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Remembered Today:

Crecy - Longbow v Cavalry


PhilB

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At Crecy, 1346, the French knights, mounted and armoured, were cut to pieces by English longbowmen. And yet, in WW1 on the Western Front, thousands of unarmoured cavalry were maintained for the exploitation of breakthrough against machine gun defence. Are we to assume that staff college military history didn`t go back that far? Or was the lesson of Crecy seen as not applicable? Phil B

Quote:-

Broadhead Arrows

The knights horses became very vulnerable to a special type of arrow called the broadhead. This arrow had a large barb on it which would be almost, if not impossible to remove from a horses flesh.

The battle at Crecy lasted from 4pm to midnight on Saturday 26th August 1346. French and Genoese casualties are estimated at 5,000-10,000 and the English several hundred.

In five minutes at Crecy the English archers loosed more than 30,000 arrows and 1500 French knights and their squires were cut down by peasant archers paid six pence a day, the mounted knight was out of business. An English army on foot had destroyed the French knights.

Incidentally, it was during the capture of Caen, in Normandy,on the march to Crecy, that the French exposed their "rear ends" to the English archers, the French got the point in the end!

The Effects of Crecy

In the fifty years after Crecy, knights dismounted to fight, they abandoned their horses and engaged in slogging matches on foot. For 200 years the longbow and infantry were placed to the fore in any battle replacing the position of the cavalry.

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The cavalry were not to try and exploit a breakthrough against MG defence. The idea was to destroy the MG defences and then enable the cavalry to breakthrough and exploit the open spaces beyond. Megiddo illustrated how such a strategy could work. The Turkish defences on the coast were opened up to enable the light horsemen and cavalry to penetrate deep into the rear of the Turkish forces.

There was a significant body of evidence and critical thinking about the role of cavalry that predated the war. Much of it centred on lessons from the American Civil War, but also the Franco-Prussian, Russo-Japanese, and Boer Wars. None of these wars predicted static trench warfare across the entire battlefront. Nevertheless, in all the detailed plans that I have studied for the major battles on the Western Front, the cavalry were never seen as the force that made the breakthrough. They were there for the breakout.

Robert

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You might find this reference useful. Those with ATHENS access should be able to locate a copy.

Gough, H. De la P., Lieut-Colonel, psc, 16th (The Queen's) Lancers,

CAVALRY, The Strategical Employment of , 49 Part 2 (1905:July/Dec.) p.1,117, Journal of the Royal United Services Institute.

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In other words, the cavalry were basically to be used as mounted infantry? This would tend to make the sabre something of an anachronism in WW1 (even in the Middle East?) and reduce the cavalry trooper (horse) to transport animal rather than shock troop mount. However, they were ordered to advance against MGs on the Somme and in 1917? Phil B

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As far as I know a unit of Indian calvary did rather well during an attack on the 14th July 1916 on the Somme in the area of High Wood. Indeed some historians believe that they were in fact too cautious and could have taken more ground then they in fact did. The calvary were not entirely useless on the First World War battlefield, but they were getting to be that way.

JGM

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Phil, I think a more accurate way to describe the cavalry is that they could fight dismounted, as well as perform the other tasks of cavalry. Their ability to act as advanced reconnaissance and screening units came into play during the mobile periods of warfare, such as the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line and the last 100 Days. On the Western Front, the potential to breakout was best exploited during the Battle of Amiens. It was nothing like as spectacular as Megiddo though. The more mobile firepower of cavalry was very important during Operation Michael.

Robert

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I remember reading that German cavalry charged against Belgian machineguns in early August 1914. I'll try to look up more.

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They did, Landsturm. On the 12th August. You are referring to the Battle of Haelen, also known (incorrectly) as the Battle of the Silver Helmets. German cavalry came up against their Belgian counterparts in and around the villages of Haelen and Velpe. Reconnaissance had not determined the full strength of the Belgians, who were hidden behind wired hegdes. Although some Belgian MGs were involved, these were few and far between. Much of the damage was done by the cavalry armed with carbines and by the 75mm field guns on the high ground behind Haelen. There is a military cemetery and a memorial commemorating the battle. It took me a while to find the village because few locals knew of its whereabouts, let alone the battle.

Robert

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Hello,

Interesting to see that M13pqb (wonder why that was chosen?) and Robert Dunlop were in discussion in 2003; well before I joined. I am at present appreciating their, and others, lines on attrition. May I add my compliments to those already expressed.

Going back to the long bow (I used to shoot in a long bow), there is perhaps another parallel with the Western Front. In the days of the long bow men were required to practice every week and hence developed, over months and years, the skill and strength to shoot a bow accurately

and quickly. In effect they became a trained reserve which could be mobilised and become effective in a short time. The parallel I have in mind is the continental pre WW1 system of calling up men every year for basic training so that a large force could be mobilised when needed.

Old Tom

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M13PGB is my car number, Tom. I`d like to change that to Phil B. I did wonder, idly, if bowmen would have any place in trench warfare. Sounds daft, but..... Phil B

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Bowmen - probably not and not since before the English Civil War.

Regarding armour, mail, caltrops, swords, cannon (artillery), lance and cavalry: all used and had utility.

Some things change (equipment) but some things stay the same (human body) - if it worked you picked it up, put it into manufacture and used it!

The real trick was the manufacturing.

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Historians are alway quick to find both the broad premise (armoured cavalry died at Crecy and then the exceptions - where else would we get our exam questions?

Just like Tanks and the MG ... all weapons systems rise and then fall as other technology and tactics develop, etc.

My thinking is that by WWI the uses of Cavalry did not include shock attack against organized defenses. But Horse Cavalry had uses much later and some say would still work today ... there is a monument to the last US Horse Cavalry unit on active service in Mineral Wells, Texas (home of the Spiritual Home of the Huey Helicopter) where Lord Mountbatten presented a plaque of thanks for these Texans who fought in ICB theater.

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Phil, Grumpy managed to get his user name changed so it must be possible.

A British general seriously suggested bringing back the longbow during the early stages of the Napoleonic War as the solution to defeating French attacks in column. His argument was that it had a longer range & a greater rate of fire than a contemporary musket. He was correct on both these points but the flaw in his argument was the years of training & skill required by a bowman compared with a musketman. By the 20th century I don't think that even the range & rate of fire arguments would hold. I suppose that it might be possible to fire a bow from a trench without any risk to the firer but I'd guess that hitting anything with what would be indirect fire would be very difficult.

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The British had a different view about cavalry than the other combatants, probably as a result of the Boer War, British Cavalry was basically there to either exploit a breakthrough ( such as so nearly at Cambrai ) or as a mobile reserve such as during the 1918 German offensives. As someone said earlier, they were very much seen though, as mounted infantry, hence the fact that British cavalry was issued with the same rifle as the infantry, as opposed to the inferior carbines of the French or German cavalry.

I certainly don't think that anybody acutually entertained the notion of charging at fixed, front line trenches, with lances and sabres. Actually I think that Sabres had been withdrawn fron Cavalry units before War broke out.

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You are right that the British were the only cavalry on the Western Front to be armed with rifles. I would caution against thinking that the carbines used by French, German and Belgian cavalry were inferior. This is often stated in the literature, often with a sense of denigration. The authors had clearly never faced carbine fire. The Spencer repeating carbine made a significant difference, by all accounts, to the effectiveness of the Unionist cavalry in the American Civil War. I have studied a large number of cavalry vs cavalry, and cavalry versus infantry engagements on the Western Front up to the end of 1914. Beyond that time, other factors begin to affect the analyses, such as the later introduction of the Hotchkiss automatic rifle, etc. It is clear that all cavalry had significant stopping power. The Battle of Haelen was the first major example, where the German cavalry came unstuck at the hands of the Belgian cavalry armed with carbines. I could recount many many other examples. I am not convinced that the non-British cavalry were at a significant disadvantage with respect to the carbine. This is not to say that there were not other problems.

In all other respects, the theories on the use of cavalry were virtually identical across all the nations mentioned above. In fact, some of the thinking of the British cavalry was determined by their German counterparts, notably through the works of von Bernhardi and others. It is very clear that the cavalry thought carefully about the lessons of the American Civil War, Franco-Prussian War, Sino-Japanese War and the Boer War. I have read many accounts from German, French and Belgian sources from before the war.

As with the other countries, British cavalry thinking was much broader than exploiting breakouts or acting as a mobile reserve. I will try and find the other posts on this. Before the war, the notion of charging fixed lines was considered feasible, in certain well-defined situations. When these conditions were met, such charges were successful. When they were not.....

Robert

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Sorry Robert, you are of course correct in what you say. I'm actually at work and didn't really express what I wanted to say very clearly in my haste !

I'm not saying that British rifles were hugely superior to the carbines of other nations, I would imagine at genuine combat ranges that the effect would be very similar. I was just trying to suggest that the British, in equiping the troopers with infantry weapons, were already thinking of a different role for Cavalry, with much more emphasis on use as mobile infantry, than on the sabre equiped, breast plated cavalry of the French for instance.

Just as a secondary issue, is the Spencer comparison necessarily a good one, surely the point here was that the Spencer was facing infantry with single shot rifles ?

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A British general seriously suggested bringing back the longbow during the early stages of the Napoleonic War as the solution to defeating French attacks in column.

As did Charles I but did not take off for the same reasons you cited.

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I suppose that it might be possible to fire a bow from a trench without any risk to the firer but I'd guess that hitting anything with what would be indirect fire would be very difficult.

I was actually thinking of use at night from nomansland. It has one virtue - quietness! Phil B

We have recently had photos on forum of cavalry carrying rifles and swords together. Would lancers have abandoned the lance by mid-war and also carry sword and rifle? Phil B

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I was actually thinking of use at night from nomansland. It has one virtue - quietness! Phil B

True, but not good trench materiel! Would rot! Still, if the Manchesters were engaged in tests with large pavise type shields that could lock to form a tortoise in 1915, why not give them a bow!! (See Bashford Deans book)

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True, but not good trench materiel! Would rot!

Which would you rather keep clean in a trench, a bow or a SMLE? I believe the bowstring was removed and kept in a pocket, say, to keep it dry. And the arrows are re-usable! Phil B

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Robert Dunlop

I agree that there is a tendency to dismiss cavalry carbines especially when compared with infantry rifles. It must be borne in mind that they were designed mainly for skirmishing and not to provide a main battle line.

My undertanding is that German Dragoons were issued with infantry rifles.

****************

The Belgian cavalry at Haelen were supported by light infantry at the beginning of the action (the carabinier-cyclistes) and later by regular line infantry. I am not near my books now but I could supply details. I had no problem finding the battlefield and there is a ceremony in the village of Haelen every year near the anniversary. There are also guided tours from the museum but I think these are only given in Dutch (Flemish).

*************

The debate over the use of British cavalry especially after their experiences in the Boer War, is set out in Richard Holmes biography of Sir John French

***************

Regards

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I'm not saying that British rifles were hugely superior to the carbines of other nations, I would imagine at genuine combat ranges that the effect would be very similar. I was just trying to suggest that the British, in equiping the troopers with infantry weapons, were already thinking of a different role for Cavalry, with much more emphasis on use as mobile infantry, than on the sabre equiped, breast plated cavalry of the French for instance.

You have made a very important point. It is the effective combat ranges that are key to the success of a particular engagement, by-and-large. I am less certain about your second point - I just don't know. I have yet to study the French cavalry as fully as I have the British and German. Even so, there is evidence that we should not allow the breast plates and sabres to detract from the fundamental changes in tactics that their wearers had undergone prior to WW1. The inclusion of cyclists, MGs and field guns were all signs of the changed role of French cavalry as well. French cavalry were using radios for example - the British did not. This helped save Smith-Dorrien's left flank at Le Cateau. It was possible for the French to radio Sordet and ensure his cavalry corps arrived in time.

Just as a secondary issue, is the Spencer comparison necessarily a good one, surely the point here was that the Spencer was facing infantry with single shot rifles ?

The Spencer enabled the smaller bodies of cavalry to have significant stopping power against advancing infantry intent on capturing the position occupied by the cavalry. I am specifically excluding the prolonged infantry/cavalry firefight - sorry I wasn't clear on that.

Robert

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Dikke, very good points. The German Jaeger were also involved. They engaged the cyclists in and around Haelen itself. Further south, the Belgian infantry arrived later in the battle. There was a sector where cavalry fought cavalry, most around Velpe and towards Haelen. This is the sector I have focused on. The Belgian accounts give detailed information about the dispositions MGs, lancers, etc. The German accounts give details of the effects of various weapons systems. Any additional information would be greatly appreciated, especially anecdotal accounts of Belgian cavalry and infantry.

Robert

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Which would you rather keep clean in a trench, a bow or a SMLE? I believe the bowstring was removed and kept in a pocket, say, to keep it dry. And the arrows are re-usable! Phil B

'Sorry Heinrich, can we have our arrows back'? ;)

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