Serving Under Saddle: The Cavalry
“During this period [i.e., World War 1] all arms had a chance for development and employment except the Cavalry, so that to some unthinking person the day of the Cavalry seems to have passed. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The splendid work of the Cavalry in the [last] few weeks of the war more than justified its existence and the expense of its upkeep in the years of peace preceding the war….In any future war on the American Continent, the use of cavalry will be as important as it has been in the past.” John J. Pershing, General, U.S. Army, and Commander, American Expeditionary Force.1
World War 1 was a watershed time for the cavalry. Long the most prestigious part of any army, those in the cavalry watched with something of disbelief as their role slipped away and modern weaponry and tactics made the mounted soldier a thing of the past.
Trying to reassure each other and those who served under them, numbers of officers, both during and immediately after the war, published what can only be viewed today as odes to days and strategies gone by. Indeed, the army created the position of Chief of Cavalry after the war ended, and the U.S. Cavalry School at Fort Riley, Kansas, founded less than a decade before the war began, actually enjoyed its most halcyon days between 1918 and 1944, when the last mounted cavalry was transitioned to motor transport.
For horses, of course, the demise of the cavalry meant the virtual end of the use of animals in active battle. (They would continue in their role as draft horses well into the 1940s, with hundreds of thousands lost in World War II by Germany alone). Animal lovers found nothing but good in the transition to motorized transport.
There were a few cavalry battles in World War 1, most of them before the U.S. AEF entered the war. Those battles illustrated the futility of using mounted soldiers in a trench warfare scenario, and not until September of 1918, two months before the war ended, were another few cavalry engagements fought.
In this section we will examine the traditional roles of the cavalry and how the use of horses to support those roles came to be obsolete.
Traditional Roles of Cavalry
In the years leading up to World War 1 the cavalry had filled three major roles in the armies of every nation: Reconnaissance, Advance Forces, and Pursuit.
First, the cavalry was the reconnaissance arm of the service.
Stealthy patrols well ahead of the main force discovered enemy positions and strength, guiding the advance of the rest of the army.
This role was taken over by aircraft. Though limited by weather and cloud cover and vulnerable to well-placed shots from the ground, aircraft allowed visualization of the battlespace with far greater accuracy and over a far larger area than mounted troops could cover. Even the limited air power available during WW1 quickly supplanted the cavalry as the chief reconnaissance force for both sides of the conflict. The availability of field telephones and radio, although not very advanced technically, still helped to get the situation reports developed by the air patrols disseminated to decision makers on the ground and let the wider field of view of the airborne units be used to advantage.
Second, the cavalry carried mounted fighting soldiers toward the enemy and engaged him either while mounted or, in some cases, on the ground.
Cavalry soldiers from various nations still carried sabers and lances as well as rifles and expected to fight soldiers who were also mounted. The U.S. Cavalry did teach unmounted fighting as well, a tactic which had proved useful in the skirmishes along the Mexican border in the years preceding the Great War. But by the time the U.S. entered the war, none of the leading field commanders expected the cavalry to be very active in engaging the enemy either on horseback or after riding toward the enemy and then dismounting to fight.
A follow-on to this role was the taking and holding of strategic or important positions until the arrival of the main forces. Again, unless significant distance was being covered, this aspect of the use of cavalry would not be relevant.
The mounted soldier role was unsuited to both the terrain and battle conditions of the Western Front. Within months of the German invasion of Belgium and France, the battlefront had stagnated into opposing forces trying to defend land from further invasion and re-take land that had already been overrun. Trenches, originally dug as temporary cover from artillery, became long-term outposts.
In 1915 and 1916, French and British troops tried repeatedly to push “over the top” of the trenches and re-take land that was held by the Germans. Early on, a few of these pushes involved cavalry troops, and overall these battles were the bloodiest of the entire war. Old-style hand to hand combat and individual rifle fire were replaced by machine guns, increasingly accurate cannon, and long range guns.
Any massed forces were prime targets for enemy fire. Horse’s legs were wonderful targets for opposing forces as they crippled entire units with sprays of machine gun bullets. After months of trying, the British and French gave up their tactics of trying to regain large areas by using massed forces pushing across toward the German front lines.
Cavalry units had no place in the small furtive nightly parties that ventured into the barbed wire and shell holes of no-man’s land. These small incursions took the place of the earlier massed troop movements which had proved to be the source of tens of thousands of casualties without materially changing the location of the front.
The third major role of the cavalry was pursuit of a retreating enemy and engaging them in what was hoped to be a final battle leading to clear victory.
This role simply did not exist in Europe until the last few months of the war. There were no retreating armies on either side; all the armies were holed up in their trenches and advancing only a few feet if at all – certainly not miles.
Cavalry in the AEF
Four regiments of the U.S. cavalry, the 2nd, 3rd, 6th, and 15th, were deployed in Europe as part of the AEF, and engaged chiefly in remount duty.2
Thus, the U.S. Cavalry units that served in France in 1917 and 1918 were assigned, not as fighting soldiers, but as military police (MPs), horse and mule caretakers, farriers, and stable hands. They made the best of this ignominious role but yearned to fight as they had been trained to do. This led to a series of battles in the St. Mihiel offensive over a few days in September 1918 in which the 2nd Cavalry took part as a mounted unit.
The description of these few days are a telling account of how horses were viewed as a means to an end (transport to battle); how the well-being of the animals was at best a second- or third-rate concern; and how men who longed to fight rather than be assigned to remount duty let their desire for action overrule any other concern in order to take an active part in the fighting of one of the last offensives of the war.
The tale was published in The Cavalry Journal in July 1921, written by Captain Ernest N. Harmon, 2nd Cavalry.3
The Cavalry Journal first began publication in 1895, and by 1920 was the oldest of the service journals, its length of publication exceeding in fact that of all of the other service magazines put together.4 It had taken a two-year hiatus from 1918-1920, and the reappearance of the Journal was lauded by its own editorial team as signifying “the refulgence of the cavalry light which for five years has remained obscured by the fog of trenches, wire entanglements, dugouts, raids, hand grenades, trench mortars, and all of the other paraphernalia brought into the military game by the peculiar situation on the Western Front.”5
This is a telling viewpoint, for it reveals how much the leadership of the cavalry, let alone the average soldier, wanted to believe that the Great War was an aberration, something that would never happen again, rather than the harbinger of a new form of warfare.
Granted, an entrenched stalemate did not become the norm, but the old battlefield in which troops moved at the speed of animal power was never to be seen again on any large scale, and even on small scales became rare within two decades of the end of World War 1. But seeing this as a pattern of the future was clearly not possible for those who still looked back to the U.S. Civil War as the last “typical” engagement and who longed for the old ways to reassert themselves.
From the 2nd Cavalry in France, a total of fourteen officers and 404 men were formed into four Troops in mid-September 1918. By mid-October there were only 150 “mounted effectives” left, and the unit was withdrawn from the front. 6
A Last Engagement
What follows is a summary of Captain Harmon’s first-person account of the role of the 2nd Cavalry in the St. Mihiel offensive.
The cavalry troops received about two weeks’ notice of the intent to involve the unit as a mounted cavalry in the fighting. Having been busy prior to this time with the construction of a remount depot, they quickly requisitioned horses of their own to ride into battle. Of course there were not any actual cavalry mounts available, only officer’s mounts and draft horses, since the AEF had not used cavalry up to that point as a fighting force.
They received horses in “very poor condition from various remount depots and veterinary hospitals, ranging in type from heavy draft horses to a Spanish pony; forty-two were white or gray.” This last was a reference to the long-held opinion that white or gray horses were quite undesirable as mounts or indeed as war horses in any capacity, because they were too visible to the enemy.
“With men who had not drilled for six months, with horses scarcely bridle-wise and utterly unaccustomed to cavalry weapons, the officers and men had a problem as difficult, perhaps, as any cavalryman can expect. The horses were grazed in the evening and everything was done to prepare them for the hard work to come.”
Everything, that is, except the time for even minimal training and conditioning. Horses were war materiel, not viewed much if any differently than inanimate war supplies such as saddles or wagons.
Due to a shortage of ammunition, a total of fifteen or twenty shots were taken while mounted as part of accustoming the horses to their new role.
On the first night of the battle, they marched all night along a crowded road in pouring rain and spent the next day re-shoeing and overhauling equipment. The horses were tied to picket lines. It was September, and horses often prefer to stand in summer rain rather than under cover, so this was probably not as bad for the horses as for the men.
The next night they moved closer to the front, which was in fact rapidly moving away from them toward the German border as the German troops retreated. Action began that night at 1 AM, after about a 5 hour march in the rain. At that point, only the infantry was involved in fighting and the men stood by their horse’s heads to keep them from shying and bolting at the barrage of gunfire around them. This was all friendly fire, from the Allied troops, with no incoming fire.
When it became apparent that the horses were tolerating the noise and flashes, the men laid down, tied the reins to their legs, and most fell into an exhausted sleep.
The German forces continued to retreat ahead of the Allied fire, and the following day, September 12, the Cavalry was sent forward, following tanks and infantry and the retreating German troops.
They “crossed the ruins of trenches with great difficulty.” Moving further forward, “the road was choked with artillery and ambulances and we were forced to pick our way through barbed wire entanglements and trenches. Our tanks had plowed their way through the wire, which greatly helped our advance.”
At this point, the troops entered a woodland and began to intercept German soldiers who had been separated from their units during the retreat. Sporadic fighting ensured and the lack of training of the cavalry unit began to tell, as smaller groups became separated, orders confused, and any possibility of surprising the remaining German forces was lost.
The U.S. troops came under machine gun fire in “woods so heavy that the enemy could not be seen.” While trying to retreat to a better position a few hundred yards back, the inexperience of the troops became apparent as they passed German troops without knowing they had done so and were surrounded. “They [the Germans] had been trained to shoot low. Many of our horses were hit in the legs.”
U.S. forces shot back at the machine guns with their pistols, several U.S. troopers were killed, and the remaining horses bolted. However, remarkably, the pistol fire did kill the machine gun crew and, after the horses reached the edge of the wood, they were brought under control and order restored. The soldiers were tremendously encouraged by their ability to kill the enemy with pistols and morale was high.
The next day, September 13, another part of the cavalry troop spent an exhausting day in rough terrain searching out German stragglers. Horses and men were worn out though few Germans were found. The remaining troops were sent on similar expeditions but over less challenging terrain. They went from village to village, routing out a few remaining Germans. Several of the towns were deserted and in flames.
“All along the road were wagons of loot and supplies left in the flight, the drivers having unhitched the horses and made their escape on them.”
Finally a larger town, St. Maurice, was reached.
“This town was of considerable size, and many Germans were seen running about in the streets as we approached. The troop galloped through the town, established a march outpost at the far side, and sent smaller patrols to search for Germans. A German staff officer, mounted on a large black horse, was discovered leaving a side street. He was captured and the captain of the troop took the horse and rode him the rest of the campaign. Twenty-two stragglers were found and sent to the rear. The villagers came out of their cellars and were enthusiastic over our entry.”
On the 14th, a large quantity of grain and food were found. Men and horses were fed and grain bags filled. This was the first feed for the horses since the morning of the 12th. By that evening, the fighting was over. “All the horses were greatly fatigued, and some wounded horses had to be shot.”
And so ended the most significant U.S. Cavalry engagement of the First World War. It is not recorded how many horses died in the fighting or had to be destroyed due to injury or exhaustion.
Many well-known officers went on record to say that the cavalry was worth the great cost to maintain it, that it could never be fully replaced by aircraft or motor vehicles, and so on. Among them was Major-General Leonard Wood, who declared in 1920 that, among other things, the cavalryman must know how to use his saber.7
Rash predictions were made as to the future of tanks. “Aviation and radio-telegraphy will … greatly increase the value of cavalry…but as for gas and tanks, their use will be restricted to siege operations or to the kind of warfare that the present war brought about, but which will hardly ever occur again.” And, “As for tanks, their invention has no effect whatsoever on the future of cavalry.”8
A young cavalry officer, Major George S. Patton Jr., wrote in 1921, “Cavalry, now as always, must advance by enveloping. When the ground, as in France, was so limited as to prevent this, cavalry must await the breakthrough to be made by the tanks. However, Western Europe is the only country small enough and with sufficient population and roads to render such a state of things possible….. Cavalry has lived off the country and can yet do so. To it, lines of supply are unnecessary. 9
This would have been news to the quartermasters who struggled to import and distribute the hundreds of thousands of tons of hay and grain necessary for the horses and mules that served in France!
Patton, a cavalry officer, Olympic pentathlon competitor, and passionate horseman, is best remembered in equestrian circles for his part in the rescue of the Lipizzaner mares and stallions from advancing Russian and German armies late in World War II. As commander of the U.S. Third Army in Europe, he made the Lipizzaner horses wards of the U.S. Army until they could be returned safely to Austria after the war, thus saving the breed and Vienna's Spanish Riding School.
Schemes for buildup of the cavalry were put forward in great detail. Recognition that there were issues that needed attention and modernization included the observation that “We are orphans” and that the remedy would be to appoint a Chief of Cavalry. “We have no doctrine of tactics.” – solution, the Chief of Cavalry and establishment of a Cavalry Tactical School. “We do not agree as to armament.” – for instance, rifle vs carbine; machine guns, automatic rifles, saber, pistol, and bayonet. “Horse equipment is in a most demoralized state.” – remedy, “Find out what we want and have enough;…Learn how to take care of equipment.” “Improvement in the care and training of animals.” “We know too little about gas warfare.” “Our dismounted tactics are not suitable for employment against a modern enemy.” And finally, “We oppose each other in Cavalry matters and mill around in a circle, with no one to make definite and final decisions.”10
Asking these hard questions, and the good fortune of having twenty-five years before the Army was called to defend U.S. interests again, led to the cavalry of World War II and eventually the present, an armored force without horses but with the modern equivalent of mounted mobility.
- “A Message to the Cavalry from General Pershing,” The Cavalry Journal, Volume XXIX, No. 119, April 1920.
- Stubbs, Mary Lee and Connor, Stanley Russell. Armor Cavalry Part I: Regular Army and Army Reserve. Office of the Chief of Military History, Unites States Army, Washington, DC 1969. p.39.
- “The Second Cavalry In the St. Mihiel Offensive,” The Cavalry Journal, Volume XXX, No. 124, July 1921, pp. 282-289. The summary of this article follows and each quote will not be cited separately.
- “The Cavalry Journal Reappears,” The Cavalry Journal, Volume XXIX, No. 119, April 1920, p. 81.
- Ibid, Cavalry Journal XXIX p. 81.
- Urwin, Gregory J.W. The United States Cavalry An Illustrated History. 1983, Blandford Press, Poole, Dorset, UK, p. 180.
- Cavalry Journal, Vol XXIX, July 1920, p. 114.
- Tittinger, A.J., First Lieutenant, 6th Cavalry. “The Future of Cavalry.” Cavalry Journal, Vol XXIX, April 1920, p. 67-69.
- “Comments on Cavalry Tanks,” Cavalry Journal, Vol XXX, Number 122, January 1921.
- Eltinge, Le Roy, Major, U.S. Army. “Review of Our Cavalry Situation.” Cavalry Journal, Vol XXIX, April 1920, pp. 14-17.