Over the summer I read two PhD theses which challenge a lot of preconceptions about cavalry in warfare, one on the Anglo-Saxon period and the other on the First World War.
- Kerry Cathers, “An examination of the horse in Anglo-Saxon England” (PhD, Reading University, 2002).
- David Kenyon, “British Cavalry on the Western Front 1916-1918” (PhD, Cranfield, 2008).
(Both of these can be downloaded free from EthOS, although you’ll need to log in and search for them as there are no direct links. Kenyon’s can also be downloaded directly from Cranfield, which is much easier.)
Historians used to assume without question that horses played little part in Anglo-Saxon warfare and society. Kerry Cathers has challenged these assumptions, showing that they are based on very little evidence. The lack of evidence makes it difficult to be certain, but there is enough to suggest that horses were widely used and known by the Anglo-Saxons. Horses were conventionally associated with warriors in Anglo-Saxon culture (Cathers, 181, 306). Although their most well known battles were fought on foot, Anglo-Saxon armies used horses for raiding and for transporting soldiers to battlefields (Cathers, 288-9, 383). The Aberlemno stone probably represents a battle between the Northumbrians and the Picts, and shows both sides using cavalry (Cathers, 276-82). Cathers also discusses the development of the stirrup and its influence (or not) on medieval warfare. She sides with critics of Lynn White’s view that the stirrup was the fundamental basis of feudalism. Ann Hyland found that Roman cavalry saddles provided a secure seat even without stirrups, and Littauer argued that the stirrup was developed to support the feet and avoid cramp on long journeys (Cathers, 189-90, 267-9). R.H.C. Davis attributed the couched lance to the great horse more than the stirrup, but still ended up privileging cavalry over non-military uses of horses, and deriving feudalism from a fairly narrow technological development. Cathers shows that Anglo-Saxon horses were no smaller than horses in other parts of Europe but that this fact has tended to be covered up by historians’ linguistic biases: referring to Anglo-Saxon horses as “ponies” signifies the idea of a small animal. She was also an early advocate of the idea that there is no such thing as native breeds, and that the idea was invented much later: “Though, as noted, some horse enthusiasts like to push the date of certain breeds back into the furthest reaches of the past, the claim that breeds existed during this period is entirely false and without substantiation ” (Cathers, 160). The spurious idea that the Exmoor pony is an authentic native breed led some historians to assume that Anglo-Saxon horses were similar. I don’t think a big horse would have been necessary for shock charges with the couched lance, because even the mass of a small horse could put a lot of momentum behind the lance. One particularly weird result of historians’ prejudice against the idea of Anglo-Saxon horses is that one place name study assumed that places including the element “wig” must be named after earwigs, and failed to mention the possibility that they could be derived from “wicgela”, an Old English word for stallion! (Cathers, 67-8)
If cavalry played a role in English/British warfare earlier than most people thought, they also remained important long after most people think they became obsolete. It might appear that the Western Front from 1916 to 1918 is not a very promising area for studying cavalry, but David Kenyon confounds expectations in even more detail than Stephen Badsey has done. The key to the argument is that although new technology created problems for cavalry it also created opportunities. Barbed wire was as much an obstacle to infantry as it was to cavalry. Neither could attack effectively unless the wire was removed by artillery, tanks or engineers. Machine guns and breech loading magazine rifles increased the firepower of cavalry as well as infantry. Between the Second Anglo-Boer War and the First World War, British cavalry were retrained to fight primarily as mounted infantry, although they were still trained and equipped to charge into close combat when the opportunity arose. In the early years of the First World War, every cavalry regiment had a machine gun section armed with Vickers heavy machine guns, which were transported on pack horses. In 1916 these were replaced with Hotchkiss light machine guns, and the Vickers guns were reorganized into Machine Gun Corps (Cavalry) squadrons (Kenyon, 33). This mobile firepower allowed cavalry to engage enemy machine guns in firefights. For example, when the 7th Dragoon Guards came under fire from German machine guns near Longueval on 14th July 1916, their own machine gun section knocked out the German guns (Kenyon, 60).
Although cavalry regiments mostly depended on firepower, changes in technology and tactics made cavalry charges more viable in some circumstances. From the medieval period into the nineteenth century the best way for infantry to resist a cavalry charge was to stand still in a very tight formation, because the horses would usually stop or turn away from an apparently solid object as long as the infantry had the confidence to stand firm. The massive firepower on early twentieth century battlefields made such close formations suicidal. When infantry dispersed to protect themselves from artillery and machine guns, they also made themselves more vulnerable to cavalry charges. On 14 July 1916 some German infantry were dispersed in a field near High Wood, sheltering in shell craters. This was the best way to protect themselves from artillery, which was the most likely threat, but they were charged by a squadron of the 7th Dragoon Guards, which had pushed through a gap in the German front line. Of these German infantry, 16 were killed by lances, 32 captured and the rest ran away (Kenyon, 60).
Rapid firing artillery was a much bigger threat than the machine gun. The worst combat casualties for British cavalry horses happened when their riders had dismounted to defend positions which were then shelled by the Germans, as at Monchy-le-Preux in April 1917 (Kenyon, 136). The increasing quantity and quality of allied artillery forced the Germans to abandon linear trenches and switch to defence in depth by the spring of 1917. In this system the front line consisted of a network of outposts rather than continuous trenches, designed to break up attacks gradually and funnel them into killing zones where they could be counter-attacked by reserves. Because the defences were more dispersed there was more room for cavalry to manoeuvre. Cavalry and infantry were able to employ fire and movement tactics which involved one unit suppressing an enemy position with its fire while another unit moved around its flank. Kenyon points out that these tactics had been in the Cavalry Training manual since 1912 (Kenyon, 109-10). When the allies broke through the Hindenburg Line in the autumn of 1918 and began advancing more rapidly, cavalry played a vital role in maintaining contact with the retreating Germans (Kenyon, 269).
Opportunities to use cavalry effectively in set-piece attacks were often missed because of failures in command, control and communication. While Kenyon rehabilitates the cavalry, he is critical of Cavalry Corps and its commander, Kavanagh. Having the cavalry divisions in their own Corps under GHQ complicated the chain of command, delayed the transmission of orders and intelligence, and made it hard to co-ordinate cavalry attacks with infantry and artillery. Cavalry divisions worked better when they were integrated into infantry corps attack plans but with the divisional commander free to use his own initiative to reach his objectives. There was also a pressing need for more cavalry squadrons to be attached to infantry divisions and corps for reconnaissance. Kavanagh was perhaps not well suited to command of a corps. His aggressive tendencies served him well as a brigade commander, but were directed at his subordinates more than the enemy once he was a lieutenant-general. The chain of command through Cavalry Corps HQ gave him too many opportunities to interfere with plans and overrule his divisional commanders, who were better placed to know what was going on at the front. Cavalry Corps also lacked the logistical infrastructure and heavy artillery which were found in infantry corps.
Despite all the problems, when cavalry were used effectively they were able to double the depth of “bite and hold” operations. Unfortunately, cavalry tended to be wrongly perceived as obsolete by people who didn’t understand them. The prejudiced opinions of a few tank officers have had a disproportionate influence on historians of the First World War. Tanks played a useful role in some battles, but they were much slower than cavalry. Wheeled armoured cars could move faster than tanks on good going but often got stuck in the mud. These problems weren’t effectively solved until the 1930s, when the British Army rapidly mechanized because horses genuinely were becoming obsolete. Erik Lund continues the story over at Bench Grass, with a look at mounted warfare and the development of the armoured division…