Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Last Great Cavalry Charge
reviewed by Michael P. Kihntopf


The Last Great Cavalry Charge: 
The Battle of the Silver Helmets, Halen, 12 August 1914
by Joe and Janet Robinson and Francis Hendriks
Fonthill Media, 2015


Depiction of the Charge

Since 2009, authors Robinson (ably assisted by co-authors) have given military aficionados a factual, colorful, and riveting picture of the Kaiser's army as it approached the Great War. From those excellent previous works I was reminded of the two old soldiers, neither of whom had seen combat in their lengthy peacetime careers, sitting to whiskies and talking over tales of their collective past. All the stories centered on how they turned country bumpkins into smart and effective soldiers. When all the yarns had been spun one of the soldiers leaned back in his wicker chair and sighed. With the sigh came the question: "I wonder how my men would have done under fire?" This book answers that question for the most prestigious and perhaps the most highly trained branch of the German Army, the cavalry, through a detailed account of an overlooked battle at an obscure crossroads—an overlooked battle which pitted elite horsemen of Germany against the small Belgian Army before the French could rally and before the British arrived.

Authors Robinson and Hendriks begin The Last Great Cavalry Charge with details which should educate the novice on just how well trained and equipped the German cavalry was. This plumber's description of accouterments and tactics is well tempered by an excellent analysis of the cavalryman's character which played so heavily into how that group performed on the first battlefield. What a glowing picture of cavalry emerged in those few pages; however, beneath the luster was a tarnish whose discoloration was in how the German General Staff structured the command lines in cavalry organization and its use in an age of machine guns, magazine rifles, and quick firing artillery.

Site of the Charge Today

From the Militär-Wochenblatt of the late 19th century a cavalryman speaks out: "No technology comes to our aid. We have only that which our ancestors had a thousand years ago: a man, a steed, and iron — everything else we have to create out of ourselves." (Quoted in The Kaiser's Army, Eric Dorn Brose, 2001, page 15). The German cavalry was charged with screening the right wing of the army as it swung itself across Belgium in the early days of the war. In the screening mission was an important subtask—contain the Belgian army by keeping it away from the fortress complex at Antwerp. To achieve these tasks, the cavalry had a vast distance to cover, and speed was of the essence. As a result, the zealous horsemen quickly outdistanced their supply and communications lines within hours of crossing the Belgian border. Everything was in short supply, and the whereabouts of the enemy and the terrain that had to be crossed was even more of a mystery. These deficiencies became apparent when the cavalry came into contact with the enemy that decided to stand its ground on 12 August near Halen.


Order Now
The Belgian force consisted primarily of cavalry and bicycle units. Cavalry facing cavalry should have been the make-up of the first battle, lance upon lance, saber to saber. But the Belgians had read the reports of cavalry actions in the Boer and the Russo-Japanese Wars. They decided that they should meet the Germans with dismounted troopers wielding carbines, machine guns, and supported by field artillery. The Germans had read the reports too, but they decided to meet the enemy mounted. The results of the decision to meet bullets with horseflesh are highly predictable. Eight assaults were made on the Belgian line; each one left more German casualties on the field than the previous one. But the injured and dead were not all caused by enemy fire. Poor intelligence had missed terrain features which included unseen sunken roads that became man and horse traps and barbed wire barriers which deterred the momentum of the charge.

The authors amply quote battle participants' journals and reminiscences to enhance their narratives. The declaration of the victor of a battle has always depended on who had possession of the battlefield at the end of the day. Although the Belgians chose to evacuate the area in the face of overwhelming odds, the Germans had clearly suffered the most with the loss of 472 men and the demise of the cavalry.

The Last Great Cavalry Charge very graphically provides an answer to those old soldiers who have left their drinks tumblers to the servants. The bravado of the professionals, no matter how well trained, is often no match for reality. Practices of the parade ground are just that, a parade. I highly recommend this book.

Michael P. Kihntopf

6 comments:

  1. Last great cavalry Charge? Not quite.
    On the evening of 14th July, 1916 elements of the 7th Dragoon Guards, 20th Deccan Horse and the Machine Gun Squadron the 9th Secundebad Cavalry Bde. 2nd Indian Cavalry Division formed up in low open ground near Bazentin le Grand and, at about 7pm, charged towards the open ground to the right hand side of High Wood. One German machine gun was silenced by a British aircraft and another near Longueval was silenced by the Indian Cavalry's own machine gun. The elements of the 7th Dragoon Guards and 20th Deccan Horse charged a little under a mile, dealing with German infantry and machine gunners hiding in the crops growing in fields in front of High Wood and entered the wood itself, which was almost deserted and untouched by artillery fire, however, the failure if the British Infantry to keep up with the cavalry inevitably led to a withdrawal during the night. Their losses were comparatively light, 102 casualties and the loss of 130 horses. This was a classic case of "shock action". In late 1918 the cavalry would again become extremely useful, harrying the retreating Germans and carrying out close reconnaissance.

    High Wood was not captured until the 15th of September.

    There is a fine picture of the charge in the Officers' Mess at Bovington, the home of the Royal Armoured Corps, in Dorset. There are some good photographs of men of the Deccan Horse shortly before the battle, on the IWM website at

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not the last chronologically. The emphasis was on the word great. The real question is what do you consider great? We felt four regiments filled that criteria. The introduction to the book explains much.

      Delete
    2. Most likely High Wood was a high speed advance that unexpectedly ran into some German opposition. Deployment of cavalry was intented to exploit a breech in the front as far as possible. Taking up strategic positions with their machine guns and SMLE rifles then waiting for the infantry to close up.

      Better candidate is the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade at Bersheeba on 31 oktober 1917. Interesting that speed and dispersion was the best tactic under artillery fire.

      And don't forget the Polish Cavalry charge on sept 1, 1939 at Krojanty (no they didn't attack German panzer with sabres) but with about 250 Uhlans of 18th Pomeranian Uhlans it was not a very large action.

      But Halen is of course a very interesting battle.

      Delete
    3. I appreciate the input! I think, though it is not my area, that there were actually 600 Italians on the Eastern front in World War II that might win the chronological prize but as I said 600 would be quite small.

      Delete
  2. I have the book. A very good read.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Glad you enjoyed it! It was a fun little story. Fun to research and explore the battlefield. The next book expands on these troubles. Lots of fun!

      Delete