In This Article Cavalry since 1500

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Early Modern
  • World War I
  • Interwar Period
  • World War II
  • Post–World War II
  • Global Perspective

Military History Cavalry since 1500
by
Mark Gerges
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 06 February 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0028

Introduction

Cavalry, one of the three principal combat branches, has long been known as “the combat arm of decision.” This view, of a horse-mounted cavalry soldier delivering a charge at a gallop and turning a battlefield victory into a rout, is the idealized view of supporters. The role of cavalry, and whether it could continue to play a role on a battlefield dominated by firearms, has been the central debate since the 16th century. After cavalry forces lost their unquestioned battlefield dominance during the medieval period, the next four centuries witnessed a reevaluation and readjustment of their role. Others refused to admit to these changes, arguing for an unaltered role. The heyday of the mounted arm’s effectiveness came during the Napoleonic era (1799–1815), when a general equality among the various branches allowed cavalry its last true measure of shock effect as its principal mission. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the successive improvements in firearms technology threatened cavalry’s continued relevance on the battlefield. This professional debate climaxed in the period prior to World War I, as the most powerful nations discussed the experiences of the Boer War and Russo-Japanese War. World War I witnessed limited use of cavalry in the major theater, but large-scale use of horse cavalry in secondary theaters provided evidence for the supporters of animal-powered cavalry. World War II was the final large-scale use of horse cavalry, but this was due more to necessity than to continued relevance on the battlefield. As a field, the study of cavalry has been looked at by two camps of writers—one looking at the flashing swords and tales of glory, and the other looking at the arm as an adjunct to the major armies. Few scholarly works discuss cavalry across the breath of the period or how cavalry dealt with the issues of modernization or societal change. Recently, the historical community has reawakened to the debates concerning the proper role and missions of cavalry. Beginning in the early 1990s, the examination of the phenomenon of military revolutions and reemergence of disciplined infantry as the dominant arm on the battlefield has led to a number of works looking into the changes this caused in the cavalry, not only in its role on the battlefield but also as the purview of society’s elites.

General Overviews

The history of the cavalry arm has rarely been comprehensively studied as a subject in the modern period. The changing importance of the cavalry, battlefield roles, and prominence is normally examined as an adjunct to histories of the period, or intones with nationalistic and narrower focus on their battlefield exploits. Many works offer general introductions but do not address the larger issues of changing technologies and societal norms. DiMarco 2008 is the best scholarly work in a broad context, with valuable analysis of cavalry’s changing roles. Grbašić and Vukšić 1989 and Ellis 1978 are similar, well-illustrated introductions to the topic, but not as comprehensive or exhaustively researched. Lawford 1976 focuses on the British cavalry in the modern era, but its discussion of the various types of cavalry helps frame discussions on their roles and missions. What Jarymowycz 2008 lacks in depth is made up for by breath, and it describes the changes to cavalry over a 2,500 year period. Roemer 1863 is a 19th-century work that covers cavalry through the modern era with discussions on the roles of heavy and light cavalry. Clutton-Brock 1992 is valuable for the interaction between horsepower and society.

  • Clutton-Brock, Juliet. Horse Power: A History of the Horse and Donkey in Human Societies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

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    A social and natural history of the equine family, with sections dealing with the use of horses as cavalry mounts, this work gives a comprehensive look at the subject of horses with only an oblique discussion of their military employment.

  • DiMarco, Louis A. War Horse: A History of the Military Horse and Rider. Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2008.

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    A scholarly work on the relationship between humans and horses in battle since antiquity; this is the best overall source on the topic, with in-depth research and analysis.

  • Ellis, John. Cavalry: The History of Mounted Warfare. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1978.

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    A colorful and illustrated work, useful for the numerous illustrations of cavalry forces and formations.

  • Grbašić, Z., and V. Vukšić. The History of Cavalry. New York: Facts on File, 1989.

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    Traces the development and employment of the cavalry with a detailed look at organization, equipping, and doctrine. Illustrated, showing the uniforms of various periods.

  • Jarymowycz, Roman Johann. Cavalry from Hoof to Track. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008.

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    An overly ambitious attempt to distill the entire period from ancient to 21st-century cavalry, leading to few details in many critical periods of cavalry development. This work is useful as a succinct starting point for someone new to the topic.

  • Lawford, James, ed. The Cavalry. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1976.

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    Concise overview of cavalry in the modern era, with a particular focus on the British mounted arm. The discussion of types of cavalry is of particular use.

  • Roemer, Jean. Cavalry: Its History, Management, and Uses in War. New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1863.

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    While dated, Roemer’s book is a detailed and useful look at cavalry operations, tactics, and the balance between light and heavy cavalry, with a comprehensive look at European cavalry of the 19th century. Chapters deal with ancient cavalry as well, but the mid-19th-century view of the effects of muskets and later rifled firearms on cavalry operations marks a particular appeal of this volume.

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