French Cavalry 1914

The French strategic cavalry was composed of ten cavalry divisions. This strategic cavalry would be reinforced by infantry battalions and artillery. Each French corps had a light cavalry regiment assigned (six squadrons). There was no divisional cavalry. French reconnaissance patrols were to avoid combat. In reconnaissance and security the French relied on combined-arms teams to confuse the enemy concerning the location of the main body and force him to deploy. The French thereby separated reconnaissance, which was conducted far forward by the strategic cavalry, from security, which was the responsibility of the corps cavalry and at the infantry division, by local foot patrols.

In August 1914 the French cavalry failed to perform both the reconnaissance and security roles. The French cavalry divisions manoeuvred almost aimlessly. The French corps cavalry remained so close to the infantry that tactical security was non-existent. As a result, the French higher commanders were poorly informed concerning German operational movements and the French infantry was repeatedly surprised.

French Enemy Estimate

Observing the density of the German rail net behind Metz, the Deuxième Bureau, the French General staff intelligence section, concluded that the Germans would concentrate up to 11 corps behind the Metz-Diedenhofen fortress complex and in Luxembourg as a mass of manoeuvre and then shift those forces into Lorraine or Belgium. The French did not obtain any solid intelligence on the location of the German assembly areas during the German rail deployment, and therefore retained the pre-war assumption that the Germans would mass behind Metz. On 9 August the French thought that 17 German acive-army corps opposed them, while four corps opposed the Russians. Since the French had 21 active army corps, the French thought they had numerical superiority. They estimated that there were five or six German corps in Belgium, five to eight corps located at Metz-Diedenhofen-Luxembourg, with more on the way, one to three corps in Lorraine, a corps plus in Alsace. Five corps were unaccounted for.

In fact, the German armies were evenly deployed from Alsace to the north of Aachen. The German 4th and 5th Armies were behind Metz and in Luxembourg, but did not have the decisive role that the French ascribed to them. The French intelligence analysts had been trained according to the theories of Bonnal, who doctrinally employed a large mass of manoeuvre, and were mirror imaging – writing the German plan as a French officer would have written it.

The pre-war calculation of the Deuxième Bureau was that the Germans could attack as of the 13th day of mobilisation. Expecting to find the Germans in the northern Ardennes, Sordet’s Cavalry Corps of three divisions was sent into Belgium on 6 August and reached the area west of Liège on 8 August. On 9 August he found nothing at Marche. Neither he nor French aerial reconnaissance could find any German forces as far east as the Ourthe River because there were no German forces there, nor would there be any there until around 18 August. Sordet’s cavalry had moved ten days too soon. Nor did the Belgians provide much useful information. By 12 August Sordet had moved to Neufchâteau but still made no contact; he then pulled back to the west bank of the Meuse on 15 August and was attached to 5th Army. Sordet reported that it was impossible to supply the cavalry in the Ardennes and that air recon was unreliable in the dense woods. His cavalry corps had conducted an eight-day march without obtaining any information concerning the German forces. In order to find the German 3rd, 4th and 5th Armies, the French cavalry would have had to advance across the Belgian Ardennes to the border with Germany and Luxembourg; it was unable to do so. The German deployment was not completed until 17 August and the German 5th and 4th Armies did not begin their advance until 18 August. The French had great difficulty understanding why the Germans were not as far to the west as they expected them to be.

By 10 August, the French saw indications that the Germans were digging in on the Ourthe between Liège and Houffalize. The French intelligence summary on 13 August reported that in the Ardennes there were only two German corps (VIII AK at Luxembourg and XVIII at Aumetz – the latter was actually XVI AK) and two cavalry divisions. The French were beginning to get the impression that there were no German troops in the Ardennes. This was not an illogical conclusion. It is more than 100km from the sparse German railheads in the Eifel, in the German Ardennes, to the Franco-Belgian border. The Ardennes is thinly populated and heavily forested, with few and poor roads. Crossing it would pose significant problems in supply and traffic control. At the end of the approach march lay the Meuse River, a formidable obstacle. It would seem unlikely that the Germans would commit significant forces from the very start of the campaign into such an out-of-the-way and difficult theatre of war.

In the skirmishes between cavalry and foot patrols during the first week of the war, the French thought that their troops were generally victorious, returning with prisoners, horses and weapons. The chief of staff of VI CA said that ‘this filled them with great joy.’ French pre-war predictions of the natural superiority of the French soldier seemed to be justified.

Between 7 and 10 August the French VII CA had advanced towards Mühlhausen in the upper Alsace and been thrown back into France by the German XIV AK and XV AK. On 14 August the French 1st Army and 2nd Armies attacked into Lorraine. Joffre was fully aware that the German forces to the east of Metz could attack through the fortress to the south into Lorraine: he gave the 3rd Army the mission of attacking any such German sortie in the flank with two corps, while on 15 August he told the 3rd Army to be prepared to invest Metz from the west

By 15 August the French recognised the strength of the German forces in the general vicinity of Liège. Joffre told the commanders of the 4th and 5th Armies that the Germans were going to make their principal effort ‘to the north of Givet’ with a second group marching on Sedan and Montmédy. The 4th Army estimate of the situation on 16 August said that these forces represented the German mass of manoeuvre, and that aerial reconnaissance showed that there were no significant German forces at Arlon or Luxembourg in the southern Ardennes. Joffre based on his plan of attack on the idea that the Germans had left their centre weak in order to strengthen the force north of the Meuse. He therefore decided to break the German centre in the Ardennes. On 15 August GQG ordered 5th Army on the left flank to march north to an area west of Givet. 4th Army was to be prepared to attack towards Neufchâteau. On 16 August the 3rd Army was told to hand over the area between Verdun and Toul to a group of reserve divisions in order to be able attack north of Metz towards Longwy.

The inability of the French cavalry divisions to obtain an accurate picture of the advance of the German 4th and 5th Armies led to serious mistakes in French operational and tactical planning. Due in great part to IR88’s success at Longlier, the French 4th and 9th Cavalry Divisions were pushed out of the way of XVIII AK and were not able to determine what the Germans were doing, nor hinder their movements. The anonymous author of the FAR 25 regimental history said that the French cavalry simply would not fight. From the smallest patrol up to the level of cavalry corps, the French cavalry avoided combat and when it unexpectedly did meet German forces, such as at Longlier, the French cavalry withdrew.77 The German cavalry was able to screen the movements of its own forces, while on 21 and 22 August it provided accurate information concerning the French advance.

3 DIC, Morning, 22 August

The Colonial Corps order, issued at 1800 21 August, directed the corps to march to Neufchâteau on 22 August, with 3 DIC on the right, marching through Rossignol, and 5th Colonial Brigade on the left, marching over Suxy. Because the Corps would transit the Forest of Neufchâteau–Chiny, the Corps cavalry regiment, the 3rd Chasseurs d’Afrique, would follow the advance guard. 2 DIC was held back west of Montmédy as the army reserve. XII CA was on the corps left, marching on Recogne and Libramont, II CA on the right, marching on Leglise. The corps order said that the only enemy forces in the area were those of the German 3 KD and 8 KD, which had been defeated by the French cavalry on 17–18 August.

The 3 DIC order of movement was 1 RIC, 2 RIC, Division Artillery (2 RAC), 3 RIC. 7 RIC followed, guarding the corps artillery (3 RAC); the column was 15km long. The movement order for 2 RIC conveys the prevailing attitude in the division: ‘Today a 33km march. Arrive at Neufchâteau at 1100 and billet. No contact expected.’

The advance guard battalion (I/1 RIC) missed its movement time at 0630 because it was in contact with German cavalry patrols. Then the rest of the regiment, which was to lead the main body, missed its movement time because the staffs did not know where the units were located and orders consequently arrived late. At 0800 the Colonial Corps was informed that II CA on the right was three hours behind 3 DIC, exposing the 3 DIC right flank. This was not an auspicious beginning. Heavy fog hindered movement until it lifted at 0700, revealing a clear, sunny sky.

Meeting Engagement, 3 DIC

A reserve cavalry squadron (6/6th Dragoons) provided security immediately in front of the 3 DIC advance guard. The choice of this reserve squadron, when a regiment of professional cavalry was available (the Chasseurs d’Afrique), can only be explained by the fact that the division did not expect contact. As usual, French cavalry stayed close to the infantry for protection. The Dragoons were engaged about 600m south of Rossignol by dismounted German cavalry, which withdrew. The Dragoons advanced through Rossignol and then 500m into the forest of Neufchâteau where they were again engaged by cavalry. At 0740, 23 August the Dragoons were engaged for a third time 1,500m into the woods, this time by infantry, and stopped cold. The commander of 1 RIC was told that this could not be a large German force because Germans were 35km to the east of Neufchâteau, and that it was important to move quickly through the woods. He therefore committed the advanced guard battalion, II/1 RIC. The forest was deciduous, mixed with pines. The undergrowth was very thick, and only the occasional clearing offered visibility up to 50m. A wall of fire met II/1 RIC. Immediately there were heavy casualties; the commanders of the 5th, 6th and 8th companies were killed, the CO of the 7th Company wounded. A violent standing firefight developed at point-blank range. The fight became hand-to-hand at several points. The rest of 1 RIC was committed; all three 1 RIC battalion commanders were killed while standing on the road, as if on manoeuvre.

The remainder of 3 DIC was strung out on the road. 2 RIC was entering Rossignol; the divisional artillery, 2 RAC, was crossing the bridge at Breuvanne; 3 RIC was entering St. Vincent. Two battalions of 7 RIC had taken a wrong turn and were marching cross-country to regain the correct route. At the rear of the column was the corps artillery, 3 RAC.

At about 0930 it was difficult for the commander of 3 DIC, General Raffenel, to judge the seriousness of the fight; all that he could see were the wounded coming to the rear. Although all of 1 RIC was engaged in the woods, he still refused to believe that he was in contact with a major enemy force. His concern was to bring forward 3 RIC and clear the woods.

By 0800 the lead element of the 3 DIC divisional artillery, I/2 RAC, had advanced until it was at the southern entrance to Rossignol, followed by II/2 RAC, whose last vehicles were at the Breuvanne bridge and III/2 RAC, which was south of the bridge. The firefight in the woods ahead prevented 2 RAC from advancing. As would soon become clear, the ground was too soft to move the guns off the road.

At 1015 I/2 RIC was sent into the thick woods to the right of 1/1 RIC, but became completely disoriented and strayed to the right. II/2 RIC was committed on the left. It took heavy fire from an invisible enemy, probably II/IR 63 on its left flank, lost most of its officers, including the battalion commander, and by 1100 the battalion broke for the rear.

German Cavalry

German doctrine emphasised that cavalry needed to be aggressive during the battle in developing opportunities to both participate in the battle as well as to operate against the enemy flank and rear. Doctrine also stated that cavalry was the arm best suited to conduct pursuit.

While the 3 KD and 6 KD had been very effective in the reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance roles before the battle, during the battle they accomplished nothing. The 3 KD commander decided that the terrain prevented the division from accomplishing anything and resigned himself to inactivity. 6 KD was used to guard the army left flank. Neither division conducted a pursuit, either on 22 or 23 August, although the Colonial Corps would seem to have offered a fine target for 3 KD and the right flank of the French VI CA an even better target for 6 KD.

It appears that the cavalry learned during the approach march that a mounted man presented a fine target and that even small groups of infantry were capable of blocking cavalry movement. By 22 August the senior cavalry commanders were thoroughly intimidated: they avoided serious contact and were unwilling to attempt to move large bodies of cavalry anywhere that they might be subject to small arms or artillery fire. Coupled with the unimaginative operations of the 5th Army headquarters, the timidity of the cavalry leaders cost the cavalry the opportunity to have made a major impact in the battle.

Lessons Not Learned

Upon mature reflection, Charbonneau said that the defeat of the Colonial Corps was due to three factors; the superiority of German training and doctrine not being one of them.

The first was the failure of French reconnaissance. On 20 August the French cavalry reported the Germans moving north of Neufchâteau–Bastogne. On 22 August the Colonial Corps cavalry, ostensibly due to fog and wooded terrain, did not detect the German advance. For these reasons, the Colonial Corps was surprised. Why German operational and tactical cavalry had detected the French advance was not explained. On a tactical level, the 3rd Colonial Division and 33 DI were not destroyed because they were advancing rashly, but because the Germans counter-reconnaissance had blinded the French patrols, and the Germans manoeuvred at a rate of speed that befuddled the French division commanders.

Second was the failure of the French theory of the advance guard, that is, the idea that the advance guard could significantly delay the enemy, giving the main body time to manoeuvre. This theory had nothing to do with Grandmaison, but was the essential element of Bonnal’s doctrine, which had been implemented in the French army in the late 1890s. Charbonneau said that the advance guard concept failed if the enemy attacked at once ‘appearing like a jack-in-the-box’, not only against the front but also against the flanks. Again, French defeat was not a result of superior German doctrine, but deficiencies in French tactics.

Third, Charbonneau said the offensive à outrance failed because it did not incorporate the concept of fire superiority. He did not acknowledge that fire superiority was the foundation of German offensive tactics. He did say that disregard of the effects of fire increased in the French army as the lessons of 1870 slipped further into the past. Indeed, to Charbonneau the offensive à outrance had been taught as French doctrine for most of the period before the First World War, thereby absolving Grandmaison of instituting a radical change in French tactics.

Charbonneau steadfastly maintained that pre-war French tactical doctrine and training recognised only the offensive and that his division was defeated because it attacked recklessly. But neither 3 RIC nor 7 RIC made any attempt to conduct an attack of any kind, much less a reckless offensive à outrance. 3 RIC was pinned down by German fire, which eventually destroyed the regiment. There was no attempt by 3 RIC to ignore the effects of enemy fire charge with the bayonet. As Charbonneau well knew, his own regiment, 7 RIC, was overrun while attempting to hold a defensive position.

Given the choice between drawing conclusions from what he had seen with his own eyes and parroting the party line, Charbonneau came down foursquare on the side of conventional wisdom. Charbonneau’s cognitive dissonance is symptomatic of the subsequent problems in the discussion of the Battle of the Frontiers.

Imperialist Cuirassier c. 1630

Towards the end of the sixteenth century, heavily armoured cavalrymen stopped using horse-armour, and reduced their own, becoming cuirassiers. The tactics of the reiters were adopted by all cavalry forces. Owing to improved weaponry and training, the depth of battle formation decreased first to ten lines, and towards the end of the century to six or seven. Shallower formations using the same number of men meant wider fronts, which had to be controlled by discipline and training. The cavalry of the period was therefore a modern force, acting as an organized troop.

The beginning of the seventeenth century saw several major conflicts. The Thirty Years War (1618-48) began as a religious war and turned into a clash between the feudal-Catholic reaction and the new social forces. The English Civil War (1642-8) saw a division along similar lines. Numerous armies crossed Europe, carrying new skills of war and tactical innovations, as well as the latest in weapons and equipment.

From the beginning of the seventeenth century, heavy cavalry consisted of the cuirassiers. They mostly wore three-quarter armour, and were armed with two pistols and a straight thrusting sword.

After 41 years of war, peace was made between Spain and the Netherlands in 1609. Part of the rich Dutch provinces had liberated themselves from Spanish rule and gained independence: the small professional Dutch army, commanded by Maurice of Nassau, stood against a world power. The most significant changes in the Dutch War of Independence were implemented in the cavalry. In 1597, out of a total of 11 ensigns of lancers (1,200 men in all), eight were converted to pistol-armed cuirassiers, and three to arquebusiers. The heaviest cavalry units rejected the lance in favour of firearms. The same year, at the Battle of Turnhout, the Dutch cavalry, practically on their own, routed Spanish cuirassiers armed with lances and infantry with long pikes.

From the Dutch border to Poland on the west and Turkey to the south were the semi-independent states dominated by the Austrian Habsburg dynasty. This whole area of central Europe, known for centuries as the Holy Roman Empire, was ruled from Vienna by the Austrian emperor, and the soldiers in his service were called simply ‘imperialists’. To distinguish themselves from other soldiers, they wore a red sash around their waists or over their shoulders and an oak twig in their helmets or hats.

At the turn of the century, imitating their Dutch counterparts, the imperial cuirassiers abandoned the heavy lance and began to use a pair of pistols. More reliable and lighter firearms were one factor which would shape their future strategy; another was the formation of infantry units several thousand men strong, half armed with muskets and arquebuses, the rest protecting them from heavy cavalry attacks with six-metre pikes.

In the early seventeenth century, the imperial works began producing armour which discarded all superfluous parts but strengthened the back and breastplates and headgear. Because of the materials used, cavalry armour became heavier and more massive. The heaviest models extant today are on show in the Landeszeughaus museum in Graz; they weigh 42 kg/90 lb. Their surface is unornamented, and their form not as refined as in previous phases: protection of the wearer against the improved firearms was paramount.

Cuirassiers played a prominent role in the Thirty Years War, commanded by Field Marshal Gottfried Pappenheim (1594-1632) and Albrecht Wallenstein (1583-1634). Pappenheim formed up his cuirassier regiments, about 1,000 men strong, in ten files of 100 men, stressing depth and narrowing the front. Wallenstein, on the other hand, disposed his units, of about the same strength, in six ranks emphasizing the initial strike over a wide front; his method was more successful.

Imperial cavalry

The Imperial cavalry was organised into four main branches: cuirassiers, harquebusiers, dragoons and Croats. The ideal cuirassier was armed in three-quarter armour, blackened to prevent rust. By 1632 few except officers wore these costly and uncomfortable suits. Most cuirassiers were now what Montecuccoli called `half cuirassiers’, wearing only breast and back plate, and open-faced helmet. The cuirassier’s main weapons were a sword and a pair of pistols, intended for close combat rather than `caracoling’.

Harquebusiers rode smaller horses and had little armour: most made do with a buffcoat. Named after their long arquebuses (carbines), they were intended for campaign duties and skirmishes, to save the cuirassiers for serious action. In reality the distinction between cuirassiers and harquebusiers was blurring. Many regiments were raised as harquebusiers and upgraded to cuirassiers when they acquired better equipment and horses. Piccolomini’s famous regiment was still officially a harquebusier unit, yet was better armoured than many cuirassier regiments.

All the Imperial dragoons engaged at Lützen seem to have been raised during 1632. They are described in the official army lists as `German horsemen, armed with half-armour (halb Harnisch, probably a breast plate) and equipped with firelocks (Feuergewehr)’. Though expected to carry out menial duties like their Swedish counterparts, they were listed as part of the cavalry rather than the infantry, and occasionally (as at Lützen) fought mounted.

German Cavalry 1860-70 Part I

The 7th Cuirassiers’ charge by Franz Amling, 1890.

Prior to the dawn of mechanized warfare in the early twentieth century, and indeed for several decades thereafter, no element of the Western world’s armies so evoked the exotic and romantic aspects of war as the cavalry. For centuries the cavalryman’s kettle-drums and bugles were the sine qua non of martial music. For pageantry, nothing could surpass the panoply of the cavalryman: the sheer mass of his horse, his flowing regimental standards, snapping guidons, jingling tack, polished leather, and flashing steel.1 But it was not all mere show. Cavalry still evoked real fear. The shock value—and therefore the fear—of a massed cavalry attack was as old as the weapon itself and still persisted in the late nineteenth century. As he had for centuries, the mounted warrior still appeared to be forever “uncatchable, inescapable, unapproachable.”  Long before the defeat of the foot-slogging Anglo-Saxons by the Norman horsemen at Hastings in AD 1066 and the great flowering of the Age of Chivalry, so fearsome were the mounted charge and its practitioners that they transformed not only European warfare but even European culture itself, as seen as early as the ninth-century Saxon Gospel, The Heliand. Indeed, historian H. R. Trevor-Roper, among others, placed the horseman at the epicenter of a fundamental societal change in the chivalric ideal; and no less a military historian than John Keegan speaks of a “cavalry revolution,” one in which massed horsemen literally reinvented warfare as a “thing in itself,” a means not merely to dominate one’s enemy but to annihilate him. War could now become, though it was not always in fact, a product of “militarism.”

Perhaps the last great hurrah for this view of the cavalry was the Franco-Prussian War. Though all of the major European armies would still possess huge cavalry forces in World War I, and though the German army, for one, was still fielding new cavalry forces as late as 1943–1944, the last significant and sustained cavalry-versus-cavalry operations occurred in 1870–1871. The romance of the cavalry had yet to be blown away by the full mechanization of European warfare. Feats of the nineteenth-century mounted arm—indeed all arms—could still be celebrated in verse, prose, and song: Tennyson and, later, Kipling come first to mind for English-speakers. More germane, however, was the fact in the aftermath of 1870, German lights such as Theodore Fontane, Richard Wagner, and Johannes Brahms celebrated the Reich’s victory over France in moving words and music. The “gigantic historical canvases” of painter Anton von Werner depicting German commanders on the field at Sedan or the proclamation of the German Empire at Versailles could still effectively disguise the battlefield’s carnage at Spicheren and Wörth, Metz and Mars-la-Tour. Socially, sartorially, psychologically, European cavalry remained wedded to this military romanticism in spite of the rapidly changing technological world surrounding it.

Curiously, even earlier manifestations of the cavalry’s attempted adaptation to technology in the early-modern period, whether in the form of so-called horse-pistols, carbines, or even horse-artillery and the resultant designations of light cavalrymen as hussars, dragoons, uhlans, or chausseurs, did not succeed in permanently or completely divorcing the cavalry from the idea that cold steel remained the ultimate weapon. Very frequently, light-cavalry formations, such as those mentioned above, evolved into versions of their heavy-cavalry rivals—the cuirassiers in France and the Reiter regiments in Prussia—and became possessed of the same dictum, namely that the “consummation of the cavalryman’s purpose in life [remained] the charge en masse.”6 Notwithstanding the hussar’s braid-encrusted pelisse and rakish busby—a uniform that gave Prince Friedrich Karl von Hohenzollern (commander of the Prussian Second Army in 1870) the nickname “The Red Prince” because he wore it all the time—light cavalry also tended to aspire to the social status and panache of the heavy cavalry regiments, especially that of the armorplated cuirassiers, a status that remained attractive to even the uppermost crust of European society, particularly on the Continent. Even Otto von Bismarck, Prussian and, later, imperial chancellor, held a major’s commission in the 1st Heavy Reserve Reiter Regiment and often wore its uniform, much to the serious annoyance of many professional officers around him, one of whom commented “acidly” that wearing a cuirassier’s greatcoat was no particular aid to military understanding. And perhaps no mounted regiment in Europe surpassed the splendor of French emperor Napoleon III’s “Hundred Guards” cuirassiers, though their flamboyant uniform was not atypical with its mirror-finish steel cuirass and helmet, the latter with gilded crest; two helmet-plumes (white horsehair and red feathers); a sky-blue tunic trimmed with red collar, cuffs, and lapels; gold epaulettes; white trousers; black top-boots; and white gloves.

Fancy or not, the cavalry faced an uncertain future at mid-century. In Prussia and elsewhere after 1850, the cavalry’s role in modern armies was being re-examined. Following the victorious war against Austria in 1866, Prussia’s leading commander, Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, did something rather unusual for victorious commanders: he analyzed what he and the Prussian army had done wrong. Insofar as the cavalry was concerned, several items were of note. On 27 June 1866 at Langensalza on the River Unstrut in Thuringia, the cavalry of the Hanoverian army (allied with Austria) had just managed to break Prussian infantry squares, suffering severe casualties in the process. This outcome seemed to confirm the cavalry’s traditional role as battle-winning shock troops. But in the very next month, on 3 July at Königgrätz, the Prussian cavalry found itself incapable not only of providing effective reconnaissance in the days before the battle but also of effective pursuit of the defeated Austrians afterwards. When Moltke subsequently critiqued his and his armies’ performance in a “sensitive memorandum” to the Prussian king in 1868, he gave vent to his views of what the Prussian (and eventually the German) cavalry’s future role should be. He stressed that the cavalry could and should still work in tactical concert with artillery and infantry as had the Hanoverians at Langensalza and the Prussians at Königgrätz. Nevertheless, the cavalry should no longer be held back primarily in order to deliver a massed charge at a decisive moment that might never come. While not entirely discounting the latter possibility, he wrote that cavalry should instead be used more extensively for screening, reconnaissance, and security. All these were missions for which horsemen remained uniquely suited. Precisely two years later, in July 1870, Moltke’s conclusions were tested in the Franco-Prussian War.

Despite Moltke’s admonitions, one roughly contemporaneous observer of the events of 1870–1871 wrote that German cavalry didn’t develop effective reconnaissance and screening capabilities until well after the war against France had begun; thus it did not emulate examples such as that set by the U.S. Army’s General John Buford during the Gettysburg campaign in the Civil War. The same author criticized the “stubbornness” and the “ill-informed” attitudes of the Europeans in their refusal to learn what he considered the proper lessons from the Civil War. Unlike their European counterparts for whom the cavalry’s specialization by type was still at least nominally in effect in 1870, American cavalrymen had long ceased to be functionally divided into “heavy cavalry” (for battle-winning massed attacks delivered with the arme blanche), “light cavalry” (for screening, reconnaissance, and messengerservice), and “dragoons” (essentially well-mounted infantry). Instead, “the traditional [American] cavalryman has ever been the light dragoon—a soldier trained and equipped to fight mounted or dismounted, to perform screening and reconnaissance, and to act as a scout or messenger. True heavy and true light horse have been rare.” Thus the cavalry of the American Civil War, whether Union or Confederate, did the bulk of its fighting on its feet. It broke no fundamental tradition in adapting to increasingly effective firepower. Though saber swinging melees did occur, as at Brandy Station, Virginia, in June 1863, most cavalry action during the Civil War was on foot, the horse serving as much as a means of transport as of attack. Evidently the American cavalryman did not feel morally obligated, as one author put it, to die on horseback, whereas his European counterpart still did in 1870.

Whatever difficulties they had in executing Moltke’s vision, the German cavalry of 1870 tended to exhibit much better understanding of their newly important role than did the French. At the beginning of the war, for example, the French cavalry was still guided by the regulations of 1829, the arm having “learnt nothing” in the meantime regarding more modern operations and tactics, according to one contemporaneous observer. Implicitly, this would mean that nothing was learned from the Crimea, the American Civil War, or even the much more recent Austro-Prussian War. Still, says this same observer, the French cavalry was conscious of its “past bravery and patriotism.” The absence of effective lessons learned was exacerbated by the fact that when the war began, the French cavalry “had no reserves of horses” and an “[unspecified but evidently large] portion of the effective strength were four-year old remounts.”

By contrast, Prussian and other German cavalry—almost always referred to by the French as uhlans whether the cavalry in question were actually lancers or not—consistently demonstrated an ability to reconnoiter more effectively than their French counterparts, even while stubbornly insisting on the ideal of the massed attack. As early as the frontier battle at Wissembourg on the borders of the Palatinate on 4 August 1870 and the roughly coincidental battle at Spicheren near Saarbrücken some forty miles to the northwest on 6 August, the French cavalry utterly failed to determine the scope of the threat facing Napoleon III’s armies. In part this was owing to the extraordinary directive of the French marshal Achille Bazaine dated 20 July wherein he stated that “our reconnaissance should not be aggressive.” Unfortunately for Bazaine, cavalry still constituted the sole reliable means of gathering information about an enemy’s dispositions beyond the line of sight. His directive, therefore, amounted to gouging out his own eyes during the critical phase of the armies’ concentration for battle. As it was, the French cavalry remained almost “completely inactive” throughout the period up to and including the Battle of Sedan as regards operational reconnaissance, even if at a tactical level French mounted forces were sometimes capable of effective action. Further, since French cavalry when it did patrol was “not accustomed to patrol far to the front,” French commanders typically assumed that German cavalry patrols were followed by much larger forces immediately to the rear even when this was not the case. This misapprehension helps explain French timidity when confronted with the constant presence of far-ranging German mounted units. And while perhaps the case could be made that cavalry proved to be of little practical value in the steep defiles around Spicheren, the same could not be said of the fighting at Wissembourg and the follow-on battles at Froeschwiller, Wörth, and Morsbronn. There the French desperately tried to retrieve their infantry’s fortunes through a sacrificial massed attack by General Michel’s and General Bonnemain’s reserve cavalry, including a full division of cuirassiers.

At Froeschwiller and Wörth, the French 2nd Cavalry Division’s 1st and 4th Cuirassiers of the Brigade Girard charged Badenese and Württemberger infantry over ground broken up by palisaded hop-fields and vineyards. As the horsemen were funneled by these obstructions into the intervals between the fields, the 4th Cuirassiers had to ride over twothirds of a mile under sustained rifle-fire. Both regiments suffered heavy losses “without having effected anything.” The division’s 2nd and 3rd Cuirassiers of the Brigade Brauer attacked over similar terrain made even worse by an “absolutely insurmountable” barricaded ditch. The 2nd Cuirassiers alone lost their colonel and 5 officers killed; more than 130 officers and men wounded; and some 250 horses killed outright or dying subsequently of their wounds. Throughout the attacks, the German infantry was “always out of reach and often out of sight” of the French horsemen.

In the view of recent scholarship of the Franco-Prussian War, the German infantry’s standing up to charging cavalry was still a radically new way for infantrymen to fight horsemen, dating back perhaps to Waterloo. Traditionally, infantrymen not formed in squares would tend to throw themselves to the ground to avoid blows from sabers and to make the horses shy away, presuming that the foot soldiers weren’t already running for their lives. Now, however, they “simply stood in lines and blazed away.” The results of such tactics for the French horsemen repeated themselves elsewhere that day. At the other end of the French line on the far right, for example, the 8th and 9th Cuirassiers of the 1st Cavalry Division’s Brigade Michel attacked German infantry in the village of Morsbronn. As earlier on the left, French troopers again charged through the intervals between hop-fields and vineyards and took heavy rifle-fire as they passed. The 8th Cuirassiers lost two-thirds of their horses before the cavalrymen even reached the village. Of the 9th Cuirassiers—and the supporting 6th Lancers of the division’s Brigade Nansouty— almost all troopers not killed before they gained the village were subsequently shot down and killed or captured along the village’s main street as the horsemen rode headlong into a blockaded dead-end. Afterward, dead horses and men lay so thickly in the street that passage along it was literally impossible. Witnesses and subsequent observers reported that the German bullets had “rattled like hail” against the cuirassiers’ steel breastplates and created “a strange music” in the process. The preponderance of unarmored lancers among the French dead at Morsbronn, compared to steel-plated cuirassiers, led at least one historian of the battle to conclude, erroneously, that the breast plate would therefore always be a part of the cavalryman’s equipment. Be that as it may, German riflemen had emptied hundreds of saddles and killed and wounded hundreds of men and horses. The French horsemen, for their part, had merely bought a bit of time for their infantry’s retreat.

As disastrous as these attacks had been, the French cavalry’s failure in reconnaissance had been equally faulty. As at Spicheren, so too at Froeschwiller the French suffered “a disastrous failure…to appreciate the strength and intentions of the Germans.” Indeed the day before the Bavarians attacked at Wissembourg (3 August), the local French commander, General Ducrot, reported that the Bavarians’ threat was a “simple bluff.” Only effective employment of the French cavalry in reconnaissance could have provided timely intelligence of unimpeachable character. By dramatic contrast, orders issuing from the Prussian Royal Headquarters, as well as from those of Prince Frederick Charles’ Second Army, often directed the cavalry specifically to “be pushed forward as far as possible.” Of course, not all orders were executed as given, and war’s inevitable friction affected the reliability of the information passed back up the chain of command. Nevertheless, in the war’s crucial opening phase, German cavalry operated consistently more effectively and widely than the French in the critical job of providing intelligence and fixing the enemy in place so that German infantry could be brought to bear.

In the aftermath of the fighting at Spicheren and Froeschwiller/ Wörth, and with the French armies in retreat across the board, the Germany cavalry—despite occasionally losing contact with the enemy—nevertheless showed itself willing and able to act boldly and range widely. In these instances, its behavior sometimes appears reminiscent of the “rides” of American Civil War generals Jeb Stuart, John Hunt Morgan, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Alfred Pleasanton, and Benjamin Grierson. Perhaps the most striking example, though still somewhat paltry when compared to the distances and consequences involved in that earlier conflict, was the German advance to the Moselle between 6 and 14 August 1870. German horsemen thrust in behind the French Army of the Rhine as it fell back on the fortress of Metz, cutting the telegraph connecting Paris and the depot at Nancy. The German riders thereby made cooperation with French forces still at Belfort all the more difficult. In some cases, German cavalry patrols forged as far as forty miles ahead of advancing main columns. On 12 August German cavalry reached the Moselle below Metz at Pont-a-Mousson and, farther south, at Frouard. In both places they crossed the river and again not only cut the telegraph but also the rail lines linking Metz with Nancy and, by extension, Chalons-sur-Marne where the French Government had ordered the formation of a reserve army. In point of fact, most of the German cavalrymen at Pont-a-Mousson were actually captured before they could complete their work of destruction. Nevertheless, they scored psychological victories as dramatic as in the war’s opening days when, on 26 July, the young Count Zeppelin and his mounted patrol had been captured while having lunch at the Shirlenhof Inn eight miles behind French lines at Niederbronn, or when Prussian uhlans blew up a French railroad viaduct near Saargemünd on 23–24 July. These examples were now being replicated up and down the line not only at Frouard and Pont-a-Mousson but also by the German cavalrymen who rode brazenly to the very walls of the fortress of Thionville, the gates being shut virtually in their faces, or who openly scouted within one-half mile of the main French camp at Metz. For their part, the French commanders in the latter city appeared to have failed utterly to use their available cavalry for anything like effective reconnaissance. On the contrary, they limited their efforts to placing staff officers as observers in the cathedral’s belfry. At a so-called council of war on 10 October, at least one corps commander recognized that the cavalry remaining in the city was “incapable of service,” evidently through prior mismanagement and the consequent collapse of morale. Presaging 1914, or even 1940, relatively small numbers of wide-ranging German uhlans and hussars created an effect “out of all proportion to their strength and achievements.” It was enough to create that terrifying picture of “‘the Uhlans’ [sic], ruthless, swift, and ubiquitous, which was to frighten the children of France and Europe for forty years to come.” Such operational success for the German cavalry most dramatically manifested itself soon thereafter with the stopping of the French withdrawal westward from Metz.

In this case the 5th and 6th Cavalry Divisions received orders to scout ahead to the Metz-Verdun road to try to determine the French army’s line of retreat. On 14–15 August German mounted units encountered French cavalry and other forces headed westward along the road in the vicinity of Mars-la-Tour and Vionville. The German cavalrymen took the French under fire with horse-artillery and stopped the column in its tracks. Other German formations advanced to the sound of the guns. For their part, the French failed to push their way through what still amounted to a cavalry screen in order to keep open their line of retreat. The result was the halting of the entire French movement along the line of Mars-la-Tour–Vionville–Rezonville–Gravelotte–Metz. Here the German cavalry, materially assisted by French hesitation, played the critical function of finding and fixing the enemy while the German infantry came up to try to cut off the French withdrawal. The German horsemen thus played precisely the roles assigned them by Moltke in his report to the Prussian king in 1868.

Of all the fighting along the road linking Metz and Verdun, certainly the emotional high point for German mounted troops was the so-called Death Ride at Mars-la-Tour of the 12th Cavalry Brigade under General Friedrich Wilhelm von Bredow. In this attack the 1st, 2nd, and 4th Squadrons of the 7th Cuirassiers and the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Squadrons of the 16th Uhlans charged en masse against prepared French infantry and artillery in order to gain time for faltering German troops and guns to regroup. Taking advantage of swales to approach within several hundred yards of the French positions, the German cavalry burst from the gun-smoke obscuring the battlefield and “flashed by” endangered Hanoverian artillery batteries at the critical moment. Somewhat atypically, the attack was launched straight from the gallop with no preliminary trot to the canter. As the charge got under way, four attached Prussian horse-artillery batteries fired obliquely across the right front of the horsemen. This gunfire, “right before their [the horses’] feet,” according to one student of the event, helped pave the way for a successful attack and fit perfectly with Prussian artillery doctrine in 1870 by covering the cavalry’s deployment and preparing its attack by direct fire upon the enemy. Charging over a distance of some 1,500 yards (1,300 m), the Prussian cuirassiers and uhlans crashed headlong into the French gun-line, cut down at least two French artillery batteries’ gunners, destroyed a mitrailleuse battery, and smashed two squares of French infantry. Unfortunately, the Germans’ formations broke up as they went forward, a perennial problem for any massed cavalry attack at that or any other time. They then found themselves counterattacked in turn by French horsemen outnumbering them by a factor of about five. In the fighting that followed, described as “frenzied” and a “tornado” of violence in which all arms of both sides became completely intermingled and heedless of trumpeted commands, the Germans nevertheless managed to extricate themselves and retreat to the safety of their own infantry and covering artillery. In a similar fashion later that same day, but in an event much less well known, the Prussian 1st Guard Dragoons attacked French infantry advancing on and threatening the Prussian left flank’s 38th Infantry Brigade on the heights northeast of Mars-la-Tour. Once again, the charge went in under rifle- and mitrailleuse-fire so as to allow the German infantry to disengage. The dragoons rode headlong into the advancing French infantry and accomplished the mission, but with 5 officers, an ensign, 42 men, and 204 horses dead. Six officers, 2 ensigns, 76 men, and 42 horses were wounded. Five troopers went missing. This constituted about 30 percent of the regiment’s effective strength. In the case of Bredow’s brigade, the losses were more than 50 percent (420 killed and wounded of 800 engaged). They would presumably have been higher still had not the badly rattled French infantry shot down more than 150 of their own counterattacking cuirassiers in the space of a few minutes’ confusion. Though described as not merely a “rarity” but as perhaps the “last successful cavalry charge in Western European warfare,” Bredow’s attack had allowed the German infantry time and space to rally. That, in turn, kept the French from continuing their retreat to the west. The same could be said of the Guard Dragoons. Notwithstanding these terrible losses, losses soon to be far surpassed by French horsemen at Sedan, the German troopers’ success buttressed arguments favoring the cavalry’s continued utility for the next forty years.

Despite the German cavalry’s accomplishments following the war’s outbreak and their frightful success at Mars-la-Tour, lessons were being learned regarding cavalry’s future role. One of the most important of these lessons appeared to be that “the rifle bullet and the spade [had] made the defensive the stronger form of warfare,” at least temporarily. Consequently, and as witnessed by Moltke’s earlier memorandum of 1868, the classic cavalry charge against infantry was fast becoming a thing of the past. In the war of 1870, for example, the French chassepot rifle had a maximum range of about 1,300 yards (1,200 m), while the German Dreyse “needle gun’s” maximum range was about 650 yards (600 m). And while in both cases the maximum effective range would be much less, they remained a deadly threat to mounted troops. But even certain cavalry units such as dragoons now carried rifled weapons of their own. The Prussian light cavalry, for example, carried a shortened carbine-variant of Dreyse’s rifle. The rapid and increasingly widespread issuing of rifled weapons to both foot soldiers and cavalrymen since about 1850, when combined with the means to deliver unprecedentedly large numbers of men to the front via railroads, constituted an important change in European military affairs. What had not yet happened was a real opportunity to test the effects of this change on European battlefields. True, it may be argued that the elder Moltke’s initial deployment of Prussia’s armies by rail in the invasion of Saxony and Bohemia in 1866 served to show the European importance of at least one of these new technologies and on an almost American scale of distance.  Further, insofar as cavalry still formed an integral portion of Prussia’s armies, Moltke made provision that rail cars have tether rings and removable partitions built into them so that horses and artillery of all types could be more easily transported. To the extent, however, that the Prussian campaigns of 1866 and 1870 depended at least in their initial stages on deployment by rail with a view to long-distance maneuvering for a decisive Kesselschlacht, one would have thought that the cavalry’s importance would have increased and not decreased. That is, while armies deployed to their frontiers by rail, they typically marched thereafter. Only later, as the enemy’s railroads were commandeered, would they be expected to bring up reserves and supplies using the iron horse.

As late as 1866 the need for more effective cavalry employment was exacerbated by the fact that Prussian mounted formations were still often placed at the end of marching columns instead of being allowed to range far ahead. Indeed at Königgrätz, the Prussian cavalry still followed behind the infantry. The horsemen did not truly bring their great numbers to bear in the fighting and did not effectively pursue the broken Austrian Army at the end of the day (in part because of late charges by the latter’s heavy cavalry as they attempted to buy time for an Austrian withdrawal). Once again, Moltke’s report of 1868 noted such deficiencies. The war of 1870 changed all that and witnessed the combination of rail-deployment and massive cavalry operations, even though the latter sometimes had only disastrous tactical results.

German Cavalry 1860-70 Part II

Heinrich XVII, Prince Reuß, on the side of the 5th Squadron I Guards Dragoon Regiment at Mars-la-Tour, 16 August 1870. Emil Hünten, 1902.

Consequently, German and European cavalry in 1870 was not typically used in one of its most potentially important operational spheres, namely the regular, long-range interdiction of the enemy’s railways as had so often been the case during the American Civil War. In retrospect, employing cavalry for this purpose should have been self-evident given the railroads’ own significance. “If railway lines were intact, the trains smoothly organized [this itself being an important prerequisite], and supply from the railhead unhampered, armies could keep the field so long as there was blood and treasure in the nation to support them.” Interdiction of such lines of communication and supply could have played a critical role in making the eventual German victory even more devastating to France than it turned out to be. Using cavalry for this purpose provided “the chance of disorganizing by invasion or deep raids [emphasis added] the mobilization of” the enemy, thus “reducing his plans to chaos, and leaving him defenceless.” At least one prominent American military observer in 1870, General Philip Sheridan, saw the German cavalry in action and noted the absence of such efforts. In his view, the German cavalry performed well the traditional roles of covering the front and flanks of advancing armies; and he did not fault the bravery of either the German or French troopers in the massed attack. Nevertheless, he observed, German horsemen never had the far-ranging effect their numbers should have allowed. Had the cavalry “been massed and maneuvered independently of the infantry, it could easily have broken up the French communications, and done much other work of weighty influence in the prosecution of the war.”

Whatever shortcomings the German cavalry may have had in Sheridan’s estimation, it was nevertheless coming to grips with a salient feature of military operations in the second half of the century. Rapid technological change associated with breech-loading rifles, nascent automatic weapons, rifled artillery, and railways necessitated more effective combined-arms thinking. Defensive positions, otherwise strong and massing the defenders’ long-range rifle-fire, might still be overcome by determined opponents using the combined-arms assault of infantry, cavalry, and artillery. Conversely, anything less than attack by combined arms ran the very real risk by 1870, if not by 1860, of decimation by the same massed rifle-fire. Interestingly enough, at Mars-la-Tour Bredow’s troopers closed successfully with the French gunners and infantry, in part, precisely because the Prussian horse-artillery fired diagonally across the front of the charging horsemen. This particular tactical doctrine still prevailed in 1914, even though an eventually stalemated Western Front had not yet been foreseen.

The German cavalry of 1870 also continued a tactical employment of horsemen and horse-artillery dating back to Napoleon I. The French emperor had pioneered the combination of artillery (to weaken an enemy’s infantry formations) with massed cavalry and infantry assault (to shatter them). Given the technology of the Napoleonic era, trotting horsemen covering some six hundred paces every two minutes (approximately 250 yards/228 meters per minute) could close with the typical artillery piece of the day (firing to a range of eight hundred to nine hundred paces) before the gun could fire more than one or two rounds. Of course, at the canter or gallop the distance closed much more quickly, and many charges covered the final 150 yards or so (137 m) at the latter gait provided that horses were fresh. Therefore, charging cavalry “did not suffer over-much from enemy cannon fire,” an observation excepting those unfortunate men and horses who were actually blown apart or eviscerated by canister or round shot. The employment of massed cavalry in corps formation at the decisive moment to defend one’s own position or to attack the enemy’s also dates to Napoleon. He’d established “the corps…as the largest organizational form for cavalry units.” But given the substantially increased range, hitting-power, and rate-of-fire of rifles and artillery by 1870, horsemen charging a prepared infantry formation became much more vulnerable. Indeed, cavalrymen began to experience this painful realization as early as Waterloo, despite the estimated maximum of only 5-percent accuracy for unrifled musketry fire beyond ten yards’ range. Unfortunately, the deadlier weapons of 1870 greatly increased the cavalryman’s exposure. Assuming the height of a heavy cavalry horse to be sixteen hands or nearly five-and-a-half feet (“hands” being four-inch increments measured from the forefeet to the point of withers with the horse standing square on a flat surface), the rider’s head rose to a height of not quite three yards (2.75 m) above the ground. Notwithstanding his helmet and/or cuirass, he was now extremely vulnerable at unprecedentedly long ranges; and this does not even take into account the horse itself. As a target for riflemen or artillerists, the horse possessed the terribly unfortunate combination of a thin skin and a high silhouette even when galloping for brief moments at perhaps thirty miles per hour (48 km/h).

Despite these critical vulnerabilities, cavalrymen—at least at a campaign’s beginning when their horses were not yet debilitated—could cover up to 50 miles (80 km) per day when riding hard. Even 80 to 100 miles (up to 160 km) in a twenty-four-hour period were not unheard-of for well-mounted light cavalry. All the while, the horse bore an average load approaching 250 pounds (113 kg). Furthermore, given its ability to swim, not even the tactical obstacles of streams and middling rivers necessarily stood in the cavalry’s way, even though rivers such as the Moselle above and below Metz demanded ferries or bridges in order for the cavalry to cross. Therefore, in a premotorized age, and indeed even later, a realistic alternative to horse-mounted units on the European battlefield simply did not exist. Scouting, patrolling, covering the flanks and rear, protecting the withdrawal, raiding—all of these missions remained the tasks of both pure cavalry formations and the mounted units attached to Prussian infantry divisions. By 1866 even the latter included four squadrons of approximately seven hundred horsemen.

Greatly aiding the German cavalry in 1870 was the detailed information they possessed on the French transportation infrastructure as the campaign began. German commanders were said to have had better maps of France than the French armies’ own staffs. German longrange cavalry reconnaissance and pursuit displayed persistence after the initial battles on the frontiers, even if it was not always completely effective. The French cavalry, on the other hand, were criticized by a contemporary not only for continued massing of formations when such mass was unnecessary but also for “never send[ing] out a single scout or vedette” in the long retreat westward from the Franco-German frontier. Such tactical ineffectiveness only worsened the logistical nightmares often accompanying French troops during their mobilization and initial deployments. At Metz on 1 August, for example, some two thousand wagons loaded with hay, straw, and oats clogged the city’s streets with no other apparent destination in mind. Similarly, French cavalry at Metz had to be employed “day and night as laborers,” using their mounts’ saddlebags to transport matériel from stalled supply-trains to the city’s depots. Not until 23 July did Napoleon III demand the attention of his Minister of War, General Edmond Leboeuf, to the matter of the “establishment of a [national] requisition and remount service” in order to supplement or replace the French cavalry’s extant system of regimental depot squadrons. It seems incredible that such a matter wasn’t undertaken before the French declaration of war, especially in light of the fact that such a service, among others, would normally “require months if not years of preparation.” By that date, the destruction of a goodly portion of the French cavalry at Wissembourg and Froeschwiller was barely two weeks off.

After all, it was not as though the French had no experience in long-range cavalry operations and the remount services necessary to support them. After Jena in 1806, for example, Napoleon I “unleashed his cavalry in a pursuit designed to complete the destruction of the enemy and the enemy state; a deep penetration to spread panic among the enemy population and destroy all hope of recovery.” Even so, he had seen in his cavalry not only “an exploitation force or reconnaissance asset” but also a “true shock force that could have effects disproportional to its numerical size” as at Eylau in 1807. If the latter were true, if the massed attack were still to be the French cavalry’s main reason for being, then massing them in the rear and holding them in place until the critical moment, though frequently condemned, would be a logical tactical disposition. In fact, the French cavalry had done as much even earlier, as before the revolutionary wars of the 1790s, and one could argue that the idea in fact came from the example of the armies of Frederick the Great at Rossbach in 1757 and Zorndorf in 1758. Unfortunately, between 1807 and 1870, French commanders had apparently forgotten the former examples and remembered only the latter ones. As a matter of common sense, for French commanders—and implicitly for German ones—holding the cavalry in reserve until the decisive moment always brought with it the danger of having the mounted forces sitting useless altogether or being committed too late to make a difference. And despite the greatly increased firepower on the part of the infantry, dismounted combat for the European cavalry was still considered the exception. In any case it could only be undertaken by horsemen armed with the cavalry carbine such as dragoons and hussars in Prussia or chevaulegers in Bavaria. In the event, French dragoons in 1870 often dismounted to volley-fire their carbines on advancing German cavalry. Evidently, however, these defensive tactics were insufficiently tenacious and the dragoons’ marksmanship was insufficiently accurate. Consequently, except for this sort of occurrence, only the German cavalry in 1870 managed to be not only consistently wide-ranging in reconnaissance and screening but also able to deliver massed attacks when called upon to do so.

The cavalry’s role as envisioned by Moltke in 1868 was certainly not limited to him alone. Cavalry’s employment had been studied with renewed interest by Prussian cavalry officers and theorists from about 1863 onward. That does not mean, however, that there existed uniformity of view among them. Colonel Albrecht von Stosch, an officer of the Prussian General Staff who fought in 1866 and 1870 and eventually (and somewhat curiously) became Chief of the Admiralty, wrote that American cavalry in the Civil War had been essentially mounted infantry. Their reliance more on firepower than cold steel for battlefield effectiveness ran counter, he said, to the cavalry’s putatively true value as a shock force, a “typically conventional” European view. Other Prussian officers, however, noted in their work that the American use of cavalry as long-range interdiction forces against strategic lines of telegraphic and railroad communications constituted what later generations would call a wave of the future. Nevertheless, and “almost without exception,” Prussian students of the cavalry still maintained in 1866 and 1870 that the mounted arm’s first duty was to stay mounted, avoid dismounted combat unless absolutely necessary, and attack with cold steel. The prevailing view remained that dismounted cavalry’s role in the American Civil War arose from the uneven and overgrown nature of North American battlefields, not from significant changes in firearms’ evolution. The dismounted role, it was felt, did not apply in Europe. Nor was the strategic raid viewed as of great military value. As late as 1900, therefore, the German cavalry—like other mounted forces in Europe—would still count the sword and the lance among its principal weapons, and apart from the reconnaissance and screening missions so much emphasized by Moltke, German horsemen would generally be held in reserve for the breakthrough battle that, at least on World War I’s Western Front, never came. Therefore, despite Moltke’s admonitions and their own successes up to the Battle of Sedan, German cavalry officers preferred to “trust to their own experience” and a recollection of the smashing successes of Frederick the Great. Fundamentally altering the role of the cavalry to follow any other model, particularly an American one, was still alien to German and the larger European traditions in 1870. Both German and French cavalry officers remained “fatally fascinated” by the shock-effect of massed formations of horsemen.

Of the two nations’ mounted arms, it is ironic that the French did not more readily adopt another cavalry doctrine, particularly one emphasizing more long-range patrolling. After all, French cavalrymen had been active throughout the 1830s and 1840s in Algeria, where they had responded to the guerrilla war against French colonial rule with the creation of light, wide-ranging mounted units. These included the Ottoman-inspired light cavalry known by their Turkish designation as sipahis and the so-called Chassuers d’Afrique. Eventually, three regiments of the latter were also posted to Mexico in the 1860s to bolster the shortlived regime of the French-supported Habsburg emperor Maximilian. Among the noteworthy features of these particular units was the adoption of the Iberian-influenced Barb as the mount of choice, incomparable in its ability to thrive in the arid environments of both North Africa and the high plains and mountains of central and northern Mexico. These were the “little grey Arab horses” whose dead bodies, along with those of their riders, would soon carpet the hillsides above Sedan.

It was toward that city that the German armies marched in the wake of the French defeat at Mars-la-Tour and the following battle at Gravelotte-St.-Privat. In advancing generally west-northwest, the Germans aimed to disrupt the French Government’s attempt to raise a relief force for Marshal Bazaine’s army now trapped at Metz. This period witnessed the French relief armies’ movement and their pursuit by the German from Chalons to Rheims to Sedan from 20 to 28 August. During these days, the German cavalry once again ranged far ahead of the advancing infantry, often by as much as forty or fifty miles (up to 80 km). As they had after the battles on the frontier at the war’s beginning, the German horsemen hounded the French and provided vital intelligence. Even so, the riders sometimes lost contact through no fault of their own; the French armies were subjected to what historian Michael Howard called “lunatic change[s] in direction” in their line of march as they tried to maintain contact with faulty supply lines. Once the German cavalry found their quarry, however, they helped delay and harass French forces sufficiently to deflect them ever farther northward toward the borders of Belgium and the fortress of Sedan. All the while the German infantry came up remorselessly from the east and southeast.

At Sedan one sees perhaps the most pointless waste of cavalry in the whole of the war. This occurred in the attempt by the French horsemen, under the command of General Margueritte, to pierce the German lines above the village of Floing to allow for a French breakout to the west. Shot through the face while reconnoitering the German lines, Margueritte could not ride with his troopers. They nevertheless went in gallantly according to observers, including King William of Prussia who witnessed the charge from across the Meuse. As had happened several times since the war’s beginning, the result was “a useless and terrible sacrifice…a fearful loss of life with no result whatever.” The two brigades of the cavalry reserve making the repeated charges not only didn’t effect a breakout; “they did not delay the German infantry five minutes.” With the exception of a number of German skirmishers cut down in the initial French charge, the German infantry simply waited and “mowed [the French horsemen] down with volleys.” As at Morsbronn near Froeschwiller in the war’s opening days, the French cavalry “were shot down before they could get within fifty yards. It was a useless, purposeless slaughter.” The five regiments involved suffered some 350 men killed, not counting the wounded and those taken prisoner. One unit of two squadrons had only 58 survivors from the 216 who made the charges. The entire time that the French had been under fire was said to have been perhaps one-quarter of an hour. Rallying twice, the French horsemen came on three times in total. By the third attempt, the cavalry horses were not so much charging as picking their way gingerly over the corpses of the fallen.

Even for those managing to survive the destruction of Margueritte’s cavalry, the losses suffered by French mounted and horse-drawn units at Sedan were terrible. At least ten thousand horses were captured in the French surrender. Of those, the Germans killed huge numbers deemed too broken down to keep. One Bavarian battalion alone killed three thousand after being ordered to destroy “any that looked sickly.” At distant Metz, too, horses of the French cavalry, artillery, and transport units found themselves not only hated for eating up scarce supplies of grain intended for the nearly starving garrison but slaughtered for food themselves. These units were ordered to cull forty horses each for slaughter, and by 20 September fifty percent of the garrison’s cavalry mounts had been butchered. Similar fates also befell large numbers of military horses in the French capital. Once the city was invested, the Parisian diet deteriorated largely to “scraps of bread, red wine, and horse meat.”

With the strangulating encirclement of Paris and the subsequent occupation of most of northern France after Sedan, the German cavalry’s role became one very familiar to German horsemen in Russia seventy years later: anti-partisan duty. In late 1870 and early 1871, the partisans were the francs-tireurs. Sometimes actual guerrillas, sometimes remnants of former French army units, sometimes newly raised formations, the francs-tireurs often provided more effective intelligence to French commanders than had the French cavalry whose traditional role it was. The francs-tireurs also harassed German patrols and attempted to sabotage the Germans’ supply lines still stretching back to the Rhine. In this second phase of the war, German cavalry routinely undertook far-ranging patrols to the south and west of Paris in order to alert Moltke to the possibility of a French attempt to relieve the capital. Those same cavalry units carried out missions to extend the system of requisitions ever deeper into the French countryside to supplement their own armies’ logistics. Ultimately, they were ordered to “sweep the country clean of francs-tireurs.”

In the process, the war assumed ever-deeper levels of brutality as a heavy winter arrived. The siege of Paris dragged on, and the French continued stubbornly to resist (even while eventually fighting among themselves during the Commune). Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck raged that all francs-tireurs should be summarily shot or hanged. Villages sheltering them, he said, should be burned to the ground. Indeed, reprisals against real or suspected partisans were savage, what one historian of the war called “a wholesale Americanization” of the conflict reminiscent of William T. Sherman’s intention to make his Southern enemies in Georgia “howl” during the Civil War. Fortunately for France, the German cavalrymen and their commanders couldn’t or wouldn’t fulfill all Bismarck’s wishes.

In that winter of 1870, the German cavalry’s own difficulties made punitive expeditions questionable if not actually impossible. Supplies and remounts became relatively scarce and roads often so badly covered in ice and snow that troopers had to lead their horses instead of riding them. The horsemen were nevertheless forced to keep to the roads because the countryside was sometimes impassable with deep snow. To add insult to injury, German cavalry now also frequently had to be accompanied by infantry. Precisely because of the threat posed by the francs-tireurs in ambushes of slow-moving, road-bound mounted columns, German commanders had to ensure they had infantry support. Of course, tying the cavalry to the speed of the infantry deprived the horsemen of their principal advantage. The long-range capability of the cavalry disappeared “the moment it had to march under the protection of the infantry.” The German cavalry’s war of movement became a sort of snail-paced war of attrition until the spring thaw arrived. And when the spring did come, so too did France’s surrender. The Treaty of Frankfurt of May 1871 recognized not only the humbling of France but the arising of a new Great Power in Europe, a once and future German Reich.


At Froeschwiller, Wörth, Mars-la-Tour, and Sedan the massed cavalry charges of both the Germans and the French were not typically intended to shatter fixed infantry formations, though that could sometimes be a fortunate result, as in Bredow’s “Death Ride.” Rather, in all cases, massed cavalry attacks were launched to retrieve situations in which one’s own infantry had been driven from the field or were threatened with that fate, as had also been the case with the Austrian cavalry charge late in the day at Königgrätz in 1866. The objective was to give the infantry sufficient time to retreat and/or re-form. The massed charge therefore became the means not so much to crown the victory as to stave off a defeat. Occasionally, of course, cavalry were ordered to attack under the false impression that the enemy was actually broken and could be pursued. The most egregious example of such a mistake shows in Prussian general Karl Friedrich von Steinmetz’s ordering of a mounted attack against the French lines at Gravelotte through a ravine on a raised causeway already choked with the bodies and debris of earlier, failed Prussian infantry assaults. The predictable result was the “slaughter by the hundreds” of the units in question. A “dreadful” French rifle-, automatic-weapons-, and artillery fire hit the cavalry full in the face without the horsemen’s “having the least chance of returning it.” Naturally, the fault in this case lay not with the cavalry itself but in Steinmetz’s gross misjudgment of the tactical situation.

At the same time the cavalry’s real worth re-emerged in missions that only horsemen could execute in the nineteenth century: long-range reconnaissance, flanking movements, and the interdiction of the enemy’s rail lines and communications. German cavalry proved consistently more adept at these tasks than did the French. After Sedan, however, the German cavalry’s operations against the francs-tireurs; the guarding of lines of supply and communication stretching back to the German States; and foraging for the occupation forces assumed precedence. And while these important missions could still be effectively executed by the Germans’ mounted troops, these nevertheless found themselves increasingly tied to the infantry for protection against roving columns of French partisans. Thus the German cavalry ran the risk of losing their most significant operational assets—speed and mobility.

As effective as the German horsemen tended to be, one question remains: why did they not emulate the American example of the strategic “ride” so much in evidence in the Civil War? It turns out they did, after a fashion, and somewhat unintentionally. To the extent that German horsemen routinely rode far in advance of marching infantry columns, one sees a long-range, mounted reconnaissance capability similar to that seen in the Civil War. This capability is most evident in the form of wide-ranging German patrols, though not very large ones. They often occurred only in squadron-strength or less. One of the most striking examples of their success showed in their cutting the rail lines at Pont-a-Mousson south of Metz in the follow-up phase after the battles at Spicheren and Froeschwiller. At times in this particular pursuit, the German troopers rode as much as forty miles ahead of their infantry, a figure corresponding closely to the distances covered daily by John Hunt Morgan’s cavalry in Kentucky in 1862. German cavalry played an even more important role in helping find and fix the French army in its attempted retreat from Metz to Verdun. The mounted units thus significantly contributed to setting the stage for—and, of course, fighting in—the resulting battles at Mars-la-Tour, Vionville, and Gravelotte-St.-Privat, and, ultimately, the bottling up of the French back in Metz where they’d started. German cavalry also materially helped extend the invaders’ reach in the encirclement of Paris after Sedan and in long-distance foraging during the subsequent siege of the French capital. Perhaps most important, throughout the war German cavalry enjoyed what earlier generations called moral superiority over their French opponents. That confidence, despite occasionally very heavy losses, contributed in turn to their ultimate tactical and operational superiority.

One does not, however, see German cavalry engaged in the longrange strategic raiding as conducted by both Confederate and Union horsemen between 1862 and 1865. As often as not, those earlier forays aimed at capturing entire towns, operational theaters’ supply dumps, or thoroughly wrecking vast stretches of railroad. The absence of this kind of raiding in 1870–1871 is all the more interesting given the evident Prussian attention paid to the technical aspects of Civil War–era use of railroads for theater-wide deployment of forces, not to mention the importance of railroads in Prussia’s victory in 1866 as well as in keeping German armies supplied in 1870. German interest in the Union’s and Confederacy’s use of railroads did not appear to translate into a changed attitude toward the cavalry’s tactics or strategy based upon the American example, at any rate certainly not before 1870. Many German students of the Civil War dismissed both Union and Confederate cavalry as merely mounted infantry, a new type of dragoon, who (somewhat ironically) relied too much on firearms for their effectiveness, rather than on “the ‘vehemence and force’ of shock tactics,” as was evidently still preferred in Continental Europe. This attitude persisted despite the particular admiration for the Confederate cavalry in Prussia by as prominent and successful a Prussian cavalry officer as Prince Friedrich Karl von Hohenzollern.

On the other side, why did the French cavalry not emulate the American example set during the Civil War? Several possible explanations suggest themselves. In the first instance, no prominent French soldiers wrote about the Civil War before 1870, a period in which French armies were often already at war in North Africa or Mexico. Their own lessons learned in mounted operations would presumably have sufficed. Secondly, the American Civil War had occurred “at a distance [greatly removed from France] and in the midst of special circumstances.”Not the least of these circumstances was the perceived amateurishness of American armies, Union and Confederate. Consequently their experiences’ applicability to the French army was judged to be of limited value at best, though surely the French cavalry school at Saumur recognized that the distance from France to Mexico was not less than that from France to the borders of the Union or the Confederacy. Finally, it was maintained that the heavily “populated, cultivated, and civilized” nature of Western Europe made a French replication of strategic raiding as undertaken by Grierson or Morgan unlikely, if not impossible, despite the fact that more obscure French observers noted the strategic-raiding role that cavalry might still play. Indeed, one might argue that precisely the thickly woven nature of Western Europe’s transportation infrastructure would have made strategic raiding even more valuable in offering many more targets than had been the case earlier in the still relatively sparsely settled reaches of Kentucky or Mississippi. As noted at the outset in reference to the French cavalry’s lackadaisical reconnaissance and interdiction in the war’s opening days, there existed in Paris an “imperturbable complacency” until 1866; and despite rousing itself after Königgrätz to adopt the chassepot and new siege artillery and enact, in 1868, a plan for a thoroughgoing reorganization, the French army in 1870 was frequently simply outfought. And when not outfought, it suffered catastrophically bad leadership. In the forty-three years following the Treaty of Frankfurt, as the new German Reich and the French Republic girded themselves for the next round in their centuries-old rivalry, the cavalry of both countries remained integral to their respective armed forces, as did horsemen in all other European armies. For the victorious Germans of 1871, the question was not so much would there be cavalry in the next war, but rather to what great victories would they ride?

Cataphract camels


The Parthians and early Sassanian Persians also made use of camel units; even experimented with cataphract camels. The early Sassanids have these armoured camels. That may mean they fought, it may only be an experiment to put off Roman javelin Light Cavalry who were deadly to cataphracts whose rear fighting factor was very poor. Contra Armati where cataphracts fight well to the rear, in reality surround them and they are dead meat because the armour blinds them. The Parthian and early Sassanid army was at times additionally supported by camel-borne troops. The animal could bear the weight of the warrior and his armour better and endure harshness longer than the horse; also, the archer could discharge his arrows from an elevated position. These would have made the division very desirable had it not been greatly hampered by Roman caltrop (tribulus) which, scattered on the battlefield, injured the spongy feet of the animal.

A curious creature in appearance, the Cataphract Camel is nevertheless an extremely formidable opponent. They are extremely heavy, and well-armed; in addition, the smell of camel tends to frighten horses. Carrying spears and maces like ordinary horse cataphracts, these units are equally unstoppable against both infantry and cavalry. Their enemies would be wise to treat them with respect.

Nations in the Middle East occasionally fielded cataphracts mounted on camels rather than on horses, with obvious benefits for use in arid regions, as well as the fact that the smell of the camels, if up wind, was a guaranteed way of panicking enemy cavalry units that they came into contact with. Balanced against this is the relatively greater vulnerability of camel mounted units to caltrops, due to their having soft padded soles to their feet rather than hooves.

Cataphract camels are well armoured – camel and rider both – shock cavalry. Their primary purpose is to charge into the enemy, using weight and speed to cause additional disruption. The riders carry lances for the initial charge and long maces to continue fighting once in hand-to-hand combat. Recruited from among desert dwelling peoples these soldiers rely on their heavy armour for protection, and their camels are equally well protected. This heavy armour also means that, while they are slow to get moving, they are almost unstoppable in a full charge. They can be used against infantry like any other cataphracts, but their chief virtue is that the smell of the camels upsets horses, giving them an edge when fighting against cavalry.

Our source is a little early history written by the Roman senator Herodian. He wrote a history that starts with the death of Marcus Aurelius, covers the reign of the demented, tyrannical Commodus, his assassination, the subsequent civil wars, the rise and rule of Septimius Severus and the brief and blood-thirsty reigns of his various relatives, culminating in the rise and brutal fall of the demented teenage trans-sexual god-emperor Elagabalus. Something for everyone here, and a brief stage appearance by Parthian cataphract camels can only have added to this unedifying if colourful pageant. Anyway, Herodian IV.14.3 – the battle of Nisibis, AD 217:

“Meanwhile Artabanus was upon them with his vast and powerful army composed of many cavalry and an enormous number of archers and cataphracts who fought on camels, jabbing with long spears.” (Loeb translation)

To reinforce the point, the Loeb translation of Herodian, IV.14.3 has:

Meanwhile Artabanus was upon them with his vast and powerful army composed of many cavalry and an enormous number of archers and armoured riders (kataphraktous), who fought from the backs of camels with long spears, avoiding close combat.

There is no direct evidence for the Parthians using armoured camels. However, Herodian’s use of the word kataphraktous creates a problem. I have argued elsewhere that the word cataphracti and its Greek equivalent denotes heavily armoured men on armoured horses, the type that later became known in the Roman army as clibanarii. If this is correct, Herodian’s use of kataphraktous implies, by analogy, that the camels might be similarly armoured. In a later passage, he speaks of horses and camels in the same terms (Herod. IV.15.2 – again in the Loeb translation):

The barbarians caused heavy casualties with their rain of arrows and with the long spears of the heavily-armed knights (kataphractōn) on horses and camels, as they wounded the Romans with downward thrusts.

Further, it is well known that cataphracti were particularly vulnerable when unhorsed and I have suggested that, consequently, their horses would also have been heavily armoured. Herodian comments that the Parthian horse and camel riders were disadvantaged when on foot (Herod. IV.15.3). It is true that the reasons that he gives are different from that usually advanced, that unhorsed cataphracti were encumbered by the weight and unwieldiness of their armour. Nevertheless, the point remains the same: the Parthian armoured riders should, so far as possible, be protected from becoming dismounted in battle.

All this suggests that the contention that the Parthians fielded armoured camels at the battle of Nisibis may not be as far-fetched as might appear at first sight. That said, the experiment (if such it was) seems to have been short-lived. There is nothing after Herodian to indicate the later use of such forces by either the Parthians or the Sassanids.

There is, however, a further complication. A document on papyrus dated January 300, refers to two cataphractarii serving in ala II Herculia Dromedariorum (P. Beatty Panop. 2, 28. See Skeat 1964). It also mentions, however, at least two common soldiers (mouniphikas) in the same ala. Where then do the cataphractarii fit in? It has been suggested that cataphractarius is a rank, replacing the earlier duplicarius and sesquiplicarius (Zuckermann 1994), but it is possible that cataphractarii constituted an elite body within the ala, providing a shock force and adding to its versatility. Another document could support both views (CPR V 13 + P. Rainer Cent. 165. See Rea 1984). It comprises three letters recording stages in the career of one Sarapion. The first, dated 17th April 395, authorises his admission to the schola catafractariorum in an unnamed unit based at Psoftis in Egypt; the second, dated 396, records his promotion to decurio; the third, dated 401, records his discharge on medical grounds. The second of these also mentions the advancement of one Apion from eques to cataphractarius. The same word is used for both Sarapion’s promotion and Apion’s advancement, prov(ectus). In the third letter, Sarapion and others discharged at the same time are placed in three categories: dec(uriones), catafrac(tarii), eq(uites). Nevertheless, the presence in the Notitia Dignitatum of entire units of cataphractarii leads me to favour the second view.

If I am right, what was the model for the cataphractarii in ala II Herculia Dromedariorum? I have argued that normal cataphractarii were well-armoured, though less heavily than clibanarii, and rode unarmoured horses. These men could, therefore, have been equipped in a similar manner but riding unarmoured camels. Alternatively, despite the apparent lack of continuity, they could have been based upon the Parthian camel riders encountered at Nisibis, which would imply that the Parthian camels were also unarmoured. This raises the question of nomenclature – Herodian refers to cataphracti, not cataphractarii – but this is explicable. As I have mentioned elsewhere, the evidence suggests that cataphractarius is a technical term applicable only to troops in the Roman army. If so, it would have been inappropriate for Herodian to have applied it to non-Roman troops. It is also quite possible that the term had not even been coined at the time that he was writing. Either way, he was obliged to use an available expression nearest to what he was seeking to describe, well-armoured cavalrymen, albeit riding camels, and that expression was the Greek equivalent of cataphracti. Of these alternatives, I favour the first.

Where then does that leave the question of whether the camels fielded by the Parthians at Nisibis were armoured or not? The evidence, in my opinion, is equivocal. As is so often the case, certainty is elusive and there is, therefore, room for alternative interpretations.


Rea 1984 – J.R. Rea, ‘A Cavalryman’s Career, A.D.384(?)-401’, ZPE 56 (1984), 79-88

Skeat 1964 – T.C. Skeat (ed.), Papyri from Panopolis in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, Dublin 1964

Zuckerman 1994 – C. Zuckerman, ‘Le Camp Sosteos et les Catafractarii’, ZPE 100 (1994), 199-202

Polish Winged Hussars



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.

Reference: Guttman, John, “Poland’s Warriors,” Military History, vol. 10, no. 5 (December 1993).

The Huns

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.

Battle of Paulus Hook 1779

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.

Bloody Ban

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.

Transmitted Intelligence

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.

Chest-high Water

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.