Cavalry 1800-1815

(Part 2)

  • Sabers and lances - length, weight, characteristic and use in combat.
  • Cuirass, helmet, bearskin, shakos and rolled greatcoat - use in combat.
  • Lancers.
  • Horse skirmishers (flankers).
  • Speed of attack.
  • Massive cavalry charges.

  • Prussian Leib Hussar
    Picture Military Heritage

    Sabers and lances - length, weight, characteristic and use in combat.

    General rule was that the bigger was the curvature of the saber (and shorter blade) the less space it required for slashing. It means these were the best weapons where cavalrymen were mixed up in a very tight situation and with not much space for their horses. The Mamelukes and Turks were armed with the most curved sabers. These little disciplined warriors went into fight with a great zeal and usually fought in pretty chaotic but crowded situation with frenzy of slashing and cutting. With one slash or cut, and little twist in the saddle and effort he could cut through the padded protection of his opponent or take his head off in a blink of an eye. The European cavalrymen didn't like the very curved weapons and only few Hungarians and Poles who fought against Turks were fond of them.
    The mildly curved saber and of average length was effective weapon in situation where entire squadrons broke into very small groups of troopers, and where individual cavalrymen were passing each other from left or right, or coming from behind, and slash or cut was required. This weapon had its center of gravity "on the end of the blade" - which added extra strength to the blow. But for exactly this reason it was not too handy weapon when it came to using its point.
    Slash was very common in small war where would be a lot of one-on-one fights and circling as the horses had much space. But slashing was very much liked by the light cavalry - there would be no difficulty in retrieving "one's blade from the torso once it has been thrust home." It was well known that the slash was most effective and easiest against opponent to your right side and therefore the men took their time continually circling until they saw an opportunity for good slash or cut. The continual circling and movement of the horse reduced both, the force and accuracy of slash and cut. Thus most often the slash disabled or lightly wounded the enemy rather than killed him. Still, majority of slashes and cuts were pretty easily parried by both sides.
    The straight and long sabers were the best when used by massive, compact and well aligned bodies of troops, when the opponents were to the front. The center of gravity of this weapon was "close to the garde" so it was easier to keep your arm outstretched to reach out toward the opponent. The trooper would also lean forward with the saber extended, it made him a smaller target for bullets and in the same time gave him the greatest reach.
    But with the center of gravity so close to the garde it was not the best weapon for slashing and cuting. Only a bigger man using his physical strength was able to deliver as powerful cut as weaker or average man armed with a curved saber. This long saber was also heavier than curved saber and more difficult to use for quick blocking of saber blows.

    Of course one could deliver an effective thrust also with the curved saber. According to Charles Parquin, Prince Louis of Prussia, the king's nephew was killed by a thrust to his chest delivered by French hussar Guindey. "Brushing aside Guindey's weapon, the prince struck Guindey a blow across the face with his saber. He was about the strike a second time when Guindey countered and ran him through the chest. Killed instantly the prince fell from his horse. (and later on) ... I was the one who killed him - said Guindey, his blood is still on saber. He should have the mark of my thrust in his chest."
    The thrust was considered as more serious bussiness than the slash or cut. When in 1806 in Poland a hussar of 8th Reegiment and chasseur of 20th Reg. dueled with curved sabers, Parquin wrote: "There were no wild swings, but thrusts and parries were made in such rapid succession that it was clear that two champions were facing each other."

    Length of blades of French sabers :
    Mamelukes' curved saber - 77.2 cm
    a la husarde (1786 pattern) - 80 cm
    a la chasseur - 89.1 cm or 90 cm (1801 pattern)
    for light cavalry - 84.5 cm and 87.9 cm
    for cuirassiers and dragoons - 97.5 cm (until 1805)
    for cuirassiers and dragoons, it was made more solidly - 97 cm (after 1805)
    a la chasseur de la Garde (XI Year pattern) - 84.5 cm or 87 cm (3.4 cm wide, 1 kg heavy)
    a la dragons de la Garde - 97.5 cm
    a la grenadiers a cheval de la Garde - 97.5 cm
    Montmorency saber for carabiniers - 97.5 cm

    blades of Austrian weapons :
    hussar saber (1803 pattern) - 84 cm long, 3.5 cm wide
    cuirassier broadsword pallash (circa 1803) - 84-88 cm long and 4 cm wide

    Thrust caused deadlier but less impressive injuries than slash and cut. Thrust would leave the opponent with a small hole in his body, but it was deep and penetrated through all the vital organs. Not much blood to show but he is either dead within moments or seriously wounded.
    Slash or cut would most often result in a light wound to the forearm or hand. These parts of the body were the most targeted by "slashers" and "cutters". It was painful but not deadly. Sometimes there was a blow to the neck or head - it could be deadly or not. There were cases where shako, bearskin or helmet were enough to weaken the blow to the head. The long gloves weakened the blows to the forearm. Only rarely the opponent was beheaded by a clean cut or lost his fingers or hand. Very impressive looking were cuts and slashes to man's or horse's face. It resulted in a lot of blood, and life lasting and horrible wound but was not life threatening. There were cases where a cavalryman received up to 6 (and sometimes even more !) slashes or cuts to his forearm and continued his fight. De Brack put it shortly: "it is the point alone that kill, the others serve only to wound."

    Lances in Napoleon's army :
    weight - between 3.2 and 3.6 kg
    length - between 250 and 290 cm

    Austrian lance was 241 cm long.

    Cuirass, helmet, bearskin, shako and rolled greatcoat - their use in combat.

    Helmets saved from many blows although there were cases that it was cut in halves ! For example De Brack saw in 1809 at Essling "some cuirassiers' helmets cut entirely through" by Austrian sabers.
    The helmet of Austrian cuirassiers, dragoons and chevaulegers was made of pressed leather taken from the shoulder of cattle. There was also the stiff vertical frames to the sides and some strengthening round the rim for attaching the peaks.

    Bearskins and shakos - to some degree - protected from the weaker saber blows. De Brack wrote : "how many troopers have I seen killed because of having lost their headdress !" In 1809 during war against Austria one French cavalryman wrote "Chevillet's leather colpack cushioned the shock of saber blow who only stunned him when he was in the process of thrusting his saber point into enemy's belly."
    The French shako had a felt or covered cardboard body, waterptoof leather top, leather headband and V-shaped side reinforcements and a leather peak. Brass chinscales were attached by a boss decorated with a star. The chinscales and leather parts of shako gave some protection against saber.
    The Austrian shako was made of cloth or cloth on leather and was 20.5 cm high. After 1810 new shako was used, it was made of felt. Austrian grenadiers retained the fur caps with metal plate at its front. The fur cap was 30 cm high at the front and 12.5 cm at the rear.
    The Siebenburgen Grenzer Regiments in cold weather wore a fur kolpak about 26 cm high, in summer they wore shakos.

    Cuirass was a good protection especially against lance and straight-blade saber with a narrow point. The men fell morally stronger and claimed that it saved them from "many a bullet and many a thrust." It also protected against musket and pistol shots fired at longer range, generally above 30-60 paces. The cuirass was heavy to carry and very hot in summer time. During a hot day the mounting thirst was a very unpleasant thing for the men baked in their armor. Among today reenactors during a summer "battle" the cuirassiers are the most dehydrated and sweating of all.
    In a jammed fight it protected the body but in the same time it greatly interfered with movement. It put the heavy cavalryman in a disadvantage against more agile opponent. The armor protected from a saber blow to his back or front. But when the saber hit his neck it was final. Often it was enough to cut the cuirassier at his forearm or face or wound/kill his horse.

    Greatcoat rolled in a horseshoe and equipment was also effective protection against thrust. It was almost customary for French and Polish cavalry to have their greatcoats rolled across upper body. (Of course if it was very cold the trops simply wore their greatcoats, and when very warm there were no greatcoats at all.)
    Parquin wrote: "I galloped off to rejoin the colonel who gave order for capes to be rolled and worn in bandolier fashion."
    One French cavalryman wrote in 1809: "Two saber blows hit me: one on the back, which was parried by my equipment and the other on the front I parried with my saber."
    The Austrian and Russian cavalrymen however never rolled their greatcoats in horseshoe. They - probably - considered this as too restricting for their movements and agility and interfering with motion. Maybe there were also other reasons, I don't know.

    Lancers.

    Lance was the most dangerous in the first contact during line-versus-line combat. General Jomini wrote that it is the most aggressive weapon as one can simply outstreach every oponenton horse. Before World War I Mr. Wilkinson "have watched and recorded hundreds of competitions between men equally experts in the use of their weapons but lance won by the every large majority of them." During Napoleonic Wars (in 1809) one lancer of the 1st Regiment of Lighthorse-lancers of Old Guard won a duel against 2 or 3 dragoons of Old Guard just to show to the Emperor how effective this weapon is.
    But lance was not an universal weapon. It was long, too long for a jammed, crowded fight where one has to parry blows from the left, right and rear and do it very quickly. This is possible though very difficult to do this with the heavy and long lance. In such situation many lancers discarded their weapons and fought with sabers. It happened in 1809 at Wagram where the Austrian uhlans threw away their lances after being attacked by 1st Regiment of Lighthorsemen of Guard (not yet armed with lances). But according to some Polish veterans such behavior shouldn't take place with self-confident and battle hardened lancers.
    The best situation for a lancer was when enemy was only to his front. Sometimes however if he sticks an enemy in gallop, he is dismounted in the instant.
    But there was not much advantage over infantryman. The lance was a long weapon but the musket with bayonet were also long. The infantryman could be struck by the lance but in the same time his bayonet did the same to lancer's horse. There were numerous battles where lancers didn't break one single battalion of infantry. Actually more attacks failed than succeeded.
    There were however several cases where the lancers enjoyed a great success. For example in 1813 at Dennewitz one squadron of 2nd Uhlan Regiment (Polish) attacked Prussian battalion of 3rd Reserve Infantry Regiment. The infantry was formed in a column with skirmishers as its screen. The uhlans routed the skirmishers killing several and attacked the column. The Prussians were "savagely handled" and fled in disorder. Several other squadrons of 2nd Uhlan attacked and broke 3 other squares formed by the Prussians (of Tauentzien's troops).
    Later on the same regiment of cavalry threw itself against squares of IInd, IIIrd and IVth Battalion 3rd 'East Prussian' Landwehr Regiment and squares of 4th Reserve Infantry Regiment. But this time the Prussians held their ground, delivered volleys and the uhlans (quite a few fell off their horses struck by bullets) passed on and engaged the Prussian cavalry in the rear. Soon the Prussian cavalrymen (part of them armed with lances) got support from the Death' Head Hussar Regiment. The uhlans lost 102 men in the vicious cavalry fight and retreated. MdE Ney sent orders to the Westphalian Cavalry Brigade to rescue the uhlans but the Westphalians refused and didn't move at all. Furious Ney sent the colonel of the Westphalians to Napoleon after "ripping off his epaulettes."

    According to majority of military men and veterans the lancers were pretty hopeless against cuirassiers. It was one of the reasons why Napoleon gave body armor to his gigantic horse carabiniers. (In 1809 these lads suffered heavy casualties against Austrian uhlans.)
    But in 1813 at Leipzig the uhlans of Polish 3rd, 6th and 8th Uhlan Regiment (then mostly veterans) didn't shy away from cuirassiers. They charged up to 12 times against 6 regiments of Austrian and 2 of Russian cuirassiers - in the fights they usually pointed their lances at cuirassiers' faces and throats. According to P. Haythornthwaite "lance can be aimed at a target with greater accuracy than a sword." These veterans also used lances as battering rams - striking at tops of opponents' helmets with force. :-) Such method of combat took place in October 1813 south-west of village of Wachau between 3rd, 6th and 8th Uhlan Regiment and the Austrian and Russian cuirassiers (Starodubovski and Gluhovski Cuirassier Regiment).
    The Poles agreed with the Cossacks that lance was the better weapon the poorer was the horsemanship of the opponent. The Cossacks even claimed than it is impossible to use lance against Circassians who were considered as one of the best horsemen in the world. (Today Circassians live not far away from Chechnya and Turkey).

    The Poles said that almost every commander loved to have lancers around, especially during parades and reviews, but not every cavalryman wished to carry the heavy weapon for all year long. For this one reason many young men entered the ranks of chasseurs or hussars instead of uhlans.

    Mastery with lance also required training, good horsemanship and strong hand. Giving lances to many regiments of poorly trained men, too old or too young and weak, didn't make them good lancers. These lads were lost against average cavalry without lances.

    Horse skirmishers (flankers)

    Skirmishing was all about preventing the enemy getting past the screen and finding out more than they should. On occassion these combats escalated and involved more and more troops (as it so often happened with infantry).
    Majority of squadrons had their own horse skirmishers, called flankers. It was approx. 10-20 men per squadron armed with rifles, musketoons or carbines. They operated in pairs and many movements were executed in gallop or fast trot. The cavalry extensively used horse skirmishers to locate weak points in enemy's line. The formations would be loose, allowing for lots of individual movement and there would be more formed supports nearby to rally on or to back them up as required. Sometimes large groups of horse skirmishers fired upon the enemy trying to take a better position or forced the enemy to move slower or even halt and form squares. Ocassionally an odd charge would take place to drive the enemy horse skirmishers away.
    In 1813 at Dresden the Austrians used their skirmishers in an interesting way; the 'Erzherzog' Rainier Infantry Regiment sent skirmishers forward and between flankers (horse skirmishers) drawn from a hussar regiment !

    Speed of attack.

    According to general Jomini the slow pace of attack, the trot, permits that compactness which the gallop breaks up. But du Picq wrote that the effect is moral above all. The galloping squadrons see enemy squadron coming towards them at a trot.
    It is surprised at first at such coolness as was known that "the gallop was a move which relieved anxiety."
    "The material impulse of the gallop is superior; but there are no intervals, no gaps through which to penetrate the line in order to avoid the shock, the shock that overcomes men and horses. These men must be very resolute, as their close ranks do not permit them to escape by about facing."
    The galloping squadrons do not reason these things out, but they know them instinctively. They understand that they have before them a moral impulse superior to theirs.
    They become uneasy, hesitate. Their hands instinctively turn their horses aside.
    Some of the horsemen go on to the end, but 75 % have already tried to avoid the shock. There is disorder and flight. Then begins the pursuit at a gallop by the men who attacked at the trot.

    Speed of cavalry:

    - walk .............. approx. 100 paces/minute
    - trot ................ approx. 200 paces/minute
    {the slow pace helped to keep order in ranks but gave to much time to think about dangers,
    it was good speed only for disciplined and seasoned troops, the more anxious the men the
    sooner they sped up, regardless of their officers' orders}
    - gallop ........... approx. 300 and more paces/minute
    {the fast pace usually disordered the troops as they got out of control, gaps were created,
    horses in the center were squeezed out, slower horses and riders were far behind
    but it was the "winning intoxication gait" with little time for cowardice.
    Seasoned troops started galloping as late as possible to avoid disorder,
    poorer and more anxious troops started their gallop very early and with loud battle cries.}

    Only very few regiments of cavalry in Europe attained the perfection of changing the formation at gallop without losing its order. For example in 1813 Napoleon's 1st Regiment of Lighthorse-lancers of Old Guard attacked the enemy, got under artillery fire, made half-turn and crushed enemy's cavalry without losing its alignment. There was however unwritten law to not maneuver in front of enemy's cavalry - too often it ended up in a disaster.

    Obstacles for cavalry movements:

    - hedged roads
    - killed and wounded men and horses
    - abandoned or damaged equipment on the ground
    - terrain after rain
    - cultivated fields
    - tendency to overload the mounts with junk (or "precious" loot) gathered during campaigning

    Massive cavalry charges.

    In the morning on 27th August 1813 at Dresden, Napoleon was standing in a bell tower and watched the deployment and movements of troops on both sides. He noticed a gap in Austrian line and ordered Murat to attack with his cavalry.
    Murat formed his numerous squadrons and regiments in the following order:
    in the first line rolled horse battery and behind the guns trotted 13 squadrons of chasseurs (3rd Light Cavalry Division led by GdD Chastel). To the left of the green-clad chasseurs rode 13 squadrons of green-clad dragoons and 9 squadrons of heavy cuirassiers (3rd Heavy Cavalry Division led by GdD Doumerc).
    in the second line rode 14 squadrons of cuirassiers (1st Heavy Cavalry Division led by GdD Bordesoulle).
    Murat himself was flamboyantly dressed and was escorted by 5-8 squadrons of the crack Saxon cuirassiers. All these forces advanced against Austrian 2nd and 4th Infantry Division and 3rd Light Division. Before the attack began Murat took one squadron of Saxon guard cuirassiers and explored the Austrian position.
    The massive attacks of cavalry (supported on several occassions by infantry and artillery) brought great results for the French and around noon literally thousands of Austrian prisoners were taken (15.000 !) and entire brigades either withdrew or broke and flew. The timing of the cavalry charge was near perfect as rain prevented the use of muskets by Austrian infantry.

    Sources and acknowledgements.

    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"
    Charles Parquin - "Napoleon's Army: the military memoirs of Charles Parquin"
    Chandler - "The Campaigns of Napoleon"
    Muir - "Tactics and the Experience of Battle in the Age of Napoleon"
    Vincent J. Esposito, John R. Elting - "A Military History..."
    Arnold - "Napoleon Conquers Austria"
    Haythornthwaite P. - "Austrian army of the Napoleonic Wars - Cavalry"

    back to homepage