Cavalry Charges part deux

I want to start out by helping clear up one thing for Gavin. He writes,

“Just to prove that language is gendered, every one of these four books consistently refers to the horse as “him”, even when they don’t specify a preference for stallions, geldings, or mares.”

Gavin, there was a good reason for using ‘him’ for cavalry horses. Cavalry horses were almost all male. If you included mares in your cavalry and any of them came into estrous there would not be a stallion in the whole army that would be worth a damn. Ergo, no mares.

Now let us turn our thoughts to discussing military manuals. This is the theory aspect that Gavin talks about. I’m not focusing particularly on Gavin’s approach to these types of documents. However, how he once approached these manuals is very indicative of how early modern military historians have generally thought of these documents.

“Since I was an undergraduate I’ve been aware of the potential difference between theory and practice, but I used to think that if theory didn’t agree with practice, it could simply be discounted as ‘wrong’.”

Gavin no longer approaches these texts in this manner but many military historians still do. The attitude is that these works are just theory. Their attitude is that since these men didn’t have military experience their ideas were created in a military vacuum and therefore we have little to learn from them. They fail to understand the relationship between theory and practice.

Let me turn to me little red dictionary for a definition of theory. Theory is “a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something.” Every aspect of war first began with a question and an idea (the solution). In order to convey the practicality of the solution it had to be converted into a theory. Thus all human created aspects of war first began as theory. Another way to say this is that all human made aspects of war were first created in the human mind. This is the bedrock of historical change.

There is a dynamic relationship between theory and practice. There is no practice without theory. The viability of theory can only be proved in the furnace of practice. This is not to say all theoretical ideas, in these books, were of value. Some were some were not. The trick is to know the gold from the feldspar. What needs to be done is to discover the commonalities that reside in these books. It is the commonalities which will provide the building blocks for understanding the 16th- & 17th-century military mind. In order to understand military developments at this time you must understand the military mind of this time. The critical component for all this is the military writings of this period. This includes military manuals. Far too often historians have attempted to understand military developments through their own 21st-century minds. Far too many attempt this understanding without a military perspective, either of the present or of the past. They wind up with ideas that seem reasonable to their academic perspective but utterly fail from a military perspective.

Another reason to look at these manuals is to learn the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of an event in the event that a written episode only provides the ‘what’. They give us the background to help understand what is going on.

I will be working with Robert Ward and Gervaise Markham. I cannot find my Cruso and John Vernon’s writing I do not have. First I want to address Gavin’s comment about the writings of these men.

“The most important things to remember are that these are prescriptive books which claimed to set out how things should be done, and that they are not necessarily based on any practical experience.”

I agree with Gavin that these books are prescriptive but then all training manuals are. As to ‘practical’ experience of the writers, it all depends on how you define ‘practical’. They had a much more intimate knowledge of horses than do most of us. They grew up around horses, as men of property, they probably trained horse and used horses on a daily basis. So a lot of what they recommend they have done themselves. As men of property, they may also have served in the militia and attended musters. Musters would be the place where units of cavalry would train to go through their passes. They may well have spent time in the Dutch wars. It was quite fashionable to spend some time there as a free gentleman, that is not assigned to a particular unit. I don’t think we should assume because they hadn’t been a member of a regiment they were without practical experience.

Since my definition of ‘shock’ is different than the one Gavin seems to be using I won’t address that part of his argument. Remember shock is any attempt to move into contact with the enemy for the purpose of fighting hand-to-hand combat (melee). Thus I will look at how Ward and Markham envision this happening.

According to Ward it is the responsibility of the Captain of a troop to insure,

“ … his horse so well managed that he will stand constantly without rage or distemper: then he is to be made sensible (by yeelding the body, or thrusting forwards the riders legges) when to put himslef forwards into a short or large trot; then how by the even stroke of both: is spurers to passe into a swift Carrire, then how to gallop the field in large ringes; midles or lesse rings, either to turne with speed upon the one or the other hand; then to put him into a gentle gallop right forth in an even line, and suddenly to stop, and upon the halfe stop to turne swiftly and roundly.” [p 280]

In other words, troopers should be experienced in maneuvering their charges at the trot and at the gallop. Training is done both in the ring and on the open field. Notice how central the gallop is to the training warhorse was.

“In this next ; progresse we are to observe foure kindes of managing a Horse to fit him for service.
First when you make your Horse double his turnes.
Secondly when you gallop the field, making him wave in and out,as is used in single skirmish.
Thirdly when you make him leape a loft, fetching divers faltes or curveates; but this is not so proper to teach to a horse for service.
Fourthly when you pace, trot, and gallop, him too and fro in one path, the length of twenty or thirty paces, turning him at each end thereof, either with single turn, whole turne, or double turne, (this is termede manage and in this word there is three things observable, as first the manage with halfe rest, that is to cause your horse at the end of every managing path, to stop and then advance twise together, and at the second bound to turne, whereby you rest one bound.” [p 289]

I thought this next part was interesting. The trooper is to train his horse to immediately go from a standing stop to a full gallop with one command. This allows the trooper to quickly break into a full gallop at any time. Therefore it was possible to allow an enemy to approach and then immediately break into a gallop to take advantage of any disruption of the enemy’s approach. Also notice how the horse is trained to stop from a full gallop. I’m sure many of us have seen this at the calf-roping events at rodeos. After the calf is roped, the horse straightens his front legs and his buttocks almost meet the ground.

“At the end of the Carriere path, let your Horse stop and advance , and at the second bound; turne him fairly and softly upon the right hand, and to stay a little while then suddenly with a lively voyce, cry hay, hay, put him forwards with both Spures at once, forcing him to runne all the path as swift as possibly may be, just up to the end, to the intent he may stop on his buttocks.”

In the charge itself, keeping order is of supreme importance. This is why Ward recommends waiting and allowing the enemy to come to you. The more distance a troop of horse must cover, the more chance there is that the unit will lose much of it’s order.

“When the enemie shall charge you with one of his Troopes, doe not you rush forth to meete them, but if your ground be of advantage keepe it; if not advance softly forwards; untill the enemy be within 100 paces of you, and then fall into your Careire, by this meanes your horse will be in breath and good order, when as the Enemie will be to seeke.” [p 281]

When you get within 15 – 20 feet you fire while at the trot. “… a Cuirassiere usually giveth his charge upon the trot, and very seldome upon the Gallop” I agree with Gavin that Ward means firing when he uses the word ‘charge. But this has always confused me a bit. The trot is such a jarring gait. When I hunted coyotes on the ranch, I always pushed my mustang into a slow loping gait. It was a much smooth gait and wouldn’t affect my aiming as much. However, I now see the Ward’s recommendation of the trot has more to do with not overrunning your target. You come in firing both pistols then drop them and go for your sword. The pistols had line attached to them and the saddle. The sword would be dangling from one wrist as you fired. After dropping the pistols you twisted your wrist and grabbed the handle of the swords. They probably practiced this so often that it was almost second nature to them. Thus they would quickly go from pistols to sword in almost the blink of an eye.

Let us go back to the quick start gallop Ward mentioned. Markham also talks about the necessity to learn this maneuver. But notice what he says at the end.

“Passe a Cariere and stop close
This the Souldier shall doe by thrusting the horse violently forward both with his legs and bodie, and giving libertie to the Bridle. As soone as the Horse is started into his gallop, hee shall give him the even stroake of his Spurres, once or twice together, and make the Horse runne to the hight of his full speede, then being at the end of the Cariere (which will not bee above the sixe score or eight score) he shall then draw up his Bridle-hand very hard and constantly, and laying the calues of both his legges gently to the Horses sides, make the Horse stop close to the ground, with onely a comely Aduancement. And this serveth for all manner of Charges whether it bee Horse against Horse, of Horse against Foote.” [p 52]

What Markham seems to be saying is that at the end of the charge the troopers horse should be galloping. This would explain why it was important to teach the horse to immediately breakout into a charge. If Markham and Ward are describing the same event, in the process of dropping the pistols and grasping the sword, the trooper is to immediately launch his mount into a gallop.

There are some good reasons for this and there are other aspects of cavalry charges we still need to discuss. However, that will have to wait for another posting. Oh, I found my Cruso.



2 Responses to Cavalry Charges part deux

  1. So many people have taken “a Cuirassiere usually giveth his charge upon the trot, and very seldome upon the Gallop” out of context and completely ignored the other bits where Ward does say you should gallop. It’s good to know I’m not alone any more!

    I’m not assuming that war horses were male or female or mixed, but there’s a lot of work to be done before I can confidently take a position on that. Geldings complicate things too.

    According to the DNB Cruso was a militia officer, but so far I haven’t been able to find out whether he was in the infantry or cavalry, or exactly what experience he had from the Netherlands.

  2. wapenshaw says:

    I owe that interpretation to you.


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