Tommy, p.50Richard Holmes
British cavalry dressed in khaki uniform like that of the infantry, but with a leather bandolier rather than webbing equipment, and had long ago eschewed the majesty of busby, lance-cap and dragoon helmet for the service-dress cap. In contrast, as Second Lieutenant Kenneth Godsell observed, the French still retained cuirassiers, with back-and breast-plates and steel and brass helmets, as their shock cavalry. These antique warriors were:
easy to see at long distances, as the sun flashed in all directions from their shining breastplates. As the latter were not bullet-proof, it was difficult to understand their exact function. The French cavalryman is rarely seen off his horse. He has a rooted objection to dismounting. His animals were looking very thin and tired as a result of long and trying marches in this hot weather.143
The German cavalry looked just as old-fashioned. Although German regulars had taken to wearing field-grey by 1914, their cavalry went to war in uniforms of traditional cut, with plastron tunics for uhlans, frogged jackets for hussars and spiked helmets of polished steel for cuirassiers. The inspector general of German cavalry frankly admitted that: ‘Despite the improvements made in fighting dismounted, there was nevertheless a lack of schooling in firing practice in the larger units …’.144
Some pre-war cavalrymen had envisaged that the war would start with a big cavalry battle in which one side would seize superiority. In fact there were many clashes, on a much smaller scale, as German advance guards met British rearguards. On 22 August Major Tom Bridges’s squadron of the 4th Dragoon Guards ambushed a German patrol on the Mons-Brussels road, and, as Private Ted Worrell remembered, there was plenty of old-style hack and gallop when the Germans fell back after a brief firefight:
The chase went on for a mile but we were better mounted and caught up with them on the outskirts of Soignies and there was a proper old melee. Captain Hornby ran his sword through one Jerry and Sgt. Major Sharpe got another. I got a poke at a man but I don’t know what happened to him. There was a fair old noise what with the clatter of hooves and a lot of shouting. The Jerries couldn’t manage their lances at close quarters and several threw them away and tried to surrender but we weren’t in no mood to take prisoners and we downed a lot of them before they managed to break it off and gallop away. Our horses were pretty blown so Capt. Hornby decided not to give chase. I suppose it was all over in five minutes but we certainly showed them that the 4th were hot stuff.145
On 24 August the 9th Lancers (with Soarer Campbell in command) and two squadrons of the 4th Dragoon Guards charged German infantry and guns near Elouges to take the pressure off the infantry rearguard. The charge bought the infantry a breathing space, but did little real damage to the Germans (though this did not prevent it from featuring in a spirited and largely imaginary battlepiece by Richard Caton Woodville, now hanging in the National Army Museum in Chelsea). In contrast, on the 28th the British 3rd Cavalry Brigade, covering the gap between I and II Corps as they fell back, put in a textbook attack, with the fire of J Battery Royal Horse Artillery and machine guns and dismounted squadrons of the Royal Scots Greys covering a charge by a squadron of the 12th Lancers. The lancers went through the dragoons of the German advance guard, who had dismounted to use their carbines, rallied and returned twice more. Captain Bryant, adjutant of the 12th, had not invested in the new 1912-pattern regulation sword, the officer’s version of the plainer trooper’s 1908-pattern sword with its straight, slim blade and big handguard. However, his ‘Old cutting sword, well sharpened … went in and out of the German like a pat of butter’. He cut down five Germans, and another officer killed three with his sword and another with his revolver. The action ‘very effectively dampened the ardour of the German cavalry’ and deterred the Guard Cavalry Division from exploiting the inter-corps gap.146
There were other cavalry actions on the retreat to the Marne and the subsequent advance to the Aisne, with that at Néry on 1 September giving L Battery RHA its niche in the military pantheon. But it was not until First Ypres that the cavalry again played a really significant role. By now it had been reorganised, and instead of the one big division which had started the war there was now a Cavalry Corps, which was to remain in existence, with occasional restructurings and a very brief disappearance, for the rest of the war. The Corps had five divisions in September 1915, and shrank thereafter to constitute just three (under 3 percent of the strength of the BEF) by the war’s end. In October 1915 the Cavalry Corps generated less firepower than an infantry division because its regiments were much smaller than infantry battalions, one man in four had to hold the horses of the other three, and the Royal Horse Artillery’s 13-pounder gun was less effective than the 18-pounders of the infantry divisions. But it fought dismounted to hold Messines Ridge against determined German attacks with courage and, no less to the point, marksmanship of which any infantry battalion would have been proud.
In late 1915 the Cavalry Corps furnished a Dismounted Division, created by producing a three-battalion brigade from each of the cavalry divisions. Every dismounted battalion was composed of three companies, one from each regiment in the parent brigade. The Division lost almost 1,000 men during a seven-week tour of trench duty, persuading ‘Sally’ Home that ‘officers and men feel that they had done their share and there is not that restless feeling in the Corps. We are busy training now in real cavalry work in the hope that if the day comes we may be ready.’147
Some cavalry always remained outside the Cavalry Corps. There was a cavalry regiment in each corps, and a cavalry squadron which formed part of each division to provide its commander with gallopers, mounted escorts and a small mobile reserve. The 1/Northumberland Hussars, for instance, sent a squadron each to 1st, 7th and 8th Divisions. B Squadron announced in Plum and Apple, 1st Division’s newspaper, that it constituted ‘a gallant band of mounted navvies FOR HIRE – ALL KINDS of tasks undertaken … We will dig you in cheaply or do you in for nothing.’ They were as surprised at the physical appearance of French cuirassiers as were some of their regular brethren, and when they were pointed out to Private Chrystal he declared: ‘Gox! Wey, I thought them—wor German hoolans an’ fired at the likes o’ them aol day yesterday!’ Private Daglish of the Morpeth Troop went some way towards making amends. When a pretty girl waved her handkerchief and shouted ‘Vivent les anglais’ as his troop rode by he replied politely: ‘Very canny, hoos yorsel?’
The main task confronting British cavalry and its commanders was not, however, riding errands for divisional commanders or worsening Anglo-French relations, but trying to devise ways in which the mounted arm could restore a measure of mobility to battle by capitalising on success achieved by infantry and artillery. And here its problem was wholly new. In the past cavalry had been able to find flanks to turn or gaps to exploit. On the relatively small battlefields of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries some could be kept back, under the hand of the army commander, for prompt commitment when he saw that the enemy’s line was so weakened that it might be broken by a charge, or when he thought the moment ripe to launch his horsemen in pursuit. On the Western Front there were no open flanks round which cavalry could swirl, and the difficulties of moving troops, on foot or horseback, across crowded rear areas while a battle was in progress made it difficult to bring cavalry up in time to seize a fleeting opportunity.
Much has been made of the failure of cavalry to exploit the success achieved around High Wood in the night attack of 14 July 1916 on the Somme. Both the Official History and the redoubtable Marquess of Anglesey, historian of the British cavalry, maintain that the cavalry destined to exploit success, 2nd Indian Cavalry Division, led by the Secunderabad Cavalry Brigade, simply took too long to get within striking distance, and that part of the problem stemmed from a smashed-up battlefield laced with trenches. In fact the war diaries of the units concerned make it clear that the leading cavalry regiment was on the old British front line by 7.00 that morning, and that the whole of the leading brigade, with its artillery, was there by 9.30 am There was no trench-crossin
Nor is it true to say that the attack, when it went in late that afternoon, was a catastrophe. Lyn Macdonald quotes Second Lieutenant F. W. Beadle, an artillery officer in 33rd Division, who watched the charge of the Deccan Horse and the 7th Dragoon Guards.
It was an incredible sight, an unbelievable sight, they galloped up with their lances and with pennants flying, up the slope to High Wood and straight into it. Of course they were falling all the way … I’ve never seen anything like it. They simply galloped on through all that and horses and men dropping on the ground, with no hope against the machine-guns, because the Germans up on the ridge were firing down into the valley where the soldiers were. It was an absolute rout. A magnificent sight. Tragic.148
I must begin by declaring my admiration for anyone who fought on the Somme, but it has to be said that this vivid and compelling quotation illustrates the dangers of relying on uncorroborated oral history. Although Second Lieutenant Beadle tells us precisely what we expect to hear, it is something that did not actually take place. Firstly, British and Indian cavalry did not (for perfectly sensible reasons) use lance-pennants in action in the First World War: a photograph of the Deccan Horse shows them pennantless that very day. Next, none of the infantry in High Wood, who would have been glad to see the cavalry appear, mention them charging ‘straight into it’, although it would not have been an easy thing to miss. A heavily shelled wood in full summer foliage was (as we saw in nearby Mametz) a tricky obstacle for even infantry to negotiate. What was the merit of the cavalry galloping into it, especially when part of it was British-held at the time?
Lastly, the war diary of the Secunderabad Brigade reveals that it lost eight men killed and less than 100 wounded all day: this was evidently not the Charge of the Light Brigade. The 7th Dragoon Guards had an officer wounded, two troopers killed and twenty wounded, and the Deccan Horse two Indian officers wounded, three troopers killed and fifty wounded. Both the brigade’s machine-gun squadron and N battery RHA, which did not take part on the charge, lost more men than the 7th Dragoon Guards, who did. Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, who use the same Beadle quote, announce that ‘the cavalry were soon dealt with by German machine-gunners’, but detailed analysis of the action shows that the reverse is true. When German machine guns opened up from Longueval village, the Secunderabad Brigade’s machine guns duly silenced them. The 7th Dragoon Guards speared sixteen Germans and captured another thirty-two in its charge; the Deccan Horse killed some more and captured six, and both the Royal Horse Artillery and the cavalry machine guns caused casualties, though we cannot reasonably estimate how many. However, it is already perfectly clear that the cavalry killed more, probably many more, of the enemy than the enemy killed of it.
What happened around High Wood is that the cavalry failed to exploit a window of opportunity that opened at dawn and slammed shut before dusk. Once again poor communications are largely to blame. While General Rawlinson was not necessarily wrong to put the cavalry under XIII Corps for the start of the battle, he was unlucky that the gap appeared on the front of XV Corps. It was not until around 6.00 pm that the Secunderabad Brigade was assigned to XV Corps, and this tells us more about the nature of Rawlinson’s chain of command than it does about the strengths or weaknesses of the cavalry. Ironically, on 14 July 1916 the cavalry would have done better had it shown more dash rather than less. Had the cavalry brigade or divisional commanders shown more initiative they might have short-circuited this very slow chain of command and slipped in before the window of opporutunity had shut. But the real problem that day was not the cavalry per se. it was the perennial difficulty confronting an attacker on the Western Front. There were times when an attacker might strike such a heavy opening blow as to damage his opponent’s central nervous system, which in great measure is what the Germans achieved on 5th Army’s front on 21 March 1918. But it was usually easier for the defender, pushed back onto his own communications, to recognise where he was losing the battle and to take prompt action to cauterise failure than it was for the attacker, his own communications stretched tight over the hard edge of the battlefield, to reinforce his success.149
Although the tactical circumstances of Cambrai the following year were very different, the blame for failure to exploit initial success was once again laid at the cavalry’s door. The forward headquarters of the Cavalry Corps was just five miles behind the front when the attack began, and its commander, Lieutenant General Sir Charles Kavanagh, was in touch by telephone with his own divisions and with III and IV Corps, whose infantry and tanks were to make the attack. Although Kavanagh is often written off as a chump, Walter Nicholson, who had attended his briefing for an earlier attack, found him ‘a fine fighting man with every intention of taking his corps to victory’, and thought his divisional commanders were ‘as good as one could wish’. He had spoken slowly and clearly, and referred to his BGGS (‘Sally’ Home) for confirmation when required, although Nicholson, an infantryman, thought that Kavanagh had added too much detail about horses.150 Kavanagh’s orders for Cambrai stated that: ‘The order for the forward movement of the cavalry divisions from their forward concentration areas will be issued by Cavalry Corps. The order will be issued as soon as it appears that the situation is favourable and that there is the possibility of a cavalry advance.’
But early on 20 November, when the battle began, his 1st Cavalry Division was sensibly put under the command of IV Corps, through which it would move to exploit. Less sensibly there was no direct link between corps and division, so Kavanagh’s headquarters had to relay messages both ways. However, despite some confusion in the transmission of orders, 1st Cavalry Division reached Ribécourt just before midday, perhaps an hour and a half after the infantry had secured it: no mean achievement. But there were further delays in orders and information as the short November afternoon slid by, and only a single squadron of the 4th Dragoon Guards managed to capitalise on German disorganisation, launching a successful charge which captured a transport column and about fifty infantrymen.
Kavanagh’s other attacking formation, 5th Cavalry Division, was ordered forward by corps headquarters just before midday, and thanks to preparation by the cavalry of an approach track, it covered ten miles in an hour and a half to reach the outskirts of Marcoing. Elements of 7th Dragoon Guards crossed the canal and passed back word that the bridges there were intact, but no further action was taken that day. Further west, a tank crashed through a damaged bridge at Masnières, and it took some time to strengthen a nearby bridge to get cavalry across. Not long before 4.00 pm the Fort Garry Horse began to cross. Lieutenant Harcus Strachan, of B Squadron, recalled how:
Lieutenant Colonel Paterson gave the order to ‘carry on’, and the squadron, taking horses in single file at a distance, crossed the bridge, which was under fire and very precarious. Several men fell into the canal and a number were drowned, but by the blessing of Providence, we reached the other side and away we went at the gallop at 3.45 pm We reached the infantry where they had captured the German trenches, but while cutting a passage through the old German wire, Captain Campbell [and a number of men] were killed and command fell upon me. With a few ground scouts as our only protection, we left the infantry behind and proceeded at a gallop …
The squadron had to negotiate a long camouflage screen running along the main road on the far side of the canal, by cutting a gap through which the men filed, to form up on the far side. Moving up the ridge east of Masnières, Strachan’s men found themselves facing a battery of four 77-mm guns.
Fortunately swords had been drawn before crossing the bridge and the squadron charged the guns, each troop column converging on them. It is interesting to note that one gun continued to fire until the last and those gunners probably escaped owing to the difficulty of
Whilst charging the guns we were fired on by machine guns but these also ceased fire when the guns were taken …
German infantry were now observed retiring in great disorder in the direction of Rumilly, and the squadron rode right over them as they discarded arms and equipment right and left. They offered no opposition, but they protected themselves as well as they could by lying down or hiding behind piles of rubbish, etc, where they could not be reached by the sword … After passing them, there was no opposition at all; everything was in the wildest confusion and there was every indication of a demoralized retreat on the part of the enemy …151
After a series of incidents behind the German lines Strachan’s survivors (following ‘a conference of all ranks’) stampeded its surviving horses to confuse the Germans and withdrew on foot. It reached British lines with three officers, forty-three other ranks and eighteen German prisoners. Strachan was awarded a Victoria Cross to add to the MC he already held. There is no doubt that the performance of the cavalry that day was disappointing. But its failure stemmed from precisely the same factor which had prevailed on 14 July 1916: the chain of command’s slow response to a fluid situation. As long as that situation remained fluid, the cavalry was able to act very effectively indeed. The Canadian Cavalry Brigade captured 400 men and nearly 100 machine guns that day, running a well-aimed point through the myth that there could be no cavalry charge until the last machine gun was taken. Farrier Sergeant Bert Turp would certainly have agreed, for he took part in a successful charge in mid-1918: it is worth noting the emphasis on concealment until the last moment.
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