Napoleonic Cavalry II

In December 1805, brigadier general Jean Rapp led a memorable attack at Austerlitz, when he charged at the head of two squadrons each of the Chasseurs a cheval and the Horse Grenadiers of the Guard and the Guard Mameluks and decimated the Chevalier Guards of the Russian Imperial Guard.

Order and Discipline

Like all soldiers, cavalrymen were sometimes guilty of cowardice, malingering and lax discipline. Such problems included heavy cavalry discarding their cumbersome equipment and weapons on long marches in order to lighten their loads. Cavalrymen could also employ tricks to make an animal sick or hobbled – for example, by placing small rocks beneath their saddles in order to make their horses sore-backed. This provided the men with an excuse to take their animals to the rear, thus avoiding action.

At times cavalry were guilty of excesses against civilians. Sometimes lax discipline was viewed as one of the few comforts available while on arduous service, and the light cavalry seemed to take the greatest advantage of the liberty of action bestowed upon them. Light cavalry were not a welcome sight to civilians, be they countrymen, allies or enemies. The light horsemen lived, fought and marauded beyond the bounds of normal society and had a disdain for their own lives, let alone the lives of others. Looting was commonplace, and light cavalry managed always to find time for it, even when engaged in their assigned martial activities. Such activities, which could also include murder and rape, occurred with the compliance, and sometimes even the participation, of their officers. The Cossacks of Russia acquired the worst reputation of any light cavalry during the Napoleonic Wars. These wild nomads were barely controllable within the boundaries of the Russian Empire, never mind when they were set loose upon the peoples of Europe. Even Russian allies such as Austria and Prussia complained vociferously about the conduct of these marauders within their territories, so it is easy to imagine the despicable nature of Cossack activities in the territories of France and its allies.

Organization of cavalry varied greatly from army to army. The Austrians and Prussians, for example, arranged their cavalry in divisions, which were attached to their armies or, after the reforms of 1807-09, to a parent corps. The traditional role of assigning cavalry to the wings of an army/corps to defend its flanks continued in these forces. Although each French corps had a light cavalry division assigned to it, Napoleon also formed separate corps of cavalry and horse artillery. On the day of battle, Napoleon would gather the bulk of his cavalry corps into a formidable Cavalry Reserve, which was held out of battle in the centre of his position. He would allow his infantry and artillery to engage the enemy and develop the attack, and when the enemy had been properly softened up, or an opportunity presented itself, he would unleash his horsemen in a powerful charge against the enemy’s weak spot. Although an artillery officer by training and inclination, Napoleon appreciated the shock power of cavalry in battle. Often it was a charge by the units of this Cavalry Reserve that decided the day; or in some cases saved it, as was the case on the snow-covered fields of Eylau in 1807.

Cavalry Types

Delivering shock action on the battlefield was but one of many functions the cavalry was called on to perform. In addition, horse troops were used for reconnaissance, screening an army’s movements and for pursuit of a defeated opponent. Such widely disparate missions called for different qualities, and consequently the cavalry of the era was classified as either heavy cavalry, reserved for shock action on the battlefield, or light cavalry, charged with most other missions. Cuirassiers, carabiniers and the Grenadier a Cheval of the Imperial Guard were classified as heavy cavalry. Dragoons and lancers (uhlans in the Austrian and Prussian armies) were really a hybrid between heavy and light and thus were often used for shock action on the battlefield as well as traditional light cavalry missions. The British Army separated their dragoon formations into heavy dragoons and light dragoons (bah!) specifically to differentiate the role of a particular regiment, although even then there was some crossover brought about by the exigencies of a campaign.

Light cavalry received their general classification because they and their mounts were smaller than their counterparts in the heavy cavalry. Hussars were the most numerous of the various types of light cavalry found in the armies of the day. Their traditional braided dolmans, resplendent in a variety of bright colours, made them the gaudiest-dressed soldiers of their armies. French, Austrian and Prussian hussars also traditionally wore a moustache and long, braided side locks on either side of the face; with the Russians, facial hair varied, while British light dragoons (bah!) were clean-shaven.

In an age in which weeks and even months of manoeuvre preceded the decisive battle, these light horsemen swarmed the countryside, probing for enemy weak points, seeking out information on strength and location and doing near continuous battle with enemy light cavalry bent on the same mission. Such a role required horsemen with a high degree of motivation and elan, as well as a natural aggressiveness that would allow them to operate independently of the main army, and often deep inside enemy country. They enjoyed a roguish image and a reputation for galloping headlong into impossible situations. This hell-for-leather attitude was best expressed by one of the most famous hussar commanders of the age, General Antoine Lasalle (1775-1809), who quipped: ‘Any Hussar who is not dead by the time he is thirty is a blackguard.’ Lasalle was killed in action at the battle of Wagram when he was 34 years old.

Aggressive pursuit of a retiring enemy force was the key to turning a tactical victory into a strategic triumph that could win a war. Although heavy cavalry was employed in pursuit operations, it was the light cavalry that excelled in this mission, nipping at the heels of a retiring enemy, picking off stragglers and raiding vulnerable supply wagons and baggage trains, never allowing the enemy to completely disengage and recover its footing. Fighting was usually limited in these affairs, and the emphasis was on speed and initiative, hence the light cavalry were in their element.

Napoleonic Cavalry III

Modern-day Knights

The armoured warrior on horseback had dominated the battlefields of Europe for a millennium, but the advent of firearms had generally caused the disappearance of armour. By the end of the eighteenth century, most cavalry had abandoned it altogether. However, in the Napoleonic Wars armour made a comeback, especially in the French cavalry. Marshal Ney came up through the ranks as a cavalryman and was particularly fond of heavy cavalry – in spite of his early service with the hussars – and, along with General François-Etienne Kellermann (1770-1835), lobbied Napoleon to create more armoured cuirassier regiments.

Upon Ney’s recommendation and Napoleon’s own positive experiences with these armoured horsemen, a total of 14 cuirassier regiments were raised. French cuirassiers wore a heavy iron cuirass, which consisted of a breastplate and backplate to encase the horseman’s torso in armour but leave the arms unencumbered and free for action. Armed with a large, straight sabre, heavy cavalry were the modern incarnation of knights – big men on great horses who were used almost exclusively for shock action on the battlefield itself. Besides armour, these horsemen were equipped with a brace of pistols and a carbine, though within a short time most cuirassiers had dispensed with the latter. In 1812 Napoleon ordered French carabiniers to wear the iron cuirass. The carabiniers protested the order, since they believed that it essentially turned them into cuirassiers and thereby diminished their branch of the cavalry. So, to distinguish them from their rivals, decorative copper plating was added to their iron cuirasses, lending carabinier armour a golden appearance.

These ironclad horsemen came to be a dominant force on the battlefields of Europe, and the French cuirassiers and carabiniers became the bane of the Allied armies. Indeed, in the campaigns against Austria, Prussia and Russia during 1805-07 the cuirassiers proved themselves the finest heavy cavalry in Europe. They were an almost irresistible force on the battlefield, and Napoleon increasingly relied upon their dramatic charges to finish off a shaken enemy and win the day. Napoleon lavished rewards upon the cuirassiers. They were authorized to wear the red plume and flaming grenade symbol of elite troops, and as such received extra pay. He kept their scouting and screening duties light, and avoided involving them in skirmishes in order to reserve them for action in major battles.

Although the Austrian, Russian and Prussian armies contained regiments of cuirassiers, they never quite matched the skill and audacity of their French counterparts and were routinely bested on the battlefield. Indeed, many Allied regiments even dispensed with the cuirass, citing issues of weight and problems of manoeuvring in the saddle. By 1809 the Austrians had begun to place a demi-cuirass on their cuirassiers, which covered only the front part of the torso, leaving the flanks and back exposed. While this lightened the cuirassiers’ load and made it easier on their horses on campaign, it also made them more vulnerable in melee combat with French heavy cavalry.

For example, at the battle of Eckmühl in 1809, French cuirassiers dealt a stinging defeat to their Austrian counterparts. During the course of the engagement, the French inflicted nearly five times the number of casualties on their opponents, and much credit for this accomplishment was given to the superior armour of the French horsemen.

Cuirassier Equipment

French horsemen found the extra weight of the full cuirass negligible, and while certainly more encumbered than an unarmoured opponent, they believed the defensive benefits of the armour far outweighed any inconvenience. The cuirass could easily turn aside an enemy blade and could even stop the low-velocity lead balls that were the standard frrearms projectiles of the age. Thus, as these ironclad cavalrymen spurred their horses into a headlong charge, they felt a certain comfort in their perceived invulnerability. Other heavy cavalry, such as dragoons and the famous Grenadier a Cheval of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, lacked body armour. Therefore, it was common practice for dragoons to take their cloaks and roll them into a crossbelt of heavy cloth that they wore diagonally across their torsos. This improvised ‘armour’ actually provided some protection from enemy blades.

Besides body armour, all types of heavy cavalry in every nation’s army wore some kind of helmet. A horseman charged into battle bent forward over his saddle, and thus his head was thrust forward and vulnerable. Some helmets were made of thick leather, such as British dragoon helmets, which were both stylish and functional. Although light, they were capable of deflecting sword blows or lance thrusts and offered a modicum of protection from spent musket balls.

Russian, Austrian and some French dragoons also wore leather helmets, though in widely different styles. French cuirassiers and carabiniers wore iron helmets. Although ornate by modern standards, with their distinctive high brass combs and horsehair plumes, they provided real protection to their wearer from enemy blades and bullets, and were the best helmets worn by any horsemen.

Heavy cavalry attacks were an awe-inspiring sight. Drawn up in great masses of squadrons, these horsemen charged with tremendous fury, forming a mounted fist of steel that could smash through a weak point in the enemy line. They could also be used as an effective counterattack force against an enemy advance. If they could catch infantry in column or line formation and strike their flank or rear, heavy cavalry could wreak havoc, ramming right through such formations and cutting down the foot soldiers or trampling them under the flailing hooves of their powerful steeds.

A heavy cavalry charge would begin with the horsemen advancing at a walk, then increase the tempo to a trot. The idea was to maintain their tight-packed formation as long as possible to maximize striking power when they collided with the enemy. As they closed on their objective, the pace would be stepped up, reaching a thundering gallop in the last 100m (110 yards) until the cavalry crashed headlong into their target, slashing with sabre to right and left as they sliced through the enemy. The sheer mass of these armoured men on their mighty steeds provided a strike force unlike any other on the battlefield.


Equipment of lancer and reiter, also from Wallshavsen Art Militare a Cheval, 1616.

While the French and Spanish stuck with the lance as the weapon of choice of their heavy cavalry, the Germans changed over to pistols. These reiters (or schwartzreiters because of their habit of wearing black armour) became the usual sort of mercenary German horse hired by the various combatants in the wars. They developed the caracole, a system whereby a deep formation of pistoleers could deliver a continuous barrage of pistol fire against a stationary target (usually a pike block) – each rank firing in turn then moving off to the rear to reload. Each man carried up to three pistols, two in holsters and one in the right boot.

The Germans developed a new kind of cavalry armoured in a breastplate and high, heavy leather boots, and armed with three wheel-lock pistols. This new mercenary light cavalry, called Schwarzreiters or ‘black riders’ because of their black armour and accoutrements, attacked enemy formations using the revolving tactics of the caracole.

To execute the caracole, these reiters, as they were soon called, trotted toward their enemy in a line of small, dense columns, each several ranks deep and with intervals of about two horses’ width between files. In a tactic reminiscent of the Parthian shot, the reiters fired their three muzzle-loading pistols, then swung 180 degrees and filed to the rear to reload. Usually the caracole tactic was employed before a general advance as a means of disrupting enemy cavalry and infantry formations. But the time and awkwardness of reloading while mounted meant the caracole was a very difficult manoeuvre to carry out effectively, and, like light cavalry from the classical and medieval period, it was easily disrupted by an enemy heavy cavalry countercharge.

As the wheel lock’s distribution and production passed through Germany from northern Italy to the rest of Europe, the German Reiters (riders, or horsemen) recognized its potential and developed new tactics to exploit it. The wheel lock saw extensive use by all belligerents during the Thirty Years’ War, and demand for and the manufacture of wheel-lock pistols expanded rapidly during the period. The wheel-lock mechanism transformed the pistol into a compact, practical weapon suitable for mounted troops. The new pistol could be carried loaded, ready for instant use, and significantly extended the killing range. The advent of the wheel-lock pistol made possible the caracole, a military maneuver in which close-order waves of sword and pistol-armed cavalrymen rode within close range of infantry, fired their pistols, and then broke away, allowing successive waves to follow. The massed fire of the caracole proved effective against densely packed squares of pikemen and other formations of ground troops. Although short-ranged owing to their relatively short, smoothbore barrels, the wheel-lock pistols did reach significantly farther than the pike, and massed fire compensated for the pistol’s inaccuracy. The wheel lock also gave a similarly deadly advantage when used against cavalry armed conventionally with sword and lance.

German horseman with wheel lock Faustrohre pistols, about 1600.


The pistol emerged triumphant; its advantage was that it could be manipulated with one hand, the other being used to control the horse. It was not unknown for a pistol to fail to go off, which was why every man carried between two and six. Training to use a pistol also took less time than teaching a man to use the heavy lance, and smaller horses could be used by pistol-carrying units, as their armour was much lighter. On the other hand, the knights’ armour, though improved and strengthened, could no longer withstand the increased penetration of the firearms deployed by the infantry and light cavalry. 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 armour used by the reiters was not uniform and could vary from just a mail shirt or cape, through corselet (often with mail sleeves), to threequarter armour. Helmets ranged from simple ‘iron-hats’ to burgonets or morions. They were armed with large pistols of the faustrohre type (faust – hand, rohre – barrel), thus named because they were as well suited for clubbing as for shooting the enemy. It had a barrel length of about 50 cm/20 in, weighed about 3 kg/6.5 lb and fired a 30 g/1 oz lead ball. The pistol could be aimed accurately from approximately 20 paces; unaimed fire could be effective up to 45 m/50 yds. However, it was effective against the most heavily armoured opponents only at a few paces.


Cyrus the Great wanted to use more mounted soldiers because he knew how important they were especially since two of his greatest enemies used cavalry or soldiers on horseback. The Persian army was organized in a new fashion. The cavalry flanked both sides of the army in the middle which comprised of archers who attacked first from a distance. Afterwards, the horsemen attacked anyone left standing in the opposing army by throwing javelins, which were light spears thrown by hand.


The Iranian-speakers who migrated into the land of Iran and the surrounding area in the years before 1000 BC were not one single tribe or group. In time some of their descendants became known as Medes and Persians, but there were Parthians, Sogdians, and others, too, who only acquired the names known to us later in their history. And even the titles Mede and Persian were themselves simplifications, lumping together shifting alliances and confederacies of disparate tribes.

From the beginning, the Medes and Persians are mentioned together in historical sources, suggesting a close relationship from the very earliest times. The first such mention is in an Assyrian record of 836 BC—an account of an extended military campaign by the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III and several of his successors that was waged in the Zagros mountains and as far east as Mount Demavand, the high, extinct volcano in the Alborz range. The accounts they left behind listed the Medes and Persians as tributaries—those paying tribute to the stronger Assyrians. The heartlands of the Medes were in the northwest, in the modern provinces of Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, Hamadan, and Tehran. In the region of the Zagros south of the territories occupied by the Medes, the Assyrians encountered the Persians in the region they called Parsuash, which has been known ever since as Pars or Fars.

Within a century or so, however, the Medes and Persians were fighting back, attacking Assyrian territories. Later traditions recorded by Herodotus in the fifth century BC mention early kings of the Medes, called Deioces and Cyaxares, who appeared in the Assyrian accounts as Daiaukku and Uaksatar; and a king of the Persians called Achaemenes, who the Assyrians called Hakhamanish. By 700 BC the Medes—with the help of Scythian tribes—had established an independent state, which later grew to become the first Iranian Empire. In 612 BC the Medes destroyed the Assyrian capital, Nineveh (adjacent to modern Mosul, on the Tigris). At its height the Median Empire stretched from Asia Minor to the Hindu Kush, and south to the Persian Gulf, ruling the Persians as vassals as well as many other subject peoples.


Around 559 BC a Persian prince named Cyrus (modern Persian Kurosh), claiming descent from the royal house of Persia and from its progenitor Achaemenes, became king of Anshan upon the death of his father. Persia and Anshan, at that time, were still subject to the Median Empire, but Cyrus led a revolt against the Median king Astyages, and in 549 BC captured the Median capital, Ecbatana (modern Hamadan). Cyrus reversed the relationship between Media and Persia—he crowned himself king of Persia, making Persia the center of the empire and Media the junior partner. But he did not stop there. He went on to conquer Lydia, in Asia Minor, taking possession of the treasury of King Croesus, legendary for his wealth. He also conquered the remaining territories of Asia Minor, as well as Phoenicia, Judaea, and Babylonia. This created an enormous empire that stretched from the Greek cities on the eastern coast of the Aegean Sea to the banks of the river Indus—in extent perhaps the greatest empire the world had seen up to that time.

Cyrus’s empire took on much of the culture of previous Elamite, Assyrian, and Babylonian empires, notably in its written script and monumental iconography. But without romanticizing Cyrus unduly, it seems that he aspired to rule an empire different from others that had preceded it in the region. Portentous inscriptions recording the military glory of kings and the supposed favor of their terrible war-gods were commonplace in the Middle East in the centuries preceding Cyrus’s accession. In the nineteenth century an eight-sided clay object (known since as the Taylor Prism, after the man who found it), measuring about 15 inches long by 5.5 inches in diameter, covered in cuneiform script, was discovered near Mosul. When the characters were eventually deciphered, it was found to record eight campaigns of the Assyrian king Sennacherib (705 BC–681 BC). An excerpt reads:

Sennacherib, the great king . . . king of the world, king of Assyria, king of the four quarters . . . guardian of right, lover of justice, who lends support, who comes to the aid of the needy, who performs pious acts, perfect hero, mighty man, first among all princes, the flame who consumes those who do not submit, who strikes the wicked with the thunderbolt; the god Assur, the great mountain, has entrusted an unrivaled kinship to me . . . has made powerful my weapons . . . he has brought the black-headed people in submission at my feet; and mighty kings feared my warfare. . . .

In the course of my campaign, Beth-Dagon, Joppa, Banaibarka, Asuru, cities of Sidka, who had not speedily bowed in submission at my feet, I besieged, I conquered, I carried off their spoils. . . . I approached Ekron and slew the governors and nobles who had rebelled, and hung their bodies on stakes around the city. . . .

As for Hezekiah the Jew, who did not submit to my yoke: 46 of his strong, walled cities . . . by means of ramps and by bringing up siege-engines . . . I besieged and took them. 200,150 people, great and small, male and female, horses, mules, asses, camels, cattle and sheep without number, I brought away from them and counted as spoil. . . .

The way the pharaohs of Egypt celebrated their rule and their victories was very similar to this, and although Hezekiah, the king of Jerusalem, appears on the Taylor Prism as a victim, some parts of the Bible describing the Israelites and their God smiting their enemies do not read very differently, either.

By contrast, another clay object, about 9 inches by 4 inches, also discovered in the nineteenth century and covered in cuneiform script, tells a rather different story. The Cyrus cylinder, now in the British Museum, was found where it had been deliberately placed—under the foundations of the city wall of Babylon. It has been described as a charter of human rights for the ancient world, which is an exaggeration and a misrepresentation. But the message of the cylinder, particularly when combined with what is known of Cyrus’s religious policy from the books of Ezra and Isaiah, is nonetheless remarkable. The kingly preamble from the cylinder is fairly conventional:

I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king, rightful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters (of the earth), son of Cambyses, great king, king of Anshan, grandson of Cyrus, great king, king of Anshan, descendant of Teispes, great king, king of Anshan of a family that always exercised kingship. . . .

But it continues, describing the favor shown to Cyrus by the Babylonian god Marduk:

When I entered Babylon as a friend and when I established the seat of the government in the palace of the ruler under jubilation and rejoicing, Marduk, the great lord, induced the magnanimous inhabitants of Babylon to love me, and I was daily endeavouring to worship him. My numerous troops walked around in Babylon in peace, I did not allow anybody to terrorize any place of the country of Sumer and Akkad. I strove for peace in Babylon and in all his other sacred cities . . .

and concludes:

As to the region . . . as far as Assur and Susa, Agade, Eshnunna, the towns of Zamban, Me-Turnu, Der as well as the region of the Gutians, I returned to these sanctuaries on the other side of the Tigris, the sanctuaries of which had been ruins for a long time, the images which used to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I also gathered all their former inhabitants and returned to them their habitations. Furthermore, I resettled upon the command of Marduk, the great lord, all the gods of Sumer and Akkad whom Nabonidus had brought into Babylon to the anger of the lord of the gods, unharmed, in their former chapels, the places that make them happy.

Like the proud declarations of Sennacherib, this is propaganda—but it is propaganda of a different kind. It shows Cyrus in a different light, and according to a different scale of values. Cyrus chose to present himself showing respect to the Babylonian deity, Marduk. Perhaps it would have been different if Cyrus had conquered Babylon by force, rather than marching into it unopposed (in 539 BC) after its inhabitants revolted against the last Babylonian king, Nabonidus. Cyrus was a ruthless, ambitious man; no one ever conquered an empire without those characteristics in full measure. But we know that he permitted freedom of worship to the Jews, too. Cyrus and his successors permitted them to return home from exile and to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. For those acts they were accorded in the Jewish scriptures a unique status among gentile monarchs.

The logic of statecraft alone might have suggested that it would be more sustainable in the long run to let subjects conduct their own affairs and worship as they pleased. But that policy had to be acceptable to the Iranian elite, including the priests—the Magi. Leaving aside the question of Cyrus’s personal beliefs, which remain unclear, it is reasonable to see in the policy some of the spirit of moral earnestness and justice that pervaded the religion of Zoroaster. The presence of those values in the background helps to explain why the Cyrus cylinder is couched in such different terms from the militaristic thunder and arrogance of Sennacherib. The old answer was terror and a big stick, but the Persian Empire would be run in a more devolved, permissive spirit. Once again, an encounter with complexity, acceptance of that complexity, and a response. This was something new.

Unfortunately, according to Herodotus, Cyrus did not end his life as gloriously as he had lived it. Having conquered in the west, he turned to campaign east of the Caspian. According to one account he was defeated and killed in battle by Queen Tomyris of the Massagetae, another Iranian tribe who fought mainly on horseback, like the Scythians.

The Massagetae are interesting because they appear to have maintained some ancient Iranian customs that may shed light on the status of women in Persian society under the Achaemenids. There are signs in Herodotus (Book 1:216) that the Massagetae showed some features of a matrilineal, polyandrous society, in which women might have a number of spouses or sexual partners, but men only one. Patricia Crone has suggested that this feature may resurface in men’s apparent holding of women in common as practiced later by the Mazdakites in the fifth century AD, and by the Khorramites after the Islamic conquest. Mazdaism certainly permitted a practice whereby an impotent man could give his wife temporarily to another in order to obtain a child; it also sanctioned the marriage of close relatives. But in general, Persian society seems to have leaned toward limiting the status of women, following practices elsewhere in the Middle East. Royal and noble women may have been able to own property in their own right—and even, on occasion, to exert some political influence. But this seems to have been an exception associated with high status rather than indicative of practices prevalent in society more widely.

Cyrus’s body was brought back to Persia, to Pasargadae, his capital, to rest in a tomb there. That tomb, which can still be seen (though its contents have long since disappeared), is massively simple rather than grandiose—a sepulchre the size of a small house on a raised, stepped plinth. This tomb burial has raised some questions about the religion of Cyrus and the other Achaemenid kings. Many of his successors were placed in tombs of a different type—rock tombs halfway up a cliff face. Tomb burial was anathema to later Zoroastrians, who held it to be sacrilege to pollute the earth with dead bodies. Instead they exposed the dead on so-called Towers of Silence, to be consumed by birds and animals. Could the Achaemenid kings really have been Zoroastrians if they permitted tomb burial?

Some have explained the inconsistency by suggesting that different classes of Iranian society followed different beliefs—different religions, effectively. As we have seen, there probably was some considerable plurality of belief within the broad flow of Mazdaism at this time. But it seems more likely that the plurality was socially vertical rather than horizontal—a question of geography and tribe rather than of social class. Perhaps an earlier, pre-Zoroastrian tradition of burial still lingered and the elevated position of all the royal tombs was a kind of compromise. Halfway between heaven and earth—itself a strong metaphor. Around the tomb of Cyrus lay a paradise, a garden watered by irrigation channels (our word paradise comes, via Greek, from the Old Persian paradaida, meaning a walled garden). Magian priests watched over the tomb and sacrificed a horse to Cyrus’s memory each month.

Cyrus had been a conqueror, but a conqueror with imagination and vision. He was at least as remarkable a man as that other conqueror, Alexander, whose career marks the end of the Achaemenid period just as that of Cyrus marks the beginning. Maybe as a youth Cyrus had a Mazdaean tutor as remarkable as Aristotle, who taught Alexander.

Caesar’s Allies

Gaul Cavalry

German Cavalry

It was the practice of the Romans to make foreign friends of any people for whom they wanted to intervene on the score of friendship, without being obliged to defend them as allies.’

[Appian, History of Rome: Gallic Wars]

Throughout the Republican period, Rome relied heavily on its allies for additional infantry and cavalry forces to make up for a lack of manpower. In some cases these were specialist fighters recruited on an ad hoc basis and in varying strengths from the locality. More important were the allied light troops who were drawn from Mediterranean regions Rome had long been in contact with and with whom they had the closest relations. These troops were customarily raised for the duration of a campaign, which sometimes led the Romans themselves to questions their allies’ quality and commitment. Allied formations were usually under the control of an individual unit’s chief, and were armed, equipped and fought in the particular unit’s traditional style.

Usually the allied contingent of the Roman army was of equal or larger size than the legionary force and was usually formed along Roman lines. Units regularly seem to have been about 500 or 1,000 strong and broken down into either six or ten centuries. These could be arraigned with the main army in the centre of the Roman line or placed on both wings. Sometimes the more lightly armoured allied contingents were mixed with the heavier armed legionaries to prevent the allies from being picked off. Along with the heavily armed troops, many of the allies provided specialist light infantry troops, such as archers and slingers. These units are likely to have been dressed according to their ethnic origin, although there is no definitive evidence of which units were at Alesia. Over forty arrowheads have been recovered from Alesia and it is thought that some of the Roman forms of arrows with one and two barbs are likely to have been used by allied Roman troops. Roman arrows were manufactured from iron and were up to 7.8cm long and 2.5cm wide. Tests of reconstructed bows suggest they would have had a maximum range of around 300m, and so they would be able to fire at the Gauls beyond even the deepest of Caesar’s defences. Slings were also used and a number of examples of slingshot come from Alesia, most notably three with inscriptions on them. Reconstructed slingshots have shown a range of up to 400m, easily enough to provide covering fire from any of the hilltops around Alesia into the valleys below.

Throughout his campaigns in Gaul Caesar does not define the constitution of his cavalry and so we cannot be certain about their number or ethnicity. It is likely that at least some of the cavalry at Alesia were Roman. At the beginning of the conflict, Caesar was also able to call upon friendly Gallic tribes to provide him with Gallic cavalry and these were employed as warriors, as well as scouts, guides, interpreters and messengers. However, Caesar had always considered them unreliable, a belief which was confirmed once Vercingetorix rebelled and Caesar lost the majority of his Gallic troops to his rival. Some must have been retained however, if only in an intelligence role, but by the beginning of the Alesia Campaign Caesar was forced to employ new cavalry in the form of German mercenaries.

Caesar, as he perceived that the enemy were superior in cavalry, and he himself could receive no aid from The Province or Italy, while all communication was cut off, sends across the Rhine into Germany to those states which he had subdued in the preceding campaigns, and summons from them cavalry and the light-armed infantry, who were accustomed to engage among them. On their arrival, as they were mounted on unserviceable horses, he takes horses from the military tribunes and the rest, nay, even from the Roman knights and veterans, and distributes them among the Germans.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VII. 65]

Caesar tells us that the bulk of the German mercenaries were cavalrymen. Evidence for Germanic cavalry in the archaeological record at Alesia is slight; this is partially because German weapons are hard to distinguish due to their similarity with Gallic weapons. One shield boss with a central projecting stud is almost certainly German, given its similarities to later German bosses. Bones of horses coming from the ditches discovered at the foot of Mont Réa have been identified as coming from a male horse of no more than three years old. These bones may represent the well-bred young stallions given to the German cavalry. If this is correct, the evidence would conform well to the German cavalry attack on this region. Recent interpretation suggests that these horse remains may have been deliberately buried in the ditches, not simply to cover them up, but in a form of sacrificial burial. It was the Gallic custom to bury sacrifices in the peripheral ditches of sanctuaries. In Gallic eyes, the circumvallation ditch may have been associated with the practice of ritual sacrifice in these periphery ditches after the defeat.

There is not even any great abundance of iron, as may be inferred from the character of their weapons. Only a very few use swords or lances. The spears that they carry – framea is the native word – have short and narrow heads, but are so sharp and easy to handle, that the same weapon serves at need for close or distant fighting.’

[Tacitus, Germania, VI]

Along with the cavalry, the Germans are described as using spearmen who mingled with the mounted troops. This tactic may explain the successes of the German cavalry during the Alesia Campaign. Tacitus tells us that German warriors were lightly armed, the cavalry often having only a spear and shield. The infantry were armed in a similar manner, with the addition of a number of small javelins. All the Germans were dressed lightly with few wearing armour or helmets. Some even fought completely naked. In the main, German warriors wore breeches and large cloaks that would be draped over their shoulders in regional style. Their clothing was manufactured in simple colours and patterns, the only ostentatious part of their dress being elaborate knotted hairstyles. These varied from tribe to tribe and so identified each warrior as the member of a particular clan, a practice that had continued for hundreds of years.

[The Germans are] … a people who excelled all others, even the largest men, in size; savage, the bravest of the brave, despising death because they believe they shall live hereafter, bearing heat and cold with equal patience, living on herbs in time of scarcity, and their horses browsing on trees. It seems that they were without patient endurance in their battles, and did not fight in a scientific way or in any regular order, but with a sort of high spirit simply made an onset like wild beasts, for which reason they were overcome by Roman science and endurance.’

[Appian, History of Rome, 3]

Caesar tells us that the River Rhine marks the border between the Gallic peoples to the south and the Germans to the north. German warriors were famed for their physique, size and fearlessness – attributes which in Roman eyes made them appear as savages. Like the Gauls, the Romans had a stereotype for the Germans, who were seen as brutish to the point of indifference to death (a recurrent image even up until the present). As ever, the reality was very different; the German peoples had as complex a society as any other of the period. There were close affinities between Celtic peoples and Germans, in art, religion and culture. An innate conservatism meant that German tribes were slow to change and reduced access to resources seems to have meant that their technologies were less advanced than in Gaul. What they lacked in technology the Germans made up for in vigour. It was this trait that so impressed Caesar in his brief excursion across the Rhine into Germany – a trait that was to put to great use during the Alesia Campaign.

The Afternoon at the Kahlenberg

Kahlenberg Mountain near Vienna on 12 September 1683




All reports agree that, on this day of blistering sunshine, there was a pause in the fighting at noon. It was a pause to recover breath, but the allied commanders were also determined not to weaken their position by pressing too far forward on their left before the right wing had begun to put pressure on the Ottoman defence. Concealed by the folding of the ground, and the thickness of woods, the pace of the Polish advance was difficult to estimate; it certainly appeared somewhat slow. But no one underestimated the importance of these troops, who were expected to come down the Alsbach, a tributary stream descending to the houses at Dornbach and ultimately to Hernals: a line of march which would bring the attack much closer to the main Turkish camp and to the Grand Vezir’s headquarters.

Some historians have blamed the Poles for their sluggishness, but it would be more helpful if evidence were found which explained why they were sluggish. Many Polish detachments were well behind the regiments of the left and centre already on the previous day, and can only have reached the upper ridges late in the evening, hungry and tired; there are no records which show how complete their preparations were during the night of 11th September. Even in the case of the German regiments put at John Sobieski’s disposal, it is known that they were in position on the Galitzinberg—well forward, and on the extreme right—by the time serious fighting began in this area, after midday; but it is not known whether they were already in position in the early hours of morning. Another possibility is that, when the council of war ended on the 11th Sobieski was by no means clear that the attack would begin at dawn, and therefore did not give positive instructions to his officers to make ready for action. The Turkish raids above Nussdorf, in conjunction with Lorraine’s purposeful itch to try and relieve Vienna without delay, altered the whole situation. But it took the King of Poland most of the morning, while fierce fighting continued on his left, to advance his right wing. He was already past his prime as an instinctive war-leader, a slow and very corpulent man who now lacked the energy to dominate a crisis on the battlefield; nor were the discipline and promptness of his aristocratic cavalry generals very marked, in spite of their many other military virtues.

Moreover, although it was a relatively simple matter to occupy the higher ground on both sides of the Alsbach, the descent of large numbers of men into the valley proved more arduous. Even then the greatest difficulty of all remained, to get them out of this narrow avenue of approach and reorganise them as a battle-formation, strong enough to meet a massive Turkish attack; the Turks were bound to try and interrupt and to crush the whole unwieldly manoeuvre. By one o’clock the Polish vanguard had reached Dornbach, where the woods and the slopes die away. They became visible to the forces anxiously waiting far away on their left. Shouts of joy and relief from the Germans saluted them, and dismayed the enemy. The heights on both sides of the Alsbach were in firm and friendly hands. From those on the left, the King himself directed operations, and he was in touch with the Franconian units and their leaders to his left. On the right Hetman Jablonowski commanded the Poles, some German infantry held the Galitzinberg, and a certain amount of support from artillery was assured. Fortunately the scattered Tartar forces still farther south were never a serious nuisance in this quarter. The future depended on the heroism and energy of the Polish centre under General Katski as it emerged from the narrower part of the Alsbach valley.

First of all select troops of volunteer hussars advanced. After a momentary success the Turks pushed them back, and then the conflict swayed uncertainly to and fro. It cannot be stated with any certainty whether the final result was determined by the steady refusal of these Poles on the lower ground to give up the costly struggle, or by the efforts of German foot soldiers coming down from the Galitzinberg, or by the extra forces which Sobieski threw in (aided by reinforcements of Austrian and Bavarian cavalry) from the heights on the left. After a fearful tussle the Turks gave way; their horsemen fled, and took shelter with the Turkish infantry and guns on a defensive position farther back. Sobieski now began to deploy his whole force on more level ground, having swung them slightly round so that they faced south-east. They were arranged in two lines, the intervals in the first being covered by contingents in the second. As before, Habsburg and Bavarian cavalry stood behind them on their immediate left. There were more Polish horsemen and dragoons on the right.

This achievement altered the whole face of the battle. The Polish wing of the army had caught up with the left and centre. It was a strong position, won after a hard-fought day. The great question, now, was whether to stop or to launch a further attack. Undoubtedly Lorraine himself wanted to press forward; and there is probably something in the famous story that when one experienced general, the Saxon commander Goltz, was asked for his opinion, he replied: ‘I am an old man, and I want comfortable quarters in Vienna tonight.’ Waldeck agreed. Sobieski agreed. They must have all based their hopes on signs of disorder and exhaustion in the enemy troops facing them. On one wing, the relieving army was two miles away from the walls of Vienna at their nearest point. On the other, it was a little more than two miles to Kara Mustafa’s headquarters in St Ulrich.

Preparations to mount an overwhelming attack were made along the whole front. At 3.20, in the fiercest heat of the afternoon the action began again on the left. The Turkish position here ran along the Vienna side of the Krottenbach (a stream reaching the Canal near Heiligenstadt) but soon turned to the south-west, where it faced first the centre of the Christian army, and then the Poles. The Turk’s resistance was ineffectual, and they soon began to withdraw rapidly to the left wing of Kara Mustafa’s defence. Some of the Habsburg troops at once made straight towards the nearest siegeworks of the city, others swung to the right. The same thing happened on the central part of the front: the Saxons, and then the troops of the Empire, pushed forward again—and swung to the right. The Poles had meanwhile thrown everything they had into their attack on the main armament of the Turks. For a short while the battle was doubtful; but the thrust of the Bavarian troops (under Degenfeld and Max Emmanuel himself), and then of other troops coming up from the more northerly sectors, weakened the flank of the Turkish position; the Poles finally plunged forward with their cavalry to sweep southwards. Here, other Turkish units made an obstinate stand; they had their backs to the River Wien, and when they finally gave way Kara Mustafa ran a real risk of being cut off by swift cavalry movements in his rear from any possible line of retreat. Meanwhile the bodyguards of the Grand Vezir resisted desperately when the Poles began to enter his great encampment from the west. On its northern side, Janissaries and other household troops were still fighting hard; the Franconians under Waldeck, and on his initiative, seem to have given Sobieski useful support in this final phase of the struggle. The total collapse of the Turks began, and when their soldiers still in the galleries and trenches in front of the Hofburg were instructed to come to the rescue of those in the camp, they fled. Kara Mustafa himself then retreated in perilous and disorderly haste, though he succeeded in taking with him the great Moslem standard, the Flag of the Prophet so vainly displayed on this bitter occasion, and the major part of his stock of money. Many other Turkish leaders and contingents had already left the battlefield several hours before; and so ended one of the most resounding of all Christian victories, and Ottoman defeats. By five-thirty the battle was over. Vienna was saved. The plundering began.

An Irish officer summarised the events of the day in his own terse way: ‘If the victory be not so complete as we promised ourselves it should, it proceeded only from the cowardice of our enemies, whom from morning till night we drove before us, beating them from post to post, without their having the courage to look us in the face, and that through several defiles, which had they any reasonable courage we could never have forced. The combat held longest where the King of Poland was, but that only added to his glory, he having beaten them with the loss of their cannon and their men; they have left us their whole camp in general, with their tents, bag and baggage, and time will tell us more particulars.’




The Mamluks under Baibars (yellow) fought off the Franks and the Mongols during the Ninth Crusade.

In the autumn of 1260, Baybars was patently aware of the fragility of his hold on the sultanate. He moved swiftly to assume authority in Cairo, occupying the great citadel–the seat of power built by Saladin–and rewarding a wide circle of emirs with offices and wealth. In addition, the surviving Bahriyya mamluks were established as his personal bodyguards. Their old regimental barracks on the Nile were later rebuilt and placed under the command of the sultan’s most trusted emirs, including Qalawun.

Baybars’ most urgent concerns were the legitimisation of his own rule and the wider entrenchment of Mamluk power in Egypt. But the new sultan also possessed the political and strategic vision to recognise, and adapt to, the new Levantine world order. In decades past, Muslim leaders had sought to unite Islam and, in some cases, tried actively to combat the Franks in the Holy Land. Now, the imperative had changed and a different paradigm had been created. After 1260, the critical frontiers lay to the north and east of Syria, whence the primary enemy–the Mongol Empire–might once again seek to destroy Islam. To combat this threat, these borders must be protected and the Near East transformed into a united and impervious fortress state.

The Latin Christians were a secondary danger. Geographically their remaining settlements lay within the Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian territory that Baybars now wished to unify and secure against the Mongols. He rightly judged that, in the wake of setbacks like the Battle of La Forbie, the Franks of Outremer were effectively emasculated. On their own, they posed little concern. But as allies to an external force–be it in the form of a Mongol horde or a western crusade–they might open a troublesome and distracting second front within the confines of the Near East. As such, the crusader states were embedded irritants that had to be neutralised.

Aware of these challenges, Baybars dedicated much of the early 1260s to radically reshaping the Muslim Near East, founding a potent, authoritarian regime. At the same time, he set out to ready the Mamluk state for the onset of war–be it against Mongol or Christian enemies. By these means, the new sultan spent his first years in power assiduously preparing for what he hoped would be ultimate victory in the struggle for control of the Holy Land.


The protector of Islam

At first, Baybars’ hold on power was relatively precarious: he inherited a Mamluk state that was only partially formed; and he had been involved in the assassination of two former sultans, Turanshah and Qutuz. Against this somewhat tainted background, civil insurrection or counter-coup threatened, and the loyalty of his fellow mamluk emirs was by no means assured. But in late 1260, the new sultan also stood to benefit from some significant advantages. In the aftermath of the Mongol invasion and the Battle of Ayn Jalut, the remaining vestiges of Ayyubid power in Syria and Palestine were all but shattered, and the Holy Land was ripe for Mamluk domination. Thus, in contrast to the likes of Nur al-Din and Saladin, who laboured for decades to unite the Near East, Baybars was able to assert control of Damascus and Aleppo within the first years of his reign, installing regional governors who answered to Cairo.

In addition, Baybars was able to draw upon the triumph achieved at Ayn Jalut to legitimate his claim to power. Presenting himself as the saviour of Islam, he had a monument erected on the battlefield, and demolished Qutuz’s grave to downplay any suggestion that the late sultan also might have played a ‘heroic’ role in the confrontation. In later years, Baybars’ chancellor and official biographer, Abd al-Zahir, reconfigured the history of the battle in his account of the sultan’s life, presenting it as a victory won almost single-handedly by Baybars. The sultan also sought to promote his own cult of personality, embodied in his lion emblem (depicting a lion walking to the left, with a raised forepaw). This distinctive heraldic device was placed on Baybars’ coinage and used to mark public buildings and bridges constructed in his name. And while it is true that the Mamluk state was threatened by potent enemy forces in the 1260s, these evident dangers enabled Baybars to enact an unprecedented programme of militarisation and to enjoy unparalleled autocratic authority.

Baybars took a number of masterful steps to consolidate his hold on the sultanate. To ground the new Mamluk regime within the framework of Islam’s traditional legal and spiritual hierarchy, he reestablished the Sunni Abbasid caliphate. In June 1261, Baybars claimed to have found one of the few surviving members of the Abbasid dynasty. The man’s pedigree was carefully assessed by a hand-picked committee of Cairene jurists, theologians and emirs and then confirmed as the new Caliph al-Mustansir. Baybars then made a ritual oath of allegiance to the caliph, swearing to uphold and defend the faith; to rule justly, according to the law; to serve as a protector of Sunni orthodoxy; and to wage jihad against the enemies of Islam. In return, al-Mustansir invested Baybars as the sole, all-powerful sultan of the entire Muslim world, an act that not only confirmed his rights to Egypt, Palestine and Syria, but also provided tacit authorisation for a massive campaign of expansion. In a final public affirmation of his regime’s legitimacy, Baybars was invested with sultanly apparel: a black rounded turban of the sort customarily worn by the Abbasids; a violet robe; shoes adorned with golden buckles; and a ceremonial sword. Dressed in this finery, he and the caliph rode, in state procession, through the heart of Cairo. From this point onwards, Baybars took great care to endorse caliphal authority, so long as it did not impinge upon his own power. Both the caliph and sultan were named in the Friday prayer; likewise, Mamluk coinage bore both their names.

To reinforce the aura of tradition and continuity developing around the sultanate, Baybars consciously sought to connect himself with two Muslim rulers. The first, al-Salih Ayyub (Baybars’ own former master), was now presented as the last legitimate Ayyubid sultan, with Baybars as his direct and rightful heir–an agile manipulation of the past that conveniently ignored the bloody turmoil of the 1250s. The sultan also modelled himself upon Saladin, the conqueror of the Franks and idealised mujahid. Imitating his famed generosity as a patron of the faith, Baybars set about restoring Cairo’s now dilapidated al-Azhar mosque. In addition, he established a new mosque in Cairo and a madrasa beside al-Salih’s tomb. The sultan also visited Jerusalem and there restored the Dome of the Rock and the Aqsa mosque–both of which had become somewhat run down under later Ayyubid rule.

Similar echoes were present in a number of civil measures adopted in these early years. Styling himself as the archetypal ‘just ruler’, Baybars abolished the war taxes imposed by Qutuz, established palaces of justice in Cairo and Damascus and also ordered fair prices to be paid to merchants for goods sequestered by the state. By these diverse means, the sultan engendered widespread popular support among his subjects in the Near East and this helped to insulate his position against other mamluk challengers.

Centralised power in the Mamluk state

While working to legitimise the Mamluk sultanate and his own claim to power, Baybars also took bold steps towards governmental and administrative centralisation. Mamluk Cairo was turned into the unquestioned capital of the Muslim Near East, and the office of sultan was imbued with a degree of despotic authority never before witnessed in the medieval era. In stark contrast to many of his predecessors, Baybars carefully monitored state finances and controlled the Mamluk treasury–measures that gave him the wealth to pay for critical reforms.

As sultan, Baybars expected his will to be obeyed without hesitation across the Mamluk world, and he made ready use of both direct force and propaganda to ensure submission and compliance on the part of regional governors. Emirs who failed to levy troops for war in short order, for example, were hung by their hands for three days. Anyone foolish enough to attempt insurrection could expect summary punishment, with torments ranging from blinding or dismemberment to crucifixion. Like other rulers before him–including Nur al-Din and Saladin–Baybars drew upon the fear of external threats to justify his autocratic behaviour, but new emphasis was placed upon the Mongols as the prime enemy of the state. Thus, when the sultan wished to remove the petty Ayyubid princeling al-Mughith from power in Transjordan in 1263, accusations of consorting with the Ilkhanate of Persia were levelled, and letters supposedly from Hülegü to al-Mughith were produced as evidence.

But even beyond guile and brutality, the true cornerstone of Baybars’ authority in the Near East was communication. He was the first Muslim in the Middle Ages to master the business of ruling a pan-Levantine empire from Egypt because he made huge investments in message-carrying networks. Many centuries earlier, the Byzantines and early Abbasids had made use of a courier-based postal structure, but this had long since fallen out of use. Baybars created his own barid, or postal system, using relays of horse-borne messengers, hand-picked and well rewarded for their reliability. Changing mounts at carefully maintained post stations positioned along key routes through the Mamluk realm, these men could routinely bring a message from Damascus to Cairo in four days, or three in an emergency. Use of the barid was strictly limited to the sultan, and letters were always brought directly to Baybars, no matter what he was doing–on one occasion he even had a messenger report to him in the bath. To ensure the smooth and swift transfer of information, major roads and bridges were carefully repaired, and the barid was also supplemented by pigeon post and a system of signal fires. This remarkable (and admittedly costly) feat of organisation allowed Baybars to maintain contact with the far reaches of the Mamluk state–in particular the northern and eastern borders with the Mongols–and meant that he could react to both military threats and civil disorder with unprecedented speed.

Allied to Baybars’ own particularly forceful and energetic brand of rulership, this raft of practical and administrative reforms served to consolidate the Mamluk state and cement ‘royal’ power by the mid-1260s. However, Baybars’ regime was not without its faults. The success of this intensely centralised approach to government depended heavily upon the sultan’s personal qualities and skills, and this raised obvious questions about how readily the mantle might be passed on to a successor. Seeking to overturn the notion that a Mamluk sultan should be elected, Baybars tried to lay the foundations for his own familial dynasty in August 1264 by appointing his four-year-old son Baraka as joint ruler. Given the emphasis placed on merit rather than heritage among the mamluk elite, it remained to be seen whether this plan would be realised.

Baybars also developed a potentially disruptive association with the sufi (holy man) mystic Khadir al-Mihrani in these early years. Supposedly a prophet, but regarded by many in the Mamluk court as a philandering fraud, Khadir befriended Baybars in 1263 during one of the sultan’s visits to Palestine. Impressed by the sufi’s predictions of numerous future Mamluk conquests (many of which later came true), Baybars soon rewarded him with property in Cairo, Jerusalem and Damascus. Khadir was given unfettered access to the sultan’s inner circle and was said to have been privy to matters of state, all to the chagrin of Baybars’ leading mamluk lieutenants. This strange relationship suggests that even a cold-blooded despot like Baybars could be seduced by flattery–it also was a chink in his defences that, in time, would have to be sealed.

Mamluk diplomacy

Given the time and resources Baybars expended within the Muslim Levant while building his Mamluk state in the early 1260s–and the strident militarism evident in his later career–it would be easy to imagine that the sultan adopted an insular approach to the outside world, turning inwards to spurn diplomacy. In fact, he was an active and adept player on the international stage. Baybars used negotiation to pursue three interlocking goals: to forestall any possibility of an alliance between the Latin West and the Mongols; to sow dissension within the Mongol ranks by encouraging rivalry between the Golden Horde and the Persian Ilkhanate; and to maintain access to a ready supply of slave recruits from the Russian steppes.

Within his first year in office, Baybars established contact with the late Emperor Frederick II’s bastard son, King Manfred of Sicily (1258–66). Seeking to perpetuate the tradition of close relations between Egypt and the Hohenstaufen, and to support Manfred’s anti-papal policies, the sultan dispatched envoys to the Sicilian court with exotic gifts, including a group of Mongol prisoners, complete with their horses and weaponry–testament to their shattered reputation for invincibility. After Manfred’s death, Baybars renewed contact with his rival and successor, King Louis IX of France’s acquisitive brother, Charles of Anjou.

The sultan likewise opened channels of negotiation with the Golden Horde in 1261. The Mongol ruler of this region, Berke Khan (1257–66), had converted to Islam and was engaged in a heated power struggle with the Ilkhanate of Persia. Baybars flattered Berke’s religious affiliation by including his name in the Friday prayers at Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem, and by establishing equitable relations he retained access to the steppe-land slave markets within the Golden Horde and secured the Mamluk sultanate’s northern borders with Asia Minor. To ensure the safe and efficient passage of Kipchak slaves from the Black Sea to Egypt, the sultan also forged pacts with the Genoese–the main transporters of slave cargo in the Mediterranean basin. These Italian merchants had recently lost the so-called ‘War of St Sabas’–a two-year struggle with Venice over economic and political pre-eminence in Acre and Palestine. When this fractious civil war ended with Genoese defeat in 1258, they relocated to Tyre and, through the 1260s and beyond, proved only too happy to trade with the Mamluks. To ensure that Genoese ships continued to enjoy unhindered access to the Bosphorus Strait, Baybars forged additional contacts with the newly reinstated Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus, who had returned to Constantinople in 1261 with the final collapse of Latin Romania.

For a mamluk inculcated in the arts of war rather than the intrigues of court politics, Sultan Baybars managed this tangled web of diplomatic interests with a surprisingly deft and assured hand–all the while manoeuvring to isolate the Mongol Ilkhanate and Latin Outremer.


Perfecting the Mamluk military machine

Between 1260 and 1265 Baybars was phenomenally active in the fields of diplomacy and statecraft. But ever mindful of the need to undertake urgent and extensive preparations for war, he simultaneously set the Mamluk state on the path to militarisation. The sultan’s underlying goal was to prosecute jihad against the Mongols and the Levantine Franks–scoring victories that would cement further his position and reputation, achieving conquests that would secure Muslim dominion over the Levant.

From the start, work proceeded apace to strengthen the Mamluk world’s physical defences. In Egypt, Alexandria’s fortifications were bolstered and the mouth of the Nile at Damietta was partially sealed to prevent another naval incursion up the delta akin to that mounted by Louis IX. Across Syria, battlements destroyed by the Mongols at the likes of Damascus, Baalbek and Shaizar were repaired. To the north-east, along the course of the Euphrates River–now the effective frontier with the Persian Ilkhanate–the castle of al-Bira became a strategic linchpin. The fortress was strengthened and heavily garrisoned, and its security closely monitored by Baybars via the barid. Al-Bira proved its worth in late 1264, when it successfully withstood the first serious offensive by Ilkhanid forces. This attack, brought on by a lull in the war between the Golden Horde and Mongol Persia, caused the sultan to rally his forces for war, but even as he prepared to march from Egypt reports arrived indicating that the Ilkhanids had already broken off their fruitless siege of al-Bira and retreated.

Above and beyond any reliance on castles, however, Sultan Baybars regarded the army as the bedrock of the Mamluk state. Adopting and extending the existing system of mamluk recruitment, he purchased thousands of young male slaves, drawn from Kipchak Turkish and, later, Caucasian stock. These boys were trained and indoctrinated as mamluk troops, and then at the age of eighteen freed to serve their masters within the Mamluk sultanate. This approach created a constantly self-rejuvenating military force–what one modern historian has called a ‘one-generation nobility’–because children born of mamluks were not regarded as being part of the martial elite, although they were permitted to enrol in the army’s second-tier halqa reserves.

Baybars ploughed massive financial reserves into building, training and refining the Mamluk army. In total, the number of mamluks was increased fourfold, to around 40,000 mounted troops. The core of this force was the 4,000-strong royal mamluk regiment–Baybars’ new elite, schooled and honed in a special practice facility within the citadel of Cairo. Here recruits were taught the arts of swordsmanship–learning to deliver precise strikes by repeating the same cut up to 1,000 times a day–and horse archery with powerful composite recurve bows. The sultan emphasised rigid discipline and rigorous military drilling across every section of the Mamluk host. In the course of his reign, two massive hippodromes were constructed in Cairo–training arenas where the essential skills of horsemanship and combat could be perfected. Whenever in the capital, Baybars himself came daily to practise the warrior craft, setting a standard of professionalism and dedication. His mamluks were encouraged to experiment with new weapons and techniques, some archers even attempting to use arrows doused in Greek fire from horseback.

Once of adult age, mamluks were paid, but also were expected to maintain their own horses, armour and weaponry. To ensure his forces were outfitted properly, Baybars instituted troop reviews, in which the entire army, in full martial regalia, would parade past the sultan in a single day (in part to ensure that equipment was not being shared). Failure to attend these displays was punishable by death. Fear was also used to maintain order while on campaign. The drinking of wine was banned on many expeditions, and any soldier caught contravening this injunction was summarily hanged.

To reinforce the human component of the Mamluk armed forces, Baybars invested in some forms of heavier armament. Close attention was paid to the development of siege weaponry, including sophisticated counter-weight catapults, or trebuchets. These engines became the mainstay of Mamluk siegecraft. Capable of being dismantled, borne to a target and then readily reconstructed, the largest could propel stones weighing in excess of 500 pounds. In addition to raw military power, Baybars also placed great value upon accurate and up-to-date intelligence. He therefore maintained an extensive network of spies and scouts across the Near East and received reports from agents embedded in Mongol and Frankish societies. The sultan also showed generous patronage to the nomadic Bedouin Arabs of the Levant, and thereby won their valuable support, both in military conflicts and in the gathering of information.

Through these diverse methods, Baybars constructed the most formidable Muslim army of the crusading era; a force more numerous, disciplined and ferocious than any yet encountered in the war for the Holy Land–the perfect military machine of its day. Having carefully legitimised and consolidated his hold on power, the sultan turned in 1265, with a united Islamic Near East behind him, to wield this deadly weapon in the name of jihad.

Cavalry Doctrine WWI Part I



By the end of the nineteenth century cavalry operations in European armies had become a matter of some doctrinal uncertainty. More powerful weapons, firing more accurately and at longer ranges, raised the question of the suitability, indeed the survivability, of the cavalry. This was no less the case in Germany than elsewhere. While the Franco-Prussian War had seemed to show that cavalry could still win a battle by means of the massed charge with cold steel, the true value of the German cavalry during that conflict had demonstrated itself in armed reconnaissance with a view to finding and fixing the enemy; screening and securing German forces; interdicting the enemy’s communications; and, at war’s end, foraging and anti-partisan operations. None of these missions, particularly neither of the first two, had changed by 1900, though some soon would as a result of the widespread application of internal-combustion technology.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, cavalry still possessed the unique ability to move almost at will, though not always rapidly, over the most varied terrain and in nearly all types of weather. Cavalrymen could leave the largely road- and rail-bound infantry literally in the dust. In Western Europe, however, mounted forces faced an interesting potential problem, one that had been noted as early as the late 1860s, namely the congested physical nature of the landscape over which armies might move in future. That portion of the North European Plain stretching from Normandy through France, Belgium, and the Netherlands and into northwestern Germany had a very high population-density by the last quarter of the nineteenth century. With it came a significant degree of industrial urbanization and attendant infrastructure. This infrastructure constituted a set of major obstacles to the free movement of mounted troops: intensively cultivated, and therefore very soft and wet, footing; numerous canals and railway lines; mine-pits and slag heaps; and innumerable fences and garden walls, the latter a delight to fox hunters but a real hindrance for heavily laden cavalrymen and their horses. Making these obstacles even more troublesome were the increasingly vast and complex fortifications strewn right across northwestern Europe from Liège and Namur past Luxemburg to Verdun. It was the latter’s job specifically to complicate the movement of armies and thereby hinder invasions or block them altogether.

As the Franco-Prussian War had so amply demonstrated, modern war had become terribly consumptive not only of cavalrymen but also of horseflesh. Despite advances in breeding and veterinary services, loss rates rose still further as the twentieth century dawned. Nevertheless, German and other cavalrymen assumed that horsed regiments would continue to have their place in the order of battle, even in the congested regions of northwestern Europe. The Germans’ experience in 1870–1871 had done little to convince them otherwise. On the contrary, German observers felt that the cavalry should be strengthened and modernized, not reduced or—worse—eliminated. For example, one of Germany’s most noted military authors of the era, General Friedrich von Bernhardi, called the early-twentieth-century strength of the German cavalry lamentably weak when compared to the mounted forces of France or Great Britain. The Boer War, he wrote, had shown what highly mobile and hard-hitting cavalry columns could still do, even in an age of high-powered infantry weapons. The key, he insisted, lay in ensuring that the German cavalry possessed its own accompanying bicycle-mounted infantry and more effective artillery, as well as training cavalrymen better as marksmen. Such additions would ensure that the horsemen could, if necessary, operate independently and with sufficient firepower to cause the enemy real damage. All the while they would retain their vaunted mobility, even though he never really explained what bicyclists would do once they ran out of road. He also cautioned, however, that every new war would create new conditions and totally unforeseen circumstances to which the cavalry, as all arms, would have to be ready to adapt.

Across the English Channel, Sir John French, who had “established his military reputation by his performance as a cavalryman in the Boer War” and who would later become the first commander of the British Expeditionary Force in France, shared this view. Though speaking for the British, his comments were ones that would have been widely shared in Germany. French wrote that cavalry circa 1900 were being taught to shirk exposure on the battlefield as a result of what he considered undue respect for infantry fire. “We ought,” he wrote to the contrary, “to be on our guard against false teachings of this nature…[and the] consequences of placing the weapon above the man” and, implicitly, above the horse. Of course, his own experiences in the Boer War might have taught him otherwise. Between 1899 and 1902, the British cavalry in South Africa “lost 347,000 of the 518,000 [horses] that took part, though the country abounded in good grazing” and possessed a “benign climate.” Of those lost, “no more than two per cent were lost in battle. The rest died of overwork, disease, or malnutrition, at a rate of 336 for each day of the campaign.”

In the absence of motorized vehicles, however, horses remained critical for mobility in that conflict. This fact represented the only real hope for the cavalry’s survival in European armies. Reinforcing the mobile importance of horse-mounted and horse-drawn forces, another feature of the Boer War stood out: among the Trek Boers, “every man was a mounted shot.” Like their earlier American counterparts in the Civil War and in the wars with the Plains Indians from 1850 to 1890, Boer horsemen were the quintessential mounted infantry. Though some of them might yet be armed with sabers, their primary weapon remained the rifle, and the horse served principally as a means of effective crosscountry transport. If there were to be a place for mounted formations at the dawn of the twentieth century, would it not have to be that of mounted infantry who would nevertheless fight dismounted? British cavalrymen increasingly thought so after 1902. Accordingly they were equipped and trained with rifles rather than carbines and achieved a level of firepower and accuracy approaching that of the British infantry. They were becoming essentially what in British and British imperial terminology were designated mounted rifles: skilled “horsemen trained to fight on foot, men who are mounted and intend to perform all the duties of cavalry, except that which may best be described as ‘the shock.’ It is expected of them that they should perform all the outpost [sic], reconnoitering, and patrolling of an army in a manner similar to cavalry; the only difference being that they must rely solely upon their fire power for defensive and offensive action.”

Commenting on the lessons to be drawn from another war of the period, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, German and Austrian officers came to a rather different set of conclusions. Under the pseudonym “Asiaticus,” a German officer wrote that Russian cavalrymen were too ready to go to ground with their firearms. In doing so, he said, they repeatedly sacrificed the cavalry’s greatest asset, namely its mobility. Similarly, Austrian count Gustav Wrangel observed that the Russian horsemen’s experience demonstrated that troopers could not serve both firearms and the saber equally well and be skilled riders at the same time. In any case, Wrangel noted, too great a reliance on firearms robbed the cavalryman of his desire to charge the enemy and implicitly deprived him of his real weapons, the sword and the lance.

Such arguments continued unabated, even as rapid technological change continued to force the cavalry to adapt. Combining horse-soldiers with the technology that did exist culminated in the following calculation: railways would be used for initial operational deployment, as they had been for German armies ever since 1866. Increasingly heavy artillery would be the primary offensive preparation against field positions. The latter would then be taken by infantry assault. For its part, the cavalry would still be used for reconnaissance, screening, security, encirclement, and pursuit, if no longer for the battle-winning charge with swords drawn. One may argue, however, there’s not much terribly novel in this approach. Cavalry had often been used for precisely these tasks in the Western military tradition ever since Hannibal’s charging horsemen cut off the legions’ retreat at Cannae and rode down the survivors (a favor the Romans returned at Zama). The mounted warrior’s ethos and the tradition of the cavalry’s shock value nevertheless lingered up to the outbreak of war in 1914. Even then, however, missions such as long-range screening and reconnaissance or interdiction of the enemy’s lines of supply had not fully displaced the assumption that at least some future battles might still be decided by the massed cavalry attack. In a view no doubt shared among more than a few German cavalrymen, the British Army’s Cavalry Training Manual of 1907 still pronounced as a matter of principle that rifle fire, however effective it might be, “cannot replace the effect produced by the speed of the horse, the magnetism of the charge, and the terror of cold steel.”

One prominent British officer, Colonel G. F. R. Henderson, deduced from the campaigns of the Boer War that the sentiment as expressed in the Cavalry Manual meant that the cavalry at the turn of the century was “as obsolete as the crusaders.” If, however, the matter of the infantry’s use of the bayonet is considered, then the cavalry’s retention of the sword, and even the lance, may not seem so far-fetched, whether in Germany or Great Britain. The same officer had earlier been pleased that the British Infantry Regulations of 1880 had reiterated the psychological and tactical importance of the bayonet at close quarters, despite the by-then-widespread use of smokeless powder, magazine-fed rifles, and rapid-firing field artillery. Admittedly, Henderson modified his opinion about the bayonet’s efficacy as a result of the Boer War, just as he did for the sword-armed cavalry. As the events of 1914–1918 repeatedly showed, however, German, British, and other infantry routinely went over the top with bayonets fixed long after the cavalry on the Western Front was deemed utterly useless. Indeed, the success of the Japanese infantry in their costly assaults against prepared Russian positions at Mukden and Port Arthur during the Russo-Japanese War seemed to show that the foot soldier’s cold steel could still be employed with decisive effect provided that the attacking infantry had sufficient preparatory artillery support and a sufficient reserve of raw courage while covering the fire-swept zone between the opposing trench lines. Bernhardi, as well as another influential German military writer of the period, Colonel Wilhelm Balck, shared this assessment. Both stressed the “moral factor” (i.e., morale) as much as they stressed the material factor as a determinant of victory. They also applied it equally to the individual soldier and the nation in whose army he served. If, therefore, prominent military thinkers still posited a useful role for the bayonet, and if cold steel really could still frighten an enemy soldier—he need only imagine a foot or more of it being plunged into his gut—then the cavalry’s retention of edged weapons and even lances does not seem so odd.