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

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Belgium and France 1914: British Cavalryman versus German Cavalryman

By Alan Steele
Osprey Publishing, 2022
James Patton, Reviewer

British Cavalryman, 1914

Cavalry, particularly in the Great War, is a subject that I know nothing about, but there is cavalry in my family tree: a Scottish ancestor served with the 2nd Dragoons (Scots Greys), including at Waterloo in 1815; a relative rode with the 1st Missouri Cavalry (CSA) in 1861-63, and my father did the mandatory R.O.T.C. in the 1930s, which in his case was cavalry, but they had no horses to train with.

Steele’s work is only 79 pages long, including the bibliography. Included are 43 photographs, most of which I’ve never seen before, and 18 illustrations, some quite extensive. There are also four very detailed and easy to read maps. He provides lots of background. I learned what the terms horsemanship and equitation mean, and the six basic cavalry maneuver formations, which are diagrammed. There are factual takeaways, such as the following:

In 1914 the Germans had much more regular cavalry than the British: 110 regiments vs. 28, and 12 of the British ones were on Imperial service. As the war progressed, however, most of the German cavalry were dismounted due to a lack of horses and a shortage of infantry. The British kept a cavalry corps intact up to the end, although some of the units were Canadian and Indian.

The British cavalry performance in the South African Wars was abysmal but reforms were implemented and in 1914 they were the most experienced and the best scouts available. They also treated their horses better than anyone else.

The German cavalry hadn’t served in the field since 1871, and were only well drilled in maneuver formations under favorable circumstances. Even so, in some ways the Germans were more modern. For example, British communications relied solely on messenger riders, while the German units also had telephone gear and even wireless sets.

The British cavalry were fairly fresh, while the Germans had already trekked over 250 km, much of which was over paved roads, hard on the horse’s hooves.

In battle, a cavalry unit usually lost around twice as many horses as troopers (e.g., against the Belgians at Haelen the Germans lost 492 men and 843 mounts).

Although both of these cavalries still carried lances and/or swords, they also had modern rifles—the Germans even had a carbine version of the Mauser 98 which was handier to use.

There were logistical challenges for cavalry on the march—a British cavalry division (9,897 men and 10,195 horses) required 54 ½ tons of feed and 54 ½ tons of hay for the horses daily, in addition to 14 tons of foodstuffs for the men

German Dragoons

Steele describes the three occasions in 1914 where British cavalry units fought against German cavalry units. These, which were by Great War standards minor skirmishes, are covered with painstaking detail. He combines first person accounts with the regimental war diaries, then adds useful illustrations which show what the battlefield looked like to each side, with a very large and well-marked map keyed to a timeline.

These actions were fought at Casteau, Belgium (21–22 Aug), at Cerizy-Moӱ, France (28 Aug), and at Le Montcel, France (7 Sep). The latter of these actions included an actual cavalry charge “lance against lance” between two troops of the depleted 9th (Queen’s Royal) Lancers)—at Audregnies they had lost 169 men and 300 horses in a suicidal 1,200-yard charge against modern firepower and—the German battalion 5./1.Garde-Dragoner-Regimenter. This was the last true cavalry action on the Western Front and quickly dissolved into a deadly melee from which there was no clear victor.

Although this is a short book, it isn’t a quick read; the battle sequences are slow going. This isn’t because they’re boring, you just need to refer a lot back to the map and to the timeline to keep apace. If the reader decides to skip the detailed battle descriptions, there are short one-plus page summaries at the end in a section titled "Analysis." There follows an index and a bibliography.

Sometimes I find it refreshing to read about minor actions that were very major to their participants, rather than about the big battles and the big brass. Sir John French is mentioned just twice here and Sir Douglas Haig three times (plus in a couple of caption headings). Alan Steele has covered a very niche topic very thoroughly. Well worth the read.

James Patton

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