German Cavalry on the Eastern Front: WWI

Throughout the war on the Eastern Front, the German cavalry played a more active and traditional role than in France. With localized exceptions, World War I from the Baltic coast to Rumania remained a war of movement. It could not be otherwise. Between Riga and the mouth of the Danube lay an airline distance of more than eight hundred miles (nearly 1,300 km), but the front could never be measured in airline distances because it included many hundreds of miles more in twists and turns. One theater of operations that was of central importance to Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia alike, namely Russian Poland, by itself measured more than 200 by 250 miles (320 by 400 km). Completely entrenching such vast distances was simply impossible. The front would always be “in the air” somewhere. Consequently, “both sides attempt[ed] vast and daring maneuvers against the enemy’s flank and rear, just as they would in a later war from 1941–1945.” For the success of any such maneuvers, the cavalry’s mobility remained critically important.

At the war’s beginning, the Russian army mobilized no fewer than thirty-seven cavalry divisions. On the German side, by dramatic contrast, there was only one, at least in East Prussia. This was the venerable 1st Cavalry Division, whose regiments were based at Königsberg, Insterburg, and Deutsch-Eylau. This division, along with eleven neighboring infantry divisions, comprised about one-tenth of Germany’s mobilized strength in 1914. Though the numbers of German cavalry would grow enormously during the war on the Eastern Front, the initial disparity was owing not only to Russia’s having to fight both Germany and Austria-Hungary and therefore needing more cavalry but also to the German General Staff’s assigning East Prussia a secondary status in prewar planning. Primary attention and the accompanying resources went to the massive attack against France and Belgium in the West. This particular German cavalry division, however, not only comprised storied Prussian regiments; it would also subsequently be maintained as part of the Reichsheer during the interwar period and go to war again on horseback in 1939.

One of the very earliest events on the Eastern Front also involved cavalrymen, though in this case they weren’t German. On 6 August 1914, several hundred men of a formation known as Pilsudski’s Legion—carrying their saddles—marched across the frontier of Russian Poland from Austrian Galicia near Cracow in the hopes of finding mounts. Wisely, they retreated when they were approached by Cossacks and eventually found their way into the Austrian army. The incident is revealing, for the Cossacks’ presence on the Eastern Front from the war’s outbreak reinforced the conflict’s likely intensity over the whole of that almost immeasurably vast area. From its beginning, the fighting in the east, unlike that in the west, carried overtones of “race war,” a feature reaching its gruesome extreme in the Nazis’ campaigns between 1941 and 1945. The prejudices between supposedly cultured Germans and supposedly barbarous Russians, with the Poles caught in the middle, were manifested from the beginning of the war of 1914. As early as 11 August, no less an authority than the director of the Prussian Royal Library in Berlin, Adolf von Harnack, pronounced that “Mongolian Muscovite civilization” once again loomed over the eastern horizon to threaten German lands just as had happened in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

This conjuring of the ancestral Western European fear of the horsemen of the steppe could not have been clearer. As it turned out, the very next day Cossacks of Russian general Pavel Rennenkampf’s First Army crossed the East Prussian border, sacked the village of Markgrabovo, and ignited precisely the sort of panic that Harnack’s “Mongolian Muscovite” hordes had created in generations past. Intensifying the German reaction was the quasi-melding of Prussia’s identity with that of Germany as a whole, a process that had begun with Germany’s unification under the direction of Otto von Bismarck in 1870–1871. Though certainly not universal, this identification of Prussia with Germany made East Prussia’s violation by “asiatics” a national concern, not one limited to East Prussia itself. For a traditionalist unit such as the 1st Cavalry Division, Russian troops’ presence on German, and especially East Prussian, soil would pose a grave emotional threat. A prominent later commander in the post-1918 Red Army (and eventual Marshal of the Soviet Union) only reinforced the apprehension accompanying such a threat by evoking the memory of Mongols’ style of warfare. “The Russian Army,” boasted Mikhail Tukhachevsky, “is a horde, and its strength lies in its being a horde.” This image of rampaging barbarians who “would sweep into deutsches Kulturland” was hardly one to reassure East Prussians or other Germans either during World War I, the chaotic later days of the 1920s, or even in the 1930s or 1940s. As it was, the commander of the German I Corps in East Prussia in 1914, General Hermann von François, lamented the sorry plight of the “mad rush” of thousands of civilians away from the Russian horsemen and fretted that the refugees would impede his own armies’ efforts to contain the invaders. A senior staff officer who witnessed the invasion and who planned the defenders’ operations, Colonel (later General) Max Hoffmann, subsequently noted in his diary that never before had war been waged with such “bestial fury.” The Russians, he wrote with brutal succinctness, “are burning everything down.” Buildings not burned were plundered. One eyewitness, a captain in the Russian 1st Cavalry Division’s Sumsky Hussars, noted that in the campaign’s opening days around Markgrabovo, “[the] scene on the German side of the border was quite frightening. For miles, farms, haystacks, and barns were burning. Later on, some apologists…tried to explain these fires by attributing them to the Germans, who were supposed to have started them as signals to indicate the advance of our troops. I doubt this, but even if it were so in some cases, I personally know of many others where fires were started by us.” Not surprisingly, Russian cavalrymen, including the captain quoted here, helped themselves to the fine horses of East Prussia when in need of a quick replacement for blown, wounded, lame, or dead Russian mounts. Not a few of these horses came from the Prussian State Stud at Trakehnen, which lay almost directly in the path of the invaders. Some Cossacks also took human hostages from the civilian population, many of whom were deported to the east.

In resisting the Russian invasion, the German armies in East Prussia fought a successful series of battles between 17 and 23 August near Stallupönen and Gumbinnen. These towns lay due east of the provincial capital of Königsberg with Stallupönen being almost literally on the Russian border. Later, around Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes to the south and southwest, another string of even larger defeats would be inflicted on the Russians. In the fighting near Gumbinnen, the 1st Cavalry Division made a measurable contribution. Though they had sometimes failed to provide accurate intelligence of the Russian advance and been dismissed by the infantry as “frog stickers” because of the lances they still carried, the cavalrymen redeemed themselves. Flanking the Russians in good cavalry fashion, the German horsemen broke clear and played havoc with the Russians’ logistics and lines of communication. Having already served with the frontier defense (Grenzschutz) before its parent Eighth Army was activated, the 1st Cavalry Division had earlier fought at Stallupönen. Now, near Gumbinnen, it was in its element against a large but lumbering opponent advancing into the acute angle formed by the Gumbinnen-Stallupönen railway line and the River Inster. This opponent was the Russian Imperial Guard Cavalry Corps under the command of the Khan of Nakhitchevan. It had the mission of securing the Russian right wing. Fought to a standstill by German infantry and artillery around the village of Kaushen, the Russian cavalry faltered, and a gap opened in their front. Into that gap plunged the 1st Cavalry Division. The German horsemen broke through, and the ride was on—fully 120 miles (190 km) behind the Russian lines in barely three days’ time. It was a cavalryman’s waking dream for the division’s older officers. The division’s commander, General Brecht, had entered the Prussian army in 1867, and two of his brigadiers were well into their fifties. Still, the advance occurred in a fashion never duplicated on the Western Front after the first Battle of the Marne. It also created panic in General Rennenkampf’s headquarters. Proving themselves generally better horsemen than their Russian counterparts, the division’s troopers moved so far so fast into the Russian rear that they lost contact with their own forces. Consequently, the cavalrymen initially failed to get the subsequent orders for the great redeployment southwestward toward Tannenberg. As that redeployment got underway, however, the division was eventually given the cavalry’s other great task: to screen and protect the German movement and prevent the Russians’ taking advantage. Despite exhausted mounts, insufficient water, and reduced fighting strength, the horsemen had to harass and confound the Russians to keep Rennenkampf’s army from coordinating with General Alexander Samsonov’s to the southwest while the Germans pounced on the latter. Even though Rennenkampf continued to advance slowly but successfully toward Königsberg, the 1st Cavalry Division nevertheless managed repeatedly to put itself in the Russians’ way. Most importantly, this one cavalry division succeeded in frustrating the larger objectives of an entire enemy field army.

1st Cavalry Division (German Empire)

The Division was formed as Part of the Mobilization at the Beginning of the First World War and was used exclusively on the Eastern Front. Here it remained as a German Police Force after the Peace of Brest-Litovsk. It was first used in Livonia and Estonia and then came to Ukraine, where it remained until 16 March 1919.

1914 – 17 August – Battle of Stallupönen 19 to 20 August – Battle of Gumbinnen 23–31 August – Battle of Tannenberg 5–15 September – Battle of the Masurian Lakes 25 to 30 September – Battle of the Njemen 1 October to 5 November – position Fights at Grajewo-Wizajny 6–8 November – Battle of Göritten 13–16 November – Battle of the Romintener Heath From 15 November – jockeying for position for The Field position at Lötzen and at the Angerapp

1915 – Until 7 February – jockeying for position for the Field Position Lötzen-Angerapp. 8–22 February – Winter Battle in Masuren 23 February to 6 March – Battles at the Bobr 7–16 March – Battles in the Border position Sereje-Simno-Luzhwinov and Mariampol 9–12 March – Battles at Sejny 25–30 March – Battles at Krasnopol and Krasne 31 March to 20 July – Position Battles between Augustov, Mariampol and Pilwiszki 21 July to 7 August – battles at the Jesia and at Wejwery 8–18 August – Siege of Kowno 19 August to 8 September – Njemen battle 9 September– Szyrwinty 9 to 24 September – Battle of Vilnius 24 September to 19 October – Battles at the Mjadsjolka and Dryswjata From 6 November – Coastal Protection in Northern Courland

1916 – Coastal Protection Northern Courland

1917 – Until 22 August – Coastal Protection North Kurland 23 January to 3 February – Winter Battle on the Aa 1–5 September – Battle of Riga 6 September to 28 October – Position Battles north of the Düna From 29 October – Crew service at Budget Inspection 10

1918 – Until 10 March – Crew service at Budget Inspection 10 11 March to 2 May – Occupation of Livonia and Estonia as a German Police force 3 May to 21 June – Fighting in Ukraine 22 June to 15 November – Occupation of Ukraine From 16 November – Eviction of Ukraine

1919 – Until 16 March – Evacuation of the Ukraine

By stunning contrast, the Russian cavalry, three divisions strong between Gumbinnen and Tannenberg, not only failed to take any effective part in the former battle but also failed to exploit the real advantage of its own larger numbers in the latter. Nevertheless, and not a little unusually, it was the Russian 1st Cavalry Division that remained in constant reconnaissance-contact with the German 1st Cavalry Division’s horsemen and accompanying bicycle-mounted infantry, and that over a frontage of thirty-five miles. Thus the battles in East Prussia in August and September 1914 not only served to maintain the apparent viability of the German cavalry. They also had a much greater resonance, for they helped propel General Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff to the eventual supreme command of the German armed forces. These victories were ones that, according to one subsequent newspaper account, would for years haunt the children and the grandchildren of the Russian soldiers who’d been so thoroughly defeated there.

Somewhat later, in November 1914, several German cavalry divisions also played prominent roles in the German Ninth Army’s offensive into Russian Poland along a line stretching roughly northeast from Posen to Thorn. Aimed at the juncture between the Russian First Army and its neighbor to the southwest, the Second Army, the German offensive intended to relieve pressure on Austro-Hungarian forces to the south and simultaneously to forestall an impending Russian campaign aimed at the rich industrial region of German Silesia. While the Germans’ III Cavalry Corps stood in reserve and helped screen the southern end of Ninth Army’s line, the I Cavalry Corps comprising the 6th and 9th Cavalry Divisions had been assigned a more active role. Along with the accompanying 3rd Guards Infantry Division, the I Cavalry Corps had the mission of supporting Ninth Army’s broad southeasterly advance through the central lowlands along the left bank of the Vistula toward the Polish city of Lodz. Between 11 and 16 November, the Ninth Army, supporting the XXV Reserve Infantry Corps on the right wing of the German advance, covered more than fifty miles (80 km). On 17 November cavalry and reserve infantry were ordered to completely envelop Lodz to the south and west with attacks toward Pabianice. In doing so, they threatened the entire Russian Second Army at Lodz with encirclement and destruction. Unfortunately for the Germans, the Russian Fifth Army executed a heroic march northward to Lodz’s relief—two of the Russian infantry corps marched more than seventy miles (112 km) in forty-eight hours—and forced the German cavalry and reserve infantry to fight their way out the way they’d come. While the Russians could claim a victory in saving Second Army from destruction, the Germans could equally claim that Silesia had been preserved from invasion. In that strategic victory the horsemen of the I Cavalry Corps had played no mean part.

In 1915 the cavalry again played a significant role in a major German victory, this time in Lithuania. Having driven the Russians out of East Prussia at the beginning of the year in the Winter Battle of the Masurian Lakes, German armies joined with their Austro-Hungarian allies to expel Russian forces from almost the whole of Poland in a gargantuan offensive during the spring and summer. These offensives included the dispatching of a strong cavalry force into Courland (Latvia) toward Riga in April and May as part of Army Group Lauenstein (later redesignated the Niemen Army after the river of the same name). The cavalry moved ahead with orders to destroy the Russian railways wherever the horsemen found them. Near the town of Mitau (Jelgava), the German riders captured a baggage train, ammunition wagons, and machine guns. To the south, they also cut the Russian railway on both sides of the junction at Shavli (Siauliai) before falling back temporarily. This ride was followed up in early September with a drive farther to the southeast toward Kaunas (Kovno) and Vilnius (Vilna). Three German cavalry divisions participated in this attack on Lithuania’s two largest cities. In this offensive, begun on 8–9 September, the German horsemen supported the advance on Grodno, cut the Russian railway linking Vilnius and Riga at Sventsiany, and raided into the Russian rear areas as far as Molodechno and Smorgon, though the Russians subsequently managed to drive them and other German forces back and thus avoid encirclement. Indeed, the first German troops to enter Vilnius were the troopers of the Death’s Head Hussars who reminded one native of the Teutonic Knights of five hundred years before, but without the cross.

Similarly, in Rumania in 1916 German and German-led cavalry again had a prominent part to play in a significant victory. In the immediate aftermath of Rumania’s declaration of war on the Central Powers in August 1916, Rumanian offensives had not only gained the passes of the Transylvanian Alps but also the easternmost portion of the Great Hungarian Plain. Anticipating such a Rumanian invasion, however, the German and Austro-Hungarian governments, supported by a willing Bulgaria, had already planned an invasion of their own. This took the form of a combined counteroffensive starting on 18 September to drive the Rumanians out of eastern Hungary. That successful effort was followed by a push across the Transylvanian Alps into both Moldavia and Wallachia by German and Austro-Hungarian forces, as well as an invasion across the Danube by German and Bulgarian troops into the southern Dobrudja. Pushing the Rumanians back through the Vulcan, Red Tower, and Predeal Passes, the flank of the descending left hook of German general Erich von Falkenhayn’s Ninth Army was covered in part by a mounted corps. On 10 November the force began its advance down the Jiu Valley and into the lowlands of Wallachia north of the Danube. This region of Rumania constitutes the southwestern extension of the Black Sea or Pontic Steppe, a vast, undulating grassland interspersed with trees and stretching all the way to the Volga. In many respects, it was ideal horse country for the cavalry, at least as good as the Polish plains around Lodz. By 21 November the advancing German horsemen and infantry had covered the more than sixty-two miles (100 km) to the important rail junction of Craiova, which quickly fell to the Germans. By 26 November, the German horsemen and infantry had advanced another thirty miles (48 km) and captured the one remaining bridge over the Aluta River (at Stoenesti) not destroyed by the retreating Rumanians. They thereby helped open the way for the drive on Bucharest. They also once again demonstrated the cavalry’s utility on the Eastern Front in a fashion impossible in France.

In spite of these successes, however, the Rumanian forces in Wallachia southwest of the capital managed to launch a fairly strong counterattack on 1 December against Falkenhayn’s forces and those of General (and Death’s Head Hussar) August von Mackensen attacking from below the Danube. Here, too, however, the German cavalry made a signal contribution. To help stem this Rumanian counterattack, Falkenhayn dispatched a combined cavalry-infantry force against the right wing of the Rumanians. The horsemen and their accompanying infantry struck the right flank of the Rumanians, broke through, and got into their rear areas. In true cavalry fashion the German horsemen set about sowing confusion and inflicting heavy casualties on the Rumanians. As a consequence, they created a sense of panic that forced a Rumanian withdrawal. Bucharest fell shortly thereafter, and the Rumanians evacuated the whole of the Dobrudja. Those Rumanian forces still holding the lines in the great bend of the Transylvanian Alps were thus threatened with being cut off from the south. As a result, their position became untenable, and they too were forced to retreat into Moldavia. The setting in of heavy winter rains and snow, however, prevented the Germans from pursuing their defeated enemies. The year 1916 ended with the Rumanians holding a rump territory in Moldavia adjoining the Russian frontier along the River Pruth. Nevertheless, the strategic victory to which the cavalry had contributed its fair share was enormous: Rumania was effectively knocked out of the war; German and Austro-Hungarian forces were released for service on other fronts; and, as in another war one-quarter century later, Germany now enjoyed unfettered access to large reserves of foodstuffs, oil, and other war matériel, including much needed horseflesh.

The enormous haul of goods resulting from the eastern victories of the years 1915 to 1917 was only reinforced in early 1918 by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which the Central Powers (read, Germany) imposed on a Russia already undone by revolution. Whatever else it did, the treaty brought to Germany a seemingly immeasurable area of conquest stretching away to the east and southeast. Included was the bulk of the Black Sea Steppe, while from the newly occupied Ukraine alone “Germany…obtained 140,000 horses during the war.” Bearing in mind that the Ukraine really only fell under German occupation as of March 1918, and that the armistice in France brought the fighting officially to a halt in November, the Germans’ requisition-process was harsh indeed but necessary in any case. General Erich Ludendorff evidently thought so. Remarking on the acquisition of horses in the newly occupied eastern lands and the protection of that resource by German troops, he said pointedly that Germany could not carry on the war on the Western Front without the horses from the Ukraine. Be that as it may, Germany’s armies were nonetheless defeated. However unwillingly, Germany was eventually forced to relinquish all of her conquests and a great deal more once the Allies delivered their own punitive settlement, the Treaty of Versailles.

Nizza Cavalryman 1848


One of the decisions of the Congress of Vienna (1815) was the creation of the kingdom of Sardinia (Piedmont), which also encompassed the former republic of Genoa. The House of Savoy soon lost independence and became Austrian vassals, and the desire for freedom put Piedmont at the forefront of the struggle for Italian unification. From 1848 to 1866, with short intervals of peace, there were three wars against Austria, from which the small states of northern Italy emerged free and united.

The revolution in France in 1830 gave great hopes to the Italian patriots of the Risorgimento. In Piedmont, a restructuring of the army resulted in great improvements in the quality of training, especially in the cavalry, and the organization, armament and uniforms of the cavalry were regulated by the rule-book of 1833. In 1835, six cavalry regiments were converted into two brigades: the 1st, consisting of the Nizza, Savoia and Novara Cavalleria, and the 2nd, consisting of the guard Piemonte Reale, Genoa and Aosta cavalry. The next year, the same six regiments were grouped into three brigades, and in 1841, each had six squadrons, one of which was armed with lances. The peacetime formation had 825 men and 633 horses, in wartime there were 1,128 men and 959 horses.

The beginning of the nineteenth century saw the rise of classicism in French art, which drew its inspiration from Ancient Greece, a free civil society which was also the model for the French Revolution. In the field of military equipment, classicism found distinguished expression in the cavalry helmet, which was a copy of the Ancient Greek model. In 1811, it was issued to French line lancers and carabiniers; in 1815 to the English life guards and Belgian carabiniers; soon after, it was worn by nearly all the heavy cavalry forces of Europe. The Piedmont Rules of 1833 envisaged the use of such a helmet, and it was made in 1840 according to the design of court painter Palagio Palagi, and called the Minerva helmet.

The Nizza cavallieri were armed with heavy cavalry sabre, two pistols, and a very short carbine (pistolone). The lancers had a lance with a swallow-tailed pennant, in the Italian national colour – blue.

In 1848, upon hearing of the revolution in Vienna, the inhabitants of Milan rose and ousted the Austrian garrison, and Piedmont immediately declared war on Austria. The campaign lasted a year, and ended in the defeat of the Montagnards. The Nizza cavalry played a prominent role. A certain sergeant Fiora had his horse killed under him, and was surrounded by four Austrian uhlans; he killed one with his lance, wounded another, and chased off the remaining two, running after them. A similar feat was performed by a sergeant Prato, also surrounded by four Austrians, this time hussars; he killed one and chased off the remaining three.

Gettysburg – East Cavalry Field – July 3, 1863 Part I

The week leading up to Gettysburg was an arduous one for Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown (Jeb) Stuart and his cavalry division. Stuart’s task was gathering intelligence while screening the right flank of Richard Ewell’s Second Corps as it moved north. Leaving two brigades behind under Brig. Gens. Beverley Robertson and William Jones to operate with Lee, Stuart mounted his remaining three brigades (about 5,600 men) early on June 24. The movement, based upon discretionary orders, would eventually become a long-distance ride around the entire Army of the Potomac.

Once the Union army moved north after General Lee’s infantry, Stuart found it difficult to get around and ahead of its component pieces. Within a short time, he was effectively cut off from the Army of Northern Virginia. On June 28 near Rockville, Maryland, he captured 125 wagons loaded with supplies. The supplies were useful, but the wagons slowed him down. Unable to locate Lee, Stuart rode to York, Pennsylvania and then to Carlisle seeking information. Early on July 2, Stuart learned Lee was fighting a battle at Gettysburg. Between June 24 and July 2, his exhausted troopers and jaded horses rode 200 miles and fought a series of skirmishes (Thoroughfare Gap, Fairfax Court House, Rockville, and Carlisle), and three sharp actions: Westminster, Hanover, and Hunterstown.

After riding all night from Carlisle, Stuart arrived at Gettysburg late on the afternoon of July 2 while preparations were underway to launch the en echelon attack against the Army of the Potomac. After a cold meeting between General Lee and his subordinate, a plan was crafted for Stuart to operate beyond the army’s left flank, and to watch for any opportunity to assault the rear areas of the enemy. Back in their saddles early on July 3, Stuart’s cavalry rode out on the York Pike. A portion of Albert Jenkins’ cavalry brigade (which was under Lt. Col. Vincent Witcher, 34th Virginia Battalion), led the column. Behind Witcher rode Col. John Chambliss’ Brigade, followed by Capt. William Griffin’s and Capt. Thomas Jackson’s batteries. Next was Brig. Gen. Wade Hampton’s Brigade, followed by a section of Capt. Charles Green’s battery (which was not horse artillery). Brigadier General Fitz Lee’s Brigade brought up the rear.

Confronting Stuart’s 6,000-6,500 men and thirteen guns were brigades under Cols. John McIntosh and Irvin Gregg, both of Brig. Gen. David Gregg’s Second Cavalry Division. Gregg’s brigade tangled with Ewell’s Second Corps on July 2 at Brinkerhoff Ridge, and was now east of the ridge guarding the Army of the Potomac’s right rear sector. McIntosh’s brigade reached the field at 1:00 p.m. on July 3. General Gregg’s orders were to move his division south to guard the right flank of the XII Corps, but he hesitated when he realized the strategic importance of this area. A brigade under Brig. Gen. George Custer and Lt. Alexander Pennington’s battery (Brig. Gen. Kilpatrick’s division), at Gregg’s request, moved to occupy the pivotal position at the intersection of Hanover and Low Dutch roads. Dismounting two companies each from the 5th and 6th Michigan, Custer threw them forward down both roads.

Stuart intended to leave York Pike and ride south to Hanover Road before riding toward Baltimore Pike. This move would place him close to Ewell’s Corps and the Federal rear. When he reached Cress Ridge (between York Pike and Hanover Road) about noon, Stuart dismounted the 34th Virginia Battalion. The 170 men took possession of the Rummel barn, and shook out along a fence line left of the building. The remainder of the brigade deployed on both sides of the 34th Virginia Battalion. Chambliss’ troopers took up a position behind Witcher. The former’s right regiment, the 13th Virginia, extended to the George Trostle farm. Stuart deployed artillery and fired several shots in an unsuccessful effort to flush out the enemy.

When Custer heard the firing he reoriented his brigade and the battery in its direction and sent the dismounted 5th Michigan across Hanover Road. Cavalry commander Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton agreed to allow Gregg to return to his former position if Custer was released to return to Kilpatrick. Gregg agreed and his two brigades rode to the contested area.

After some confusion, Col. John McIntosh’s 1st New Jersey Cavalry replaced Brig. Gen. George Custer’s 5th Michigan on either side of the Lott farmhouse. The rest of McIntosh’s brigade deployed in column of squadrons in a clover field east of the farmhouse. Realizing he needed more troops, General Gregg convinced Custer to delay his departure. A section of Capt. William Rank’s battery arrived and deployed south of Hanover Road, supported by the 1st Maine Cavalry and 10th New York Cavalry of Col. Irvin Gregg’s brigade.

Once in position, General Gregg decided to test the Confederates with Pennington’s six guns. The four guns in Captain Jackson’s Battery responded, but the Federal superiority in number of tubes and quality of ammunition became quickly obvious. Accurate Federal artillery fire disabled one of Jackson’s guns on Cress Ridge, killing and wounding many of its men and horses. Outgunned and outranged, the Confederate battery fell back and was replaced by Green’s Battery and a section of Capt. William McGregor’s Battery. These guns quickly attracted the Federal artillery fire and half the horses were knocked quickly out of action. “The little artillery we used seemed of little service & I think most of it was soon silenced by the Federals,” grumbled a Virginia cavalry officer. Federal horse artillery officers held a certain disdain for their Southern counterparts. “As a rule,” wrote one, “their Horse Art’y was so badly handled in battle we Art’y officers paid but little attention to it.” The uneven exchange forced five of the Confederate guns to withdraw and the others, for the most part, fell silent.

The 34th Virginia Cavalry Battalion withdrew to replenish its ammunition, leaving behind the smaller 14th and 16th Virginia Cavalry regiments, which in the absence of Jenkins were also under Lt. Col. Vincent Witcher’s command. As the Virginians withdrew, the Federal skirmish line quickly moved forward and attacked the dismounted Confederate cavalrymen behind the fence, forcing the men of the 34th Virginia Cavalry Battalion to sprint back to bolster the line. Their added firepower forced the Federal skirmish line to drift back the way it had come. During this skirmish, Witcher was shocked to see the 14th and 16th Virginia regiments mount up and head for the rear. “The four-company detachment of the 16th Virginia did not exceed 50 men, as it was only a skeleton paper regiment,” explained Witcher. As for the four companies of the 14th Virginia Cavalry, he continued, it was “never famous for its gallantry.” The Federal artillery fire had become so annoying the 34th Virginia Battalion mounted a half-hearted charge to attempt to silence it. The effort was quickly repulsed and the men returned to their jump-off point. Witcher’s men continued holding the area around the Rummel barn with support from Chambliss’men.

With the artillery battle in full swing, General Gregg ordered the 1st New Jersey Cavalry forward toward Little Run, where it came under fire from the 34th Virginia Battalion and Witcher’s other troops near the Rummel farm buildings. The 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry, consolidated into five squadrons, deployed on both flanks of the 1st New Jersey. Stuart threw more troops from Chambliss’organization to the right of the 34th Virginia Battalion, overlapping the Federal line. When General Gregg learned the Confederate line extended beyond his left, he threw a portion of the 6th Michigan Cavalry forward and extended his own line accordingly. The 5th Michigan Cavalry advanced when the ammunition of the 1st New Jersey and 3rd Pennsylvania was nearly depleted. The two Michigan regiments were the only troops on the field with seven-shot repeating Spencer rifles. Their firepower convinced the Confederates they were facing more Federal troops than they really were. The Southern troopers had also been advancing, but the heavy fire quickly forced them to the safety of their main line. As one captured Confederate told a Federal cavalryman,“You’ns load in the morning and fire all day.”

Seeing the Jerseymen and Pennsylvanians falling back, many of Witcher’s Virginians mounted a charge. Some of Chambliss’ troopers, including the 9th Virginia, joined them. However, the repeating rifles fired by the Michiganders quickly dampened their ardor, and they also broke off the assault.

Gettysburg – East Cavalry Field – July 3, 1863 Part II

Captain Alanson Randol’s four-gun Federal battery arrived and dropped trail just south of the Lott house, opening blistering fire on the Confederates on Cress Ridge. Pennington’s battery joined in to good effect. “Never was there more accurate and effective fire delivered by the artillery than by the guns of Randol and Pennington,” General Gregg wrote proudly.

The retreat of the 1st New Jersey Cavalry, two squadrons from the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry, and 5th Michigan Cavalry was hastened by a charge from the 1st Virginia Cavalry of Lee’s Brigade. Desperate for help, McIntosh called for his only reserve regiment—the 1st Maryland Cavalry. To his dismay, Gregg had moved the regiment and it was now too far away to be of service. Overcome with frustration, McIntosh“gave way to tears and oaths.” All was not lost, however, for Custer’s brigade remained on the field. Orders soon arrived for him to counterattack.

Appearing at the head of the 7th Michigan Cavalry, still a novice regiment, Custer yelled to his men, “Come on, you Wolverines!” The Virginians were also moving forward. The attack was “a more determined and vigorous charge… it was never my fortune to witness,” recalled one Federal soldier. A stout fence stood between the combatants. The Michiganders reached it first, and when the first ranks halted, the rear ones plowed into them. “All were mixed in one confused and tangled mass,” one of the Federals reminisced. The men knocked down sections of the fence and the two regiments engaged in hand-to-hand combat. “Bullets were flying mightily thick,” noted a Federal trooper. The 5th Michigan, now on the Virginians’right flank, added a steady stream of small arms fire. Hit in front and flank, the Virginians finally retreated with the Michiganders hot on their tails.

Looking ahead, the men of the 7th Michigan Cavalry spotted more Confederate troopers advancing toward them. These riders belonged to the 9th and 13th Virginia Cavalry regiments (Chambliss), the 1st North Carolina Cavalry and Jeff Davis Legion (Hampton), and the 2nd Virginia Cavalry (Lee). Reaching the farm lane that connected the Rummel Farm with Low Dutch Road, the Michiganders stopped because of both the barrier of the fence in front and the approaching Confederate reinforcements. Outnumbered and well in advance of their line, the 7th Michigan turned back. Riding forward past the Lott house, General Gregg tried to stop the withdrawal, yelling, “For God’s sake, men, if you are ever going to stand, stand now, for you are on free soil!” His words had little or no effect.

The advancing Southern troopers provided a tempting target for the Federal artillerymen, who opened fire with terrible effect. The iron tore into the charging squadrons, hurling horses and men into the air. On their right, the Confederates watched as a mass of Federal troops galloped toward their vulnerable flank. These men were four companies of the 5th Michigan Cavalry, followed by the rest of the regiment. The attack was hastily mounted, for just a short time earlier the Federals were facing what seemed an irresistible Confederate charge. The flank attack and the artillery barrage chewed up and slowed down the Southern attack until it finally ended altogether, the troopers turning away to return to safer territory on Cress Ridge.

With the end of the Confederate cavalry charge, the Federal artillery turned its attention to the Southern batteries unlimbered on Cress Ridge, recently augmented by Capt. James Breathed’s four-gun battery. Neither side gained a decided advantage in the exchange that ensued.

By this time it was approaching 3:00 p.m. General Lee’s massive artillery barrage, in preparation for the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble infantry attack, was tapering off and the infantry was preparing to attack Cemetery Ridge. General Stuart, with three of his brigades, was poised just off the Federal army’s right flank near the Rummel Farm.

Once formed, a long line of horsemen emerged from the woods on Cress Ridge at a walk, then a trot, and finally a gallop. The Federal cavalrymen watched in admiration. “A grander spectacle than their advance has rarely been beheld,” admitted a Federal officer. “They marched with well-aligned fronts and steady reins. Their polished saber-blades dazzled in the sun.” Another witness agreed, writing, “[T]he spectacle called forth a murmur of admiration.”

The Federal units quickly fell back to provide open fields of fire for Pennington’s and Randol’s gunners. General Gregg sent an aide to order the batteries to retreat. The message was greeted with derision. “Tell the General to go to Hell,” answered the artillerymen as they shifted from shell to canister. The blasts knocked down troopers and horses alike, but others filled the gaps and the horsemen continued toward the Federals“ as if nothing had happened.”

Posted behind the guns was the 1st Michigan Cavalry. Gregg ordered the regiment to meet the enemy charge. Asking a small veteran unit to take on more than eight Confederate regiments was a desperate, nearly suicidal, order. The 1st Michigan’s commander, Col. Charles Town, tried to give a short speech but the men were in no mood to wait. The troopers launched into the attack even as pioneer details were busy pushing fences out of their way in front of them along Hanover Road. Crossing the road near George Howard’s house, the Wolverines were joined by General Custer who wanted nothing more than to lead another charge.

The two forces galloped toward each other at full speed. Their collision generated a tremendous crash of men, animals, and equipment. The impact reminded one soldier of “the falling of timber.” Horses somersaulted into the air, throwing their riders to the ground; many were trampled. The wild melee that followed can only describe the chaos as the men hacked at one another with sabers and shot each other at close range with their pistols. Custer’s horse went down, but he quickly mounted another as men cut and slashed on all sides of him.

About this time, troopers from the 3rd Pennsylvania hit both Confederate flanks simultaneously. Some of McIntosh’s own staff joined the small, 30-trooper band attacking the Confederate right. Slicing through the dense throng of enemy soldiers, they headed for a Confederate flag but lost about half their number in the process. An entire battalion of the 3rd Pennsylvania, which had been in the woods north of the Lott house, struck the Confederate left flank. The men had been ordered to hold these woods, but Capt. William Miller, the squadron’s commander, saw an opportunity and seized it. The veteran enlisted men could also see what was occurring and began their attack before being ordered to do so. The 100 or so troopers slammed into the Confederate line about twothirds of the distance from its center and rode through it, only to be engulfed on every side by screaming Confederate riders. Miller was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.

Other Federal units joined the swirling combat, including portions of the 5th and 7th Michigan regiments on the Confederate right flank and parts of the 1st New Jersey on the left. The vicious hand-to-hand combat continued for several minutes as both sides tried desperately to gain the upper hand. General Hampton, caught up in the middle of the action, took a severe saber slash to his head that knocked him out of the fight and nearly killed him. Attacked on three sides and unable to make any forward progress, the mass of Confederates began pulling back to Cress Ridge. The Federal troopers followed as far as the Rummel buildings.

Stuart decided it was time to abort his contest with Gregg. Each side suffered losses amounting to about ten percent of those engaged. “Mounted fights never lasted long,” wrote Stuart, “but there were more men killed and wounded in this fight than I ever saw on any field where the fighting was done mounted.”


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

Late 19th century Prussian Dragoons and Uhlans

Late 19th century Prussian Hussars and Light Cavalry

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. 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.5 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.” 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.10 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 two thirds 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.

Mars-la-Tour: Von Bredow

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.

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.


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

Late 19th century Prussian Cuirassiers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.