Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

practically ceased to exist. The financial and agricultural exhaustion of all countries, and of Prussia in particular, was so complete thatLater
money was nowhere to be found for the great concentrations and manœuvre practices which are more essential to the efficiency of the cavalry than to that of the other arms. Hence a whole generation of officers grew up in ignorance of the fundamental principles which govern the employment of their arm. It was not till 1848 that the Prussians began again to unite whole cavalry divisions for drill and manœuvre, and the soldiers of the older generation had not yet passed away when the campaigns of 1866 and 1870 brought up again the realities of the battle-field. Meanwhile the introduction of long-range artillery and small arms had entirely destroyed the tactical relation of the three arms on which the Napoleonic tactics and strategy had been based, and the idea gained ground that the battle-field would no longer afford the same opportunities to cavalry as before. The experiences gained by the Americans in the Civil War helped to confirm this preconception. If in battles waged between infantries armed only with muzzle-loading rifles, cavalry could find no opportunity to repeat past exploits, it was argued that its chances could not fail to be still further reduced by the breech-loader. But this reasoning ignored the principal factors of former successes. The mounted men in America failed not as a consequence of the armament they encountered, but because the war brought out no Napoleon to create by his skill the opportunity for decisive cavalry action, and to mass his men beforehand in confident anticipation. The same reasoning applies to the European campaigns of 1866 and 1870, and the results obtained by the arm were so small, in proportion to the numbers of squadrons available and to their cost of maintenance as compared with the other arms, that a strong reaction set in everywhere against the existing institutions, and the re-creation of the dragoon, under the new name of mounted rifleman, was advocated in the hope of obtaining a cheap and efficient substitute for the cavalryman.

Later events in South Africa and in Manchuria again brought this question prominently to the front, but the essential difference between the old and new schools of thought has not been generally realized. The “mounted rifle” adherents base their arguments on the greatly increased efficiency of the rifle itself. The “cavalry” school, on the other hand, maintains that, the weapons themselves being everywhere substantially equal in efficiency, the advantage rests with the side which can create the most favourable conditions for their employment, and that, fundamentally, superior mobility will always confer upon its possessor the choice of the circumstances under which he will elect to engage. Where the two sides are nearly equally matched in mobility, neither side can afford the time to dismount, for the other will utilize that time to manœuvre into a position which gives him a relative superiority for whichever form of attack he may elect to adopt, and this relative superiority will always more than suffice to eliminate any advantage in accuracy of fire that his opponent may have obtained by devoting his principal attention to training his men on the range instead of on the mounted manœuvre ground.

Finally, the “cavalry” school reasons that in no single campaign since Napoleon’s time have the conditions governing encounters been normal. Either the roadless and barren nature of the country has precluded of itself the rapid marching which forms the basis of all modern strategy, as in America, Turkey, South Africa and Manchuria, or the relative power of the infantry and artillery weapons, as in Bohemia (1866) and in France (1870), has rendered wholly impossible the creation of the great tactical opportunity characteristic of Napoleon’s later method, for there then existed no means of overwhelming the enemy with a sufficient hail of projectiles to render the penetration of the cavalry feasible. The latest improvement in artillery, viz. the perfected shrapnel and the quick-firing guns, have, however, enormously facilitated the attainment of this primary fire superiority, and, moreover, it has simplified the procedure to such a degree that Napoleon is no longer needed to direct. The battles of the future will thus, in civilized countries, revert to the Napoleonic type, and the side which possesses the most highly trained and mobile force of cavalry will enjoy a greater relative superiority over its adversary than at any period since the days of Frederick.

The whole experience of the past thus goes to show that no nation in peace has ever yet succeeded in maintaining a highly trained cavalry sufficiently numerous to meet all the demands of a great war. Hence at the outbreak of hostilities there has always been a demand for some kind of supplementary force which can relieve the regular squadrons of those duties of observation and exploration which wear down the horses most rapidly and thus render the squadrons ineffective for their culminating duty on the battle-field. This demand has been met by the enrolment of men willing to fight and rendered mobile by mounts of an inferior description, and the greater the urgency the greater has been the tendency to give them arms which they can quickly learn to use. To make a man an expert swordsman or lancer has always taken years, but he can be taught to use a musket or rifle sufficiently for his immediate purpose in a very short time. Hence, to begin with, arms of this description have invariably been issued to him. But once these bodies have been formed, and they have come into collision with trained cavalry, the advantages of mobility, combined with the power of shock, have become so apparent to all, that insensibly the “dragoon” has developed into the cavalry soldier, the rate of this evolution being conditioned by the nature of the country in which the fighting took place.

This evolution is best seen in the American Civil War. The men of the mounted forces engaged had been trained to the use of the rifle from childhood, while the vast majority had never seen a sword, hence the formation of “mounted rifles”; and these “mounted rifles” developed precisely in accordance with the nature of their surroundings. In districts of virgin forests and marshland they remained “mounted rifles,” in the open prairie country of the west they became cavalry pure and simple, though for want of time they never rivalled the precision of manœuvre and endurance of modern Prussian or Austrian horse. In South Africa the same sequence was followed, and had the Boer War lasted longer it is certain that such Boer leaders as de Wet and de la Rey would have reverted to cavalry tactics of shock and cold steel at the earliest possible opportunity.

Therefore when we find, extending over a cycle of ages, the same causes producing the same effects, the natural conclusion is that the evolution of the cavalry arm is subject to a universal law which persists in spite of all changes of armament.

Employment of Cavalry.—It is a fundamental axiom of all military action that the officer commanding the cavalry of any force comprising the three arms of the service is in the strictest sense an executive officer under the officer commanding that particular force as a whole. The latter again is himself responsible to the political power he represents. When intricate political problems are at stake, it may be, and generally is, quite impracticable that any subordinate can share the secret knowledge of the power to which he owes his allegiance.

The essence of the value of the cavalry soldier’s services lies in this, that the demand is never made upon him in its supremest form until the instinct of the real commander realizes that the time has come. Whether it be to cover a retreat, and by the loss of hundreds to save the lives of tens of thousands, or to complete a victory with commensurate results in the opposite direction, the obligation remains the same—to stake the last man and horse in the attainment of the immediate object in view, the defeat of the enemy. This at once places the leader of cavalry in face of his principal problem. It is a matter of experience that the broader the front on which he can deliver a charge, the greater the chances of success. However strong the bonds of discipline may be, the line is ultimately, and at a certain nervous tension, only a number of men on horses, acting and reacting on one another in various ways. When therefore, of two lines, moving to meet one another at speed, one sees itself overlapped to either hand, the men in the line thus overlapped invariably and inevitably tend to open outwards, so as at least to meet their enemy on an equal frontage. Hence