Cavalry Charges

Jeremy Black has recommended we move beyond John Keegan’s horizons. However, in my estimation, there are too many errors of interpretation and too many holes in our understanding in early modern warfare to do so.

One of the purposes of this blog is to explore these errors of interpretation and the holes in our understanding. In doing so I will quote from various historians but those I challenge will not be named. If you want to know who I’m talking about send me an email and I’ll be happy to name names. However, in this blog the idea is to attack ideas not historians. I do make an exception with bloggers. There very existence imply a give and take of criticism. I do want to stress that it is ideas I wish to challenge, not the blogger.

I think part of the problem we have in history is that it sees itself as a Social Science. I think this is unfortunate. The idea behind social science is current researchers build upon the work of past researchers. Social scientists have a number of tools available to them such as, statistical analysis, modeling, psychometrics. With these mathematical tools come generally accepted interpretive methods. Little of this applies to history. History tends to be a personal interpretive endeavor much like philosophy.

As I’ve read philosophy blogs I was struck by the amount of interpretive criticism that went on. I found it to be both instructive and interesting. I also thought this might be a useful method of critiquing historical analysis. I searched the world of military history blogs and found precious little of this kind of critical approach. Perhaps this is so because so many bloggers are graduate school students who don’t want to ruffle feathers. It may also be the case that some historians do not feel comfortable in this kind of endeavor. But it seems to me this is a worthwhile endeavor. And so let us begin.

I mentioned there were few military history which engaged in historical critical analysis. Investigations of a Dog is not one of them. I find Gavin’s blog to be refreshing. His is a military history blogs that talks about, of all things, military history. Not only that he talks about early modern military history. This makes him almost a saint in my eyes. Now you know with that kind of an introduction I’m bound to target a group of Gavin’s postings. You are right.

It was a series of Gavin’s postings on Cavalry Charges that convinced me to finally set a blog of my own. I thought of replying but the comments were closed. That was fine as I wanted to expand my comments beyond that which I felt comfortable in a reply. I think there are a number of errors and interpretations with which I took issue.

From Malcolm Wanklyn and Frank Jones, A Military History of the English Civil War (2004; ISBN: 0582772818) Gavin derived a rather unusual definition of the term ‘shock’ which involved a cavalry charge. Gavin came to the conclusion, with regards to cavalry charges, that ‘shock’ meant the crashing of two or more horses charging into one another much like bumper cars.

Assuming the two bodies of cavalry even got near each other and were going at any kind of speed, shock obsessed cavalrymen could have tried to steer their horses towards enemy horses in order to batter them down.

This unfortunate choice of definition colors the rest of his discussion of cavalry charges. A definition of this kind should point out not only what cavalry is designed to do but also what it is not supposed to do. By pointing out what it is not further clarifies what it does.

A case in point is Charles Oman’s definition of ‘shock’,

“When war is reduced to its simplest elements, there are only two ways in which an enemy can be met and beaten. Either shock-tactics or missile-tactics must be employed against him.”

Thus cavalry, like infantry, have two ways of dealing with the enemy. Either they can meet the enemy with shock or with missiles. He continues,

“In the one case [shock] the victor throws himself on his opponent, and worsts him in close combat by his numbers, the superiority of his weapons, or the greater strength and skill with which he wields them. In the second case he wins the day by keeping up such a constant and deadly rain of missiles that the enemy is destroyed or driven into demoralized flight before he can come to hand-strokes.”

Shock-tactics are not bumper cars. Shock is any attempt to close with an opponent in close combat. They do not require horses to physically meet head-on. If one wants to understand charge on the early modern battlefield one must come to grips with these too functions of cavalry: shock and missile. As I continue with my discussion of cavalry charges remember that shock is an attempt to meet with the enemy in close combat, melee. I might mention my own experience with horses includes breaking wild mustangs and herding cattle in Nevada.


3 Responses to Cavalry Charges

  1. Thanks for the mention. It’s unfortunate that I’ve had to close comments on old posts because I get far too much comment spam. The filter traps most of them, but that puts an extra load on the server.

    I’m really excited by this blog. We definitely need more early-modernists as that was a noticeable gap when I was compiling the Military History Carnival – nearly all of the early-modern posts I found were about the American Revolution, and only one covered Europe.

    I think we actually agree on cavalry charges. The idea of cavalry crashing into each other comes directly from Wanklyn and Jones, and my aim in that post was to demolish it because I find it totally bizarre. It seems to me that what cavalry really did was fight hand-to-hand, and in order to do that they had to stop otherwise they’d just pass through each other. I also think that more attention needs to be paid to one side or the other running away before they got near each other. That could also be considered to be “shock”, but in a psychological sense, as in “shock and awe”. The word “shock” is a slippery one because it can mean so many different things to different people. The Wanklyn/Jones view of shock as a physical collision seems to be continuing a myth which was popular among cavalrymen in the 18th and 19th centuries, but which doesn’t appear to be very common in the mid-17th century (although as I said in one of those posts, the memory of lancers, who actually did use a physical kind of shock, was still quite powerful at that time).

    I’d encourage you to name everyone you criticise. Academics don’t (or at least shouldn’t) mind their ideas being questioned. Above all it’s useful to give references so people can check for themselves. Your interpretation of my post shows that things can be taken different ways, and that my intentions weren’t necessarily as obvious as I thought!

  2. wapenshaw says:

    Gavin, I think we are very close to the same view of cavalry charges. As I read the other posting you provided I saw we were very close. What I hope to do is give a bit of twist in perspective.

    As far as naming names, I’m the new guy on the block. I haven’t earned my spirs yet to take pot shots at men who have worked hard to get where they are.


  3. Not that I’m impressed a lot, but this is a lot more than I expected when I found a link on Digg telling that the info is awesome. Thanks.

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