The force of impact generated by cavalry, provided it was engaged at the proper moment,
was out of all proportion to its numbers. Had this not been the case, after all,
governments would not have spent so much money on maintaining mounted troops, which
represented a heavy cost to the national treasury. (- Alessandro Barbero, "The Battle")
From the 1700s onwards, the use of muskets solidified infantry's dominance of the battlefield and began to allow true mass armies to develop. This is closely related to the increase in the size of armies throughout the early modern period; heavily armored cavalrymen were expensive to raise and maintain and it took years to replace a skilled horseman or a trained horse, while infantrymen could be trained and kept in the field at a much lower expense in addition to being much easier to replace. The demise of cavalry came in the First World War when cavalry was slaughtered by machine guns.
During the Napoleonic wars the cavalry consisted minority of the forces.
Napoleon said that "overall the numbers of cavalry in the French army will be 1/6 the
strength of infantry. In 1805 Austria had 305,000 infantry and 42,340 cavalry, ratio of 7.2 to 1.
In an economic sense, the heavy cavalry signified an enormous investment by its supporting state. The armor and the large horses were expensive. Heavy cavalry was composed of large men sometimes in defensive armour (French carabinier was above 179 cm tall, cuirassier 173 cm, dragoon 170 cm, while the light chasseur and hussar only 160 cm). The heavies were mounted on big and strong horses, but these were deficient in speed and endurance. These mounts were more sensitive to quantity and quality of food, and to weather. For all these reasons they were not made to pursue the enemy, frequent skirmishing or even to escort a convoy.
Their main role was a shock action on the battlefield. Cohesion and control were the goals to impose upon the enemy, and not to make individual combats. They charged in large, close formation, exchanging much of the mobility advantage for a massive, irresistible charge.
In compact formation the heavy cavalry enjoyed great advantage, they could outreach every opponent with their longer sabers, and their bodies were protected with armor.
When both sides approached each other in loose formation, the advantage was on the side of light cavalry. There was space and there would be a lot of circling, avoiding and maneuvering. The light cavalrymen (hussars, chasseurs, light dragoons) being better horsemen and being mounted on smaller but more agile horses made their turns quicker.
In 1815 at Waterloo Gen. Dornberg decided to attack a single French cuirassier regiment
with two of his own, the British 23rd Light Dragoons and the 1st Light Dragoons KGL.
Dornberg outnumbered the French by 2 to 1. The two frontal squadrons of the French regiment
were attacked on both flanks and routed. Dornberg's entire cavalry dashed after the fleeing
enemy. But the French colonel, unlike his adversary, was holding two other squadrons in
reserve, and these counterattacked and smashed the enemy. The British and Germans were
remounting the slope in great disorder when another cuirassier regiment appeared and blocked
their way. The French drew their sabers and awaited the enemy unmoving.
"At the moment of
impact, the light dragoons realized that their curved sabers were no match for the cuirassiers
long swords, nor could they penetrate the French cuirasses. Seeing that his men were losing
heart, Dornberg tried to lead some of them against the enemy flank.
(Barbero - "The Battle" p 192)
There were however several weaknesses of the armored cavalry. The armor required
stronger men, and these men needed more powerful horses. It made them mighty warriors when in large and compact
formations. But in one-on-one combats with a lot of space for horses they were very vulnerable.
The heavy horses were unable to turn quickly and face the danger, and the heavy armor
interfered with the movements of the man in saddle. These factors put the heavy cavalry
in disadvantage. Many military men of experience stated that a rider who was unencumbered
by armor could sit more easily in the saddle, and charge home with greater speed.
The light cavalry consisted of uhlans/lancers, light dragoons/chevuxlegeres/chasseurs, and hussars. Light cavalry was called upon to watch over the safety of the army, and they were constantly hovering in advance, and on the flanks to prevent all possibility of surprise on the part of the enemy. They were also designed for foraging and pursuit. On ocassion they could be used for shock action.
The light cavalry, and especially the hussars, were generally less disciplined than the heavies. The hussars were the most known and popular of all the light cavalrymen. The first hussars were formed in Hungary, and during the napoleonic wars almost every army had its own hussars. There were men who had been bad actors in the non-combat period, who as consistently became lions on the battlefield, with all the virtues of sustained aggressivenness.
In combat the hussars rode yelling most unearthly, cursing and brandishing their weapons. They had their own code - that of reckless curage that bordered on a death wish. When the battle was over they almost invariably relapsed again. The hussars were known for womanizing, hard drinking and causing all sorts of troubles.
One of the most effective in small warfare light cavalry were the Polish Krakusi Regiment
(pronounced crack-oosee). In contrast to hussars there was nothing flamboyant about
them. They were down to bussiness type of young men. The regiment was reviewed by Napoleon in 1813.
They were mounted on hardy ponies and Napoleon called them
“my pygmy cavalry”. They maneuvered, deployed, charged and ployed, all in a very fast pace.
In the end of the review individual riders presented their skills.
On light cavalry:
Map: horse breeding regions. In white color horses for light and medium cavalry, in yellow for medium and heavy cavalry (borders from 2000)
Cavalry Weapons: Sabre, Lance, Carbine and Pistol.
"The saber was the traditional weapon of the cavalry."
The cavalry was armed with variety of weapons, it all depended on the type of cavalry. The light cavalry was armed with shorter and curved sabers, the heavy cavalry with longer and straight sabers or with pallash (broadsword). The lancers' primary weapon was lance. Most cavalrymen were also armed with pistols, carbines or rifles.
Photo: French light cavalry sabre from Military Heritage
Photo: French cuirassier sabre from Military Heritage
Photo: Prussian light cavalry sabre from MilitaryHeritage
Photo: British heavy cavalry sabre from Military Heritage
On picture: Russian lances of the Napoleonic Wars, by Oleg Parkhaiev, Russia.
The length of Russian lance was between 280 and 290 cm. It was modeled on the Polish lance.
The pennant was called horonzhevka from Polish horagiewka.
On photo: French cavalry carbine from Military Heritage
Body Armor: Cuirass and Helmet.
Photo: armor of French horse carabinier (left) and French cuirassier (right).
The young cavalrymen thought much about their comfort rather than utility and purpose. During the Napoleonic Wars some cuirassiers even discarded their armor, for example in 1809 (Wagram Campaign). Such things actually occured already long before the Napoleonic Wars. "So unpopular had it become by 1638 that in that year, Louis XIII had to order aristorcratic officers to wear their armor or risk losing their noble rank. Louis XIV issued a similar command in 1675, demanding all officers to wear cuirasses, but the law was widely disobeyed. The only entire regiment still wearing any armor ... was the Royal Cuirassiers." (Lynn - "Giant of the Grand Siecle" p 490)
The veterans however knew very well why they carry the armor. They claimed that the cuirass
saved them from "many a bullet and many a thrust." It protected against musket
and pistol shots fired at longer range, generally above 30-60 paces. (The term bullet proof
came from actually shooting them with a musket and marking the dent as ‘proof’ of the quality
of the armor.) The armor protected the torso leaving open to attack only the neck, arms
and face. This is harder to nail someone in a specific and small place than to simply waiting
for any good opportunity to hit at large area.
The straight saber was used by heavy cavalry for stab and thrust,
where the man had to lean forward to reach the enemy. This movement made his head
very vulnerable and exposed to a cut by the enemy. For this reason they were issued helmets.
Ernst Maximilian Hermann von Gaffron of the Prussian Silesian Cuirassiers describes combat with French dragoons in 1813 at Liebertwolkwitz: "The horse-tail manes of their helmets ... and the rolled greatcoats, which they wore over their shoulders, protected them so well that they were pretty impervious to cuts, and our Silesians were not trained to thrust nor were our broad-bladed swords long enough to reach them."
The bearskins and shakos also protected from saber blows. De Brack wrote: "how many troopers have I seen killed because of having lost their headdress!" In 1809 during war against Austria one French cavalryman wrote "Chevillet's leather colpack cushioned the shock of saber blow who only stunned him when he was in the process of thrusting his saber point into enemy's belly."
Greatcoat rolled in a horseshoe over the shoulder was also effective protection against thrust. It was customary for French and Polish cavalry to have their greatcoats rolled across upper body. Parquin: "I galloped off to rejoin the colonel who gave order for capes to be rolled and worn in bandolier fashion." Not only the greatcoat served as a protection but also the leather belts, and other parts of equipment. In 1809 a French cavalryman wrote: "Two saber blows hit me: one on the back, which was parried by my equipment and the other on the front I parried with my saber." Ernst Maximilian Hermann von Gaffron of the Prussian Silesian Cuirassiers describes combat with French dragoons in 1813 at Liebertwolkwitz: "The horse-tail manes of their helmets ... and the rolled greatcoats, which they wore over their shoulders, protected them so well that they were pretty impervious to cuts, and our Silesians were not trained to thrust nor were our broad-bladed swords long enough to reach them."
French officer de Brack: "The rolled coat may be considered a defensive weapon. The habit of rolling it, and crossing it
over the chest, in view of an engagement, has three advantages: first, it clears the opening of the pistol holster; second,
it allows the bridle hand to be carried nearer to the horse's neck, which facilitates the control of the horse; and, third, it
protects the trooper.
Cut and Slash vs Thrust.
Most blows were directed against opponent's head, right forearm and right hand.
For this reason these areas required protection.
Slash was very common in small war where would be a lot of one-on-one fights and circling as the horses had much space. The slash was most effective and easiest against opponent to your right side and therefore the men took their time continually circling until they saw an opportunity. The slash disabled or wounded the enemy rather than killed him. Slash required less physical force than cut. (The light cavalry used their curved sabers for slashing, while the strong, heavy cavalrymen used their broadswords for cuting.)
Thrusting was up close and personal.
Roman Legionnaires were trained rely upon the thrust in preference to cutting
attacks. If someone attacks you with a knife, spear, lance or straight and long blade saber, know that
you are dealing with someone who is not afraid of combat, and has the psychological mindset to
back it up.
The cuts and slashes made often horrible wounds but they were not as deadly as the thrusts.
Although historical accounts tell about cavalrymen taking numerous minor punctures and
surviving, generally the thrust was more deadly than cut or slash.
The thrust made a narrow wound but it was deep and damaging not only the surface and
bones but also to the most vital organs (causing internal bleeding, infections etc.)
Chlapowski described a combat in 1809 between cuirassiers and hussars: "... regiment of [French] cuirassiers which after one charge got into a
melee with some Hungarian hussars. I was surprised to see when the Hungarians retreated that far
more of their bodies were lying dead than French. The main reason for this was that the Hungarians slashed with their sabers, while the French thrust."
(Chlapowski, - p. 63)
When two cavalrymen are charging each other at greater speed the advantage is on the side
of the cavalrymen with the longer, straight-blade sabers. In this short momemnt it was impossible for the light cavalryman to
parry and then cut. The opponent could thrust and be far out of reach within a second.
Although such situation gave advantage to the heavy cavalryman he rarely used it.
There were two reasons for this:
If the heavy cavalryman did deliver a quick thrust and the light cavalryman missed his parry
he was at least wounded. This however was rare as vast majority of thrusts were parried.
An English hussar wrote "I had a cut at one man myself, who made point at me, but which
I parried." The thrust must be parried first before the cut is delivered ("he made a thrust
at my groin I parried it off and cut him down through the head.")
The cuts were delivered either diagonally or horizontaly and were aimed at the ear, face,
head and forehand of the adversary.
The cut was more instinctive blow than the thrust and in melees the men tended to cut
even if their sabers were more suited to the thrust. The eastern type of saber
was the best when used for powerful swinging cuts from horseback.
There were numerous cases where cavalryman received many slashes or cuts
and continued his fight. Cut or slash to man's (or horse's) face resulted in a lot of blood,
and horrible wound but was not life threatening. At the battle near Lapochin Mjr. Potapov
of Russian Soumy Hussars was surrounded by French chasseurs and received 7 wounds to his head
before the hussars rescued him. None of these wounds was deadly.
In 1807 at Heilsberg Colonel Chipault of the 4th Cuirassiers had received 56 sabre cuts.
Only rarely enemy's head was taken off with a clean cut or slash but it made a life lasting
impression. Authors would devote entire page to describe such single slash or cut.
Organization and Tactics.
The French Ordonnance provisoire sur l'exercise et les manoeuvres de la cavalerie
provides standard intervals and speeds for horses, and describe the tactical formations.
Title III, Article VII, paragraph 404 states that two ranks of cavalry were 6 m deep.
Title I, Article XII states that the ranks had an interval of 0.666 m measured from the tail
of the front horse to the nose of the rear rank.
The basic tactical unit in cavalry was squadron.
Napoleon said that "squadron will be to the cavalry what the battalion is for infantry."
The cavalry strength in battle was expressed in the number of squadrons instead of regiments
or divisions. The strength of squadron varied between 75 and 250 men. In 1809 at Wagram were
209 squadrons of French cavalry with an average of 139 men per squadron.
Horses speed varies with their stride length, body build, and other factors.
The so-called "natural" gaits are walk, trot, canter, and gallop (in increasing order of speed).
Canter is smoother than trot. Walk is slow. Trot is more bouncy and is descibed as being two-time,
this is because each stride taken by the horse has two beats.
On the battlefield the cavalry would advance against the enemy in either slow, medium or fast
The cavalry was formed either in lines, echelons or columns.
The width of cavalry column varied between half-squadron, through squadron (most common)
The streets of towns and villages forced the cavalry to fight in very narrow
and deep formations. Here is one example from the British retreat to Corunna.
“… at about 1 PM, with Colbert closing in on Cacabellos, Paget hustled his troops
down the snow-clad hill and across the Cua to the safety of the western bank. Here, screened by the vineyard walls,
his infantry fanned out into extended order, while the 6 guns of Carthew’s artillery battery were wheeled into position
astride the road commanding the bridge. Moments later, Colbert’s troopers poured over the brow of the recently-vacated
hill, pursuing the riflemen and hussars of Paget’s pickets into Cacabellos itself.
It was in this point that, according to Cpt. Gordon, the 15th Hussars made a stand … ‘For some minutes were were so
jammed together in a narrow street that it was impossible for either party to advance or retire. … Nevertheless,
the flood of the French horsemen proved too much for Gordon and his comrades and they eventually broke,
stampeding through the ranks of retreating riflemen (as well as panic-stricken staff officers out on reconnaissance)
and making a mad dash for the bridge… Blakeney described the scene … ‘The situation of the Light Company
[of the 28th Foot] was now very embarrassing, in danger of being trampled down by our own cavalry [hussars],
who rode over everything which came in their way… for in their confusion the were firing in every direction …
and we were so mixed up with them and our own cavalry that we could offer no formation to receive the enemy…’
As for Colbert’s men, though they had hacked down several British hussars and taken 48 riflemen prisoner …
had been recalled by their commander in order to rally, prior to launching of another sortie.”
(Summerville - “March of Death” p 125)
Looked at from the front such a line, even advancing at a trot, presented a military
spectactle that had few equals. This formation ensured the greatest number of sabres or
lances were brought to bear on the enemy and the wide frontage helped in outflanking the enemy.
But the longer the line the more difficult it was to control and it should be as short as possible, so as to reach an enemy in good order, and without fatiguing the horses.
Fig. 109: French Cavalry Regiment of 4 squadrons forming line from column.
[Source: Nafziger - "Imperial Bayonets."]
Cavalry in Combat.
With few exceptions, the Hollywood version of battle evokes images of the every man,
fighting to death without asking any questions. The "good guy" always win over the "bad guy".
The movies obscure the reality of battle that would put the "heroes" label in doubt.
Eastern vs Western Cavalry.
Geography and tradition played role. Generally the more to the east the more common was the use of curved saber (instead of straight one). The men of steppes and plateaus of Eastern Europe and Asia spent their their lives on horses. Their mounts were smaller and more agile. The eastern cavalry however lacked discipline and firepower. Their battles were short and chaotic affairs where man fought against man or two. The situation in combat changed very quickly and required lighter and shorter weapons for quick blows or parries to the left, right or rear. The greater curvature enabled to deliver a cut or slash through the padded protection of the adversary or take his head off with little effort.
The western Europeans charged in slower and tighter formations. When two
large bodies of cavalry colided, only the men in front ranks were able to deliver blows.
In such situations the best weapon was the long and straight saber. With it one could simply
outreach his opponent.
Prussian king Frederick the Great admitted that the Germans don't make such good
light cavalry as those from eastren Europe, Hungarians and Poles. He considered the heavy
cavalry and the dragoons as types of cavalry better suited for the stronger and more
disciplined Germans and Prussians.
Good cavalry usage entailed sending out cavalry videttes to screen an army's advance and gathering intelligence. The videttes furnished the alert eyes that screened the army from enemy observation. Lack of videttes has sometimes led to great and humiliating surprises. Without videttes an army or corps commander would be at the mercy of his foe as the videttes were the first line of defense against a sudden enemy move, the outermost ring in a series of human alarm bells.
Costello of the British 95th Rifles (ext.link) watched the videttes in action: "One of their videttes, after being posted facing English dragoon, of the 14th or 16th [Light Dragoon Regiment] displayed an instance of individual gallantry, in which the French, to do them justice, were seldom wanting. Waving his long straight sword, the Frenchman rode within 60 yards of our dragoon, and challenged him to single combat. We immediately expected to see our cavalry man engage his opponent, sword in hand. Instead of this, however, he unslung his carbine and fired at the Frenchman, who not a whit dismayed, shouted out so that every one could hear him, Venez avec la sabre: je suis pret pour Napoleon et la belle France. Having vainly endeavoured to induce the Englishman to a personal conflict, and after having endured two or three shots from his carbine, the Frenchman rode proudly back to his ground, cheered even by our own men. We were much amused by his gallantry, while we hissed our own dragoon ... " ( - Costello pp 66-67)
Usually the horse skirmishers advanced in front of their parent squadron or regiment,
fired and moved about a bit to reduce their target ability. They were able to
prevent the enemy's troops from hiding behind trees and broken ground, looked for ambushes,
or simply observed the enemy’s movements or intent. It was also quite good way
to test enemy resolve at a specific point and gather information about his position
According to George Nafziger, the French cavalry did not designate specific cavalrymen
as skirmishers, "but would detach pelotons into skirmish order". The Vistula uhlans
(Polish unit in French service) however had troops specifically designed as
flankers. Almost every Allies' squadron had approx. 10-20 men armed with rifles or musketoons who
were trained as skirmishers (flankers).
The flankers moved in fast trot or gallop and the large spaces allowed for lots of individual
The regulations for British cavalry stated that "all firing best performed on the move and it is unnecessary to halt for that purpose only." It made the British cavalry almost inefficeint in skirmishing.
In 1807 Russian A. I. Hatov wrote Obshchii opyt taktiki, a work devoted to the cavalry, its use in combat and its tactics. Hatov thought any firing from horse while standing as peculiar. The only accepted exception was when the flankers (horse skirmishers) used their firearms. Although their fire was known as being rather harmless they played important role of protecting the troops during march and on the battlefield from being harassed or disordered by enemy’s skirmishers. According to Hatov the firearms were given to the cavalry mainly to use on occassions when was lack of infantry or was a need to occupy an important position. (Hatov A. I. - “Obshchii opyt taktiki” 1807, Part I, p 186)
Every Russian squadron had 16 flankers (skirmishers), which were posted, in the end files
of every platoon. In hussar regiment all troopers were trained to function as
skirmishers and sometimes they were used in big numbers like for example in 1806 at Pultusk
and Golymin, or in 1812 at Kobrin.
The carbine fire could be delivered in two ways: individually or by squadrons. Firing by squadron was not an easy thing. The horses never stood still in noisy environment making any aiming from the saddle close to impossible. Some horses came as replacement during campaign and were not accustomed to battlefield conditions. They easily got upset by the noise and discharges. In such situation the men were preoccupied with controling the horse rather than with loading and firing. Even worse, sometimes the burning powder would pepper over the horses throwing them into panick !
There is however a difference between the cavalry actually receiving the attack at the halt, and the cavalry counter-charging after volley. Read the examples below.
The column of French dragoons halted and stood motionless like a stonewall [kak kamennaia stiena] waiting for the Russians. The dragoons from the second rank grabbed their muskets and began firing while these in the first rank drew sabers and waited. The charging uhlans first slowed down and then halted. The French sounded massive “En avant ! Vive l’Empereur!” and advanced forward en masse. The uhlans and Cossacks gave way before the sheer weight of the column. Their retreat was covered by flankers who opened fire on the pursuing dragoons.
"We continued at a walk for another 300 paces, and I instructed both squadrons to go hell for leather as soon as I sounded the charge. They were not lower their lances, however, but should point them at the enemy's faces. ... We were perhaps 200 paces away when I ordered, 'Charge !' and in the blinking of an eye we were upon them. ... The melee lasted but a few seconds. From the moment we struck, the enemy fell into confusion and began to retreat, even including the uhlans who had no foe to their front. I did not see how many men fell because I had passed through their line so quickly. My squadrons had themselves become disordered and individuals were chasing after those of the enemy whose horses were weakest, and ordering them to dismount."
On rare occassion cavalry would find themselves fighting in a wood or village. On 9th June 1800 the French 12th Hussars charged down the road to Casteggio (Italy), brushing away Austrian flankers and vedettes. The hussars got into village where stationed two battalions of light infantry. The attackers swept through the village and towards a stone bridge before Austrian hussars counterattacked. The French fled receiving musket fire from infantry hidden in the houses and behind garden walls.
In 1812 after the battle of Krasne, Napoleon moved toward Smolensk. Murat ordered the regiment of Old Guard Lancers (Polish) to follow him at the trot and then ordered to charge right in to the village occupied by Russian jagers. The Poles suffered 10 killed and wounded before they reached the center of the village. The cavalry was unable to gallop in deep snow, they lost several horses to close range fire, came out the other side and formed up again. Napoleon was furious at Murat and sent a single infantry company (Old Guard Grenadiers) who took the village without a single shot. The Foot Grenadiers also freed several Poles who had been unhorsed and taken prisoner by the jagers. Chlapowski was greatly impressed with the Grenadiers, saying that they "stood as solid as a wall."
In 1809, the Austrian cavalry charged into the village of Pordenone. Arnold writes: "The Hohenzollern Chevauxlegers crossed a ravine and found themselves at close quarters with the French infantry [35th Line] in the village [of Pordenone]. A Captain Martyn led an impetous charge up the street and captured 300 prisoners. His charge broke the French spirit, and soon the entire regiment surrendered." (Arnold - "Napoleon Conquers Austria")
There were also cavalry actions conducted during the night. In August 1813 Prussian officer von Katzeler ordered his cavalry to annoy the French infantry under Marshal Macdonald. Major von Stutterheim took Prussian Brandenburg uhlans with one gun and Oberst-Lieutenant von Platen took 2 squadrons of dragoons. The cavalry attacked the French outposts at Rathkirch (west of Liegnitz) and stirred up the entire French camp. The Prussians kept it awake for the whole night.
The typical cavalry-vs-cavalry battle was a noisy, confusing and quick affair. The squadrons charged or counter-charged, pursued or fled - it changed from one moment to another. The confusion in battle was often such that friendly troops attacked each other. In 1814 in the Battle of La Rothiere the Wirtembergian chasseurs mistook Bavarian cavalrymen for French and attacked. (Wearing the distinctive 'raupenhelm' didn't help the Bavarians).
In 1812 at Borodino the French cuirassiers attacked friendly Saxon heavy cavalry. The Saxons were pursued by the Russians and fleeing toward French lines. But the French took Saxons' white outfits for Russians' cuirassiers (white uniforms) and charged them.
In 1805 at Austerlitz several French cavalrymen led a large group of Austrian prisoners when Russian dragoons charged. The Russians however instead of attacking the French they cut and slashed the Austrians ! Seeing this French Marshal Murat thought that the Russians must be "some friendly cavalry" (Bavarians ?) and ordered French artillery not to fire on them. After the slaughter of the Austrians the furious dragoons rushed against Murat and his staff !
During the decades before Napoleonic Wars only the dragoons were trained in infantry and
cavalry duties. General Jomini wrote: "Opinions will be always divided as to those
amphibious animals called dragoons. It is certainly an advantage to have several battalions
of mounted infantry, who can anticipate an enemy at a defile, or scour a wood; but to make
cavalry out of foot soldiers is very difficult. ...
Picture: French foot dragoons, by Keith Rocco.
During the Napoleonic Wars all cavalrymen were trained in some infantry duties.
They were universal soldiers capable of fighting from horse and on foot.
There were numerous cases where the cavalry dismounted and fought as infantry. Some of them
The flanks were the weakest points of cavalry line.
If one can maneuver so as to attack the enemy's cavalry in flank, his success will be
Two hussar regiments struck the right flank of Arrighi’s cavalry. As the Prussian witness, Graf Henkel von Donnersmark wrote, they “went on at a cracking pace”. The French chasseurs and hussars fled, some galloped toward Leipzig itself, while others sought refuge on the other bank of the Parthe River. There they continued toward the positions occupied by the infantry and artillery of the VII Corps. The pursuit was long, reaching Leipzig itself. The hussars captured a half thousand prisoners and 5 guns. Von Donnersmark remarked that this attack was “one of the best that I ever saw Russian cavalry made.” The defeat of Arrighi’s cavalry shook morally the infantry on the other side of the river. The hussars suffered very light casualties up to this point but when they were returning from the long pursuit they got under fire from the French infantry.
The cavalry charge was one of the most eye-catching sights. The dust thrown by charging cavalry was so thick and rose so high that it totally obscured the view. (In 1757 at Prague the movement of Prussian cavalry threw up great clouds which made the day seem "like the end of the world." One of the Prussians wrote: "the dust had prevented me from seeing more than four paces.")
Cavalry charges were noisy affairs. Not only there were the sounds of the trumpets, and the constant beat of the hooves, but also the men were shouting and screaming. To keep the men quiet in such a moment was very difficult. Britten-Austin writes: "At one moment Murat makes the Prussian Black Lancers (?) charge down the main road at two battalions of Russian artillery and infantry, in squares on either side of it; and from his hight ground Thirion sees how 'this charge, made calmly at a trot, not proving successful, this cavalry retired as it had adcanced. It was the first time I'd seen cavalry charge at that pace and came back from it without any shouting and disorder." (Britten-Austin "1812 The March on Moscow" p 135)
It was said that a commander should never order a charge or advance to the front without having previously sent out flankers (cavalry skirmishers) or even 1-2 officers to ascertain whether there were obstacles which had not been observed (ditches, wetland, fences etc.) Unfortunately in the heat of battle this rule was often ignored by commanders.
Theoretically the troops were to begin their advance in slower pace and finish
galloping. The slow pace helped to keep order in ranks but gave too much time to think about
dangers. Often the men were so anxious that they quickly sped up, regardless
of their officers' orders. De Rocca of the French 2nd Hussar Regiment writes: "When a regiment or a squadron of cavalry charges in line or in column, it cannot
long maintain the order in which it sets out; the horses animate one another, their eagerness progressively increases, and the best mounted horsemen generally find themselves far before the others, which breaks the order of battle.
The commander ... should be careful not to make long charges ..." (de Rocca, - p 76)
The gallop was a move which relieved anxiety.
Only the battle-hardened and disciplined troops managed to advance in slower, steady pace.
They sped up gradually and kept good order until the very last moment when officers ordered
them to gallop. Gallop was the winning intoxication gait with little time for second thought.
Experience has shown that the best distance from the enemy to begin the gallop, is between 200
and 50 paces. This gradual increase of speed is very important, to prevent the horses from
being completely blown on reaching the enemy.
The moral effect of a mass charging in good order was of the greatest influence. Brave but undisciplined cavalry would be most often defeated by disciplined troops. "We have often seen fanatic eastern people implicitly believing that death in battle means a happy and glorious resurection. Despite being better mounted they give way before discipline."
It is difficult to estimate just how many charges were decided without the two sides actually
meeting. Expert on cavalry, Ardant du Picq, stated (with some exaggeration, just to make the point)
that 49 of 50 one side hesitated, disordered and fled before contact was made.
Approx. 75 % of the time this will happen at a distance, before they can see each other's eyes.
If both sides were of equal morale then the horsemen would pass through each other's
formation and come out on the other side. Sometimes they would continue forward until were
overthrown by the second line of enemy's cavalry.
According to du Picq "There were frequent instances when 2 lines of cavalry would confront each other without dudging, each waiting for the other to retire or to make mistake." It was the case where troops on both sides were of equal bravery and determination. In 1831 two Russian and two Polish regiments charged each other. When close enough to recognize faces they slackened their gait and after a while both turned their backs and retreated. Similar situation - according to Du Picq - can be observed between two dogs, cats or lions when the courage is equal. In 1812 at Villadrigo the French and British cavalry attacked each other and a prolonged fight (10 minutes!) took place. Then came one more French regiment "got around one flank and rolled the British up."
In the British regulations for cavalry was stated that though circumstances of situation
may prevent a line of cavalry from advancing, it should "never absolutely stand still to
receive the shock, otherwise its defeat is inevitable." The French regulations also
mentioned it. There were however numerous instances where the cavalry, especially the French,
chose to receive a charge standing (and often firing a volley). The Poles shared similar view to the British.
Officer Chlapowski of the Old Guard Lancers writes: "I was obliged to reform as best I could, 'Forward ! March !' otherwise they
would have caught us stationary, which you should never let the enemy do."
There were cavalry troops who seeing danger refused to charge.
During battle some cavalry regiments were kept in reserve,
while others made numerous charges.
In 1814 in the Battle of Craonne, Russian hussar division was so involved in fighting that all
their generals were either wounded, injured or killed. The Pavlograd Hussars
conducted 8 charges and despite the exhaustion of horses and men
they formed the rear guard of the retreating infantry.
They paid the heaviest price for their heroics - this is said that out of 900 men
half were killed, wounded and injured.
The biggest cavalry charges.
The biggest cavalry charges made by Allies cavalry:
Charge of French hussars in Austerlitz in 1805.
Picture by Keith Rocco, USA >>
Picture: French cuirassiers and Russian Life Guard (heavy cavalry) in melee in 1807. Picture by Viktor Mazurovsky, Russia.
"The shock chest to chest - le coup de poitrail - is a chimera, for the constitution of horses renders it impossible and the instinct of men and horses prevents it. In a charge on eof the two sides either does not reach the enemy or does not wait for him. If the two sides meet, the horses pass in between one another and there os a melee." (Wilkinson, Spenser - "The French army before Napoleon; lectures delivered before the University of Oxford ..." p 64)
According to Ardant du Picq the cavalry "charges resolve themselves into mêlées".
Melee was a series of individual matches and depended upon individual horsemanship
and swordsmanship. Each man passed his opponent to the left or right, cuting, thusting,
slashing or blocking the blows. He attempted to present his right side (which was under cover
of his sword) to his adverary, and sought to gain his weak side, the left one.
The unfortunate fellow who could not manage his horse fast enough was lost.
If the man was tired, clumsy or wounded, his blows occassionally ended up on his horse's
head or neck.
Most melees lasted only few minutes. Generally the larger bodies of troops were involved the
longer the melee lasted. The melee could be a small one, involving only 2 squadrons or as
100 squadrons ! In 1812 at
Borodino there was a huge melee in the last stages of the battle.
The squadrons charged, went into melee, pulled out, reformed and charged again.
Pursuit and Casualties.
When hostile cavalries meet each other, there is usually but small loss on either side.
Only in few cavalry battles the casualties were heavy.
In cavalry combat a certain number of troopers were usually dismounted; but the colliding
masses somehow rode through each other, allowing but little time for the exchange of thrusts
and cuts. The most killing happened during the pursuit for several reasons:
Sometimes only the fleeing troops suffered casualties, not those who pursued them. In 1813 the French Guard chasseurs pursued Austrian hussars without any loss, but the enemy lost 200 men. Closer and/or longer pursuit led to heavier casualties and greater disorder.
Theoretically the pursuit was well concentrated action: smaller troop
chased the enemy, whilst the bigger troop was to follow so that any enemy reserves or
counter-attacks could have been met by a formed body. In 1813 at Reichenbach the Polish
Guard lancers broke the Cossacks and sent only their skirmishers
in pursuit. The regiment followed them in close distance. Such behaviour, however, was not common.
Once the cavalry has been committed to combat and pursuit the chances of stopping it
belonged in the realms of pious hopes. Men will pursue the enemy as long as they are able.
Often the pursuing and fleeing troops took themselves out of the battlefield as it happened in
1805 at Haslach-Jungingen. (French dragoons were broken and pursued by Austrian 2 cuirassier and
2 lighthorse regiments.)
The Best Cavalry of Napoleonic Wars.
Generally the Frenchman was an inferior horseman and swordsman as comparing to the British,
Prussian and Austrian cavalryman. So why did the French cavalry won in so many engagements ?
One factor was certainly their superior organization, at high levels, to most of their
opponents. The French command structure and organization made it more likely that a
French cavalry had reserves available, and the ability to direct them to exploit a break in
the enemy line or plug a gap in their own, or counterattack the victorious enemy.
Their discipline and tactics of using larger formations impressed even the enemies of France.
According to military historian, George Nafziger, the best cavalry were:
The Poles used to say that every commander loved the lancers for their looks, but not every man wished to carry the heavy weapon for all year long. The lance was traditional weapon of the Poles. First the Polish legendary Winged Knights (husaria) used it with great success against their enemies. Husaria's lance was approx. 5 m long. They attacked frontally smashing everything on their way. The times changed and the Winged Knights were replaced with uhlans (ulani) - armed with 2.5 m long lances. During march the weight of the lance bore down on the stirrup, where its lower end fitted into a small 'bucket'; carried on the march slanting back from a small sling around the rider's arm.
Mastery with lance required training and strong hand. "It took a lot of extra
training to produce a competent lancer. A British training manual produced some years after
Waterloo stated that he had to master 55 different exercises with his lance - 22 against
cavalry, 18 against infantry, with 15 general ones thrown in for good measure."
(Adkin - "The Waterloo Companion" p 247)
In 1809 in Vienna, Polish NCO Jordan of Guard Lighthorse, called upon dragoons of Napoleon's
Old Guard, to "fight" him. Two battle-hardened veterans
stepped out, he unhorsed both. (see picture -->)
The Poles had fueled a "lance craze" that swept the armies of Europe and inspired tens of regiments to clad in outfits modeled on the uniform of the uhlans. The Russians increased number of uhlan regiments from 5-6 to 12 and armed their 12 hussar regiments with lances. The Austrians increased from 3 to 4 regiments and the Prussians from 1 to 8 regiments. All lancers were uniformed in Polish style and design. Even the British formed their own lancers styled on the Poles. Uhlans were also formed in Italy and Spain.
Right: the legendary charge of British lancers at Balaklava, October 25th 1854.
Their uniforms closely resembled the dress of the Polish Vistula uhlans.
Q: Is the lance a very effective weapon?
Lance was the most dangerous in the first contact during line-vs-line combats.
The long weapon allowed cavalrymen to wound or kill an enemy armed with shorter weapon first.
Once the enemy had got past the point of the lance then the lancer was vulnerable.
General Jomini wrote that lance is the most aggressive weapon as one can simply outreach
De Rocca described how lancers were defeated:
"... they [Spaniards] marched in close column; at their head were the lancers of Xeres. This whole body began
at once to quicken their pace, in order to charge us while we were retiring. The captain commandimg our squadron made his
four platoons ... wheel half round to the right. This movement being made, he adjusted the front line of his troop
as quietly as if we had not been in presence of the enemy. ... The Spanish horse, seized with astonishment at his coolness, involuntarily slackened their pace.
Our commandant ... ordered the charge to be sounded. Our hussars, who in the midst of the threats and abuse of the enemy had preserved the strictest silence, then drowned
the sound of the trumpet as they moved onwards ... The Spanish lancers stopped;
seized with terror, they turned their horses at the distance of half-pistol-shot,
... our hussars mingled with them indiscriminately ..."
Disadvantages of lance:
The regulations for Saxon cavalry recommended an unusual attack against the lancers. It was called a la debandade and was executed in the widest intervals and only by the hussars (excellent horsemen and swordsmen) or cuirassiers (with body armor). The wide intervals allowed them to get behind the lancers. It was assumed that the effectiveness of the lance was reduced because the target was not concentrated and the lancer would have to constantly aim his lance at a moving target rather than just point it forward.
According to the Journal of Prussian 1st Leib Hussar Regiment: "When a lance-armed cavalry is charged home and when the melee begins, it is lost when opposed by any other cavalry armed with shorter arms. Proof for this is given by the attack of the regiment on the 2nd and 4th Polish Lancers at Dennewitz. Both regiments belonged to the cream of the French army. They were defeated easily, we took 10 officers and 120 others prisoner, the battlefield was covered with dead, and we had not a single serious casualty caused by lance stabs. The shorter cold steel arms are, the more secure and deadly. French cuirassier and dragoon swords are definitely too long, and maybe even our own sabres are."
(There are several problems with this story. At Dennewitz was present only the 2nd Uhlan Regiment, the 4th Regiment was with Dabrowski's corps. The single unit (2nd Uhlans) faced not only the Prussian hussars but also infantry. George Nafziger wrote in his "Napoleon's Dresden Campaign" (p 260) "...the Polish cavalry operating with Bertrand's IV Corps threw itself through the skirmish line and attacked the formed infantry behind them. The Prussian 4th Reserve Infantry Regiment formed square, as did three battalions of 3rd East Prussian Landwehr Regiment. The Poles then passed on and were engaged by Tauentzien's cavalry... The 1st Leib Hussar Regiment also joined the attack. The Poles were crushed, losing 9 officers and 93 men..."
Thus the casualties were inflicted not only by the hussars but also by 6 battalions of infatry and by Tauentzien's cavalry. Ney sent orders to the Westphalian Cavalry Brigade to support the Poles but the Westphalians refused. Furious Ney sent the colonel of the Westphalians to Napoleon after "ripping off his epaulettes."
When in 1809 Napoleon's horse carabiniers suffered heavy
casualties from Austrian uhlans he gave them armor. Lance's point couldn't penetrate the armor.
In 1813 in the Battle of Leipzig the Austrian Sommariva Cuirassiers went into action against Berkheim's French lancers.
The lancers broke and fled closely followed by the Austrians. A Saxon officer recalled the event as follow: "When we [Saxon cuirassiers] reached Berckheim, his men were mixed up with the enemy
in individual squadrons, so that there were Austrian units to the north of the French lancers. We Saxons had only just come up wwhen Berckheim rallied his men to face
the ever-increasing enemy pressure. But they could not stand even though Berckheim - bareheaded, as his hat
had been knocked off - threw himself into the thick of the melee.
He was also swept back in the flood of fugitives ... Despite this chaos, we stood fast and hacked away
at the Austrians. Shortly before they charged us, the Austrians had shouted to us to come over to them; we ignored them.
However, we were overpowered and broken. The chase now went on at speed, friend and foe all mixed up together, racing over the plain."
Only few lancers were able to deal with armored cavalry. In 1813 at Leipzig, Polish 3rd, 6th and 8th Uhlan Regiment, mostly veterans, didn't shy away from the cuirassiers. Near Auenhain Sheep-farm the three regiments charged numerous times against six Austrian and two Russian cuirassier regiments. The Poles pointed their lances at cuirassiers' faces, necks and groins. (According to P. Haythornthwaite "lance can be aimed at a target with greater accuracy than a sword.") They also used lances as battering rams - striking at tops of opponents' helmets with force.
According to Mark Adkin "a cavalry charge against infantry in square would be thrown back
99 times out of 100." Simple mathematics was against the cavalry when they attacked a square.
An average strength battalion with 600 men formed a square 3 ranks deep, this meant that on
one side were some 150 soldiers, all of whom could fire and contributed bayonets to the hedge.
They covered a frontage of about 25 m (50 men x 0.5 m). The most cavalrymen that the enemy
could bring to face them were 50 in 2 ranks (25 men x 1 m). But only the men in first
rank could attack at a time, some 6 muskets + bayonets confronted
a single lance or saber.
In 1812 at Borodino and in 1813 at Leipzig masses of lancers and uhlans were
unable to break a single square. However, if the infantry was not in square formation the chances increased for the lancers.
In 1811 at Albuera one regiment of Polish uhlans and one of French hussars, demolished the
entire British brigade, captured several Colors, several cannons, and hundreds of prisoners.
I know only few cases where the lancers broke infantry formed in square.
Majority of the brute and intimidating frontal attacks were won by the heavy cavalry. Only in few cases the winner was light cavalry. Arguably the most shocking such case took place at Leipzig, Saxony.
In 1813 in the Battle of Leipzig one regiment of Hungarian hussars advanced
against a massive column of French heavy cavalry, all covered in armor and mounted
on large horses. Rilliet of the French 1st Cuirassiers witnessed the encounter:
"We were in column of regiments. The 1st Horse Carabiniers were in front and General Sebastiani was to the right of the regiment: all at once a mass of
enemy cavalry, mainly Hungarian hussars, rode furiously down on the carabiniers.
'Bravo!' cried the general, laughing and waving the riding crop which was the only
weapon that he designed to use.
Milhaud was furious: "what will appear incredible and makes me indignant and afflicts me, is that a wretched charge of 200 cossacks and 2 squadrons of hussars, pushed back by my right ..." Milhaud with saber in hand, counterattacked with some success. But when 4 squadrons of hussars emerged from Burkersdorf the dragoons made half-turn and fled in disorder. Milhaud was unable to rally his dragoons until Uderwangen. Humiliated Milhaud added: "I would have liked to die in the fray."
Russian General Yermolov wrote in his memoirs (p 87): "In early Fenruary, a detachment from the advance guard defeated an enemy detachment near Mansfeld and Bochersdorf. General Lambert distinguished himself with extraordinary good management in this action". And on the next page: "It had been noticed that French cavalry was in the most exhausted condition; so that when two of their squadrons were pursued on an iced lake all have fallen down and were taken prisoner."
British historian Sir Charles Oman wrote in "Studies in the Napoleonic Wars" (published in USA in 1930) that six freshly remounted French dragoon regiments were routed at Bukersdorf in February 1807.
Terry Senior writes: "He was present at Eylau then, on the 16 February 1807 Milhaud's command was surprised by a marauding, relatively small band of Cossacks who inflicted considerable damage and casualties, before being driven off. Milhaud was furious with his regiments' performance and complained to Murat that they had disgraced themselves and that he was ashamed to be associated with them. They subsequently went into winter quarters, during which time Milhaud had them drilled day and night."
Russian General Bennigsen wrote that the Russian forces at Burkersdorf consisted of 8 squadrons of Soumy Hussar Regiment and 2 regiments of Cossacks. When Milhaud's dragoons appeared in the open field the Russians charged the head of the French column. The head of the column collapsed along with the remainder of the column. The Russians pursued the dragoons to the vicinity of Gross Lauth. There Milhaud's dragoons took cover behind the infantry. The dragoons suffered 400 killed and wounded and 177 captured. Russian losses were 5 killed and wounded.
Sir Robert Thomas Wilson mentions the combat at Buckersdorff (Burkersdorf). According to Wilson the French lost 400 killed and 288 prisoners.
Unfortunately Digby Smith's "The Greenhill Napoleonic Wars Data Book" don't mention this combat.
Sources and Links.
Nafziger - "Imperial Bayonets"
Nosworthy - "With Musket, Cannon and Sword"
Rothenberg - "The Napoleonic Wars (History of Warfare)"
Elting - "Swords Around a Throne: Napoleon's Grand Armee"
Muir - "Tactics and the Experience of Battle in the Age of Napoleon"
Parquin - "Napoleon's Army, The military Memoirs of Charles Parquin"
Chlapowski - "Memoirs of a Polish Lancer" (translated by Tim Simmons)
Lord Moran - "The Anathomy of Courage"
Arnold - "Napoleon Conquers Austria"
de Rocca - "In the Peninsula with a French hussar"
Photos of grand diorama of Leipzig. Courtesy of Udo Sixel, Germany.
Pictures of Hussar of Death, and Saxon Garde du Corps - Steven Palatka
Cavalry: Its History and Tactics.
History of Cavalry.
US Cavalry Association.
Saber or sabre.
Joachim Murat "The First Saber of Europe" - commander of Napoleon's cavalry
Antoine-Charles-Louis de Lasalle - commander of "Brigade Infernale"
Friedrich Wilhelm von Seydlitz - one of the greatest cavalry generals
Casimir Pulaski "Father of the American Cavalry"
Cavalry Tactics and
Combat - Part 2
Cavalry Combats at Austerlitz (1805), Alt-Eglofsheim (1809), Drouia (1812)
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Napoleon, His Army and Enemies