Cavalry Charges part drie

OK, we have established that the cavalry was trained to advance at the trot but to end up at the gallop. Big deal. Everyone knew that this is how the Swedish cavalry was trained to attack. The only thing is Ward, from whom we took the most information, was describing the Dutch cavalry. I make this assumption based on Ward’s referencing ‘the Prince of Orange’, ‘Hollanders’, the ‘States General’ but no references to Gustav or Sweden. Also, John Cruso said, in his dedication, that his manual was based “according to the present practice of the Lovv-Country Warres.” Here is how he describes what happens after the trooper has discharged his pistols: “Having spent both his pistols, and wanting time [not having enough time] to lade again, his next refuge is his sword.” There is no indication that the trooper should file to the rear of his unit and reload. He was to fire his pistols then go in with the sword.

This is important because it is the current convention to describe Dutch cavalry attacks in terms of the Caracole. That is, the first rank would fire then fall back behind the unit to reload while the next rank moves forward and does the same. Thus we have the Dutch tactic of the caracole and the Swedish tactic of going in with the sword. Much of the confusion comes through a misunderstanding what the caracole really is.

The caracole is not a battlefield tactic. It was a cavalry maneuver. It had nothing particular to do with firing pistols. It was a maneuver by which troops splits in half; one half goes right and the other half goes left. Notice how Cruso uses the term ‘carracol’.

“If one companie of Cuirassiers be to fight against another, your enemie charging you in full career, you are to make a Carracoll, that is, you divide your bodie by the half ranks, and so suddenly open to the right and left.”

The caracole can be combined with firing a pistol by ranks. This is best effective against a stationary target such as pikes. The idea there is to disrupt the pikes enough to then be able to go in with the sword. But to say this was a tactic that defined how the Dutch cavalry attacked all opponents is clearly incorrect.

One could say that the Dutch changed their method of attack as a result of the effectiveness of the Gustavus’ tactical reforms. But this seems unlikely. Gustav entered Germany in 1630. Cruso wrote his treatise in 1632. There does not seem to be enough time for a complete revamping of Dutch cavalry tactics. Also, one does not have to look to Gustav for the origin of the Dutch tactics. As John Lynn has pointed out, in his article “Tactical Evolution in the French Army, 1560-1660,” Louis IV reorganized the French cavalry to go in with shock:

“By temperament and professional conviction, Henri IV could not accept the sterile caracole. He reshaped French cavalry formations and tactics, reducing the depth of squadrons to six ranks, and even to five. At Coutras (1587) and Ivry (1590) his cavalry used their firearms for an initial shot, but then charged home with the sword at the gallop.”

This is precisely the tactic that Ward, Cruso and Markham seem to be describing for the Dutch cavalry. Given that there was a tremendous influx of French volunteers fighting on the Dutch side in their wars against Spain, it is much more likely that Dutch cavalry tactics were influenced by Louis IV’s tactical changes than those of Gustav.

But wait! There’s more! First we have to go back to Ward. As the troops prepared to fire, Ward instructed them as to the manner in which they were to fire.

“Present and give fire. Having your pistoll in your hand, With your finger upon the tricker, you are to incline the Muzzel (with a steady eye) towards the Marke not suddenly but by degrees, according to the distance you ride, before a necessity of discharging shall be, you are not to give fire directly forwards the horses head, but in a diameter [diagonal] line, by his right side, turning his right hand so as the locke of the Pistoll may bee upward, and having a true view of the Marke, draw the tricker and let flye.”

“The Cuirassire, in fight is to stive to gaine a right side of his Enemie being most proper to discharge his Pistols against him. The Harquebuziers and Carabines, must contrarily strive to get the left side of their enemies.”

In other words, the trooper was not to head his horse directly towards the enemy horse but was to direct his horse between the enemy horses so he can give diagonal fire. Not only was the trooper to fire at the trot and charge at the gallop, he was to direct his horse between the oncoming enemy horse. There is a secondary benefit. Horses have a blind spot directly in front of them. That blind spot goes out to about four feet. They also can see independently with each eye. It is called monocular. Thus the horse can track to the two horses on either side of him but not directly in front if they are within four feet. By seeing what’s going on, the horse is less likely to be skittish and hard to handle. Firing diagonally rather than straight ahead takes advantage of the natural way in which horses perceive what is going on around them at this range.

Before we leave the subject let’s talk about the organization of a troop of horse. Both Ward and Markham recommend a troop be 120 strong and formed into six ranks. Historians often remark about the progressive development of cavalry in terms of declining ranks. In other words, the more advanced tactical formation is that which has fewer ranks. Cavalry become more effective when they lose the extra ranks. This perspective develops from a lack of understanding of the function of the extra ranks. For one thing, the extra ranks allow them to extend their front by doubling their ranks Also, a troop of horse formed in six ranks is divided into four commands, one command for every two ranks. The function of the rear ranks is to protect the unit from flank or rear attacks. Ward:

“ … or if (being in skirmish with the enemy) any shot should be drawne out to give fire upon them in the reare; then the two hindmost rankes of a horse, may peckiere about and put them to retreate, and the foure most ranks in the front may be the better able to prosecute their fight.”

To many times historians criticizes without fully understanding the function of a particular formation or tactic.

What our writers have given is what a cavalry charge should be. Without evidence to the contrary I will have to assume that what these writers describe is indeed how cavalry charges were conducted. Frequently historians dismiss ‘theoretical’ writings because they don’t understand the function of what is being described. A lack of understand of the ‘theoretical’ writings have led historians to erroneous conclusions concerning 16th- and 17th- battle. This has led them to erroneous ideas about the nature change.



5 Responses to Cavalry Charges part drie

  1. Good stuff. I’m also sceptical about the idea that there were rigidly defined Dutch and Swedish schools which were totally different from each other, and that there was a sudden change from one to the other. It all seems a bit too convenient – it makes a good story but I can’t imagine life was really like that. I’m not sure where the idea of the caracole as firing by ranks came from when the word is rarely used in the drill books and only to describe something else.

    I hadn’t thought about the horse’s field of vision influencing the direction of the charge so that’s a really good point. I don’t understand why cuirassiers should try to gain the right side and arquebusiers should try for the left side. Do you think there’s a good reason for it? I don’t want to assume that there is a good reason for it, but I don’t want to dismiss it as pointless just because I don’t understand it.

  2. wapenshaw says:

    The arquebus has a long barrel. If you try to hold it out on the right side it becomes very awkward and unsteady. If you miss and you ride into the enemy formation there is a good chance the weapon will be knocked from you grasp. If you aim it to your left side you can rest the barrel on your left arm. Also, it will not be knocked from your hands. Since the pistol has a smaller bore, your best chance of killing your enemy is if you can get the pistol as close as possible. Some try to place the pistol up against the enemy’s breat plate. Such an action would be impossible if you fired across your body to the left.


  3. David Evans says:

    On the question of pistols and their effectiveness that’s quite a good point. There is a reference in the English Civil Wars when Richard Atkyn was fighting Sir Aruther Haselrig, clad in full cuirassier armour. Atkn supposedly discharged one shot at Haselrig with the muzzle of his pistol almost touching Haselrig’s armour, with no effect on Haselrig. Allegedly a Gentleman Pensioner at Edgehill had to kill a parliamentarn cuirassier using the poleaxes the pensioners had been issued with as all other weapons had failed to affect the cuirassier!

  4. I strongly agree that the proposition of the Dutch cavalry copying their Swedish counterpart’s tactics is an upside-down conclusion. We have plenty of evidence that the truth was the other way around–just look many Swedish officers who went to the Netherlands to learn the Dutch tactics and then returned to apply those lessons to the Swedish army. Jacob de la Gardie is perhaps the most outstanding example. Another good way to establish the precedence is by looking at the chronicle of tactical encounters–and here we can find instances such as the Battle of Turnhout (1597) where the Dutch cavalry had employed the charge long before Gustavus Adolphus’s name was known among the great powers in Europe.

    It might even be wrong to think that the pistol and shock action are antithetical to each other. The contemporary French training manuals (based on Henri IV’s tactical ideas) I know of didn’t really tell the cavalrymen to fire their pistols and then charge with the sword; they enjoined the cavalrymen instead to charge outright, treating their pistols as a particularly long sword or lance. This was deemed necessary because only a firearm had the necessary power to penetrate the reinforced armor of the time (and, as the example of Haselrig shows, it may even fail to penetrate in non-ideal conditions) and the cavalrymen of the time wanted to be able to retain the use of the cavalry charge’s psychological shock while adopting the physical impact of the firearms. The result was a deadly combination of momentum and firepower that helped heavy cavalry to keep an important tactical role throughout the Renaissance.

  5. This is quite a hot info. I’ll share it on Twitter.

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