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Wednesday, 25 November 2009
The Australian Light Horse, Militia and AIF, Mounted Rifle Tactics, Part 4, The Attack
Topic: AIF - Lighthorse

The Australian Light Horse,

Militia and AIF

Mounted Rifle Tactics, Part 4, The Attack


Cape Mounted Rifleman

[Drawing from 1904 by Richard Caton Woodville, 1856 - 1927.]


The following series is from an article called Mounted Rifle Tactics written in 1914 by a former regimental commander of the Cape Mounted Riflemen, Lieutenant-Colonel J. J. Collyer. His practical experience of active service within a mounted rifles formation gives strength to the theoretical work on this subject. It was the operation of the Cape Mounted Riflemen within South Africa that formed the inspiration for the theoretical foundations of the Australian Light Horse, and was especially influential in Victoria where it formed the cornerstone of mounted doctrine. 

Collyer, JJ, Mounted Rifle Tactics, Military Journal, April, 1915, pp. 265 - 305:


Mounted Rifle Tactics.


Definition - Mounted riflemen as advanced troops - In the attack generally - Special attacks - Fire from the saddle - Rooiwal - The "mounted rifle -charge." - Vlakfontein - Blood River - Bakenlaagte - Yzer Spruit - Rooiwal again.

Attack is defined in Field Service Regulations as "the action of that force which has gained the initiative and assumes the offensive first." Dispositions for attack should be based on as accurate information of the enemy's strength and position as can be obtained. Such knowledge can, as a general rule, only be arrived at as the result of reconnaissance in some form or other. Reconnaissance is the duty of the mounted troops - mounted riflemen, in the case we are studying – whether acting alone or with other arms.

I propose to consider reconnaissance for attack in detail when dealing of reconnaissance. I think that for the purpose of our the attack, as it concerns the arm with which we are dealing, it will be well to investigate the subject under the following headings:-

1. Action as advanced troops.

2. Action in the attack generally.

3 Special methods of attack.

1. Advanced troops -

In view of their employment as advanced troops, mounted riflemen will always be concerned with the opening phases of a combat. Their action in a deliberately planned attack will be decided mainly by the dispositions of the commander of the force, and, as the enemy will be awaiting attack in a position of his own selection, such fire positions as are at first available can probably be occupied without special necessity for speed or effort, as they will have been deliberately left vacant. In the case of an encounter combat, however, that is to say, when hostile bodies meet during a mutual advance, the initial action taken by the commander of advanced mounted riflemen becomes of immense importance and may have a far-reaching effect on the issue of the fight after it becomes general. To gain the initiative and the advantage of better ground is the first object, and it is on the rapid seizure of fire positions, and by surprising the enemy and impeding his deployment, that this will be done.

The fire positions should be occupied with their prospective use for the development of the general attack in view. They must also be so selected that they deny as much advantage of ground as possible to the opponents; they must be capable of defence against possibly superior numbers for some time; and they must be so selected that after the main body has entered the fight, aggressive action by the mounted troops is possible, especially against the hostile flanks. The opening features of such an encounter will be rapid deployment and a contest in speed between two mounted forces to secure fire positions, and very often, given the offensive spirit in each force, the race will be for the same position. Many of us have seen gallops for the same position and the discomfiture of that force which is beaten in the race, it may be by a few minutes, and it is in such circumstances that I think that body which is able to fire from the saddle may gain a position which will give them the initial advantage, and often, with it, a command of the opening situation, which will influence the result of the struggle as a whole. Moments are of vast importance in such circumstances, and even a slight check in speed As the result of several horses coming down may just make the difference to the advantage of the side which has effected the small disorganization in its opponents' ranks.

Effective and bold reconnaissance on the part of the troops, ready acceptance of responsibility, general tactical knowledge in view of the eventual co-operation of all arms, good judgment of ground, and quick decision on the part of leaders, alone can insure that free and well-judged use of mobility which is the great advantage of mounted riflemen in the first stage of an encounter combat. Given the occupation of well-chosen fire positions, the denial to the enemy of the advantages which both sides are seeking will follow as a matter of course.

The necessity for rapid decision, and conveying clear orders, at a time when hesitation is fatal and confusion may well occur, is paramount, and all officers of mounted rifle units should be frequently exercised in tactical problems on the ground, which should be solved in a given time and by writing a short statement of the action taken and the verbal orders issued.

The maintenance of full freedom of manoeuvre, that is to say, of the power of regaining mobility by rapidly remounting, must never be overlooked at this stage of the fight, and the normal full strength of rifles in the firing line is, in the case of mounted riflemen, three in every section, or, in other words, one man in every four will be with the led horses, to insure their mobility. It is not conceivable that at the beginning of an undeveloped combat mobility can be sacrificed safely. At a time of excitement, unless action is based on habit, the desire to develop the fullest possible fire may lead to making the led horses immobile, and this seems to indicate the need for a strong word of caution. Sacrifice of mobility is the abandonment by a mounted rifleman of a large proportion of his tactical value, and if it is ever permissible, it certainly never is in the initial stages of attack by advanced mounted troops.

No effort should be wanting to ascertain the strength and dispositions of the enemy as far as he has committed himself to any deployment and distribution of his force, and endeavours should be made to locate the situation of his flanks, and prevent any outflanking movement on his part.

The initial action of mounted riflemen acting as advanced troops in case of encounter with the enemy will be the rapid seizure of fire positions to deny any advantage of ground and the initiative to the enemy, maintaining full mobility and endeavouring to obtain a clear idea of the situation which confronts the commander of the whole force.

2. The attack generally -

The action of mounted riflemen in the attack generally may now be considered.

Surprise being a strong element in the tactical value of the arm, fire positions should be occupied as quickly as possible and should be reached by routes which are concealed from the view of the enemy. It will probably be necessary, if the position is at any distance from the point at which its occupation is decided upon, to screen the exposed flank of the movement by flanking parties which should not be stronger by one man more than is necessary to achieve the object aimed at, viz., denial to the enemy of view of the manoeuvre.

Should it prove necessary to cross exposes ground, it should be covered at the fastest possible pace, and, if under fire, extended. Troops, however, should not be extended during such movements unless extension is imperative, and should be closed as soon as the necessity for the open formation ceases.

The object is to arrive at the fire position as soon as possible, and in a formation which will allow of the immediate issue of orders to the whole force for the rapid delivery of fire and the disposal of the horses. The force should therefore arrive at the position concentrated, and in good order, for confusion means delay, and minutes have assumed enormous importance.

The horses should be as close; to their dismounted riders in the firing line as circumstances will allow, but the following conditions must be secured:

1. They must be under cover from view and fire. To obtain the second of these conditions it may be necessary to move the led horses after dismounting, if unaimed fire is likely to reach them over the position. The ideal place for the led horses is close under the position, with easy access from the firing line.

2. They should be so placed that the return of their riders to mount is effected rapidly and so that the next movement, again in an orderly manner and compact form under the hand of the commander, is initiated without unnecessary delay.

I have often noticed, especially on peace manoeuvres, that confusion, and loss of mobility in consequence of it, occur when the usual rapid return to the horses is made. This is possibly due in some measure to the lack of training, for the horses require to be accustomed to what is always in the nature of a rush and a scramble, but largely owing to a want of foresight and not placing the horses so that mounting is made convenient, and the forward movement is started with the force collected and in good order. In attack, the place for remounting should be covered from view by the enemy-cover from fire when remounting for advance may not always be required-in order that the fresh movement may be concealed.

In such an ideal position as I have described above, the led horses will be close behind the firing line and within easy reach, and communication with those in charge of them and their protection will in such circumstances be achieved by the tactical situation. Ideal positions are, however, scarce, and as communication with the led horses and their safety are indispensable conditions, they must be maintained; and I think this can be best assured by bearing in mind the following rules:

1. The maintenance of mobility by keeping the horses quickly available for dismounted men in action is as much the concern of the commander of mounted riflemen as the direction of the fire fight, which can only be conducted to the best advantage in attack by constantly seeking to deliver effective fire at close range. The position of the led horses with reference to their dismounted riders should be adjusted as the fight develops, and should be advanced or retired as the situation demands, being constantly checked l y the commander, and not changed as the result of suddenly giving attention to this most important point.

2. Visual communication whenever possible should exist between the commander and those in charge of the led horses.

3. When visual communication is impossible, an escort may become necessary, and in any case, as many orderlies as may be required should be detailed specially for communication work with the led horses.

4. When the led horses cease to be protected by the action of the firing line, or by the tactical situation, special measures, in the way of a separate escort, additional to the normal allowance of men, must be taken for their safety.

Successive advances must be undertaken in all offensive action by mounted riflemen, and as soon as a fire position has been occupied in attack, steps should be taken for the next advance. It will often be possible to send reconnaissance parties, which can use concealed lines of approach round the hostile flanks, to ascertain the most desirable and quickest route to the next suitable position, but in any case the commander must always bear in mind the need for continuous aggression, and, if he cannot reconnoitre by means of patrols, must send single individuals, or examine the ground carefully as far as he can for himself with the next forward movement in prospect.

The value and need of covering fire must also be borne in mind on all occasions.

In action with other arms, mounted riflemen should be employed on enterprises for which rapid and extensive movement are necessary, against the hostile flanks, on reconnaissance, and in reserve till the chance of dealing a rapid and unexpected blow is revealed. They should not be committed to any task which can be performed efficiently by infantry.

Finally, in this matter of action generally in the attack, the pursuit must be fixed in the intention of mounted riflemen as the finishing blow which by their mobility they are specially able to deal to a beaten foe. Victories on different scales are recorded in history by the score; thoroughly successful pursuits have been few and far between, and yet surely no chance of inflicting loss on a beaten enemy can be so great as that afforded by a vigorous pursuit. The larger the forces engaged, the more difficult it becomes to take up an organized pursuit immediately after a battle. Pursuit, however, in considering warfare in South Africa will be essential, particularly in native warfare, where only sustained offensive action is of avail) and, difficult as it may be, it must be effected, if possible, by mounted riflemen after success in a combat. A victory must have been unmistakable, and a mobile force must be in hand when the moment comes for launching the pursuit. Unless the force engaged is very small, the preparation of the pursuing force must be undertaken before the time comes for its employment. Pursuit after a victory by citizen forces has rarely been found possible, so history tells us, and its necessity must be impressed on all officers, and its execution practised in peace, to achieve the great success which is possible by the vigorous action of mounted riflemen in outflanking and anticipating a retiring beaten force. Confusion, exhaustion, and difficulty of communication all contribute to the impossibility of organizing a pursuit by employing troops who have been recently engaged, and these impediments are magnified in the case of citizen troops. A clear recognition of the necessity for pursuit, and the habit of providing for its achievement are therefore of much importance.

3. Special attacks -

I wish to consider two special forms of attack before leaving the subject. Each was employed by the Republican forces in the last South African War, and their use was practically confined to those forces.

The first is by the delivery of fire from the saddle. I am of the firm opinion that fire from the saddle is a means of offence and inflicting damage which will become far more effective if it is developed by training and practice. I have often heard the suggestion of its value dismissed as hardly worth consideration, and when I have expressed the opinion to which I have referred, the most courteous reception accorded to it, as a rule, has been that usually given to the opinions of a well-intentioned person with a pet idea. I have, however, no hesitation in saying that most of those with whom I have spoken have admitted that they have not really thought much about it, and far less have they examined any facts which bear on the point.

There is a mention of fire from the saddle in the new South African Manual. It is as follows:

"Few movements have proved to have such a demoralizing effect on unentrenched troops which have been at all unnerved, as an extended line of mounted riflemen at a gallop attacking them in front and simultaneously enveloping their flank, halting only for an instant at short intervals to fire from the saddle. Undoubtedly expert riders and well-trained horses are required to carry out such an attack, but it has been successful upon several occasions."

The recognition of fire from the saddle is brief, but if the words used are studied it will be admitted that such circumstances as those which are assumed are those in which great results may be achieved. Perhaps, until this method of delivering fire has been carefully tested, it would be unwise to lay down rules for teaching and using it, but I venture to express my view that it should be tested exhaustively, and, if found to possess something like the offensive value which a am inclined to ascribe to it, should be adopted and taught.

I do not know how many officers have studied the action of Rooiwal, in the Western Transvaal, on 11th April, 1902. 1 commend it especially, and several others, to the attention of those who are inclined to dismiss fire from the saddle as of little value. The following facts suffice for my purpose here:

A number of the mounted troops of the Republics-about 800-rode in a solid line, varying from two to four deep, against a British force, which, after hastily deploying, brought the fire of 1,500 magazine rifles and six guns to bear upon their adversaries. The latter were subjected to this fire while they covered from 300 to 400 yards in solid formation-an experience calculated to try the coolest temperament. They fired from the saddle, and - here is my point - killed 7 and wounded 56 of the British troops who were lying down and firing at them. One hundred and fifty horses were killed, and many more temporarily stampeded, as a direct result of this fire, unaimed as it was, in the ordinary acceptance of the word.

Is it wise to dismiss the possibility of fire from the saddle as a means of doing serious damage to an enemy, in the light of the above facts? I venture to think, certainly not. In the race for a fire position, to which I have alluded earlier-in sudden onslaughts, such as I shall discuss immediately; to stampede led horses and produce the great moral effect caused by such a disaster; on rear guards; surely this extra means of offence is well worth serious investigation.

Before closing this chapter I wish, in conclusion, to refer to what is called the "mounted riflemen charge." The word "charge" is a misnomer in this case. A charge means contact in a hand-to-hand fight with cold steel, and to use the term in connection with the method of attack that I shall now consider is calculated to give a false impression, and, I would even add, a wrong conception of its mode of application. The manoeuvre has been discussed in print, and while admitting its great value, I think the fact needs emphasis that, with all forms of tactics, it has its limitations.

We have successes, and at least one notable failure, to guide our investigations. The most striking instances of this form of attack axe the following:

1. Vlakfontein on 29th May, 1901 -

Five hundred mounted troops of the Republican forces, under cover of the smoke of a veldt fire which was blown into the faces of a rearguard of a British column, overwhelmed that column, captured its position, and two guns accompanying it, and inflicted heavy loss by fire from the saddle and the ground.

In the rear guard, in addition to a company of regular infantry, were 230 Imperial Yeomanry, largely composed of recruits. A troop of this Yeomanry, composed, as the Official History tells us, "of men totally fresh to campaigning," by Billing back and exposing the left flank of the rear guard without advising the rear guard commander of their action gave the initial advantage to the attack.

Important circumstances in this action were:-

(a) A definite objective; a rear guard occupying a ridge offering opportunity of further attack, if secured.

(b) Surprise; owing to the cover from view afforded by smoke, and materially assisted by the unknown retirement of the left flank of the rear guard.

(c) The presence of many recruits new to campaigning.

(d) The casualties were inflicted by fire-some of it from the saddle.

2. Blood River Poort on 17th September, 1901 -

Three hundred of Gough's Mounted Infantry, extended and engaged to their front with about 500 of the enemy, were caught in flank and rolled up by the fire, chiefly dismounted, of 500 additional hostile mounted troops whose presence had been undetected on the flank, in consequence of a hasty assumption that the force in front represented all to be reckoned with, and omission to reconnoitre.

The main points to notice in this combat are:

(a) A definite objective; a smaller force, ignorant of the presence of superior numbers, and obviously liable to heavy defeat.

(b) Surprise; effected as the result of neglect to reconnoitre.

(c) Striking preponderance of strength in favour of the victorious troops.

3. Bakenlaagte on 30th October, 1901 -

Some 800 mounted troops, having collected and advanced rapidly in more or less close formation, under cover of mist driven into the faces of their opponents by wind, practically annihilated a rear guard of somewhat less than 200 men by fire delivered at close range dismounted.

The following features are conspicuous:

(a) A definite objective; the rear guard of a force going into bivouac, having taken up a position from which further offensive action might well be undertaken by the attacking force.

(b) Surprise; effected under cover of mist.

(c) Preponderance of strength with the attack to a large extent, as compared with the portion of the defending force engaged.

4. Yzer Spruit on 25th February, 1902 -

Twelve hundred mounted men captured a convoy escorted by 490 British troops, after a severe fight, in which “rushes " in bodies were conspicuous on the part of the enemy, who used fire from the saddle to a considerable extent.

The main circumstances to be observed are:

(a) A definite objective; a convoy thrown into confusion by a sudden attack, made on the head of the column in the first instance.

(b) Surprise; less complete than was evidently desired, with a consequent loss on the part of the attackers, which is not so marked on some other occasions of the use of the same method.

(c) Preponderance of strength again to a large extent with the attack.

There are other instances of success, but I think enough have been examined. The failure is perhaps the most instructive episode of all.

5. Rooiwal on 11th April, 1902 -

Eight hundred mounted men were launched in a solid irregular line from two to four deep at a British advanced guard, and, in spite of a most determined and gallant attack, were repulsed with severe loss by a hurried deployment of 1,100 troops in support of the advanced guard.

Here we must note that -

(a) Whereas the original objective seems to have been the advanced guard, the co-operation of troops in its support does not appear to have been expected.

(b) Surprise was incomplete, for time was available to deploy against the attack, although very hurriedly.

(c) Preponderance of strength, though not to such a marked extent as with the attack in the instances previously quoted, rested with the defence.

(d) The whole attack bears the impress of a most gallant enterprise undertaken largely on the impulse of the moment, and with insufficient knowledge of the situation.

We may now draw our conclusions.

This special form of attack, which I prefer to call a mounted assault in close formation, rather than a charge, is valuable and highly effective, but can only be undertaken

1. By thoroughly seasoned troops. The Republican troops who delivered these attacks were tried warriors of proved gallantry.

2. When the situation to be dealt with is clearly known to the officer who orders the attack and a definite objective has been plainly determined.

3. Against a disorganized, hampered, or indifferently disciplined force. 4. When it is possible to surprise the force to be attacked.

5. In the great majority of instances, when the attack has the advantage in strength.

In short, this method of attack, in spite of its undoubted value, needs specially favorable circumstances for its successful accomplishment, and, unless they exist, such attacks will fail. Particularly is it necessary that troops of proved courage should be well aware of the limitations attaching to it, for the rapid onslaught in close formation appeals strongly to the soldierly instinct, apart from any consideration as to what its result may be.


Previous: Part 3, General Considerations 

Next: Part 5, Defence 


Further Reading:

The Light Horse

Australian Light Horse Militia

Militia 1899 - 1920

Battles where Australians fought, 1899-1920


Citation: The Australian Light Horse, Militia and AIF, Mounted Rifle Tactics, Part 4, The Attack

Posted by Project Leader at 12:01 AM EAST
Updated: Thursday, 10 December 2009 9:01 AM EAST

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