Briefing - Feeding Nelson’s Men
In 1914 cavalry was still considered an important arm. This was not necessarily as reactionary as it is sometimes portrayed, since cavalry could perform many important strategic and operational duties. Of course tactically, the cavalry was rapidly losing its importance. In the American Civil War the rifle and field works had demonstrated that the old fashioned cavalry charge was not longer a good idea, if it had ever been. Of course cavalry still had many important roles; advancing before an army to gather information, screening friendly forces from enemy reconnaissance, covering the rear in retreats, conducting deep raids, and pursuit should the enemy be broken, while always serving essentially as mounted riflemen, using their horses to enhance mobility while doing any serious fighting on foot. This was the lesson of the Civil War, and on that the Russian Army learned in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, and the British in the South African War (1899-1902).
Because professional military opinion held that it took six years to make a cavalryman, in 1914 the cavalry divisions of all the European armies were composed largely of active, regular professional soldiers rather than regulars mixed with reservists. There was little to chose from among the European cavalry divisions, aside from the British. The latter, building upon their experiences in South Africa at the hands of the Boers, had developed the most flexible and capable cavalry divisions, turning them into what were essentially mobile rifle divisions
The attachment of infantry to cavalry divisions was intended to strengthen their ability to engage in sustained combat and to enable them to hold ground. In the German cavalry divisions the attached infantrymen – jägers – were actually truck-borne, an early example of motorization. Since British cavalrymen were all trained and equipped as infantrymen, there was no necessity to attach additional infantry. Russian cavalry lacked this training, and also the infantry, making their numerous cavalry divisions relatively less capable. By 1914 all the powers had assigned machine guns to their cavalry divisions, but that Germany had retained these in the attached infantry battalion, thereby decreasing the firepower of the mounted troops.
If the lessons of earlier wars were not enough, the campaign of 1914 ought to have demonstrated that cavalry used in the old fashioned way was obsolete. But there were a lot of slow learners. And even the British badly handled their cavalry, so that the one division they contributed to the 1914 campaign, the most fluid period of the war, was rendered useless due to unimaginative leadership.
|Cavalry Divisions of the Principal Powers|
|A-H|| Belg|| Br|| Fr|| Ger|| It|| Ru|
|Manpower|| 4.5|| 4.5|| 9.5|| 5.4|| 4.5|| 4.9|| 4.2|
|Sabers|| 4.0|| 3.6|| 6.4|| 4.5|| 3.5|| 3.2|| 3.6|
|Rgts: Number|| 6|| 6|| 12|| 6|| 6|| 4|| 4|
| Men|| 0.67|| 0.6|| 0.53|| 0.75|| 0.58|| .8|| 0.9|
|MGs: #|| 8|| 6|| 24|| 12|| 0|| 8|| 4|
| Ratio|| 2.0|| 1.6 || 3.7|| 2.8|| 0|| 2.5|| 1.1|
|Arty: Pieces|| 12|| 12|| 36|| 8|| 12|| 12|| 12|
|Ratio|| 3.0|| 3.3|| 5.6|| 1.8|| 3.4|| 3.6|| 3.3|
| Inf: Bns|| -|| 1|| -|| 0.5|| 1|| 1|| -|
|Men|| -|| 0.6|| -|| 0.32|| 1.3|| 1.1|| -|
| MGs|| -|| 1|| 0|| 6|| -|| 2|| 4|
|Engr Coys|| ½|| 1|| 1|| 1|| 1|| -|| -|
|Sig Sects|| 2|| 1|| 2|| 2|| 1|| 1|| 1|
|Aircraft || -|| -|| -|| 2|| -|| 2|| -|
|Note: None of the other European powers – whether in the war or not – had cavalry organized as divisions. Key: Manpower, total troops in the division, in thousands; Sabers, number of troops equipped to fight as cavalry, in thousands; Regts, number( of cavalry regiments, usually grouped in brigades of two or three, with the number of Men per regiment; MGs, # number of machine guns in the division (exclusive of those with any attached infantry), and the Ratio of MGs per thousand sabers, a figure largely theoretical in the case of the Russian divisions; Arty, Pieces, number of light artillery pieces attached to the division, with the Ratio of guns per thousand sabers; Inf, Bns, infantry battalions attached, with Men in thousands and MGs; Eng Coys, engineer companies and Sig Sects, signal sections with the division; Aircraft, assigned to the division, largely on paper in both instances. |