German Cavalry I

German heavy cavalry. 10th century

For more than three thousand years, whether in enforcing the law or, more importantly, waging war, the horse was the means by which the warrior gained true mobility, range, and striking power. Either by riding the horse or by having it pull his chariots, supply wagons, or, later, machine guns and artillery, he harnessed the strength, endurance, and above all the intelligence of the horse for his own military purposes; and, despite the horse’s flight-response to danger, he even managed make use of its occasional aggressiveness. This latter trait became particularly useful in the massed attack when the horse’s herd-instincts could effectively mask threats from which even cavalry mounts trained to the sound of gunfire might otherwise flee. Equine aggressiveness among stallions and late-gelded males could also be brought to bear in the melee of individual combats wherein the horse would see another mount, and not its rider, as the enemy.7 Such innovations “brought to warmaking the electric concept of campaigning over long distances and, when campaigning resolved itself into battle, of manoeuvering on the battlefield at speed—at least five times the speed of men on foot.” It also brought fear: the fear of an enemy able to appear at times and in places of his own choosing, often completely unexpectedly. Indeed, given the context of the present work, it seems worth noting that this pervasive fear rooted itself very deeply in the European psyche. As late as the 1940s, the German government’s propaganda consciously attempted to evoke the terror still latent in the folk memory of the menace of the steppe horsemen. The purpose was to encourage resistance to the advancing, and by then largely mechanized, Red Army. Emphasis on the specific ideological threat posed by Communism only overlaid and reinforced the much more ancient dread. The essential element was the fear itself, the perception of Germany’s being overrun by “Asiatic hordes.” Ironically, the fact that the Red Army still employed large units of horse-mounted Cossacks only further reinforced the propaganda.

The centrality, the emotional pre-eminence, of the mounted warrior even down to the twentieth century’s beginnings was not quite as old as the Western way of war itself. From approximately the fifth century BC to the fifth century AD, that way of warfare consisted primarily in the face-to-face fight to the death of the infantry phalanx with cavalry acting (occasionally brilliantly, as under Alexander’s command, or as with the Thebans at Leuctra in 371 BC) as an adjunct to the main battle. Nevertheless, the transmission of the mounted warrior’s role from the Eurasian steppe and Persia via Greece and Rome to Europe proper created a powerful impetus for the future. This force found its first true expression in the post-Roman, Germanic successor-kingdoms of early medieval Europe. In them the Greco-Roman tradition combined itself with the power of the horse to create an essentially new style of mounted warfare, one aiming at the immediate destruction of the enemy rather than hit-and-run harassment and graduated attrition typical of the steppe warrior.

To the extent that Western cavalry now gave primacy to rapidly closing with and destroying the enemy, the widespread use of the stirrup constituted an important contributory technology. As with the idea of the cavalry itself, the stirrup’s use also gradually migrated from East to West. By the tenth century AD it was commonly used by Western European horsemen and, among cavalrymen, helped provide a more stable platform from which to drive home attacks with a couched lance or to strike heavier, downward blows with handheld weapons such as the mace, sword, or axe. It is also suggested that the increased striking power made possible through the combination of effective bits, stirrups, and deeper-seated saddles encouraged the breeding of heavier horses in Western Europe from the Carolingian period forward, ones capable of withstanding the greatly increased collision-impact of lance-wielding heavy cavalry. It should, for example, be remembered that two armored knights’ chargers, each weighing at least one thousand pounds (not including the weight of the rider, his weapons, and armor) and moving at speeds approaching 15–20 mph (25 km/h), would generate a tremendous shock. As such face-to-face combat became the idealized norm in Western mounted warfare, breeds possessing a heavier, though not necessarily “cobby” or “carty,” conformation followed. Indeed, they helped drive the cycle: the heavier the horse, the greater the weight of man and armor it could carry and impact it could withstand. This capability, in turn, necessitated still heavier breeds to absorb ever-greater collisions, and so on.

Insofar as German cavalry is concerned (but not only there), the long-term consequence of this equid-and-technology evolutionary spiral in the early-modern period was the increasingly rigorous and state-supported breeding program of the sort that produced such fine military horses as the Hanoverian and the Trakehner. And, though lance-on-shield combat eventually disappeared, the essential physical dynamics of Western European cavalry combat from AD 870 to 1870 did not. As a result, into the twentieth century Western European cavalry horses, German horses among them, would remain generally taller and of heavier conformation than, for example, their Cossack counterparts. Nevertheless, one never really sees a clear break between a Western way of war involving nothing but infantry and a Western way of war wholly dominated by mounted knights by circa AD 750–800. Rather, there appears to have been a steady, and steadily growing, influence of the concept of mounted warfare permeating Western Europe from the East, undergoing modification and culminating in the full flowering of the chivalric ideal in the High Middle Ages and then continuing through the early-modern period with its introduction of gunpowder weaponry.

In the latter age, however, one of the primary conundrums facing cavalrymen in the Western world was what their role would become given the advent of firearms. The employment of long-range missileweapons by horsemen was, of course, already of ancient lineage. The tactically successful use of such weapons against riders was a crucial military evolution even before the common use of gunpowder. One need only mention Crecy (1346) and Agincourt (1415). The introduction and rapid refinement of firearms merely compounded the range at which common foot soldiers might visit destruction upon their chivalric social betters. To a certain extent, firearms also added to the perceived insidiousness of the foot soldier’s shooting the rider from the saddle before the latter could even strike a blow or, more likely, simply killing his horse. The horse did, after all, present a much larger target than the man riding it, and killing the horse automatically stopped the cavalry charge. For example, the nobly born Gaston de Foix, commander of the French army at Ravenna in 1512, and some twenty of his courtly fellows were unceremoniously “gunned down to a man” when they sportingly attempted to pursue already defeated Spanish arquebusiers. Furthermore, if such factors were not already sufficient to make socially refined horsemen unsure about facing mere mechanics on a gunpowder dominated battlefield, there was the occasional accusation that gunmen used an early equivalent of dum-dum bullets in the form of rounds dipped in poisonous substances such as green vitriol (likely an oily metallic sulfate), a charge specifically made during the siege of the English city of Colchester in 1648.

Cuirassiers giving fire with their pistols (cuirassiers of en:Gottfried Heinrich Graf zu Pappenheim).

In the late fifteenth and throughout the sixteenth century the principal firearm was, in one version or another, the arquebus. For the time being this weapon, though dangerous, did not truly threaten to displace cavalry from the battlefield. The arquebus did not, for example, possess a high rate of fire. Estimates range from one shot every thirty to forty seconds under ideal conditions (unlikely in a battle) to one shot every “several minutes.” Perhaps the best estimate is one shot every two minutes, though this, too, may be generous. Under such circumstances, cavalry could very likely close with opposing infantry before the latter’s arquebuses inflicted unacceptable losses of men and horses. Moving at the trot, cavalry on sound horses could cover perhaps 270 yards (approximately 250 meters) per minute, while at the gallop the distance covered would approximately double. Consequently, infantry armed with arquebuses faced unpalatable options. They could fire a volley at the weapon’s maximum effective range of about one hundred yards and hope to reload and fire again before the horsemen were upon them. Conversely, they could wait until the range had decreased to a much more lethal fifty yards or so, fire, and then see whether the horsemen survived in sufficient numbers and with sufficient impetus to ride them down. Precisely for this reason, pikemen remained an integral feature of infantry formations throughout the period. The pike—as much as eighteen feet in length—provided close-in protection for arquebusiers who were otherwise doomed, as were artillerymen, if the cavalry got in amongst them. The pikemen were therefore essential to the infantry’s survival until the invention of the socket bayonet. That device transformed the shoulder-fired weapon into a means by which infantrymen could defend themselves from cavalry attack while reloading, provided they had the nerve. Large numbers of horses moving at the gallop not only present a tremendous visual spectacle. For anyone standing nearby, they also literally shake the earth. A wall of such creatures, hundreds or even thousands strong, ridden by shouting cavalrymen and running full tilt directly into one’s face, would certainly seem to be unstoppable. The adverse psychological effect upon infantrymen, even when they formed the vaunted infantry square, could be enormous.

Of course, the cavalry forces of European armies also attempted to adapt themselves to the use of firearms, most notably in the form of the pistoleers of the mid-sixteenth century. The caracole, through a complicated tactical evolution, resulted precisely from the effort by cavalrymen to make use of firearms themselves to break up opposing infantry formations and thus render possible a battle-winning charge with cold steel. “Cavalry,” writes historian Jeremy Black, thus continued to provide “mobility, and that was crucial for strategic, logistical, and tactical reasons. It enabled forces to overcome the constraints of distance, to create equations of numbers, supplies and rate of movement that were very different to those of infantry, and also to force the pace of battle in a very different fashion to that of infantry.” The arquebus, the wheel-lock horse-pistol, and, eventually, the eighteenth-century flintlock musket did not render that utility nugatory. Indeed, if the carbine musket and cannon could be fully incorporated into the cavalry, as in fact they were, then the cavalry would continue to have, as in fact it did, a viable combat role on the battlefields of Europe.

According to Michael Roberts, the Swedish king and royal innovator Gustavus Adolphus nevertheless forbade the caracole and instead insisted that the cavalry always charge home with swords drawn, relying on the combined weight of man and horse for tactical success. In place of his horsemen’s firearms, or at least supplementing them, he also “was able to arm his units with a light and transportable field piece designed to supply close artillery support for infantry and cavalry alike.” Herein one may see the beginnings not only of the vaunted horse-artillery of the Napoleonic era but also what late-twentieth-century military writers would have termed an organic artillery capability for the cavalry. Unsurprisingly, however, not all historians agree that this incorporation of artillery with the cavalry constituted a solution to the cavalry’s problem of how to break up firearms-carrying infantry formations. David A. Parrott, for one, maintains that Gustavus Adolphus’ effort created no real solution. On the contrary, he writes that the Swedish king’s artillery was not “capable of the same degree of mobility as cavalry.” While the Swedes had developed cannon firing 3-pound shot over an effective range of some three hundred yards, these “were not mobile as a matter of course” owing to a lack of good-quality horses and easily portable stocks of ammunition. Therefore, “the vaunted reforms of Gustavus Adolphus produced nothing capable of approaching this [mobility] requirement.” Parrott therefore concludes that, absent the aforementioned and truly revolutionary innovation that highly mobile horse-artillery would have provided in smashing prepared infantry formations, the cavalry’s tactical importance became increasingly that of turning the flanks of opposing armies so that the latter could be taken from the side or rear while pressure was maintained front and center by one’s own infantry. Of course, the opponent’s own cavalry would be tasked with preventing just such a turning movement, thus setting up the continued face-to-face clash of horsemen employing not only handheld firearms but cold steel, both at pointblank range. It would, therefore, not be “new” tactics deciding the issue in a given cavalry battle but the resolution of the combatants, and at least implicitly the quality of the winners’ mounts. In precisely this respect, the importance of secure, high-quality breeding stock for supplying large numbers of remounts assumed a strategic significance.

In Germany the eighteenth century witnessed the establishment or expansion of a number of State studs whose mission was to develop and maintain breed-stock suitable for military and agricultural employment. Two of the most famous of these would eventually play major roles in the breeding of the modern German military horse. These were the East Prussian State Stud at Trakehnen and the Hanoverian State Stud at Celle. These studs and others contributed greatly to the establishment of a solid breed-stock of horses that, if not quite as finely athletic as the English Thoroughbred of the day, were nonetheless very well suited for employment as cavalry mounts. To that extent, they helped revamp the capabilities of a Prussian and, later, German cavalry that no less an observer than Frederick the Great dismissed upon his accession as being “not even worth the devil coming to fetch it away.” Nevertheless, the development of more stringent breeding standards, combined with more effective training in individual and close-formation galloping and other exercises by Frederick’s cavalry commanders such as Johann Joachim “Papa” von Ziethen and Friedrich Wilhelm von Seydlitz, soon honed the Prussian cavalry into a force of European renown. No longer would the Prussian cavalry be good only for parading, a fact demonstrated for all to see in battles such as Seydlitz’ crushing victory over the French at Rossbach in 1757.


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