The Role of Cavalry in World War I

Before the First World War, the cavalry enjoyed a preeminent status in the armies of the Great Powers. In part this was a legacy from the Middle Ages, in which mounted knights outclassed peasant infantry in all senses of the term; even as recently as the wars of Napoleon, however, capable cavalry in sufficient numbers made a powerful impact on a battle. They could turn failure into success, and just as importantly, they could turn a modest tactical victory into a strategic triumph. World War I was different. Here, cavalry units waited for opportunities that never came, or were transformed into infantry units. Changes in technology combined with the stagnation of trench warfare heralded the end of cavalry as a major arm of military service, although the transformation of cavalry into other forms was far from complete when the war ended; in some sectors, the cavalry continued to function almost normally, and with great effectiveness.

In 1914, senior officers began the war with more than outdated notions of what cavalry could accomplish; some of those notions had been illusions even a century before. The days were long gone when one could claim that infantry could never withstand a mounted charge. The pike formations of the Thirty Years’ War demonstrated this amply. During the Napoleonic Wars, there was only one instance when a cavalry charge managed to shatter a prepared infantry square, and that example depended substantially on chance. Commentators on cavalry action will often speak of a shock effect, but in the case of cavalry, this refers to a psychological impact, rather than a physical one. A tank can smash through a building; a horse and rider cannot do so. The shock effect of a cavalry charge depends on the alarm that it inspires in the minds of defending infantry. Well-trained infantry with good morale will not scatter, and the prospects of the cavalry charge will be poor.

Few commanders clung to the illusion of the unstoppable cavalry charge in its pure form. They would not send a squadron of cavalry to charge into a regiment of fresh professional soldiers when the latter were already deployed for the defense. Such an attack would rightly be seen as suicidal. Traditionally, there were circumstances when the cavalry charge could make such a charge effectively: before the regiment had assumed a defensive posture, or after it had been defeated and driven to withdraw. These were the circumstances when cavalry became strategically decisive, either by shattering the enemy before they could mount an effective defense, or by turning an orderly withdrawal into a rout. On the Western Front in particular, such circumstances presented themselves only rarely, and when they did on occasion present themselves, a suitable unit of cavalry was generally unavailable. The illusion that prevailed among commanders was that they could somehow create these circumstances amid the trenches of the Western Front, and they would again be able to see the grand cavalry charges that played out in their imaginations.

This, of course, never happened. It is testimony to the durability of this illusion that many commanders hoped to see the breakthroughs offered by tanks as an opportunity for the cavalry to ride out into the open, rather than equipping the tanks themselves in such a way that they could harass the enemy’s rear on their own. In particular, the British hoped to use Whippet medium tanks with cavalry in tandem, but the differences in speed and the vulnerability of the cavalry doomed the effort.

Romantic illusions aside, the cavalry did have practical roles in 1914, and no one could have foreseen that the arm would be unable to fulfill any of them in western Europe. In combat, they were expected to finish off units of fleeing enemies or strike units before they took their defensive stance, as outlined above. They were also meant to get past enemy defenses and raid supposedly secure areas when an opportunity could be found. Since the enemy was expected to use cavalry as well, and in the same ways, cavalry could be employed to stop or drive off an enemy’s cavalry activity. A final combat role made use of cavalry’s ability to deploy quickly as a way to shore up defenses in a section of line that was crumbling. A squadron of cavalry could reach the threatened sector more quickly than a company of infantrymen, and in this way, an enemy breakthrough could be avoided.

There was an opportunistic character to cavalry’s combat functions; they were to be used when circumstances permitted. A more enduring role for cavalry was its role in reconnaissance. Before the airplane was used in any meaningful numbers, the cavalry served as the principal source of reconnaissance for an army. This role also included efforts to hinder the enemy’s reconnaissance; in Napoleon’s time, one of the most valuable functions that the cavalry performed was its ability to screen the army, concealing the true movements of the main force until the attack commenced. On a smaller scale, the reconnaissance role included patrols; cavalry excelled at this because a man on horseback can see farther than a man on foot, and with limited radio communication, a patrolman might be required to move quickly to alert other troops to a source of danger.

In the first months of the war, cavalry units attempted to fulfill these roles, although it was noted that modern weaponry made the effort more difficult than ever before. By the onset of winter, the Western Front was locked in a continuous line of paired trench systems, and save for rare exceptions, the cavalry lacked all opportunity to participate in combat and all scope for performing its reconnaissance function. The fighting became the preserve of infantry and artillery, with the later addition of tanks as the third arm of combat, while aircraft and trench raids by small teams of infantry became the main sources of reconnaissance. These observations are true of the Western Front, but in eastern Europe and the Middle East, cavalry was able to operate more nearly in accordance with its traditional roles. There were even rare occasions of successful cavalry charges.

This fact underscores the reality that cavalry was declining, but not yet fully obsolete, during World War I. It is often said that trench warfare marked the end of cavalry’s role in the modern army, but in reality there are two distinct components behind this transition. Firstly, the total absence of mobility caused by trench warfare left the cavalry with no useful function in any theater of war where such stagnation set in. Thus, cavalry became superfluous on the Western Front, but continued to be relevant on the Eastern Front and in the Middle East. Secondly, the same technological advances that made infantry seek shelter in trenches also made open warfare too dangerous for cavalry. Machine guns and magazine-fed rifles were just as dangerous to the cavalryman as they were for an infantryman in the open; the infantryman could fight from shelter, however, while the cavalryman needed open spaces to operate properly. Moreover, organizational changes stemming from changes in technology hindered the cavalry’s ability to perform traditional roles. Powerful defensive weaponry allowed a platoon of soldiers to respond very quickly to an attack, in contrast to earlier periods, when it was necessary for the platoon to assume a proper firing line to make an adequate defense. The cavalry could no longer hope to strike a unit before it could mount an effective defense; as long as the soldiers had their rifles in hand, they could hit the ground or duck behind cover and offer significant return fire. If one of the machine gunners could reach his weapon in time, the cavalry attack was doomed.

All of the major powers began the war with significant cavalry forces, roughly in proportion to the overall size of the military. Germany and France were nearly evenly matched, with eleven and ten divisions respectively. Britain had only one, but this was due more to the small size of Britain’s army upon the outbreak of war than it was on any conceptual independence from the methods of the past. Conversely, Russia had 29 cavalry divisions. Most units had traditional themes, from Cossacks to Uhlans to Dragoons, but these distinctions were largely becoming a matter of differences in dress uniform than anything else. Sabres and lances were still available for the charges that rarely came, but more units were issued carbines. As shorter versions of the standard infantry rifles, they could be managed on horseback, or the cavalryman could ride to a battle and then dismount for battle. Most successful engagements followed the latter pattern.

France and Britain received cavalry units from their colonial possessions (North Africa and India respectively), and these continued to arrive as the war progressed, despite the lack of use for cavalry on the Western Front. Britain could deploy these units to the Middle East, where they gave useful service, but for France this was more problematic. Armies tended to retain cavalry forces in reserve, hoping to exploit a breakthrough even as late as the campaigns of 1917; due to poor placement or heavy losses, they were unable to fulfill this role even when short-lived breakthroughs were achieved.

The trend called for the gradual reduction in cavalry forces in the west. Heavy losses called for reinforcements for the infantry, and there was little use for holding cavalry in reserve. Meanwhile, horses served many other uses besides carrying armed riders; they played invaluable roles in the artillery and in logistics as well, and they suffered losses too as time went on. Many cavalry units were reclassified as infantry, with their horses being given over to the artillery instead. Horse losses reached 600,000 just between the British and French armies as 1917 drew to a close. As a result, it was no longer possible to resume normal cavalry operations in the summer of 1918, when conditions might otherwise have permitted cavalry action.

Changes in technology and in military practice had effectively made the traditional cavalry unit obsolete by 1914, but it took several years for commanders to appreciate this fact, and in some contexts cavalry forces would endure through the interwar years and see action during World War II. It might also be noted that this obsolescence was not uniformly felt during World War I, and that cavalry served with distinction in the east and in the Middle East; these were places where large swathes of open land allowed for the mobile actions that made cavalry useful, but it should also be noted that these were theaters of war in which one of the major combatants (the Russians and the Turks respectively) was substantially less advanced in technology and organization than the other. By 1940, cavalry would be supplanted by tanks and motorized or mechanized infantry.



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