Cavalry 1800-1815

(Part 1)

  • Types of cavalry and their tasks.
  • Brigade, Division, Corps
  • Dust
  • Morale and discipline of attacking cavalry
  • Mle
  • Pursuing/fleeing
  • Casualties
  • Cavalry regiment of Old Guard in combat (maps and diagrams)
  • 1813 - French Cavalry After Invasion of Russia [Forming the new Army, quality of troops, training.]

  • Saxon cuirassier.
    The Saxons had one of the very best
    heavies in Europe during Napoleonic wars.

    du Picq - "Good officers always try to keep in hand, as long as possible,
    some troops capable of marching, acting at any moment, in any direction.
    (...) Victory belongs to the commander who has known how to keep
    them in good order, to hold them, and to direct them."
    - du Picq




    Types of cavalry.

    Historically, cavalry was divided into light, medium and heavy cavalry. The difference between them was how much armour is worn by the soldiers, and thus how powerful their mounts and men had to be. All troopers carried a sabre, usually a lighter, curved weapon for light cavalry, a heavier, straight-bladed weapon for the heavies. Pistols, carried in holsters astride the saddle pommel, were of very limited usefulness as they were not effective above 30 paces.

  • Heavy cavalry was composed of large men (sometimes in defensive armour), mounted on powerful horses, that are 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, 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.
    The heavy cavalry is 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. Usually the heavies are held in hand for decisive charges on the day of battle.

  • Light cavalry was called upon to watch over the safety of the army, and they were constantly hovering in advance, and on the flanks 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.
    The light cavalry was designed for reconnaissance, foraging, patrolling, screening and pursuit. Though they could be used for shock action this would be as an expedient and yielding secondary results. This varied and often impromptu work requires a combination of numerous qualities in officers and men. Von Warnery wrote: "For a soldier to be really a light horseman he must be able to turn his horse quick and short when in full speed, to raise up and catch anything from the ground." The light cavalrymen were more skilled horsemen than the heavies.
    [The world masters of horsemanship were the Circassians. L. Nolan wrote: "The Circassians are unsurpassed in the management of their war-horses and arms, and so proud of their skill, that, whereas most nations show wounds received in action as honourable scars, the Circassians hide them as silent witnesses of their awkwardness and want of address in single combat. At the Russian reviews in 1852 I saw a few sheets of paper placed on the ground opposite the Emperor: he gave a signal to some of the Cossacks and Circassians formed in line a few hundred yards off. Down they all came at speed racing with one another: the first up fired at the marks either with pistol or carabine; the sheets of paper flew up in pieces: those who followed fired into the fragments that were at hand, blowing them to atoms"]

    Clausewitz wrote on the difference between line, heavy and light troops : "The individual hussar and Jager possesses an enterprising spirit, a confidence in himself and his luck, which someone who has always served in the line can hardly imagine. On the other hand, the hussar and Jager is more respectful of danger in ordinary battle than troops fighting in close order. This is an absolutely necessary quality of light troops. in whom the most extreme daring must alternate according to circumstances with intelligent caution. The free play of intelligence, which operates in the little war, this clever union of boldness with caution (I should like to say, this fortunate combination of daring and fear), this is the quality that renders the little war so extraordinarily interesting.


  • The main tasks for cavalry include:
    - scouting and reconnaisance to find the enemy weak and strong points
    - to screen an advance
    - to cover a withdrawal
    - as shock-troops in a pitched battle

    Frederick the Great wrote to his generals: "When the whole of an army, or a part of it, is on the march, the guards in front and rear, as well as the flank patroles, are furnished by the light troops."

  • According to L. E. Nolan (1818-1854) cavalry has some unique characteristics:
    " - 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."

    Brigade, Division, Corps.

  • During the Napoleonic Wars, the cavalry regiments were organized into corps, divisions, and brigades. Below is organizational structure of French and Russian cavalry corps:

    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . [French] Cavalry Corps

    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Division
    battery of horse artillery
    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Cavalry Brigade
    Regiment (5 squadrons)
    Regiment (3 squadrons)
    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Cavalry Brigade
    Regiment (2 squadrons)
    Regiment (3 squadrons)
    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Division
    battery of horse artillery
    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Cavalry Brigade
    Regiment (4 squadrons)
    Regiment (3 squadrons)
    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Cavalry Brigade
    Regiment (3 squadrons)
    Regiment (2 squadrons)


    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . [Russian] IInd Cavalry Corps in 1812

    Hussar Regiment (8 squadrons)
    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Cavalry Brigade
    Dragoon Regiment (4 squadrons)
    Dragoon Regiment (4 squadrons)
    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Cavalry Brigade
    Dragoon Regiment (4 squadrons)
    Dragoon Regiment (4 squadrons)


  • Sometimes it was difficult to say who has the upper hand in cavalry fight before one side began fleeing as the dust thrown by the cavalry was thicker and rose higher than from infantry and totally obscured the view.

  • But the huge dust also helped the enemy generals to learn about cavalry movements already in advance and in long distance.

    Morale and discipline of attacking cavalry.

    With few exceptions, the Hollywood version of war evokes images of the everyman, fighting to death without asking any questions. The hero is good and brave and always win over the bad. Watching some of the movies (not only American) help obscure many battlefield realities that would put the "heroes" label in doubt. For example during World War II at least 50 % of American soldiers soiled themselves during battle. (according to Russ Kick in "You Are Being Lied To" published in 2001).
    It must be constantly remembered that, to paraphrase Napoleon, in war, psychological factors are 3 times more important than mechanical factors.

  • Four brave men who do not know each other will not dare to attack a lion.
    Four less brave, but knowing each other well, sure of their reliability and consequently of mutual aid, will attack resolutely. There is the science of the organization of armies in a nutshell.
    Soldiers, no matter how well drilled, who are assembled haphazard into companies and battalions will never have, have never had, that entire unity which is born of mutual acquaintanceship.

  • At a charging distance troops advanced towards the enemy with all the speed compatible with the necessity for fencing and mutual aid. Quite often, the moral impulse, that resolution to go to the end, manifested itself at once in the order and freedom of gait. That impulse alone put to flight a less resolute adversary.

  • "When badly organised and badly led, the more numerous it is, the more useless. [Witness the engagements of Medellin, Ciudad Real, Ocaa, 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." - L. E. Nolan

  • In the cavalry charge, on the speed of horse and the aggressive spirit of the man rest 9/10 of the chances of success. (Book for USA cavalrymen, 1914).
    If men of the first line were wounded quickly, if the other ranks were not in a hurry to relieve or replace them, or if there was hesitation, defeat followed. A failed charge could be disastrous, since the cavalry force would be in close range and vulnerable to pursuing enemy.

  • In cavalry against cavalry, the moral effect of a mass charging in good order was of the greatest influence. There were rarely seen two cavalry organizations, neither of which breaks before such reciprocal action. [One of Polish generals said that a good order of attacking troops was 75 % of victory.] French and European expert on cavalry, Ardant du Picq, stated that 49 of 50 one side hesitated, disordered and fled before contact was made. "The breaking of the charge would start while the advancing line was still fairly ordered."
    75 % of the time this will happen at a distance, before they can see each other's eyes. Often they will get closer. Even in these few cases where both sides colided, there was no shock at full speed, but a halt face to face and then an engagement. In an encounter at full speed, men and horses would be crushed, and neither men nor horses wished such an encounter.
    There were several reasons why one side hesiated and fled before combat:
    - their morale and self-confidence was lower than enemy's
    - the enemy's cavalry was earlier cannonaded by artillery before or during advance against our cavalry. The falling horses disordered their ranks and falling comrades lowered the morale of the attackers.
    - commander or several officers were killed or wounded by artillery fire or sharpshooters in front of the regiment. If the commander or the officers enjoyed a great reputation as fighters it could be a serious blow for morale of the troopers.
    - abandoned weapons, wounded men and horses, hollow ground, and other obstacles on the ground could greatly disorder enemy's cavalry before it came closer.
    At Weinberg Defile (1813) Prussian regiment of uhlans advanced against French regiment of chasseurs-a-cheval. The French stood behind a ditch and delivered a volley that didn't impress the attackers. The French commander of elite company called a challenge in German "Now come here !" The Prussian uhlans halted before the ditch, their officer drew his saber and responded "Wait a moment, I'm coming !" But in this moment the chasseurs of the elite company abandoned their spirited commander and fled at once.

  • If both sides were of equal morale then the horsemen would pass through each other's formation and come out on the other side. Sometimes they would continue forward until were overthrown by the second line of enemy's cavalry (King German Legion's cavalry at Waterloo).

  • "There were frequent instances when 2 lines of cavalry would confront each other without dudging, each waiting for the other to retire or to make mistake." It was the case where troops on both sides were of equal bravery and determination.
    In 1831 campaign, 2 Russian and 2 Polish cavalry regiments charged each other. When close enough to recognize faces they slackened their gait and after a while both turned their backs and retreated. Similar situation - according to Du Picq - can be observed between 2 dogs, cats or lions when the courage is equal.

  • At Villadrigo (1812) French and British cavalry attacked each other and a prolonged fight (10 minutes) took place. Then came one more French regiment "got around one flanbk and rolled the British up."

  • Brave but undisciplined cavalry would be most often defeated by disciplined troops. "We have often seen fanatic eastern people implicitly believing that death in battle means a happy and glorious resurection. Despite being better mounted they give way before discipline." The man in disordered, broken lines, no longer feel himself supported, but vulnerable everywhere, and most often he fled.

  • The faster and/or longer the attack the easier to lose order, cohesion and discipline.

  • The body armor and big horses were good thing for morale of the troopers in heavy cavalry.
    But the light cavalry more often encountered the enemy and became more accustomed to combat than the heavies. It was excellent for morale too.

  • The victorious troops during pursuit become disordered, morally weak and vulnerable to counterattack by smaller enemy. For example at Leipzig (1813) masses of French cuirassiers who pursued the enemy, were counterattacked and valiantly thrown back by few regiments of Russian and Prussian cavalry.

  • The (British) Household Cavalry Brigade at Waterloo (some 13 squadrons) was reduced to a single squadron by the end of the battle at Waterloo ! (Captain Clark Kennedy of Royal Dragoons in "Waterloo Letters 35).
    Similarly Lieutenant O'Grady of (British) 7th Hussar Regiment reported that his regiment of 3 squadrons was reduced to a single squadron by the end of battle. (Waterloo Letters 58)
    Such casualties were due not only to the fact that the cavalrymen or their horses were killed or wounded. There were cavalrymen who left the ranks under various excuses and never returned to the ranks before the battle was over. The most common excuses were:
    - my horse is killed/wounded
    - my horse has broken/dislocated leg
    - I need more ammunition
    - I am wounded ! (he put spurs into his horse's side and gallop to safety). At Borodino (1812) a lancer regiment stood under heavy cannonade. After a while majority of officers hurriedly left, one after another, with the excuse of being wounded. It annoyed those few officers who stayed. Of course after battle "the wounded" cheerfully joined the regiment.
    - I have to help my wounded comrade to get out of the danger zone, he is profusely bleeding. (Usually one wounded soldier trying to get out of the danger zone required 0-4 men to aid or carry him.)

  • The most determined regiments would charge against the enemy several times despite casualties and unfavorable situation:
    - Russian Pavlogradski Hussar Regiment charged 10 [!] times at Craonne
    - French 5th Hussar Regiment charged 8-10 times at Austerlitz


  • "If cavalry fought only in close bodies, if it acted like a machine, all required would be to discharge it at the mark like a projectile. Then, if the soldier could direct his horse anyhow to the right or left, move forward, and halt when ordered, it would suffice. But charges resolve themselves into mles, the cavalryman is constantly exposed to the chances of single combat, and the unfortunate fellow who cannot manage his horse is lost."

  • Melee was a series of individual matches and depended upon individual horsemanship and swordsmanship. Supervision became more and more difficult. The horsemen halt face to face, abreast, to fight man to man; or each passes the other, thrusting with the sabre or lance. In melee every man was cuting or slashing or blocking the blows. Opponents positions were constantly changing relative to the cavalryman's front. Melee lasted only few minutes and often caused dust obscuring all vision. Melee could be as small as innvolving only 2 squadrons or as big as 70 squadrons ! (as for example in 1809 between the Austrian and French cavalry)

  • The smaller horses were more agile than the big horses of heavy cavalry and thus better suited for melee. The heavy cavalrymen can't turn their horses quickly or make half pirouettes with them as swiftly as the light cavalry.

  • Squadrons could charge, "go into melee, pull out, reform and charge again rather quickly."
  • "A fight on horseback is like a fencing match, in which the skilful horseman always presents his right side (which is under cover of his sword) to his adverary, and seeks to gain his weak side, the left one. Here all depends on horsemanship."

    Pursuing / Fleeing

  • The most killing happens in the pursuit phase (Clausewitz and Ardant du Picq), and this is apparently due to four factors.
    1- the pursuer doesn't have to look in his victim's eyes, and it appears to be much easier to deny an opponent's humanity if you can stab or shoot them in the back and don't have to look into their eyes when you kill them.
    2- the opponent has changed from a fighter to prey who must to be pursued and killed.
    Anyone who has ever worked with animals understands this process: "you are generally safe if you face a dog down, and you should always back away from a dog in a threatening situation because if you turn around and run you are in great danger of being viciously attacked.
    The same is true of soldiers in combat.
    3 - fleeing troops have difficulties to parry the cuts and slashes and are panick stricken.
    4 - fleeing enemy can be attacked from the left side and unable to defend (his saber is in right hand)

  • Sometimes a great body of cavalry fled before any contact was made with the enemy. In 1745 within moments all 50 squadrons of Austrian cavalry headed for the woods behind them after being charged by small body of Prussian cavalry ! The fleeing troops were permanently out of action for the rest of the battle.

  • Cuirassiers were the slowest and the hussars the fastest in pursuit and fleeing.
    "Speed and endurance cannot be expected from horses that are over-weighted." - L. E. Nolan

  • It was difficult to stop the troops who won and pursued the enemy. Once the cavalry has been committed to combat "the chances of controlling or stopping it belong in the realms of pious hopes. Men will pursue the enemy as long as they are able."

  • Closer and/or longer pursuit led to heavier casualties.

  • Sometimes only the the fleeing troops suffered casualties, not those who pursued them. In 1813 the French chasseurs-a-cheval de la Garde Imperiale pursued Austrian hussars without any loss, but the enemy lost 200 men.

  • Often the pursuing and fleeing troops spread out over the field and sometimes took themselves out of the battlefield as it happened at Haslach-Jungingen (1805). In this small engagement the French dragoons were broken and hotly pursued by Austrian cavalry [2 cuirassier and 2 lighthorse regiments].


  • Casualties in cavalry melee were low because men were focused mainly on controlling their horses, and because the cut or slash was easy to parry.
    Often the conquered alone loses men, while the victor has no or few loses only.
    The men received wounds mainly in the right arm, between hand and elbow. Fewer wounds were recived in the head and neck.

  • For 1 killed/wounded cavalryman were 3-4 horses lost. (Napoleon)
    Often the horses were wounded during combat by their own masters. If the cavalryman was over-excited, panicking, tired, or simply clumsy or wounded, his cuts or slashes occassionally ended up on his horse's head, neck or mane.
    Also the cannonballs far more often crushed horses' legs than hit the men in saddles.
    The horse was much bigger target for muskets than the ducking man in saddle.

  • The heaviest casualties were inflicted if cavalrymen found themselves amidst forced to flee.

  • "Closer and/or longer pursuit led to heavier casualties."

  • During cavalry attack against infantry the cavalryman leant forward becaming even smaller target. There were cases where the horse was hit by 7-8 musket balls while the rider was unscratched.

  • Eating green crops was very dangerous for the horses.
    "The British cavalry arrived shortly before nightfall and bivouacked in fields of standing wheat and barley, the leading brigade on the battlefield and the reminder at Nivelles, and many horses died from having eaten the indigestible green crops." (Sir E. Wood "Cavalry in the Waterloo Campaign" 1992).

    Cavalry regiment in combat
    [Reichenbach - SAXONY 1813]

    Below are described two cavalry battles fought within one hour.


    1. The 1st Lighthorse-Lancer Regiment of Old Guard is formed in two lines of 2 squadrons each. They moved against advancing Russian 4 squadrons formed in one line.
    3. The center of Russian line formed of dragoons delivered a musket volley. The 2 squadrons of Old Guard closed with them and after a short fight the Russian dragoons were broken.
    4. The dragoons are broken and the uhlans on both flanks flee without even joining the fight.
    [According to du Picq the cavalry was always insistent on attacking on an equal front. "Because, if with a broader front, the enemy gives way before it, his wings may attack it and make it the pursued instead of the pursuer. The moral effect of resolution is so great that cavalry, breaking and pursuing a more numerous cavalry, is never pursued by the enemy wings" - as you can see on this map below.]

    cavalry fights at Reichenbach, 1813


    1. The 1st Lighthorse-Lancer Regiment of Old Guard is formed in two lines of 2 squadrons each. They moved against advancing Russian 4 uhlan squadrons formed in one line.
    2. The 4 squadrons of uhlans came in contact with 2 front squadron of guardsmen.
    Very hot and prolonged melee.
    3. The second line of guard join the fight and the enemy flee scattered.

    cavalry fights at Reichenbach, 1813

    Polish ulans charging
    Polish ulans

    1813 - French Cavalry After Invasion of Russia.
    [Forming the new Grand Army, quality of troops, training.]


    On February 1st 1813, the Regiment of Chasseurs a Cheval of Old Guard had 260 survivors, the Regiment of Grenadiers-a-Cheval 127, and the Polish 1st Regiment of Lighthorse-Lancers 125.
    The 2nd Regiment of Lighthorse-Lancers (Dutch) had only 31 survivors! A few months earlier, on July 1st 1812, this regiment had 1.152 men.
    The Regiment of Dragoons of Imperial Guard had 120 survivors.
    The 5th Regiment of Cuirassiers had 40 officers and 918 other ranks present for duty on June 15th, 1812. On February 1st 1813 only 11 officers and ... 8 other ranks.
    Mny cavalry regiments ceased to exist.

    It is estimated that 175.000 excellent and trained horses of cavalry and artillery were lost in 1812 in Russia (!!!). Despite such horrendous losses suffered in 1812 Napoleon decided to continue his fight. He turned to every possible resource at his disposal that could produce manpower, and do this quickly. The rebuilding of the cavalry in 1813 was more dificult than infantry and artilery. Shortages of trained cavalrymen, officers, NCOs and war horses were critical. Promotions were rapidly handed out and temporary squadrons were formed. These temporary squadrons and even entire regiments were without esprit de corps and elan. They comprised of companies of different units thrown together for short period of time. They were neglected by the administration and very disliked by generals.

    There were 15.000 volunteers with 20.000 horses, mounted and equipped at their own expense. These 20-26 years old men came mainly from noble and wealthy families but were hardly enthusiastic for military service and soon many deserted. They formed new regiments named Life Guard but because of the desertions it was changed to Honor Guard. The rest of the army called them "the hostages". :-)
    The squadrons of Young Guard built its ranks from true volunteers from the area near Paris.

    Many former officers, NCOs and retired veterans joined the cavalry of Old Guard. In the beginning of April 1813 general Bourcier gathered 10.000 battle-hardened veterans from 60 regiments spread across the countryside. (Archives du service historique, C2 704.)
    The cavalry centers were in the cities of Magdeburg and Metz.
    Horses were coming in huge numbers from northern Germany.

    The 2nd Regiment of Lighthorse-Lancers "Red Lancers" accepted 500 Parisians with horses. They were volunteers and Frenchmen. In the past years it was a Dutch outfit but in 1812 in Russia it melted down to 31 men.

    Most of the new soldiers in cavalry were volunteers (not so in infantry !) and their officers and NCOs were eager to serve. Most of the NCOs and officers were veterans of earlier wars.


      The shortage of horses, NCOs and officers affected the speed and quality of training. The young privates had difficulties with remaining in saddles.
      The young men didn't really know how to properly care for their mounts and many horses were no longer serviceable.
      During Armistice was more time to train the troops and many sshowed dramatic improvements in their maneuvers, especially the squadrons of Young Guard. However the squadrons of Honor Guards didn't respond well to discipline and were still disliked by the rest of the army.

    Horse Chasseur

    Brent Nosworthy - "With Musket, Cannon and Sword: Battle Tactics of Napoleon and His Enemies"
    Ch. Duffy - "Military Experience in the Age of Reason."
    Gunther E. Rothenberg - "The Napoleonic Wars (History of Warfare)"
    John R. Elting - "Swords Around a Throne: Napoleon's Grand Armee"
    Brent Nosworthy - "The Anatomy of Victory"
    David G. Chandler - "The Campaigns of Napoleon"
    Rory Muir - "Tactics and the Experience of Battle in the Age of Napoleon"
    Vincent J. Esposito, John R. Elting - "A Military History..."

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