Heinrich XVII, Prince Reuß, on the side of the 5th Squadron I Guards Dragoon Regiment at Mars-la-Tour, 16 August 1870. Emil Hünten, 1902.
Late 19th century Prussian Cuirassiers
The German cavalry of 1870 also continued a tactical employment of horsemen and horse-artillery dating back to Napoleon I. The French emperor had pioneered the combination of artillery (to weaken an enemy’s infantry formations) with massed cavalry and infantry assault (to shatter them). Given the technology of the Napoleonic era, trotting horsemen covering some six hundred paces every two minutes (approximately 250 yards/228 meters per minute) could close with the typical artillery piece of the day (firing to a range of eight hundred to nine hundred paces) before the gun could fire more than one or two rounds. Of course, at the canter or gallop the distance closed much more quickly, and many charges covered the final 150 yards or so (137 m) at the latter gait provided that horses were fresh. Therefore, charging cavalry “did not suffer over-much from enemy cannon fire,” an observation excepting those unfortunate men and horses who were actually blown apart or eviscerated by canister or round shot. The employment of massed cavalry in corps formation at the decisive moment to defend one’s own position or to attack the enemy’s also dates to Napoleon. He’d established “the corps…as the largest organizational form for cavalry units.” But given the substantially increased range, hitting-power, and rate-of-fire of rifles and artillery by 1870, horsemen charging a prepared infantry formation became much more vulnerable. Indeed, cavalrymen began to experience this painful realization as early as Waterloo, despite the estimated maximum of only 5-percent accuracy for unrifled musketry fire beyond ten yards’ range. Unfortunately, the deadlier weapons of 1870 greatly increased the cavalryman’s exposure. Assuming the height of a heavy cavalry horse to be sixteen hands or nearly five-and-a-half feet (“hands” being four-inch increments measured from the forefeet to the point of withers with the horse standing square on a flat surface), the rider’s head rose to a height of not quite three yards (2.75 m) above the ground. Notwithstanding his helmet and/or cuirass, he was now extremely vulnerable at unprecedentedly long ranges; and this does not even take into account the horse itself. As a target for riflemen or artillerists, the horse possessed the terribly unfortunate combination of a thin skin and a high silhouette even when galloping for brief moments at perhaps thirty miles per hour (48 km/h).
Despite these critical vulnerabilities, cavalrymen—at least at a campaign’s beginning when their horses were not yet debilitated—could cover up to 50 miles (80 km) per day when riding hard. Even 80 to 100 miles (up to 160 km) in a twenty-four-hour period were not unheard-of for well-mounted light cavalry. All the while, the horse bore an average load approaching 250 pounds (113 kg). Furthermore, given its ability to swim, not even the tactical obstacles of streams and middling rivers necessarily stood in the cavalry’s way, even though rivers such as the Moselle above and below Metz demanded ferries or bridges in order for the cavalry to cross. Therefore, in a premotorized age, and indeed even later, a realistic alternative to horse-mounted units on the European battlefield simply did not exist. Scouting, patrolling, covering the flanks and rear, protecting the withdrawal, raiding—all of these missions remained the tasks of both pure cavalry formations and the mounted units attached to Prussian infantry divisions. By 1866 even the latter included four squadrons of approximately seven hundred horsemen.
Greatly aiding the German cavalry in 1870 was the detailed information they possessed on the French transportation infrastructure as the campaign began. German commanders were said to have had better maps of France than the French armies’ own staffs. German long-range cavalry reconnaissance and pursuit displayed persistence after the initial battles on the frontiers, even if it was not always completely effective. The French cavalry, on the other hand, were criticized by a contemporary not only for continued massing of formations when such mass was unnecessary but also for “never send[ing] out a single scout or vedette” in the long retreat westward from the Franco-German frontier. Such tactical ineffectiveness only worsened the logistical nightmares often accompanying French troops during their mobilization and initial deployments. At Metz on 1 August, for example, some two thousand wagons loaded with hay, straw, and oats clogged the city’s streets with no other apparent destination in mind. Similarly, French cavalry at Metz had to be employed “day and night as laborers,” using their mounts’ saddlebags to transport matériel from stalled supply-trains to the city’s depots. Not until 23 July did Napoleon III demand the attention of his Minister of War, General Edmond Leboeuf, to the matter of the “establishment of a [national] requisition and remount service” in order to supplement or replace the French cavalry’s extant system of regimental depot squadrons. It seems incredible that such a matter wasn’t undertaken before the French declaration of war, especially in light of the fact that such a service, among others, would normally “require months if not years of preparation.” By that date, the destruction of a goodly portion of the French cavalry at Wissembourg and Froeschwiller was barely two weeks off.
After all, it was not as though the French had no experience in long-range cavalry operations and the remount services necessary to support them. After Jena in 1806, for example, Napoleon I “unleashed his cavalry in a pursuit designed to complete the destruction of the enemy and the enemy state; a deep penetration to spread panic among the enemy population and destroy all hope of recovery.” Even so, he had seen in his cavalry not only “an exploitation force or reconnaissance asset” but also a “true shock force that could have effects disproportional to its numerical size” as at Eylau in 1807. If the latter were true, if the massed attack were still to be the French cavalry’s main reason for being, then massing them in the rear and holding them in place until the critical moment, though frequently condemned, would be a logical tactical disposition. In fact, the French cavalry had done as much even earlier, as before the revolutionary wars of the 1790s, and one could argue that the idea in fact came from the example of the armies of Frederick the Great at Rossbach in 1757 and Zorndorf in 1758. Unfortunately, between 1807 and 1870, French commanders had apparently forgotten the former examples and remembered only the latter ones. As a matter of common sense, for French commanders—and implicitly for German ones—holding the cavalry in reserve until the decisive moment always brought with it the danger of having the mounted forces sitting useless altogether or being committed too late to make a difference. And despite the greatly increased firepower on the part of the infantry, dismounted combat for the European cavalry was still considered the exception. In any case it could only be undertaken by horsemen armed with the cavalry carbine such as dragoons and hussars in Prussia or chevaulegers in Bavaria. In the event, French dragoons in 1870 often dismounted to volley-fire their carbines on advancing German cavalry. Evidently, however, these defensive tactics were insufficiently tenacious and the dragoons’ marksmanship was insufficiently accurate. Consequently, except for this sort of occurrence, only the German cavalry in 1870 managed to be not only consistently wide-ranging in reconnaissance and screening but also able to deliver massed attacks when called upon to do so.
The cavalry’s role as envisioned by Moltke in 1868 was certainly not limited to him alone. Cavalry’s employment had been studied with renewed interest by Prussian cavalry officers and theorists from about 1863 onward. That does not mean, however, that there existed uniformity of view among them. Colonel Albrecht von Stosch, an officer of the Prussian General Staff who fought in 1866 and 1870 and eventually (and somewhat curiously) became Chief of the Admiralty, wrote that American cavalry in the Civil War had been essentially mounted infantry. Their reliance more on firepower than cold steel for battlefield effectiveness ran counter, he said, to the cavalry’s putatively true value as a shock force, a “typically conventional” European view. Other Prussian officers, however, noted in their work that the American use of cavalry as long-range interdiction forces against strategic lines of telegraphic and railroad communications constituted what later generations would call a wave of the future. Nevertheless, and “almost without exception,” Prussian students of the cavalry still maintained in 1866 and 1870 that the mounted arm’s first duty was to stay mounted, avoid dismounted combat unless absolutely necessary, and attack with cold steel. The prevailing view remained that dismounted cavalry’s role in the American Civil War arose from the uneven and overgrown nature of North American battlefields, not from significant changes in firearms’ evolution. The dismounted role, it was felt, did not apply in Europe. Nor was the strategic raid viewed as of great military value. As late as 1900, therefore, the German cavalry—like other mounted forces in Europe—would still count the sword and the lance among its principal weapons, and apart from the reconnaissance and screening missions so much emphasized by Moltke, German horsemen would generally be held in reserve for the breakthrough battle that, at least on World War I’s Western Front, never came. Therefore, despite Moltke’s admonitions and their own successes up to the Battle of Sedan, German cavalry officers preferred to “trust to their own experience” and a recollection of the smashing successes of Frederick the Great. Fundamentally altering the role of the cavalry to follow any other model, particularly an American one, was still alien to German and the larger European traditions in 1870. Both German and French cavalry officers remained “fatally fascinated” by the shock-effect of massed formations of horsemen.
Of the two nations’ mounted arms, it is ironic that the French did not more readily adopt another cavalry doctrine, particularly one emphasizing more long-range patrolling. After all, French cavalrymen had been active throughout the 1830s and 1840s in Algeria, where they had responded to the guerrilla war against French colonial rule with the creation of light, wide-ranging mounted units. These included the Ottoman-inspired light cavalry known by their Turkish designation as sipahis and the so-called Chassuers d’Afrique. Eventually, three regiments of the latter were also posted to Mexico in the 1860s to bolster the short-lived regime of the French-supported Habsburg emperor Maximilian. Among the noteworthy features of these particular units was the adoption of the Iberian-influenced Barb as the mount of choice, incomparable in its ability to thrive in the arid environments of both North Africa and the high plains and mountains of central and northern Mexico. These were the “little grey Arab horses” whose dead bodies, along with those of their riders, would soon carpet the hillsides above Sedan.
It was toward that city that the German armies marched in the wake of the French defeat at Mars-la-Tour and the following battle at Gravelotte-St.-Privat. In advancing generally west-northwest, the Germans aimed to disrupt the French Government’s attempt to raise a relief force for Marshal Bazaine’s army now trapped at Metz. This period witnessed the French relief armies’ movement and their pursuit by the German from Chalons to Rheims to Sedan from 20 to 28 August. During these days, the German cavalry once again ranged far ahead of the advancing infantry, often by as much as forty or fifty miles (up to 80 km). As they had after the battles on the frontier at the war’s beginning, the German horsemen hounded the French and provided vital intelligence. Even so, the riders sometimes lost contact through no fault of their own; the French armies were subjected to what historian Michael Howard called “lunatic change[s] in direction” in their line of march as they tried to maintain contact with faulty supply lines. Once the German cavalry found their quarry, however, they helped delay and harass French forces sufficiently to deflect them ever farther northward toward the borders of Belgium and the fortress of Sedan. All the while the German infantry came up remorselessly from the east and southeast.
At Sedan one sees perhaps the most pointless waste of cavalry in the whole of the war. This occurred in the attempt by the French horsemen, under the command of General Margueritte, to pierce the German lines above the village of Floing to allow for a French breakout to the west. Shot through the face while reconnoitering the German lines, Margueritte could not ride with his troopers. They nevertheless went in gallantly according to observers, including King William of Prussia who witnessed the charge from across the Meuse. As had happened several times since the war’s beginning, the result was “a useless and terrible sacrifice…a fearful loss of life with no result whatever.” The two brigades of the cavalry reserve making the repeated charges not only didn’t effect a breakout; “they did not delay the German infantry five minutes.” With the exception of a number of German skirmishers cut down in the initial French charge, the German infantry simply waited and “mowed [the French horsemen] down with volleys.” As at Morsbronn near Froeschwiller in the war’s opening days, the French cavalry “were shot down before they could get within fifty yards. It was a useless, purposeless slaughter.” The five regiments involved suffered some 350 men killed, not counting the wounded and those taken prisoner. One unit of two squadrons had only 58 survivors from the 216 who made the charges. The entire time that the French had been under fire was said to have been perhaps one-quarter of an hour. Rallying twice, the French horsemen came on three times in total. By the third attempt, the cavalry horses were not so much charging as picking their way gingerly over the corpses of the fallen.
Even for those managing to survive the destruction of Margueritte’s cavalry, the losses suffered by French mounted and horse-drawn units at Sedan were terrible. At least ten thousand horses were captured in the French surrender. Of those, the Germans killed huge numbers deemed too broken down to keep. One Bavarian battalion alone killed three thousand after being ordered to destroy “any that looked sickly.” At distant Metz, too, horses of the French cavalry, artillery, and transport units found themselves not only hated for eating up scarce supplies of grain intended for the nearly starving garrison but slaughtered for food themselves. These units were ordered to cull forty horses each for slaughter, and by 20 September fifty percent of the garrison’s cavalry mounts had been butchered. Similar fates also befell large numbers of military horses in the French capital. Once the city was invested, the Parisian diet deteriorated largely to “scraps of bread, red wine, and horse meat.”
With the strangulating encirclement of Paris and the subsequent occupation of most of northern France after Sedan, the German cavalry’s role became one very familiar to German horsemen in Russia seventy years later: anti-partisan duty. In late 1870 and early 1871, the partisans were the francs-tireurs. Sometimes actual guerrillas, sometimes remnants of former French army units, sometimes newly raised formations, the francs-tireurs often provided more effective intelligence to French commanders than had the French cavalry whose traditional role it was. The francs-tireurs also harassed German patrols and attempted to sabotage the Germans’ supply lines still stretching back to the Rhine. In this second phase of the war, German cavalry routinely undertook far-ranging patrols to the south and west of Paris in order to alert Moltke to the possibility of a French attempt to relieve the capital. Those same cavalry units carried out missions to extend the system of requisitions ever deeper into the French countryside to supplement their own armies’ logistics. Ultimately, they were ordered to “sweep the country clean of francs-tireurs.”
In the process, the war assumed ever-deeper levels of brutality as a heavy winter arrived. The siege of Paris dragged on, and the French continued stubbornly to resist (even while eventually fighting among themselves during the Commune). Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck raged that all francs-tireurs should be summarily shot or hanged. Villages sheltering them, he said, should be burned to the ground. Indeed, reprisals against real or suspected partisans were savage, what one historian of the war called “a wholesale Americanization” of the conflict reminiscent of William T. Sherman’s intention to make his Southern enemies in Georgia “howl” during the Civil War. Fortunately for France, the German cavalrymen and their commanders couldn’t or wouldn’t fulfill all Bismarck’s wishes.
In that winter of 1870, the German cavalry’s own difficulties made punitive expeditions questionable if not actually impossible. Supplies and remounts became relatively scarce and roads often so badly covered in ice and snow that troopers had to lead their horses instead of riding them. The horsemen were nevertheless forced to keep to the roads because the countryside was sometimes impassable with deep snow. To add insult to injury, German cavalry now also frequently had to be accompanied by infantry. Precisely because of the threat posed by the francs-tireurs in ambushes of slow-moving, road-bound mounted columns, German commanders had to ensure they had infantry support. Of course, tying the cavalry to the speed of the infantry deprived the horsemen of their principal advantage. The long-range capability of the cavalry disappeared “the moment it had to march under the protection of the infantry.” The German cavalry’s war of movement became a sort of snail-paced war of attrition until the spring thaw arrived. And when the spring did come, so too did France’s surrender. The Treaty of Frankfurt of May 1871 recognized not only the humbling of France but the arising of a new Great Power in Europe, a once and future German Reich.
At Froeschwiller, Wörth, Mars-la-Tour, and Sedan the massed cavalry charges of both the Germans and the French were not typically intended to shatter fixed infantry formations, though that could sometimes be a fortunate result, as in Bredow’s “Death Ride.” Rather, in all cases, massed cavalry attacks were launched to retrieve situations in which one’s own infantry had been driven from the field or were threatened with that fate, as had also been the case with the Austrian cavalry charge late in the day at Königgrätz in 1866. The objective was to give the infantry sufficient time to retreat and/or re-form. The massed charge therefore became the means not so much to crown the victory as to stave off a defeat. Occasionally, of course, cavalry were ordered to attack under the false impression that the enemy was actually broken and could be pursued. The most egregious example of such a mistake shows in Prussian general Karl Friedrich von Steinmetz’s ordering of a mounted attack against the French lines at Gravelotte through a ravine on a raised causeway already choked with the bodies and debris of earlier, failed Prussian infantry assaults. The predictable result was the “slaughter by the hundreds” of the units in question. A “dreadful” French rifle-, automatic-weapons-, and artillery fire hit the cavalry full in the face without the horsemen’s “having the least chance of returning it.” Naturally, the fault in this case lay not with the cavalry itself but in Steinmetz’s gross misjudgment of the tactical situation.
At the same time the cavalry’s real worth re-emerged in missions that only horsemen could execute in the nineteenth century: long-range reconnaissance, flanking movements, and the interdiction of the enemy’s rail lines and communications. German cavalry proved consistently more adept at these tasks than did the French. After Sedan, however, the German cavalry’s operations against the francs-tireurs; the guarding of lines of supply and communication stretching back to the German States; and foraging for the occupation forces assumed precedence. And while these important missions could still be effectively executed by the Germans’ mounted troops, these nevertheless found themselves increasingly tied to the infantry for protection against roving columns of French partisans. Thus the German cavalry ran the risk of losing their most significant operational assets—speed and mobility.
As effective as the German horsemen tended to be, one question remains: why did they not emulate the American example of the strategic “ride” so much in evidence in the Civil War? It turns out they did, after a fashion, and somewhat unintentionally. To the extent that German horsemen routinely rode far in advance of marching infantry columns, one sees a long-range, mounted reconnaissance capability similar to that seen in the Civil War. This capability is most evident in the form of wide-ranging German patrols, though not very large ones. They often occurred only in squadron-strength or less. One of the most striking examples of their success showed in their cutting the rail lines at Pont-a-Mousson south of Metz in the follow-up phase after the battles at Spicheren and Froeschwiller. At times in this particular pursuit, the German troopers rode as much as forty miles ahead of their infantry, a figure corresponding closely to the distances covered daily by John Hunt Morgan’s cavalry in Kentucky in 1862. German cavalry played an even more important role in helping find and fix the French army in its attempted retreat from Metz to Verdun. The mounted units thus significantly contributed to setting the stage for—and, of course, fighting in—the resulting battles at Mars-la-Tour, Vionville, and Gravelotte-St.-Privat, and, ultimately, the bottling up of the French back in Metz where they’d started. German cavalry also materially helped extend the invaders’ reach in the encirclement of Paris after Sedan and in long-distance foraging during the subsequent siege of the French capital. Perhaps most important, throughout the war German cavalry enjoyed what earlier generations called moral superiority over their French opponents. That confidence, despite occasionally very heavy losses, contributed in turn to their ultimate tactical and operational superiority.
One does not, however, see German cavalry engaged in the long-range strategic raiding as conducted by both Confederate and Union horsemen between 1862 and 1865. As often as not, those earlier forays aimed at capturing entire towns, operational theaters’ supply dumps, or thoroughly wrecking vast stretches of railroad. The absence of this kind of raiding in 1870–1871 is all the more interesting given the evident Prussian attention paid to the technical aspects of Civil War–era use of railroads for theater-wide deployment of forces, not to mention the importance of railroads in Prussia’s victory in 1866 as well as in keeping German armies supplied in 1870. German interest in the Union’s and Confederacy’s use of railroads did not appear to translate into a changed attitude toward the cavalry’s tactics or strategy based upon the American example, at any rate certainly not before 1870. Many German students of the Civil War dismissed both Union and Confederate cavalry as merely mounted infantry, a new type of dragoon, who (somewhat ironically) relied too much on firearms for their effectiveness, rather than on “the ‘vehemence and force’ of shock tactics,” as was evidently still preferred in Continental Europe. This attitude persisted despite the particular admiration for the Confederate cavalry in Prussia by as prominent and successful a Prussian cavalry officer as Prince Friedrich Karl von Hohenzollern.
On the other side, why did the French cavalry not emulate the American example set during the Civil War? Several possible explanations suggest themselves. In the first instance, no prominent French soldiers wrote about the Civil War before 1870, a period in which French armies were often already at war in North Africa or Mexico. Their own lessons learned in mounted operations would presumably have sufficed. Secondly, the American Civil War had occurred “at a distance [greatly removed from France] and in the midst of special circumstances. ”Not the least of these circumstances was the perceived amateurishness of American armies, Union and Confederate. Consequently their experiences’ applicability to the French army was judged to be of limited value at best, though surely the French cavalry school at Saumur recognized that the distance from France to Mexico was not less than that from France to the borders of the Union or the Confederacy. Finally, it was maintained that the heavily “populated, cultivated, and civilized” nature of Western Europe made a French replication of strategic raiding as undertaken by Grierson or Morgan unlikely, if not impossible, despite the fact that more obscure French observers noted the strategic-raiding role that cavalry might still play. Indeed, one might argue that precisely the thickly woven nature of Western Europe’s transportation infrastructure would have made strategic raiding even more valuable in offering many more targets than had been the case earlier in the still relatively sparsely settled reaches of Kentucky or Mississippi. As noted at the outset in reference to the French cavalry’s lackadaisical reconnaissance and interdiction in the war’s opening days, there existed in Paris an “imperturbable complacency” until 1866; and despite rousing itself after Königgrätz to adopt the chassepot and new siege artillery and enact, in 1868, a plan for a thoroughgoing reorganization, the French army in 1870 was frequently simply outfought. And when not outfought, it suffered catastrophically bad leadership. In the forty-three years following the Treaty of Frankfurt, as the new German Reich and the French Republic girded themselves for the next round in their centuries-old rivalry, the cavalry of both countries remained integral to their respective armed forces, as did horsemen in all other European armies. For the victorious Germans of 1871, the question was not so much would there be cavalry in the next war, but rather to what great victories would they ride?