The "Cavalry Controversy"

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Couvi
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Tue Mar 04, 2014 12:47 pm

Just caught this while reading about Erskine Childers’s death.
The "Cavalry Controversy"

Childers's neighbour, Leo Amery was editor of The Times's History of the War in South Africa, and having already persuaded Basil Williams to write volume four of the work, he used this to persuade Childers to prepare volume five. This profitable commission took up much of Childers's free time until publication in 1907. It drew attention to British political and military errors and made unfavourable contrast with the tactics of the Boer guerrillas.

Motivated by his expectation of war with Germany, Childers wrote two books on cavalry warfare, both strongly critical of what he saw as outmoded British tactics. All were agreed that cavalry should be trained to fight dismounted with firearms, but traditionalists wanted cavalry still to be trained as the arme blanche, charging with lance and sabre. War and the Arme Blanche (1910) carried a foreword from Field Marshal Roberts, and recommended that cavalry "make genuinely destructive assaults upon riflemen and guns" by firing from the saddle - Sheffield describes this tactic as "immensely difficult and generally unrewarding" and Childers' views as "bizarre".

German Influence on British Cavalry (1911) was Childers's "intolerant" rejoinder to criticisms of War and the Arme Blanche made by Prussian General, Friedrich von Bernhardi, writing in an unlikely alliance with British General French, who had commanded successful cavalry charges at Elandslaagte and Kimberley. Although the traditional view appears absurd with hindsight (see, for example) it was reestablished as Roberts retired and French and his protégé Major-General Haig rose to the top of the army.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Erskine_Childers

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Tue Mar 04, 2014 4:34 pm

While the information on who's views were what was a little confused in that text, I hope that I'm correct in assuming that the main conflict was basically training for firearms alone vs. firearms and cutting tools.

Arguments of the time are interesting for their illustration of perspective. What protracted conflicts had these major powers actually been involved with in recent memory (the recent memory of high-powered modern weapons)? Most conflicts between major players had been short, sharp, over and done with.

The time and cost in training, both man and horse, as well as the development of NCO and officer cadre's for mounted cavalry - required to be skilled in both firearms AND cutlery - effectively reduces the value of the force to that of a 'war-ending' weapon - there's an inherent expectation of a quick resolution to the conflict, one way or the other.

Had these proponents of over-trained and (in all reality) delicate strike forces actually believed in their hearts and souls that warfare was going to be fundamentally different from the past experiences that had conditioned them - the recorded arguments and strategy sparring may well have been highly altered.

Consider the demise of the Japanese and German air forces in WW2 - the primary reason for their eventual defeat was loss of trained pilots. By comparison to mounted forces, the cavalry is even more irreplaceable, as you can't churn out trained horses off an assembly line in a matter of a few days or weeks.

We argue and discuss their conflicts with 20/20 hindsight - and it's easy to judge the winner. While their arguments from experience and precedence may have even been valid in their context, they were still eventually wrong.
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Tue Mar 04, 2014 10:17 pm

I have a copy of one of the British books somewhere, but I can't recall by what author. In it he argues that the example of the Boer War was an anomaly, and shouldn't be taken to mean that the day of cavalry was over and that mounted infantry had supplanted it. I reviewed it here a long time ago, and will have to see if I can find that. Odd read, from the American prospective, as our cavalry basically was mounted infantry for most of its history.
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Wed Mar 05, 2014 5:03 pm

Pat Holscher wrote:I have a copy of one of the British books somewhere, but I can't recall by what author. In it he argues that the example of the Boer War was an anomaly, and shouldn't be taken to mean that the day of cavalry was over and that mounted infantry had supplanted it. I reviewed it here a long time ago, and will have to see if I can find that. Odd read, from the American prospective, as our cavalry basically was mounted infantry for most of its history.
Am I correct in saying that from the ACW on, the US Army Cavalry operated almost exclusively as Mounted Infantry?
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Wed Mar 05, 2014 8:58 pm

Couvi wrote:
Pat Holscher wrote:I have a copy of one of the British books somewhere, but I can't recall by what author. In it he argues that the example of the Boer War was an anomaly, and shouldn't be taken to mean that the day of cavalry was over and that mounted infantry had supplanted it. I reviewed it here a long time ago, and will have to see if I can find that. Odd read, from the American prospective, as our cavalry basically was mounted infantry for most of its history.
Am I correct in saying that from the ACW on, the US Army Cavalry operated almost exclusively as Mounted Infantry?
Indeed, while you can find contrary examples, I think the cavalry branch, if we go back to the recreation of the mounted branch with the U.S. Mounted Rangers in 1832 was pretty much a dragoon force with the exception of the Civil War. The Civil War sort of stands out as the one instance in which the U.S. Army's cavalry often acted as true cavalry, although it also frequently acted in the dragoon role.

A person can argue this one way or the other, of course, but the reason that I'd make that argument is that American cavalry, since 1832, was principally a firearms equipped mounted force that frequently fought on foot. The Army in this period never used the lance, like many European armies did, and even though it did carry sabers up until the late 1930s the saber never achieved the prominence in our army that it did in others.

It probably can't be really considered true mounted infantry, as American cavalry did perform the scouting role that was unique to cavalry. I may be off base (and would appreciate correction if so) but I don't think mounted infantry had the scouting role that was so prominent with cavalry.

In making this distinction I'm defining dragoons to be a mounted branch equipped with firearms (which dragoons always were) and which can fight on foot and perform the cavalry scouting role. I'm sure that's not everyone's definition. Even so, I think a good case can be made that our cavalry was always more in the nature of dragoons as opposed to cavalry.

The reason I think this was the case is that the cavalry was, from 1832 until 1898, with the exception of the Civil War, a force that was mostly active in the West. Western conditions impacted everything about it, so it never developed into the edged steel force that European cavalries did.
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Mon Mar 10, 2014 10:03 am

I attended a lecture last weekend at the Five Forks Battlefield and the National Park Ranger who was discussing the American Civil War horse cavalry made the point that the majority of battles involving the cavalry were dismounted. He made the point that the horses were too valuable for them to be wounded or killed, especially for the Confederate troopers who had to provide their own mounts. As a result the horses were kept out of sight and out of direct fire range. At the visitor center they have a horse mannequin (horsequin?) fully tacked in period equipment. He showed the link by which the animal’s halters can be linked together for easier handling by the horse holder.

http://www.nps.gov/pete/index.htm
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Mon Mar 10, 2014 10:56 am

"The land was long ridges, with streams down in the dark hollows. Dismounted, along a ridge, with all night to dig in, the boys could hold for a while.

Good boys. Buford had taught them to fight dismounted, the way they did out west, and the hell with this Stuart business, this glorious Murat charge.

Try that against an Indian, that glorious charge, saber a-shining, and he’d drop behind a rock or a stump and shoot your glorious head off as you went by.

No, Buford had reformed his boys. He had thrown away the silly sabers and the damned dragoon pistols and given them the new repeating carbines, and though there were only 2,500 of them they could dig in behind a fence and hold anybody for a while."

3. BUFORD.
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Sun May 04, 2014 8:46 am

I was understand the impression that Buford was not as must a firepower only believer as it has been commonly said but believed in the versatily of the American cavaqlry trooper. dismounted fight at times but also mounted charges when it was most useful as well. I got this from General John Buford, http://www.amazon.com/General-John-Bufo ... ral+buford
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Wed May 14, 2014 8:08 pm

The argument over the saber is not just a practical one...it is just as much emotional. Even American cavalry officers, who operated as Dragoons in their whole experience, had an attachment to the saber. For one, it distinguished them from the infantry. As well, just as infantrymen stick to the "spirit of the bayonet," cavalrymen stick to the "elan of the arm blanche." For a cavalry officer, even John Buford, to ever contemplate "throwing away sabers" would be anathema to their creed. Buford led plenty of mounted saber charges in his short career during the Rebellion.

I think a more proper view of the American cavalry during the Civil War is that they learned the true balance of the Dragoon...and actually used sabers MORE at the end of the war, and more effectively, than they did the second year of the war. The first year doesn't really count...the cavalry often didn't even have many pistols or rifles, and were poorly drilled in sabers, never learning to use them properly. By the time American cavalry learned their craft, they used their sabers just as often as their carbines. And John Buford was part of that education...

Clair
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