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Cavalry is the technical name for specialist soldiers mounted upon and who intend to fight from the back of a horse. Soldiers mounted on horses or mules but intending to do their fighting on foot and using the insane herbivore as a transportation system are 'mounted infantry'.
Cavalry missions were numerous and equipment was a sure indicator to what a unit could do: Missions for lightly equipped cavalry include Scouting, Screening advance/retreat, harassing a main body and driving off opposing screening/harassing cavalry. Heavily equipped cavalry was used for shock impact. Both heavily and lightly equipped cavalry could be used for pursuit of a beaten enemy.
Typical weapons include bow, javelin, sword, darts, thrusting spear, crossbow and lances of varying sizes and lengths. Firearms were not used on horseback until the 17th century. From the 17th century onwards weapons carried were pistol, sword, light lance and the carbine although the lance had fallen out of favour by the Napoleonic wars.
In the early bronze age warfare horses were simply used for scouting and a little harassing. There were few of them per army and did not contribute much since the victory would be won by the Hoplite infantry. Usually youths unable to afford armour made up the cavalry. This changed with Macedonian King Phillip who built a unit of 'Companions' who job on the battlefield was as shock cavalry. Led by his son Alexander, this unit proved decisive on the battlefield.
The horse was still quite small during this period and had yet to be bred into a beast capable of carrying a great deal of armour and warrior. It was probably not much bigger than a pony. No saddle was used and the main shock weapon on horseback was a spear thrust overarm as couching it as a lance meant you fell off hard when you hit someone!
In the earliest days of the Roman Empire, cavalry had an extremely limited role. Each legion had a small number of lightly armed and armoured auxiliaries intended to scout, carry messages and very occasionally pursue (with care) a beaten enemy. In a combat role, they could skirmish but little more.
A time progressed the Empire came into contact with other races who were more proficient with horses than they were. This led to something of an evolution. Heavier armour was given to elite strike cavalry (Equite Singularis) and fully armoured shock cavalry (cataphract – think chally 2 on 4 legs) was created to counter similar horsemen from Palmyra and the east. Horse archers were hired from various eastern tribes for scouting and screening.
Towards the end of the Roman period, 400ad onwards, the Roman army was a hodgepodge of mercenaries with heavy shock cavalry supplied by Goths, light horse archers supplied by Huns and all of them subject to the whims of the mercenary – as a result reliability was not high. The eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) however created some of the best trained cavalry of the era equipped with bow, lance, darts and protected by armour. These Kataphractoi evolved due to contact with the Persian empire whose shock cavalry were legendary.
Even into the late period of Rome (500ad+), none of the above had proper saddles with stirrups thus leading to cavalry battles rapidly becoming infantry battles as everyone fell off! Round about 600ad-ish stirrups were pinched from the Avars (a nomadic steppes tribe) by the Byzantines. This immediately improved cavalry as riders did not fall off as much and spears could now be couched thus providing a more devastating impact.
The cavalryman best associated with the medieval period is the Knight. A fundamental part of the feudal system, the knight is part landlord, part challenger 2. In return for military service of a specified number of troops, the knight was given land and people to support him by the king.
Knights were shock troops pure and simple. They did nothing else on the battlefield except line up and charge! Armed with lance, sword and mace ... these F'ers hit like a fast moving brick outhouse. There were exceptions to this one function trooper i.e.
- Norman Milites in 1066ad who were capable of feigned retreat, used to draw Harold's army off their defensive hill position.
- German knights who could use a wedge formation to punch through enemy lines.
... but pretty much it was line up and CHARGE! ... and they pretty much refused to do anything else.
Knights were considered the nailsest of the nailsest who never lost a battle. They didn't bother fighting with the peasants on foot who were beneath them and went after the opposing knights even if they had to run over their own troops to do it. Battles degenerated into large jousting matches in which only the peasants got killed. This was pretty much true until a bunch of Flanders merchants kicked the living shoite out of French knights at Coutrai in the Battle of the Golden Spurs.
Knights were easily identifiable by their armour. This was usually the best for the period as these guys needed the best they could afford. Starting with simple chainmaile in the 11th century, it evolved right up to complete plate steel armour for both man and his insane mount in the early 16th century.
The best knights in Christendom were French (oddly enough) whose charge was irresistible and who were considered unbeatable ... right up till Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt. By this time knights were on the way out with the professional man at arms becoming much more important due to their flexibility. The Man at Arms could fight mounted but would not throw a hissy fit and take a huff if asked to fight on foot.
Although pike armed troops like the Swiss or Longbow armed troops like the English gave knights some major beatings, it was the introduction of firearms that spelt the end for knights. It took a while but eventually the race between protection and armour was won by the gat and armour started getting lighter again.
As the firearm (and its combination in mixed gun/pike units) made armour ineffectual, it became pointless to weigh yourself down with armour.
A new breed of cavalry became to evolve after the middle of the 16th century. Cavalry that wore leather armour or a breast plate, rode boot to boot and who was armed with a heavy sword and numerous single shot wheel lock pistols. This new cavalry was epitomised by the German Reiter, The Huguenot Miller and the Ironsides of the Cromwellian Army. The heavily armoured lancer did hang around for a bit but the new cavalry outclassed it in almost every way.
A very popular Cavalry tactic in use during this time was known as a caracole. Cavalry would advance at the trot in a deep column. As each rank came into pistol range, the troopers would turn their mount, fire a pistol (sometimes two) and then retire. This was best employed against a slow moving target ie infantry blocks as accurate aiming on horseback is tricky at best. Once the pistol(s) was/were fired, the horsemen would rally back to the rear of the formation to reload. Then repeat the process. This would pepper the enemy unit with continuous fire that it was hard pressed to respond to. If, at any point, the infantry started to waiver, the cavalry could rapidly form up boot to boot in a line and charge home with pistol and sword.
The term horse archers refers to the Asiatic clans of the Steppes. The best know of these are the Huns and the Mongols but there were hordes of these peoples migrating westwards over the centuries.
Nomadic by nature, they wandered the open plains with their herds of small shaggy ponies who provided them with just about everything from mobility to milk.
The primary weapon of this lot was the composite bow. A short (less than 50") bow made of horn, wood and ligament glued together. An extremely powerful weapon, it mimics the modern day compound bow (with its gearing and pulleys) through cunning design. Pull weights did not need to be large (perhaps up to 70lbs) as it was possible to ride up to your enemy, give him the shaft and then leg it before he could retaliate. It is possible to fire a bow a full 300 degrees (at least) from the saddle - only behind to the right being tricky.
Tactically therefore, the horse archer would stand off at 50yards and pepper his target with close range archery fire till the enemy broke ranks and could be ridden down OR was wiped out. If charged they would flee in feigned rout continuing to fire their bows even as they fled (parthian shot). An attacker who over-pursued would be ambushed or would be surrounded and peppered with arrows till they broke.
Before the Samurai were maniacs with curved swords, they were accomplished horsemen armed with bows (Yumi). Around the beginning of the 13th century, kyujutsu ryu, the school of archery technique, began to rise in importance. Horse mounted samurai armed with bows were the decisive weapon in most battles in this feudal period. Also used as a cavalry weapon was the Yari (spear). The Yari was more flexible than a lance and could be used as a sort of light polearm (ie halbard) as well as couched.
Able to manoeuvre rapidly, strike quickly and decisively or skirmish at range, there was little that Japanese cavalry didn't bring to a stagnant system of warfare. The armour of the samurai (including the helmet) is fundamentally designed for a horseman armed with a bow. By the 16th century the Japanese bow reached its peak. Regarded as being near perfect in design and function (equivalent to the Longbow), it was made from a bamboo and wood laminate.
As armies grew larger, peasants required to be employed as soldiers (Ashigaru). These poor grunts were simply spear carriers while the samurai horsemen were the equivalent of the western knight.
Muskets supplied by Spain to one of the warring factions ended the supremacy of the horseman in 1575 (Battle of Nagashino) when the nation of Japan was brought under the control of one warlord.
The 19th century brought about a golden age for cavalry.
In the early decades during the Napoleonic wars, cavalry had a glorious time. Hussars (light cavalry) armed with sabre and carbine screened formations, scouted, pursued beaten enemies and skirmished with their opposite numbers. Heavy cavalry such as the Life Guards or the French Cuirassier were big men on big horses often wearing breastplates. Their job was as shock cavalry ... to destroy what they charged. The dragoon was more of a mounted infantryman but as time when on this definition became fuzzier and the dragoons became adept at both mounted and foot combat. Lancers did make a bit of a come back (mainly in the French army) but were seen as less effective than normal hussars. The Crimean war was pretty much the end of the Napoleonic cavalry traditions as warfare had moved on yet again and what was needed was more flexibility. The days of the purely shock cavalry was pretty much over.
The American Civil War removed most of the distinction between types of cavalry since technical advances in firearms (ie multiple shot weapons) meant that each trooper was now a dragoon. Armed with a carbine, one or two pistols and a sabre, he was drilled to scout, skirmish and fight both on foot and mounted. Often operating in deep raiding or outflanking exercises, its is the cavalry that got most of the glory during the ACW. The Southern states had the best cavalry at the beginning of the war but the North soon caught up.
Boer War till World War 1
Cavalry continued during the turn of the century in much the same vein as the American Civil War but time was running out.
In the Boer War, cavalry was needed to screen the infantry from attack by faster moving mounted opponent. The exact situation that the Roman infantryman had found himself in nearly 2 millennium before.
For the Boer and their raiding tactics, the horse was ideal. Cavalry's mobility was a huge advantage over slow moving infantry columns. Get in fast, do the damage and then a rapid withdrawal to avoid any retaliation. To counter these raiders, you needed trained horsemen. This was the last independent 'hurrah' of the British regular cavalry.
In 1908 a new 'cut and thrust' sword was issued to the British cavalry. The 1908 pattern cavalry sword has a semi 'pistol' grip with a thumb stop, a stiff straight blade with a 'spear' point, a large basket hilt to protect the hand and no real edge to speak of. It was designed for the glorious charge with the arm extended. It was not optimized for the slash, was somewhat awkward in the cut and indeed over enthusiasm in taking a swing might result in a dislocated wrist. Arguably it was the best cavalry sword ever designed ... although King Edward VII described the sword as "hideous".
World War 1 was the beginning of the end for cavalry as a main military arm but it all started rather well. There was much for the cavalry to do on the western front in 1914. However by 1915 and the onset of trench warfare, the cavalry was ever held back to exploit any breeches torn in the enemies lines by infantry/artillery assault. How the cavalry was expected to get over a battlefield criss crossed by trenches and shelled into a morass of mud and shell holes, no one has ever explained. Ironically at Cambrai, a squadron of cavalry took advantage of good ground and the rapid advance brought about by the armour to get across a vital bridge and hair off into the Germans rear areas. The squadron was not seen again. Due to poor planning, no other cavalry unit managed to pursue the 'broken' enemy.
German cavalry (including Uhlan lancers) had a better time of it on the eastern front where the traditional role of reconnaissance and force screening was vital in the huge areas being fought over. Cavalry duels between German cavalry and Cossack played out exactly as they had between French hussar and Cossack 100+ years earlier.
In the middle east irregular light cavalry fought the Turks in the traditional way (raiding) unchanged by the introduction of firearms, explosives, the internal combustion engine and (T.E.) Lawrence Of Arabia.
However useful the cavalry had been at the beginning or during the war, by 1918 many of the traditional roles of the cavalry had been supplanted by aircraft and armoured/motorized vehicles. The cavalry would need to learn new skills involving the internal combustion engine in the future. The glory and the days of the glorious charge were almost over.
World War 2
Cavalry between the wars was a veritable cornucopia of polishing brasses and leathers, parades, reviews and a total blinkered refusal to realize that cavalry's day had gone the way of the dodo.
Although the horse was moved to the sidelines in most countries, the mentality remained. The British cruiser tank of the cavalry regiments was simply a lightly armoured, mechanical horse to charge the enemy, all guns blazing Eh What!. The Royal Tank Regiment had more sense and plated up.
The Polish, still had cavalry regiments but the military myth that they charged panzers in 1939 is just that ... a myth. The Poles may be insanely brave (see Arnhem and Battle of Britain) but they aren't mental.
Today the police use mounted units in a riot control roll. Nothing does the heart more good than seeing eight or nine mounted polis lined up and charging a mob of rioting chavs ... and seeing the chavs run like the craven little shoites they are.
The horse was used by the South African army and the Rhodesian army in the anti-insurgency operations of the 70's and 80's. Having seen pictures of squaddies firing SLR's from galloping horses all I can say is TOTALLY NAILS!
No doubt when the oil runs out and the muslims are trying to remove Christian's ears with their kebab knives down Kensington High Street, the horse will return to its rightful place as a warrior's best bezzer.