Heavy Cavalry vs Infantry: Impact of Cavalry Charge
Heavy cavalry appeared in Western Europe after 6th century campaigns of Belisarius, when Roman cataphractii made major impression on western barbarians. Before that, it was only really used in the East: Persians had founded cataphracts after conflicts with Greeks. Before that, they only used light cavalry (archers and javelinmen). On Greek side of things, heavy cavalry was a decisive arm in Alexander’s battles, with the famous sarissa phalanx being used as an “anvil” of a “hammer and an anvil” approach. Romans did utilize cavalry, but it did not charge – it would simply canter up to the enemy and engage in melee.
In 15th century, importance of heavy cavalry declined with the appearance of disciplined infantry, in particular pikemen such as Swiss pikemen and German landknechte. But this was not necessarily due to inherent advantage of pike formation over armoured lancers. 15th century heavy cavalry was actually capable of cracking open pike formations, especially when combined with ranged forces such as crossbowmen or gunmen. This could most easily be done in two main ways: by aiming the attacks at the corner (which is why many defensive pike formations were circular), or by waiting for missile or artillery fire to create openings in the enemy line which then cavalry charged into. In some cases, cavalry could actually crash through the pike line.
Main problem with heavy cavalry, and the reason for its decline, was discipline. Feudal knights were hard to train into disciplined unit, and knightly ideals also inhibited proper development of cavalry. After cavalry fully professionalized in 17th century, it regained its importance – during the Thirty Years War, cavalry formed at least half of typical army. Normal battle order during Thirty Years War consisted of two or three lines of infantry squares, eight to ten deep, flanked by cavalry.
Cavalry charge against undisciplined infantry, or generally infantry out of order, was unstoppable. Infantry, once it loses cohesion, becomes a mass of individuals – and in a contact between a 50 – 70-kg human and a 500 – 700 kg horse, former always loses. Disciplined infantry however acts as a single body. Cavalry charge against disciplined infantry may have initial success – assuming cavalry had heavy enough armour to survive the charge – but would quickly get bogged down, and cavalryman at stop near infantry would quickly end up dead, as infantry formations were always denser. There were three main ways of solving this issue: deploying one’s own infantry to tie down the enemy while cavalry aimed at flanks, disrupting enemy infantry with missile fire, and training cavalry to perform successive charges. Any of these options may or may not have succeeded, and infantry formation could ripple and flex without breaking, if it was deep enough (generally, 6 – 8 ranks was deep enough to resist initial cavalry charge). Flanking attacks were least risky and most likely to succeed, but were not always possible as infantry commanders were well aware of that issue.
Despite arguments to the contrary, heavy cavalry was fully capable of breaking through prepared infantry, and was definitely willing to charge at it. Fact that horses could be, and were, used to charge a mass of men can also be confirmed by basic logic. If horses indeed would not charge at formed mass of men, such a fact would have been well-known to people in antiquity and Middle Ages – meaning that a feint will not have worked to begin with. Which means, that it is not a feint. Further, cavalry charged in multiple ranks – and sometimes even in a column formation. At that point, basic “herd” psychology applies – even if horses at the front wanted to stop (and there is no evidence they did, even in face of pikes), they would not be able to do so due to pressure from horses behind them. Force of such mass impact might even send people flying. And since rider is, essentially, herd “alpha”, horses will charge infantry as long as their riders do not lose heart/nerve.
There are many historical examples which confirm the above. Thessalian cavalry managed to defeat Spartan phalanx with numerous frontal charges. Alexander’s Companion cavalry defeated Theban Sacred Band, albeit this was a charge from the flank. At Gaugamela, Persian and Indian cavalry armed with long spears managed to break through the line of Macedonian phalangites at the point of contact of taxis (Arrian specifies “cutting through” the double phalanx); however, breakthrough was localized and cavalry was then wiped out by Alexander’s Companion cavalry. Part of the reason was that Persian cavalry simply went on straight before attacking the baggage train, something which often happened in ancient battles. At battle against Jughurta, “(…) during the fight Numidian cavalrymen, self-confident (…) contrary to the usually applied tactics consisting of attacking and retreating, were directly knocking against the enemy, breaking their battle array and sowing confusion into their ranks; hereby (…) almost achieving victory over Romans.”. At Carrhae, outnumbered Persians used horse archers to shower Romans, while cataphracts prevented them from using testudo or else dispersing – but even so, cataphract charges caused significant casualties. At Battle of Strasbourg Germanic infantry did manage to defeat a unit of cataphract cavalry, but this was a result of an ambush and a commander being injured. Fact that Romans bothered introducing cataphract units after contact with Persian shows how effective they were against legionary infantry. At Battle of Adrianople, the battle was lost after Roman cavalry got chased off – legionaries fought on, but were crushed (in some cases literally) by Gothic cavalry.
In early Middle Ages, 9th/10th century Byzantine infantry square was double-ribbed in order to resist enemy cavalry which had forced its way into its midst, indicating that it was, if not regular, then at least not unexpected, occurence. This automatically puts lie to arguments that heavy cavalry – even early, relatively less capable one – will not attack heavy infantry that stands its ground. As frequency and weight of heavy cavalry increased, so Byzantine formations became more sophisticated. While original formation did not have inner rank of spearmen, formation as modified by Nicephoros Phokas was deployed in seven ranks – two of spearmen, three of archers, and another two of spearmen; archers and spearmen worked together to blunt and stop the heavy cavalry charge. Infantry square rendered cavalry archers into little more than nuisance, and it was precisely heavy cavalry charge where it faced its true test. Revival of cataphract cavalry caused a creation of new type of infantryman, the menavlatos, wielding thick spears to resist cavalry charge. Phokas outright states that Arab kataphraktoi could use their heavy armour to smash normal infantry spears. Menavlotoi took postion in front of spearmen expecting the charge, making formation at that side eight deep. Second modification introduced by Phokas involved advancing one of two rear ranks of spearmen forward; between this and menavlotoi, ranks of spearmen facing the cavalry charge became four ranks deep. Deepening of infantry ranks and introduction of menavlotoi – large men wielding what were essentially small tree trunks capped by a long point – shows that not only could and did kataphraktoi charge disciplined infantry, but could even achieve significant successes in doing so. Archers, despite wielding powerful composite bows, were not expected to stop cataphract charge by themselves.
At Hastings in 1066., Anglo-Saxon infantry formed around well-disciplined huscarls managed to hold out against Norman cavalry. This however was due to combination of ranks of spearmen in the front, forming a shield wall, lack of horse armour by Normans (as contrasting Rhomaioi cataphracts), and terrain: Norman cavalry was facing a literal uphill battle, as Harold placed his army on a hill precisely to reduce the effectiveness of Norman cavalry. Cavalry at that point had also not developed couched lance technique yet, so “charge” consisted of slamming (or simply riding up to) infantry lines before starting a melee combat, stabbing with a spear.
Battle of Dyrrachium in 1081. was decided when charge of Norman heavy cavalry – utilizing then still new technique of couched lance charge – broke up Byzantine centre. Up to that point, Byzantines had been winning the battle. Norman right wing had collapsed after being outflanked during an ill-advised and unsupported assault against Byzantine lines. However, Byzantine left wing had left center exposed in their pursuit, and Guiscard’s heavy cavalry could attack without fear of being outflanked.
Later, during crusades, Norman cavalry proved almost unstoppable in open field. Mamluks only managed to compensate for this superiority by buying heavy cavalry horses from Italian city states. At Hattin in 1187., Frankish heavy cavalry under Raymond managed – despite the exhaustion and thirst – to break through Muslim lines and reach lake before making way to Tyrie. Remaining heavy cavalry charged and nearly managed to reach Saladin himself: “When the king of the Franks was on the hill with that band, they made a formidable charge against the Muslims facing them, so that they drove them back to my father. I looked towards him and he was overcome by grief and his complexion pale. He took hold of his beard and advanced, crying out “Give the lie to the Devil!” The Muslims rallied, returned to the fight and climbed the hill. When I saw that the Franks withdrew, pursued by the Muslims, I shouted for joy, “We have beaten them!” But the Franks rallied and charged again like the first time and drove the Muslims back to my father. He acted as he had done on the first occasion and the Muslims turned upon the Franks and drove them back to the hill. I again shouted, “We have beaten them!” but my father rounded on me and said, “Be quiet! We have not beaten them until that tent falls.” As he was speaking to me, the tent fell. The sultan dismounted, prostrated himself in thanks to God Almighty and wept for joy.”. In the end, Frankish knights were defeated not in combat, but by lack of water – after the last failed charge, they sat down and let themselves be taken prisoner, having no more energy to fight.
At Muret in 1213., heavy cavalry easily crushed two lines of militia infantry, between two and four times more numerous than themselves. In Battle of Bouvines in 1214. Brabant schiltron was overran by a combination of cavalry and infantry. At Falkirk in 1298., English cavalry managed to break Scottish schiltrons (deployed 6 deep) by mounting successive charges after schiltrons had been softened by longbow barrage. At Bannockburn in 1314. Scots won as English archers had been driven off by cavalry while attempting a flanking maneuver, allowing schiltrons to act offensively. English cavalry itself – 2 000 – 3 000 strong, agaist 5 000 – 10 000 Scots – was hemmed in against Bannockburn, denying them the freedom of maneuver (or freedom to do anything at all), and was also hampered by swampy terrain. Even so, English cavalry achieved some initial successes despite complete disorganization of their charge: “Gloucester, eager to lead the charge without the interference of Hereford, spurred his horse forward without taking the time to don his brightly coloured surcoat bearing his coat of arms. Without this he was just another mailed, armored rider and many of the knights didn’t recognise him at first. As such the charge he led was not as compact and cohesive as it should have been. It was still a terrible sight to behold and was powerfully heavy with the weight of iron suddenly propelled forward. The knights raced on, faceles men in iron helms, their lances lowered and their great warhorses pounding the earth with their iron-shod hooves. They crashed into Edward Bruce’s division and, though Gloucester was plucked from his saddle impaled by a Scottish spear, the fury of the charge caused the schilltron to bend – but not break. The English knights were not lacking in courage and they drove their mounts onto the spears. Horses and riders fell with broken spears in their breasts, but some broke into the schilltron and flayed around with mace, battleaxe and sword, cleaving skulls, limbs and shoulders until they were dragged from their horses, their helmets pulled back and their unprotected throats cut.”. Given that performance, it is entirely possible that well-executed charge might have wiped out Scottish schiltron; even if not, well-organized cavalry would have retreated and charged again. As it was, even disorganized charge managed to penetrate into schiltron.
At Courtrai in 1302. (Battle of the Golden spurs, often used as “proof” of dominance of infantry over cavalry), Flemish won mostly due to bad timing. French attacked without proper missile preparation, and over bad terrain, charging up a washed out rise across a swollen stream. Flemish infantry had also dug pitfalls and ditches. Left flank was protected by Groeninge monastery, and right flank by the town’s moat. Behind them was a river, and infantry was deployed so close to stream that French cavalry could not reform for a proper charge. Even so, French might have broken through the Flemish line if not for deployment of Flemish reserve. Two years later, French won the Battle of Mons-en-Pevele. In 1328. French cavalry crushed Flemish infantry. At Laupen in 1339., cavalry was only routed after losing infantry support and being forced to fight on two fronts.
As armour became better and more widespread, balance changed in two ways. On one hand, infantry became less vulnerable to missile fire – good half-plate made infantrymen all-but-immune to longbow arrows and even crossbow bolts as long as they had something to protect exposed legs. As such, they were much more difficult to “prepare” for a cavalry charge. On the other hand, it also made heavy cavalry – which generally could afford better armour – much less vulnerable to missile fire and polearms alike, as long as horses were armoured as well. While mail armour could easily be penetrated by couched lance and pike, and longbow and especially crossbow could penetrate it at short range, a cavalryman in full plate armour was immune to arrows and was much more likely to be unseated by impact than to be outright killed by a pike – and that pike would get broken and thus be rendered useless. Cavalry could also afford to charge in dense formation, which will have allowed 2-1 or even close to 1-1 ratio of horsemen to pikemen at contact (man is 18 inches wide, horse is 24 – 32 inches, so man on a horse is 30 – 38 inches). In fact, in some cases cavalry could deploy at density of 1 meter per rider. A column of 11 ranks wide and 38 ranks deep would thus occupy area 11 meters wide and 150 meters deep. This could be combined with charge by echelons, allowing each group to go back and get new lances before charging again; pikemen however could not easily replace broken pikes as doing so would require breaking up the formation. Lastly, usage of breastplates directly led to development of lance arrest, used to stop the lance from sliding backwards, and thus – when combined with high-backed saddle – allowing for significant portion of force of charge to be transferred through the lance point.
At Crecy in 1346., French had allowed Henry to outdistance them and prepare a defensive position, full with palisades, pitfalls, ditches, moats and caltrops. Henry’s army had the high ground, and French cavalry charges themselves were disorganized. They were not properly prepared, and French knights had to force their way through fleeing crossbowmen, over muddy ground, uphill, and over pits dug by the English. Horses also had no barding (unlike later heavy cavalry of 15th century), making them liable to get injured or killed by longbow arrows. Despite overwhelming stupidity displayed in the battle, French knights reached English men-at-arms, and were only finally defeated in melee combat. After the battle, substantial French forces still arriving on the battlefield were charged by mounted English men-at-arms and routed. Similar scenario repeated itself at Aljubarrota in 1385. Allied French heavy cavalry charged against a force of pikemen and archers, across terrain broken up by ditches and pits. Having no barding, archers and crossbowmen dealt some damage. But what doomed the charge to fail was that terrain caused it to break up and become disorganized.
Agincourt in 1415. was decided by terrain. Having captured French battle plan, Henry had placed his army in a narrow gap, thus denying the French freedom of maneuver and preventing them from outflanking his force as per the original plan. Land between English and French armies was ploughed, and had turned into mud. English army was also in a defensive position, reinforced by stakes, and with archers flanking French avenues of advance. As horses did not have armour, longbow shots at close range proved extremely effective. Mud also meant that French infantry arrived at English lines exhausted, and constricted terrain led to many of French soldiers being trampled by their own comrades. At Verneuil in 1424., French knights wore plate armour and had barding for horses, and English archers had no time to hammer the stakes in the dry ground. As a result, cavalry charge broke the archers, took the main baggage train, and started pillaging it. French were then thrown back in counterattack, in melee combat. At Battle of Patay in 1429., 1500 French heavy cavalry overwhelmed longbowmen before they could set up fortified position, followed by pursuit as entire English army fled. At Battle of Castillon in 1453., English infantry were broken by a combination of artillery fire and cavalry charge at the flank.
At Battle of Swiecino in 1462., Polish cavalry used their horses as battering rams to smash through pallisade erected by Teutonic knights – putting a lie not only to a myth that cavalry will not charge prepared infantry but also to a myth that horse will not charge a solid object. In fact, this battle is one of few examples of a cavalry-only force taking a prepared wagenburg without assistance.
Flemish infantry, deployed in dense formations of pikemen, had been mostly victorious until Battle of Roosebeke, where French first deployed infantry to tie up pikemen from the front, and then launched cavalry attack against the flanks. This forced main Flemish body to form a circle, which was then destroyed. At Arbedo in 1422., Il Carmagnola dismounted his cavalry, placing them at center, and used crossbowmen to flank the Swiss pikes and pour bolts into them. Cavalry did not manage to break pikemen, but both sides suffered heavy losses. At St. Jakob an der Birs in 1444., French cavalry charged and forced Swiss pikemen to withdraw. Pikemen formed into three squares, but were broken by repeated charges by French cavalry. At Nancy in 1477. Swiss won against army of Burgundy thanks to overwhelming numerical advantage (anywhere between 3-1 and 10-1) and fact that Charles the Bold was not a good battlefield commander. Burgundian approach of archers at front and men-at-arms at flanks meant that archers faced the full brunt of enemy assault and were routed.
During 14th and 15th centuries, Ottomans exploited feudal knights’ propensity for head-on charges and disregard for infantry by placing infantry protected by obstacles in the front lines. At Nicopolis in 1396., battle was lost before it had even begun by French knights’ insistence on frontal heavy cavalry charge. Cavalry charge in question even achieved some successes, crushing and putting to flight Ottoman irregular infantry. Even trained infantry eventually fled for the cover of sipahis after half of French knights had dismounted and cleared out the stakes which had hampered French charge. However, French knights decided to advance without waiting for Hungarian support, and found themselves facing the fresh sipahis Bayezid had kept in reserve. As a result, they were thrown back and destroyed, and Hungarians had to retreat from the field.
At Varna in 1444., Hunyadi’s army was on the verge of winning the battle, having driven off Ottoman sipahis at the flanks. Reason why battle was lost was that the king, Vladislav I., had charged Ottoman Janissaries without any support, getting himself and his bodyguard killed against overwhelming mass of infantry. This battle will be covered in more detail in a future article.
In 16th century, Fourveaux described men-at-arms as nearly invulnerable, and instructed his own men-at-arms to target lances at opponents’ horses. Smythe indicated that pikemen should target (unarmoured) horses, but a portion should target men-at-arms in order to unhorse them. Even so, he expected at least some cavalry to penetrate the array of five ranks of pikemen, and placed halberdiers behind them. However, Western European lancers during 16th century were poorly trained and undisciplined. Pole looking at tournament in 1595. wrote that lancers could not see or hit each other, and often ended up getting lances stuck in the ground; Polish hussars themselves easily defeated Western and Northern European lancers, cuirassiers and reiters alike. David Eltis stated (about 16th century cavalry) that 1 000 cavalry could easily defeat 3 – 4 times more numerous enemy infantry, unless latter were defended by pikes or by terrain. This is very likely: heavy cavalry horse weighted 700 – 1 200 kg, knight will have weighted 50 – 90 kg. Knight’s armour weighted 22 – 26 kg, and horse armour 33 – 50 kg (depending on whether it is Gothic or Milanese). With weapons (another 10 – 15 kg), total weight would have been 800 – 1 400 kg. This is heavier than many modern cars, and would have easily smashed more than 4 (possibly more than 8) ranks of infantry.
Protection varied over time. Low-quality munition armour of 15th or 16th century (1,8 – 1,9 mm) could protect from edged weapons delivering up to 270 J or pointed weapons up to 150 J, which is enough to protect from infantry swords and pikes, but not against crossbows or cavalry lances. Knightly armour would require twice the energy to penetrate. Quality Milanese armour was proof against crossbows, and earlier Gothic armour likely was almost impervious to them as well. Hussar breastplates in 17th century could be up to 8 mm thick, enough to survive a hit by a cannonball (e.g. Jan Wejher at Siege of Smolensk, hussar from unit of Aleksander Gosiewski, Prusinowski – all three survived). Because of this, horses – which had inferior protection if they were protected at all – were the main target when attempting to stop a charge. Even so, armoured horses could – and would – be used to break infantry pikes by attacking pike formation at an angle and thus also hitting pikes at an angle, causing them to break without being able to impart full force onto armour.
At Ravenna in 1512. Spanish and French cavalry stalemated each other, but Spanish eventually broke. After Spanish cavalry was driven off the field, French cavalry overwhelmed Spanish infantry, punching through pikes and defeating Italian men-at-arms behind them, before charging again. They were largely unharmed thanks to plate armour. At Battle of Marignano in 1515., French Gendarmes used plate barding for horses which allowed them to counter pikemen. As a result, thirty charges were thrown against Swiss pikemen, which were eventually forced to retreat. At Ceresole in 1544., heavy cavalry flanked landsknechte engaged in a push of pike and routed them, yet Imperial heavy cavalry recoiled from the pikes. Enghien’s cavalry made three charges against corner of pike column while under heavy arquebus fire; each time they penetrated but the column again closed afterwards. At Dreux in 1562. the Swiss pikemen were broken by a heavy cavalry charge and ran away. Later on, Hugenots were not able to break French pike square because they had used up all their lances earlier.
At Battle of Mohacs in 1525., Hungarian heavy cavalry managed to force their way up to Sultan’s own position, straight through Azab light infantry and elite Jannissari core. Sultan Suleiman was saved only because Hungarian charge was broken by a combination of point-blank cannon fire and flank attack by Sipahis. Cannons themselves were chained together, thus acting as a physical obstacle to cavalry.
At Arques in 1589., cavalry charges failed because infantry was dug-in in well-prepared defensive positions. Artillery also played a significant role in turning back the attacks. Infantry further had massive numerical advantage; even so, it had suffered major losses, with over 3 000 dead. Marcil Bielski (1495. – 1575.) wrote that “Quality is more important than quantity, and terrain is more important than quality”. He also wrote: “If you have infantry against enemy cavalry, deploy your men in rough terrain, deploy your men in wetlands, in thickets, in terrain surrounded by depressions. (…) infantry needs ditches, fences, rivers, hills.”. In other words, infantry can only reliably defend from cavalry if it has terrain in its favour.
Later disciplined heavy cavalry, such as Winged Hussars, could defeat infantry without their own infantry support. Hussars would mount successive charges: first banner would charge, hit and retire, and then second banner would follow. It should be noted however that even Winged Hussars were not devoid of infantry support. At Lubieszow in 1577., Polish hussars (1 000 strong) broke landsknechts (3 100 strong) by attacking them in flanks while they were engaged with Polish infantry (1 000 strong). At Kircholm in 1605., Polish cavalry, 2 600 strong with support of 1 000 infantry, defeated Swedish army of 2 500 cavalry and 8 400 infantry by pushing off Swedish cavalry which, in flight, disorganized its own infantry. Once Swedish cavalry (on flanks) was put to flight, infantry was left open and destroyed by cavalry. This was in spite of various anti-cavalry obstacles employed by Swedes, and fact that much of Swedish line still remained unbroken; it should however be noted that Swedes were exhausted. At Bycyzna in 1588., Kircholm 1605., Moscow 1611., Smolensk 1633., Mogilev 1655., Domany 1655., Polonka 1660., Cudnow 1660., Polish Hussars slaughtered the opposing infantry. At Klushino in 1610., hussars destroyed the opposing infantry which was sheltered by a fence – destroying first the fence by charging horses into it, and then riding over infantry. Polish forces won the battle despite being outnumbered 5-1, and some banners of Hussars charged 8 – 10 times during the battle. One unit of Hussars charged a pike-musket regiment 4 times before breaking it. Banner of Mikolaj Strus, with 180 horsemen, charged 400-strong Taube’s infantry regiment three times, suffering 12 casualties in men (2 killed, 9 wounded, 1 missing) and 28 horses (20 killed, 7 wounded, 1 missing). Hussars had plunged straight into pikes in order to break them. In 1622., at castle of Mitawa, 600 Polish Hussars broke through 2 000 Swedish pike and musket infantry while losing only two men, but had to retreat for lack of infantry support.
One reason for this were Hussar tactics. 17th century infantry squares were tough nut to crack, largely due to combination of arquebuses and pikes: cavalry charging in close order would face concentrated shot and see its cohesion destroyed by it even before impact; cavalry charging in open order would not have any effect as it would deliver, in effect, a series of individual charges. Hussars however charged in open order, closing the ranks just before impact. They were usually deployed in 3 – 4 ranks, with horses being spaced at least length of horse apart to allow maneuver and reduce density, allowing them to about-face, bypass barriers or opposing cavalry. Just before the impact, ranks would form up riding knee-to-knee, giving one horse each 1,5 meters. While this was lower density than that of infantry unit, cavalry unit would be wider, allowing it to envelop infantry unit from flanks. One of reasons why this tactic was successful was the hollowed-out lance, which was longer than the solid pike of infantry units. While pikemen in the rear might survive, they would face repeated charges. Another reason was that, while nobility did indeed serve among Hussars, Hussars themselves were professional soldiers, and included townsfolk and peasantry as well.
Winged Hussars were not the only heavy cavalry which was successful against pike formations of the period, although they were the only ones to recularly mount head-on attacks against the same. At Battle of Lutzen, Swedish Yellow and Blue brigades were defeated by cavalry after only a short infantry shot exchange. Gap had opened in the center, and Imperial cavalry passed through the gap between the Yellow and Blue brigades. Swedes had no cavalry to counter the breakthrough, and Swedish infantrymen, outflanked, were slaughtered by the cavalry. In general, by late 16th and 17th century, musketeers were used to keep pikemen safe from cavalry, rather than the reverse. This is illustrated by Battle of Breitenfeld, where Swedish musketeers repulsed Imperial heavy cavalry while a unit of Imperial pikemen fell prey to a squadron of Swedish heavy cavalry. Military manuals also prescribe that charge should be done at trot before discharging pistols, upon which soldiers switch to swords and break out into gallop – which clearly describes physical shock action.
It is even questionable whether the appearance of quality muskets in 18th century assured infantry dominance over cavalry. Effectiveness of infantry depended not on cohesion or on bayonnets, but on effective use of firepower in breaking up cavalry charge before it hit home. Even so, examples of cavalry breaking into infantry squares were not unknown, and once that happened, infantry was usually done for. Failures to break squares, as before, often had to do with terrain as much as with enemy weapons. Combined-arms attack of artillery and cavalry usually defeated the squares, but even cavalry alone could be successful. During Great Northern War of 1700s (1700. – 1721.), Swedes achieved massive successes due to eschewing exchanges of fire in favour of massive cavalry-and-bayonet charge after a single salvo. Significant factor in their victories were utilization of pikes and cavalry charge (melee shock tactics). In 1737., Kampenhausen wrote that it very rarely happens that lancers sustain more damage than they inflict. At Battle of Kolin in 1757., Prussian dragoons launched a charge at Austrian infantry flank, destroying Strahemberg, d’Arberg and Platz battalions, while Salm-Salm and Los Rios ran away. Only Austrian cavalry managed to blunt the attack, and a combination of salvo from Botta regiment – the only unit to remain combat-effective in that portion of infantry line – and cavalry counterattack saved the situation. Soon after, Prussian Liebgarde (IR15) was wiped out by Hesse-Darmstadt dragoons when surprising development of events prevented Prussian cavalry from helping it against Austrian attack. Decisive moment in the battle was arrival of Andlau division, which allowed Daun to unleash a storm of 56 cavalry squadrons, which flattened IR22 and then chased away Prussian cavalry. On the other hand, Ziethen and Nadaždi spend whole battle staring threateningly at each other without using their cavalry for anything. At Rossbach in 1757., Seydlitz’ cavalry wiped out Austrian cavalry, without either Allied infantry or artillery being able to intervene. It then caused panic among Allied infantry by launching a massive flank assault, winning the battle. At Battle of Kunersdorf in 1759., Frederick’s cavalry was incapable of forming up for a mass charge due to uneven ground, and was forced into a piecemeal attack. Furthermore, it was attempting to attack a fortified enemy position which included artillery. Eventually, Frederick’s cavalry was routed by Austrian cavalry counterattack. At Torgau in 1780., both infantry and cavalry failed to break Austrian lines in uphill assaults.
At Eylau in 1807., Murat’s squadrons charged right through Russian infantry. Soon after, d’Hautpolt’s cuirassiers broke through two lines of Russian infantry, only losing momentum after 2 500 yards, in front of Russian reserves. Second wave of French cavalry then rode through two Russian infantry lines as they attempted to reform, and cavalry then retired, riding back through Russian infantry. English cavalry managed to break into French infantry square during battle of Waterloo in 1815.. Failure of French cavalry to do the same was primarily due to the difficult terrain British infantry had deployed in: French heavy cavalry had breastplates which could actually stop rounds from Napoleonic-era muskets. It was terrain, not British infantry fire or their bayonnets, which shattered cavalry formation and rendered charge ineffective. British infantry also outnumbered French cavalry 3:1 (10 500 to 3 500) though this, by itself, was likely not a decisive factor. Both sides had a core of veterans with large number of raw recruits. 16th Lancers broke two Sikh squares at Battle of Aliwal in 1848, and Churchill at Omdurmam participated in a cavalry charge which actually broke through well-formed and disciplined infantry some twelve ranks deep (perhaps slightly less), armed with swords, spears and javelins. “Eager warriors sprang forward to anticipate the shock. The rest stood firm to meet it. The Lancers acknowledged the apparition only by an increase of pace. Each man wanted sufficient momentum to drive through such a solid line. The flank troops, seeing that they overlapped, curved inwards like the horns of a moon. But the whole event was a matter of seconds. The riflemen, firing bravely to the last, were swept head over heels into the khor, and jumping down with them, at full gallop and in the closest order, the British squadrons struck the fierce brigade with one loud furious shout. The collision was prodigious. Nearly thirty Lancers, men and horses, and at least two hundred Arabs were overthrown. The shock was stunning to both sides, and for perhaps ten wonderful seconds no man heeded his enemy. Terrified horses wedged in the crowd, bruised and shaken men, sprawling in heaps, struggled, dazed and stupid, to their feet, panted, and looked about them. Several fallen Lancers had even time to re-mount. Meanwhile the impetus of the cavalry carried them on. As a rider tears through a bullfinch, the officers forced their way through the press; and as an iron rake might be drawn through a heap of shingle, so the regiment followed. They shattered the Dervish array, and, their pace reduced to a walk, scrambled out of the khor on the further side, leaving a score of troopers behind them, and dragging on with the charge more than a thousand Arabs. Then, and not till then, the killing began; and thereafter each man saw the world along his lance, under his guard, or through the back-sight of his pistol; and each had his own strange tale to tell.”
Battle of Balaclava in 1854. is hard to use as anything other than example of human stupidity. Charge of Heavy Brigade was hardly a charge at all: it was an uphill struggle and short distances did not allow horses to reach anything more than a trot. It was also not aimed at infantry but at cavalry, and considering circumstances, it was highly successful. Charge of the Light Brigade was due to miscommunication, and was aimed at an artillery position at the end of the valley. Even so, Light Brigade survived a 2 kilometer charge over open ground against fortified artillery and managed to close to melee with Russian artillerymen. Light Brigade actually captured the artillery position, and might have held if it had sufficient support; but that was not available. In the end, 673 British cavalrymen had made a 2 kilometer charge against enemy which had 20 infantry battalions, 50 cannons, 5 240 cavalry, and surrounded the Light Brigade on three sides. Fact that Light Brigade suffered only 118 losses is nothing short of amazing. On the other side, the “Thin Red Line” incident is also misinterpreted as an example of infantry dominance in face of cavalry charge. While they did indeed resist Russian charge, incident is so famous precisely because such a feat was thought to be impossible. As in some other examples, Russian cavalry was charging uphill.
In Anglo-Persian war of 1856-7., cavalry managed to break into infantry square: “At this point, under artillery fire most of which went over the cavalrymen’s heads, Captain Forbes, according to Cornet Combe,’gave the orders “The line will advance”. “Draw swords”. “Third squadron”. “Walk”. “Trot”. “Gallop”,and when within a hundred yards of the enemy, “Charge!” Another officer of the regiment tells how Forbes and his young adjutant, Lieutenant A. T. Moore (brother of Captain Ross Moore), “placed themselves in front of the 6th Troop, which was the one directly opposite the nearest face of the square. The others, [Ross] Moore, Malcolmson and Spens, came the least thing behind, riding knee to knee, with spurs in their horses’ flanks, as if racing after a dog. In rear of them rushed the dark troopers of the 3rd…In spite of fire, steel and bullets, they tore down upon the nearest face of the devoted square. As they approached, Forbes was shot through the thigh, and Spens’ horse was wounded; but unheeding, they swept onwards. Daunted by the flashes and the fire and the noise and the crackle of musketry, the younger Moore’s horse swerved as they came up. Dropping his sword and letting it hang by the knot at his wrist, he caught up the reins in both hands, screwed his horse’s head straight, and then coolly, as if riding a fence, leaped him into the square…Of course the horse fell stone dead upon the bayonets; so did his brother’s, ridden with equal courage and determination. ….The barrier once broken, and the entrance once made, in and through it poured [our] Troops. On and over everything they rode, till getting out they reformed on the other side, wheeled and swept back a second wave of ruin. Out of five hundred Persian soldiers…who composed that fatal square, only twenty escaped to tell the tale of its own destruction”.Captain Ross Moore believed that when the squadron charged it did not number quite 100 men…He believed that the square consisted of 800 men, but from other evidence it seems more likely not to have exceeded 500…The regiment’s total losses for the day were one Sowar killed and Captain Forbes and fourteen sowars wounded.”
Just having ordered lines of infantry was not enough: 19th century Prussian military manual states that a horse will ride down three men standing in a line (from this it can be read that six men deep lines are required to stop a cavalry charge). While advanced muskets did shift balance of power away from shock cavalry and towards infantry, it would not be until advent of machine guns that shock cavalry became useless. Before then, cavalry could still break gunpowder-infantry square if it was “prepared” by artillery bombardment, composed of low-quality infantry, or cavalry managed to aim for square’s points. There are examples from Battle of Klushino in 1610., in which many horses survived multiple musket wounds. And musket fire was inaccurate: in early 18th century, Swedish general Schulenburg estimated that a volley from a 600-strong Swedish battalion inflicted 10 – 12 casualties among opposing infantry. “Von Bredow’s Death Ride” in 1870. was one of last massed cavalry charges in history. In it, Prussian cavalry suffered heavy losses – 380 dead and wounded out of 1 400 men – but succeeded in defeating enemy infantry which had it outnumbered four to one. Horses are in fact highly resistant to missile – arrow or musket – fire.
Even as late as World War I there were examples of cavalry charge wiping out infantry units in open field. At Battle of Beersheba in 1917., Australian light horse charged Turkish positions with bayonets in hand. Australian artillery suppressed Ottoman machine gun nests, allowing Australians (4th Light Horse Regiment) to reach trenches, dismount and capture them, while rest of Australian horse (12th Light Horse Regiment) continued on and captured Beersheba itself. Ottomans lost 700 dead and 1 500 captured, while Allies (including British infantry) lost 226 dead and perhaps the same number of wounded. Following is a description of another such a charge, this from Eastern front of World War I.
“The fear of infantry was intensified by great resistance of horses to wounds. During a charge only killed horses or those which had crushed leg bones were falling immediately. Other horses, often wounded several times, even mortally, in a zeal of attack continued to run and with their entire mass – under riders or without them – were blindly bumping into the enemy, parting and trampling his lines. From distance this apparent lack of casualties of the charging unit was creating an impression of inefficiency of infantry fire. Infantry was confused enough, that most of bullets were starting to fly too high, and often in a decisive moment infantry was throwing their weapons and commencing a flight, which meant a certain annihilation for them.”
Cavalry charge was also effective at several occasions early in World War II. During Battle of Kaluszyn, misunderstanding resulted in Polish 11th Uhlans Regiment charging towards German positions with their sabres drawn, breaking through the town despite suffering significant casualties. Polish infantry followed into the breach, liberating the town. During Battle of Mokra, two cavalry squadrons of 19th Uhlan regiment managed to “charge” (really escape) straight through German force of tanks and infantry, largely due to such a move being unexpected. Largest and most organized cavalry charge happened during Battle of Wolka Weglowa, where Polish Uhlans broke through German units consisting of infantry, machine guns and tanks. Two cavalry regiments (1 000 men total) faced 2 300 men and 37 tanks. While losses amongs Uhlans were heavy – 105 killed and 100 wounded – unit did break through to Warsaw, opening the way for other Polish units.
These experiences generally bear out lessons of earlier combat experiences, from antiquity and later. Neither purely-infantry nor purely-cavalry army will stand a chance against a combined-arms force, but using such force requires training and cooperation which feudal armies were oftentimes incapable of. This resulted in many examples of improper use of heavy cavalry, particularly in unsupported cavalry charges (e.g. Agincourt, 1415., Varna, 1444.). However, there do exist differences of degree. Mid-to-late 15th century heavy shock cavalry – the type being described here – could be successful even against deployed, formed and motivated infantry, assuming it was used and supported properly, and that infantry was not deployed behind significant physical obstacles. But proper deployment of cavalry was not very frequent. Likewise, even disciplined pikemen will lose battle against a combined-arms army (e.g. Marignano, 1515.) or even a heavy-cavalry-only army if battle is fought in open field. If a combined-arms force was not available, cavalry army had greater chance of winning a battle, and also better ability to retreat if battle was lost, than a purely-infantry force.
When it comes to direct clash, well-trained and disciplined cavalry could be successful even in a head-on charge against dense pike formations. While it is true that a single charge will not defeat deep infantry units (6-8 rows were usually seen as minimum), each charge will disable or kill more men. As such, repeated charges can kill whole enemy units, assuming that cavalry is trained to perform such maneuver, and enemy does not have heavy cavalry to counter one’s own. This required a combination of proper formation, discipline, skill and equipment – such as horse barding – which allowed for repeated effective charges. Such a combination was, in feudal cavalry, rarely in evidence. Yet its importance can be seen in way 17th century heavy cavalry regained its dominant role on the battlefield after it became a professional force. Feudal knights were members of social elite, and were more concerned with honour and glory than with practicalities of war. They had neither the training nor mindset (e.g. ability to follow orders) to be effective on the battlefield. This was the reason for continuing importance of professional armies in Middle Ages, such as knightly orders from Crusades, or Hungarian Black Army and French Compagnies d’Ordonnance from 15th century.
Overall, disciplined infantry defeated undisciplined cavalry, and disciplined cavalry defeated undisciplined infantry. When it comes to direct combat between high-quality infantry and high-quality cavalry, the deciding factor was usually terrain: boggy or broken ground, obstacles etc. could easily break up cavalry charge, while proper cavalry charge over unbroken terrain was nearly unstoppable. Infantry also had the advantage in that it could, if given time, prepare terrain by digging ditches, placing stakes etc. Even this however was not necessarily enough to guarantee victory, as example of Nicopolis shows. Generally it was a rule that cavalry charge against fortified infantry positions ended badly, while properly executed cavalry charge against infantry on open ground usually wiped out the latter. Idea that heavy infantry can – relatively easily – defend against heavy cavalry charge even in terrain favourable to the latter, and that only disorganized infantry is vulnerable to cavalry charge, is a misconception. It is most likely a result of dominance of Anglo-Saxon literature, and especially the Hundred Years’ War, where general French stupidity (also displayed at Nicopolis) prevented effective utilization of heavy shock cavalry, and thus created incorrect impression of its effectiveness relative to infantry.
Swiss pikemen did defeat Austrian and Burgundian cavalry, English longbowmen, Neapolitan and French infantry – only dismounted men-at-arms could face them head-on. But this was not a question of pike itself, but primarily of their utilization of combined arms. Generally, side with better combined-arms employment won, and this was true from antiquity to modern day (dominance of steppe mounted archer is a myth – even 13th century Mongols employed combined arms such as infantry, missile cavalry and heavy armoured cavalry). Even mediocre heavy cavalry could force a pike unit to adopt a defensive position, making it vulnerable to missile and artillery bombardment. Horse barding was also important, as cavalry with unarmoured horses could be rapidly turned into an infantry force by archers and/or pikemen. As noted earlier, 16th and even 15th century plate armour is sufficient to take pike to chest at full speed. As a result, in favourable terrain, heavy cavalry charge would typically defeat infantry.
Relative importance of cavalry versus infantry can also be seen through proportions in armies. Black Army of Matthias Corvinus had 2 000 heavy cavalry and 5 000 infantry in 1463., but by 1480. the proportion was reversed, with 8 000 infantry but 20 000 cavalry. In 1515., Hungarian banderia had 5 000 cavalry (2 175 heavy, 2 825 light), 400 mounted infantry and 3 550 infantry (1 650 ranged, 1 900 melee). In 1516., after reorganization, each division of 10 000 men had 6 000 cavalry (50:50 heavy:light) and 4 000 infantry (50:50 pikemen:handgunners). Thus, infantry was 28% of army in 1480., 44% in 1515., and 40% in 1516.
In the end, arguments against dominance and even effectiveness of heavy cavalry throughout Medieval and even Modern periods rely on perfection fallacy. They are, essentially, equivalent to saying that – to use modern examples – “main battle tanks are useless because they cannot climb the mountains or fly”, “aircraft are useless because they cannot take and hold ground”, “propeller COIN aircraft are useless because they cannot fight jet air superiority fighters” or “assault rifles are useless because they do not have 2+ kilometer effective range”. If an arm of armed forces is used in a manner it is not designed or intended for, it will invariably fail. But that does not make it useless. Heavy shock cavalry was a highly specialized force best utilized in combination with other arms; but when used properly, it could and did prove decisive, even in battles which happened well after the widely-accepted “infantry revolution” occured. Horses, after all, can be trained to eat meat – a horse named Rysdyk was a four-time man-killer, and Kazakh tribe trained meat-eating horses. It is thus illogical to believe that horses cannot be trained to charge a line of pikes, when humans can be trained to do far more counterintuitive things (and indeed, many do them without training).