1902 Encyclopedia > Cavalry


CAVALRY. From the earliest dates, at which there is any record of armed men being systematically trained and organized, cavalry has always formed an integral part of every army, although the relative size and importance of the arm has varied, according to the nature of the country and the peculiarities of its inhabitants. Egypt probably affords the earliest historical records of any distinct attempt at military organization. In that country cavalry and horsemanship were held in high repute, according to the prophet Isaiah. Diodorus of Sicily tells us that Osymandias led 20,000 cavalry against the rebels in Bactriana, and that twenty-five generations elapsed between Osymandias and Sesostris, who seems to have been the chief founder of Egyptian greatness, and to have lived at a period indistinctly laid down in history, but certainly long prior to the Trojan war. In early times chariots appear to have been associated with the horsemen of an army, although perfectly distinct from them. Frequent references are made in the Bible to " chariots and horsemen;" and Josephus states that the army of Israelites that escaped from Egypt numbered 50,000 horsemen and 600 chariots of war. Herodotus frequently speaks of the cavalry arm, and Hip-pocrates mentions the existence of a corps of young women whose breasts were scared to enable them to use the bow and javelin. Plato likewise speaks somewhat vaguely of a corps of young ladies about 500 B.C. The existence of Amazons as a race has never been supported by even moderately authentic testimony, although by some they were believed to live on the River Thermodon in the north, of Asia Minor.

The first authentic account that we have of cavalry being regularly organized is given by Xenophon, who states that in the first Messenian war, 743 B.C., Lycurgus formed his cavalry in divisions. Some hundred years later, in 371 B.C., Epaminondas raised a corps of 5000 cavalry, and from this date it may be said the arm was much cultivated throughout Greece, until Philip and Alexander of Macedon raised it to a great pitch of excellence. Both these monarchs were indebted for several of their greatest successes to the prowess of their cavalry ; and the exploits of Alexander's 7000 horsemen at the battle of Arbela, 331 B.C., in which he signally defeated Darius, may well serve as an example for future generations. The Greek cavalry were divided into heavy, or " cataphracti," and light, or " me cataphracti." To these Alexander added a third class, termed " dimachae," who were trained to fight on foot or on horseback, After the death of Alexander the Great cavalry appears to have fallen into comparative disuse until the days of Hannibal and the Carthaginians. Dire experience, more especiallj' the defeats of the Ticinus and the Trebia, taught the Romans the value of cavalry; and in the latter days of the republic it became the most popular and highly favoured service of the Roman armies. According to Vegetius, the Roman cavalry was organized into ten troops or squadrons, forming a regiment of 726 horses, either intended to act in-dependently or, more usually, attached to some special legion. As the Roman empire increased and brought many tributaries under its flag, the cavalry began to be drawn from those countries whose inhabitants were specially devoted to equestrian pursuits. The Gauls for many years furnished the principal part of the cavalry both in the Carthaginian and in the Roman armies, and appear to have rivalled the Numidians in efficiency. Strange to say, saddles were never used until the time of Constantine, and stirrups were introduced by the Franks about the middle of the 5th century.

In the Middle Ages the unwillingness to intrust any military power to the serfs rendered the upper classes the only soldiers, and as these did not deign to fight on foot cavalry became the basis of European armies. The knights and esquires were the nucleus, mounted attendant bowmen and pikemen being; the secondary portion of the fighting power.

The invention of gunpowder and the decline of the feudal system wrought a change in military tactics, and from the organization of a standing army by Charles II. of France, in 1445, cavalry as it now exists may be said to date. As in early days, each country produced a species of cavalry in accordance with the characteristics of its inhabitants and the nature of its institutions. From Hungary came the Hussars, whose name is derived from the Hungarian word "Husz," twenty, and "ar," pay. Marshal Luxembourg appears to have been the first person who disciplined and organized these hussars, and in 1692 they were attached to his army as light troops and recon-noitrers. Carabineers were of a somewhat earlier date, and seem to have come originally from Basque and Germany. The word carbine has been traced to an Arab word "karab," but this derivation is somewhat doubtful. Originally it was the custom for carabineers or horsemen armed with firearms to mount infantry behind them, and in 1543 King Louis of Nassau made use of this hybrid force in his operations against Bergen.

A few years later, in 1554, Marshal De Brissac formed a corps of mounted infantry and called them Dragoons, thus justifying Dr Johnson's definition of the word as " a man who serves indifferently either on foot or on horse-back." The actual origin of the term dragoon has been ascribed to the dragon's head which, as a rule, adorned the muzzle of the firearm with which these horsemen were armed,—although this derivation again cannot be regarded as very certain. As firearms became more generally used, so the tactics and organization of cavalry underwent modifications. In the time of Francis I. the gens-d'armes of France were reckoned the best cavalry in Europe, and were formed in single rank. Somewhat later the Spaniards, and afterwards the Germans, carried off the palm; they went to the other extreme as regards formation, being formed in six and eight ranks, and were composed of a mixed force of arquebusiers and lancers. At this time military leaders failed to appreciate the true mission of cavalry, and assigned too great importance to the effect of firearms, too little to that of " cold steel." Maurice of Nassau was the first to train cavalry with a view to their mobility, and teach them to act by separate bodies, and in distinct lines. Now for the first time cavalry was organized by regiments, each regiment being composed of four squadrons, formed in five ranks, and numbering about 1000 horses. During the Thirty Years' War, from 1618 to 1648, the lance as a cavalry weapon gradually dis-appeared, partly on account of the amount of training which is necessary to insure its efficient use, and partly on account of the exaggerated value attached to firearms as cavalry weapons. After Maurice of Nassau, Gustavus Adolphus appears as the next great cavalry leader, and was so successful in the employment of his cuirassiers and dragoons—into which two divisions his horsemen were classed—that all other European nations began to imitate him, and adopted his formation in three ranks. After the death of Gustavus Adolphus, until the wars with the Turks, the French appear to have been the most instructed and efficient in the employment of cavalry. The wars of Louis XIII. and Louis XIV. soon developed military art, and such great leaders as Turenne, Conde, Montecuculi, and Marlborough made their name. At this period defensive armour for cavalry was abolished, and lances were unknown except among irregular horsemen, who came from the plains of Poland and Russia. Excellent, however, as the French cavalry at this period undoubtedly was, it could not vie with that of the Turks either as regards its own efficiency or the results that it achieved. So formid-able and so much feared were the Turkish horsemen that the Russian infantry when opposed to them invariably carried chevaux-de-frise in light carts for their protection. It has been very justly remarked that no other cavalry has ever obtained such an ascendency as this over in-fantry.

Hitherto but little attention had been paid to the employ-ment of cavalry off the field of battle for purposes of recon-noitring, although it had long exercised an important influence in action. Marshal Saxe, however, may be said to have introduced a new and more enlightened era in the history of the arm, he not only was the first to recognize the true mission and use of light cavalry, but also the necessity for celerity in movement and manoeuvre on all occasions. Although he cannot be said to have introduced horse artillery, which did not appear on the field of battle till 1762, still, by his timely use of guns in conjunction with cavalry at the battle of Fontenoy, he first showed how the two arms might be combined.

It cannot, however, be said that cavalry has ever before or since played the important part in war that it did in the days of Frederick the Great. This monarch recognized that the " arme blanche," and not the firearm, was the proper weapon for a mounted soldier. He discontinued firing in line, and the pitch of excellence at which his horse-men arrived under the leadership of Seidlitz, and the results they obtained, have never been equalled by the cavalry of any other nation. The battles of Zorndorf, Rosbach, Striegau, Kesselsdorf, and Leuthen still remain the most signal examples of what may be attained if to long previous training and preparation are joined brilliancy and rapidity of execution in the field. It required, however, long experience and the occasional disasters which befell him in the first and second Silesian wars before Frederick the Great appreciated the true principles of mounted warfare or put them into execution.

The next period in the history of cavalry may be said to date from the rise of Napoleon I. until the battle of Waterloo. The Republican armies of France were but ill provided with mounted troops, and the disaster of Wurzburg in 1796 nearly annihilated the comparatively few squadrons that France then possessed. The genius of Napoleon evinced itself as remarkably in the organization as in the leading of his armies, and his first care was to create a force of cavalry such as would enable him to reap the fruits of his victories. To his cavalry he was mainly indebted for some of his most signal triumphs, notably Marengo and Austerlitz, and to the manner in which he employed his mounted scouts and reconnoitrers he owed the facility with which he so often out-manoeuvred and anticipated his enemies. The Russian campaign of 1812 annihilated the necessary again to take the field. Hence some of Napoleon's most decided successes in 1813 proved fruitless; as he himself remarked, had he possessed cavalry at the battles of Lützen and Bautzen the war would then have been brought to an end. It would here appear worthy of remark that defensive armour for cavalry, which had fallen into disuse, was re-introduced by Napoleon. He increased the French cuirassiers from one regiment to twelve, and they performed excellent service ever after-wards. Similarly in Napoleon's time the lance began to be again used in Europe; in 1807 it was found that a Polish regiment of lancers was so useful that twelve lancer regiments were afterwards formed, and a certain proportion of this arm has ever since been maintained in all European armies. Any remarks, however, on cavalry in the time of Napoleon would be incomplete were no reference made to the Cossacks, who so much contributed to render the retreats from Russia and after Leipsic peculiarly disastrous to the French. These irregular horsemen, mounted on small horses and armed with lances, hung on the flanks and rear of the retreating enemy, and, although seldom standing to meet an attack, appeared to be ubiquitous, alike affording a screen for their own army and obtaining the fullest information regarding the movements of that opposed to them.

In the forty years' peace cavalry deteriorated like every-thing else connected with military science. In the Crimea, as the entire war may be said to have consisted of one siege, there was but little occasion for the use of cavalry, and the few opportunities afforded were certainly not turned to the best account. In the 1859 campaign between the French and Italians on the one side and the Austrians on the other, the nature of the country was unsuited to the action of cavalry, and except in some isolated instances, as on the field of Solferino, cavalry played a very unimportant part in the war. For many years the value of cavalry was only exemplified on the plains of India, where both the British and the native horsemen performed many deeds of valour and did excellent service. In 1866 there occurred the first great European war since Waterloo in which cavalry could be turned to full account. From long disuse and want of practice neither Austrians nor Prussians made sufficient use of the large force of horsemen which was at their disposal, and neither on the field of battle nor off it did they achieve any great distinction, although, undoubtedly, of the two the Austrians carried off the palm. They performed reconnoitring duties far more efficiently than their antagonists, and the manner in which they covered the retreat of their army after Koniggratz was a model of devotion and bravery.

Four years later the experience gained by the Prussians in 1866 on the plains of Bohemia was in the fullest degree utilized, whereas their opponents the French only showed how splendid material may be sacrificed and how brilliant courage may be thrown away. Incessant practice during the four preceding years of peace had rendered the Prussian cavalry most proficient in all the duties of reconnoitring and outposts. The information they obtained and the manner in which they concealed the movements of the army in their rear mainly contributed to enable the leaders of the German army to carry out successfully their strategic plans, and their prowess on the field of battle when turned to account as at Mars-la-Tour was exerted to the best effect. The French cavalry, on the other hand, were remarkable more for bravery than efficiency. In place of being scattered in small parties some days in advance of an army they marched in masses frequently in its rear. Off the field of battle they were of no service, and on it they were needlessly sacrificed through the incapacity of their leaders.

History has few examples of bravery more devoted than that of the French cavalry at the battles of Worth and Sedan, and none in which bravery was more entirely thrown away. After the fall of the empire it may be said that the French cavalry ceased to exist, and as it is an arm that cannot be improvised the republic had no time to replace what had been destroyed.

On the whole it cannot be said that the last two European wars have added much to the art of handling cavalry. The practice of spreading light troops two days' march in advance of an army was not new, although of late years it had fallen into disuse, and as regards the employ-ment of mounted troops on the battle-field, it is still an unsettled question whether the recent improvements in firearms have or have not rendered it impossible for them ever to turn the tide of victory.

For the organization, equipment, and strength of the cavalry of the various armies of the present day see ARMY, vol. ii. (F. S. E.)

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