Encyclopedia: Cavalry

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French Cavalry

Probably, none of the contemporary commanders appreciated cavalry as much as the emperor of France did. Being well aware of its combat potential Napoleon frequently used light cavalry to conceal movements of the main army and to scout for enemy locations and maneuvers. He also strongly believed in massive cavalry attacks on a battlefield and repeatedly used them to charge weak points of enemy formations.

When he came to power Bonaparte changed organization of cavalry in the army by forming separate brigades and divisions from the cavalry regiments that previously were part of the infantry. Napoleon’s belief in importance of maneuver and attack of the hordes of heavy cavalry was so strong that he later arranged the divisions into corps. Thus, in 1805, strength of the corps of Murat was about 22,000 cuirassiers and dragoons and 1,000 men of horse artillery. In the campaign of 1812, Grande Armée included four reserve cavalry corps under general command of Murat apart from attached light cavalry divisions. The overall cavalry strength amounted to 208 squadrons – that is over 38,000 cavalrymen.

Shortly after Napoleon became the emperor, he set up a large military camp where the troops were trained to maneuver in combat formations. On account of his “artillery background” Bonaparte did not know nuances of the cavalry work but somehow had a distinct feel for its reconnaissance and guarding potential as well its capabilities in attack. He understood his cavalry was lacking in maneuverability and tried to balance it off with great numbers. As a result the French cavalry had to charge at a trot as it was the only pace at which many riders could maintain required order and closeness. The downside to this attack was heavy casualties in soldiers and horses taken from infantry and artillery fire. This led to introduction of cuirasses and helmets for heavy cavalrymen, and some time later for carabineers also. Soon the cuirassiers won great renown for their feats of arms that often influenced an outcome of the whole campaign.

Napoleon’s army included cavalry from all combat arms. Thus, after the battle of Borgetto in 1796 a squad of guides was formed. Its primary objective was to protect Bonaparte. The squad consisted only of the veterans thoroughly selected from those who served for over five years. It became a precursor for the Consular Guards that gradually developed into a small army, the Imperial Guards.

In Bonaparte’s time, mounted carabineers of the French army were arranged into two regiments. By 1791, they had been armed with broadsword, carbines with bayonets, and pistols. Later on they were re-armed with English muskets (without bayonets) captured in one of the Austrian castles.

Cuirassier regiments in Grande Armée were formed out of fifth, sixth and seventh cavalry regiments in December 1802. They proved so much useful on the battlefield that nine more cavalry regiments were equipped with cuirasses and helmets in 1804. By 1812, the French army had 14 regiments of the kind.

Russian Cavalry

By 1810, the Russian cavalry included six cuirassier regiments, thirty-six dragoon regiments, eleven hussar regiments and five uhlan regiments. In addition, the army also included the guard cavalry – two cuirassier regiments, one Uhlan regiment, one hussar and uhlan regiment and one cossacks regiment.

There were quite a few battles between Russian and French armies in that time and in most of them the Russian cavalry showed its worth. For example, in the battle of Austerlitz 2,000 cuirassier guards struck the French infantry into the flank when the latter engaged reserves of the Russian infantry in close combat. As the attack was very orderly and courageous, the French were dispersed and even lost one of their standards (“eagle”). Napoleon ordered counterattack. The French infantry guards took advantage of the Russian lines being partially disordered after the first clash and managed to throw them back. The Russian however regrouped quickly and engaged the enemy again. In a violent fight, none of the sides wanted to yield. Eventually, the Russian cavalry had to fall back to Austerlitz but this fight influenced the outcome of the whole battle.

In the campaign of 1807, Russian general Bennigsen left his position by Geilsberg to attack the enemy, but quick concentration of the French troops forced him back into encampment. In this connection, the rearguard had to cover crossing of the cannons and transports over the river. The rearguard leader, Bagration decided to place a covering force at Glottau. He sent 2,000 cavalrymen to intercept the French if possible, meanwhile marshaling 5,000 infantrymen into several squares to hold off approaching 12,000 strong cavalry of Murat. As reported by eyewitnesses, the Russian showed amazing courage. The enemy’s numerical superiority was overwhelming but the Russian squadrons put a stubborn and steadfast defense so that none of them was overrun. After a bloody battle when the artillery and transports finished the crossing and the enemy withdrew to regroup, Bagration’s troops fell back behind the river. The Russian did not suffer heavy casualties, not to mention that none of the squares was broken.

British Cavalry

By 1805 all the British cavalry consisted of dragoon regiments, divided to heavy (linear) and light ones. Heavy cavalry contained 10 guards regiments (one of which was named the Royal Cavalry Regiment and the other two – Light Guards; the rest of regiments were simply numbered from one to seven), and two dragoon regiments of the Royal German Legion. The last one was organized in British army in 1803 (mainly contained Hanoverian hirelings). The severance of the diplomatic relations with France and annulment of the [Amien] Decree of 1803 made Pete government to start organizing the Legion, what demanded an urgent army enforcement. There were only 6 regiments of light cavalry.

The regular authorized establishment of the British cavalry took turns almost each year. Thus, there could be only 1 squadron in a regiment as well as 8 ones. (For example, in 1809 two regiments of Light Cavalry contained 4 squadrons, and regiments of Royal Cavalry consisted of 5 squadrons. Other guards’ regiments contained 7 squadrons as well as 4 army regiments. One of the linear regiments consisted of 8 squadrons, and two dragoon regiments of the Royal German Legion contained only 5 squadrons, and so on and so forth.). Squadron usually consisted of two companies and each company consisted of 3 platoons. Squadron was labeled with a letter and company – with a number. About 125 dragoons served in each squadron. Linear dragoons were armed with two pistols, broadswords and carbines. Linear cavalry was never enlisted to any of large military campaigns during Napoleonic period (except in 1815). By 1805 Light Cavalry consisted of 12 English dragoon regiments and 3 regiments of the Royal German Legion. The organization of a light regiment differed in some way from the heavy one: as usual such a regiment contained 4 or 5 squadrons, which consisted of 2 companies and each company consisted of 2 platoons. About 180 combat riders served in a squadron. A squadron was labeled with a number and a company was labeled with a letter. In 1806 4 regiments of light dragoons and 3 light regiments of the Legion were reorganized for hussar.

English cavalry distinguished itself during Spanish wars thereby maintaining the honor gained in Netherlands Campaigns in 1793-1794. The victory in the battle on [Salamanka] was succeeded with attack of La Marshane and Anson cavalries under the command of Sir Kottoen. In a few minutes the left French wing was destroyed, 2 thousands prisoners and 5 thousands arms were undertaken then, while uncoordinated remains of the French army escaped to the forest.

As mentioned before, for that time lots of Hanoverians and other Germans, who served to the British army, formed the so called Royal German Legion that contained 2 regiments of heavy dragoons and 3 regiments of light dragoons (later reformed to hussars) among. This cavalry was very famous. Thus, the first hussar regiment of colonel Arenshield was considered to be the best light cavalry regiment for outpost service among all British army. And the most magnificent attack during all Spanish Campaign was accomplished by the dragoon brigade of General Boke on Harsee-Hernandess.

In this battle by order of Lord Vellingtone rushed on enemy cavalry that hided that time in the landscape placations. The debouching line moving before in a column of three started slow turning out. The head squadron of the first regiment under the command of captain Hattorfe, where also served general Boke, field-officer of the regiment and English lieutenant colonel May, rushed straight to the enemy without waiting for others. The French, who were at that moment in the very center, turned back when saw the approaching squadron and concentrated musket fire on it, under which the pursuit stopped.

Captain Goustove fon der Dekken, who was in command of the third squadron of the regiment, noted that if he continued the attack formulary, he would unavoidably put his flank under the fire of the infantry square. Therefore he decided to attack it with only one of his squadrons. Being closed round the squadron started off towards the square, which started fire. In 120 steps fon der Dekken himself was mortally wounded as well as lots of horses and horsemen were killed. The commander of the left half of the squadron captain fon Uslan-Glaykhen, immediately jumped out before the eyes of the soldiers, encouraged them and directed the army. Next salvo killed much more dragoons than previous one, but they still continued rushing, reached the square and surrounded enemy from both flanks. The front ranks raised forward their bayonets and those who were behind pointed their arms towards approaching dragoons. At that moment one of the shots overthrew a horse with a rider just onto the bayonets and hence the dragoons, notwithstanding the open fire, bursted through the square. The French battalion was completely destroyed and the rest of the army was taken prisons.

The commander of the second squadron captain Ritzenstain met on his way almost impassable region. When he saw his comrades successfully attacking the enemy he decided to turn over forward the infantry and attack another square that stood on the top of the hill. They met him with heavy fire; lieutenant Hugel was killed and lieutenant Trapp was seriously wounded. But the morale of the French infantry was broken down after the destruction of the first square, though several soldiers left their positions. So this square was also bursted through and partly slaughtered, partly taken prisons. Those French, who chanced to escape, organized the third square and several horsemen joined them. Barony Marshalk started to attack this third square with the third squadron of the second regiment and with a half oh the second squadron of lieutenant Fumettie. First, he scattered hostile cavalry and then he attacked infantry and almost destroyed it.

General Fuah, when describing the history of the Spanish wars, noted that it was the most magnificent attacks on the Pirineyan Peninsula battlefields. Vellingtone in his times expressed an opinion that he never faced to more dashing combats.


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