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Author Topic: Light cavalry, heavy cavalry musings  (Read 1626 times)

Offline olicana

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Light cavalry, heavy cavalry musings
« on: August 07, 2022, 11:40:07 AM »
My understanding of the difference between light and heavy cavalry was the size of man and horse. Light cavalry employed men of small stature on smallish horses whilst heavy cavalry employed big men on big horses. I have a list of the height requirements of Prussian 7YW hussars, dragoons, cuirassier and the respective horse height (in hands) somewhere that illustrates this quite definitively.

It is my understanding that light cavalry was more capable than heavy in the role of scouting because the power to weight ratio of horse and man meant that the light cavalry had more stamina - it could simply go longer and cover more ground.

It's also my understanding that heavy cavalry was better in a fight than light cavalry simply because it was big bruisers on big horses fighting little chaps on smaller horses. There were exceptions of course - Napoleonic British light dragoons were small men on big horses which almost made them heavy cavalry but, by and large....

However, I haven't actually read anywhere (memory) that light cavalry was significantly faster than heavy cavalry over battlefield distances - I'm not talking about marches or long distances where stamina comes into it. Am I missing something, or is it just one of those wargame things - passed down over the generations from one rule set to the next - that light cavalry is faster on the table-top. Certainly in horse racing, there is a relationship between the weight of the jockey and his horse, but they are generally all little men on big horses. I just wonder if rider and horse size are self-handicapping - big man big horse, little man little horse - if you get my drift. I suspect, without evidence, that speed wise it was similar paced because horses generally manoeuvre at the trot (walking is not the natural gate for horses but, over long distances, it is less tiring for the rider) and keeping formation was more important than raw speed - they were not running in a race.

Thoughts, or information I don't have would be gratefully received.
« Last Edit: August 07, 2022, 11:53:30 AM by olicana »

Offline OB

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Re: Light cavalry, heavy cavalry musings
« Reply #1 on: August 07, 2022, 02:01:26 PM »
It's an interesting question.  Maybe, once actually in battle both light and heavy moved very fast for the obvious reasons.

I can think of out of period examples of light cavalry outpacing the heavies.  In period not so much.

Offline FreakyFenton

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Re: Light cavalry, heavy cavalry musings
« Reply #2 on: August 07, 2022, 02:08:10 PM »
Equipment might also play a role, if you were to look at French Cuirassiers and then British Heavy Dragoons for instance and the like. With some units later losing the cuirass in favour of either being lighter and the like, and easier to stand back up once "de-horsed".

Definitely interesting though, curious what the "hivemind" or "swarm intelligence" here might find.
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Offline Baron von Wreckedoften

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Re: Light cavalry, heavy cavalry musings
« Reply #3 on: August 07, 2022, 02:50:20 PM »
When light cavalry were scouting (ie acting in small groups and/or an irregular fashion) or doing other "light cavalry stuff", I suspect that the differences between them and heavy cavalry were pretty obvious in terms of speed, stamina etc.  As you rightly say, though, in battle, unless speed/time was of the essence, formed bodies of horse moved at a similar pace for any given gait, regardless of size or type, because the objective was usually to arrive together for maximum impact.

However, a horse is a horse is a horse.....I would say that the main difference between the two types lay in how the man was trained.  The better type of light cavalryman was looking for information, or for evidence of recent enemy activity/presence, and would be taught to do things like enter a town/village hall and find maps of the area.  To that extent, the type of horse he is riding is irrelevant (to a point) as it is just a conveyance to get him from A to B.  A cuirassier could do exactly the same job, but would be slower because of all his kit (and a slightly more ponderous mount) and might not be smart enough to pick up on clues.
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Offline olicana

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Re: Light cavalry, heavy cavalry musings
« Reply #4 on: August 08, 2022, 11:24:30 AM »
Quote
Equipment might also play a role, if you were to look at French Cuirassiers and then British Heavy Dragoons for instance and the like. With some units later losing the cuirass in favour of either being lighter and the like, and easier to stand back up once "de-horsed".

Cuirassiers are the only odd ones out, most other cavalry carried similar amounts of equipment and all of the equipment was much of a muchness for weight (a saddle is a saddle, a carbine a carbine, etc.) - so on that account you might argue that it was the smaller horses that carried the bigger handicap.

I do wonder if the speed differential is simply a wargame thing to make the 'playing pieces' different but balanced - because light cavalry are not as good as heavy in melee, rule designers feel the need to give the light cavalry the game bonus of speed to compensate. Otherwise, the gamesters amongst us (they are out there; seen 'em  ;)) would only ever field heavy cavalry.

Offline ChrisBBB

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Re: Light cavalry, heavy cavalry musings
« Reply #5 on: August 08, 2022, 12:42:09 PM »
Here's an unhelpful quote from a British manual, 'Instructions and Regulations for the Formations and Movements of the Cavalry' (1799):
https://www.google.co.uk/books/edition/Instructions_and_Regulations_for_the_For/PPIK4PWW2qMC?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=regulations+for+cavalry&printsec=frontcover

"The paces of cavalry cannot be regulated by length of step and numbers, in a minute, as those of the infantry are, nor is it so material. The Walk! Trot! and Gallop! are the three natural paces, and of each of these there are different degrees of quickness."

Section X of a later work (1865) says:
https://www.google.co.uk/books/edition/Regulations_for_the_instruction_formatio/FikAAAAAQAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=regulations+for+cavalry&printsec=frontcover

"[Cavalry paces] may be correctly determined by establishing the following fixed rates for each pace:
The rate of Walk not to exceed four miles an hour.
The rate of Trot to be eight and a half miles an hour, as the general pace of maoeuvre.
The rate of Gallop to be eleven miles an hour."

It makes no distinction between light and heavy cavalry in this respect.

I did find something pertinent in the history of the Hungarian War of Independence of 1848-1849. During the initial Winter Campaign, the Austrian army was painfully short of light cavalry, so had to resort to using the heavies (dragoons and cuirassiers) for reconnaissance etc. This quickly wore out the heavy horses carrying big men. That suggests that, while the heavies may have been able to travel at the same standard pace as the lights for the brief periods demanded by battlefield manoeuvre, they could not sustain anything more than a walk for as long as the lights could.

Anyway, good question and I hope someone comes up with a better answer than mine.



Offline FreakyFenton

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Re: Light cavalry, heavy cavalry musings
« Reply #6 on: August 08, 2022, 01:38:49 PM »
Oh neat sources.

That point would be an argument for our assumption that the "pace of given unit" has been made by wargamers. From a common sense point it would make sense in order to further differentiate the two, which would go hand in hand with the comment by olicana that they usually had the same equipment, safe for special cases such as Cuirassiers of the austrian or french variety.

Offline ithoriel

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Re: Light cavalry, heavy cavalry musings
« Reply #7 on: August 08, 2022, 01:49:46 PM »
This testimony is hearsay and should be treated accordingly  :)
Long, long ago, in a lifetime far, far in the past I went out with a lady who not only had a pony but was much interested in all things "horsey" and was happy to be lured into conversations with her, then, idiot boyfriend about various aspects of horsemanship, particularly in connection with cavalry in the ancient world.
Her take, which chimes with some of the posts here, was that over short distances speeds would be similar but that ponies and small horses often have more stamina than larger ones so riders might be tempted to push light horse more than the heavies, giving them a speed advantage.
Overall her view was that the faster movement of light cavalry in all periods was probably "more mission than mount."
There are 100 types of people in the world. Those who understand binary and those who can work from incomplete data.

Offline Cubs

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Re: Light cavalry, heavy cavalry musings
« Reply #8 on: August 08, 2022, 04:12:57 PM »
My understanding was that the physical size of the man and mount was matched (as much as possible within the limits of practicality) to the job they were meant to do. Thus the training and doctrines necessarily dictated the weight of horse and rider, with the weight and rider dictating the training a doctrines! It doesn't mean a light cavalry squadron couldn't charge and a heavy cavalry squadron couldn't forage, but you want your dudes to stick to what they're best at as much as possible, campaign realities allowing. The speed of the unit over the battlefield, for example, is as likely to be dictated by the combat doctrine (timing of charge, formation) as the physical ability of the man and horse.

Even today, light cavalry regiments are likely to be equipped with more light recon and patrol vehicles, with heavy cavalry regiments having more of the big tanks.
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Offline frank xerox

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Re: Light cavalry, heavy cavalry musings
« Reply #9 on: August 08, 2022, 04:27:48 PM »
Bear with me here; different period/theatre/the whole thing BUT bear with me. In the American West Indians often gambled racing their ponies against American horses which were generally much bigger suggesting speeds over shortish distances were comparable. Ponies are noted as being nimbler and more agile as well as having better stamina (though obviously carrying a much lighter weight). Doctrine and how you train your horse must play a big part but Re speed yeah I think you’re onto something

Offline Shahbahraz

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Re: Light cavalry, heavy cavalry musings
« Reply #10 on: August 08, 2022, 05:12:54 PM »
Arguably, light cavalry would have more stamina, and therefore could be trotted or cantered for longer periods, whereas you would move your heavies more deliberately to conserve their stamina for the charge... I'm not saying that this is what happened, but it is at least vaguely plausible.
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Offline FierceKitty

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Re: Light cavalry, heavy cavalry musings
« Reply #11 on: August 09, 2022, 01:38:33 AM »
A reminder that strength and speed reflect different proportions and size of muscle and skeleton. A sprinter and a weight-lifter are very different in their capabilities. Extrapolate that to cover a racehorse, a good carthorse, a hunter, and a show-jumper....

It might be productive to consider the evidence from eras where the light and heavy difference is more marked - ancient cataphracts charging at the trot, the success of north African auxiliary cavalry against Parthian lights, the usually decisive mobility advantage of Turkic or Mongolian horse archers against heavier lancers, and doubtless many more cases.
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Offline olicana

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Re: Light cavalry, heavy cavalry musings
« Reply #12 on: August 09, 2022, 10:20:03 AM »
I was thinking more about horse and musket eras - especially Napoleonic and SYW - than earlier periods.

In earlier periods, light cavalry on the battlefield was less dogged by the need to keep regularised formations - it was often simply a mass and often described as a cloud of light cavalry. It would, by virtue of spending no time to keep formation, be faster. Likewise, in earlier periods, heavy cavalry was a lot more armoured and this would certainly have an effect. Also, in earlier periods, I doubt that size of man and horse would be so regularised - I bet a lot of knights were short arses on big horses, and a lot of tribal horse archers were big burly ruffians on little ponies.

Even during the SYW some light cavalry (e.g. Austrian Hussars, Cossacks) tended to operate as irregular cavalry and would, I'm sure, have moved a little quicker, because little time would be wasted in maintaining much 'formal order'. Later, when even a lot of Cossacks had been 'regularised', I suspect speed and manoeuvrability would have been much of a muchness for all types when in regularised battle formations, and it was to those formations my musings were primarily directed - just to clarify.
« Last Edit: August 09, 2022, 10:21:39 AM by olicana »

Offline Moriarty

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Re: Light cavalry, heavy cavalry musings
« Reply #13 on: August 10, 2022, 05:16:50 AM »
I don’t think it unreasonable for light cavalry to be given a speed advantage on the table, as they have less need to conserve energy than the heavies.

In the Seven Years War, the price of heavy horses skyrocketed, meaning that smaller horses had to be used for cavalry, and leading to the Light Dragoon units (probably from Duffy).  This seems to show that, while you could use smaller horses in the shock units, they were seen as less effective in the role.

Early Dragoons were apparently given cheap nags, as they were not intended to fight mounted (probably from Gush) This seems to show that the quality of the horse mattered little off the battlefield, at least as far as the mounted infantry role was concerned.

The Seven Years War Journal had interesting articles on the ‘reality’ of mounted combat, opining that the cavalry charge petered out into a swirling fencing match, rather than true ‘clash’ of  mounted men. In this case, bigger cavalry would still have the advantage of ‘height’.

Offline olicana

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Re: Light cavalry, heavy cavalry musings
« Reply #14 on: August 10, 2022, 11:30:45 AM »
Much of what I've read leads me to believe that it was a tight formation and 'moral intent' that swung the balance in most cases as, more often than not, one side flinched and broke before actual contact or very soon afterwards.

Lasalle, for one, believed that order was more important than speed and insisted that [his] cavalry was always more successful when it charged at the trot in compact bodies and insisted that is how it should fight - a charge at the gallop often leading to dispersion.

Frederick, as a counter to that argument, considerably lengthened the charge (to nearly a mile from memory), building speed as it went, trot, to canter, to gallop, to giving the horse its head, whilst trying to maintain knee to knee contact until the last yards (100 or so, from memory) when the gallop would be ordered. The horse was only given its head (bridle no longer used to steer and hold the horse back) in the last 25 yards. He thought that allowing a horse to gallop imbued the trooper riding it with 'moral intent' that outweighed a loss of cohesion.

The difference, of course, might be the level of training between the SYW and Napoleonic periods - SYW troopers generally being long serving professional soldiers rather than 'for the duration' conscripts. But, given the reputations of both gentlemen, I'm not in a position to say which one was right!

Sometimes, when two opposing bodies of cavalry lost cohesion and had little 'moral intent' they would ride clean through each other and, with little will to remain engaged and fight, kept going. One can only imagine the General of each side simply putting his hand over his eyes for shame.  :o
« Last Edit: August 10, 2022, 11:34:55 AM by olicana »

 

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