The 7th Cuirassiers’ charge by Franz Amling, 1890.
Prior to the dawn of mechanized warfare in the early twentieth century, and indeed for several decades thereafter, no element of the Western world’s armies so evoked the exotic and romantic aspects of war as the cavalry. For centuries the cavalryman’s kettle-drums and bugles were the sine qua non of martial music. For pageantry, nothing could surpass the panoply of the cavalryman: the sheer mass of his horse, his flowing regimental standards, snapping guidons, jingling tack, polished leather, and flashing steel.1 But it was not all mere show. Cavalry still evoked real fear. The shock value—and therefore the fear—of a massed cavalry attack was as old as the weapon itself and still persisted in the late nineteenth century. As he had for centuries, the mounted warrior still appeared to be forever “uncatchable, inescapable, unapproachable.” Long before the defeat of the foot-slogging Anglo-Saxons by the Norman horsemen at Hastings in AD 1066 and the great flowering of the Age of Chivalry, so fearsome were the mounted charge and its practitioners that they transformed not only European warfare but even European culture itself, as seen as early as the ninth-century Saxon Gospel, The Heliand. Indeed, historian H. R. Trevor-Roper, among others, placed the horseman at the epicenter of a fundamental societal change in the chivalric ideal; and no less a military historian than John Keegan speaks of a “cavalry revolution,” one in which massed horsemen literally reinvented warfare as a “thing in itself,” a means not merely to dominate one’s enemy but to annihilate him. War could now become, though it was not always in fact, a product of “militarism.”
Perhaps the last great hurrah for this view of the cavalry was the Franco-Prussian War. Though all of the major European armies would still possess huge cavalry forces in World War I, and though the German army, for one, was still fielding new cavalry forces as late as 1943–1944, the last significant and sustained cavalry-versus-cavalry operations occurred in 1870–1871. The romance of the cavalry had yet to be blown away by the full mechanization of European warfare. Feats of the nineteenth-century mounted arm—indeed all arms—could still be celebrated in verse, prose, and song: Tennyson and, later, Kipling come first to mind for English-speakers. More germane, however, was the fact in the aftermath of 1870, German lights such as Theodore Fontane, Richard Wagner, and Johannes Brahms celebrated the Reich’s victory over France in moving words and music. The “gigantic historical canvases” of painter Anton von Werner depicting German commanders on the field at Sedan or the proclamation of the German Empire at Versailles could still effectively disguise the battlefield’s carnage at Spicheren and Wörth, Metz and Mars-la-Tour. Socially, sartorially, psychologically, European cavalry remained wedded to this military romanticism in spite of the rapidly changing technological world surrounding it.
Curiously, even earlier manifestations of the cavalry’s attempted adaptation to technology in the early-modern period, whether in the form of so-called horse-pistols, carbines, or even horse-artillery and the resultant designations of light cavalrymen as hussars, dragoons, uhlans, or chausseurs, did not succeed in permanently or completely divorcing the cavalry from the idea that cold steel remained the ultimate weapon. Very frequently, light-cavalry formations, such as those mentioned above, evolved into versions of their heavy-cavalry rivals—the cuirassiers in France and the Reiter regiments in Prussia—and became possessed of the same dictum, namely that the “consummation of the cavalryman’s purpose in life [remained] the charge en masse.”6 Notwithstanding the hussar’s braid-encrusted pelisse and rakish busby—a uniform that gave Prince Friedrich Karl von Hohenzollern (commander of the Prussian Second Army in 1870) the nickname “The Red Prince” because he wore it all the time—light cavalry also tended to aspire to the social status and panache of the heavy cavalry regiments, especially that of the armorplated cuirassiers, a status that remained attractive to even the uppermost crust of European society, particularly on the Continent. Even Otto von Bismarck, Prussian and, later, imperial chancellor, held a major’s commission in the 1st Heavy Reserve Reiter Regiment and often wore its uniform, much to the serious annoyance of many professional officers around him, one of whom commented “acidly” that wearing a cuirassier’s greatcoat was no particular aid to military understanding. And perhaps no mounted regiment in Europe surpassed the splendor of French emperor Napoleon III’s “Hundred Guards” cuirassiers, though their flamboyant uniform was not atypical with its mirror-finish steel cuirass and helmet, the latter with gilded crest; two helmet-plumes (white horsehair and red feathers); a sky-blue tunic trimmed with red collar, cuffs, and lapels; gold epaulettes; white trousers; black top-boots; and white gloves.
Fancy or not, the cavalry faced an uncertain future at mid-century. In Prussia and elsewhere after 1850, the cavalry’s role in modern armies was being re-examined. Following the victorious war against Austria in 1866, Prussia’s leading commander, Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, did something rather unusual for victorious commanders: he analyzed what he and the Prussian army had done wrong. Insofar as the cavalry was concerned, several items were of note. On 27 June 1866 at Langensalza on the River Unstrut in Thuringia, the cavalry of the Hanoverian army (allied with Austria) had just managed to break Prussian infantry squares, suffering severe casualties in the process. This outcome seemed to confirm the cavalry’s traditional role as battle-winning shock troops. But in the very next month, on 3 July at Königgrätz, the Prussian cavalry found itself incapable not only of providing effective reconnaissance in the days before the battle but also of effective pursuit of the defeated Austrians afterwards. When Moltke subsequently critiqued his and his armies’ performance in a “sensitive memorandum” to the Prussian king in 1868, he gave vent to his views of what the Prussian (and eventually the German) cavalry’s future role should be. He stressed that the cavalry could and should still work in tactical concert with artillery and infantry as had the Hanoverians at Langensalza and the Prussians at Königgrätz. Nevertheless, the cavalry should no longer be held back primarily in order to deliver a massed charge at a decisive moment that might never come. While not entirely discounting the latter possibility, he wrote that cavalry should instead be used more extensively for screening, reconnaissance, and security. All these were missions for which horsemen remained uniquely suited. Precisely two years later, in July 1870, Moltke’s conclusions were tested in the Franco-Prussian War.
Despite Moltke’s admonitions, one roughly contemporaneous observer of the events of 1870–1871 wrote that German cavalry didn’t develop effective reconnaissance and screening capabilities until well after the war against France had begun; thus it did not emulate examples such as that set by the U.S. Army’s General John Buford during the Gettysburg campaign in the Civil War. The same author criticized the “stubbornness” and the “ill-informed” attitudes of the Europeans in their refusal to learn what he considered the proper lessons from the Civil War. Unlike their European counterparts for whom the cavalry’s specialization by type was still at least nominally in effect in 1870, American cavalrymen had long ceased to be functionally divided into “heavy cavalry” (for battle-winning massed attacks delivered with the arme blanche), “light cavalry” (for screening, reconnaissance, and messengerservice), and “dragoons” (essentially well-mounted infantry). Instead, “the traditional [American] cavalryman has ever been the light dragoon—a soldier trained and equipped to fight mounted or dismounted, to perform screening and reconnaissance, and to act as a scout or messenger. True heavy and true light horse have been rare.” Thus the cavalry of the American Civil War, whether Union or Confederate, did the bulk of its fighting on its feet. It broke no fundamental tradition in adapting to increasingly effective firepower. Though saber swinging melees did occur, as at Brandy Station, Virginia, in June 1863, most cavalry action during the Civil War was on foot, the horse serving as much as a means of transport as of attack. Evidently the American cavalryman did not feel morally obligated, as one author put it, to die on horseback, whereas his European counterpart still did in 1870.
Whatever difficulties they had in executing Moltke’s vision, the German cavalry of 1870 tended to exhibit much better understanding of their newly important role than did the French. At the beginning of the war, for example, the French cavalry was still guided by the regulations of 1829, the arm having “learnt nothing” in the meantime regarding more modern operations and tactics, according to one contemporaneous observer. Implicitly, this would mean that nothing was learned from the Crimea, the American Civil War, or even the much more recent Austro-Prussian War. Still, says this same observer, the French cavalry was conscious of its “past bravery and patriotism.” The absence of effective lessons learned was exacerbated by the fact that when the war began, the French cavalry “had no reserves of horses” and an “[unspecified but evidently large] portion of the effective strength were four-year old remounts.”
By contrast, Prussian and other German cavalry—almost always referred to by the French as uhlans whether the cavalry in question were actually lancers or not—consistently demonstrated an ability to reconnoiter more effectively than their French counterparts, even while stubbornly insisting on the ideal of the massed attack. As early as the frontier battle at Wissembourg on the borders of the Palatinate on 4 August 1870 and the roughly coincidental battle at Spicheren near Saarbrücken some forty miles to the northwest on 6 August, the French cavalry utterly failed to determine the scope of the threat facing Napoleon III’s armies. In part this was owing to the extraordinary directive of the French marshal Achille Bazaine dated 20 July wherein he stated that “our reconnaissance should not be aggressive.” Unfortunately for Bazaine, cavalry still constituted the sole reliable means of gathering information about an enemy’s dispositions beyond the line of sight. His directive, therefore, amounted to gouging out his own eyes during the critical phase of the armies’ concentration for battle. As it was, the French cavalry remained almost “completely inactive” throughout the period up to and including the Battle of Sedan as regards operational reconnaissance, even if at a tactical level French mounted forces were sometimes capable of effective action. Further, since French cavalry when it did patrol was “not accustomed to patrol far to the front,” French commanders typically assumed that German cavalry patrols were followed by much larger forces immediately to the rear even when this was not the case. This misapprehension helps explain French timidity when confronted with the constant presence of far-ranging German mounted units. And while perhaps the case could be made that cavalry proved to be of little practical value in the steep defiles around Spicheren, the same could not be said of the fighting at Wissembourg and the follow-on battles at Froeschwiller, Wörth, and Morsbronn. There the French desperately tried to retrieve their infantry’s fortunes through a sacrificial massed attack by General Michel’s and General Bonnemain’s reserve cavalry, including a full division of cuirassiers.
At Froeschwiller and Wörth, the French 2nd Cavalry Division’s 1st and 4th Cuirassiers of the Brigade Girard charged Badenese and Württemberger infantry over ground broken up by palisaded hop-fields and vineyards. As the horsemen were funneled by these obstructions into the intervals between the fields, the 4th Cuirassiers had to ride over twothirds of a mile under sustained rifle-fire. Both regiments suffered heavy losses “without having effected anything.” The division’s 2nd and 3rd Cuirassiers of the Brigade Brauer attacked over similar terrain made even worse by an “absolutely insurmountable” barricaded ditch. The 2nd Cuirassiers alone lost their colonel and 5 officers killed; more than 130 officers and men wounded; and some 250 horses killed outright or dying subsequently of their wounds. Throughout the attacks, the German infantry was “always out of reach and often out of sight” of the French horsemen.
In the view of recent scholarship of the Franco-Prussian War, the German infantry’s standing up to charging cavalry was still a radically new way for infantrymen to fight horsemen, dating back perhaps to Waterloo. Traditionally, infantrymen not formed in squares would tend to throw themselves to the ground to avoid blows from sabers and to make the horses shy away, presuming that the foot soldiers weren’t already running for their lives. Now, however, they “simply stood in lines and blazed away.” The results of such tactics for the French horsemen repeated themselves elsewhere that day. At the other end of the French line on the far right, for example, the 8th and 9th Cuirassiers of the 1st Cavalry Division’s Brigade Michel attacked German infantry in the village of Morsbronn. As earlier on the left, French troopers again charged through the intervals between hop-fields and vineyards and took heavy rifle-fire as they passed. The 8th Cuirassiers lost two-thirds of their horses before the cavalrymen even reached the village. Of the 9th Cuirassiers—and the supporting 6th Lancers of the division’s Brigade Nansouty— almost all troopers not killed before they gained the village were subsequently shot down and killed or captured along the village’s main street as the horsemen rode headlong into a blockaded dead-end. Afterward, dead horses and men lay so thickly in the street that passage along it was literally impossible. Witnesses and subsequent observers reported that the German bullets had “rattled like hail” against the cuirassiers’ steel breastplates and created “a strange music” in the process. The preponderance of unarmored lancers among the French dead at Morsbronn, compared to steel-plated cuirassiers, led at least one historian of the battle to conclude, erroneously, that the breast plate would therefore always be a part of the cavalryman’s equipment. Be that as it may, German riflemen had emptied hundreds of saddles and killed and wounded hundreds of men and horses. The French horsemen, for their part, had merely bought a bit of time for their infantry’s retreat.
As disastrous as these attacks had been, the French cavalry’s failure in reconnaissance had been equally faulty. As at Spicheren, so too at Froeschwiller the French suffered “a disastrous failure…to appreciate the strength and intentions of the Germans.” Indeed the day before the Bavarians attacked at Wissembourg (3 August), the local French commander, General Ducrot, reported that the Bavarians’ threat was a “simple bluff.” Only effective employment of the French cavalry in reconnaissance could have provided timely intelligence of unimpeachable character. By dramatic contrast, orders issuing from the Prussian Royal Headquarters, as well as from those of Prince Frederick Charles’ Second Army, often directed the cavalry specifically to “be pushed forward as far as possible.” Of course, not all orders were executed as given, and war’s inevitable friction affected the reliability of the information passed back up the chain of command. Nevertheless, in the war’s crucial opening phase, German cavalry operated consistently more effectively and widely than the French in the critical job of providing intelligence and fixing the enemy in place so that German infantry could be brought to bear.
In the aftermath of the fighting at Spicheren and Froeschwiller/ Wörth, and with the French armies in retreat across the board, the Germany cavalry—despite occasionally losing contact with the enemy—nevertheless showed itself willing and able to act boldly and range widely. In these instances, its behavior sometimes appears reminiscent of the “rides” of American Civil War generals Jeb Stuart, John Hunt Morgan, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Alfred Pleasanton, and Benjamin Grierson. Perhaps the most striking example, though still somewhat paltry when compared to the distances and consequences involved in that earlier conflict, was the German advance to the Moselle between 6 and 14 August 1870. German horsemen thrust in behind the French Army of the Rhine as it fell back on the fortress of Metz, cutting the telegraph connecting Paris and the depot at Nancy. The German riders thereby made cooperation with French forces still at Belfort all the more difficult. In some cases, German cavalry patrols forged as far as forty miles ahead of advancing main columns. On 12 August German cavalry reached the Moselle below Metz at Pont-a-Mousson and, farther south, at Frouard. In both places they crossed the river and again not only cut the telegraph but also the rail lines linking Metz with Nancy and, by extension, Chalons-sur-Marne where the French Government had ordered the formation of a reserve army. In point of fact, most of the German cavalrymen at Pont-a-Mousson were actually captured before they could complete their work of destruction. Nevertheless, they scored psychological victories as dramatic as in the war’s opening days when, on 26 July, the young Count Zeppelin and his mounted patrol had been captured while having lunch at the Shirlenhof Inn eight miles behind French lines at Niederbronn, or when Prussian uhlans blew up a French railroad viaduct near Saargemünd on 23–24 July. These examples were now being replicated up and down the line not only at Frouard and Pont-a-Mousson but also by the German cavalrymen who rode brazenly to the very walls of the fortress of Thionville, the gates being shut virtually in their faces, or who openly scouted within one-half mile of the main French camp at Metz. For their part, the French commanders in the latter city appeared to have failed utterly to use their available cavalry for anything like effective reconnaissance. On the contrary, they limited their efforts to placing staff officers as observers in the cathedral’s belfry. At a so-called council of war on 10 October, at least one corps commander recognized that the cavalry remaining in the city was “incapable of service,” evidently through prior mismanagement and the consequent collapse of morale. Presaging 1914, or even 1940, relatively small numbers of wide-ranging German uhlans and hussars created an effect “out of all proportion to their strength and achievements.” It was enough to create that terrifying picture of “‘the Uhlans’ [sic], ruthless, swift, and ubiquitous, which was to frighten the children of France and Europe for forty years to come.” Such operational success for the German cavalry most dramatically manifested itself soon thereafter with the stopping of the French withdrawal westward from Metz.
In this case the 5th and 6th Cavalry Divisions received orders to scout ahead to the Metz-Verdun road to try to determine the French army’s line of retreat. On 14–15 August German mounted units encountered French cavalry and other forces headed westward along the road in the vicinity of Mars-la-Tour and Vionville. The German cavalrymen took the French under fire with horse-artillery and stopped the column in its tracks. Other German formations advanced to the sound of the guns. For their part, the French failed to push their way through what still amounted to a cavalry screen in order to keep open their line of retreat. The result was the halting of the entire French movement along the line of Mars-la-Tour–Vionville–Rezonville–Gravelotte–Metz. Here the German cavalry, materially assisted by French hesitation, played the critical function of finding and fixing the enemy while the German infantry came up to try to cut off the French withdrawal. The German horsemen thus played precisely the roles assigned them by Moltke in his report to the Prussian king in 1868.
Of all the fighting along the road linking Metz and Verdun, certainly the emotional high point for German mounted troops was the so-called Death Ride at Mars-la-Tour of the 12th Cavalry Brigade under General Friedrich Wilhelm von Bredow. In this attack the 1st, 2nd, and 4th Squadrons of the 7th Cuirassiers and the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Squadrons of the 16th Uhlans charged en masse against prepared French infantry and artillery in order to gain time for faltering German troops and guns to regroup. Taking advantage of swales to approach within several hundred yards of the French positions, the German cavalry burst from the gun-smoke obscuring the battlefield and “flashed by” endangered Hanoverian artillery batteries at the critical moment. Somewhat atypically, the attack was launched straight from the gallop with no preliminary trot to the canter. As the charge got under way, four attached Prussian horse-artillery batteries fired obliquely across the right front of the horsemen. This gunfire, “right before their [the horses’] feet,” according to one student of the event, helped pave the way for a successful attack and fit perfectly with Prussian artillery doctrine in 1870 by covering the cavalry’s deployment and preparing its attack by direct fire upon the enemy. Charging over a distance of some 1,500 yards (1,300 m), the Prussian cuirassiers and uhlans crashed headlong into the French gun-line, cut down at least two French artillery batteries’ gunners, destroyed a mitrailleuse battery, and smashed two squares of French infantry. Unfortunately, the Germans’ formations broke up as they went forward, a perennial problem for any massed cavalry attack at that or any other time. They then found themselves counterattacked in turn by French horsemen outnumbering them by a factor of about five. In the fighting that followed, described as “frenzied” and a “tornado” of violence in which all arms of both sides became completely intermingled and heedless of trumpeted commands, the Germans nevertheless managed to extricate themselves and retreat to the safety of their own infantry and covering artillery. In a similar fashion later that same day, but in an event much less well known, the Prussian 1st Guard Dragoons attacked French infantry advancing on and threatening the Prussian left flank’s 38th Infantry Brigade on the heights northeast of Mars-la-Tour. Once again, the charge went in under rifle- and mitrailleuse-fire so as to allow the German infantry to disengage. The dragoons rode headlong into the advancing French infantry and accomplished the mission, but with 5 officers, an ensign, 42 men, and 204 horses dead. Six officers, 2 ensigns, 76 men, and 42 horses were wounded. Five troopers went missing. This constituted about 30 percent of the regiment’s effective strength. In the case of Bredow’s brigade, the losses were more than 50 percent (420 killed and wounded of 800 engaged). They would presumably have been higher still had not the badly rattled French infantry shot down more than 150 of their own counterattacking cuirassiers in the space of a few minutes’ confusion. Though described as not merely a “rarity” but as perhaps the “last successful cavalry charge in Western European warfare,” Bredow’s attack had allowed the German infantry time and space to rally. That, in turn, kept the French from continuing their retreat to the west. The same could be said of the Guard Dragoons. Notwithstanding these terrible losses, losses soon to be far surpassed by French horsemen at Sedan, the German troopers’ success buttressed arguments favoring the cavalry’s continued utility for the next forty years.
Despite the German cavalry’s accomplishments following the war’s outbreak and their frightful success at Mars-la-Tour, lessons were being learned regarding cavalry’s future role. One of the most important of these lessons appeared to be that “the rifle bullet and the spade [had] made the defensive the stronger form of warfare,” at least temporarily. Consequently, and as witnessed by Moltke’s earlier memorandum of 1868, the classic cavalry charge against infantry was fast becoming a thing of the past. In the war of 1870, for example, the French chassepot rifle had a maximum range of about 1,300 yards (1,200 m), while the German Dreyse “needle gun’s” maximum range was about 650 yards (600 m). And while in both cases the maximum effective range would be much less, they remained a deadly threat to mounted troops. But even certain cavalry units such as dragoons now carried rifled weapons of their own. The Prussian light cavalry, for example, carried a shortened carbine-variant of Dreyse’s rifle. The rapid and increasingly widespread issuing of rifled weapons to both foot soldiers and cavalrymen since about 1850, when combined with the means to deliver unprecedentedly large numbers of men to the front via railroads, constituted an important change in European military affairs. What had not yet happened was a real opportunity to test the effects of this change on European battlefields. True, it may be argued that the elder Moltke’s initial deployment of Prussia’s armies by rail in the invasion of Saxony and Bohemia in 1866 served to show the European importance of at least one of these new technologies and on an almost American scale of distance. Further, insofar as cavalry still formed an integral portion of Prussia’s armies, Moltke made provision that rail cars have tether rings and removable partitions built into them so that horses and artillery of all types could be more easily transported. To the extent, however, that the Prussian campaigns of 1866 and 1870 depended at least in their initial stages on deployment by rail with a view to long-distance maneuvering for a decisive Kesselschlacht, one would have thought that the cavalry’s importance would have increased and not decreased. That is, while armies deployed to their frontiers by rail, they typically marched thereafter. Only later, as the enemy’s railroads were commandeered, would they be expected to bring up reserves and supplies using the iron horse.
As late as 1866 the need for more effective cavalry employment was exacerbated by the fact that Prussian mounted formations were still often placed at the end of marching columns instead of being allowed to range far ahead. Indeed at Königgrätz, the Prussian cavalry still followed behind the infantry. The horsemen did not truly bring their great numbers to bear in the fighting and did not effectively pursue the broken Austrian Army at the end of the day (in part because of late charges by the latter’s heavy cavalry as they attempted to buy time for an Austrian withdrawal). Once again, Moltke’s report of 1868 noted such deficiencies. The war of 1870 changed all that and witnessed the combination of rail-deployment and massive cavalry operations, even though the latter sometimes had only disastrous tactical results.