The Winged Hussars were prominent in Jan Sobieski’s 30,000-man force that defeated the Turks at Vienna in September 1683. There, on the right wing of the Polish-German force, they pierced the Turkish lines, found themselves surrounded, and hacked their way out. They then re-formed and charged again, breaking the Turkish line.
An elite cavalry unit in Poland in the seventeenth century.
Traditionally, the term hussar is used to describe light cavalry. However, in Poland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, special units of heavy cavalry dominated by Poland’s nobility took the name hussar for their heavy cavalry units. The origin of the word probably derives from the Slavic word gussar, meaning “bandit,” a term that described the harassing form of combat in which they engaged. In a time of heavily armored knights, lightly armored hussars were used mainly for scouting and pursuit. Large numbers of foreign volunteers swelled the ranks of Poland’s army in what was that country’s heyday as a European power.
The hussars who were accepted from other countries brought with them their traditional uniforms, which were among the most aggressively fashionable cavalry attire ever worn. The Polish nobility saw a chance to flaunt their wealth and position while serving their king and country, so the flashy hussar uniform drew them in large numbers. The nobility, however, had been the armored knights and preferred the role of attacking to scouting, so they blended their traditional role with the more fashionable name and uniforms.
The uniform that they adopted started with the traditional tight-fitting pants, fur-lined jackets with braiding, and round fur hats with flat tops. For protection, the hussar wore a metal breastplate and a skirt of chain mail or heavy cloth. In battle the fur hat was replaced by a metal bowl-shaped helmet. In keeping with his need for expression, the hussar often wore a cape made of leopard skin and lined with silk. The horses were decorated as well, the rider painting them with dye, fitting the harness and livery with brass, and festooning the horse with feathered plumes. For dress parade, the traditional wing-shaped shield would sometimes be topped with stuffed animals, such as eagles.
The most distinctive accoutrement, however, was the addition of tall feathered wings attached to the saddle or the hussar’s back. There is some debate as to the function of these wings: Some authorities say they were purely decorative, some say they were to foul lassoes used by steppe horsemen, while still others say that the feathers emitted a loud whistle when the horseman was at a gallop that enhanced the already fearsome visage of the onrushing cavalryman.
For weaponry, the Polish hussar had both a collection of personal arms and his steed itself. The type of horse necessary to bear an armored rider had long been bred in Europe, and the Poles mixed these with Arabian horses stolen or received as tribute from the Ottoman Empire. The strength, size, and endurance of the mixed breed made these horses among Europe’s finest, and only the wealthiest could afford them. Each hussar charged the enemy with a lance that measured as long as 24 feet, easily outreaching the pikes held by the defending infantry. Not surprisingly, the lance was also brightly decorated and strung with a pennant designating the rider’s unit. The hussar operated in a time when firearms were making their first major appearance in Europe, and he often carried wheel-lock pistols himself. His primary weapon, however, was a sword, either a straight-bladed sword for stabbing or the standard curved sabre for slashing. Some also carried a six-pound sledgehammer for throwing; it was tied to a lanyard fastened to the saddle for easier retrieval.
The hussars rode into battle organized in a unit called a poczet (“post”), consisting of a nobleman and two to five retainers, depending on how many the nobleman could afford to equip. Multiple poczets were organized into a choragiew (“banner”) numbering up to 200 men. This was the basic operational formation, and could be joined to as many as 40 more into a pulk, which operated as an independent division. Their main tactic was relatively simple: Mass into a wedge formation and break the enemy line. The hole would then be exploited by following infantry or light cavalry units while the hussars wrought havoc in the enemy rear.
The first major victory in which the hussars fought was in September 1605 at Kircholm near the Lithuanian border. Seven hundred of the winged hussars attacked a formation of 8,300 of Charles IX’s Swedish infantry and broke them. They also distinguished themselves against the Russians at the battle of Klushino in 1610 where 3,800 horsemen and 200 infantry defeated a force of 30,000, killing 15,000. Against the Swedes at the battle of Sztum in 1629, the hussars stood out in what was an inconclusive battle except for the serious wounding of the great Swedish king and general Gustavus Adolphus. Perhaps the hussars’ greatest glory was achieved among the later victories. Serving in the army of the great Polish leader Jan Sobieski, they fought against the Turks and proved decisive in the battle of Chocim, where 30,000 Turkish soldiers were defeated and Poland was cleared of Turkish forces. The hussars were also prominent in Sobieski’s 30,000-man force that defeated the Turks at Vienna in September 1683. There, on the right wing of the Polish-German force, they pierced the Turkish lines, found themselves surrounded, and hacked their way out. They then re-formed and charged again, breaking the Turkish line.
After the victory at Vienna, the hussars’ days were numbered. By this time, armies were becoming increasingly dependent on firearms, and the heavy cavalry was a dying breed. As the Poles turned increasingly to the more traditional light cavalry for scouting and pursuit roles, the winged hussars faded away. They did, however, go out on a winning note, for they were never beaten in battle. Time and technology, not defeat, forced their demise.
SHORT COMPOSITE BOW: right drawn, centre normal and left spent.
This illustration shows the short composite bow of wood, horn and sinew, held together by animal glue. All the materials were obtainable in the steppe lands of Inner Asia. Curved bows like this were immensely powerful and short enough to be fired from horseback.
The origins of the Huns are shrouded in mystery, not just for us but also for contemporary observers, who frankly admitted that they had no idea where these people had appeared from. It was clear that they had come from the east and there was a persistent but improbable story recounted to explain how they were first encouraged to move west. According to this legend, the Huns and the Ostrogoths lived in neighbouring territory separated by the Strait of Kerch, which is the entrance to the Sea of Azov: the Ostrogoths in the Crimea on the western side and the Huns in the steppes to the east. However, neither group knew of the other’s existence. One day a cow belonging to a Hun was stung by a gadfly and swam across the strait followed in hot pursuit by her master. He found himself in a rich and inviting land and when he returned to his own people he told them about it and they immediately moved to take it for themselves.
The historical reality seems to be that the Huns, a Turkic people from the Central Asian steppes, began to move west around the year 370 and attack the Ostrogothic kingdom in the area of the modern Ukraine. What caused this movement is unclear, but it may have been pressure from other tribes further east. The Ostrogoths were defeated again and again and forced to leave their homes and farms in panic. A vast number of them crossed the Danube into the Balkans, still ruled at this time by the Roman Empire. Here the fugitive Goths, in their desperation, inflicted a massive defeat on the Roman army at Adrianople In 376, when their cavalry ran down the last of the old Roman legions.
Now that their horizons were expanded there was no stopping the Huns. They raided the Balkans in the aftermath of the Roman defeat but also attacked the rich provinces of the east, coming through the Caucasus and Anatolia to pillage the rich lands of Syria. St Jerome, the translator of the Bible into Latin, was living as a hermit near Jerusalem at the time and he has left us one of the first contemporary accounts of their cruelty:
Suddenly messengers started arriving In haste and the whole east trembled for swarms of Huns had broken out from (behind the Caucasus). They filled the whole earth with slaughter and panic as they flitted here and there on their swift horses. The Roman army was away at the time and detained in Italy owing to civil wars … they were at hand everywhere before they were expected: by their speed they outstripped rumour, and they took pity on neither religion nor rank nor age nor wailing childhood. Those who had just begun to live were compelled to die and, in ignorance of their plight, would smile amid the drawn swords of the enemy. There was a widespread report that they were heading for Jerusalem and that they were converging on that city because of their extreme greed for gold.
Jerome takes up a number of themes which were to echo through the centuries as people of the settled lands recounted with horror the arrival of nomad warriors: their speed and the fact that they caught unsuspecting people by surprise, their readiness to slaughter entire populations and their blatant and overwhelming greed for gold.
Another theme repeatedly taken up by observers of the Huns was their alleged ugliness. Ammianus Marcellinus, the late fourth-century military historian, who is one of our most important sources for the earliest stages of the Hunnic invasions, commented that they were ‘so prodigiously ugly that they might be taken for two-legged animals or the figures crudely carved from stumps that one sees on the parapets of bridges’, while Jordanes adds that they caused men to panic by ‘their terrifying appearance, which inspired fear because of its swarthiness and they had, if I may say so, a sort of shapeless lump rather than a head’. These impressions probably reflect the eastern Asiatic features of the Mongols which made them clearly distinct from their Germanic rivals and neighbours (about whom the Roman sources do not make the same comments).
Their physical appearance was not made more attractive to the Romans by their clothes. These seem to have been chiefly made of bits of fur and later of linen, presumably captured or traded because the Huns themselves certainly did not make their own textiles. Along with their ragged clothes and wearing their garments until they disintegrated was their habit of never washing. The effect of these on the fastidious Roman observers who encountered them may easily be envisaged. However critical, their enemies recognized their extreme hardiness for, as Ammianus Marcellinus observed, ‘They learn from the cradle to the grave to endure hunger and thirst.’ Not for them the heavy, slow-moving supply trains that delayed the movements of Roman armies for they carried all that they needed with them on their swift and sturdy ponies.
That the Huns were ferocious and very successful warriors is evident. It is less clear exactly why they were so. Our knowledge of both their tactics in battle and their equipment is very patchy. The main first-hand account, the work of Priscus, describes the Huns at leisure and pleasure but not at war, and the descriptions of battles from other sources are both later and too vague to be of much use. There is no known contemporary representation of a Hunnic warrior of the period. A few swords from the time, which mayor may not be Hunnic, survive but there are no archaeological traces of the famous bows.
Ammianus Marcellinus, himself an experienced military officer, wrote of them in 392:
When provoked they sometimes fight singly but they enter the battle in tactical formation, while the medley of their voices makes a savage noise. And as they are lightly equipped for swift motion, and unexpected in action, they purposely divide suddenly in scattered bands and attack, rushing around in disorder here and there, dealing terrific slaughter; and because of their extraordinary speed of movement, they cannot easily be seen when they break into a rampart or pillage an enemy’s camp. And on this account, you would have no hesitation in calling them the most terrible of all warriors. At first they fight from a distance with arrows with sharp bone heads [instead of metal ones] joined to the shafts with wonderful skill. They then gallop over the intervening spaces and fight hand to hand with swords, regardless of their own lives. Then, while their opponents are guarding against wounds from sword thrusts, they throw strips of cloth plaited into nooses [i. e. lassos] over their opponents and so entangle them and pin their limbs so that they lose the ability to ride or walk.
Although Ammianus’ account was derived second-hand from Goths who had fought against the Huns, the picture clearly shows them as nomad warriors in the military tradition which was to be followed by the Turks and Mongols. The emphasis on manoeuvrability, their role as mounted archers and use of lassos all form part of that tradition.
As with all steppe nomads, observers were struck by their attachment to their horses. Jerome says that they ate and slept on their horses and were hardly able to walk on the ground. Ammianus Marcellinus noted that they were ‘almost glued to their horses which are hardy, it is true, but ugly, and sometimes they sit of the woman-fashion (presumably side-saddle) and so perform their ordinary tasks. When deliberations are called for about weighty matters, they all meet together on horseback’. The Gaulish aristocrat Sidonius Apollinaris (d. 479), who must have seen Hunnic mercenaries on many occasions, notes that their training began very young. ‘Scarcely has the infant learned to stand, without its mother’s help, when a horse takes him on his back. You would think that the limbs of the man and horse were born together, so firmly does the rider always stick to the horse. Other people are carried on horseback; these people live there.’ Being well versed in classical mythology, he goes on to compare them with the mythical centaurs, half man and half horse. Commentators on nomad warriors are almost always impressed by this connection with their horses. No matter how early sedentary people learned to ride, or how well trained they were, they never seem to have acquired the mastery of horses that the nomad peoples had. This mastery always gave them the advantage in endurance and in the art of mounted archery which others could never attain.
The late Roman military tactician Vegetius whose book Epitoma rei militaris (Handbook of Military Science) is one of our main sources on the late Roman army, discusses the horses of the Huns and how they differed from the Roman ones. He describes them as having great hooked heads, protruding eyes, narrow nostrils, broad jaws, strong and stiff necks, manes hanging below the knees, overlarge ribs, curved backs, bushy tails, strong cannon bones, small rumps and wide-spreading hooves. They have no fat on them and are long rather than high. He adds that the very thinness of these horses is pleasing and there is beauty even in their ugliness.
Apart from their physical appearance, like little ponies compared with the larger and more elegant Roman horses, what impresses Vegetius most is their toughness. He notes their patience and perseverance and their ability to tolerate extremes of cold and hunger. Vegetius was concerned at the decline of veterinary skills among the Romans of his day and complains that people were neglecting their horses and treating them as the Huns treated theirs, leaving them out on pasture all year to fend for themselves. This, he says, is not at all good for the larger and more softly bred Roman horses. There is an important point here: Roman horses needed to be fed and so the army had to carry fodder with it; Hunnic horses , by contrast, lived off the land and were used to surviving on what they could find. This gave them an enormous advantage in mobility and the capacity to travel long distances without resting. It was one of the secrets of their military success.
The question of whether the Huns used stirrups remains doubtful. We can be certain that stirrups were unknown in classical antiquity. We can also be certain that they were widely known in east and west from the eighth century onwards. The evidence for the intervening period is very problematic. There are no representations of horsemen using stirrups from the Hunnic period, nor have any metal stirrups been found in graves. If they had used a new and unfamiliar device like this, it seems most unlikely that Priscus and other classical commentators would have neglected to mention (and copy) this. It is therefore extremely unlikely that they had metal stirrups. It is possible that they may have had fabric or wooden stirrups, both of which are attested for in later periods, but again, the fact that these are not mentioned in sources makes it improbable. Mounted archers such as Scythians and Sarmatians, who preceded the Huns, were able to shoot from the saddle without the stabilizing effect of stirrups, and there is no reason why the Huns should not have done likewise. Indeed, the absence of stirrups for both sides would simply have emphasized the superiority of Hunnic horsemanship.
The Huns did not use spurs either but urged their horses on with whips; whip handles have been found in tombs. Gold and silver saddle ornaments discovered in tombs make it certain that some wealthy men rode on wooden saddles with wooden bows at front and rear to support the rider. Common sense suggests, however, that many poorer Huns must have made do with padded cloth or skin saddles or even have ridden bareback. Their most characteristic weapon was the bow. This was the short, but very powerful composite bow, perhaps 5 feet or more in length, made from wood, bone and sinews. The range would have been 200 to 300 yards, the maximum effective range of any medieval bow. In the early days at least, the arrowheads were made of bone, not iron. All the materials could be found on the steppes and the bow was the Hunnic instrument par excellence. Like the Turks and Mongols of later centuries, whom they so much resemble, it was their abilities as mounted archers that made them so formidable in battle. Better equipped Hunnic warriors would also have had swords and it is clear that Attila wore his sword even in the comparative safety of his own compound. Swords and their scabbards, like saddles, could be expensively decorated. Unlike the bows, which were peculiar to the Huns, the swords seem to have followed the standard Roman and Gothic forms, with short hilts and long, straight blades.
Confused by their speed, and perhaps hoping to account for their military success, contemporaries often gave very large numbers for armies of Huns: Priscus is said to have claimed that Attila’s army in 451 had 500,000 men. If this were true, it would certainly explain their successes in battle but, in reality, these numbers must be a vast exaggeration. As we shall see when considering the Mongols, limitations on grazing for the animals must have placed severe restrictions on the numbers of Huns who could work together as a unit. Even in the vast grasslands of Mongolia, it is unlikely that Mongol gatherings ever numbered much more than 100,000: in the more restricted areas of the Balkans and western Europe numbers must have been much smaller. Before they invaded the Empire, the Huns, like other nomads, probably lived in fairly small tenting groups, perhaps 500-1,000 people, who kept their distance from their fellows so as to exploit the grassland more effectively. Only on special occasions or to plan a major expedition would larger numbers come together and even then they could only remain together if they had outside resources. The image of a vast, innumerable swarm of Huns covering the landscape like locusts has to be treated with some scepticism.
The late Roman Empire was a society based on walled towns and the Huns soon developed an impressive capability in siege warfare. This was surely not something they brought with them from the steppes. They almost certainly employed engineers who had learned their trade in the Roman armies but now found themselves unemployed and looking for jobs. The Huns were much more successful than previous barbarian invaders had been at reducing cities. This was especially important in the Middle Danube area around modern Serbia, where cities which had successfully held out for many years were reduced to uninhabited ruins. Sometimes, as at Margus, betrayed by its bishop, this was the result of treachery, but on other occasions the Huns were able to mount a successful assault. Priscus gives a full account of the siege of the city of Naissus (modern Nis in Serbia) in 441. While the narrative certainly has echoes of classical historians, especially Thucydides (for Priscus was an educated man and keen to show it), the description probably reflects the realities of siege warfare at the time:
Since the citizens did not dare to come out to battles, the [Huns], to make the crossing easy for their forces bridged the river from the southern side at a point where it flowed past the city and brought their machines up to the circuit wall. First they brought up wooden platforms mounted on wheels upon which stood men who shot across at the defenders on the ramparts. At the back of the platform stood men who pushed the wheels with their feet and moved the machines where they were needed, so that [the archers] could shoot successfully through the screens. In order that the men on the platform could fight in safety, they were sheltered by screens woven from willow covered with rawhide and leather to protect them against missiles and flaming darts which might be shot at them. When a large number of machines had been brought up to the wall, the defenders on the battlements gave in because of the crowds of missiles and evacuated their positions. Then the so-called ‘rams’ were brought up. A ram is a very large machine: a beam is suspended by slack chains from timbers which incline together and it is provided with a sharp metal point. For the safety of those working them, there were screens like those already described. Using short ropes attached to the rear, men swing the beam back from the target of the blow and then release it, so that by its force, part of the wall facing it is smashed away. From the wall the defenders threw down wagon-sized boulders which they had got ready when the machines were first brought up to the circuit. Some of the machines were crushed with the men working them but the defenders could not hold out against the large number of them. Then the attackers brought up scaling ladders so that in some places the walls were breached by the rams and in other places those on the battlements were overcome by the numbers of. the machines. The barbarians entered through the part of the circuit wall broken by the blows of the rams and also by the scaling ladders set up against the parts which were not crumbling and the city was taken.
The attackers were using siege towers and battering rams but they do not seem to have had any artillery to fire stones at the walls or into the city. Later conquerors, notably the Mongols, were to use such catapults to great effect. In contrast, the Mongols do not seem to have used wheeled siege towers, at least in their Asian campaigns.
In addition to the machines, Attila was evidently prepared to sacrifice large numbers of men, probably prisoners or subject peoples, in frontal assault. The results were very impressive and most of the major cities of the Balkans, including Viminacium, Philippopolis, Arcadiopolis and Constantia on the Black Sea coast fell. Attila’s campaigns mark the effective end of Roman urban life in much of the area.
One feature which marked out the Huns and other nomad warriors from the settled people was the high degree of mobilization among the tribesmen. When Priscus, a civil servant who accompanied the East Roman ambassador to Attila’s court, was waiting for an audience with the great man, he was talking to a Greek- speaking Hun who gave him a lecture on the virtues of the Huns and Hunnic life as opposed to the corrupt and decadent ways of the Romans. He explained:
After a war the Scythians [i. e. the Huns: Priscus uses the ancient Greek term for steppe nomads] live at ease, each enjoying his own possessions and troubling others or being troubled not at all or very little. But among the Romans, since on account of their tyrants [i. e. the emperors] not all men carry weapons, they place responsibility for their safety in others and they are thus easily destroyed in war. Moreover, those who do use arms are endangered still more by the cowardice of their generals, who are unable to sustain a war.
This passage forms part of a speech which is really a sermon on the virtues of the ‘noble savage’ lifestyle and Priscus attempted, rather lamely, to counter his views. But the Hun was making an important point about the enduring difference between the nomad society in which all adult males bore arms and a settled population who relied on a professional army. In absolute terms, the Huns may never have been very numerous but because of the high degree of participation in military activity, they could field a large army. They were, in fact, a nation in arms.
Powder soaked but ferocity unabated. Lee’s picked force of dismounted dragoons takes advantage of the garrison’s confusion to force the drawbridge at Paulus Hook with clubbed muskets and the bayonet. The British had previously sent out a foraging party of their own, for whom Lee’s advancing force was mistaken – with disastrous results.
The British grip on New York, won at a staggering cost to the Americans in a series of battles in late 1776, remained a hindrance and a threat to the Continental cause until the final British withdrawal in November of 1783. British vessels of war prowled up the Hudson as far as the great American bastion of West Point, while soldiers and supplies took advantage of Manhattan’s superb harbour and transportation system.
Neither Washington nor his subordinate commanders were willing to leave matters as they stood. The isolated British and Loyalist bastion across the Hudson allowed the British to control access to the river, but it also offered an inviting target. ‘Light Horse Harry’ Lee’s brilliantly successful raid on the outpost at Paulus Hook kept the British nervous and uncertain in the very heart of their strongest position in their former colonies.
The British in the American War of Independence sought to employ Alexander’s strategy in Afghanistan – immobile forces scattered in penny packets across the disputed territory. Such outposts certainly restricted the movement of American rebels in the northern colonies, but they also enabled a mobile force that had amassed temporary superiority to swoop in – with disastrous results at Paulus Hook. For any organization to take advantage of an opportunity or to respond to an onslaught, information is as vital a factor as mobility – and mobility allows the transmission of vital news and a prompt response to it. The role of horsemen in battle is as much to prevent intelligence of their side’s actions as it is to acquire knowledge of the position, strength and intentions of the enemy. Henry Lee (1756-1818) dismounted his dragoons at Paulus Hook for a sudden descent on his target garrison – while screening forces along the roads stood ready to limit British awareness of his raid.
Battle of Paulus Hook: 19 August 1779
George Washington appreciated the value of intelligence, and ran a sophisticated espionage network that kept him aware of British movements and vulnerabilities, much to the profit – and survival – of his cause. The advantages offered by mounted soldiers were too obvious to be ignored, and by the summer of 1779 there were enough rebels on horseback to become a considerable part of the strategic equation.
Two earlier incidents in the war show the versatility of the mounted combatant. Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre ‘Bloody Ban’ Tarleton (1754-1833) of the 1st Dragoon Guards was perhaps the finest British cavalry officer of the war: skilled, resourceful and legendarily ruthless. His favoured use of his troopers’ mobility was to spread terror and anxiety throughout the rebellious colonies. More than one incident prompted the phrase ‘Tarleton’s Quarter’, meaning that prisoners would not be spared. Luck enhanced his reputation: in a duel with George Washington’s distant cousin, Colonel William Washington (1752-1810), Tarleton escaped after Washington’s sword broke at the hilt; in the process, he wounded Washington and his horse with a pistol shot.
Tarleton also favoured what would now be called ‘decapitation strikes’. In March 1781, he launched a raid on Charlottesville, Virginia, in the hope of capturing Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), then governor of the state. As a Brigade Major in 1776, he diverted a scouting party under his command to capture Colonel Charles Lee (1732-1782) in a New Jersey tavern. Lee was one of the very few American officers who had ever served the British crown – in the very regiment that captured him! Tarleton may have, inadvertently, done the Americans a favour: Charles Lee was a dour and pessimistic officer and, after an exchange secured his release, he nearly lost the battle of Monmouth in 1778 out of his conviction that the Continentals could never prevail against British soldiers.
Another Lee was the far more capable Henry Lee, Light Horse Harry’ to his peers and his soldiers. Lee made his reputation from his own ability to appreciate and take advantage of an opportunity – a trait for which his considerably more famous son Robert E. (1807-1870) is legend.
In perhaps the strangest use of cavalry during the war, Lee and his Virginian Dragoons were instrumental in feeding the Continental Army during the terrible winter of 1777-78. Washington forbade the confiscation of forage from the friendly Pennsylvania farm country, and his men suffered greatly. An early and heavy run past Valley Forge of small, fatty fish called shad offered hope – more, certainly, than was offered by Washington’s desperate letters to Congress asking for food. Men plunged into the water with nets, buckets, pitchforks, anything to toss the shuddering fish on shore. Seeing that the shoal was about to move past the desperate Continentals, Lee ordered his dragoons to charge into the Schuylkill River. The churning of the horses’ legs in the water frightened the fish back into the nets and the clutches of the starving soldiers. There was even a surplus, which would help in the lean weeks that were to follow.
A String of Outposts
By 1779, the War of Independence had entered nearly its final phase. Washington’s army, including the infant cavalry arm, emerged from Valley Forge with a confidence and level of drill that enabled them to face the regulars of General Sir Henry Clinton (1730-1795) in pitched battle – as they demonstrated despite Charles Lee’s misgivings at Monmouth. Clinton accordingly held his army in the port and city of New York, the most economically and strategically valuable territory in the Colonies, with a chain of outposts to secure communications and movement throughout eastern New York and New Jersey. The British offensive effort in subsequent years would be concentrated in the southern colonies, with ‘Bloody Ban’ Tarleton leading British and Loyalist forces on raids throughout the South until Tarleton’s conclusive defeat at Cowpens in January of 1781.
Defended enclaves can pacify a considerable portion of surrounding territory if they can support each other – as the United States has recently demonstrated in the urban environments of Iraq. The difficulty lies in establishing how far apart such outposts can be placed, in order to maximize the area of territory while still leaving them capable of mutual support and rapid relief in the event of a major attack. In August 1779, Major Lee, then 23 years old, took advantage of the absence of Nathaniel Greene (1742-1786), Washington’s quartermaster at Valley Forge, to approach Washington and express his belief that Clinton had made a major mistake in the positioning of his outposts.
A Penny Packet
The modern site of the battle of Paulus Hook is a street corner in Jersey City, New Jersey. In 1778, it was a peninsula jutting out from the New Jersey shore, directly opposite New York City and the Hudson. That July, Clinton led out a powerful force from the peninsula towards the American bastion of West Point. General ‘Mad Anthony’ Wayne (1745-1796) had earlier captured the British outpost at Stony Point after Clinton retreated back down the Hudson. Lee suggested to Washington that a similar such sudden onset might take an additional bastion directly under Clinton’s nose.
The fort at Paulus Hook was essentially a fortified beachhead on the New Jersey shore, onto which the British could land and from which they could move out to exert their control over the nearer countryside. The fort’s garrison consisted of 200 men of the British 64th Regiment, under Major William Sutherland, plus 200 Loyalists, enclosed within tremendously strong fortifications. Traffic could ford the creek in front of the peninsula at only two points.
As a second line of defence, British engineers had cut a moat across the neck of the isthmus, the only access being through a barred drawbridge gate. In between the drawbridge and the actual stockade itself were the entanglements of the day, abatis – lopped trees felled and cut in a manner calculated to impede or halt an attacker’s movement under the garrison’s fire.
Behind that were three batteries of cannon, commanding the Hudson and the countryside, as well as a central bastion with barracks, plus the fort’s magazine and six cannon. At some distance, there were an additional infantry redoubt and a blockhouse. The British rear lay safe under the guns of the British fleet in the Hudson, and Clinton had established a set of lantern codes and signal guns to summon aid from New York.
Lee’s plans for a swift descent upon the fort were fleshed out by a diet of information provided by Captain Allen McLean, commander of a force of mounted rangers. These long-range scouts lurked in the salt-water marshes at the base of the peninsula and transmitted a fairly accurate ongoing report of the numbers and status of the fort’s garrison. Even today, a horse’s ability to traverse swamp, water and road compares favourably with mechanized transport.
An additional example of the efficacy of horses in difficult terrain is provided by the career of the legendary ‘Swamp Fox’ – General Francis Marion (1732-1795). He earned his sobriquet by lurking in the South Carolina swamps. With his troopers using and feeding their own horses in the course of their raids and forays, Marion made British control of the region uncertain even after the disastrous American capitulation at Charleston in May 1780. Eventually Lord Cornwallis (1738-1805) sent Tarleton himself to bring the ‘Swamp Fox’ to bay, but Marion’s intelligence network, and his use of the rivers to move and conceal his cavalry, proved more than Tarleton’s celebrated ferocity could overcome.
Washington approved of Lee’s raid, on certain conditions: there would be no effort to hold the post. Lee was to capture the garrison, disable the cannon, blow up the magazine and retreat to a fleet of pontoon boats in the nearby Hackensack River before the British could counter-attack. Lee accordingly dismounted his own dragoons and used McLean’s mounted rangers to control the roads leading into Paulus Hook. Colonial horsemen would prevent warning of Lee’s attack from reaching the bastion, or any messages for aid from reaching any British detachments on the Jersey shore.
Lee’s choice to put his troopers on foot was a difficult call, but one necessitated by his bargain with Washington. The circular route planned for the attack was a 22.5km (14-mile) march through the marshes into the post, then a shorter rush with the prisoners out to and across the river and safety. Ferrying horses under pursuit was too great a risk for Lee’s own command, and his mounted forces were relegated to screening and reconnaissance duties.
Captain McLean’s surveillance had been quite intensive, but the aftermath of the battle revealed that his scouts and one disguised spy had missed two vital elements in the situation. The first, which would hinder Lee, was the arrival of a force of 40 Hessians sent over from New York to bolster the garrison. The second determined the ultimate success of the onslaught, for on the night of Lee’s attack Major Sutherland sent 132 of the Loyalists in a foraging party out into the Jersey countryside. The British sentries, accordingly, were expecting a large number of men coming stealthily towards their post – friendlies.
By 1779, the Americans had captured considerable cavalry equipment from the British, which they used to equip their own units. A great many of the heavy sabres taken from British troopers in 1778 wound up in American hands. The British had provided their own forces with lighter carbines and musketoons, which meant that Lee and his men carried full-size British Brown Besses’ and French Modele 1763 Charleville muskets. Lee divided his force of approximately 400 men into three columns delineated by their origins: a force of McLean’s dismounted rangers, a company of the 16th Virginia and two Maryland companies. The three forces were to arrive simultaneously at the objective by three different routes, an early example of the traditional American preference for columns converging on a single objective. In the event, optimism and synchronicity failed.
The combined force set forth with a wagon train in the early evening of 18 August as a deception aimed at lurking British spies. The hope was that they would mistake the formation for a supply convoy. The three columns divided once they entered a woodland, and the Maryland force and the Virginians got utterly lost in the darkness, reducing Lee’s forces to the 200 men under his own direct command. Long experience of travel had its uses, for Lee’s horsemen continued on towards the distant garrison while avoiding the roads where detection would be the most likely. Instead they waded chest-high through creeks and canals until they reached the British moat, their cartridge belts and muskets utterly soaked. The time was now 3 a. m.
Lee broke his remaining men into a vanguard and reserve, and ordered his men to fix bayonets and ford the British ditch at a shallow spot located by one of his lieutenants. The initial force struggled through the water, up the slope, and into the abatis, through which they pried their way with their bayonets. As the British sentries began to realize that this was not their foraging party and began to fire, Lee’s reserve column rushed up through the area cleared by the vanguard and carried the gate into the fortification with a bayonet charge. About 12 of the British were killed before the bulk of the garrison surrendered.
Success and Withdrawal
Major Sutherland and 26 of the Hessians managed to barricade themselves into the smaller of the two infantry redoubts. From there, they peppered the Americans with largely inaccurate fire and sent alarm signals to the British in New York. These were answered by ships in the Hudson and cannon from Manhattan, and Lee knew that his time was running out. Lee found his men surrounding 156 surrendered British soldiers and three officers. Darkness, confusion and the need for haste kept Lee from disabling the post’s cannon, a procedure usually performed by thrusting a bayonet into the gun’s touch-hole, rendering the cannon briefly or permanently unable to fire.
Humanity frustrated two more of Lee’s objectives. As his men moved to burn the British barracks and fire the fort’s magazine, they found the families of some of the garrison and sick men cowering inside the buildings. Lee accordingly rounded up his captives and made for the main road out of the post, only to find that his plans continued to go relentlessly astray. Lee availed himself of a horse and rode ahead to the appointed rendezvous with the boats on the Hackensack. No boats waited there, the commander having assumed as the sun rose that the attack had been cancelled. Lee rode back to his men and their prisoners on the road, finding 50 of the missing Virginians on the way, their cartridges still dry.
Lee had no choice, accordingly, but to retrace the original route of the attack. This was exposed in the daylight to British observation and interdiction, potentially trapping Lee’s force: the Loyalists were returning from their foraging expedition and the Hessians and Major Sutherland were pursuing from the fort, while reinforcements were already on their way across the Hudson. The Loyalists, under the hated Colonel Van Buskirk, met the column at the ferry road and opened fire, drawing a return volley from the Virginians and from the 200 reinforcements providentially sent to Lee by the American commander in New Jersey, General William Alexander (1723-1786). Lee’s prisoners could march, and his own casualties were extremely light: two killed, three wounded.
McLean’s horsemen had done their work well in restricting information of the raid. (The descendants of one little girl would later record her memories of being detained by the rangers screening Lee’s movements as the assault force passed.) Coming down the road from the fort, Major Sutherland ran into Lee’s reinforced rearguard and retreated back to his empty bastion, concluding the raid in the Americans’ favour. The fort at Paulus Hook would be re-garrisoned and held until the final British retreat from North America, but from now on it was a beleaguered liability, not a useful foothold. ‘Light Horse Harry’ would receive a medal from the Continental Congress and further opportunities for daring exploits in the successful War of Independence.
The major difference between the Russian army that besieged the fortress at Narva in 1700 and the Russian army at Poltava in 1709 was the large number of dragoon regiments that Peter ordered to be recruited and trained. These regiments proved a match for the Swedish dragoon and cavalry regiments on which Charles XII relied. They allowed the Russians’ superiority in infantry numbers and artillery to prevail at Poltava as they could not at Narva. To be sure, in December 1708, Peter issued an administrative military decree reorganizing the country into eight large gubernias, as well as requiring the recruitment of one male for every twenty households in the countryside, but neither of these had any direct impact on the Russians’ victory at Poltava. Instead, the fast-moving dragoon regiments and mounted infantry (Peter’s “flying corps”) were well suited to the open eastern European terrain and could be used to harry the Swedish advance, enter gaps in the enemy line in battle, and close gaps in the Russian line before the Swedish army could take advantage of them.
Initially, dragoons were mounted infantry using horses to carry them into combat. Later, dragoons were also trained to fight on horseback. Training of dragoons was more intensive than that of infantry or cavalry alone for the obvious reason that a dragoon had to be trained to fight both on foot and on horse. The dual role also presents a problem of classification as to whether in any particular case dragoons are to be counted as foot cavalry or mounted infantry. According to Chandler,
most contemporaries were unwilling to consider them cavalry, but classified them as mere mounted infantry well into the eighteenth century…. Commonly armed with a carbine, a bayonet and hatchet as well as broad-sword and pistols (although these last were withdrawn from English dragoons as early as 1697), the dragoon never wore armour, but sported the long cloth coat, tricorner hat, heavy boots and the distinguishing broad cross-belts supporting his sword, bayonet and ammunition pouch…. Besides their dual role in battle, they were expected to carry out reconnaissance and escort duties, and were, on occasion, relied upon to bridge streams or fill ditches with fascines of brushwood or trusses of hay to expedite the advance of the main army… and sometimes were called upon to build or raze field fortifications.
In 1699, Peter ordered two regular dragoon regiments recruited. In 1700 and 1701, according to M. D. Rabinovich, 8,600 gentry were levied for 14 dragoon regiments. In 1702, four more dragoon regiments were raised (one of which was disbanded the following year); in 1703, eight dragoon regiments were raised (one of which was disbanded the same year and two more within two years); in 1704, two dragoon regiments and two dragoon squadrons were raised; the next year, sixteen dragoon regiments (two of which were disbanded the same year and two more in the following year); in 1706, fifteen more were raised (eight of which were disbanded the same year and one of which was disbanded in 1709); in 1707, eight were raised; in 1708, eight (two of which were disbanded in the same year and two in the following year); and in 1709, two (from other existing dragoon companies). Six other regiments and squadrons were raised during this period, for which we do not have the year of their formation. Thus, between 1700 and 1709, dragoon regiments and squadrons were being raised at the rate of ten a year, but many were disbanded within a year or two, and the regiment members were absorbed by other regiments.
By 1702, a “Brief Regulations” (Kratkoe polozhenie) was published for the training of dragoon regiments. Russian dragoon regiments were initially named after their commanding officer, but that became confusing inasmuch as commanders changed from one dragoon regiment to another. Dragoons then tended to be renamed according to the region of recruitment. Exceptions included the Maloletnii Regiment (1703), Domovyi Squadron (1704?), A. D. Menshikov’s General or Life Regiment (1705), and the Life Squadron (1707).
We thus have a record of at least 88 dragoon regiments and squadrons that were formed between 1698 and 1709. Although evidence exists for the dis- banding of only 24 of them, with 64 remaining, another 30 or so may have been disbanded, concerning which we have no evidence. By 1711, Rabinovich’s sources tell us that another 5 regiments were disbanded, but according to L. G. Beskrovnyi, the Shtat of 1711 indicates that 33 dragoon regiments then existed. The process seems to have been a chaotic one, with regiments and squadrons being created, disbanded, and merged into other regiments, and commanders replaced frequently. Only one dragoon regiment took part in the Battle of Narva in 1700. At Lesnaia, 13 dragoon regiments took part; and at Poltava, 26 dragoon regiments and 4 dragoon squadrons took part.
After 1709 and before 1725, according to the evidence Rabinovich gathered, another 7 regiments were formed but 18 were disbanded. The records are far from complete, but they do indicate an almost feverish effort to raise dragoon regiments and squadrons between 1700 and 1709, less so after 1709. Initially, recruits had to supply their own horses, but these turned out to be of such inferior quality that the army designated 100,000 rubles for replacements. One reason for keeping standard cavalry in reserve and using it mainly for the coup de grace in battle was concern about losing horses. A horse trained for battle was a valuable asset. Steppe horses, while smaller than their Western counterparts and considered unprepossessing by observers, were available in abundance. One might then consider it likely that concern for the safety of the horses would be less for Russian dragoons supplied with steppe horses than it would be for Russian cavalry regiments supplied with European horses. Whereas the gentry were initially the ones requisitioned for service in the dragoons because they were able to supply their own horses, soon those from the lower social orders (i. e., those without a horse) were recruited to meet the military’s needs, although the pretence that they were from the gentry continued to be maintained.
Peter’s decision to recruit large numbers of dragoons seems to have been made in imitation of the Swedish army, in contrast to the prevailing practice of all other European armies of the time. The organization of regiments was based on the infantry model: 10 companies of 120 men each. Each regiment had three 3-pound cannon. According to Denison, Peter further ordered that 20 percent of the dragoons were to carry axes; 10 percent, to carry shovels; and 10 percent, to carry sharpened spades. In the Military Statute of 1716 Peter described this light force as a self-standing mobile formation,
detached to lie at the disposal of the general, whether to cut the enemy off, deprive them of a pass, act in their rear, or fall on their territory and make a diversion. Such a formation is called a “flying corps” [korvolan], and it consists of between six and seven thousand men. A force so constituted can act without encumbrance in every direction, and send back reliable information of the enemy’s doings. For these purposes we employ not only the cavalry but also the infantry, armed with light guns, according to the circumstances of time and place.
In the Swedish army, the mobile combat arm comprised nearly 50 percent of the forces, with a predominance of dragoons. The Swedes under Charles XI (r. 1660-97) and his son Charles XII, as Robert I. Frost pointed out, preferred “cold steel” in hand-to-hand combat with swords and bayonets. Both monarchs looked askance at the effectiveness of firearms in general. Charles XI provided his dragoons/cavalry with swords that were straight and narrow so that they could thrust rather than slash at the enemy. According to Nosworthy:
A slashing motion with a straight sword, as opposed to a slightly curved sabre, has little effect. A new formation was devised to facilitate the aggressive Swedish cavalry charge. Instead of advancing in straight lines, as was the universal practice in other Western European armies, the Swedish squadrons adopted an arrow-shaped [chevron] formation. The cornet, the center-most man in the squadron, was slightly in front of the others. The men on each of his two flanks rode `knee behind knee,’ so that they would both be about six inches behind him. Each man along the `line’ was arranged in the same manner, so that the entire squadron was placed in echelon to the left and the right of the cornet…. The Swedish cavalry enjoyed a number of notable victories using these tactics, and were even successful in capturing several entrenchments and batteries.
The King’s Regulation of 1685 tells us that the Swedish horsemen were to advance at a trot until within 100 to 150 meters of the enemy line, then break into a gallop. At a distance of 25 meters, or when they could see the whites of their enemy’s eyes, they were to fire their pistols. Charles XII banned the use of firearms during the cavalry charge and was the first monarch to do so.
As Frost mentioned, the tactics of Charles XII were aggressive, perhaps overly so at times, but they were not those of a madman and they did achieve significant victories against armies that were numerically superior. In a very real sense, the aggressive battle tactics of Charles XII were merely a continuation of the military thinking of his father and previous Swedish monarchs going back to Gustavus Adolphus. Charles XI had as his goal the integrated cooperation of all branches of the army, but he also realized that this could be accomplished only through years of drill and training. Each regiment went out at least once a year on maneuvers and encamped for two weeks or more. He realized the value of high morale among the soldiers and solicited from them any complaints they might have about their officers. The Swedish army was completely resupplied in the 1690s and reorganized under Charles XI. By the time of his death in 1697 his reorganization and master plan for mobilization of the army were nearly completed. Thus, the army that Charles XII brought into the Northern War was well trained, well supplied, and relatively untested. Both Charles XII and Peter I inherited armies that were already reorganized and reequipped-in other words, modernized.
As with the large proportion (33 percent) of pikemen in both the Swedish and Russian armies, the reliance on dragoons by both monarchs ran counter to the trend of armies in the Euro-Ottoman zone, and thus against the grain of “modernization.” After 1712, the number of dragoon regiments in the Russian army was reduced. Apparently, the dragoons were raised under Peter to counter those of a specific army-that of Sweden under Charles XII-which also utilized large numbers of dragoon regiments. Russia did not become a major player in European international relations until the second half of the eighteenth century. It would take more than a victory over a severely weakened and bedraggled, though still dangerous, Swedish army in the steppe some 350 kilometers southeast of Kyiv to accord Russia the status of a European great power.
Lord Raglan is utterly incompetent to lead an army
through any arduous task. He is a brave good soldier, I am sure, and a polished
gentleman, but he is no more fit than I am to cope with any leader of strategic
WILLIAM HOWARD RUSSELL
We are commanded by one of the greatest old women in the
British Army, called the Earl of Cardigan. He has as much brains as my boot. He
is only to be equalled in want of intellect by his relation the Earl of Lucan .
. . two such fools could not be picked out of the British Army to take command.
CAPTAIN PORTAL, 4TH LIGHT DRAGOONS
‘You have lost the Light Brigade!’ It was thus that Lord
Raglan bitterly reproached Lord Lucan on the evening of 25 October 1854. As a
simple statement of fact the words were not unfounded. Before the charge,
according to Captain Portal who rode in it, the Light Cavalry Brigade had
mustered on parade some 700men; after it they numbered a mere 180. But was it
Lucan who lost it? Controversy as to who was to blame has featured in many an
analysis of the battle. The truth is, of course, that many people were to
blame, Lucan among them. It was a combination of personal ill-feeling, general
mismanagement and peculiarly bad orders which led to so great, yet glorious, a
blunder. Given the circumstances which prevailed, however – a Commander-in-Chief
who had no clear idea of how to conduct a battle, and who, unlike his former
chief, Wellington, was in the habit of expressing himself with ambiguity rather
than precision; a Commander of the cavalry, Lucan, who was at odds with
Raglan’s handling of the campaign and with his subordinate, Cardigan, in charge
of the Light Brigade; and given too that the aide-de-camp who delivered the
fatally misconstrued order was half insane with impatience and injured pride,
so much so that he actually seemed to indicate the wrong objective – then it was
perhaps not so remarkable that things went awry, although why General Airey,
Raglan’s Chief of Staff, should have pronounced the Light Brigade’s charge as
‘nothing to Chilianwala’ may still puzzle us. It was after all a feat of arms
recalled for courage and discipline rather than for foolhardiness and waste.
But if by chance Raglan had shown the same sort of drive and
initiative at the first battle of the campaign as Wellington did at Salamanca,
then the charge of the Light Brigade, indeed the entire affair at Balaklava,
need never have taken place at all. And even if he had behaved as he did during
that first encounter and the British army had still found itself at Balaklava
in October 1854, it only required the Light Brigade’s commander, Cardigan, to display
some spark of military daring, some inkling of the cavalry spirit, even some
modicum of tactical know-how for the charge of his brigade, to have been a very
different matter with a possibly decisive outcome. We must go back to the start
of the campaign to see how things might have developed.
In spite of all the fuss about custody of the Holy Places,5
the Crimean War came about because Czar Nicholas I believed the time had come
to expel the Turks from Europe and divide up the property of ‘the sick man’. At
the same time Emperor Napoleon III of France was possessed of an ardent desire
to cut a figure in the world and add to the military glory attained by his
uncle. Moreover, Britain was determined to maintain Turkey’s integrity and put
a stop to the extension of Russian power in the East. Thus a relatively trivial
dispute was used to justify a struggle for supremacy in the East.
The Czar could hardly have chosen an envoy more likely to
provoke Turkey’s ire than Prince Menschikoff, who went to Constantinople in
March 1853 and demanded that the Sultan should recognize both the Greek
Church’s claim to custody of the Holy Places and – much more significantly –
Russia’s right to protect the Sultan’s Greek Orthodox subjects. Menschikoff was
both tactless and insolent, but these disagreeable qualities were largely
offset by the diplomatic skills of the highly regarded British Ambassador at
the Sublime Porte, Lord Stratford de Redcliffe, who had been there for ten
years, had encouraged reform and who, in spite of his hostility to the Czar,
persuaded the Sultan to satisfy the Greek Church with regard to the Holy
Places, at the same time lending his support to the Sultan in rejecting
Russia’s claim to be protector of Turkey’s Greek Christians. Whereupon in June
1853 Russia invaded the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, and after the
failure of the Great Powers to reach some compromise, Turkey declared war in
October. An extension of the war swiftly followed. Turkey defeated a Russian
army at Oltenitza, the Russian fleet destroyed a Turkish squadron at Sinope,
the French and British fleets passed the Dardanelles and entered the Black Sea
in January 1854. Two months later France and Britain declared war on Russia.
Thus France, Great Britain and Turkey were Allies. For
centuries in the past the British had been fighting the French. With the
exception of the Vichy episodes in the Second World War, they were never to do
so again. Yet Lord Raglan could not get out of his head that the enemy – even
when in this particular war they were fighting side by side with him – were the
French, and would frequently refer to them as such during the campaign. This
was not the only difficulty encountered by the Allies.
It was all very well to declare war on Russia, but where was
it to be waged? The Allies wished to ensure that the Russian armies evacuated
the principalities and did not reach Constantinople. But what strategy should
they adopt to realize these aims? By the end of May 1854 both the French and
British armies had arrived at Gallipoli and Scutari, and the striking
difference between their administrative arrangements was at once evident. The
French were properly equipped with tents, medical services and a transport
corps. The British were hopelessly ill prepared in all these respects, although
Raglan had requested proper transport, only to be refused by the War Office.
When the two armies made their way to Varna in order to deal with the Russians
in the principalities, they found they had gone. It was now August and both
malaria and cholera devastated the Allied soldiers. But at least some strategic
idea emerged, and it was decided that the Allies would attack and take
Sebastopol, thus removing this base of Russian power in the Black Sea and its
threat to Turkey. This decision was made, not by commanders on the spot, who
opposed it, but by the Allied Governments, hardly an auspicious beginning. None
the less, in September the British and French armies – composed respectively of
26,000 men, 66 guns and 30,000 men, 70 guns – landed in the bay of Eupatoria,
north of Sebastopol, and began their advance.
We have already observed that Lord Raglan was not
distinguished for either his fitness to command or the clarity of his
direction. His counterpart, General St Arnaud, was gravely ill – he was shortly
to die – and was in no condition to provide bold leadership or offensive
spirit. Moreover, Raglan’s subordinate commanders hardly inspired confidence.
Lucan and Cardigan, leaving aside their sheer incompetence, were at
loggerheads, and were soon to demonstrate their absolute inability to handle
the cavalry properly. The two infantry divisional commanders, Sir George
Cathcart and the Duke of Cambridge, were not as useless as the cavalrymen – no
one could have been – but they had none of the experience or dash of men like
Craufurd, Picton, Pakenham and Hill who had served under Wellington. Raglan’s
Chief of Staff was General Airey, who should have been aware that apart from
giving sound advice, his main purpose was to ensure the clarity of his
Commander-in-Chief’s orders, which he singularly failed to do.
Happily for the British army this weakness of leadership at
the top was more than counterbalanced by the strength of the regimental system.
It was Humphrey Ward who praised Kipling for discovering Tommy Atkins as a hero
of realistic romance. No army, said Ward, had so strong a sense of regimental
unity and loyalty as our own. Arthur Bryant too was eloquent in emphasizing
the personal individual loyalty which each private felt
towards his corps gave to the British soldier a moral strength which enabled
him to stand firm and fight forward when men without it, however brave, would
have failed. To let down the regiment, to be unworthy of the men of old who had
marched under the same colours, to be untrue to the comrades who had shared the
same loyalties, hardships and perils were things that the least-tutored,
humblest soldier would not do.
Raglan was fortunate therefore in having under his command
regiments of the Light Division, the Highlanders and the Brigade of Guards when
it came to tackling the enemy. What would these famous regiments have to fight?
Opposing the Allied advance towards Sebastopol was a force
of some 40,000 Russian soldiers under the command of Prince Menschikoff, who
had positioned his men and about a hundred guns on the high ground overlooking
the river Alma, fifteen miles north of Sebastopol. The battle of Alma was
fought on 20 September and was characteristic of most Crimean encounters as far
as the Allies were concerned. There was no proper reconnaissance, no clear
plan, no thought about exploitation of success, no coordination between armies,
no control or direction by Raglan, and the outcome was determined by the sheer
courage and endurance of the British infantry. This dereliction of duty by
those who were supposed to be directing the battle may be gauged by the fact
that the Great Redoubt, key to the whole Russian defence, had to be taken
twice, first by the Light Division and 2nd Division, and then again – because
the reserve divisions were not moved forward quickly enough to consolidate its
capture, thus allowing the Russians to reoccupy it – by the Guards and
Highlanders. Its initial capture shows us the mettle of the British infantry:
The first line of the British army, the Light Infantry
Division and the 2nd Division, rose to its feet with a cheer, and, dressing in
a line two miles wide, though only two men deep, marched towards the river.
Under terrific fire – forty guns were trained on the river, and rifle bullets
whipped the surface of the water into a bloody foam – the first British troops
began to struggle across the Alma, the men so parched with thirst that even at
this moment they stopped to drink . . . During the terrible crossing of the
river formation was lost and it was a horde which surged up the bank and,
formed by shouting, cursing officers into some ragged semblance of a line,
pressed on up the deadly natural glacis towards the Great Redoubt. It seemed impossible
that the slender, straggling line could survive . . . Again and again large
gaps were torn in the line, the slopes became littered with bodies and sloppy
with blood, but the survivors closed up and pressed on, their officers urging,
swearing, yelling like demons.
The men’s blood was up. The Light Division, heroes of a
dozen stubborn and bloody battles in the Peninsula, advanced through the smoke,
swearing most horribly as their comrades fell . . . suddenly, unbelievably the
guns ceased to fire . . . the British troops gave a great shout, and in a last
frantic rush a mob of mixed battalions tumbled into the earthwork. The Great
Redoubt had been stormed.
But, alas, the Duke of Cambridge’s division with a brigade
of Guards and the Highland Brigade, which should have been following up, had
not moved from its position north of the river, allowing large numbers of
Russians to take advantage of their own artillery bombardment, move forward and
reoccupy the Great Redoubt. Thereupon the Guards and Highlanders, under
terrible fire from cannon and rifles, advanced with the same steadiness as if
taking part in a Hyde Park review. So heavy were the casualties suffered by the
Grenadier and Coldstream Guards that one officer suggested to Sir Colin
Campbell that they should retire or risk destruction. He received the
magnificent reply that it would be better for every man of Her Majesty’s Guards
to lie dead on the field than for them to turn their backs on the enemy.
Neither course of action was necessary, however, for not only did the Guards
and Highlanders retake the Great Redoubt, they successfully repelled a further
Russian infantry attack. As they charged forward the enemy fled, leaving the
Allies in triumphant possession of the battlefield.
Now we come to the first great If of the Crimean campaign.
If at this point the British cavalry, who were poised ready for pursuit, had
been launched against the fleeing enemy, they could have inflicted frightful
loss. Lucan and Cardigan were aching to do so. It was one of those rare
opportunities which when seized lead on to triumphant success, but when
neglected deliver only frustration and guilt. Yet Raglan positively forbade the
pursuit. There could be but one reason for his doing so – the French refused to
go further and Raglan dared not go on alone. Had he been more forceful or
decided to act with British troops only, he might have ended the campaign there
and then, by capturing Sebastopol. As it was, the defeated Russians, totally
unmolested, streamed into the city.
When we consider that the whole purpose of the Crimean
campaign, as directed by the Allied Governments, was to take Sebastopol – and
here as a result of the very first battle of the campaign, an absolutely
heaven-sent chance of doing so presented itself, yet was not taken – we may
perhaps sympathize with the outraged sentiments of Captain Nolan, 15th Hussars.
A passionate advocate of cavalry’s proper and aggressive use, Nolan burst into
William Howard Russell’s tent and gave vent to his sense of outrage – a thousand
British cavalry contemplating a beaten, retreating army, complete with guns and
colours, with nothing but a few wretched, cowardly Cossacks, ready to gallop
away at the mere sound of a trumpet call, to dispute their passage, and nothing
done: ‘It is enough to drive one mad! It is too disgraceful, too infamous.’ The
generals should be damned. We shall meet Captain Nolan again when another great
chance, another great If, and another gross mishandling of cavalry occurred.
Having omitted to take this tide at the flood, Lord Raglan
was obliged to put up with the shallows and the miseries of what was left of
his life’s voyage. It would not be for long and would lead to his humiliation
and death. Instead of seizing Sebastopol the Allied armies made their ponderous
way to the east and then the south of the city, giving the Russians time both
to reinforce its defences and indeed to pour more troops into the Crimea. This
new deployment of the British army emphasized the strategic importance of
Balaklava, through whose port all the sinews of war had to come. It was the
Russian attempt to capture it that resulted in the battle of Balaklava. On the
morning of 25 October the British army was singularly ill deployed to meet and
defeat this Russian attack. Apart from the 93rd Highlanders and about 1,000
Turks, the only troops between the port and General Liprandi’s advancing force
of 25,000 horse, foot and guns were the two brigades of the Cavalry Division,
positioned some two miles north of Balaklava at the foot of the Fedioukine
The idea that chaos is a good umpire and chance a well-known
governor of battles was well illustrated at Balaklava, for nothing could have
been more chaotic or chancy. During the action of 25 October, Lord Lucan
received four orders from Lord Raglan. Not one of them was either clear or
properly understood. Each one was either too late to be executed as intended,
violently resented by Lucan, ignored or so misinterpreted that the outcome was
calamitous. We may perhaps comfort ourselves with the reflection that there was
nothing unusual about this. Even today, with superlative communications when
orders are transmitted from one level of command to another, their purpose and
emphasis are subject to very different translation into action, for each
commander has his own view of a battlefield, broad or narrow. Each has his own
intention. No wonder they seldom coincide.
Raglan’s first order to Lucan was: ‘Cavalry to take ground
to left of second line of Redoubts occupied by the Turks.’ To execute the
order, although he did so, was not merely distasteful to Lucan, for the very
last thing cavalry was designed for was to take or hold ground, but, much more
important, it was tactically dangerous, since moving to the Redoubts on the
Causeway Heights, the cavalry would further isolate Sir Colin Campbell’s small
force of 500 Highlanders, the final defence of Balaklava itself. Thus at the
very beginning of the action, we find Lucan totally unable to comprehend what
his Commander-in-Chief had in mind. Indeed, from his point of view Raglan was
guilty of a gross tactical error. We may perhaps discover the reason for this
absolute discord when we remember that being in very different positions on the
ground, the two men had very different conceptions of what was taking place.
This perilous disparity of view was magnified by what happened next.
To those coolly sitting on their horses with Lord Raglan on
the Sapouné Heights, the incident must at first have appeared to be an instance
of that insolent indifference to danger which characterized many a British
military operation in the nineteenth century. Later, it must have seemed more
like culpable inactivity, and indeed it was only comprehensible when the
contours of the ground beneath these onlookers were properly appreciated. A
substantial body of Russian cavalry advancing to attack the Highlanders had
seemed to pass within a few hundred yards of the British cavalry, now stationed
where Raglan had ordered them, to the left of the second line of Redoubts. Yet
although the Russian cavalry passed so close to Lucan’s division, the two
formations could not see each other, were not in fact aware of each other’s
proximity, simply because of the high ground between them, screening each from
the other’s view. Yet to Raglan and his staff looking down upon them, this
mutual unawareness was not apparent. When the Russian cavalry then set about
attacking the 93rd Highlanders, ‘the slender red line’ proved more than a match
for the enemy squadrons. Three times the Russians came at then; three times
they were repulsed by the disciplined steadiness and accurate fire-power of the
93rd. At one point Campbell had to quell his men’s eagerness to charge with
some fitting oath, but they had done the trick. The enemy withdrew.
Yet these half-dozen or so squadrons were but the vanguard
of a much larger body of Russian cavalry which had followed them across the
Causeway Heights. Perceiving this further threat, Raglan had issued his second
order – indeed, had done so before the Highlanders’ gallant action had been
fought – and this order, ‘Eight squadrons of Heavy Dragoons to be detached
towards Balaklava to support the Turks who are wavering,’ arrived too late to
be executed in the way that Raglan had intended. In command of these Dragoon
squadrons was Brigadier-General Scarlett, whose face was as red as his tunic, a
brave and competent cavalryman who had won the respect and affection of his men
for his unassuming and good-natured ways. He was now about to bring off ‘one of
the great feats of cavalry against cavalry in the history of Europe’. As he led
his eight squadrons, two each from 5th Dragoon Guards, Scots Greys,
Inniskillings and 4th Dragoon Guards, towards Balaklava, with the Causeway
Heights on their left, he observed on the slopes of these heights a huge mass
of Russian horsemen. There were three or four thousand of them. Yet Scarlett
with his mere 500 or so Dragoons was quite undismayed and coolly ordered his
squadrons to wheel into line. It was at this point that Lucan arrived on the
scene and ordered Scarlett to do what he was about to do anyway – charge the
enemy. It was fortunate that the Russian cavalry came to a halt with the
intention of throwing out two wings on their flanks in order to engulf and
overwhelm Scarlett’s force. Thereupon Scarlett ordered his trumpeter to sound
Although the Light Brigade’s action at Balaklava is more
renowned, it was the Heavy Brigade’s charge which was truly remarkable as a
feat of arms. In spite of the appalling disparity of numbers, the British
cavalry enjoyed one great advantage. The Russian hordes were stationary, and it
is an absolute maxim that cavalry should never be halted when receiving a
charge but should be in motion. By remaining stationary, the Russians would
sustain far more devastating a shock. For those surveying from the heights,
what now transpired was breathtaking. Scarlett and his first line of three
squadrons seemed to be positively swallowed up by the mass of grey-coated
Russian cavalry, and although this enemy mass heaved and swayed, it did not
break. Indeed, their two wings, in motion again now, began to wheel inwards to
enclose and crush the three squadrons. But now Scarlett’s second line took a
hand in the game. The second squadrons of the Inniskillings and 5th Dragoon
Guards flung themselves wildly into the fray on the left, while the Royals, who
had not received orders to do so, but rightly acted with timely initiative,
charged in on the right. There was further heaving and swaying by the Russians,
but no sign yet of breaking.
No such initiative as that of the Royals was displayed by
Lord Cardigan, who was about to be presented with the chance of a lifetime. He
and his Brigade were a mere few hundred yards from the flank of the Russian
cavalry, observing the action, most of them consumed with impatience, yet no
thought of joining in the fray even occurred to Cardigan. The best he could do
was to declare that ‘These damned Heavies will have the laugh of us this day.’
Any commander possessed of the real cavalry spirit would have been longing for
the moment to arrive when his intervention would have been decisive. And this
moment was about to come. Despite his dislike and contempt for his superior
commander, Lord Lucan, Cardigan took refuge in his contention that he had been
ordered to remain in position and to defend it against any enemy advance. It
would have been far more in keeping with his custom to have ignored Lucan’s
order. Indeed, Lucan himself maintained that his instructions had included a
positive direction that the Light Brigade was to attack ‘anything and
everything that shall come within reach of you’. There could be no gainsaying
that the Russian cavalry, already reeling from the Heavy Brigade’s assault,
came within this category.
On the eve of the Russo–Japanese War, Russian land forces
were the biggest in the world, numbering 41,079 officers and 1,067,000 other
ranks, and with full deployment of more than 3 million including the reserves.
The sum of Russian troops stationed at that time east of Lake Baikal (the
Priamur and Siberian Military Districts and the Kwantung Fortified Region) was
about 95,000 infantry, some 3,000–5,000 cavalry, and between 120 to just under
200 guns. These were concentrated at Port Arthur, under the command of
Lieutenant General Anatolii Stoessel, and around Vladivostok, under the command
of General Nikolai Linievich. These forces were arranged in 68 infantry
battalions, 35 squadrons of cavalry (mainly Cossacks), 13 engineer companies,
five fortress engineer companies, and four and a half battalions of fortress
While it had often been regarded as conservative and
unpolished, the Imperial Russian Army of 1904 was very different from what it
had been four decades earlier. The defeat suffered by Russia in the Crimean War
hastened the abolition of serfdom and stimulated the reorganization of the
Imperial Russian Army. During the 1860s, War Minister D. A. Miliutin carried
out several reforms that created a sufficient number of trained reservists to
deploy a massive army in the event of war. The reform also resolved the problem
of improving the organization of the military administration and the rearmament
of the army. From 1874 military service was compulsory for every male who
reached the age of 21. The length of active military service was set at up to
six years, with nine years in the reserves. The law of 1874 did not extend to
the Cossacks, or to the people of the Trans-Caucasus region, Central Asia, and
Siberia. The benefits of the military reforms became clear during the
Russo–Turkish War of 1877–1878. But despite the ultimate victory, the war also
revealed disorganization, deficiencies in armaments, and weakness in the high
command. Further reforms in the aftermath of the war made the Imperial Russian
Army an awesome force, yet its true abilities were not tested for more than two
On the eve of the Russo–Japanese War, the Russian national
service consisted of four years of active service and 14 years in the reserves,
with two training periods of six weeks each, for soldiers from the age of 21 to
43. There were few exemptions from service, though several groups, such as the
Cossacks and Finns, were entitled to different conditions of service. The army
had 12 military districts: St. Petersburg, Moscow, Finland, Vilno, Warsaw,
Kiev, Odessa, Kazan, the Caucasus, Turkestan, Siberia and the Amur region, and
the Oblast of the Don Host. Despite the improved deployment, the army suffered
from outdated tactics and old, inflexible, high-ranking officers, who were
often unfamiliar with new advances in technology. The lower-ranking officers
and non-commissioned officers suffered from long periods of being given
unchallenging assignments and a lack of training. The land forces were divided
into regular units and Cossacks. In peacetime, field troops made up 73.4
percent of the entire regular forces, whereas fortress troops were 6.6 percent,
reserve forces 9.5 percent, rear forces 0.7 percent, local troops 2.3 percent,
and auxiliary detachments 7.5 percent. In 1898 the infantry accounted for 74.8
percent of the entire army; cavalry were 8.5 percent (excluding the Cossack
cavalry units), artillery 13.7 percent, and engineering 3.0 percent. Infantry
divisions, consisting of about 18,000 men each, were assembled into corps, and
corps were joined in wartime into armies.
On the eve of the Russo–Japanese War, the forces of the
Imperial Russian Army in Manchuria were organized within the Manchurian Army,
under the command of General Nikolai Linievich. This army consisted of two
corps: the First Siberian Army Corps and the Third Siberian Army Corps. The
rank and file were mainly loyal peasants from eastern Russia, who were regarded
as resilient and accustomed to the harsh conditions of the region, but
uneducated and unused to fighting without a commanding officer to direct them.
Initially the two corps were smaller and less well organized than parallel
European corps. The former, for example, had 32 guns, whereas the latter had 48
or 64 guns. Each corps consisted of two divisions, which in turn comprised two
brigades. The typical Siberian brigade consisted of 3,400 men and 12 artillery
guns in two batteries. A battery consisted of eight Putilov M-1903
76.2-millimeter [3-inch] field guns, as well as a small unspecified number of
117-millimeter [4.6-inch] howitzers and no more than eight Maxim machine guns.
The Siberian infantry brigades grew slowly and eventually evolved into the
Siberian infantry divisions, which did not exist prior to the war.
The Siberian corps had no divisional cavalry and their
infantry soldiers were equipped with the Mosin M-1891 rifle while their
commissioned and non-commissioned officers were equipped also with the Nagant
M-95 revolver. At the outbreak of the war the Russian units of the Manchurian
Army were widely dispersed and disorganized, but as the war progressed their
organization and efficiency increased. During 1904 the Manchurian Army was
gradually reinforced by the First, Fourth, Eighth, Tenth, Sixteenth, and
Seventeenth European Army Corps, consisting of 28,000 rifles and 112 guns each.
Thus army corps, rather than divisions, were the main fighting unit used by the
Russians during this war. Their troops were transferred eastward by the
Trans-Siberian Railway, which could deliver 40,000 men (one and a half corps) a
month. In September 1904 the Manchurian Army was divided into the First
Manchurian Army and the Second Manchurian Army, and in December 1904 the Third
Manchurian Army was also formed.
In the aftermath of the Russo–Japanese War, the Imperial
Russian Army was forced to undertake a series of reforms to strengthen its
forces, and thus initiated the “great military program.” In 1913 it envisaged
an increase in the army’s size by almost 40 percent by 1917, and a large-scale
augmentation of the armaments used by the artillery and the rifle forces.
Changes were made also in the readiness of the army to mobilize and the way it
was staffed. The overall length of service was set at 18 years, of which three
to four years were on active service. On the eve of World War I, Russia’s land
forces were regarded as a potentially unbeatable army, although in reality the
army was still in the midst of a process of reorganizing and developing its
capabilities. In the first months of the war, the Imperial Russian Army
mobilized 3.5 million men. However, at the end of 1917 and early in 1918 it was
demobilized, and the Red Army was created instead.
Russian infantry corps in Manchuria numbered by most
estimates about 95,000 men and consisted mainly of peasants, considered hardy,
obedient, brave, and used to the extreme conditions of the region. They won the
admiration of military observers though they were still trained in outdated
tactics. They were conditioned to volley fire on command and used the bayonet
more often than required. These practices largely constricted their individual
marksmanship abilities. They also often suffered from lack of motivation;
during the conflict in Manchuria most of the second-line reservists resented
being called up for duty in this remote area. The main weapon used by the
Russian infantry was the Mosin M-1891 rifle, and infantry units also
increasingly used Maxim machine guns as close fire support for the troops. The
individual’s personal kit weighed about 32 kilograms [70 pounds] and consisted
of two and a half days’ worth of rations in a watertight kitbag, a greatcoat, a
tent sheet, and a shovel. The infantryman carried between 120 and 300 rounds of
ammunition in clips of five.
Maxim Machine Gun.
Main machine gun used by the Imperial Russian Army during
the Russo–Japanese War. It was designed in 1883 by Hiram Maxim, an American
living in Great Britain, and during the following years came into widespread
use. In 1895 the Imperial Japanese Army purchased a number of Maxims but
eventually preferred the Hotchkiss machine gun. The Imperial Russian Army,
however, purchased 58 Maxim machine guns in 1899 and made it its main machine
gun. In 1902 the army concluded a contract with the British firm Vickers to
manufacture the Maxim in Russia, thereby cutting costs by two-thirds.
Manufacture of the Russian version of the Maxim started only in 1910; the
machine gun was designated Pulemiot Maxima. At the outbreak of the Russo–Japanese
War, the Russian war ministry placed a rush order abroad for a total of 450
machine guns for the troops at the front, which were mostly supplied toward the
end of the war. The Maxim’s design was simple though ingenious: it was water
cooled, recoil operated, and fully automatic. Its recoil, caused by the
explosion of the powder, operated to eject the spent cartridge and load the
next round. The Maxim was fabric belt-fed, and it fired the same
7.62-millimeter [.30-inch] ammunition used by the Russian-made Mosin M-1891
Technical data: Water-cooled 4 liters; Caliber: 7.62mm; Gun
length: 1.107m, barrel length: 0.72m; Grooves: 4; Wheeled mount weight: 36kg;
Tripod mount weight: 27.6kg, empty fabric belt weight: 1.1kg, loaded fabric
belt weight: 6.1kg (250 rounds); Effective rate of fire: 250r/min.
Mosin M-1891 Rifle.
Russian main rifle during the Russo–Japanese War. It was
first produced following an order of Tsar Nicholas II, and thereafter it was
manufactured in Russia, the Soviet Union, and Belgium from 1891 to 1944 in
several models. It originated as a design of Captain S. M. Mosin and was
favored over a Belgian design by Leon Nagant for its ruggedness and lighter
weight. The Mosin M-1891 replaced the older, heavier, and longer Karle and
Berdan No. 2 rifles. By 1903 the two-phase introduction of the Mosin M-1891 to
the ranks was complete, and both the regular army and the reserves were armed
with the new rifle. The Russian infantry had a bayonet permanently fixed to the
rifle, which hindered accurate shooting to some extent. Versions of the Mosin
were used as frontline rifles until World War II and as practice rifles until
the late 1970s.
Technical data: Caliber: 7.62mm [0.3in.]; Weight: 4.33kg
[9.61bs], with bayonet and sling 4.78kg [10.61bs]; Length: 131cm [51.4in.],
with bayonet: 173cm [68.2in.], barrel length: 80.3cm [31.6in.]; Magazine
capacity: 5 rounds; Rate of fire: 8–10r/min; Maximum sighting range (iron
Combat troops mounted
on horses. Their importance in the Russo–Japanese War was limited and often
marginal. After a millennium in which mounted troops were considered the
masters of offensive warfare, the Russo–Japanese War marks a turning point in
the history of cavalry; thereafter this type of warfare was to disappear rapidly
from the modern battlefield. In many respects the limited contribution of
cavalry during the Russo–Japanese War presaged its demise during World War I.
The European armies, however, did not learn this particular lesson, nor the
general lesson regarding the leading role of defense in modern warfare.
Consequently they started World War I with huge cavalry forces without any
effective alternative until the invention of the tank. While both belligerents
in the Russo–Japanese War used cavalry forces, the Imperial Russian Army
employed about three times more cavalry units than the Imperial Japanese Army.
On the eve of war the Russian cavalry numbered more than
80,000 and comprised 25 cavalry divisions, including two Guards, 17 Army, and
six Cossack cavalry detachments. The Russian cavalry in East Asia consisted
mostly of Cossacks, with each cavalry division consisting of 3,400 dragoons
trained in mounted and dismounted combat. Some divisions had their own
artillery support, usually 12 horse-drawn artillery guns. The Russian cavalry
forces in Manchuria were organized in December 1904 in one huge Cavalier Corps.
They were commanded initially by Lieutenant General Pavel Mishchenko until
February 1905, then briefly by Lieutenant General Pavel Rennenkampf during February,
by Lieutenant General Vladimir Grekov until March, and then again by Mishchenko
until September 1905. The tactics of the Russian cavalry were revised several
times during the 50 years prior to the war, their equipment was modernized,
switching from lances to rifles and bayonets, and dragoon training was
instituted combining infantry training with cavalry tactics. Nevertheless, at
the outbreak of the Russo–Japanese War, they were still guided by outdated
notions of attack, with scant regard for the technological and tactical
advances achieved during the 19th century. Foremost among these advances was
the widespread implementation of machine guns in the battlefield, the much more
extensive use of artillery as support during battle, and the change from close
to dispersed infantry formations, which made the infantry an unsuitable target
for formation cavalry attacks.
In the evolution of cavalry warfare, the Russo–Japanese War
is noted for the absence of the lance and sword, which were replaced by the
rifle. The few achievements of the Russian cavalry were made through the effect
of firearms. However, the cavalry units of both armies had little significance
for the overall outcome of the Russo–Japanese War, and their basic weaknesses
were quickly demonstrated. The Russian cavalry often lacked fighting spirit, as
recorded by General Aleksei Kuropatkin in his memoirs: “Until cavalry is
educated to feel that it should fight as obstinately as infantry, the money
expended on our mounted arm is wasted.” Still, spirit was not the only cause.
Horses were costly to maintain and the transport and effectiveness of cavalry
was insignificant in siege warfare, such as in the siege of Port Arthur, or
trench warfare, like that which developed before the battle of Mukden.
The Russo–Japanese War witnessed a massive use of artillery,
but it was not a revolutionary step in the development of this branch. While
the amount of usage and the centralization of control during the war were
without precedent, field artillery reached maturity only during World War I.
The use of goniometers for measuring angles, panoramic sights, field telephones
(especially by the Japanese), and even aerial observation by balloons allowed
the commanding officers in the field to use their artillery firepower against
targets outside the line of sight of the batteries used. These technological
advances, together with the increase in the range and effectiveness of the
guns, made it possible to concentrate the fire of a whole army corps on a
single target. At the battle of Liaoyang, for example, medium and heavy
artillery were massively employed. On the Japanese side alone there were 56
heavy guns and mortars and a total of 470 guns. During the battle of Sha-ho, 48
Russian guns fired 8,000 rounds in 40 minutes; at the battle of Tashihchiao, a
battery fired 500 rounds per gun.
The battle of Sha-ho may furnish a further instance of
successful concentration of the fire of dispersed batteries. The concealment of
batteries in action began to be more fully realized and the impracticability of
close support by guns pushed forward into the infantry firing line under the
enemy’s small-arms fire was demonstrated on many occasions. The advances of
technology, achieved already in the 19th century, made the use of artillery and
indirect fire in the battlefield safer and simpler, and during this war
indirect fire at last became the norm. All in all, the two armies used
unprecedented quantities of artillery ammunition. The Imperial Russian Army,
for example, spent about 900,000 artillery rounds during the entire war, a tiny
proportion of the 65.3 million manufactured and imported by Russia during World
War I, and a fraction of the 360 millions shells and bombs Russia alone
manufactured during World War II.
Still, the Imperial Japanese Army appeared to be more
adapted to the modern use of artillery during the Russo–Japanese War. It used
screens of artillery shelling to cover the advance of its infantry with very
accurate and close support, through the extensive employment of field
telephones and flag signaling. The tactics of advancing, positioning, and
deploying the artillery forces evolved as well. The Japanese used camouflage
and batteries to conceal the positioning of their guns from the Russian troops,
and they watered the roads on which they moved them to prevent dust clouds that
would have given away their position and movements. Until the Russo–Japanese
War, shelling would stop when the attacking troops were still far from their
target to prevent their being harmed, but now Japanese artillery officers often
continued shelling almost up to the Russian trenches and ceased only moments
before the assault began. During the war the Russians displayed improved
gunnery performance and innovation as well. In the fortification of Port
Arthur, for example, they placed most of their guns in batteries outside the
forts of the main perimeter, contrary to common practice, thus eliminating
“dead” ground and forcing the attacker to disperse his fire. Altogether, the
use of artillery in the Russo–Japanese War inaugurated the era of mass
bombardment and close support for the advancing troops, a fact that did not
attract much attention of military observers.
During the Russo–Japanese War the distinction between guns
and howitzers gradually disappeared and both sides employed successfully a
small number of howitzers. Both sides used an increasingly large number of
120-millimeter [4.7-inch] Krupp-design howitzers purchased before the turn of
the century, as well as a small number of 150-millimeter [5.9-inch] Model 38
howitzers (only in Japan). Only the Japanese, however, made full use of this
type of gun by mobilizing 18 gigantic Krupp-made 280-millimeter [11-inch]
howitzers at Port Arthur. Their firepower was exploited to the utmost during
the siege of the fort and was instrumental in razing the Russian defenses. The
Russian artillery corps were equipped with superb quick-firing Putilov M-1903
76.2-millimeter [3-inch] field guns, which replaced the older M-1900. Even
though these guns were most up-to-date, they were still heavier and less
maneuverable than the Japanese guns. In addition, both sides made use of
various older guns of 90 to 120 millimeters, and the Russians also employed
during the siege of Port Arthur naval guns, mainly of 152 millimeters [6
inches] and smaller, which were removed from the warships of the Pacific Fleet.
Both sides made some limited use of heavy mortars, especially in mountain
engagements and around Port Arthur against nearby targets protected by hills or
other obstacles. They were of 90–150 millimeter caliber and could fire up to
30-kilogram [66-pound] shells a short distance.
My troops are poor
Swedish and Finnish peasant fellows, it’s true, rude and ill-dressed; but they
smite hard and they shall soon have better clothes.
GUSTAV II ADOLF [Gustavus Adolphus]
The early campaigns of Gustav Adolf and the beginning of
Sweden’s rocky rise to power. This was a time when some of his innovations in
weapons and tactics were in the embryonic stages and he fought the campaigns
with a mixture of old and new. It was therefore a training ground and
educational experience for the young king. We see the widespread improvements
in armaments and tactics, the products of a military genius, which were to
ultimately make Sweden a formidable military power.
The transition from the Middle Ages to the modern era that
took place mainly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries brought momentous
changes to almost every aspect of life. These changes affected the arts,
literature, politics, economics, science, technology, and the military.
Our main concern is with the military changes—or the
military revolution as it is most frequently called in the literature. It can
be argued persuasively that military changes were the driving force behind the
War was almost continual during the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries. This state of affairs resulted, as was to be expected,
in developments in weaponry, tactics, and extended durations of wars. The
military changes, primarily in technology and weapons, started in the
mid-fifteenth century on an evolutionary scale. However, as John Childs points
out, changes that took place over several centuries cannot be labeled as
revolutionary. It is only when these changes picked up speed in the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries that they became revolutionary in nature.
The advances in technology in the late middle ages
led—gradually at first—to modifications of all aspects of war by the early
1700s. During this period military operations devastated the population and countryside,
and, as the monopoly of violence rested securely with the Crown, the
accompanying increase in the size of armies and costs led to the rise of
absolutism and autocracy across the continent.
THE MILITARY REVOLUTION
The armies prior to the Thirty Years War were relatively
small and they were primarily mercenary based. Because of the expenses involved
in training, nations increasingly moved toward permanent military establishments
and away from the use of militia forces which were disbanded during the winter.
Roberts has pointed out that the quick spread of technology was influenced by
the use of mercenary forces that learned new technology in the service of one
nation and then took that knowledge with them when they shifted employers.
Rapid growth in the size of armies characterized the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This stemmed from a number of factors
such as the proliferation of wars, rise in population, sophisticated armament,
increased specialization, and a large expansion of the support base.
The imperial forces numbered approximately 20,000 at the
beginning of the Thirty Years War while the Protestant opposition amounted to
some 12,000. A little more than a decade later the Catholic forces numbered
over 150,000 and those under Swedish command were even larger.
New armaments, the move toward large standing military
establishments, growing requirements for a large and sophisticated support
base, and prolonged wars resulted in a steep rise in military expenditures and
this led to major political changes in most countries. Downing has pointed out
that the cost of a single cannon was equivalent to the feeding of 800 soldiers
for a whole month. The whole transition in armament involved large expenses.
Economic considerations, then as now, dictated strategy.
Countries were unwilling to risk the destruction of their armies—expensive
investments— and therefore wars were for the most part short and indecisive in
nature. Major engagements were avoided. The rare attempts to mount rapid and
decisive campaigns usually failed because of poor communications and consequent
lack of speed.
The solution adopted by most continental powers to deal with
the steep increase in the costs of war was to raise standing armies. This
transition took place in most countries in the last half of the seventeenth
century. This did not mean that mercenaries disappeared from the scene. They
continued to account for a sizable portion of a nation’s army, even into the
nineteenth century. In the Thirty Years War, Sweden switched the burden of
maintaining its armies to the territories in which they operated through what
became known as the “contribution system.”
Since the 1950s we have entered a similar period with
respect to advances in technology. The standing armies in most Western
countries have been severely curtailed in size since the 1970s as we went to an
all-voluntary system where personnel costs increased at the same time as there
was an explosion in high cost technology. The cost of most military hardware
has skyrocketed. The cost of a modern fighter or ground support aircraft as
compared to similar aircraft in World War II tells the story, and this problem
is prevalent across the board. It seems evident that we are now facing changes
similar to those of the seventeenth century—increased centralization, heavy tax
burdens, and the possible loss of individual freedoms.
The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries witnessed a decline
of the cavalry arm of most armies (Russia, Poland/Lithuania, and Turkey being
notable exceptions). This change had been in progress well before that time
period. The battlefield became more and more infantry dominated as the weapons
of foot soldiers improved and became more effective. This required
organizational and tactical changes.
In grappling with this problem in the early 1500s, Spain
opted for an organizational structure resembling the Greek phalanx. The troops
were armed with a mixture of pikes and firearms. The infantry, which gained
prominence on the battlefield, was organized into units of 3,000 men (tercio),
perhaps better known to the English reader as the “Spanish square.” It was
devised, partially, as a means of making the matchlock handgun a more effective
infantry weapon. Like the Greek phalanx, the “Spanish square” was expected to
sweep everything before it.
The pikemen were in the center of these 100 by 30 man
squares and the musketeers on the flanks. However, these formations reduced
tactical flexibility because of their unwieldiness on the battlefield. Despite
these shortcomings the Spanish square dominated the battlefields of Europe for
over a century.
The heavy cavalry which had been in decline for centuries
underwent a further decline as infantry weapons and artillery became deadlier.
In the seventeenth century the ratio of cavalry to infantry had declined to
about 25 percent. The light cavalry, however, was still very useful for
pursuit, skirmishing, screening, and the interdiction of lines of communication.
MAURICE OF NASSAU’S REFORMS
It gradually became obvious that the Spanish system needed
to be modified to make it more flexible and to make better use of manpower. The
first important steps in the modification process were taken by Maurice of
Nassau and Prince of Orange (1567–1625) who was a general in the United
Provinces in their ongoing rebellion against Spain. He had an excellent
theoretical and practical knowledge of warfare, and used the Roman legion as
the model for his organizational reforms. The reforms that Maurice initiated
resulted in a revolution of military organization and tactics during the
Maurice’s primary contribution to the art of war can be
found in the tactical employment of manpower. He sought battlefield flexibility
by a reduction in both the size and depth of the infantry formations. Maurice
modified the tercios by subdividing them into units of 580 men in ten ranks.
This new formation became the beginning of the modern linear
formation. The companies were organized into battalion-size units with pikemen
in the center and musketeers on the flanks. The objective was to allow the
musketeers to deliver continuous fire by ranks before countermarching to the
rear to reload. We thus see that the musketeers and pikemen were still linked
in one unit but were no longer mixed so that a large number of soldiers were
ineffective. With a maximum battalion front of about 250 meters this formation
avoided the waste of manpower found in the Spanish square. The number of soldiers
who could effectively use their weapons was virtually doubled.
While the pikes were supposed to protect the musketeers from
cavalry attacks, the smaller units were more vulnerable to attacks on their
flanks and rear than in the Spanish square. Maurice attempted to avoid this
danger by adopting a checker-board battle formation, the spaces between
battalions of the first line covered by echeloned battalions in the second line
and by trying to rest the flanks on natural obstacles. If this was not possible,
the flanks were protected by cavalry. The battalions were grouped into
“brigade” formations in three distinct lines.
As Childs notes, the army reforms of Maurice of Nassau
required extensive training and a high level of discipline—contributing factors
leading to standing national forces. The success of the system required
intensive training over all kinds of terrain and this is one of Maurice’s most
important contributions. This training also made officers adept at handling and
changing formations, and it was an effective way to keep troops busy between
campaigns. Such practices as marching in step date from this period.
Maurice was also ahead of his time in experimenting with new
weapons such as explosive shells. He insisted on the use of field fortifications,
and developed new innovations that would reduce the time of sieges. He adopted
field glasses for observation and had a great interest in mapmaking.
Maurice’s innovations did not solve all the problems
associated with the Spanish square. The pikeman’s role was the same as before
and the musketeers were still wed to the pike formation. In some ways, the new
linear formation was not much more effective in defense than the system it
replaced. The changes that Maurice brought about can be viewed as a transition
between the earlier gunpowder era and the system adopted by Gustav Adolf. Gustav’s
modifications to Maurice’s system basically lasted to the French Revolution,
with minor modifications. Together, Maurice and Gustav’s fundamental concept of
linear formation and mobility lasted until the twentieth century.
The science involving fortifications and sieges was also
transformed. The old medieval stone walls were quickly demolished by cannon
firing iron ammunition. New fortifications capable of withstanding cannon fire
were expensive and beyond the means of most small states.
Geoffrey Parker mentions some other changes that took place
in this period such as the emergence of military academies, the enactment of an
embryonic form of “laws of war,” and the proliferation of writings on the art
GUSTAV ADOLF’S REFORMS
It is easy to both overstate and understate the achievements
of Gustav Adolf. There are examples of both extremes in the literature covering
the period. It is true, as pointed out by Colonel Dupuy that many of Gustav’s
innovations were adopted from others and, furthermore, he was not the only one
during the period who sought to improve the military system. And Lynn Montross
observes that with few exceptions, Swedish military reforms owed in some
measure to the experiments by others … . A talented organizer, Gustavus began
where his predecessors left off, taking the best of their ideas and combining
them with his own.
Maurice of Nassau and Gustav Adolf were not simply military
theorists but military practitioners. However, it is hard to find anyone who so
successfully bridged the gap between concept and practice or fitted the pieces
together in an integrated system as did Gustav. Aside from Genghis Khan, Gustav
Adolf is the only great captain who won fame on the battlefield using an
instrument mainly of his own design. Liddell Hart, who accords Gustav the title
of “Father of Modern War,” writes that His outstanding achievement is in fact
the tactical instrument that he forged, and the tactical “mechanism” through
which this worked its triumphs.
Gustav’s accomplishments were many. He created mobile field
artillery, made combined arms operations possible, restored the role of
cavalry, and developed the modern role of infantry. He was more than the author
of the linear tactics of the eighteenth century—he laid the foundation for the infantry
tactics of the twentieth century. He organized the first national army and
created the first effective supply service, imposed a system of discipline, and
laid the foundation of military law.
Dupuy describes the army Gustav Adolf inherited thus:
At the time Gustavus
Adolphus assumed the Swedish throne in 1611, the Swedish Army was in deplorable
condition: poorly organized, under strength, short on pikes, musketeers
equipped with the obsolete arquebus, and badly led. Administration was
virtually nonexistent, recruitment at low ebb, morale poor …
To this can be added Sweden’s dire financial straits and a
sense of weariness after nearly a century of almost continuous wars.
Gustav Adolf was not merely a copier or product improver; he
introduced many changes of his own. We shall now look at some of these, both
refinements and those based on originality.
The basic Swedish infantry tactical unit was the battalion
or squadron consisting of 408 troops. This organization was still slightly pike
heavy. There were 216 pikemen to 192 musketeers. Both pikemen and musketeers
were arranged in three rectangular formations, each with a depth of six ranks.
The difference was that all the pikemen were located in the center of the
battalion formation with a frontage of 36 men while the musketeers were formed
into two equal groups, one on each side of the pikemen. The frontage of each
musketeer formation was 16 troops. Dupuy notes that an additional 96 musketeers
were often attached to the battalion, performing out-posting, reconnaissance,
etc. This formation enabled the battalions to deliver formidable firepower.
While Lord Reay, a contemporary English observer, among
others, has left diagrams, there was no standard formation for the brigades,
which were tactical units. They were “task organized.” Both size and formation
depended on the battlefield, the enemy, strength of the battalions, and the
experience of the troops. However, they usually consisted of between one
full-size two-battalion regiment, and two reduced strength regiments. The
numerical size usually varied between 1,000 and 2,000 men but this larger
number strained the span of control. The three-battalion brigade in Figure 2
had 1,224 troops. Two regimental guns were usually attached and cavalry was
often found in the rear, between the lines of infantry.
FIGURE 1: Standard
Swedish Battalion Formation.
FIGURE 2: One
Possible Swedish Brigade Formation.
Gustav Adolf also introduced “volley firing,” since the
inaccurate match -locks and flintlocks were more effective when fired
simultaneously. The volley fire was normally obtained by advancing the rear
ranks of musketeers into the three-foot intervals between the musketeers in the
front of them. This became the basis for European infantry tactics. According
to a Scottish colonel, Robert Monro, who fought in the Swedish army as a
mercenary for about six years, Gustav adopted a somewhat different method for
delivering volley fire. According to Monro, Gustav had his first rank advance
ten paces before the troops fired. The first rank then stopped in place to
reload while the next rank passed through them to deliver its volley. This
procedure was repeated for each rank. It had the advantage of always closing on
the enemy and shortening the distance to the targets with each rank delivering
increasingly accurate fire. Gustav had in effect changed the countermarch into
an offensive operation.
There is some conflict or confusion in the literature when
it comes to the Swedish use of volley fire. Dupuy writes:
countermarch was so executed that the whole formation moved forward, and the
fire was, in effect, a small-arms rolling barrage. During this movement, the
musketeers were protected by the pikes while they reloaded. Later, Gustavus
introduced the salve, or salvo, further increasing the firepower of his line.
In the salvo, three ranks fired simultaneously. This made continuous fire
impossible, but it proved effective just before a climatic charge by producing
a volume of fire in a few minutes at close quarters that in the countermarch
would have taken a half-hour or more.
I have found that the
full salvo by three ranks of infantry was used sparingly. The musketeers would
be rather helpless after delivering such a salvo since they all had to reload
at the same time and offensive action by the pikemen to cover the infantry
after a full salvo was problematic unless the second line of three ranks had
closed up to the first.
Robert Frost writes that on the third day of the Mewe
engagements, the first line of Swedish musketeers had fired a salvo at the
Polish infantry when they were swept off the high ground by hussars before they
could reload. On the previous page he writes that the hussars, after driving
the first Swedish line off the high ground were stopped by a salvo from a
second line of Swedish infantry.
There are others who doubt that a full salvo was ever used.
David Parrott contributed an article to Michael Roberts’ book Military
Revolution Debate and on page 35 of that book Parrott questions both the effectiveness
of the salvo and whether it had ever been used. Frost recognizes Parrott’s
disagreement in a note. In that note he labels Parrott’s comment as unfounded
and goes on to give an accurate description of a salvo: The salvo was
specifically designed for use against cavalry attack, where two salvos in quick
succession by two lines each three ranks deep was all that the defenders had
time to deliver. The two lines of Swedish infantry at Mewe appear to have been
more separated than was customary, and the two salvos were therefore not
delivered in quick succession.
Gustav also made important changes in infantry weapons and
equipment. Despite the fact that body armor was fast disappearing, the Swedish
pikemen wore breastplates and greaves. A problem with the pike was that it was
frequently severed by enemy cavalry using swords. To overcome this problem,
Gustav sheathed the upper portion of the pike with a thin layer of iron. To
compensate for the increased weight this caused, the pike was shortened from
sixteen to eleven feet.
The arquebus was done away with and replaced by the
matchlock musket. However, the earlier matchlock was also a heavy piece of
equipment and required a fork rest to fire, adding to the weight a musketeer
had to carry. In 1526, while engaged in his Polish campaigns, Swedish
manufacturers invented a lighter musket with mechanical improvements permitting
quicker loading. The heavy iron fork was also replaced by a thin double ended
pike, known as a “Swedish feather.” It had a dual purpose. In addition to
serving as a rest for the musket, it was also useful as a palisade stake in
presenting an obstacle for enemy cavalry. The consequent reduction in the weight
that a musketeer had to carry allowed him to be armed with a saber. Both the
saber and the Swedish feather gave the infantry some defense against cavalry
By the end of the seventeenth century the flintlock had
almost completely replaced the matchlock. The flintlock was generally less
accurate and had a slower rate of fire than the improved matchlock. These were
undoubtedly the reasons for the resistance by many practitioners to its
adoption. However, the advantages were also great. First, it was less
vulnerable to weather. Second, it removed the intrinsic and obvious danger of a
lit match. Third, by the removal of the danger of accidents with lit matches,
troops could be placed closer together, thus increasing the volume of fire
delivered from a given space. To that can be added another important advantage
of the improved musket: its increased penetration; the ball could penetrate
some of the body armor of the day.
The introduction of the bayonet also took place during the
seventeenth century. The plug bayonet appeared first in France in 1647. Forty
years later the plug bayonet was replaced by the socket bayonet, where the
bayonet is fastened to a socket on the musket barrel. By the first quarter of
the eighteenth century the bayonet had replaced the pike.
The Swedes also standardized the caliber and the powder
charge. Although the paper cartridge was apparently not a Swedish invention,
they seem to have been the first to put it to full use as standard infantry
equipment. The cartridge contained a carefully measured fixed charge with a one
ounce ball attached. Each soldier carried fifteen cartridges in a cloth
bandolier across his chest. When reloading all a soldier had to do was to bite
off the end of the cartridge and push it into the musket with the ramrod. This
saved many motions in reloading and represented a significant increase in fire
power. In large measure due to constant training in the 1620s, the Swedish army
improved reloading speed to the point where the six ranks of musketeers could
maintain a continuous barrage.
The Swedish battalion bore a clear resemblance to those of
Maurice. However, without the attached musketeers, it was slightly smaller.
Both organizations were primarily defensive in nature but could be used
offensively if properly reinforced and supported. To acquire an offensive
capability several battalions had to be combined into a brigade adequately
supported by cavalry and artillery.
The weaknesses of the linear formation were that it was no
longer able to adequately defend its own flanks and rear. This problem
increased with progressively fewer ranks in order to maximize firepower to the
front. Gustav Adolf’s triangular and checkerboard brigade formation compensated
for this weakness since the flank units could turn to present the enemy with a
The Swedish cavalry was manned by volunteers, and most were
light cavalry. The Swedish horses were small but performed well against the
bigger horses in the continental armies. By 1630 Gustav Adolf had a cavalry
force of 8,000 native Swedes and Finns. A high morale was maintained by regular
pay supplemented with bonuses in the form of land or rental income.
Gustav realized, under the conditions then prevailing, that
battles could not be won by firepower alone, and that he needed the shock power
that only cavalry could provide. He discarded both the caracole and the
customary deep cavalry formations. He formed the cavalry in six ranks as he
used for the infantry but later changed that to three ranks. Although he had
done away with the caracole the riders still carried pistols, but only the
first rank fired and the others used them for emergencies. The main weapon was
the saber. Firepower support was provided by musketeer detachments deployed
between the cavalry squadrons. After an initial salvo to disrupt the enemy
line, the musketeers reloaded while the cavalry charged. The reloading exercise
was primarily to be ready for a second charge or to cover a cavalry retreat.
The light regimental artillery guns could also lend fire support if needed.
The Swedes, like other armies of the period, employed
dragoons. In the case of the Swedes, these were basically mounted infantry
armed with carbine and saber. They were useful for a variety of tasks such as
quick raids, skirmishing, and foraging. Through the employment of small units
in this manner, Gustav Adolf was able to concentrate the organization and
training of his regular cavalry for shock tactics only. A company of cavalry
consisted of 115 men and a cavalry regiment had an average strength of 800 to
An earl belongs on the
back of a horse. A troop must ride in a company, a foot-soldier stand fast.
Maxims I, 62–3
The question of the existence of an Anglo-Saxon cavalry is
another area of controversy. People have assumed that the Anglo-Saxons fought
only on foot and had very little knowledge of horses, rarely putting them to
any military use. The reasons for this long-standing view are complex and
numerous. Certainly, there are historical sources who say that the Anglo-Saxons
were unable to fight on horseback and that the use of the horse as a tactical
option on the battlefield was unknown to them. This goes back as far as
Procopius in the seventh century. References to the English sending their
horses to the rear while their riders proceeded to fight on foot are known from
the accounts of the Battle of Maldon and the Battle of Hastings. Also, we have
to contend with the twelfth-century historian Henry of Huntingdon’s assertion
that the English did not know how to fight on horseback, and The Carmen’s
acerbic remark that
A race ignorant of
war, the English scorn the solace of horses and trusting in their strength they
stand fast on foot and they count it the highest honour to die in arms that
their native soil may not pass under another yoke.
With propaganda like this, it is easy to see why the
Anglo-Saxons’ reputation for not having a cavalry has stuck for so long. Modern
historians have tended to reinforce the notion of the Anglo-Saxon lack of
cavalry by producing sometimes quite astounding theories. The lack of evidence
for metal stirrups until the arrival of the Vikings, for example, is often put
forwards as a reason the English could not possibly have adopted mounted
tactics, because their riders would somehow be unsteady in the saddle. The fact
that the native English horse was ‘no more than a pony’ is the often peddled
nonsense in support of the English ignorance of cavalry. Thankfully, the tide
is turning on these theoretical points due to recent research. The stirrups
need not be an issue for horsemanship, and in any case the lack of evidence for
metal ones does not preclude the existence of wooden or rope equivalents. In
fact, the Old English word for stirrup was ‘stigrap’, which literally means
‘climbing rope’. Also, studies of horse management in England prior to the
Norman Conquest and the archaeological evidence to support it show the
Anglo-Saxon horse to be the physical equivalent of its Continental cousin. The
problem is this: people have made assumptions about the Anglo-Saxons’ mounted skills
based on not only Norman propaganda, but on the knowledge that the Normans
themselves were consummate cavalrymen. Their ‘destriers’, it is correctly
argued, could charge home on the battlefield and their riders were trained to
use the couched lance style of fighting on the battlefield, a famously
impressive tactic. Their cavalry charges attracted comment from the Byzantine
writer Anna Comnena, who spoke of the Normans being able to ‘break the walls of
Babylon’. It has to be said that there is no evidence that the mounted
Anglo-Saxon ever fought in this way. And so, all of this leaves the reputation
of the Anglo-Saxon horsemen with a lot of ground to make up.
However, when we examine the evidence for the presence of
the mounted Anglo-Saxon, we find that for years we have probably been asking
the wrong question. It is not a matter of whether the Anglo-Saxons had a
‘cavalry’ as such. There has been a refreshing move away from this polarised
argument in recent years with an acknowledgement that the Anglo-Saxons usage of
horses by way of mounted infantry was so widespread as to blur the distinction
between foot and horse. The evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of there being
mounted troops employed on a very wide scale and the importance of a nobleman’s
ownership of horses is clearly outlined in the heriots of the age. It is rather
a question of ‘how did the Anglo-Saxons employ their horses in a military
As early as the eighth century the Venerable Bede mentions
the importance of the horse in the context of royal gift giving. King Oswine
(644–51) gave a royal horse to St Aiden. From the pagan Saxon period there is a
horse burial at Lakenheath which shows us that the value of the animal has a
great ancestry among the Anglo-Saxons. In a military context, an early
reference to the Anglo-Saxon use of cavalry on the battlefield is captured on
the Aberlemno Stone, which depicts a Pictish and Northumbrian army both
fighting on horseback at the Battle of Dunnichen in 685.
With the arrival of the Danes in East Anglia in 865, the
references to mounted bodies of men, both Danish and English, appears with
great frequency in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The very fact that the Danes
horsed themselves from East Anglia points to the existence of royal or
ecclesiastical stud farms across that kingdom. Such horse management is no
light matter. A charter of the English ‘puppet’ King Ceolwulf (874–c. 80) of
Mercia dating to 875 refers to the freeing of ‘the whole diocese of the Hwicce
from feeding the king’s horses and those who lead them’. Given that a horse can
consume 12lb of grain and up to 13lb of hay each day as well as gallons of
water indicates this was quite some reprieve for the people of that ancient
district. The fact that horses were actively employed in small military units
under the command of senior nobles is evidenced by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
entry for 871, which talks of uncounted individual mounted forays. These
smaller actions were almost certainly the English counter response to the
Viking’s necessity to send out their own small foraging parties.
The terms used to describe mounted forces in the Anglo-Saxon
Chronicle are two-fold. They are either described as ‘gehorsedan/ra’ (867, 877,
1010 and 1015) or ‘rad(e)-here’ (891). These terms often apply to the Danes and
there is some ambiguity regarding the first term being an English word
indicating a ‘horsed’ body of sorts. However, the second term contains the
familiar element ‘here’. This has more militaristic connotations of a mounted
troop on the offensive. The Danes are sometimes described as being
outmanoeuvred in the landscape by mounted Anglo-Saxons. Such an example is the
young Edward the Elder’s out-riding of the Danes in the Farnham campaign of
893. But it is to the chronicler Æthelweard that we owe a revealing reference
to a sizable force of mounted Anglo-Saxons. Using the Latin term ‘equestri’, he
describes Ealdorman Æthelhelm of Wiltshire’s preparation and execution of a
giant mounted force to chase the Danes ultimately to a retreat at Buttington,
where they were surrounded and besieged in 893. Æthelweard, a nobleman himself,
would not have used the term ‘equestri’ if he had not meant to.
If none of this is enough to convince us that there were
separate mounted contingents in the Anglo-Saxon army, then the quote from
Maxims I at the beginning of this section might assist. It refers to the noble
affiliation of the Anglo-Saxon horseman and the need for a mounted body to ride
‘in a company’ (‘getrume’, meaning ‘firm’) and for a foot soldier to hold his
ground. A clear distinction is made between the two types of unit and their
When we come to the end of Alfred’s reign and the reigns of
his son and grandsons, we can see a great deal of evidence for the proper
management of horses in a military context. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for
896 refers to two horse-thegns, whose rank was high enough for them to be
included in a list of important people who had recently lost their lives:
Of these one was
Swithwulf, bishop in Rochester, and Ceolmund, ealdorman in Kent, and
Beorhtwulf, ealdorman in Essex, and Wulfred, ealdorman in Hampshire, and
Ealhheard, bishop at Dorchester, and Eadwulf, the king’s thegn in Sussex, and
Beornwulf, town-reeve in Winchester, and Ecgwulf, the king’s horse-thegn, and
many in addition to them, though I have named the most distinguished . . . The
same year, Wulfric, the king’s horse-thegn passed away; he was also the Welsh
The horse-thegn’s role is unknown, but is likely to have
involved the organisation of horse management and breeding in their areas and
for the provision of horse fodder, particularly over the winter months when
foals and mares would need nutrition to avoid stunted growth. It was probably
similar to the French Marshalls or Constables (literally ‘count of the
stable’). Later, in the eleventh century the office of Staller appears in the
record. Many Stallers are described by the Normans as Constables in 1066.
King Athelstan (924–39) was concerned enough about the
giving away of horses as to decree ‘that no man part with a horse over sea,
unless he wish to give it’ (II Athelstan 18). It is generally thought this
indicates a royal desire to control the practice of open horse trading to
potential enemies outside of the tradition of gift giving in arrangements such
as marriages. Another code of Athelstan’s (II Athelstan, 16) demands that two
mounted men be provided from every plough in a landowner’s possession. Once
again, the importance of mobility is paramount in the king’s mind. Athelstan, by
927, was in the process of building a vast empire and he knew that this could
not be achieved without mobility.
Studs had been under pressure during the period of Viking
depredations in the decades gone by. But since 919 the English kings had
harboured at court some Breton exiles, famous for their horsemanship. Their
influence over the English horse stock in terms of Arabs and/or Barbs is not
properly understood, but into the equine mix in 926 came an offering from
abroad of great magnificence. William of Malmesbury tells us of a gift to
Athelstan from Hugh, the Duke of the Franks, which included horses:
he [Adulf, the leader
of Hugh’s mission] produced gifts [at Abingdon] on a truly munificent scale,
such as might instantly satisfy the desires of a recipient however greedy: the
fragrance of spices that had never before been seen in England; noble jewels
(emeralds especially, from whose green depths reflected sunlight lit up the
eyes of the bystanders with their enchanting radiance); many swift horses with their
trappings, ‘champing at their teeth’as Virgil says . . .
Just how many horses or what breed they were we do not know.
Frankish horses were often obtained from Spanish stock. One wonders, with his
system of horse-thegns and royal studs, whether a breeding programme may have
sprung from the gift somewhere in the fields of southern England. Perhaps it is
significant that a grand campaign in Scotland was undertaken in 934 at about
the time some of these horses or their offspring would have been ready. Perhaps
also the reference to mounted action in The Battle of Brunanburh (937) is no
poetic device, but a statement of fact:
All day long
the West Saxons with
pressed in the tracks
of the hateful nation
with mill-sharp blades
severely hacked from behind
those who fled battle.
This reference to ‘elite cavalry’ may seem overstated. The
Old English word used is ‘eoredcystum’, from ‘eoh’, taken by some–but by no means
all–to mean ‘war horse’. But it raises the final and most vexed of all
questions. We have surely established the existence of an independent mounted
arm in the Anglo-Saxon military toolkit. But how was it employed–if at all–on
The Battle of Brunanburh reference seems to point to the
retaining of a mounted reserve fresh for the chase. It was in the rout where
the most enemy casualties were accrued and here we have a dedicated body of
mounted men prosecuting the rout from horseback using swords. So, English
armies fought on foot, but sometimes prosecuted the rout on horseback?
Unfortunately, there are further references to the mounted Anglo-Saxon in
action and each of them presents its own difficulty of interpretation. For
example, when the visiting Norman Eustace of Boulogne allowed his men to run
amok in Dover in 1051, the English response was swift and, it appears, on
horseback. The chronicler refers to great harm being done ‘on either side with
horse and also with weapons’. Four years later, in 1055, there is a reference
most often quoted in support of the theory that the English could not fight on
horseback. Let us examine it. John of Worcester’s chronicle entry describes the
pre-Conquest Norman Earl Ralph of Hereford’s attempt to get the fyrd to fight
mounted. Here, at the Battle of Hereford, he is said to have ordered the
English to fight on horseback ‘contrary to their custom’ (‘contra morem in
equis pugnare jussit’), but the earl with his French and Norman cavalry fled
the field and Worcester goes on to say ‘seeing which, the English with their
commander also fled’. The enemy of the Hereford force, which comprised the men
of the exiled Anglo-Saxon Earl Ælfgar and the Welsh king Gryffydd, gave chase
and slew 400 of the fleeing English forces. It would be hard to see how this
could have happened if Ælfgar’s own forces were not mounted. There is no real
problem in translation. The phrase ‘contra morem in equis pugnare jussit’ means
the English were ordered to fight contrary to their custom, on horseback. But
what does it imply? Does it mean that being horsed from the outset and being
asked to fight a full cavalry battle in the manner of their Norman commander
was the alien concept, or was it that the English simply had no idea of horseback
warfare? It is surely the most probable interpretation that, at Hereford, the
mounted Englishmen were asked to fight in a way they knew little about, and not
that they knew nothing of horseback fighting. And as for the quality of their
horsemanship, perhaps we should remind ourselves of who broke first that day.
Finally, the account written by Snorri Sturluson in
Heimskringla of repeated English cavalry charges upon the Norwegian lines at
Stamford Bridge (1066) is perhaps not reliable evidence. It was written in the
thirteenth century by a man who admitted in his own prologue that the truth of
his accounts was based only on what wise old men had passed down. There is
confusion over the 1066 campaign in this account and what Snorri has to say
about the cavalry charges at Stamford Bridge smacks much more of Norman tactics
So, what can we conclude about Anglo-Saxon mounted warfare?
The ownership of horses was a nobleman’s obligation, supported by royal
legislation and systems of management. The English use of a mounted infantry
arm is strongly supported by the evidence, as is the existence of separate
dedicated mounted forces. The ranges over which they campaigned were vast, and
they often overtook their mounted enemies, out-manoeuvring them in the
landscape. There is no evidence at all that the Anglo-Saxon armies fought
cavalry battles in the style of the Normans. On a tactical level, all the
evidence points to the dismounting of riders and the fighting of the battle on
foot in a time-honoured tradition. In fact, the sending of the horses to the
rear prior to the onset of a battle was not even an exclusively Anglo-Saxon
thing. As a way of demonstrating defiance ninth-century Franks and
twelfth-century Normans did it as well. The ‘defying’ aspect was the fact that
once dismounted, the army could not easily run away from the battle.
There is, however, tantalising evidence to support the
theory of a mounted reserve being retained for the chase at a tactical level,
as at Brunanburh. The great change that came with Anglo-Norman warfare of the
twelfth century was the usage of the mounted knight at a tactical level. This
was a time when the first histories of Anglo-Saxon England were being written.
The Anglo-Saxons’ usage of a mounted arm and that of the Anglo-Normans are
incomparable and contemporaries knew it. On the one hand, we have a widespread
mounted infantry philosophy accompanied by limited cavalry activity on the
battlefield, while on the other we have the famous charging Norman milites
riding around in their squadrons of well-trained cavalrymen.
There is one last word on the reason for all the confusion.
If we could transport ourselves back in time and observe King Alfred’s noblemen
riding to chase down the Danish foragers, to Ealdorman Æthelhelm’s march to
Buttington, to Edward the Elder’s overtaking of the Danes at Farnham, to King
Athelstan’s victorious pursuit of the retreating confederates at Brunanburh and
to King Harold’s swift response to crises at either end of his kingdom, we
would not be able to avoid one observation. The Anglo-Saxon army looked like a
cavalry force. They simply got off their horses (for the most part) when it
came to the important matter of sword play. Similarly, the Danes obliged by
behaving in much the same way. With the Normans came a watershed and the
dawning of a new era in mounted warfare in England. By the twelfth century the
age of the brave warrior hero who faced his opponent on foot was all but gone.
Tributes, Gelds and
It is important to distinguish between two forms of payment
raised throughout the age of the Viking invasions by the English kings. On the
one hand there was ‘gafol’, a form of tribute payment to the enemy. On the
other, there was ‘heregeld’. Heregeld was an annual ‘army tax’ first instituted
in 1012 by Æthelred II (979–1016) to pay for the mercenary services of Thorkell
the Tall. It remained in use until it was abolished by Edward the Confessor in
1051. When the idea was re-kindled by the Anglo-Norman monarchy its name
‘Danegeld’ recalled its very first purpose. The tax was based on landownership
and was assessed at a certain number of pence per hide and it was collected at
fixed times each year through the hundreds in the shires.
There are hints that gafol payments predated the heregeld policies
of Æthelred. It could be the case that King Alfred’s (871–99) trouble with his
own archbishop came from a practice of raising tribute money through the church
to pay off the Vikings in the early years of his Danish wars. Gafol was not set
at a fixed amount and could be raised by almost any means in an emergency. It
is sometimes mentioned alongside the word metsunge (indicating ‘feeding’ or
‘provisioning’), which in its own way narrows the gap somewhat between the two
types of taxation, both of which provide a means of support for the foreign
force with differing degrees of reciprocity.
The payment made in 991 to the Danes of 10,000 pounds of
silver was described as gafol by the chronicler and it was said to be the first
payment (of the new age of invasions). Again, in 994 King Æthelred offered the
Danes gafol and metsunge if they would leave off their raiding. This time it
was 16,000 pounds and the Danes took up winter quarters at Southampton and were
fed from the land of Wessex. It seems a heregeld was also paid in this year
totalling 22,000 pounds. Again, in 1002 the king and his councillors agreed to
pay 24,000 pounds in gafol and metsunge. In 1006–7 a colossal gafol of 36,000
pounds was paid. In 1009 to the misery of the men of East Kent a further 3,000
pounds was paid to get the raiders to leave. In 1012, it reached a huge 48,000
pounds. The next year saw a slight variation in terminology. The invading Dane
Swein demanded ‘gyld’ and metsunge to over-winter, while Thorkell demanded the
same for his fleet at Greenwich. After his return from brief exile in Normandy
King Æthelred kept the payments to Thorkell. In 1014 a gyld of 21,000 pounds
was paid to the Greenwich fleet. In 1018, after the wars with Æthelred and his
son had been won and Cnut was king, the heaviest tax of all was levied at
72,000 pounds from across the kingdom and separately a sum of 10,500 pounds
from London. This last was described as a gafol, but the circumstances of
Cnut’s levy are, of course, somewhat different to the earlier ones, given that
he was now the Dane in the ascendancy.
It is clear then that some payments were to bribe the enemy
to stop its raiding, while the others were literally to support or employ them.
So, what use was made of these mercenaries over the years and who were they?
The identity of Thorkell the Tall is clear enough, but it is not always that
easy to distinguish the mercenary. First, we must be careful how we use this
term. Increasingly, towards the end of the period men turned up on the
battlefield who, despite their military obligation to their lord, may have had
a stipendiary penny in their pouch as well. But these are not true mercenaries
as such. Nor, for that matter, are the many groups who fought alongside
Anglo-Saxon leaders as military allies. There is a distinction between the
hired man (‘hyra-man’), who became familiar to the court of Alfred the Great as
his wealth increased, and the fyrdsman, whose loyalties were based on more
traditional lordship bonds and land tenure. Neither of these two categories
could be said to be true mercenaries.
An example of the difficulties in interpretation might be
the household hired men of King Alfred’s court. These men were bound to Alfred
through love of their lord, but were rewarded not just by the old-fashioned
gift and ring-giving mechanisms of yesteryear, but also by hard cash. Their
roles within Alfred’s kingdom were manifold. Some would be messengers,
horse-keepers and administrators as well as warriors. The English economy in
the Viking period was becoming more monetarily based and Alfred was able to
leave 200 pounds in silver coins to these followers on his death. These men
were not mercenaries.
The same may not be said for Alfred’s Frisian sailors, who
featured heavily in his new naval reforms. But even here, the mercenary status
of the sailors is never overly emphasised. There was a propensity to portray
such people as an extension of the hired men philosophy, thus legitimising
their ties to a more historic form of relationship with an Anglo-Saxon king. We
cannot be sure of the status of the Frisians, but one thing is certain: they
fought and died in Alfred’s new fleet.
The tenth century saw increasing amounts of foreigners at
the English court. Notably, there were Bretons who had fled to King Edward the
Elder in 919 after the Vikings had invaded their lands. King Athelstan
harboured the Bretons and stood godfather to one, Alan. Alan was raised in
England before Athelstan masterminded a campaign in Brittany to restore the
Bretons to power. But these were foreigners who fought alongside the forces of
the English king as allies and not as paid mercenaries. King Athelstan’s famous
struggles with the confederacy of Scots, Vikings and Strathclyde Britons saw
him enlist the help of the Vikings Egil and Thorolf, if we are to believe
Egil’s Saga. Again, the exact nature of the relationship is not known. There is
likely to have been more at stake than the mere payment of money for service,
since a whole kingdom was up for grabs.
The new wave of Viking attacks which re-commenced around 990
saw an initial response by local leaders, who by now could operate
independently on behalf of the Crown in their local areas. But England was
still a remarkably rich land, more so now than it had ever been before. And it
is in the reign of Æthelred II (979–1016) that the beginnings of a true
‘mercenary’ story can be told.
In 994 after Olaf Tryggvason and Swein Forkbeard together
ravaged the south coast of England and the gafol of 16,000 pounds was paid to
the force in Southampton, Æthelred came to an agreement with Olaf that if any
other fleet should attack his coastline, Olaf would come to the aid of the
English for as long as the king could provision him. Also, it was agreed that
lands that harboured such hostile forces should be treated as an enemy by both
parties. The arrangement was preceded by the same sponsorship once shown by
Alfred to Guthrum, but more importantly included the heregeld of 22,000 pounds
of silver. Despite the fact that Olaf returned to Norway, it is generally thought
that a mercenary naval force would have remained to assist Æthelred in the
spirit of the agreement. One Danish leader, Pallig, was even given lands in
return for his service. This can be seen as an attempt to legitimise him above
and beyond the mercenary to someone who had a vested interest in loyalty to the
king, but Pallig’s subsequent treachery and return to the bosom of the enemy
proved it to be a worthless policy. Pallig’s disloyalty probably led to the
notorious St Brice’s Day massacre of 1002 whereby the king in desperation
ordered the extermination of Danes who had settled in England.
Æthelred’s employment of Thorkell the Tall raises the
question of the role of the later Anglo-Saxon housecarl. It has been argued
that the institution developed out of the cult of the legendary Jomsvikings and
flourished in England from the time of Cnut to the Battle of Hastings
(1016–66). Mythology surrounds these warriors and the legal guild that is
supposed to have accompanied them. Earl Godwin’s trial, for example, is
supposed to be an example of such Scandinavian legal deliberations. Much ink
has been spilled over the origins of these famous heavily armoured axemen, but
the likelihood is that they were Danish versions of the Alfredian household
retainer. Through the next generation up to the Norman Conquest they became an
Anglo-Danish version of the same thing. A man described as a housecarl in one
document may turn up elsewhere as a thegn or minister of the king. That they
existed as an entity is not doubted: they were present at the translation of
the remains of Ælfhere in 1023, are recorded at the side of Queen Emma in 1035
and some are recorded as dwelling on 15 acres of land in Wallingford. That the
housecarls were financially supported is not in question. The Domesday Book
specifically records some Dorset boroughs taxed for this very purpose. However,
whether the institution simply became another layer of the king’s and various
earls’ household retinues, is another matter. The Danish connotations with the
institution are, however, inescapable: 87 per cent of all housecarls mentioned
in documents bear names of Old Norse origin but it remains the case that their
role did not differ much from that of the English thegnhood into which they
settled, save for the stipend that they seem to have received.
There are one or two references to mercenaries that fall
outside the above explanations. One of these is that of the rebel Earl Ælfgar’s
Irishmen who accompanied him on his campaign in Herefordshire in 1055 and who
almost certainly received payment for their services after waiting impatiently
at Chester. The other is that of the Flemings who served with Earl Tostig after
he presumably enticed them from Flanders with promises of riches in the
campaign of 1066. Neither of these examples of earls buying the service of
fighting men seem to have had any lasting impact on the Anglo-Saxon state in
the way that the settlement of the housecarls did, but they serve as a reminder
that if anyone had the political clout and the money, he could entice people to
fight with him.
We have looked at the tributes and the payments made by
English kings to foreign forces and discussed the background to mercenary
employment in England during our period, but it is necessary to explore further
another related dimension of warfare of the period, the naval aspect. Here, the
mercenary once again plays a part in a very colourful history.