Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Galloping At Everything: The Myth Of British Cavalry-centrism In The Great War

I had a very pleasant conversation with the only one of my non-university related friends to harbour even the vaguest interest in military history on Friday night. During the course of the conversation he mentioned the "fact" that "the generals" in the Great War were obsessed with cavalry.

Oh! What A Whingeing War...

In fact this was not, by and large, the case. The persistence of this myth is interesting and what is actually rather more interesting is that fact that is is a predominantly British myth, in that our generals are always assumed to be the most crazily enthused about galloping cavalry into machine guns.

Of course, myth making about the Great War is endemic to British historical discourse. Never has so much hair been rent and so many teeth ground down to stumps - in spite of the fact that in relative terms Britain had a far better war in terms of casualties and dead than any of the other major participants and in spite of the fact that by the summer of 1918, the British Army was the most effective fighting force on the Western Front (and, incidentally, the most heavily mechanised, hi-tech army in the world). In fact, I would go so far as to contend that British Army performance in the Great War was superior to British Army performance in the Second World War, but that's a whole other debate.

In relative terms, the British were also far less bothered about cavalry than either the French or the Germans. What is interesting in 1914 is just how suited the British cavalry was for modern warfare in comparison to that of its key ally and opponent. Thanks largely to reforms undertaken by General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien (who commanded II Corps in 1914 and was one of the few survivors of Isandlhwana) every British cavalryman was, to all intents and purposes, Mounted Infantry. Unlike the French, who still employed quasi-Napoleonic cavalry uniforms and to a greater extent than the Germans, the British cavalry was outfitted for practicality rather than dash (trivia note - British uniform in the Great War was based on a golfing outfit, which was seen to be the most practical and comfortable get up for outdoorsmanship), the kit being fundamentally similar to that of the infantryman, with the addition of riding boots and the substitution of ammunition bandoliers in place of webbing. Importantly, whereas French and German cavalry carried carbines as secondary armament, every British cavalryman was equipped with a Short Magazine Lee Enfield rifle of the same pattern as that carried by the infantry. The firepower generated by British cavalry formations was therefore significantly greater than that of their French or German counterparts. On top of this, the British cavalry could shoot. Cavalry troopers were assessed under the same regulations as the infantry and were expected to attain similar standards of musketry (which they did). Although individual cavalry commanders still nursed dreams of an all out arme blanche stirrup-to-stirrup charge, it was widely acknowledged in the British Army to an extent that had not percolated to other armies that the cavalryman's troop horse was essentially a means for manoeuvre and that as a matter of course troopers were as likely to fight dismounted as mounted.

Cavalry as MI still brings with it certain inbuilt disadvantages, of course. A cavalry regiment is smaller than an infantry battalion and this lack of numbers is compounded by the fact that one man in four had to be told off to secure the horses while his mates went into the line. This does not detract from the relative effectiveness of British cavalry, however.

Bah Yah Bah

Another point not widely acknowledged is the fact that cavalry was by no means obsolete in 1914. In fact, I'd go further and say that it was by no means obsolete in 1918. This does not mean that it should have been used in an all out charge of the type not seen since Omdurman in 1898. And indeed it wasn't. However, the fact of the matter is that the Great War represents an uneasy combination of the 19th and the 20th centuries. Many of the horrible and costly (and unavoidable) tactical problems that emerged during the war raised their heads because while some strands of technology - artillery, the machine gun etc - had come or were coming to maturity, others - communications technology, mechanisation - were either immature or still going through birthing pains. Two of these emerging strands of technology were the aeroplane and the combustion engine. During the war, the employment of this technology would advance considerably. However, in 1914, both were present but rare and inadequate and this left several roles that only cavalry could fulfil.

The first is outpost and picket duty, a role cavalry has performed for ever and which it continued to perform 1914-18. Second was recon duty - to some extent reconnaisance was taken up by the budding air capability of those involved, but in the absence of specially harnessed photographic equipment and radio communications the information gleaned by aircraft in 1914 could only be by its very nature vague and unreliable. Third was exploitation. The armies of 1914 - and, with the partial exception of the British, the armies of 1918 - moved no more swiftly than did the armies of 1815. Or 216BC for that matter. The only widely available mechanism for cranking up the speed was the Mark 1 Old Nag. This was still largely true in 1918.

"Ahah!" I hear you cry, "What about the lorry! You can't tell me that there were no lorries in 1918! And you can't tell me there were no armoured cars!" Indeed I can't. However, both forms of vehicle were severely limited in terms of the terrain in which they could operate. By 1918, most British units were mechanised to some extent, as were the artillery supply lines. The Germans were mechanised to a significantly lesser extent, but Stormtroop units could expect to be bussed to the front line. There things tended to grind to a halt, however, due to the fact that ground that has spent the past four years being churned to goop by heavy artillery is not widely suited for easy access for wheeled vehicles. Lorries were suitable only for use behind the lines and armoured cars could not be reliably employed in all situations (though they were useful in some - British planners [foremost among them JFC Fuller and his Plan 1919] nursed grandiose plans involving fleets of Rolls Royce armoured cars speeding around the German rear areas shooting things up).

Ah, but there were tanks. The whole point of tanks was to be able to deal with rough terrain! Well, yes. But a couple of points need to be taken on board. First of all, tanks during this period were painfully slow. Most British tanks operated at the hair-raising speed of 4mph. Later British tanks had a projected range of between 60 and 70 miles an hour, but in practice the attrition rate to breakdown, crew fatigue and delicate mechanisms spanging apart at inconvenient moments was huge. These tanks were not tools of exploitation and manoeuvre in a fashion that a student of the Second World War would recognise. They were intended to support infantry in structured bite-and-hold operations and this is what they did very well (by Summer 1918, German AARs noted that British attacks combining infantry, tanks, airpower and artillery were, literally, unstoppable and the only thing to do was fall back or die). To make more ambitious claims for them is to project onto them capabilities that were simply beyond the existing level of technological maturity. The Mark A "Whippet" could crank it up to 13mph and much of the more forward-looking British exploitation planning was based around the use of Whippets. However, Whippets could not survive for any great length of time outside of contact with friendly lines without infantry support and the only way infantry could maintain anything even approaching 13mph was by... getting on horses.

It is desperately important to recognise the inherent limits to technology during the Great War. A combination of mythmaking regarding "butchers and bunglers" and the very fact that there was so much technological upheaval during the period tends to obscure this fact. It's also worth noting that the army that embraced technology most fully was the British army. Part of this revolves around the fact that the British often sought technological solutions to tactical problems, but in fact the willingness to embrace technology was present at every level. British logistics were mechanised to an extent that no other army could match. British soldiers were able to be transported around the rear lines on lorries and light railways. The Royal Artillery mounted heavy guns on tracked platforms in order to enable them to be brought forward as the infantry advanced. But in many ways the British cavalryman with helmet, magazine rifle, .303 ammo bandolier, spurs and sword best represents the period, not as a symbol of incompetance, intellectual reaction or hidebound thinking but as a symbol of the uneasy, evolving mixture of old and new.


Blogger J. said...

This comment is absolutely irrelevant to British use of cavalry, but I would highly recommend Albert Palazzo's "Seeking Victory on the Western Front: The British Army and Chemical Warfare in World War I." The author makes the case that the British military, far from being "revulsed" by the supposed immorality of chemical warfare, actually acknowledged that this was a new technology that might change military tactics and actively sought to improve its employment. If I recall, he makes the case that, had the Brits had another year or so to improve their tactics and weaponry, they would have shown that chemical warfare had a definite impact on military operations (contrary to the many suggestions that chemical warfare was just a nuisance and an ineffective weapon, or worse yet, that it was somehow an "unclean" form of warfare).

10:38 AM  
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4:08 AM  

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