CAVALRY IN GENERAL.
It must be admitted that in modern warfare we have rarely seen the happy combination of excellent cavalry commanded by a perfect cavalry officer. The passage is somewhat inflated, according to the genius of the language in which it is written; yet General Foy scarcely exaggerates the amount and union of qualities requisite to form a first-rate cavalry leader.
" Après les qualités nécessaires au commandant en chef, le talent de guerre le plus sublime est celui du général de cavalerie. Eussiez-vous un coup-d'oeil plus rapide et un éclat de détermination plus soudain que le coursier emporté au galop, ce n'est rien si vous ne joignez la vigueur de la jeunesse, de bons yeux, une voix retentissante, l'adresse d'un athlète et l'agilité d'un centaure. Avant tout, il faudra que le ciel vous ait départi avec prodigalité cette faculté précieuse qu'aucune ne remplace, et dont il est plus avare qu'on ne le croit communément, la bravoure."*
* Histoire de la Guerre de la Péninsule.
[Transl. by MMG: "After the necessary qualities for a commander in chief, the most exalted military talent is that of a cavalry general. You can have the most rapid coup-d'oeil, a flash of determination swifter than a galloping charger, but these are nothing if you do not combine them with youthful vigour, good sight, a loud voice, the skill of an athlete and the agility of a centaur. Above all, heaven must have endowed you generously with that precious and irreplaceable faculty of which it is greedier than is commonly believed - courage."]
Of all arms, cavalry is the most difficult to handle in the field.
It cannot engage an enemy except where the ground is favourable.
It is always dependent on the condition of its horses.
It is easily dispersed, and it easily gets out of hand.
However brave and intrinsically good, it is of no use without good officers.
The qualities requisite in a cavalry leader are, a good eye for country, and a quick one for the enemy's movements, great energy, courageous decision, and rapid execution.
No wonder, therefore, that cavalry has not always developed its power and resources in the field; for, placing all other considerations aside, how few examples does history afford of cavalry being well led and commanded! When well led it has been invariably successful.
Cavalry ought to be at once the eye, the feeler, and the feeder of an army. With good cavalry an army is in comparative security, and in a condition to march into and subsist upon an enemy's country. It reaps the fruits of victory, covers a retreat, and retrieves a disaster.
With it the effects of a defeat are not always fatal, and with it the army can again resume the offensive.
In defensive warfare it has seldom achieved great deeds, for to act a passive part in war is contrary to the spirit of Cavalry Tactics.
When badly organised and badly led, the more numerous it is, the more useless. [Witness the engagements of Medellin, Ciudad Real, Ocaña, and Alba de Tormes, where the Spanish horse fled the field, and left their infantry to be cut down by the victorious French.] It eats up the supplies of the army, and is in battle a dangerous ally. It gets out of hand in action, and instead of injuring the enemy, entails defeat on itself and on the army to which it belongs.
We have seen that individual prowess, skill in single combat, good horsemanship, and sharp swords, render all cavalry formidable.
That light and active horsemen have, in the long run, prevailed over heavily-equipped cavalry, and that speed and endurance are qualities to be highly prized in the horseman.
Therefore, if these views be correct, then our European cavalry is not organised on an efficient system.
For the present riding drill makes few good horsemen.
The swords, blunted by steel scabbards, are not efficient weapons.
Speed and endurance cannot be expected from horses that are over-weighted.
Celerity and precision of movement cannot be attained with large, unwieldy squadrons.
Nor can decision be expected on the part of the leaders, under a system of "Pivot Flanks," and "Right or Left in Front."
There are three kinds of Cavalry now established in Europe - Heavy Cavalry, Dragoons, and Light Cavalry.
The different size, strength, and qualities of men and horses seem to require them to be thus divided into heavy, middle, and light; for a horse physically unfit to carry a cuirassier would be lost to the service unless made use of in the dragoons or in the light cavalry. And where there exists a difficulty in finding sufficient horses for the purposes of war, a system by which the greater number of animals can be made available is the one which has been generally adopted.
The nations of the European Continent, who take the field with large armies, require a numerous cavalry: they cannot have them all good; some cannot obtain horses, others cannot afford the heavy expense, and thus they are of necessity reduced to a system of expedients. But England, rich in men, money, and, above all, in horses, should, in this particular, avoid imitating foreign armies, and, instead of reducing her cavalry to a par with those on the Continent, she ought to make her own cavalry so superior as to defy comparison and all competition.
The Heavy, Middle, and Light Cavalry have different parts assigned to them in war, not one of them being fit to perform all the duties required of horse soldiers in the field.
Composed of large men in defensive armour, mounted on heavy, powerful horses, are held in hand for decisive charges on the day of battle, and their horses are so deficient in speed and endurance (being so overweight), that they require light horse to follow up the enemy they have beaten. The greatest possible care is taken of this sort of cavalry in the field. They do no outpost duty, no foraging, no reconnoitring: they cannot be made use of even to escort a convoy, because if kept out long on the road their horses fall off in condition and become incapable of carrying their riders. They are calculated only to show an imposing front in the line of battle, and their history proves them to be more formidable in appearance than in reality.
Were originally intended to be a sort of hybrid corps, or infantry mounted on horses, in order that (like the Janissaries in Suwaroff's war) they might arrive with more expedition at the position in which they were to fight on foot; and in a battle they formed line and acted with the infantry. At first they were denominated Arquebusiers à Cheval; afterwards they were named Dragoons by the famous Count of Mansfeldt, in comparison with the imaginary Dragons represented as spitting fire and being swift on the wing. The Swedes first used them as light horse against the Croats, a light cavalry of the Austrian Emperor. At a much later period the English and Hanoverians mounted them on powerful horses, substituted trumpets for the drums then in use; and thus, by degrees, the dragoons took a higher place with the cavalry. Still later, they were however expected to act both as horse and foot soldiers. It was a favourite project of Napoleon thus to organize them for both services; but, after much loss of time and great expense, finding it did not answer, he took away their muskets and bayonets and gave them carbines; and they were reorganized and sufficiently well mounted to charge with advantage, being at the same time lightly equipped in order that they might be serviceable as skirmishers, foragers, etc. The difficulty of Napoleon's first intention is easily understood, if we consider the time required to form a cavalry soldier and the time required to form an infantry soldier. If we succeeded in bringing a body of men, in time of peace, thoroughly to understand the duty of both, how could we keep our regiments of dragoons complete in time of war? How could we then find time for this long double drill and training? Then, again, bring your regiment of dismounted dragoons into action, and what would follow? It would be less numerous than a real infantry corps opposed to it; the long swords and spurs of the dragoons would be in their way, particularly if skirmishing; and should a few of the enemy's light horsemen make a dash at the led horses, the dragoons would run a good chance of becoming only infantry for the remainder of the campaign. Dismounted cavalry have done good service in covering a retreat, in defending defiles and passes against cavalry, and in pushing forward to seize bridges and dismounting to maintain them; but they would be quite out of place if used in storming positions, or if expected to take their post in line of battle with the infantry.
The service required of these is the most important in the field. They are called upon to watch over the safety of the army, and they are constantly hovering in advance, on the flanks, and in the rear of the columns, to prevent all possibility of surprise on the part of the enemy. In enclosed countries they are supported by light infantry: in the open country the light cavalry push on and keep the enemy at a proper distance from the army; they are constantly employed in cutting off the enemy's supplies and communications, in reconnoitring, etc. This varied and often impromptu work requires a combination of numerous qualities in officers and men. And in addition to all these duties, peculiarly their own, they often have to perform also those expected of the heavy cavalry; and with what success they have done this, I shall presently endeavour to show.