobility could afford them, thus limiting the numbers of cavalry but also early establishing it as an elite arm.

Although Rome was slow to develop efficient cavalry, bitter experience at the hands of Hannibal (particularly at Cannae in 216 b.c.) finally prompted Roman leaders to correct the deficiency. Roman cavalry drove Hannibal’s horsemen from the field at Zama, North Africa, in 202 b. c. and helped effect the fall of Carthage.

Saddles, then stirrups, appeared in the first centuries of the Christian era and increased the effectiveness of cavalry. The Goths probably used both in annihilating a Roman army at Adrianople in Asia Minor in 378 a. d.

Cavalry survived for a time, as Roman civilization survived, under the Byzantine Empire. But in the west the rise of the feudal system, wherein warfare was the province of the nobility, produced such a reliance on armor for mount and rider that horsemen ceased to have the mobility expected of cavalry.

Europe was thus virtually defenseless as the Mongols under Genghis Khan in the early 13th century approached with a mounted army whose horsemen roamed far and deep, maneuvering swiftly in widely separated columns and concentrating unexpectedly on the enemy’s flank or rear. Only troubles back in Asia spared European civilization from the Golden Horde of mounted Mongols.

The European cavalryman, meanwhile, had become obsessed with his superiority to the point of folly. Lacking maneuverability, he was ripe for defeat by infantry using powerful new weapons, such as the longbow, dramatically unleashed at the Battle of Crecy, France, in 1346, and old weapons such as the pike, which the Swiss phalanx emplaced in the ground at an angle to stop horsemen. These developments sent cavalry into sharp decline.

Middle History.

The advent of weapons utilizing gunpowder during the 16th and 17th centuries halted cavalry’s decline, both by augmenting cavalry with artillery and by substituting the pistol for the lance. Advancing at a trot in columns several ranks deep, the horsemen would fire by rank at close range, then wheel to the rear to reload.

Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden (reigned 1611-1632) improved on this method by training his cavalry to advance at a gallop, with only the front rank firing, then applying the sword. During this same period, the French introduced a cavalryman who fought dismounted, the dragoon. Frederick the Great of Germany (reigned 1720-1786) further improved the performance of cavalry by ceaseless training and iron discipline.

Napoleon Bonaparte in the early 19th century developed the concept of coordination between a cavalry screen, which covered the advance of his army, and a cavalry reserve. The screen having located the enemy, Napoleon fixed his foe with light cavalry and advance guard, then massed his artillery to blast a hole through which the cavalry reserve poured, slashing the enemy irresistibly and running down escapees. There were notable failures, as at Eylau in 1807, when the cavalry was committed too soon at Leipzig in 1813, when it was too weak and at Waterloo in 1815, when rough terrain and an uphill charge muted the effect. But until the campaign in Russia in 1812 eliminated many of Napoleon’s vet» eran troops and horses, French cavalry in close coordination with artillery and infantry was the scourge of Europe.

The agricultural and financial exhaustion of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars, followed by development of artillery and small arms effective at long range, again produced a sharp decline in the effectiveness of cavalry. The Charge of the Light Brigade (1854) at Balaklava in the Crimean War was celebrated more for losses and romance than for achievement.

Americans in the U. S. Civil War and the Indian Wars provided cavalry a final grand employment, yet the use was less in the traditional sense of overwhelming charge than in lesser missions such as reconnaissance, screening, delaying, and raids. Seldom was cavalry effective against the improved weapons of entrenched infantry thus, in deliberate attack cavalry usually fought dismounted.

Modern History.

Cavalry accomplished little either in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) or the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), yet European nations at the start of World War I had large bodies of cavalry. It was organized in separate divisions on which the belligerents depended for exploiting a break in the enemy lines, in the manner of Napoleon, after vastly improved infantry and artillery weapons had blasted a path through the lines.

As it turned out, cavalry was reduced to impotence by the unexpected advantage the new weapons afforded the defense and by the impediments presented by long lines of entrenchments, barbed wire entanglements, and ground churned by bombardment, along with the use of aviation for surveillance. Refusing to fight dismounted, most cavalry was frittered away in small segments. Only in two cases were there decisive cavalry engagements. In Palestine three divisions of British cavalry poured through after infantry and artillery had blasted a gap in the Turkish right, and on the eastern front a single German cavalry division delayed the Russian advance long enough for the Germans to concentrate and win the Battle of Tannenberg.

Of the major combatants in World War I, all but the Germans failed to discern the twilight of cavalry and the ascendancy of tanks. In Britain, France, and the United States, old-time cavalrymen fought to retain cavalry in some form, either augmented by light tanks and armored cars or transported to battle in vans, while relegating the tank to an infantry-support role.

German World War II campaigns against Poland, the Low Countries, and France demonstrated incontestably the end of the horse as a decisive instrument of war, its place assumed by tanks and self-propelled artillery operating in close conjunction with aerial bombardment. Both Russia and the western Allies subsequently used armored divisions much as the Germans had done, and in many cases mechanized cavalry units with light tanks and armored cars. The latter were useful for reconnaissance and for screening the flanks of larger forces.

Of the horse cavalry units operating in Europe at the start of World War II, those of Poland and France were swiftly annihilated. Russian cavalry lost heavily against German armor, but the Russians learned to infiltrate their horsemen through thinly stretched German lines and launch surprise attacks against rear installations. Both the Chinese and Japanese used large bodies of mounted troops, but they seldom were decisive. The United States lost a cavalry regiment of the Philippine Scouts in defense of Bataan. Of two cavalry divisions in the U. S. Army at the start of the war, one was disbanded while the other, the 1st Cavalry Division, left its horses behind to fight in the Pacific as an infantry unit.

In the U. S. Army and most other major armies following World War II, the names, traditions, missions, and internal organization (squadrons and troops) of the old cavalry units passed to armored regiments and divisions and to mechanized reconnaissance units. All have mobility, while armor provides shock and the ability to pursue and destroy. During the war in Vietnam in the 1960’s, the United States organized the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), which by means of the helicopter achieved the old cavalry characteristics of quick strikes against enemy flanks and rear. But as the utility and availability of the helicopter increased, regular infantry divisions took on some of the same capabilities, so that true air cavalry, separate and distinct from other arms, was yet to emerge.

Elite Units and Shock Tactics: How Napoleon (Almost) Conquered Europe

Napoleon’s innovative concepts for the equipment and employment of heavy cavalry also diffused, unevenly, across Europe. The Austrian cuirassiers, who were the best and largest force of armored cavalry in Europe until that time, were cut by a third in 1802. However, the Austrians also began brigading together their remaining heavy cavalry in 1805, in imitation of Napoleon’s heavy cavalry reserve. The Russians formed heavy cavalry brigades in 1807, and the Prussians in 1813. Armor also became steadily more common on the battlefield during the Napoleonic era, with Russia re-issuing heavy-cavalry armor in 1812 (having withdrawn them in 1801) and Prussia re-adopting armor in 1814–15.

Perhaps appropriately, the history of Napoleon’s cuirassiers, who were known as hommes de fer, is ironic. In the least charitable interpretation, Napoleon’s cuirassiers are a prime example of “buggy whip” misinnovation, in which an organization continues to innovate along an established technology arc after that technology is no longer useful. After all, Napoleon’s armored cavalry force reached its numeric peak in 1810, shortly after its last decisive action at Wagram in 1809. Much like post-WWII airborne forces, they survived off imperial favor and organizational inertia long after they ceased to be useful. At the same time, even misinnovation is a form of innovation, and Napoleon should receive more credit for his innovative use of cavalry. It won him many battles, and he was far from the last commander to argue that cavalry remained useful in the face of increasingly effective artillery and small arms. Moreover, it represented the application of tried-and-true ancient technology to achieve novel requirements—that is, delivering the shock tactics newly available to post-Revolutionary France after it mobilized the full resources of the French state. The so-called “revolutionary military change” of the Napoleonic era was not a steady march towards recognizable military modernity. As Napoleon knew well, ancient principles and technology were still perfectly useful on his “early modern” battlefield.