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Sunday, 12 April 2009
The Nature of the British Army prior to 1914, Blow the trumpet, draw the sword, Part 5
Topic: AIF - DMC - British

The Nature of the British Army prior to 1914

Part 5, Blow the trumpet, draw the sword


An extract from Holmes, R., Riding the Retreat, London, 1995, pp. 58 - 66.


Blow the trumpet, draw the sword

Let us leave Sergeant Cubbon on his journey to Golgotha, and consider the last of the divisional commander's mobile resources, his divisional cavalry squadron. The troop, under a captain, had traditionally been the cavalry's sub-unit. Troops could be combined into squadrons commanded by one of the regiment's field officers, but it was not until 1892 that squadrons were permanently established, a reform which foreshadowed the infantry's adoption of four large companies rather than eight small ones. In 194, cavalry regiments, commanded by lieutenant-colonels, had three squadrons each of four troops: two squadrons were commanded by majors and one by a captain. Troops were led by subalterns, and consisted of four seven-man sections.

There was a two-gun machine-gun section, again a subaltern's command, with regimental headquarters. It has been unkindly suggested that cavalry commanding officers were not aficionados of the machine-gun. In his History of the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards Major-General J. M. Brereton describes an incident in the 1910 autumn manoeuvres when a machine-gun officer approached his commanding officer: `What shall I do with the Maxims, Sir?' asked the subaltern. `Can't you see I'm busy,' spluttered the colonel. `Take, the damn things to a flank and hide them.' This advice was not as lunatic as it may sound: concealed machine-guns on a flank were precisely what a cavalry regiment needed, whether it was attacking on horseback or defending on foot. Lieutenant-Colonel W. T. Willcox of the 3rd Hussars certainly took the view that there were too few machine-guns, venting his feelings with a sporting metaphor. They were, he affirmed, `as scarce as woodcock in a day's covert shooting'.

In August 1914, cavalry regiments put twenty-five to thirty officers and around 530 men into the field. The 3rd Hussars went to war with twenty-six officers, 523 men, 528 chargers and troop horses, seventy-four draught horses - for the machine-guns and the eighteen wagons of the regimental transport - and six pack horses. Not only was a cavalry regiment just over half the size of an infantry battalion, but if it fought dismounted its strength was reduced by the need for one man in four to-act as horse-holder.

In Cavalry Studies, published in 1907, Major-General Douglas Haig outlined three roles for cavalry. Independent cavalry carried out deep strategic exploitation, working directly under the orders of the commander-in-chief. Protective cavalry provided security for the army and its lines of communication, while divisional cavalry helped protect the division and provide it with communications. In August 1914, the 15th Hussars found the squadrons for 1st, 2nd and 3rd Divisions, and the 19th Hussars for the 4th and 5th Divisions.

Commanding divisional cavalry was an instructive experience for the squadron leader, who worked closely with divisional headquarters and had his finger on the pulse of events. But it was not a job which appealed to most cavalry officers. They aspired, not to be tied to the apron-strings of the infantry, but to be operating as part of a cavalry division at the army's cutting edge. In August 194 the BEF included a cavalry division of four brigades, each brigade containing three regiments and the division as a whole fielding 9,269 officers and men and 9, 8 15 horses. There were two two-battery brigades of horse artillery, permitting a battery to support each brigade, four cavalry field ambulances, an engineer field squadron, a signal squadron and divisional transport. In addition, there was the independent 5th Cavalry Brigade with its own little slice of support, including J Battery RHA.

We have already seen how pre-war doctrine had attempted to grapple with the linked issues of firepower and offensive action. The debate on the relationship between fire and shock was particularly heated where the mounted arm was concerned. Even in the horse and musket age, cavalry had been hard put to break infantry who formed square, stood their ground and fired. When they succeeded it was usually because of leadership which was brave to the point of suicide. Lieutenant Moore, adjutant of 3rd Bombay Light Cavalry, set his horse at a Persian square in 1857, letting his sword swing from his wrist by its sword knot to leave both hands free for the reins. He jumped right over the infantry, losing his horse in the process, but the sowars followed his resolute lead to break the square.

The development of effective breech-loading weapons in the second half of the nineteenth century led many commentators to proclaim that cavalry could not achieve useful results by shock action. In r863 a French cavalry officer ruefully admitted that `cavalry is in disfavour; it is a fact'. The cavalry lobby riposted by claiming that well-handled horsemen could make clever use of ground and smoke to burst in on unsuspecting opponents, breechloaders or no.

In the Franco-Prussian War, French cavalry showed itself deficient in almost everything but courage. On 6 August 1870, General de Bonnemains' cuirassier division thundered to destruction at Froeschwiller. Ten days later, the Cuirassiers of the Guard charged Prussian infantry at Rezonville and lost twenty-two officers and 244 men in the process. The 5th Cuirassiers launched a similarly heroic but catastrophic charge at Mouzon, trying to buy time for shaken French infantry to cross the Meuse, while at Sedan, on 1 September, General Margueritte's fine division of Chasseurs d'Afrique attacked with such magnificently wasted gallantry that the Prussian King, watching from a nearby hilltop, could not resist exclaiming: 'Ah! The brave fellows.'

Much the same evidence had emerged from the American Civil War, where even in mounted engagements fire seemed to have the edge over shock. The Confederate General John H. Morgan armed all his troopers with firearms: some had Enfield rifles and some shotguns, and nearly every man had a pair of revolvers. When charged by Union cavalry, Morgan shouted: `Here, boys, are those fools coming again with their sabres; give it to them'. In November 1864, a pistoleering Confederate squadron took on a sabre-wielding Union squadron: the former lost one man killed and several wounded, while the latter lost twenty-four killed, twelve wounded and sixty-two prisoners.

The Boer War made much the same point. Although there .were successful cavalry charges - on 21 October 1899 a squadron of the 5th Dragoon Guards and one of the 5th Lancers cut up a retreating Boer force at Elandslaagte - by the end of the war most horsemen had given up carrying sword or lance. Major A. W. Andrew observed that the accuracy of Boer fire made it `unsafe to sit still on horseback at 1,500 or 1,600 yards', and thought that `five determined mounted riflemen will scare a whole division of cavalry'.

Lord Roberts already had reservations about the arme blanche - sword and lance - when he arrived in South Africa. When campaigning in Afghanistan in i879, he had watched men of the 9th Lancers trying to cope with lance and carbine while fighting dismounted, and his experience in South Africa confirmed his worst suspicions. He bent all his influence as Commander-in-Chief of the Army - he was the last holder of that office - to reforming the cavalry, and contributed a preface to the 1904 edition of Cavalry Training which left no doubt as to his view `that instead of the firearm being the adjunct to the sword, the sword must henceforth be an adjunct to the rifle; and that cavalry soldiers must become expert rifle shots and be constantly trained to act dismounted'. The cavalry lobby protested vigorously, and the following year the Army Council struck a typically unsatisfactory compromise: Cavalry Training would be issued without its preface, but the lance would be abolished as a weapon of war.

The Roberts preface was the high-water mark of the reformers' success. The field-marshal's departure from Horse Guards and the presence of cavalry officers - notably French and Haig - in a number of key posts helped sway the debate the other way. The 1907 edition of Cavalry Training decreed that `thorough efficiency in the use of the rifle and in dismounted tactics is an absolute necessity', but went on to affirm that: `It must be accepted as a principle that the rifle, effective as it is, cannot replace the effect produced by the speed of the horse, the magnetism of the charge, and the terror of cold steel'. Symptomatically, the lance was reinstated in June 1909.

This was not quite the folly it seemed. We have already seen how tactics generally were becoming more offensive in order to avoid the perceived danger of bloody stalemates. Moreover, the cavalry lobby argued that the evidence of history could not be construed in quite the way the reformers claimed. There had been successful examples of cavalry dash in all the wars under discussion, and Lieutenant-Colonel F. N. Maude, an intelligent sapper and anything but a caricature horse soldier, argued that the lack of properly trained cavalry made the American Civil War an unfair example in any case. He went on to maintain that the Boer War was `entirely abnormal'; a future European war would be very different. The charge of von Bredow's brigade at Rezonville on 6 August 1870 was arguably the single most battle-winning element of German tactics that day, and the British `charge' at Klip Drift on is February 1900 - in fact a divisional rush in open order rather than a classic knee-to-knee charge - opened the way to the relief of Kimberley.

The cavalry lobby also claimed that the Russo-Japanese War pointed to the continuing value of shock action. French complained that the Russians `thought of nothing but getting off their horses and shooting' and claimed that this had contributed to their defeat. Here he was guilty of generalising from inadequate evidence, for the report of one of the official British observers pointed out that Russian cavalry were poor at dismounted work.

It was also possible to argue that as armies grew bigger and placed increasing reliance on short-term conscripts and reservists, there would be plenty of opportunities for cavalry to sweep in and complete the destruction of an already-demoralised force. Finally, most commentators agreed that the first act of any major European war would be a huge clash between the opposing cavalries. Sending horsemen into this gigantic melee without the self-confidence that came from being trained to charge home would result in a failure of willpower when it mattered most.

The controversy generated as much heat as light. Reputation and careers were bound up in it, able publicists supported both sides, and organisational politics complicated matters. During the Boer War many infantry units had been mounted, and Mounted Infantry survived the war. However, even the commandant of the Mounted Infantry school at Aldershot felt that MI was essentially a hybrid, with limited opportunities in war, while Colonel H. B. de Lisle - Durham Light Infantry officer turned Royal Dragoon - argued that MI should take over protective duties, freeing cavalry proper for strategic action.

Yet there was a good deal of middle ground. From the Mounted Infantry flank, Major F. M. Crum, using the pseudonym `A Rifleman', wrote: `we claim, not that "the days of cavalry are past", not that "shock action is impossible", but that the rifle and the rifleman come more to the front each war, and that the difficulties in the way of shock action increase "generation after generation".' Douglas Haig, ostensibly on the other wing of the debate, freely conceded that fire action was nine-tenths more likely than shock action. Even Sir John French, in his preface to the English edition of Lieutenant-General von Bernhardi's Cavalry in Future Wars, was `absolutely convinced that the Cavalry Spirit is and may be encouraged to the utmost without in the least degree prejudicing either training in dismounted duties or the acquirement of such tactical knowledge on the part of leaders as will enable them to discern when and where to resort to dismounted methods'.

The 1912 edition of Cavalry Training modified previous emphasis' on shock action, and French's successor as Inspector-General of the Forces suggested that the cavalry should spend more of its time shooting. Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commanding at Aldershot, summoned all the cavalry officers under his command to a meeting in the 16th Lancers' mess on 21 August 1909 and ordered them to take musketry more seriously. In fact, the cavalry's shooting was anything but derisory. Private Bertie Seed of the 3rd Hussars won the Indian musketry prize at 600 yards in 1903, and in 1908 the 14th Hussars had 354 marksmen, 212 1st class shots, thirty-five 2nd class shots and a mere four 3rd class shots. It was a record which many infantry battalions would not have been ashamed of. In 1910, Lieutenant-Colonel Edwards summed up what many cavalry officers saw as a decent compromise. `The desire to use the sabre or lance should be predominant,' he wrote, `but it must be held in restraint by a thorough knowledge of the power of the firearm.'

There was a world of difference between British cavalry and their allies and opponents, all of whom took a decidedly more arme blanche view of things. Vladimir Litauer of the Russian 1st Sumskii Hussars recalled that:

The goal set before us had been the mounted charge, whose most important element was speed, for on the latter largely depended the impact with which we could enter the enemy's formation. And since we had also been brought up to believe that no one was a match for us when it came to hand-to-hand fighting, our one desire was to reach the enemy's ranks as soon as possible. Once, when we were unhappily fighting dismounted and were pinned to the ground by German fire, I remember our regimental commander rising up and shaking his fists in the direction of the enemy, exclaiming: `If we could only get to you!'

Lieutenant-General von Poseck, Inspector-General of the German cavalry, thought that German and French cavalry tactics were outdated:    '
The greatest emphasis was placed by us on the skilful grouping of forces in the mounted combat since, at the beginning of the campaign, we calculated more particularly on this kind of fighting ... Despite the improvements made in fighting dismounted, there was nevertheless a lack of schooling in firing practice in the larger units ... As late as 1913, in France ... special importance was placed on tactical instruction for mounted combat ...

1914 found British cavalry, in contrast, entirely capable of using fire or steel as the situation demanded. In a leather bucket on the offside of his saddle, the British cavalryman carried the same rifle as the infantry, not the stubby short-range carbine favoured by continental horsemen. On the other side of his saddle hung the 1908 pattern sword, with a pistol-grip hilt moulded to the shape of the hand, a large dish guard, and a straight blade offset so as to be in line with the straight arm.

For most of the previous century British cavalry had been armed with a series of less than effective swords, many of them `cut and thrust' weapons which neither cut nor thrust efficiently. It was the natural inclination of most soldiers in a hand-to-hand fight to lay about them, and a sabre with the muscle of desperation behind it could do horrific damage. `At Essling,' wrote Brack, `I saw Cuirassiers' helmets quite cut through with sabre cuts . . .' The hirsute Orcadian, George Broadfoot, one of the paladins of British India, emerged from a skirmish in which he had killed three Afghans musing on `how soft a man's head is'. While it requires a blow of not less than 9o foot-pounds to fracture the front of the skull, half that will shatter the temporal area and a mere 18 foot-pounds - well within the capability of a ten-year-old with a heavy stick - will break the side of the skull above the jawbone.

But a man's head is a hard target, easily protected by helmet and sabre. Moreover, a soldier who tries to hack at an opponent's head will be inside the man's reach, and the most probable result of his efforts will be nasty bludgeon-work, more likely to produce a broken collar-bone than a cloven skull. Indeed, Brack concluded that `the strokes which kill are the thrusts: the others merely wound'. A horseman leaning forward could deliver a thrust long before his enemy's cut went home, and there was a good chance that a penetrating wound anywhere in the torso would prove fatal. The research which preceded the adoption of the 1908 sword concluded that a weapon specifically designed for thrusting would encourage the soldier to use it as he had been taught and not simply swing it about wildly.

George Barrow echoed the view of many cavalry officers when he proclaimed the lance `a weapon ... much superior to the sword, when it is a question of using the arme blanche, not only for putting one's opponent out of action, but even more on account of its moral effect'. In 1914, a proportion of French, German and Russian cavalrymen - whether or not they were lancers by name - carried the lance. In these cases it was an all-metal weapon, unlike the British steel-tipped and steel-shod bamboo lance, and was issued on a wide scale to enable the front rank of a charging unit to gain the maximum reach. If training was all-important when thrusting with the sword, it was every bit as crucial with the lance, for controlling an excited horse with a ten-foot spear in one hand was a difficult business.

The new sword influenced the way men rode. In the nineteenth century, British military equitation had been heavily influenced by the `Old German Seat'. Men were trained to ride with long stirrups and straight legs, and sat at the trot so as to present a more uniform appearance and, it was argued, use their weapons more effectively. Many experienced officers disagreed, arguing that if bumping down the Mall was an aesthetic necessity, a more practical seat, with shorter stirrups and a bent knee, should be used in the field. At Laswaree, in 1803, Colonel Thomas Pakenham, commanding a brigade about to charge infantry, ordered his men to take their stirrups up two holes, and in the action that followed the troopers cut with good effect. In the 1880s, British cavalry at last abandoned the sitting trot on all occasions except on parade, but they retained long stirrups.

Major Noel `Curly' Birch, an RHA officer who was to rise from lieutenant-colonel to lieutenant-general during the First World War, complained that `the outbreak of the South African War in I899 found our mounted troops sitting on their forks'. The war showed, once and for all, that this seat was `most wearing for man and horse on the march, and quite unsuitable for crossing obstacles'. By 1909, when Birch wrote Modern Riding, the army had adopted what was in effect a hunting seat. Birch hoped that in view of this `the remark of a famous master of hounds ... that his son rode very well until he entered the Army and passed through a cavalry riding school, should not hold good nowadays'. In 1914, then, British horsemen rode with short stirrups and a bent knee, taking rough country in their stride, and able to lean forward, sword thrust out in the `straight arm engage', to gain a slightly longer reach than a continental lancer.

Some of the crucial discoveries of the Mons campaign were made, not by enterprising horsemen on deep reconnaissance, but by what would soon establish itself as `the cavalry of the clouds'. The Royal Flying Corps sent four squadrons to France in 1914, and by 2o August had assembled 105 Officers, 755 other ranks and sixty-three aeroplanes at the aerodrome at Maubeuge and also formed an aircraft park at Amiens. Sir John French admired the RFC, and on 15 August 1914, the day after he landed in France, he visited it at Amiens and wrote: `I was much impressed with the general efficiency of the aircraft force. I saw the squadron commanders and told them so.'

French soon developed a high regard for the RFC's reconnaissance. However, at this stage in the war its limitations were striking. Aircraft were tiny and temperamental - sadly, the RFC's first fatalities came from crashes rather than enemy action. Pilots felt their way across country with the aid of roads and railway lines, and the early-morning mist, so typical of northern France in August, made flying almost impossible. Low cloud blinded even the most zealous pilot, and one intrepid aviator managed to fly across Brussels, by no means an elusive target, and failed to spot it.


Previous: The Nature of the British Army prior to 1914, With the rank and pay of a Sapper, Part 4

Next: The Nature of the British Army prior to 1914, As rations came to hand, Part 6


Further Reading:

British Army involvement with the Desert Mounted Corps


Citation: The Nature of the British Army prior to 1914, Blow the trumpet, draw the sword, Part 5

Posted by Project Leader at 12:01 AM EADT
Updated: Friday, 1 May 2009 2:58 PM EADT

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