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Philip Renne




Location: New Jersey
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PostPosted: Sun 13 Aug, 2017 9:48 pm    Post subject: Mounted Combat Question Regarding Horses and Wedges, Keegan         Reply with quote

I'm interested in getting the insights of those of you with equestrian experience.

I recently recalled a statement I read by the historian John Keegan who was arguing as he usually did that medieval knightly cavalry was essentially worthless. In particular he criticised the deep wedge formation favored by the men at arms of certain nations; citing as one reason that horses arrayed thus would not be able to push against each other as footmen would into the ranks of the enemy.

I always held this reasoning to be strange, there seem to me to be many advantages to the wedge that have nothing to do with being shoved or pressed from behind into the enemy formation. Moreover, did Keegan really think that soldiers were so stupid as to use a completely useless strategy again and again for no reason?

Now thinking about it, if there were a hypothetical situation where a mass of cavalry was arrested by an opposing mass and got all jammed up, would the horses behind lean their shoulders into the horses in front of them? Or would they rather wheel about on getting too close to another horse? I hope someone with experience with herds of horses can chime in.

Just to clarifiy, I'm not arguing that this was how cavalry charges worked, I'm just wondering if horses behave this way in masses. If what I'm asking isn't clear let me know and I'll try to re-phrase. Happy
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Lafayette C Curtis




Location: Indonesia
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PostPosted: Wed 06 Sep, 2017 4:25 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Well, horses being pushed from behind by the rear rank may panic rather than proceeding forward with calm resolve -- and a panicked horse might bolt in the entirely wrong direction.

Personally I like the middle ground as suggested by Philip Rance -- maybe medieval cavalry wedges were not much good at physically splitting unbroken enemy formations, but they were far easier to manoeuvre than a line and thus were far better at exploiting temporary gaps and weak points in the enemy's line. Kind of like how later 18th- and 19th-century cavalry had to be able to charge in column if they saw a good target of opportunity that had to be exploited in a hurry (without taking the time needed to deploy into line).
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Peter Spätling




Location: Germany
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PostPosted: Fri 08 Sep, 2017 8:54 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

"citing as one reason that horses arrayed thus would not be able to push against each other as footmen would into the ranks of the enemy"
there is no need to for such nonsense. A thing weighing 600kg with a human on top of it weighing another 100kg, so roughly 700kg in total are charging at you. A human can't stop a horse. Even if you manage to pierce its chest and hit the heart, the horse is still galloping and will roll you over.
But to answer your question, horses can push other horses obviously...
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Chris Friede




Location: Austin
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PostPosted: Fri 08 Sep, 2017 9:52 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Remember that a warhorse is trained as a weapon in its own right---a kick from a hoof will send a man flying easily enough. A shove from a horse will stagger any person I've ever met.
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Peter Lyon
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PostPosted: Fri 08 Sep, 2017 1:13 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

From my own riding experience:
A horse at speed is terrifying to face if it looks like it will hit you, or even graze you. Think pinballs.

A line of horses at speed that you can't avoid will be terrifying. That is why they did it. The simple mass of a horse charge against foot will do enormous damage and penetrate a foot formation to some depth before running out of energy - there are records of charges that went right through the foot ranks then reformed and continued. In the wake will be dead and injured men, and a disrupted formation ripe for attack by the footmen who should be following the horse.
This is also part of the reason why long spears and pole weapons became popular, to put off the horses - they were highly trained usually, but not stupid, and wouldn't want to run into sharp things.

So what about when the charge runs out of energy and is pressed into the foot formation?
Horses can be trained to push and get used to being pushed in tight formation - look at modern mounted police tactics as one example. It is all about training and desensitisation, and weeding out the horses that just won't take to it. Poorly trained or unsuitable horses can panic, but well trained horses are much less likely to, unless the rider is getting upset and transmitting that to the horse (horses are great feedback loops for better or worse, they pick up the cues from their riders).

Keegan has an obvious bias against mounted troops; he has a point but takes it too far. If used poorly in a tactical sense, they are vulnerable to missile fire, or over broken ground where they have trouble holding tight formations and wheeling, but when used properly and at the right moment they could be devastating. There are many historical examples of both. Cavalry forces soak up enormous amounts of time and resources to maintain at the ready compared to infantry, that wasn't done just because they looked impressive.

We even have modern examples such as Beersheba in 1917 where the Australian mounted infantry were used as cavalry for a highly successful charge against modern arms (never mind there was luck and desperation involved, it worked). Historians sneer at the allies in WW1 keeping cavalry formations ready for the break through that never came, because we know it didn't until near the end, but if it had happened those formations would have been useful in open ground.

Still hammering away
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Lafayette C Curtis




Location: Indonesia
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PostPosted: Sat 09 Sep, 2017 12:59 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Peter Lyon wrote:
So what about when the charge runs out of energy and is pressed into the foot formation?
Horses can be trained to push and get used to being pushed in tight formation - look at modern mounted police tactics as one example. It is all about training and desensitisation, and weeding out the horses that just won't take to it. Poorly trained or unsuitable horses can panic, but well trained horses are much less likely to, unless the rider is getting upset and transmitting that to the horse (horses are great feedback loops for better or worse, they pick up the cues from their riders).


I think there are two different issues at play here. One is front-rank horses pushing and shoving against infantry opponents, which I agree was possible and effective. The other is rear-rank horses in a deep wedge or column formation pushing against the other horses ahead to add to their momentum -- which seems dubious and would probably lead to a panic rather than a breakthrough. I'm not saying that I agree with Keegan's disdain for deep cavalry wedges/columns -- such formations clearly worked when used well -- but I do agree somewhat with his criticism of some of the ideas about how these formations worked.


Quote:
We even have modern examples such as Beersheba in 1917 where the Australian mounted infantry were used as cavalry for a highly successful charge against modern arms (never mind there was luck and desperation involved, it worked). Historians sneer at the allies in WW1 keeping cavalry formations ready for the break through that never came, because we know it didn't until near the end, but if it had happened those formations would have been useful in open ground.


They were. Have you read Stephen Badsey's "Doctrine and Reform in the British Cavalry?" He gives some examples of instances where cavalry did prove their usefulness when the war shifted back to mobile warfare in 1918. Of course, these successful cavalry actions weren't the massed exploitation of breakthroughs like what the British generals envisioned -- instead, cavalry seemed to have been particularly useful when used as part of combined-arms teams in close coordination with "small" infantry units (companies, battalions, and regiments), especially as a mobile reserve and as a manoeuvre element against enemy that had been frontally pinned down by the infantry. Pretty much like later WW2 tanks and assault guns assigned to infantry support units.
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Daniel Staberg




Location: Gothenburg/Sweden
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PostPosted: Sat 09 Sep, 2017 4:08 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

For an indepth study that takes a fresh look at the used of British cavalry during 1914-1918 I recomend David Kenyon's phd thesis "British cavalry on the Western Front 1916-1918"
http://ethos.bl.uk/OrderDetails.do?did=4&...hos.488016
He debunks a lot of old myths using primary source which show that more than one supposed massacre of cavalry during that period never happend.

"There is nothing more hazardous than to venture a battle. One can lose it
by a thousand unforseen circumstances, even when one has thorougly taken all
precautions that the most perfect military skill allows for."
-Fieldmarshal Lennart Torstensson.
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Philip Renne




Location: New Jersey
Joined: 11 Jan 2010

Posts: 35

PostPosted: Sun 10 Sep, 2017 1:07 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Thanks for all the great responses. This is the sort of thing that has a huge bearing on how we view medieval combat and tactical decisions but which most of us in the modern world have no adequate frame of reference to evaluate.
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