Cavalry: Modern Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Cavalry are defined as horse-riding warriors.

Nature and Use

Cavalry are defined as horse-riding warriors. There are at least eighty-four different species of horses in the world, and the rider always seeks to find a size of horse that matches the classification of duty. Because a trained cavalry horse and rider can be four to five times more expensive to equip and train than an infantryman, only about one-fourth of the large national armies from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries were composed of cavalry.Cavalry;modernCavalry;modern

The types of cavalry used since 1500 are classified as heavy, light, and medium. Heavy Heavy cavalrycavalry are large, armored men on large horses who forcefully charge into and through an enemy’s line of battle or position. Light Light cavalrycavalry are smaller men on smaller and faster horses, whose mobility allows them to serve a variety of battle and nonbattle duties. Medium Medium cavalrycavalry are expected to perform any of the duties of the heavy or light cavalries but are uniquely trained to dismount and use firearms as infantry. Cavalry who carry spears or lances are classified mostly as light or medium, being able to perform light nonbattle duties and to perform medium duties on the battlefield against infantry and cavalry.

Cavalry reached the height of its use and development during the Napoleonic Wars Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815)(1803-1815). In large European armies, Cuirassierscuirassiers who wore upper body armor and metal helmets were the most common heavy cavalry; dragoons were the most common medium cavalry; and a variety of riders, including Hussarshussars, lancers, Cossackscossacks, and Chasseurschasseurs, formed the light cavalry. Heavy and medium cavalry could be expected to advance against infantry, cavalry, and artillery, whereas light cavalry typically fought other cavalry, artillery positions, and smaller groups of infantry. The light cavalry’s mobility suited them for a variety of noncombat duties, including observing or searching for the enemy, carrying and intercepting messages, escorting officers and dignitaries, protecting or plundering supplies and equipment, and gathering food and supplies from local settlements.

A Horses and horse ridinghorse was mature enough for cavalry duty at about age four, was at the height of its power by age nine, and was useful until age eighteen. On the march at about 4 miles per hour, 20 to 25 miles per day was a horse’s reasonable limit. A military cavalry horse was trained to the sights and noises of the battlefield; therefore, training exercises might include mock battles with drumbeats, gunshots, artillery, waving colors, and drills in crossing and jumping obstacles without hesitation.

During battle, Cavalry;position in battlecavalry were typically positioned on the flanks of the line to protect the sides and rear of infantry and to be located outside the infantry and artillery lines of fire. Cavalry formations also were positioned behind infantry to stop deserters, to reinforce weak sectors of the battle line, and to wait for the proper moment to deliver the final thrust to finish a weak or shaken enemy. If the battle was won, the light cavalry was used to pursue a retreating enemy and capture prisoners.

Development

The sixteenth century is significant in the development of cavalry warfare; technical and strategic advances in weaponry and the formalization of full-time national professional armies took place during that time. Gunpowder weapons such as muskets, pistols, and artillery could penetrate a knight’s armor and could kill from beyond the reach of swords, axes, or spears. Significant increases in population, commerce, and trade enabled political leaders to build large national treasuries from taxes and to pay, train, and equip professional armies and officers. The French Wars of Religion (1562-1598), the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), and the English Civil War (1642-1651) resulted in the development and sharing of new skills, tactics, weapons, and equipment.

Friedrich Wilhelm von Seydlitz leads the decisive cavalry charge at the Battle of Rossbach (1757) during the Seven Years’ War.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

The Hundred Years’ War Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453)(1337-1453) influenced the decline of the armored Knights;decline ofknight. The English longbows and steel-tipped arrows used in that conflict could penetrate the heavy armor of French knights from 100 yards and could be shot four to five times per minute. This scenario repeated itself at the Battles of Crécy Crécy, Battle of (1346)[Crecy, Battle of](1346), Poitiers Poitiers, Battle of (1356)(1356), and Agincourt Agincourt, Battle of (1415)(1415). French advances in artillery technology and use was a factor in their eventually driving the British out of France.

Steel-tipped arrows and the Bows and arrows;decline oflongbow were made obsolete by the development and use of the Harquebusesharquebus, which was the first primitive form of musket firearm. The development of artillery also contributed to the decline of the bow and arrow, and mounted archers had disappeared by the mid-1500’s. In addition to swords, cavalry were armed with a shorter version of the harquebus and two or more pistols.

During the French Wars of French Wars of Religion (1562-1598)Religion, a new tactic called the Caracolescaracole was used by cavalry in battle. Cavalry were tightly formed several lines deep, and each line in turn would ride to within ten paces of the enemy, fire their pistols, and quickly wheel away to reload in the rear, while the next rank rode forward to shoot. The harquebus and pistol were more accurate if fired while dismounted, but in close-contact fighting the Pistolspistol was light and left the cavalryman’s other hand free to control the horse. If a cavalryman shot his pistol and had no opportunity to reload, he would then use his sword to attack and defend. One tactical use of the sword was to cut the reins of enemy cavalry so they would lose control of their horses. Due to the possibility of misfiring, each cavalryman carried several loaded pistols and a sword into battle. At this time horse Armor;decline ofarmor disappeared, and the cavalry soldiers reduced their own armor, adopting a body armor called a Cuirassescuirass.

King Gustavus II Adolphus of Gustavus II AdolphusGustavus II Adolphus (king of Sweden)[Gustavus 02]Sweden (1594-1632), whose armies were very successful in the Thirty Years’ War, is recognized by military historians as the first expert to develop and use modern concepts of technology, logistics, strategy, and tactics on the battlefield. He spent half of Sweden’s national budget on the army and formalized the processes of payment, clothing, supplying, feeding, and medical care for his soldiers. He increased the power of his army through the use of conscription, mercenaries, and a system of training and discipline reminiscent of that of the ancient Roman legions. He also directed his technological experts to significantly improve the effectiveness and reliability of pistols, muskets, and lighter mobile cannon.

Gustavus is also credited as the first military leader since Alexander the Great (356-323 b.c.e.) to use tactical flexibility in the training and organization of his army and its usage on the battlefield. His army had various types of infantry and cavalry, which were given specific tactical duties and then trained as disciplined masters of those duties. Relative to the large masses of enemy formations, Gustavus used smaller units strategically spaced so that they could quickly and aggressively respond to the opportunities of a battle.

Gustavus also revolutionized the use of firearms in battle. In recognition of the fact that firearms such as the pistol and musket were inaccurate, unreliable, and time-consuming to reload, Gustavus forbade the use of the caracole and decided that cavalry would attack quickly, in large numbers, primarily with swords. He trained his cavalry to attack in three lines. The first line would fire a pistol volley, then all three lines would charge with the sword. The pistol was used only during the ensuing close-contact melee fight. Each regiment of his cavalry was supported in its attack by medium, musket-armed cavalry, known as musketeers, and two light 4-pound cannons, each drawn by one horse or three men.

A regiment in the Swedish Sweden;cavalrycavalry of 1620 consisted of about one thousand men divided into eight squadrons; each squadron had a support staff of ten or more individuals who served as quartermaster, muster clerk, chaplain, provost, barber, medical orderly, ferrier, and trumpeter. By the 1630’s, to increase maneuverability, a regiment was reduced to 560 men in eight squadrons. At the Battle of Breitenfeld Breitenfeld, Battle of (1631)(1631), 10,000 Swedish cavalry clashed with 16,000 Imperial cavalry with great success, and light Swedish cavalry pursued the beaten foe for four days afterward.

During the Thirty Years’ Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648);cavalryWar the grenadier cavalry made its first appearance in the French army. GrenadiersGrenadiers were a few brave select men chosen from musketeer units to attack enemy fortifications in small groups using hand bombs, or grenades. Grenadiers wore a different type of Headgear;colpacks headgear called a Colpack (French headgear)colpack, which allowed them to sling their muskets over their heads onto their backs, freeing both hands to light the grenade fuse and throw it. In some parts of Europe, colpacks became more elaborate, resembling a bishop’s miter.

Russia’s Cossack Imperial Guard advance into Turkey in 1877 during the Third Russo-Turkish War.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Historians believe that during the English Civil English Civil Wars (1642-1651)War, Prince Rupert, PrinceRupert, Prince (English Royalist)Rupert (1619-1682) of the king’s Royalist army was the first to have his cavalry use mobile horse Artillery;horseartillery. Called a “galloping Galloping gungun,” it was a small brass cannon mounted on a horse-drawn cart. The gunners accompanied the cart on horseback. A cavalry regiment serving the king’s Royalist army consisted of three hundred to five hundred men organized into six troops. Historians agree that the cavalry, who fought mostly from a dismounted position, decided the Battles of Marston Moor Marston Moor, Battle of (1644)(1644) and Naseby Naseby, Battle of (1645)(1645).

In the army of the French king Louis Louis XIVLouis XIV (king of France)[Louis 14]XIV (1638-1715), a French cavalry regiment varied in size from 300 to 450 men and formed 20 to 30 percent of the army. Louis XIV had four types of horsemen: the Household Cavalry, who were the smartly uniformed chosen elite used during special ceremonies and for royal escorts; the armored heavy cavalry, known as cuirassiers; the medium foot cavalry, known as Carabineerscarabineers and Dragoonsdragoons, so called for their carbine or dragon musket weapons; and the line cavalry, lighter, more mobile lancers, hussars, and mercenary Russian cossacks.

Frederick the Frederick II the GreatFrederick II the Great (king of Prussia)[Frederick 02]Great (1712-1786) of Prussia is credited with the first use of a select group of expert, mounted shooters or marksmen, called Jägers (Prussian marksmen)[Jagers]Jägers, or “huntsmen.” These huntsmen were typically from the rural countryside and had developed expert skills in riding, shooting, and the hunting of select targets. Frederick is credited also with increasing the number of light cavalry and giving some of them the task of military policing and preventing desertion. Frederick’s forces used horse artillery in greater numbers than had been used previously. A horse artillery team consisted of three drivers on six horses pulling the cannon, and eight gunners, who accompanied on horseback. By 1786 Frederick’s total horse artillery consisted of six troops of nine cannons each.

Cavalry warfare reached its historical peak during the reign of Napoleon I (Bonaparte)[Napoleon 01];cavalry warfareNapoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), military commander and later emperor of France. Under Napoleon’s great cavalry leaders, Antoine Charles Lasalle, Antoine CharlesLasalle, Antoine CharlesLasalle (1775-1809), Joachim Murat, JoachimMurat, JoachimMurat (1767-1815), and François Christophe Kellermann, François ChristopheKellermann, François ChristopheKellermann (1735-1820), the French cavalry of the era became known for its aggressive audacity on the battlefield and its flamboyant lifestyle off it.

In 1805 Napoleon created a Cavalry Reserve Cavalry Reserve Corps (French force)Corps of 22,000 men commanded by Marshal Murat. However, during battle, this corps was under the direct control of Napoleon himself. In that first organization, the Cavalry Reserve had two heavy divisions consisting primarily of cuirassiers and five medium divisions consisting of dragoons. The individual infantry corps was assigned the use of light cavalry regiments.

An important component of the Cavalry Reserve Corps was the Imperial Imperial Guard (France)Guard regiments, whose soldiers were promoted to that elite status based on proven experience, bravery, and loyalty to Napoleon. Especially in the cavalry, Napoleon’s soldiers were expected to dress according to a strict uniform code, and individual regiments even had a distinct color of horse. Napoleonic soldiers of different types wore uniforms of various colors to make themselves distinct on both parade grounds and battlefields.

Cavalry made up approximately one-fourth of an army during the Napoleonic era, and the largest numbers of cavalry in battle were at Eckmühl Eckmühl, Battle of (1809)[Eckmuhl](1809) and Borodino Borodino, Battle of (1812)(1812). At Eylau in Eylau, Battle of (1807)1807, Marshal Murat led eighty squadrons of French cavalry in a massive column charge against the Russian center of infantry, thereby saving the French from defeat. The confrontation took place on a cold, snowy day, the low temperatures allowing the French cavalry to gain an irresistible speed over the frozen ground and causing the Russian muskets to misfire.

Napoleon’s army was defeated at the Battle of Leipzig in Leipzig, Battle of (1813)1813 by a large allied force that included 60,000 cavalry. Because the allies had their cavalry assigned to the direct control of various infantry corps, there was no effective pursuit of the French, thus allowing them to reorganize. By contrast, after the French victory over the Prussians at Jena in Jena, Battle of (1806)1806, Murat’s light cavalry pursued the beaten foe 22 miles per day for several weeks.

During Napoleon’s last battle at Waterloo, Battle of (1815)Waterloo on June 15, 1815, his cavalry totaled 14,000 of the army’s 85,000 soldiers. During the late afternoon, middle phase of the battle, five thousand to eight thousand French cavalry repeatedly charged the British and allied army under Arthur Wellesley, the duke ofWellington, duke ofWellington, duke of (Arthur Wellesley) Wellington (1769-1852). The French cavalry were slowed by the muddy ground and were resisted by the bayonets of Wellington’s infantry, which was securely formed in twenty large square formations, four to six lines deep. The approaching French cavalry were blasted by British artillery fire and, when the French became disarrayed between the squares, were countercharged by British cavalry. Toward the end of the battle, the British and Prussian light cavalry successfully drove the defeated French army from the field, and the Prussians pursued the French for several days back to France.

After the Napoleonic Wars cavalry remained a sizable portion of most national armies. In the wars that followed, cavalry were slaughtered when they charged firmly placed infantry and artillery. During the Crimean War Crimean War (1853-1856)(1853-1856) the disciplined rifle fire from the “Thin Red Thin Red LineLine” of the Ninety-third Scottish Highlanders turned away a large body of charging Russian cavalry at Balaklava on October 25, 1854. Later that day the Heavy Brigade of the British cavalry was successful in a charge against a larger group of Russian cavalry. At this battle the Heavy Brigade consisted of the Scots Greys, the Inniskilling squadrons, and the Fifth Dragoons squadron.

The most famous Crimean War battle was the Charge of the Light Charge of the Light Brigade (1854)Brigade, which occurred at Balaklava on October 25, 1854, at 11:00 a.m. The British Light Brigade consisted of 673 men representing the Eighth and Eleventh Hussar Regiments, the Fourth and Thirteenth Light Dragoons, and the Seventeenth Lancers. Fitzroy James Henry Somerset, Fitzroy James Henry, Baron RaglanSomerset, Fitzroy James Henry, Baron RaglanSomerset, the Baron Raglan (1788-1855), the British commander, wanted the Light Brigade to retake some Turkish cannon captured by the Russians earlier in the day. Due to mistaken orders, the Light Brigade charged a different, more heavily defended artillery position and suffered severe casualties of 113 men killed and 134 men wounded.

During the American Civil War American Civil War (1861-1865);cavalry(1861-1865), cavalry acted as medium-weight dragoons, fighting with carbines, shot guns, pistols, and sabers. Away from the battlefield they performed a multitude of light-horse duties, primarily serving as the army’s “eyes and ears.” In 1862 the cavalry of Confederate general Jeb Stuart, JebStuart, JebStuart (1833-1864) rode entirely around the Union army, disrupting communications and creating fear and panic among the Northern population and army alike. In 1863 the largest cavalry-versus-cavalry battles took place at Brandy Station (June Brandy Station, Battle of (1863)9) and at Gettysburg (July Gettysburg, Battle of (1863)1-3).

On July 1, at the Battle of Gettysburg, Union general John Buford, JohnBuford, JohnBuford’s (1826-1863) dismounted cavalry held back the initial Confederate infantry attacks long enough for Federal infantry to arrive and fight a daylong delaying action. Ultimately, this delaying tactic enabled the Union infantry to consolidate a defensive position on the high ground along Cemetery Hill and Cemetery Ridge and hold back General Robert E. Lee’s (1807-1870) invasion of the north. Buford’s cavalry used carbine rifles from behind hastily constructed field fortifications of fence rails, rocks, and dirt. When General John Reynold, JohnReynold, JohnReynold’s Union First Corps infantry relieved them, Buford’s remaining men remounted and rode to protect the army’s open left flank.

The Franco-Prussian War Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871)[Franco Prussian War];cavalry(1870-1871) was the last major conflict involving large forces of cavalry, and it marked the end of offensive heavy cavalry attacks. In almost every instance of cavalry charges against breech-loading rifles there were few positive results and severe casualty rates. Mars-la-Tour Mars-la-Tour, Battle of (1870)[Mars la Tour](1870), the largest cavalry battle of the war, included five thousand French and Prussian cuirassiers and large numbers of other cavalry types.

A cavalry duel during the American Civil War.

(North Wind Picture Archivesvia AP Images)

One innovative cavalry tactic of the war involved the Prussian high command reversing traditional policy by ordering all the cavalry ahead of the army. This resulted in a massive screen between the opposing armies, blinding the French and keeping the Prussians completely and accurately informed of every French move.

At the Battle of the Little Bighorn Little Bighorn, Battle of the (1876)(1876) during the Second Sioux War, the U.S. Seventh Cavalry under the leadership of George Armstrong Custer, George ArmstrongCuster, George ArmstrongCuster (1839-1876) was almost entirely wiped out by a superior number of Sioux IndiansSioux and Cheyenne IndiansCheyenne American natives. Custer’s plan was to surprise the natives’ village by dividing his force to attack from several sides at one time. Custer and most of his entire regiment were killed when the natives, on horseback and on foot, counterattacked, chased, and surrounded Custer’s separate units, finishing off the soldiers, who had not been issued sabers, after their ammunition and numbers became low.

During the Spanish-American War Spanish-American War (1898)[Spanish American War];cavalry(1898) future U.S. president Lieutenant Theodore Roosevelt, TheodoreRoosevelt, TheodoreRoosevelt was mounted when he led his First United States Cavalry Regiment “Rough Rough RidersRough RidersRiders” in a successful charge on foot up the San Juan Heights of Cuba. The Americans suffered 20 percent casualties from Spanish and Cuban rifle, artillery, and machine-gun fire.

At the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, the U.S. Seventh Cavalry was almost entirely wiped out by a superior number of Sioux.

(Library of Congress)

On September 2, 1898, at the Battle of Omdurman, Battle of (1898)Omdurman in the Sudan, the four hundred troopers of the British Twenty-first Lancers, which included future prime minister Lieutenant Winston Churchill, Winston S.Churchill, Winston S.Churchill (1874-1965), successfully defeated a formation of 3,000 Dervish Dervishesinfantry. The British charged a smaller group of Dervish visible in open ground but were surprised by a couple of thousand Dervish hidden in a depression. The British charged into the large body of Dervish infantry with lances and swords, engaged them for a short time in a close-contact melee, rode through the Dervish, dismounted, and then forced the Dervish to retreat with concentrated carbine and pistol fire. The Lancers suffered casualties of 70 men and 119 horses in that battle.

At the beginning of World War I World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];cavalry(1914-1918) most of the European national armies initially raised large numbers of cavalry. After a short time, however, most of the cavalry were converted into infantry in response to manpower needs and the defensive style of trench warfare. Horses were used mostly to transport supplies, equipment, and artillery. The communication and reconnaissance duties of light cavalry were taken over by the use of airplanes, zeppelins, bicycles, motorcycles, and automobiles. The most active and numerous cavalry units were Russian cossacks positioned on the eastern front of Europe. A few British Lancers and German Uhlan units on the western European front were stationed in the rear of their armies to serve light cavalry duty, prevent desertion, and as a possible rear guard in the event retreat was necessary.

Two significant cavalry actions occurred in the Middle East (Arab) sector of the war, where British and Australian forces were fighting mostly Turkish forces. On October 31, 1917, at the Gaza-Beersheba Gaza-Beersheba Line (1917)Line, the Fourth Australian Light Horse Australian Light Horse Brigade, FourthBrigade charged in loose order across an open, sandy plain and defeated two entrenched lines of Turkish infantry who used rifles and machine guns. Analysts believe that Australian horse artillery support and the audacity and speed of the charge enabled the horsemen to close faster then the Turks could lower the sights of their guns to shoot accurately.

At the Battle of Megiddo, Battle of (1918)Megiddo, Palestine (September 19-21, 1918), a large force of General Allenby, LordAllenby, LordAllenby’s British and allied cavalry successfully rode around the Turkish-German flank, cut their communications, and caused much confusion as the enemy forces retreated. In several instances where the retreating forces were attempting to establish a new line of resistance, they were attacked and dispersed before they became too strong.

There were no cavalry battles during World War IIWorld War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];cavalry(1939-1945), but there are several accounts of Polish lancer cavalry being slaughtered by German tank columns in 1939 as Hitler invaded Poland. One account describes the Polish cavalry as being falsely led to believe the German tanks were fake cardboard versions. During World War II, armored tank development permanently replaced cavalry in warfare.Cavalry;modern

Books and Articles
  • Barthorp, Michael. Heroes of the Crimea: The Battles of Balaclava and Inkerman. New York: Sterling, 1991.
  • Bielakowski, Alexander. U.S. Cavalryman, 1891-1920. Illustrated by Raffaele Ruggeri. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2004.
  • De Quesada, Alejandro. Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Illustrated by Stephen Walsh. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2009.
  • Ellis, John. Cavalry: The History of Mounted Warfare. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1978. Reprint. Barnsley, England: Pen and Sword, 2004.
  • Elting, John R. Swords Around a Throne. New York: Da Capo Press, 1997.
  • Fowler, Jeffrey T. Axis Cavalry in World War II. Illustrated by Mike Chappell. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2001.
  • Hollins, David. Hungarian Hussar, 1756-1815. Illustrated by Darko Pavlovic. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2003.
  • Jarymowycz, Roman Johann. Cavalry from Hoof to Track. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Security International, 2008.
  • Lawford, James, ed. The Cavalry: Techniques and Triumphs of the Military Horseman. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1976.
  • Livesey, Anthony. Battles of the Great Commanders. London: Tiger Books, 1987.
  • Morton, Matthew Darlington. Men on Iron Ponies: The Death and Rebirth of the Modern U.S. Cavalry. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2009.
  • Sinclair, Andrew. Man and Horse: Four Thousand Years of the Mounted Warrior. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 2008.
  • Smith, Gene. Mounted Warriors: From Alexander the Great and Cromwell to Stewart, Sheridan, and Custer. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2009.
  • Spring, Laurence. The Cossacks, 1799-1815. Illustrated by Philip Haythornthwaite and Adam Hook. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2003.
  • Urwin, Gregory J. W. The United States Cavalry: An Illustrated History, 1776-1944. Poole, Dorset, England: Blandford Press, 1983. Reprint. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003.
  • Vuksic, V., and Z. Grbasic. Cavalry: The History of a Fighting Elite, 650 B.C.-A.D. 1914. New York: Sterling, 1993.
  • Wittenberg, Eric J. The Union Cavalry Comes of Age: Hartwood Church to Brandy Station, 1863. Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, 2003.
Films and Other Media
  • The Charge of the Light Brigade. Feature film. Warner Bros., 1936.
  • First in Battle: The True Story of the Seventh Cavalry. Documentary. History Channel, 2006.
  • Henry V. Feature film. BBC/Curzon/Renaissance, 1989.
  • Horse Warriors. Documentary. Worldwide Pictures/The Learning Channel, 1998.

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