Topic: AIF - Lighthorse
The Australian Mounted Rifles
An essay by Ivan, 1885
After the Scratchley Report, the various Australian colonies searched for an economical method of providing a system of defence which addressed the problem of low population densities and wide spaces. By the mid 1880's, Victoria was going through the public debate on the direction of defence spending. One contribution was the following essay, published in the Argus, Saturday, 28 March 1885, p. 4, dealt with the conceptual issues surrounding the need for a mounted force.
For a community which wants to make the most of the men and money disposable, one of the first questions is - "What kind of drill, formation, and regimental organisation best suits the modern conditions of war time?'' Mounted infantry or mounted rifles are simply infantry men or riflemen who can get quickly from place to place. There might possibly be some prejudice against the mounted infantryman, as distantly suggesting the idea of a "horse marine," but it would not be shared by those who have looked into the matter. This kind of corps is being incorporated more anti more into modem armies. Where the supply of men is not unlimited, training mounted infantry is more "thrifty" than training separate battalions of foot and regiments of cavalry, and it is a question for us colonists whether we ought not to choose the more workmanlike in preference to the showy system of organisation. True, that is not the sole consideration, because "looks” count for something - outward appearance and military display have a good deal of moral effect on parade, at a field day, or when soldiers march through the streets. A corps which has too rough and ready an appearance might make soldiering contemptible. It would have a depressing effect on the military ardour of our citizens to see 1,000 men turn out for a review in Albert Park as gaunt, ragged, and kiln dried as Wilson’s men were when they marched fighting all the wars from Metemueh to Goubat. If we could see the very men who made that march, we would forget what they looked like, thinking of what they had done, but soldiers who have still to earn their laurels must look as impressive as possible. A smart battalion of infantry, marching past in open column of companies, or wheeling and countermarching in close column, stepping well together and making the ground tremble as they go, is an imposing sight, and battalion movements have, of course, then place in warfare; but that is not the only point. After admiring our battalion we must remember that, m our case, they do not represent, as a Prussian battalion does, a fraction of an army corps, which is complete in every separate branch. We Victorians have rather to ask ourselves what use our 1,000 men would be to the officer commanding a field force on an actual campaign - how would he be obliged to dispose of them so as to make the most of his resources '
If our infantry have to do any campaigning, it won t be like the "full dress" performances winch take place on the great battle fields of Europe, it will, more probably, be like campaigning in South Africa, or in the United States during the "late unpleasantness" between North and South. The South African colonists have, unfortunately, had to dabble in warfare of one kind or another for the last 10 years, some "Caffre” or other war with hostile native tribes cropping up periodically. Hence they have plenty of experience of the best organisation for small bodies of men in a country where transport is always difficult and expensive. The latter conditions exist in Australia, and in other respects the problem is the same here as in the Cape. It is true that the Victorian defence force is recruited more from the class of men who are to be found in the German “Landwehr”, but if we colonists ever took in hand to organise a special force, we could not take a better pattern than some of the Cape corps. Even if the infantry battalions of our defence force be intended mainly for garrison duty, training a portion of them to act as mounted infantry would in no way unfit them to serve behind works or defend forts.
The best known among the Cape corps was the old "Cape Mounted Riflemen". Originally the troopers were Hottentots and half castes, but after a while it was composed entirely of white men, and became one of Her Majesty's regiments, although never serving out of Africa. The refusal of the Cape Government to contribute to the cost of keeping up this corps led to its disbandment a few years ago - the troopers being mostly transferred to serve out the remainder of their time in line regiments. The colonial authorities next made the experiment of a corps of mounted policemen, paid, armed, and equipped by the colony. This hybrid corps was anything but a success, and the disastrous result of an encounter with the insurgent Galekas at Guadana Hill, in 1877, allowed that without a strictly military force operations of this kind ought not to be attempted. From the men and officers who had composed the Cape Mounted Police a corps of "Cape Mounted Rifles" was formed in 1877, and it owed the efficiency which it afterwards attained to the exertions of two of its commanders, Frederick Carrington, an ex-officer of the 24th, who was afterwards mortally wounded at Proleka ridge, and Colonel James Baillie. The latter managed, with the Cape Mounted Riflemen alone, to capture Molrosi’s Mountain in 1879, after several unsuccessful attempts to storm it had been made by other detachments The fame of this corps has spread all over South Africa. It seems to be a model of what such a force ought to be.
The secret of its success as a fighting machine was the wonderful quickness of the men in advancing and retiring (mounted) in skirmishing order, and the perfect coolness with which, after a while, they would mount and dismount close to an enemy The great point about a corps of this kind is that it can accustom itself to work as a rule without support or assistance from the other "arms”, or from the transport service. The men themselves are always a pretty "mixed” lot. There were, of course, some Boers among them in the early days, and in addition, representatives of most known nationalities, colours, and classes serve in its ranks
It will be well to describe their clothing, arms, accoutrements, etc. The full dress uniform is a black "cord” patrol jacket and riding "breeches” (not trousers), this material can be dyed any colour required, and it is almost indestructible. Leather leggings - wide at the foot, and without straps or buckles - to be pulled on before the boots. The latter are regulation "ammunition boots," the leggings are kept close down on the boot by the straps of the "hunting” spurs. White helmets.
The arms of this corps consist of (1) a Martini Henry carbine, slung across the back. Some of the Cape mounted corps which have since been raised sling the carbine in a "bucket” attached to the saddle. There is a difference of opinion on this point, the Prussian authorities declaring that slinging the rifle across the back ultimately injures the lungs; on the other hand, it insures that if the man be thrown and his horse gets away he will have his weapon with him. The other weapons are (2) an "Adams' revolver and (3) cavalry sabre. Whether this latter is or is not the proper arm for mounted infantry has, however, aroused plenty of controversy.
The ammunition is carried in a "bandolier," or cross belt, furnished with tubes to hold cartridges. The revolver holster is also worn at the right side of the body, not attached to the front of the saddle, as the fashion once was. The saddles are comfortable and well padded, and have "Cape girths " A valise is carried in front, saddle bags behind Military bridle (bit and burdoon), headstall and hide rope for picketing. Also a knee band, 18in long, which is buckled to the near foreleg above the knee and on to the headstall, when the horse is "hobbled” or turned loose to graze at night. "Patrol” mess tin and cup fitting into each other, and done up in a leather case, constitute all the cooking apparatus required. Half a patrol tent and the telescopic poles for the same are carried on the valise in front of the saddle.
Whenever a troop or squadron becomes altogether independent of vehicular transport, many extras are carried by the men, such as a short axe in leather case, which can bestowed alongside the valise, entrenching picks, shovels, etc. A detached troop can easily carry six days' rations on their horses, quite independently of cattle, which, as a rule, are driven with the main column und slaughtered in camp.
W hen the men bivouac for the night, the horses are either "rung," i.e., fastened together - sometimes in a circle, sometimes in line - by the short hide ropes, from cheek to cheek; or, if there be plenty of grass, they are " hobbled" and turned out to graze all night, with a strong guard over them. On service, the "Cape Mounted Rifles" were accustomed to dismount so many men for infantry movements that six or eight horses generally had to be held by one man. Of course, rapidity in mounting and dismounting can only be attained by long practice, and the horses require a lot of training to get them used to so much knocking about.
The Cape Mounted Rifles were undoubtedly somewhat of a "crack " corps. During the Zulu war bodies of mounted infantry were organised by Lonsdale, Redvers Buller, Lumley, and others, on a more rough and ready footing. But the idea was always the same, that they should get about rapidly, carrying their own rations and equipment, and be able to throw themselves into a position where infantry movements were effective, holding it until the other arms and main body of the force could support them.
The experience pained from Caffre, Zulu, and other wars has been utilised in organising the force now under Sir Charles Warren's command in South Africa. Colonel Methuen has two regiments of Mounted Rifles. The Royal Scots Regiment has a mounted company, and Knox's Regiment of "Pioneers," which has been raised in Cape Town, has one mounted also; the main point being to get hold of men who are good shots. Methuen constantly exercises his men while in camp at skirmishing on foot, firing at trees, rocks, etc.
It may be said here that even in the organisation of these South African corps which were never meant for show, but always for work - there has been some clinging to antiquated notions in the teeth of modern experience. There seems to be a rooted military prejudice in favour of arming mounted men with a sabre, in spite of the fact that the conditions of fighting on horseback have altogether changed in modern times. Prussian military authorities declare that wherever lancers were opposed to dragoons or hussars during the Franco-Prussian war, the lancers no matter whether French or Prussian - had the best of it The only French cavalry that the English soldiers in the Peninsula did not care to tackle were the Polish Lancers, and at Albuera these same lancers fell upon the flank of Colborne's Brigade, and nearly destroyed them. Hussars were able to do very little execution during the first operations under Graham near Suakin, and I see they have sent lancer regiments mostly this time. It is true that during the Tel el Kebir campaign the Household Cavalry managed to sabre a good many of tho Egyptians and Mr. Joseph Cowen, in the House of Commons, related the story of a Newcastle man belonging to the Life Guards, who, at Kassasain, cut off the head of an Egyptian artilleryman with one blow, and became a far greater hero in Newcastle than Mr. Cowen himself. But the Life Guards are the best swordsmen in the British army perhaps the best in Europe now-a-days. They are constantly practising in London, for show and amusement, and carry oft the prizes as a rule at the military tournaments. In ordinary hands the cavalry sabre will not do much execution, especially as nine men out of ten will use it to hack and not to thrust with. During the Franco-Prussian war, out of 60,000 killed and wounded on the Prussian side only six men were killed and 212 wounded by sabre cuts. It is obvious that the reach of a cavalry man's sword arm is very limited, and when cavalry are going fast it is easy to "dodge" the blow. A lance seems to be a far more formidable weapon. It requires a lot of drill, however, to make men experts in lance exercise. Lord Chelmsford proposes to do away with the sabre for mounted infantry, and give them a long bayonet, which when fixed to the carbine could be used on horseback to thrust with, lance fashion. It is quite possible that a bad lancer would be really more effective than a good swordsman. The time when regiments of dragoons met for combat and conventional cut and thrust business on horseback is past and gone. The style in which the Prussian infantry at Reichshofen, although in no particular formation, let French cuirassiers pass through and through them, and then turned and shot them at leisure, shows that men armed with breechloaders have very little to fear from men armed with sabres The Cape Mounted Rifles at close quarters generally trusted to their revolvers. It is to be feared that the utility of our picturesque sword exercise ís also vanishing. The Prussians, now a days, laugh at our right side and left side, and wrist and leg cuts, believing that a cut at the head is the only one worth thinking about.
It will of course, be necessary to abandon old ruts and grooves, and to go to a great deal of extra trouble if we organise corps of mounted infantry, or a mounted company for each battalion of our defence force. There is nothing more comfortable than jogging along at company and battalion drill year after year. If there be no musketry instruction either, that state of things would constitute a sort of adjutant's paradise. But what would happen if our defence force ever had to take the field? The officer in command would simply be compelled to organise a force of mounted infantry on the spur of the moment. I repeat that if we had an efficient cavalry force here the case might be different. But we have not, and ought to remember that it takes an enormous amount of drill to make a smart cavalry soldier, and that he is a very costly individual. With infantry and artillery alone, a contingent would be helpless in the field.
As throwing light on this question, Colonel Malleson, in his Histony of The Indian Mutiny, Vol II, p 187, describes what a few mounted infantry men were able to effect. A field force without cavalry had been operating with little success against the Jaydispore mutineers in the autumn of 1858. At last it occurred to Sir Henry Havelock to get a few men from the 10th Foot and mount them for special service. The idea was very much opposed at first, but he ultimately was allowed his own way. Colonel Malleson says:-
"The staff officer, who was no other than Sir Henry Havelock, deputy assistant adjutant general of the force, in his experience of Franks’s advance without cavalry from the southern frontier of Oude to Lucknow, noticed the enormous service which a few mounted soldiers of the 10th Foot, carrying rifles on horseback, had been able to render. Conceiving the idea … that the services of a few men might be advantageously utilised in a similar manner, he had caused 40 riflemen of the 10th Foot to be hastily trained by Captain Bartholomew, of that regiment. He now … received permission to employ the men he trained as mounted infantry - that is to say, who could pursue and overtake the enemy, then dismounting, hold them in check till the main body should arrive. He increased the 40 men to 60."
Havelock then undertook the pursuit of the mutineers, and thanks to his mounted infantry alone, he succeeded in overtaking and destroying one body of them. " Without the presence of the mounted riflemen," says Malleson, "the enemy would, as on every previous occasion, have escaped unscathed." In pursuing the main body of the Shahabad rebels the infantry column, under Brigadier Douglas, was "guided by the reports from these same mounted riflemen," and Malleson sums up:- "Thus 60 men, organised on a novel plan, and aided by a handful of cavalry, had effected, with almost nominal loss, in five days, what 3,000 regular troops had for six months failed to accomplish, viz., the complete expulsion of 4,500 rebels from the province, and the infliction on them of a punishment the effect of which has not been effaced to this day. "
This is certainly a striking testimony to the utility of mounted infantry. It is well to recollect that mounted companies would cost us here a great deal less money than regular cavalry. There is another great advantage connected with them, which has already struck one of the officers connected with our defence force, that each troop, and even each Squad, is a complete corps in itself, independent of army service corps, camp equipage, stores, i.e. Every township that could muster a dozen young fellows willing to learn to mount and dismount quickly, stick on a horse some fashion or other, practise a few simple cavalry movements in single rank, look after their own horses, cook and pitch tents, might thus have its own corps. They could be united at any time into a regiment, and would not have much that was novel to learn. Of course, it must always he kept in mind that shooting is the businesss of such a corps, not charging on horseback. A good shot, even though he be a bad rider, is worth three good riders who can't hit a target or a mark. I mentioned before the great stress that Methuen and such men in South Africa lay on accurate shooting. And they have good reason - as every-one knows. The Boers owed their success in the Transvaal business simply to their rifle shooting. They had no artillery - and they had no bayonets! It was a miserable business altogether, but we ought to take a lesson from it. Fortunately for our people in the Soudan, the Mahdi’s men do not know how to shoot if they did, how many of Sir Charles Wilson’s or Brackenbury’s men would ever have got back to Korti? When there is time to think of such things, our defence force will doubtless get some kind of musketry instruction I do not mean prize shooting at Williamstown, but "position drill," "aiming at the wall,” judging distance drill, and occasionally firing at unknown distances. There must be many good shots in the ranks, but, on the other hand, hundreds of men who cannot shoot at all.
The expense of local squads of mounted infantry need not be very great Possibly a small sum would induce farmers or selectors to hire out their horses once a fortnight for three or four hours drill, with an understanding that they should be purchased at a fixed price by the Government "whenever it was necessary to mobilise the whole force with the local police stations, or even the local post offices, as a place to assemble at, the whole of the detached squads could be mobilised in 24 hours. Meantime it might be worth trying the experiment of "mounting” one company from each of our infantry battalion, selecting tho men who are tho best shots, and practising them in mounting and dismounting, holding their comrades horses, etc. The best among the Melbourne cab horses are about the kind of animals that would be required to carry them. Might not the volunteer cavalry corps which is now being enrolled in Melbourne do well to take Carrington’s or Methuen’s Mounted Rifles as their model? That would be better than any attempt to attain to 10th Hussars "form” under the actual circumstances of the case.
Citation: The Australian Mounted Rifles, Militia Outline, An essay by Ivan, 1885