English Civil War Tactics II

From the start, Rupert trained his troopers to take an active role on the battlefield. In the words of Richard Bulstrode, who fought with the king’s lifeguard of horse at Edgehill:

Prince Rupert passed from one wing to the other, giving positive orders to the Horse to march as close as possible keeping their ranks with sword in hand . . . without firing either carbine or pistol, till we broke in amongst the enemy and then make use of our firearms as need should require, which order was punctually obeyed.

This reflected Swedish practice, but the length of the charge and the speed at which it was delivered suggests Polish or French influences. It remained Royalist practice to charge the enemy in this manner for the rest of the war when they were given the opportunity, but they were also capable of biding their time, as on the left wing at Marston Moor, where Goring timed his charge so that it hit the enemy as they were making their way across a patch of difficult ground. One significant change in Royalist tactics during the war, which had strong Swedish precedents, involved stationing small bodies of musketeers among the cavalry on both wings, thus increasing their firepower if they were not intending to charge. The casualties among his cavalry caused by the Royalist musketeers was a matter of comment in Fairfax’s account of Marston Moor, but he did not himself employ them in that manner at Naseby, a sure sign that he intended to charge the Royalists, not wait to be charged. De Gomme’s plans of the Royalist battle formation at Naseby show Rupert deploying musketeers among the horse on the right and left wings as at Marston Moor, but they do not appear in Streeter’s plan. Possibly it was Rupert’s original intention to do so, but the decision to attack on both wings meant that they would have served no useful purpose, while weakening the infantry formation.

The orders given to the Parliamentary horse at Edgehill were very different. The right wing was to remain stationary in the hope that the fire of its dragoons and musketeers would blunt the Royalist charge. The left may have been on the move as Rupert charged, but they fired their pistols and carbines at too great a distance to have any real effect. Both suggest Dutch practice, and both were completely unsuccessful. However, despite what had happened at Edgehill, army commanders in the south of England were reluctant to change. Although individual units charged or counter-charged during a battle when the opportunity offered, the wing as a whole tended to wait for the Royalist attack and then to fire on them as they approached. Essex’s horse behaved in this way at the first battle of Newbury, and Waller’s at Roundway Down and Cheriton. It was not until the second battle of Newbury that both wings advanced on the enemy rather than waiting to be attacked.

The deployment of cavalry on the battlefield in a defensive formation had come to an end a year earlier in the north of England, and it is to Oliver Cromwell’s credit that the Eastern Association horse were the first to abandon the Dutch model, although Sir Thomas Fairfax was very quick to follow suit. Insofar as Cromwell was concerned, the penny seems to have dropped almost by accident at the battle of Grantham in May 1643. He describes the moment of enlightenment as follows:

After we had stood a little above musket shot the one body from the other . . . for the space of half an hour or more, they not advancing towards us, we agreed to charge them . . . and came on with our troops at a pretty round trot, they standing firm to receive us, and our men charging fiercely upon them by God’s providence they were immediately routed and ran all away, and we had the execution of them two or three miles.

However, Cromwell did not slavishly copy Prince Rupert’s Swedish model with a Franco-Polish gloss. Cromwell was concerned with keeping his troops in formation from the very beginning. He almost certainly saw the drawbacks of the charge taken at the gallop in terms of maintaining close order and controlling his men. He also never employed musketeers interspersed with his horse squadrons, as they could easily get in the way and disrupt the cavalry formations’ close order. Finally, he never positioned a cavalry reserve behind the infantry to be used as appropriate. This may have been an accidental consequence of his never being in overall command of an army during the Great Civil War with carte blanche to place his cavalry where he wished. On the other hand, he did claim that Fairfax left him in complete charge of the cavalry at Naseby.

At the next engagement, at Gainsborough two months later, both sides charged, but Cromwell’s men, although surprised, were able to deploy quickly from column into line while `keeping close order’, that is each man keeping cheek by jowl with his neighbour, thus creating an equine battering ram that would gain momentum as the horse picked up speed in the charge. Once the main body of enemy horse had been routed, Cromwell allowed most of his cavalry to pursue the enemy, but he successfully recalled three troops of his own regiment and used them to rout the Royalist reserves. These are the first sign of Cromwell’s training of his men having an effect on the outcome of an action. At Winceby, the third battle to take place in Lincolnshire in 1643, Cromwell was unhorsed when both sides charged. As a result his account of the engagement lacks detail, but Fairfax’s Yorkshire horse seem to have won the engagement by charging the enemy in the flank while they were engaged in a melée with the Eastern Association horse. A Royalist account of the battle described Cromwell’s men as absorbing the initial shock with great success and as being `very good and extraordinarily armed’. Oliver himself was very sound on the latter point: `If a man has not got good weapons, horse and harness, he is naught’.

Cromwell commanded an entire wing of between 3,000 and 4,000 horse at Marston Moor in what was probably the biggest cavalry engagement of the war. There, despite being charged in the flank, he not only routed the Royalists facing him in a fight lasting half an hour, he also stopped his men pursuing the enemy. They then turned to the right and attacked those regiments of enemy horse that were still on the battlefield in a manoeuvre closely resembling one that the Duke of Enghien had used to destroy the Spanish cavalry at Rocroi the year before. In the process, Cromwell turned a near disaster into an undoubted victory.

Given that all Cromwell’s horse had been committed in the first stage of the engagement, it is difficult to understand how he could have kept them together to such an extent that they were capable almost immediately of marching off in a different direction in good order. All that we can imagine is that when the Royalist right wing fled, Cromwell’s cavalry were at a virtual standstill. If so, this makes it highly likely that Scottish claims that David Leslie’s three regiments of lancers, drawn up in reserve immediately behind the Eastern Association horse, charged the Royalists in the flank and put them to flight are correct. Otherwise, if the enemy horse had broken slowly or rapidly, Cromwell’s formation would have splintered as one Royalist troop after another turned tail.

Cromwell’s triumph at Naseby was far less spectacular, and also far less of a personal achievement, given the New Model Army’s strength in cavalry and Rupert’s orders for the Northern Horse to leave their good defensive position and advance to attack him on an uphill slope. On this occasion, despite numerous claims to that effect, Cromwell did not first rout the enemy horse and then turn on the enemy infantry. The first and part of his second line defeated the Northern Horse, and the Newark brigade sent to their support. The assault on the enemy infantry reserves that followed was carried out by the rest of the second line, supported by the third line. The first regiments to charge were almost certainly no longer in close order and therefore unlikely to have been able to make a successful attack on the Royalist infantry. The conflict had been quite lengthy, there had been numerous casualties, and the ground over which they had fought – a rabbit warren, furze bushes, and steep, though short, inclines – must have disrupted their formation. However, the discipline of those who had routed the Northern Horse was such that they did not pursue the enemy over the horizon but stopped in a position where they could watch their movements and ensure that they took no further part in the fight.

As battlefield tacticians, Royalist cavalry generals have been compared unfavourably with Cromwell in one important respect. Although their horse often routed the enemy wing facing them, the commanders were unable to control their men, who rode off in pursuit of the fleeing Parliamentarians or in search of plunder instead of regrouping and turning their attention to the enemy infantry formations. Not surprisingly, this opinion was first publicized by Clarendon, the originator of so many errors and halftruths about the Royalist army and its commanders. Barratt has recently challenged this, and we agree with his rather tentative conclusions. At Marston Moor, the second line of the Royalist left wing did almost exactly what Cromwell’s wing did at Naseby. While the first line followed the enemy to prevent their reforming, it turned on the enemy infantry. At Naseby, the victorious Royalist right wing is alleged to have lost complete control as at Edgehill and attacked the New Model baggage train instead of reordering itself and returning to the battlefield. We have suggested that it may have done this because Parliamentary infantry regiments were blocking the most direct route for an attack on the rear of Cromwell’s wing, but we also acknowledge that they were unlikely to have been able to do much against the enemy other than hope to take them by surprise, as the length of the encounter must have meant that they were no longer in close order.

Insofar as tactics are concerned, it therefore seems most unlikely that Parliament would have won the Great Civil War as soon as it did without the change in cavalry tactics introduced by Oliver Cromwell. Similarly, it is becoming increasingly clear that the relative failure of the Royalist horse on the battlefield from Cheriton onwards was not because they combined lack of discipline and training with slavish adherence to what had worked at Edgehill. What the king’s generals lacked above all else at Marston Moor, and even more so at Naseby, was sufficient cavalry to defeat a large, well-trained and well-motivated enemy, and that was the result of poor strategy, not poor tactics.

However, it is certainly not our intention to downplay Cromwell’s contribution to winning the war. His achievement was to combine elements from the Dutch and the Swedish traditions to create a formula for cavalry attack that was appropriate for English conditions: disciplined, controlled charges delivered at a brisk trot, which developed an impressive momentum as the formations were still in close order when they struck the enemy. Finally, Cromwell used sound training and religious zeal as mutually reinforcing elements to create the most dedicated cavalry on either side in the Great Civil War. By encouraging those ideologically committed to religious reform to join his regiments, and by promoting men for their competence and their commitment rather than their social class, he created cavalry formations that could only experience an incremental enhancement of both characteristics as victory followed victory and they saw themselves more and more clearly as God’s instruments in a holy war. Here, too, he was building on the work of Gustavus Adolphus, who had tried to create a godly army renowned for its military virtue and its piety, but he failed ultimately because he had to employ mercenaries in order to bring his army up to a competent size. Cromwell, however, succeeded. In the words of Michael Roberts, he `united in his own person the military and moral heritage of the Swedish king’. In the process, he also created a cavalry arm that would serve in his eyes and those of many of his radical Protestant contemporaries as the humble instrument of the divine will. His were literally the `shock troops of God’.

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