Cavalry in the wars of the XX century (Gérard, webmaster)
If 33 years later in 1914, the concept of modern war is more effective; this truth is however not yet accepted. The year 1914 marks the most important turn of events on horseback in this evolution of the war.
In the minds of many cavalrymen they expected hostilities to be similar to those of the Franco Prussian war: they believed they should have won and wished to carry it on to victory: after all they were the most important branch and they felt they had been suppressed. This can be seen in paintings such as "Rezonville" by Aime Morot, which shows the glory, courage, and national revenge gained from the victory. Feelings were accentuated by the loss of Alsace and Lorraine(1870).
In 1914 the speed of the German invasion surprised everybody. If the French cavalry was psychologically and tactically ready it was ill prepared. The use of red trousers instead of a color that could not be readily identified at distance was still maintened.(Proposition of 1912 to adopt the reseda color for uniforms was refused). The lance was still carried by some dragoon regiments and although suitable under lesser circumstances was ineffective against the array of weapons then developed.
They didn't realize that mobility is the horse's greatest asset. They overburdened the animal by adding more weight rather than lessening it. Although in France the problem would not be so serious since the supplies for the French forces would be forthcoming, in a hostile country the horse would be much burdened by the rider having to be self-sufficient. The addition of supplies to the horses' backs along with the increased harness would quickly exhaust the animals.
It is also necessary to consider the changes which occurred during the previous century in the evolution of the equine race: breeding was directed towards faster animals, more elegant and less rustic: The use of thatched roofs to feed the horses during the Russian campaign of 1812 was no longer suitable without destroying the animals (let us not forget that a horse never complains and that it will run until complete exhaustion if its rider doesn’t take care).
General Chambe, then a lieutenant in the dragoons, relates the attitude of many of the Superior officers towards the use of the horse in his book "Adieu Cavalerie". When a commander was asked for a rest to water the horses he responded in a dry tone, " The horses will drink in the evening; we will not stop for them".
What the German army was not able to do the French headquarters had done in only a matter of weeks. The French cavalry horses were suffering from festering sores on their backs, wounds and a general lack of understanding towards the animals by those directing the battles.
It is true that French headquarters did not live on horseback, nor did they live close to the troops. According to Napoleon " a general who orders through the eyes of another will never be a good general".
The tactics used were also from another era. The adage that one conceals cavalry in the bottom of a valley was no longer relevant due to the advent of air reconnaissance. Barbed wire and rapid firing weapons aided in the decline of cavalry. In some cases officers failed to understand the use of cavalry so that where an immediate surprise attack on the enemy could have brought success they failed to give the order. Yet these same men would send gleefully to their deaths hundreds and thousands of French and Senegalese soldiers as at Verdun for no gain. Thus the mutiny of 1917.
Napoleon said " the war of cavalry is a lieutenant's business", meaning that young impetuous men, capable of appreciating the situation in seconds and acting upon it, with courage and ardor and with more to win than lose would gain the victory.
Some exploits of cavalry, well meaning though they were, such as the attack on a German airfield by a squadron of the 16th Dragons was nothing but a sacrifice. Was it necessary? We can just admire the courage of the lieutenant de Gironde (leading this charge) who said: " I have the right to die in the saddle ".
On the German side the headquarters of Wilhelm II, although questioning the efficiency of cavalry, used it in the manner of the Hussars rather than that of the cuirassier. This meant using it to conceal manoeuvres rather than direct attack. This was much more successful.
Nevertheless in 1914 at Haelen in Belgium the German cavalry showed it was also vulnerable. The Belgian cavalry, although outnumbered, placed their horses in a rearward position and used their superior firepower of the mauser and machine-guns to destroy the enemy cavalry. Three of the German regiments were armed with saber and lance and failed to penetrate the Belgian lines.
According to Guderian who analyzed the military operations of 1914-1918 and drew his conclusions from them, the commanders of cavalry had used to the letter the obsolete principles of the regulations.:
" The attack with horse and sword which alone gives fast and decisive results is the principal mode of action of the cavalry."
However the cavalry can be more useful in reconnaissance than in direct combat.
The cavalry was not the only branch to be poorly led, both the infantry and armored divisions were also wasted. After some months when it became a war of position (trench warfare} the use of cavalry became almost extinct.
Belgian rider (author's father) about 1926. In contrast to the previous century, soldiers are no longer photographed with weapons. Even if the bearing remains soldier-like, the uniform has become functional: no more helmet with horsehair, no more lance. It is the man who is represented, not the warrior.
This text does not attempt to describe on only one page two
wars which lasted 4 years each and took place mainly in Europe and involved many
countries. Nor is it a criticism of the army of any particular country: The
facts are sufficiently well-known to be analyzed. Just like in 1815, the errors
and the courage were on each side!
More informations about The role of horse in World War One: W.W.I Horse (English website)
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