Polish and other lancers versus Infantry squares

First time I've tried to start a thread.
Over the weekend I had a very interesting chat about the Napoleonic wars and one of the things that came up was the Polish Lancers were very good at dealing with British squares and had Napoleon had more of them he could have done a lot better.
First I had heard of this.
I've googled for some information and it would appear that whilst they caused headaches in the end they were no more successful than any other unsupported cavalry against Squares down the ages.
 

4(T)

LE
I've not seen a source for that thesis.

Sounds like someone's pet theory, based on the mistaken assumption that, because a lance can overreach a line of bayonets and strike a target, that means lancers must have negated squares. He/she seems to miss the point that it was not a static stabbing contest, but a highly dynamic horsemanship problem.

AFAIK, one of the strengths of a square was that it provided a compact deterrent obstacle that a horse would shy away from, yet had short enough ranks that the horse could see a way around the side that would let it keep its momentum and avoid a crash. Ergo, cavalry trying to charge a square would find their mounts turning sharply left or right, leaving them passing along the ranks of bayonets and bullets.

IIRC even the best-trained horses could not be relied on to throw itself onto a dense and frightening human barrier.
 
First time I've tried to start a thread.
Over the weekend I had a very interesting chat about the Napoleonic wars and one of the things that came up was the Polish Lancers were very good at dealing with British squares and had Napoleon had more of them he could have done a lot better.
First I had heard of this.
I've googled for some information and it would appear that whilst they caused headaches in the end they were no more successful than any other unsupported cavalry against Squares down the ages.
Probably comes from the battle at Albuerra and Colbornne's brigade. Battle of Albuera - Wikipedia

This is a good read about Napolean era cavalry. Most times - 9 out of 10 - cavalry are defeated.
 
It's my understanding that the square would not break if the infantry stood firm and were able to fire.

In most cases of broken squares however there were extenuating circumstances for example:

A horse falls against the square causing a gap of forcing the infantry to step back to avoid being trampled.
Poor weather or rain reduces the effect of the infantry's fire
The infantry were not steady and panicked or recoiled.

From my reading I understand that the lance was particularly effective against square if inclement weather rendered the muskets useless. However, I have also read that frustrated lancers unable to break into a square would resort to throwing the lances like spears at the infantry.

Interestingly, on the second day of the Battle of Dresden, in heavy rain, the French cavalry gave the Austrian infantry a seriously good kicking. The French cavalry forced the Austrian infantry into squares, but the heavy rain meant that they could not fire. The horse artillery batteries accompanying the French cavalry then unlimbered and opened fire on the sqquares at close range. As soon as the Austrian infantry wavered or tried to break formation to escape the fire the French cavalry charged.

I do however recall reading that the cavalry of the King's German Legion had a repuatation for being able to break squares.

Battle of García Hernández

The breaking of a steady square was a rare event. A French infantry battalion in square formed up in a bayonet-studded hedgehog either 3-ranks or 6-ranks deep. (A British square was 4-deep.) If a square stood its ground without flinching and fired with effect, it could withstand the best cavalry. When infantry squares were broken by cavalry in the
Napoleonic Wars, it was usually because:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Garc%C3%ADa_Hern%C3%A1ndez
At García Hernández, the last event occurred with the first square, leading to the extraordinary accident of a mortally wounded horse and rider smashing into the square making a gap which was then exploited by the following cavalry. The second square likely panicked at the extraordinary sight of the first square being torn apart.
Marcel was an officer in the 69th Ligne and gives a very different perspective. According to his account (pp170–173) the battalion of the 76th were caught with the men having broken ranks to drink in the stream. The 6th Leger were partially dispersed seeking food in the nearby hamlets with the officers seeking to rally them when they were overtaken by the cavalry. Marcel's battalion was in close column when it was attacked by the cavalry who failed to break the column. The second battalion of the 69th saw off the attacking cavalry by volley fire from its square.

 

Alamo

LE
I'm no horseman, but my first wife was a very accomplished and multi-disciplinary horsewoman. Her view was that there is virtually no way you can compel a horse to stand on a human, let alone a square of them. Even (Roman) war horses were generally trained to kick out rather than stomp.

As an aside, she also held the view that cavalry wouldn't be able to hold formation at anything above a trot.
 

lecky

War Hero
Not that they were Lancers, but one of the rare occasions an Infantry Square was broken happened at the Battle of Garcia Hernandez, By Kings German Legion Light Dragoons.
2 or 3 French Infantry Squares were broken/ran away, but only because one infantry square held its fire for far too long at the charging Dragoons.
When it did fire, the Dragoons were too close to the wall of the square. A Dead Rider and a Wounded and dying Horse smashed into the wall ( as the horse didn't care anymore, for what it should have done by instinct) and knocked in a 6 man hole in the square. The remaining Troopers who were targeting the corner of the square ( reckoned to be its most vulnerable point) then got into the middle of the square and the whole thing collapsed.
The next square they attacked, lost their bottle after watching what happened to the previous Square and some fled their positions, leaving enough room for the Dragoons to run amok in that one too. The third square didn't wait around for their turn and Foxtrot Oscared.

From Memory: There was an incident in one of the Sudan battles where a back wall of a British Square opened up and hidden Dervish warriors got in. That one nearly cost the Battle, but the wall reformed and the back rows turned inwards and fired, causing quite a few British Casualties as well as wiping out the Dervishes inside the square?
Beaten to it by Rodney2q
 
Apologies for slight thread drift. but seeing the subject was Polish lancers, reminded me of the learning day I had on a recent trip to Fuengirola. I presume the history buffs on here will know about this one already though.

To the west of the town is a fort/castle which during the Napoleonic wars was garrisoned by a Polish regiment which defeated a much larger British and Spanish force:


I knew Polish units served in Napoleon's armies but didn't much about what they did. Finding out about this battle filled out that bit of knowledge a bit more.

Back over to the thread. Very interesting topic.
 
Probably comes from the battle at Albuerra and Colbornne's brigade. Battle of Albuera - Wikipedia

This is a good read about Napolean era cavalry. Most times - 9 out of 10 - cavalry are defeated.
This was exactly how the conversation turned from reporting battle and propaganda in general to the Polish Lancers as I commented on Wellingtons attitude to Beresford initial report on the battle of Albuera.
 
Thanks everybody for your replies.
I also seem to recall a Swiss phalanx being defeated when a cavalry man blinkered his horses eyes and deliberately drove his horse and himself onto the pikes and opened up the square as a result.
Whether this resulted in the defeat of the Swiss I cannot recall.
 
The whole cavalry v infantry debate is interesting. By the Napoleonic Wars the ordinary infantry unit could muster enough firepower to hold off the cavalry as long as they had time to form square and the discipline to stand their ground.

In earlier periods, the cavalry generally had a much better chance to break the infantry. The Cataphract style cavalry were equipped with long lances which could outreach the weapons carried by the infantry of the time. Note however that the cataphract cavalry did not come into it's own until long after the passing of the Macedonian and Greek Phlanxes.



Wikipedia - Cataphracts

As usual however it came down to whether or not the infantry could stand their ground. An infantry unit which had already suffered from enemy archery and a hail of slingshot and was suddenly attacked by cataphracts might well break and run or give way at the crucial moment.



Alternately, well trained and disciplined 3rd/4th Century and Late Roman infantry who had thrown out caltrops and hit the approaching cavalry with a hail of arrows and darts might well disrupt the leading ranks of cavalry and break its impetus.

 

FORMER_FYRDMAN

LE
Book Reviewer
I've not seen a source for that thesis.

Sounds like someone's pet theory, based on the mistaken assumption that, because a lance can overreach a line of bayonets and strike a target, that means lancers must have negated squares. He/she seems to miss the point that it was not a static stabbing contest, but a highly dynamic horsemanship problem.

AFAIK, one of the strengths of a square was that it provided a compact deterrent obstacle that a horse would shy away from, yet had short enough ranks that the horse could see a way around the side that would let it keep its momentum and avoid a crash. Ergo, cavalry trying to charge a square would find their mounts turning sharply left or right, leaving them passing along the ranks of bayonets and bullets.

IIRC even the best-trained horses could not be relied on to throw itself onto a dense and frightening human barrier.
I believe this was actually tested and proved using spikes and bales of hay in one of those 'secrets of victory'-type programmes on Waterloo (as was the complete impracticality of the French assault on Hougoumont).
 
My only experience...ahem... of forming square...

Night patrol ex back in the late 70's (my JNCO cadre IIRC).

Section on patrol crossing a field in thick fog. Visibility about 10 yards. Suddenly heard the sound of cows moving past in our direction - hooves drumming on the grass and getting louder.

Didn't know which way to run so we stood back to back and when the cows came into sight about 10 yards away we fired a few shots (blanks) from our trusty Brown Bess SLRs.

The cattle veered and went past us on both sides.

Essentially we had done what the Rifles and Light infantry did during the Napoleonic wars when caught out in open order and formed a rallying clump.

Incidentally some years later, while training recruits, I saw something similar but involving a whole herd of cattle. Again it was a night patrol. Something spooked the cattle while we were in the middle of the field and they began galloping up and down the field at considerable speed. The recruits were spread out and the only option we had was to run for the nearest fence and climb over.

Cattle running about is one thing but I really wouldn't have wanted to have been charged by horsemen intent on doing me harm, as opposed to accidentally being trampled by cattle.
 

fu2

LE
I have been trampled by a flock of sheep while Crossing a field prone at night. not a nice experience
 
From memory the French army had 6 regts of lancers as well as Polish Uhlans.
Off the top of my head, Napoleon's access to lancers included:

- 6 regiments of lancers converted from dragoons before the invasion of Russia, along with at least one regiment of chasseurs in the Peninsular campaign that were equipped with the lance,
- 2 regiments of Imperial Guard lancers (1st Polish, 2nd Dutch), plus the Young Guard Eclaireuers raised in 1813,
- 2 regiments of the Polish Vistula Legion which was effectively part fo the French army,
- 10+ Uhlan regiments of the army of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, plus a number of Confederation of the Rhine contingents with lancers (Berg, Westphalia, Saxony)
 
Not that they were Lancers, but one of the rare occasions an Infantry Square was broken happened at the Battle of Garcia Hernandez, By Kings German Legion Light Dragoons.
2 or 3 French Infantry Squares were broken/ran away, but only because one infantry square held its fire for far too long at the charging Dragoons.
When it did fire, the Dragoons were too close to the wall of the square. A Dead Rider and a Wounded and dying Horse smashed into the wall ( as the horse didn't care anymore, for what it should have done by instinct) and knocked in a 6 man hole in the square. The remaining Troopers who were targeting the corner of the square ( reckoned to be its most vulnerable point) then got into the middle of the square and the whole thing collapsed.
The next square they attacked, lost their bottle after watching what happened to the previous Square and some fled their positions, leaving enough room for the Dragoons to run amok in that one too. The third square didn't wait around for their turn and Foxtrot Oscared.

From Memory: There was an incident in one of the Sudan battles where a back wall of a British Square opened up and hidden Dervish warriors got in. That one nearly cost the Battle, but the wall reformed and the back rows turned inwards and fired, causing quite a few British Casualties as well as wiping out the Dervishes inside the square?
Beaten to it by Rodney2q
ISTR that 5 squares were broken at Quatre Bras and 5 colours lost (recovered from Napoleon’s baggage after Waterloo) Lady Butlers painting of the 28th at the battle commemorates a square that held.
 
ISTR that 5 squares were broken at Quatre Bras and 5 colours lost (recovered from Napoleon’s baggage after Waterloo) Lady Butlers painting of the 28th at the battle commemorates a square that held.
Whih 5 Colours were lost?
I'm aware of 2/69th Foot losing The Kings Colour but thought most of the units were caught, at best, in the process of forming squares not actually in them. They couldn't even see each other until they were attacked.
Famously, a Lancer was recorded as coming forward alone and planting his lance in the very tall Rye fields to indicate where the allied regiments were to guide the cavalry main body.
 
The French claim at least 5 colours taken at QB (could include Dutch as well) as they were all recovered at Waterloo, most Regiment’s histories won’t exactly advertise their loss.
Similarly quite a few British colours are in the french military museum in Paris.
You’re right though, they were more likely to have been caught by surprise and never properly formed square. I wonder how long it takes from column of March or 2 ranks?
 
My only experience...ahem... of forming square...

Night patrol ex back in the late 70's (my JNCO cadre IIRC).

Section on patrol crossing a field in thick fog. Visibility about 10 yards. Suddenly heard the sound of cows moving past in our direction - hooves drumming on the grass and getting louder.

Didn't know which way to run so we stood back to back and when the cows came into sight about 10 yards away we fired a few shots (blanks) from our trusty Brown Bess SLRs.

The cattle veered and went past us on both sides.

Essentially we had done what the Rifles and Light infantry did during the Napoleonic wars when caught out in open order and formed a rallying clump.

Incidentally some years later, while training recruits, I saw something similar but involving a whole herd of cattle. Again it was a night patrol. Something spooked the cattle while we were in the middle of the field and they began galloping up and down the field at considerable speed. The recruits were spread out and the only option we had was to run for the nearest fence and climb over.

Cattle running about is one thing but I really wouldn't have wanted to have been charged by horsemen intent on doing me harm, as opposed to accidentally being trampled by cattle.
I had a similar experience in the early '80s, except that it was a herd of horses, and in addition to being dark, it was pissing down with rain. Talk about having eyes on stalks! Much yelling and flashing of white torchlight meant that fortunately no-one got trampled, but not an experience I'd like to repeat, especially with someone with a lance bearing down with thought of harm.
 

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