Ironically, however, the massed cavalry attack was in part made more unlikely by the very masses of infantry that some cavalrymen still confidently intended to drive from the field. Railways proved to be just as efficient as prewar planners had hoped in delivering unprecedented numbers of men and equipment for battle. For example, in approximately one month’s time after the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, some 312 divisions of French, German, Austrian, and Russian troops had been brought by rail to the battlefronts, a number excluding hundreds of thousands of cavalry mounts and draft horses. Having reached the enemy’s territory, however, those same masses of troops in a certain sense became a liability. From the railhead onward, those surging tides of men continued to have to move largely on foot even while officers, cavalry troopers, and artillerymen rode. Furthermore, such huge numbers of troops, regardless of branch of service, had to be supplied by logistics trains still relying primarily on the power of horseflesh. Therefore, horses (and mules) remained a critical element of all the European armies at war’s outbreak and not merely in the putatively outmoded cavalry regiments. An indication of horses’ continued necessity reveals itself in the following statistic: the single largest category of cargo unloaded in the French ports for the British army throughout the entire period of 1914–1918 was horse fodder. Similarly, the Director of Military Operations in the War Office from 1910 to 1914, Major-General Henry Wilson, ensured that the BEF’s mobilization plan included such apparently minor, but nonetheless crucial, details as “the provision of horse-stall fittings and gangways at the French ports” for the hundreds of thousands of horses (and mules) that the British armies in France would need from the start. From the war’s earliest days, similar numbers of horses were being mobilized all across Europe for the cavalry, artillery, and transport services: 165,000 in Britain; 600,000 in Austria; more than a million in Russia. The European-wide ratio of horses to men generally was estimated to be 1:3.
In Germany, as in all other combatant nations in 1914, horses were called up in unprecedented numbers from their civil tasks on farms, in businesses, and field sports. On 31 July the upper house of Germany’s parliament, the Imperial Federal Council (Bundesrat), issued decrees prohibiting the exportation of fodder, provisions, and livestock. Making Germany’s equine mobilization even more efficient was the fact that German horses, like their human counterparts, had to be registered in peacetime; thus the military authorities knew where the horses were “at all times.” Inaugurated in 1900, this system “involved a regular census and inspection of all horses in the country. Beasts were graded and a picture was built up of the nation’s horse stock. A horse muster commission was established in each corps [area] to draw up detailed orders for the impressment of animals. These orders would be carried out prior to the full implementation of Germany’s mobilization plan.” Augmenting civilian registration and subsequent mobilization were the various State studs. The Hanoverian State Stud based at Celle, for example, alone provided annual deliveries of some 2,500 remounts to the German army by 1914, while the East Prussian State Stud at Trakehnen shipped out fully 7,000 per annum. In addition to these private and State-sponsored resources at home, the German government also continued to look abroad for horseflesh. The U.S. Consul General in Berlin, Robert P. Skinner, was cited in the New York Times Magazine of 3 May 1914 as reporting that the German government was advertising “in certain American newspapers for 500 American thoroughbreds, 1,000 more or less pedigreed horses, and 1,000 draught horses for artillery use.” German purchasing agents were also reportedly active in Ireland, having evidently “contracted for every horse on the Irish landscape…up to 1916.” Other agents had even “invaded France and bought up 18,000 first-class cavalry and artillery mounts.”
Though the war would necessarily nullify such prewar contracts, the Germans’ need for such numbers of horses remained clear. A combat-ready corps of the regular German army in 1914 required no fewer than 280 trains comprising more than 12,000 railway cars in order to move from its depot to its deployment area. Those cars included 2,960 specially outfitted to transport only horses. Similarly, the need for provender was enormous, as already indicated. Given 1914’s standard daily horse ration of approximately twenty-two pounds (10 kg) of feed and fodder, the German First Army alone required approximately 840 tons of feed and fodder each day for its establishment strength of 84,000 horses of all types. That requirement compares with approximately 555 tons of daily rations for the same army’s 260,000 men. “To put it another way, the First Army needed 50% more food for horses than for men, though it had over three times as many men as horses.” In all, the German army of 1914 intended to move not only three million men but also fully 600,000 horses merely for the initial campaign in northwestern Europe. These staggering totals required an equally breathtaking commitment of rolling stock to get the troops, their horses, and their equipment to the frontiers. No fewer than 11,000 trains were scheduled in the mobilization plan.
Of course, from the war’s opening days on the Western Front, the German army also attempted to requisition horses in occupied territory, precisely because anticipated losses of horseflesh demanded it. In southern Alsace around Belfort, not far from the battlefields of 1870, enforced requisitioning began as early as 2 August, according to reports in the British press. Naturally, such attempts did not go uncontested. One German officer, apparently acting alone, reportedly entered one locale only to be “forced hurriedly to retreat” by enraged civilians. Similarly, in other villages German troops on the same mission were said to have been driven off by pitchfork-wielding Frenchmen. Such searches could quickly escalate to skirmishing. German dragoons attempting to enter Villers-la-Montagne, for example, found themselves forced to retreat by French chasseurs, while a full German mounted regiment’s attack at Montfortane failed in the face of French infantry fire.
Nevertheless, at least on the Western Front, the cavalry’s tactical and operational importance diminished rapidly as the lines stabilized after the First Battle of the Marne. Well aimed rifle-fire, particularly of the British “Old Contemptibles” of 1914, machine guns, and artillery quickly showed themselves capable of bringing effective gridlock to battlefields eventually made completely inert by the construction of the trenches. Furthermore, one of the cavalry’s by-now-classic functions—turning the enemy’s flank—proved itself increasingly difficult given the soon-to-be static nature of the lines in France. The force-to-space ratio was so high that infantrymen were finding maneuver ever more problematic absent effective and widespread motorization. It therefore became impossible for cavalry, whether German, French, or British, to envelop flanks that were never sufficiently “in the air” after September 1914. Such a conundrum was particularly troublesome for the German army. As already noted, the army’s doctrine since the late 1860s had envisioned the cavalry’s playing precisely that flanking role, as it had done in 1870. Once the enemy’s flanks had been overlapped and his frontal defenses smashed by fire, but only then, would his positions be taken by assault. If, however, flanks could not be turned, then the cavalry on the Western Front would either have to wait for the increasingly improbable great breakthrough or—the worst of fates for the cavalryman’s ethos—fight permanently dismounted.
As the German cavalry rode to war in 1914, their expectations were matched by their counterparts on the Allied side. Since at least the summer of 1911, the French army’s General Staff expected that in a war against Germany, the British would dispatch a force of some 150,000 men and 67,000 horses, the latter including mounts for a full cavalry division and two separate mounted brigades. The French and British staffs also fully expected to meet German cavalry in force. Indeed, as early as 1908 the French Superior Council of War had received an analysis of likely German wartime action. That analysis predicted a German drive through at least eastern Belgium around the northern flank of France’s frontier defenses. This prediction recognized the Germans’ “tradition of enveloping their opponent’s flanks,” a mission almost impossible in 1914 without the employment of strong mounted forces capable of rapid, wide-ranging movement. As a consequence, no fewer than nine of the German army’s eleven cavalry divisions found themselves on the Western Front in 1914. That fact alone indicated the expected importance devolving upon mounted forces in a campaign designed to defeat France before Russia could mobilize effectively.
Each of these German cavalry divisions had an establishment-strength between 4,500 and 5,200 men and some 5,600 horses, including remounts. A typical mounted division included between 3,500 and 3,600 troopers armed with carbines, sabers, and, in many cases lances, to fight specifically as cavalry. In addition, each division had an organic infantry battalion (Jäger zu Pferde, literally “hunters on horseback”) of as many as 1,000 men. Presaging future motorization, the Jäger were typically bicycle- or truck-mounted, though as their name actually indicates, they often rode as well. Frequently, however, they slogged along on the boot-leather express, just as the infantry has done since time immemorial. Interestingly enough, though no one could know it in 1914, this relationship between mounted and dismounted German troops would be exactly reversed in 1939. In World War II it would be the infantry divisions that would have a cavalry squadron in their organic reconnaissance battalions.
In 1914 the standard primary weapon for both the Jäger and mounted troopers alike was the Mauser M1898, 7.92-mm carbine. Nevertheless, some cavalrymen also still carried straight-edged swords. In the heavy cavalry regiments the sword was a thrusting, rather than a cutting, weapon having a 36-inch (91-cm) blade and known as a Pallasch. The Pallasch weighed just a few ounces less than three pounds (1.36 kg). Uhlans and other light cavalry carried a similar weapon but one slightly lighter in weight and implicitly intended more for slashing. Still others were armed with sabers as such. As for offensive heavy weapons, German cavalry divisions also possessed—in a manner similar to other European cavalry forces—their own horse-artillery detachment of twelve guns in three batteries per division. According to the German timetable at the start of the campaign in the west, the entirety of such a division was supposed to cover between twelve and twenty miles (up to 32 km) per day. The cavalry expected to cover these miles in one of four recognized gaits: the walk, trot, gallop, and “extended gallop.” The canter appears to have been used only for march-pasts. Using these gaits, German horsemen could cover between 125 (walk) and 700 (“extended gallop”) paces per minute, a “pace” being about 31 inches (78 cm). In other words, cavalry at the walk—the most frequent marching gait—would cover just over one hundred yards (91 m) per minute or about three-and-a-half miles per hour. While that is about the speed of fast-moving infantry, it must be remembered that horses could keep going for longer periods of time, particularly if the infantryman was carrying his full load of equipment. At the trot, a good ground-covering gait that spares the horse if the trooper posts, the cavalry could cover 275 paces per minute or approximately 8 miles per hour (not quite 13 km/h). In point of fact, the distance covered daily by the cavalry would almost certainly be greater. Given the constant need for reconnaissance forays and screening operations, the horsemen would of necessity have to ride many more miles than that. Thus equipped and ready to move, the German cavalry in 1914, particularly the eight divisions eventually grouped in two corps during the so-called Race to the Sea after the First Battle of the Marne, constituted “the largest body of horsemen ever to be collected in Western Europe before or since.” In light of their numbers and their theoretical mobility, they had at least the potential to be everywhere.