Cavalry Warfare

At the beginning of the First World War, mounted troops were still considered as the main component of offensive warfare. In battle, members of the cavalry carried a sword, rifle (for use when dismounted) and sometimes a lance. Cavalry regiments were also equipped with one or two machine guns carried by a team and cart.

In 1914 most of the major armies had around a third of their strength in horsemen. The British, French and German armies all considered their cavalry to be an elite force and had considerable influence over the tactics used during battles. Nearly all the senior officers in the British Army were ex-cavalry officers and it has been claimed that this explained the type of tactics used on the Western Front.

The reconnaissance function of the cavalry during the First World War was rendered obsolete by the use of aircraft such as the Farman MF-II, Avro 504 and the BE-2.

The cavalry were of limited value in trench warfare. However, during major offensives, mounted troops were still massed in large numbers waiting the opportunity to charge the enemy lines. When the cavalry were used on the Western Front it was found to be completely ineffective against machine gun fire. The British cavalry was more successful against less well-organised armies such as the Turks during the Battle of Gaza.

Primary Sources

(1) Philip Gibbs watched the preparation for the major offensive at the Somme in July, 1916.

Before dawn, in the darkness, I stood with a mass of cavalry opposite Fricourt. Haig as a cavalry man was obsessed with the idea that he would break the German line and send the cavalry through. It was a fantastic hope, ridiculed by the German High Command in their report on the Battles of the Somme which afterwards we captured.

In front of us was not a line but a fortress position, twenty miles deep, entrenched and fortified, defended by masses of machine-gun posts and thousands of guns in a wide arc. No chance for cavalry! But on that night they were massed behind the infantry.

(2) The Daily Chronicle (1st December, 1917)

The battle has continued today, and our troops and tanks have been engaged in heavy fighting round Borlon Wood and at Fontaine-Notre-Dame, to the east of it, which we lost yesterday for a time, after a sharp counter-attack upon our Seaforth Highlanders, who entered it on Wednesday night with tanks.

Tanks and cavalry co-operated in this attack, and the tanks were a most powerful aid, and cruised round and through the village, where they put out nests of machine-guns. The cavalry then went on into Anneux; but the first patrol had to retire because of the fierce machine-gun fire that swept down the streets.

(3) Oskar Kokoschka, served in the Austro-Hungarian cavalry on the Eastern Front.

I had done all my examinations, but did not understand much about tactics, and I always volunteered to ride the advance patrol, with an experienced sergeant. So although I was an officer, my sergeant was in command of the patrol. At the beginning, we were not wearing field-grey. Our uniforms, red, blue and white, stood out only too well, and as I rode out, I felt spied upon by an unseen enemy in the dense, dark foliage of the forests.

The first dead that I encountered were young comrades-in-arms of my own, men with whom, only a few nights earlier, I had been sitting round the camp-fire in those Ukrainian forests, playing cards and joking. Not much more than boys they were, squatting there on the moss in their bright-coloured trousers, a group of them round a tree trunk.

From a branch a few paces further on a cap dangled, and on the next tree a dragoon's fur-lined blue cloak. He who had worn these things himself, hung naked, head downward, from a third tree.