Major General von Seydlitz pipe Prussian cavalry Battle of Rossbach – Richard Knötel
Firearms of all kinds had indeed made the battlefield more lethal. That was true enough. Cavalrymen, such as the Prussians at Rossbach, recognized “that a well-timed musket volley could destroy an entire regiment.” They also knew, however, that musketry, rifle-fire, or artillery could create opportunities for the cavalry’s decisive engagement, provided that cavalry commanders appreciated “the complexity of the [late eighteenth-century] battlefield.” More than ever before, “precise maneuvers, speed, boldness, and timing” would determine the mounted arm’s success on battlefields where “the margin of error separating cavalry success and failure” grew ever narrower. This lesson applied not only to Prussian or other German cavalry, but to all the military horsemen of Europe.
These issues became acute between 1800 and 1815, for European cavalry “reached its apotheosis” during the reign of Napoleon I. In his campaigns, cavalry performed those functions—often with consummate skill—that still remained to it on battlefields now coming to be dominated by the emperor’s beloved artillery, if not quite yet by truly accurate, long-range volleys from rifled firearms. These roles consisted of screening the French armies’ movements and strength from spies and opposing forces. The cavalry also carried out reconnaissance and prepared the conditions for the concentration of divergent French columns at the point of contact with the enemy. Finally, the French horsemen became the ultimate pursuers of broken enemy formations, though the latter were almost never broken by the cavalry itself. Despite the awful psychological effect of a massed cavalry attack made at the gallop, Napoleonic-era infantry squares, bristling with bayonet-tipped muskets and often supported by guns, could only rarely be smashed by direct mounted assault. Nevertheless, Napoleon may be said to have resurrected the cavalry’s operational role from its relative diminution in the eighteenth century as reflected in the declining ratio of cavalry to infantry, despite the cavalry’s contributions in such famous early eighteenth-century battles as Blenheim (1704) and, later, Rossbach. Napoleon added skirmishing to the cavalry’s remit and, in the 1790s, was one of the first French commanders to employ effective horse-artillery. The latter innovation gave genuine speed and mobility to the “king of battle,” greatly increasing the striking power of mounted formations. Furthermore, by disrupting the enemy infantry’s formations, a properly coordinated artillery barrage, whether from field guns or horse batteries, could still make possible the European cavalry’s ultimate self-expression, namely the pressing home of attacks with the arme blanche. At the very least, it was assumed that dragoons and carabiniers could close sufficiently to employ their own shoulder-fired weapons or pistols. Nevertheless, even Napoleon’s superb cavalry could not overcome the iron logic of gunpowder weaponry, as demonstrated with such terrible magnificence in the futile attack by fully 10,000 French horsemen against the allied squares at Waterloo. Not even such a grand failure, however, served to dislodge the cavalry from the armies of Europe, if for no other reason than that no substitute for it existed in the missions noted above. Only the cavalry could rapidly execute the vital tasks of long-range reconnaissance, screening, flanking, liaison, and pursuit. Nothing less than the advent of reliable wireless communications and internal-combustion propulsion would truly change that calculus; and even then, the cavalry’s departure from the scene “was slow, uneven, and reluctant.”
Thus, throughout the second half of the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century, the cavalry—indeed military horsepower generally—could still claim a place on the battlefields of Europe. In the last great cavalry war of Western European history, the Franco-Prussian War, both France and the German States routinely employed light and heavy cavalry at both the tactical and the operational level, though not, as shown below, with equal effectiveness. Later, in World War I, all of the major European armies still marched with huge numbers of cavalry fully integrated into their combat formations, though as the reader will see, nascent motorization (particularly armored cars)—not to mention more effective, long-range artillery and machine guns—vastly restricted what the cavalry might still accomplish, at least on the Western Front. By contrast, on the Eastern Front from Courland and East Prussia to Rumania, horsemen still enjoyed a considerable prestige and found themselves usefully employed both tactically and operationally.
Charge of the 1st Bavarian uhlans, 1914
Nevertheless, not even the events of 1914–1918 completely removed cavalry and horse-powered transport from European armies. We are particularly concerned with the fact that this remained so in Germany. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the Reichsheer of the Weimar years and, later, the Heer still conceived of important tactical and operational roles for the horse, both in combat and in logistics. Both organizations would plan accordingly, notwithstanding a great deal of propaganda to the contrary. Consequently, when Hitler’s government willfully plunged Europe into the greatest war in its history, the German Army still possessed hundreds of thousands of horses in its establishment and not just for pulling supply-wagons, field-kitchens, artillery, and ambulances. German cavalry also went to war in 1939, not as a mere horse-mounted anachronism but as a matter of some necessity.
One might well argue that that reliance on horses by the Reichsheer and the Nazi-era Heer was misplaced. Germany’s military leaders, so the argument would run, ought to have done otherwise. Such an objection is fair enough in the abstract. In this matter, however, as in all historical inquiry, the primary question—as formulated by a noted authority in German military history—should not necessarily address what the German army ought to have done regarding the cavalry’s employment. Rather, the question should account for why the German army did what it did. Why still use horse-mounted troops after 1918? Why after 1925, when motorization was becoming a reality? Why after 1935, when the first panzer divisions were being raised? Why, ultimately, even in 1945, when literally thousands of horse-soldiers still found themselves in action?
Of course, cavalrymen were only as good as their horses, and this treatment of the German cavalry therefore also touches upon one of the great and enduring bonds in the human experience: that between the horseman and his mount. Having moved steadily away from regular, close contact with large animals since the middle of the twentieth century—except among a continuously dwindling number of farmers or perhaps from the safe side of a zoo’s enclosures—Western society has become largely ignorant of the profound interaction between horses and humans. Notwithstanding the undoubted commercial successes of recent occasional books, plays, and feature films (the British National Theatre’s 2009 triumph War Horse and the U.S. films Seabiscuit and Secretariat come most immediately to mind), horses since 1945 have become the perceived preserve of a “horsey set” of racing owners and/or breeders, huntsmen, or the simply rich. This perception remains current despite the fact that in the United States alone the equine population stood at well over five million at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In the United Kingdom the figure totaled perhaps one million at the same date, though it remains somewhat unclear whether that number resulted from recent natural accretion or severe undercounting in earlier surveys. Given such numbers, particularly in the United States, and based upon the author’s own experience, it seems clear that very substantial numbers of horses certainly do not live a life of luxury in racing stables and hunt clubs, nor do they live quite so far apart from their human companions as one might think. Nevertheless, actual contact between those huge numbers of horses and the larger human population in whose midst they live remains minimal for human society as a whole.
Of all the ties binding humans and horses, surely the most poignant and nearly the oldest is the one existing between the military horse and the mounted warrior. If not quite as ancient as warfare itself, this bond is nearly so. But war remains, and has always been, a hard business. Physical destruction abounds. Men, women, children—and animals—die. Of course, no moral equivalence between the death of a horse and that of a man, woman, or child is intended. The assertion of any such equivalence would be grotesque. Nevertheless, the deaths of horses can be piteous. They know real fear. They feel real pain. They seem to suffer real loss. Their size and their very nearness to their riders make their suffering all too palpable, all too visceral, when they are seriously or mortally injured. That nonquantifiable but vivid characteristic called “heart,” the inner quality possessed by so many horses that drives them on even at the risk of injury or death, can show itself most heroically when they die. Horses worn out by their lives’ exertions can be utterly composed and evidently ready when they go to their graves. The author has seen this firsthand. Those not yet ready to die can fight for life and very often do. The author has seen this as well. Cavalry horses’ training could itself sometimes be brutal, but so was the task to which they were set by their human masters. The numerous instances of those same horses’ noble behavior in combat (other words simply do not fit) nevertheless attest to a quality far beyond simple, enforced obedience. Just as many of their riders did, just as many soldiers have always done, such horses often showed their most profound dignity when their own lives hung in the balance. Is this mere cavalry romanticism, mere horseman’s anthropomorphism? Perhaps it is. Certainly many cavalrymen viewed their mounts merely as equipment to be discarded without further ado when injured or to be replaced without a second thought when killed. Others evidently felt differently. If not, why have war horses, so far as we can reckon, always had individual names from the earliest times down to the vast mounted forces of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century? Beginning in the Napoleonic period, most cavalrymen were literate. Consequently, it was “the first period where the personal relationship between the military horse and the soldier was recorded” in substantial numbers of accounts. The relationship could prove, and was shown to be, as intense as any between humans. Those accounts also provide the first substantive indication of a tale quite likely as old as the military horse itself, a tale of a very special bond forged in the crucible of war, a tale of fierce joy in life and unbearable heartache in death.