Austrian hussar officer, 1750
As the absolutist monarchies opted for the creation of standing armies, cavalry was increasingly assigned the role of principal maneuvering force, while the infantry continued with rigid linear tactics. The ratio of cavalry to infantry was anywhere from 1:6 to 1:3; it was still divided into light and heavy, but the distinction was now mainly in tactics, not in equipment or armament. Heavy cavalry was used in combat, while reconnaissance, security, pursuit, raids and skirmishes were reserved for the light. In wartime, larger units – brigades – were formed, and towards the end of the nineteenth century, even divisions. Because of increasingly accurate firepower, cavalry had to move more quickly on the battlefield, so the strike with drawn swords, in full gallop, was gradually adopted. The depth of the attacking formation was decreased to achieve greater effect. The heavy and light cavalry became specialized for particular tasks. The heavy included cuirassiers, dragoons, carabiniers, horse grenadiers, regiments of horse, as well as the chevaux-legers of France, although their name denotes precisely the opposite – light cavalry. Hussars, uhlans, lancers, chasseurs, mounted jägers, light dragoons, Bosniaks and Cossacks belonged to the light cavalry. In some states they were regular units, in others irregular troops. Cuirassiers were armed with a straight sword, two pistols and a carbine, and wore breastplates for protection, but towards the end of the eighteenth century, Prussian, Russian and Swedish cuirassiers abandoned armour altogether. Dragoons stopped being mounted infantry, and became cavalry trained to fight on foot, and were therefore included in the medium cavalry in some countries. Besides a sword or sabre, they had two pistols and a carbine or musket with bayonet; from 1702 Swedish dragoons also used hand grenades. Carabiniers and grenadiers were similar, but the former usually had carbines without bayonets, while the latter used hand grenades and muskets with bayonets. Hussars usually had a curved sabre, pistols and a carbine, while chasseurs and jägers used a rifle with bayonet. Uhlans, lancers, Cossacks and Bosniaks also had spears and lances.
The troop or company remained the basic formation, numbering from 30 to 100; the squadron became an administrative and tactical unit of 100-200 men, usually divided into two troops. Regiments consisted of four to ten squadrons, but units larger than this began to be created. From 1657, the French army, both in war and on maneuvers, had a group of two to four regiments under the command of a brigadier de cavalerie. Similar formations in Russia were commanded by a major-general or brigadier, and after the Seven Years War (1756-63), two-regiment brigades became standing units in both France and Russia. Guard cavalry became battle units, and horse artillery was created.
The example of Gustavus II Adolphus was at first followed only by the English Protectorate (1649-69). Well-trained and highly disciplined, it used a two-line formation, and charged at a gallop. The second line backed the first if necessary, or attacked the flanks and rear of the enemy. In other cavalry forces, notably the Prussian, mounted firepower was again favoured over the cold steel attack. Charges were executed at a trot or short gallop, so their effect was weak. Because of insufficient training, Russian cavalry of the mid-seventeenth century would break formation during the charge, so they preferred to receive the enemy attack with a salvo from horseback; the dragoons would dismount and form a square. The Austrians continued to discharge a pistol salvo prior to the charge as late as the second half of that century, and when fighting the Turkish cavalry, they dismounted and fired from a square, like infantry.
In the eighteenth century, the charge with drawn swords again prevailed over firearms. Charles XII of Sweden (1697-1718), realizing the importance of speed, and emulating the French cavalry under the command of the Prince de Conde, ordered the charge with drawn steel in the Swedish cavalry, the use of firearms being allowed only in rare circumstances. During the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14) the English commander, the Duke of Marlborough, created great cavalry masses, sometimes up to 100 squadrons in strength, which he used as a mobile reserve in the decisive moments of a battle. He allowed his cavalrymen to hold firearms only when on guard duty; charges were executed exclusively with cold steel. Eugene of Savoy was also a supporter of full-tilt charges, but could not realize his ideas in the Austrian forces.
Prussian cavalry was weak, slow and inefficient, and suffered repeated defeats by the Austrians during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-8). Frederick II (1740-86) reorganized it; foreigners were no longer allowed to serve, and capable commanders such as von Ziethen and von Seydlitz were appointed. Many new rules and commands turned it into an effective fighting force. As soon as the enemy was sighted, a charge (en echiquiers) was ordered from a distance of 700 m/760 yds; in 1755, this was increased to 1,800 m/2,000 yds. At 200 m/220 yds, the men were to change to full gallop, with swords drawn, flags unfurled, and as much noise as possible made by shouting and trumpets. Firing from horseback was not allowed. The battle order was made up of three lines, each with men in three ranks; the first was made up of cuirassiers, the second, 300 paces behind, of dragoons, and the third, protecting the flanks and rear, of hussars. From 1770, the second line used a tapering formation, so there was no further need for the third. After the 1755 reforms, the Russian cavalry also charged with cold steel, and firing from pistols or carbines was allowed for heavy cavalry only when opposed with skirmishing light cavalry. Regiments’ battle formation was in two lines; the central squadrons were in ranks, and the wing squadrons in files. When having to beat back the charge of a superior mounted force, a regiment could form a square; in this case, the men were allowed to dismount. After the Seven Years War, other armies also abolished firing from horseback. Gallop charges were not introduced in France until 1776.
In the general order of battle, cavalry was usually at the wings of the infantry, so as not to interfere with their line of fire and to protect the wings and flanks. When advancing, it moved at the infantry’s speed and could not peel away to attack the opposing cavalry until it was at 500 m/550yds; the tendency, of course, was to do this as early as possible, so as not to suffer unnecessarily from enemy artillery. After a successful attack, several squadrons would pursue the enemy troopers, while the rest would attack the flanks and rear of the opposing infantry. Sometimes, if the cavalry attack was very successful, all the mounted troops would give chase, and would not appear again on the battlefield.
During the Siege of Vienna in 1683, Polish King Jan Sobieski, heading a force of 26,000 men, defeated numerically superior Turkish forces. The main strike was delivered by the Poles on the right wing, as their cavalry was the most numerous: 3,000 winged hussars, 8,000 pancerni, 2,000 light cavalry, 2,000 dragoons, 500 reiters and 300 Cossacks. At Blenheim (1704), 86 squadrons of British and Allied cavalry routed nine French infantry battalions and 30 squadrons of cavalry. At Malplaquet (1709), a fierce cavalry battle developed, with changing luck; 260 French squadrons were pitted against 300 Allied squadrons. Finally, the British cavalry broke through the French battle order, and the French were forced to execute a general retreat. Charles XII realized that mixing cavalry and infantry was not viable, and abolished this practice in the Swedish army, where cavalry became the main core of the military. They attacked infantry, batteries, even fortifications, and decided the outcome of battles practically alone. The cavalry of Frederick II attacked en masse, and was a first-class maneuvering and striking force. At Rossbach (1757) it broke the imperial cavalry, then struck the French infantry with a charge on the right flank. It lost 550 men, the enemy 10,000! At Leuthen the same year, it defeated the Austrian cavalry, which, retreating, caused panic among its infantry. At the Battle of Zorndorf (1758), the Russian cavalry twice broke the formation of Prussian infantry, but was twice forced back by strong counter-charges of the superior Prussian cavalry. The cavalry of the Russian commander Count Suvorov was not in the same class, but at Kinburn, in 1787, it rode into the sea, taking advantage of the shallow water, and outflanked the Turks; the next year, it charged the forts of Riminiku-Serata and Ismail, the latter dismounted.
This period saw the more intensive use of cavalry for reconnaissance, skirmishes and pursuit. Oliver Cromwell used to send his cavalry out for a whole day’s reconnaissance; French Marshal Henri Turenne used units of 50 men, and Austrian hussars proved particularly successful scouts in the war with Prussia. They circled the Prussian army, harassing it constantly, following its staff units, capturing couriers, while screening the grouping of their own army and masking its intentions. They also threatened enemy lines of communication and attacked small units in the Prussians’ rear. At the head of 4,000 hussars, with four cannon, Austrian General Haddick captured Berlin for two days in 1757. After a convoy headed for Olmütz was captured, the Prussian army had to lift its siege of the town, and leave Bohemia. During the Seven Years War, Cossacks created an impenetrable screen in front of the Russian army.
Pursuit was an increasingly common practice in all armies. After the victory at Preston (1648), Cromwell’s forces pursued the enemy for three days and nights, and after Kunersdorf (1759), the defeated Prussian cavalry was pursued first by the enemy’s regular units and then by the hussars and Cossacks. Even though he did not approve of the practice at first, Frederick II sent Ziethen in pursuit, at the head of 55 squadrons, after the Battle of Leuthen, and later, in the instructions of 1788, he demanded energetic and merciless pursuit from his cavalry until the enemy was destroyed.
The first modern cavalry rules were published in France in 1720: Le service ordinaire de la cavalerie. Similar rules soon appeared in Prussia and other states, but organized training was begun only by Frederick. It included individual training, group training with special assignments on difficult ground and drilling in moving, maneuvering and managing large cavalry masses. Schools for riding instruction were formed. After the Seven Years War, other countries introduced systematic training according to the Prussian model. In France, the Due de Choiseul introduced a permanent officer corps, and set up troop breeding stables, so commanders would no longer oppose training on the grounds that it exhausted their horses. He founded one veterinary and six riding schools, but after his death only one remained, at Saumur. The first rule-book for the training of the French cavalry, Ordonnance, was published in 1776; it mainly adopted Prussian tactics. The rules of 1788 decreed the abolition of companies in favour of divisions of two troops; two divisions made up a squadron. There were also regulations concerning the formation of a regiment, the training of individuals and squadrons, movement and charge; additional parts dealt specifically with dragoons, hussars, and so on. Charges were to be executed in line, in echelons when the intention was to pierce an enemy formation, in tapering formation when the aim was to outflank, and in columns when the object of the attack was the infantry. The Austrian rules were published by Marshal Lassy: shooting from horseback was to be used only against the Turks; after a successful charge, the units regrouped; pursuit was conducted by one corporal and eight men from each wing of the squadron.
Austrian general and military writer Montecuccoli considered the spear queen of weapons, and thought that cavalrymen should be armoured and formed in regiments of 750 men. The battle order was to be a squadron in three ranks; cuirassiers were to make up the centre, in two lines, and the dragoons the wings. French Marshal de Saxe also thought the spear should be the principal weapon of the cavalry whom he divided into two groups: cuirassiers and dragoons. The cuirassiers’ role was to strike, the dragoons’ – everything else. He also thought that cavalrymen should be of low stature, intelligent and dexterous, and pointed out the importance of systematic training for keeping in peak form: 2,000 paces trotting, without tiring. In Great Britain, Captain Hinde published his Discipline of the Light Horse in 1778, in which he suggested training and combat procedures in many ways ahead of their time.