A Spam's questions on the role of Victorian era British cavalry

Discussion in 'Military History and Militaria' started by warmonger82, Jun 8, 2011.

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  1. So, I've been reading a bit about the US cavalry in our civil war and the Indian campaigns. I have always been a fan of the cavalry (both Brit and Yank) probably all the dash and sabers evoking childhood notions of glorious charges and elan. Reading now I have a few questions for the learned members of the ARRSE community.

    1. By the time our civil war ended in 1865, the US and confederate Cavalry had seemed to be turning away from the saber and focused more on the pistol and carbine as weapons of choice. When, if ever did British units forgo the use of edged weapons? Were cavalry troopers issued pistols and/or carbines before the Boer war? If so when?

    2. US Cavalry seemed to act more as dragoons, and dismounted during actual combat in both the civil war and against the plains Indians, the idea of a massed cavalry charge against infantry seems to have died out in US Army thinking early in the civil war, although many mounted engagements occurred in cavalry duels. How did British cavalry operate in the years both before and after the famed charge in the Crimea?

    3. I've heard the old comments that the Brits had the best horses and troopers, but that the officers were utter imbeciles (ie the 1960's Charge of the Light Brigade film) how much of this is true?

    4. How differently did Indian and British cavalry regiments differ in training, equipment, and tactics?

    thanks for your insights gents!
  2. While you are waiting for a real expert to come along - a video clip about cavalry swords by the Royal Armouries here YouTube - ‪Royal Armouries history of British Cavalry sword film clip‬‏

    I seem to recall reading that British cavalry swords were not as good as the Indian tulwars. Something to do with the British swords being in self-sharpening scabbards. Because of our love of drill drill drill, repeated drawing and sheathing of said swords weakened them. Plus British steel was not always the best quality.
  3. rampant

    rampant LE Reviewer Book Reviewer

    Brtish scabbards were metal, whilst Indian Tulwars were commonly wooden, the rubbing of a sharp blade against metal will dull an edge with a couple of strokes. This process occurs with wooden scabbards too, but at a far, far, far slower rate.

    Back to the OP, we also had a prediliction for the lance, but I don't know how significant Lancers were in American Cavalry - did they have Lancers?
  4. I dont believe they had Lancers in the US Cavalry. Standard armament was a 1873 Peacemaker in .45LC, a Trapdoor Carbine in .45-55 and a Saber

    EDIT: Just a thought, the Native Americans, aka Indians did make use of Lances, having learned of them through the Spanish and Mexican forces
  5. Wordsmith

    Wordsmith LE Book Reviewer

    The classic book on the Charge of the Light Brigade is Cecil Woodham-Smith: The Reason Why. It explains that the roots of the disastrous charge lay in the fractured relationships between senior officers.

    You may also be interested in the Charge of the Heavy Brigade in the same campaign.

    The Charge of the Heavy Brigade

  6. Appreciate you’re questioning cavalry, but of note the British Army had a favour for edge weapons right into WWII. While it was WWI that saw the last mass numbers of British cavalry, arguably because of the changes brought about by mechanisation and the machinegun, the infantry started out with the long bayonet – and drill – which some Units retained by choice in WWII for the duration (where allowed) after the advent of the 'pigsticker'. Essentially this meant declining the chance to re-equip with the No.4 Enfield over the MkI variants.

    Re cavalry, US Civil War, I would suggest a significant difference between the popular ’romantic’ illustrations and stories of the time versus the real life practicalities of the forces in the field. The ‘romantic’ image of course suited the later film makers and novelists. Nice uniform lines of cavalry charging across unreconnoitered and unprepared ground, brandishing gleaming sabres and out pacing and out manoeuvring such as the Plains Indian :roll: If it’s a Civil War depiction, then one side will be all in grey and the other all in blue – not forgetting the yellow stripe? :slow:

    Probably better to think of the cavalry as Mounted Rifles, able to manoeuvre much quicker than a foot soldier with the tactical ability to work defensively or offensively on a flank or cover an infantry manoeuvre in battle. The emphasis remaining as ‘killing at a distance’

  7. WatchingWater

    WatchingWater Old-Salt Book Reviewer

    Charge of the Light Brigade wasn't actually that much of a disaster to be fair, it got the job done at the end of the day.
  8. Y'don't think an action that achieved very little of consequence at the cost of reducing the Brigade's strength by getting on for 50% was an appalling cock-up? The Russian gunners merely deserted their pieces until the Brigade went about and then promptly followed them up the valley with canister and grape shot. Hardly the stuff of which great victories are born.

    Regarding the Cavalry, the British cavalry evinced an at times bizarre love of the arme blanche for a hell of a long time. The last cavalry charge, amazingly, seems to have taken place in 1942 against some (slightly stunned) Japanese in Burma! Right up to the Boer War, the expectation was that the cavalry would be doing all its usual stuff; screening, reconnoitring, and charging into the enemy en masse. It's interesting to note that the heavy cavalry, at any rate, were issued pistol and carbine but very seldom used them, even long after the technological problems (i.e. the near-impossibility of reloading a muzzle-loader in the saddle) had been overcome.

    Time and again one finds cavalrymen going on and on and on, ad nauseum, about the importance of the sword. Builds character, promotes courage, the enemy don't like "the flash of cold steel". That seems to have worked against a lot of opponents (especially disorganised, poorly-equipped or ill-led forces, or those suffering morale problems; these difficulties often afflicted "native" forces to one degree or another), but we found out against the Boers that it's a bloody sight harder to charge with the sword when the other guy gives you five rounds from a Mauser, then ducks off into broken ground or speeds away on horseback.
  9. Last US cav Charge was in the village of Morong, Phillipines against Japs by 26th Cav (PS) 16 Jan 1942 using M1911's instead of sabers
  10. At least from the Southern (and correct) side, I think you will find its cavalry (more so in the Army of Northern Virginia perhaps), with certain notable exceptions (such as the Battle of Brandy Station Battle of Brandy Station - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia ), were used for screening and tactical and strategic reconnaissance rather than as the mobile arm in fixed battles. Indeed, the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg is attributed by many historians (but by no means all as there is much debate over every aspect of that epic battle) to the absence of strategic intelligence normally provided by Lee's cavalry commander, Gen. J.E.B. Stuart.
  11. An unresearched reply (as in not my subject), but what appears to be the basic case is that British cavalry virtually always had a sword, in addition to which the following were introduced:

    1796 Heavy cavalry pistol and carbine (muzzle loader)
    1800 Light cavalry the Paget carbine
    1816 The lance
    1838 Pistols withdrawn except for lancers
    1861 Westley-Richards breech loader
    1867 Snider conversion carbines
    1871 Martini-Henry breech loader
    1880 Enfield revolver (cartridge)
    1887 Webley revolver
    1894 Lee-Metford magazine carbine
    1895 Lee-Enfield magazine carbine
    1902 Short Lee-Enfield rifle
    1908 Last combat sword change

    So yes, Lancers had a pistol and other cavalry a carbine or rifle, in addition to their sword.

  12. JJ, WM82 is spanning a huge and formative period of N.American history which you might as well run into the 20th Century with Mexico - again. Too many variations to standardise. Even when talking about actions against the Indians, which ones, when and where?

    Different tribes, different leaders, different tactics, different terrain, different circumstances, etc. Ask the average Joe who the greatest Indian Chief was and they'll probably say Geronimo. Taking nothing from him, but one the all history world greats was Chief Joseph.

    Re Gettysburg, if I may say I'm a bit surprised you bringing up the cavalry as - if memory serves - there were inconsequential numbers, some only armed with pistols, and arrived piecemeal after much of the deployment? Contaminated with hindsight it must be impossible to imagine what you would have done at the time, just theorise 'what ifs'.

    The North essentially had two roads in, and the South about all others. Meade held the town, the hill and the ridge. What/where would the cavalry turn? Everything (for the attacker) is uphill, across a large flat or forested - I've been there. Probing by the cavalry (if wanted) is limited. I can't even see where they could have been used to exploit a breakthrough in the Union lines if one occurred? My use (with hindsight), hit-and-run along the Union lines of communication - which frankly I rate more as something useful for them to do than any turning point. My overall opinion, Lee didn't lose, he threw it away. Should have listened to Hill - which is easy to say 150 years on :roll:

  13. At least some of the questions above seem to refer (perhaps unwittingly?) back to the Peninsular War - Wellington vs. The French across Spain. I seem to have the idea that that's where we picked up the idea of lances... from Napoleon's Polish allies. The Peninsular war was largely a war of logistics and of counterinsurgency:First we retreated right across Spain, but generally paying a fair price for what we took from the Spanish, and "scorching the earth" behind us, as well as keeping good order amongst the retreating soldiery (by punishing rape or looting with drumhead courts martial, and summary executions) whereas the victorious French regarded loot as no more than the due of a victorious army. The French made themselves deeply unpopular with the Spanish, and always short of supplies. Fodder for horses had to be brought all the way from France itself, and the convoy of wagons carrying it would need a substantial cavalry guard (who would, of course, also consume some of the fodder they were protecting) The Redcoats, on the other hand were supplied by ships, and were thus able to provide their horses with substantially better provender. When one side's cavalry is mounted on grain-fed mounts, and the other's has merely short rations of hay, gaps in things like stamina and speed turn into chasms.

    There's an author (former regular army colonel, I believe) who was inspired by what Bernard Cornwell's "Sharpe" novels did for the Rifles, to write a series of novels about the cavalry, albeit covering a slightly later period (Cornet Hervey's military career pretty much begins with Waterloo, while it marks a point close to the end of Sharpe's career.) The fictional Cornet Hervey spends quite a lot of his career posted to India, and military life in the post-Napoleonic Indian Army is described in considerable (very well researched!) detail. Hervey returns to Blighty, giving readers a chance to compare the differences between Indian and British barracks life. They may only be "stories", but they give the impression that a hell of a lot of painstaking research went into the writing of them.

    Worth remembering that a young officer named Winston Churchill, despite damaging an arm the previous day, managed to participate in the battle of Omdurman (last full cavalry charge by the British Army? I'm happy to be corrected, if I'm wrong) while waving a (privately purchased) new-fangled Mauser 1896 self-loader.

    Mere anecdotes culled from memory, and without a shred of research... but hopefully they'll help you look in the right direction. The Matthew Hervey books are excellent reads by the way, and all available in affordable paperback editions!
  14. That was part of the point I was making--Lee was not one to use cavalry as a maneuver element very often as he seemed to prefer infantry and artillery, relying on his cavalry for other support functions. Most engagements involving cavalry were more in the nature of probing skirmishes to determine and fix enemy positions.

    The story was a bit different in the Departments further south where they were used somewhat more for raids etc. (Nathan Bedford Forrest et al.)

    When stationed in the northern Virginia area I participated in and later conducted numerous "staff rides" to the various battlefields in the region and studied them in great detail. I continue to marvel at the sheer determination and sense of duty that drove the underfed and often barefoot Confederate infantry through the war and over the years have developed a somewhat jaundiced view of the generalship, even including Lee, who, with most of his contemporaries, was so wed to the Napoleonic linear model that cost so many lives of those common soldiers, none of whom came from hardscrabble subsistence backgrounds that were often worse than those of the slaves owned by many of their officers. I think Lee's stardom is both a function of his impeccable character and the comparison to his opponents, who by and large were pretty mediocre generals.

    It seems to ever be the case that we are always one war behind in our knowledge and wisdom in that the Napoleonic strategy and tactics used in the War of Northern Aggression was akin to brain surgery with a mallet in terms of achieving objectives in the era of transition to the rifle from the musket and much improved artillery and especially anti-personnel ammunition. Regrettably few of these lessons were learned by WWI when it was the machine gun and rapid firing breech loading artillery that were the game changers that put the war into the trenches.
  15. Obituaries

    Mario Traverso

    Mario Traverso, who died on January 4 aged 94, was a leading officer in what is generally considered to be the last successful battlefield cavalry charge, on the Russian front at Isbuschenskij on August 24 1942; after the war he created a highly successful knitwear company

    4:59PM GMT 18 Feb 2011


    Traverso was a young lieutenant in the Savoy Cavalry which, in June 1942, was shielding the southern flank of the German summer offensive. The fighting intensified as, approaching the River Don approximately 125 miles north of Stalingrad, the 600 men of the Savoy Cavalry arrived at Isbuschenskij.

    There, on the evening of August 23, an Italian patrol encountered a Soviet rearguard of 2,000 men supported by mortars and machine-guns. The regiment’s monocled commanding officer, Count Alessandro Bettoni, winner of two Olympic golds in equestrianism, ordered his men to take defensive positions before settling down to dine off the regimental silver.

    The following morning, after breakfast, Bettoni gave the order to attack across a plain thick with sunflowers. Officers, wearing red neck ties, slipped on white gloves for the occasion. They wielded captured Cossack swords, which were heavier, and thus more destructive, than Italian sabres.

    Such was the thirst to take part in what was – even then – recognised as an unusual event, that Traverso’s commander rode off to join the four cavalry squadrons, each of 150 men, which formed the main thrust of the attack.

    Traverso was left in charge of the fifth (machine-gun) squadron, which was the first to advance, laying a thick field of fire from the front and centre of the Italian position directly into two lines of the 812th Siberian Infantry Regiment. Around Traverso, the other Italian squadrons formed up at a walk, before breaking into a trot, canter and finally an all-out gallop. As they set off the battle cry went up: “Sabres. To hand. Charge!”

    What followed proved to be a textbook mounted attack. The second squadron broke right, before turning sharply to hammer through the Siberians’ left flank, and then wheeling around again to press the advantage from behind, hurling hand grenades into the disintegrating enemy line. Bettoni then ordered the fourth squadron to attack head on, and the battle wore down into brutal hand-to-hand fighting, with many of the Savoy having dismounted.

    At this crucial point the third squadron launched a second diagonal attack, similar to that which had opened the battle, and Soviet resolve crumbled. As the smoke cleared, their losses stood at 150, with a further 500 captured. The Savoy Cavalry had lost fewer than 40 men.

    “You were magnificent,” a German officer remarked to the Italians afterwards. “We no longer know how to do these things.”

    Mario Traverso was born in Naples on September 24 1916. His father was from a line of officers in the Regiment of Grenadiers, his mother from the Avolio family, famous as society milliners and dressmakers. Mario was taught privately, learning English from an Irish governess, until attending Naples University in 1934.

    After receiving a doctorate in Business Studies from Bari University in 1939, Traverso joined the lift manufacturer Otis. An Anglophile, he was disappointed when Mussolini, of whom he was a great supporter, failed to ally Italy with Britain as war loomed.

    Not being tall enough for the Grenadiers, he entered the cavalry corps in Rome, passing out top of his class into the Savoy Cavalry, an elite dragoon regiment with a proud history of service to the House of Savoy. Having been a young fascist, he was at first met with some suspicion by the traditionally monarchist officers there, but they soon learnt that he was more royalist than blackshirt.

    In the summer of 1941 the regiment, part of the Italian Army’s three mobile divisions, travelled into Moldova by train and then commenced a 1,000-mile advance on horseback through Ukraine while under constant artillery and air attack. Winter set in by late October and, as temperatures plunged to 50 degrees below, both men and horses suffered bitterly.

    The next summer’s offensive marked a high point for the Savoy Cavalry, but their heroics on the Don were soon to be forgotten in the general retreat that followed Stalingrad. In January 1943 they trekked 1,200 miles northwards to Gomel, now in Belarus, where those who remained alive entrained for Poland and Austria, not reaching Italy until April. At the time of the Isbuschenskij charge, 290,000 Italians were in Russia. Six months later 90,000 were dead, and a further 60,000 captured.

    As the regiment regrouped, Italy surrendered, and Traverso found himself in charge of just eight others, including the regimental chaplain. After some weeks of uncertainty, and with no command structure intact, he gave the order to disband.

    He eventually made his way to Milan, where he joined his cousin Giorgio Avolio, who was rebuilding the family millinery business. Finding that hats were no longer popular, however, they started to diversify into outerwear. The two cousins formed a partnership in late 1945, with Traverso concentrating on knitwear.

    By 1951 this side of the business had 25 staff, and three years later the cousins decided to split, allowing each to develop his business as he chose.

    Traverso’s business flourished under the “Marius” brand, with ranges in silk, cotton, cashmere and angora. From 1948 it supplied the knitwear elements for the ready-to-wear collections of Jacques Fath and Balenciaga and, subsequently, Dior, Schiaparelli, Givenchy and Balmain.

    In the 1950s Traverso expanded the business, first in London, and then in Japan and Australia. There he made many new friends and, while reminiscing with one émigré textile manufacturer, Traverso realised that they had both been present at the Savoy Cavalry’s celebrated last charge, one on the Italian side, one with the Russians.

    As man-made fibres emerged, Traverso established himself as a consultant to advise chemical companies on how to give a more luxurious feel to nylon, acetate, viscose, polyester and acrylic — many of which were in essence plastic. His first major consulting work began in 1957, with British Nylon Spinners, which later became ICI Fibres, and this continued for more than 20 years. Through this connection he also provided advice to DuPont of Canada, and then to various yarn-spinners and processors, including Courtauld’s Yarns. He retired in 2003, but delighted in remaining in contact with friends and colleagues from around the world.

    Mario Traverso is survived by his sister, Alba. As for the Savoy Cavalry, its regimental flag survived the Russian campaign thanks to Traverso, who recovered it from a fallen comrade. Postwar Italy was no place to honour such things, however, and it was only towards the end of his life that he returned it. A delegation from the regiment attended his funeral, where the flag was draped upon the coffin before being taken to a permanent home in the regimental museum.
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