Daily Archives: 17 August, 2011

Horsemen in No Mans Land: British Cavalry in Trench Warfare 1914-1918 by David Kenyon

Cavalry actually proved rather useful on a tactical level, in particular where troops and squadrons were attached to infantry in small-scale, combined arms attacks. Larger bodies of horsemen, however, seem to have been less effective, as the command structures were too rigid and required approval from too many officers before the cavalry could be committed. More often than not, by the time a decision had been made, the window of opportunity had long gone. Trench Warfare was far from ideal for the use of cavalry, horses being a weapon best used in mobile warfare. After years of fighting no-mans land was heavily cratered in most places, and the logistics of not only getting horses across shell holes, but then the enemy trench lines, was problematic.

The existence of a Cavalry Corps HQ was also controversial. This HQ had a dual role, in that not only did it act as an administrative focus, but its General also hankered after commanding the whole corps in action. Parallels could be drawn between the Cavalry Corps HQ on the Western Front and Browning’s Airborne Corps HQ in Market Garden. There was, arguably, no need for an operationak Corps level command for Cavalry, as more than one Division were never likely to take to the field in a co-ordinated manner. The presence of such a HQ was not only superfluous, but also muddied a complicated command and communication situation.

Horses are often compared unfavourably to the tank in the context of 1914-1918. The usual contention is that by 1916 the horse had had its day, the tank was the future, and that the cavalry was only retained thanks to the patronage of men such as Haig. In fact that tank was still very much in its infancy. Technology and tactics were still in their infancy, and the tank was no way in a position to completely replace the horse on the battlefield.

I suspect that the author embarked on this book with the intention of rehabilitating the Cavalry in the historiography of the BEF. This is quite understandable, given his background as a horseman, and the manner in which the Cavalry has been mistreated by history. It is a more than admirable effort, and sheds new light on the wider issues, beyond general misconceptions. I think it would be inaccurare to state that the Cavalry could have won the war, nor did it play a decisive part in the fighting. But it did, perhaps, play a more important role – at least on a tactical level – than historians have led us to believe.

Horsemen in No Mans Land is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Uncategorized, western front, World War One