The Imperial German Army:
Dr. Gavin Hughes
'The Germans tried to ride through the enemy by sheer dash and daring '
- Sir J.A. Hammerton & H. W. Wilson, the Battle of Haelen, August 12-13, 1914 ' Great War' Vol.1 (1914) p.213.
GERMAN CAVALRY UNITS 1914 ~ 1918
In the early period of the Western Front, the role of German cavalry was, arguably, at its highest profile. In the swift war of movement dictated by the Schlieffen Plan, the German cavalry became the literal spearhead of the thrust into Belgium. Forward squadrons of cavalry scouts and reconnaissance patrols were frequent, and unwelcome, visitors in the countryside around recently captured villages and towns. Yet, in the dying summer days of 1914, the cavalry regiments symbolised all that Imperial Germany held dear. They were the men who rode obediently and unflinchingly against machine-gun posts and artillery positions, armed with only lances, swords and unmistakable courage. Of them all, the most recognisable were the mounted lancers - the Uhlans. Their ubiquitous presence on early war battlefields typified the role of German horsemen and their name became synonymous with the German cavalry itself. Their smart, plastron-fronted uniforms, square-topped 'czapcas' and cruciform steel-tipped lances were a much-feared symbol of the Kaiser's military capability. Hopefully, the following suggestions on the German cavalry's organisation, uniforms and fighting character will be helpful in recreating their zeal and spirit on your tabletop.
In 1914, there were over 58,000 cavalry troopers, in 110 regiments, at the Kaiser's disposal. With the mobilisation of the Reserve cavalry, many further regiments were fielded from the Ersatz and Landwehr squadrons. In total, 550 German squadrons fought in the Great War, giving the Imperial German cavalry one of the most varied selections in mounted troops for any of the European powers. Each cavalry regiment (approx. 724 strong) was divided into four 'service' squadrons, a Machine-gun Squadron and one Depot Squadron, which acted as the Regiment's reserve. Those four active service squadrons were made up of four officers and one hundred and sixty-three other ranks.
Each troop type echoed their original role but, by 1914, these had blurred considerably with only their titles keeping their traditional operational designation alive. Although the ten 'Kurassier' regiments (and the two Saxon Heavy Cavalry regiments) no longer wore the heavy metal cuirass, they were still seen as the archetypal heavy cavalry. There were thirteen Jager zu Pferd (Mounted Rifles) regiments, backed up by the massed squadrons of the twenty-eight Dragoon regiments. There were some twenty-one Hussar regiments (one of which was the Life Guard) and twenty-four Uhlan regiments. The above list does not include the two Bavarian (1st & 2nd) Uhlans and the other cavalry regiments (Cheveauxlegers and Heavy) under the Bavarian Army's structure.
In addition to their territorial designation, it was also German practice to name cavalry regiments after their historical role, noted former commanders or field-marshals. For example, the 3rd (Neumark) Dragoons were traditionally known as the 'Horse Grenadiers', whilst the 3rd (East Prussian) Kurassiers took the name 'Graf Wrangel' in 1877. The 3rd East Prussians were also known as the famous 'Porcelain Regiment', when in 1808, the Elector of Saxony (Augustus II) offered six-hundred dragoons to Frederick William I, in exchange for a cabinet of china crockery and amber ornaments. The 1st and 2nd Hussar regiments were the elite 'Liebhussar' , wearing the infamous skull and crossbones helmet plates, as did the 17th Hussars - the direct descendants of the equally legendary 'Black Brunswickers'; all regiments of Waterloo fame.
Upon the outbreak of war, these regiments were formed into eleven divisions, which included the Guard cavalry and Bavarian cavalry divisions. The remaining divisions (numbered one to nine) were regular 'line cavalry'. All divisions' wartime strength stood at roughly 5,278 officers and other ranks, 5,590 horses and 216 wagons. Many other troops were attached to these cavalry divisions, including three Horse Artillery batteries, cyclist companies, cavalry pioneers, a Signal Detachment and a Jager battalion. Occasionally, two or three divisions would be grouped together to make a cavalry corps. There were three brigades (with two regiments per brigade) in each division, although some cavalry brigades worked as independent formations. Additionally, those cavalry squadrons which were surplus to divisional requirements were attached as support to the infantry divisions. In 1914, these were termed Divisional Cavalry and comprised of up to three attached squadrons, although by the late war period, this number had dropped to only one. Whilst those cavalry attached to the infantry continued their duties on horseback for escort duties, over 80% of the remainder were transferred to an infantry role. These 'Kavallerie Schutzen' were a huge resource and they were formed into regiments of one machine-gun and twelve rifle squadrons.
Some of the most accessible works currently available on German cavalry uniforms are given at the end of this article, but some brief observations here may also be helpful. In the early months of the war, the Uhlans were a particularly impressive and soldierly sight. Their distinctive square-topped helmet (the czapca) was worn with a grey cloth cover and, generally, it had the regimental number stencilled in red on the front. The lancer tunic (the ulanka) had a fully- piped plastron, collar, cuffs, rear pleats and shoulder straps in regimental colour. For example, the 9th Uhlans (2nd Pommeranians) and 5th (Westphalian) had white piping, the 15th (Schleswig-Holstein) had blue. At the start of the war, all cavalry units had the red regimental numeral on the shoulder straps of their 1910 tunics, although this changed in 1915 when the simpler 'bluse' was introduced. On this new tunic, for example, the 'pear-shaped' shoulder-straps of the Uhlan regiments were replaced by standard pattern straps in red, with canary-yellow regimental number.
Other cavalry units were similarly distinctive. The Hussars still managed to look every inch of the heroic light cavalryman, in their covered busbies (officers wore uncovered grey opossum fur busbies or field caps) and their field-grey braided tunics (the atilla). An exception to this was the 17th (Brunswick) Hussars, whose officers wore bearskin busbies, either with or without its grey cloth cover. The Dragoons and Kurassiers wore an infantry-like tunic with standing collar and with coloured piping on cuffs, collar and front, dependent on regiment. The 26th (2nd Wurttemberg) Dragoons, for example, had yellow piping, whilst the 4th (Westphalian) Kurassiers had tunics piped in red. The Kavallerie Schutzen squadrons wore standard infantry uniform with green shoulder-straps and red regimental number.
Cavalry equipment was also generally very similar to that of their infantry colleagues, being of brown-leather in the same style. The major difference was the retention of cavalry boots (long knee-boots for Kurassiers), the absence of knapsacks and the adoption of the smaller 1911 ammunition pouches. These held half the number of clips (six) to the infantry alternative. Accompanying them, a short pattern of the infantry rifle, the 'Gew 98' , was frequently employed by cavalry troops, as their specific carbine (the 98 Karabine - '98 Kar') had to be replaced by the artillery version; known as the Karabine 98 or 'Kar 98'! The cavalry were also initially issued with swords (until they were withdrawn in 1915), with heavy cavalry issued with the long, straight-bladed 'pallasch' whilst light cavalry used a similar, but shorter, weapon.
Most importantly, and not a little confusingly, all German cavalry regiments were armed with the lance. This was regardless of the unit's initial troop type and gave rise to much contemporary Allied assumption that any mounted German with a lance was an Uhlan. Despite this, the actual weapon was the same 1890 pattern for all; being ten feet six inches long, made of tubular steel and with a lance pennon, either carried rolled or open. Until their use fell into decline (in late 1914), these pennants also distinguished the identity of particular states. These were a very colourful addition to any cavalry force and, whilst the most traditional colours were for Prussia (white over black) and Hesse and Mecklenburg (both white over red), some interesting variations were employed. These included the striking pennons of Baden (yellow over red) or Saxony (white over light green) and the sombrely distinctive state colours of Wurtemberg (black over red) and Oldenburg (red over blue). Also reflecting its national state colours, Bavarian cavalry carried lance pennants of white over light blue.
To many contemporary observers, it seemed as if the Kaiser's cavalry was everywhere during the late summer and autumn of 1914. Reflecting this, there were numerous small engagements, sweeping mounted actions and massed cavalry charges in these early months. Whilst the following examples are all drawn from this early period, they ably illustrate the initial fluidity and 'dash' rarely connected with the Western Front. At Tirlemont, on August 11th, a large cavalry action occurred when 2,000 German cavalry engaged and routed a regiment of Belgian Lancers. At Aineffe, a regiment of German Dragoons repeatedly charged a Belgian infantry position. After three hours of heavy fighting, the Belgians still held Aineffe and the German Dragoons had suffered two hundred and fifty five casualties.
The next day, one of the most terrible slaughters of German cavalry occurred at Haelen, a town lying directly on the path between Brussels and Liege. In an attempt to outflank the Belgian army by by-passing Tirlemont, a German force, mainly consisting of cavalry, horse artillery and infantry support, wheeled against the town. Under heavy Belgian artillery fire, German Uhlans, Dragoons, Hussars and Kurassiers tried to force their way down the Steevorn-Haelen road but met with only shrapnel and shell fire. Undaunted, they tried again, this time actually reaching the Belgian barricades, only to be beaten back at the last breath by sustained infantry rifle fire. Having regrouped, the massed German cavalry then charged the Belgian defences even more forcibly. This prompted an equally brutal counter-charge by the Belgian cavalry (notably the Lancers and Chasseurs a Cheval) which resulted in a savage hand-to-hand combat. Again, the Germans were forced to retire. However, they resolved to make a final, all or nothing charge against what they, presumably, believed was the weakest point in the Belgian defences. It turned out to be the costliest decision yet in the battle for Haelen, as the point they chose was bristling with Belgian machine-gunners. The inevitable conclusion was a pitiful carnage of horses and men and was as courageous as it was disastrous. Their casualty figures at Haelen amounted to almost a thousand. One German cavalry officer, in a letter to his wife, recalled that '...our retreat was ...paralysed by the number of riderless horses roaming about, and by the stragglers of the 2nd Kurassiers and 9th Uhlans who had been cut up by machine-guns.' [ Attr.letter, p.146, N. Flower, History of the Great War, 1917]
Another similar incident, during the battle for Nancy on September 8th, demonstrated the tremendous discipline and bravery of the German cavalry in attack. From a vantage point opposite the Amance plateau, the Kaiser himself had given the order for a 'grand assault' on the entrenched French 'Iron' Division. Subsequently, massed Bavarian battalions, with their bands playing at their head, had advanced surely upon the plateau but, despite bitter fighting, had failed to secure the position. Eventually, the Kaiser ordered a full cavalry assault to be made by his own beloved White Kurassiers of the Prussian Guard; and they carried out their highly-trained drill to the absolute letter. Again, riding stirrup to stirrup (and according to one source, wearing full cuirass), the White Kurassiers streamed towards the Amance plateau. Against them, the French artillery gunners had perfect targets. Accordingly, they opened fire and the squadrons in their sights were annihilated. In some places, the dead and dying horses and men lay almost six feet high; as the following waves were mown down trying to jump the piles of casualties. Shaken, the Kaiser apparently left the battlefield soon after, ordering the Crown Prince of Bavaria to continue the battle and capture Nancy. The Kaiser, like his White Kurassiers, had held to the accepted cavalry doctrine, that courage and horsepower could overwhelm any opposition: '..in Cavalry action a vigorous attack, ridden stirrup to stirrup, is the sure road to victory.' (Cavalry Drill, paragraph 417) These words from the official German drill-book on cavalry tactics must have rung especially hollow after engagements like Nancy, Aineffe or Haelen.
Whilst a role remained for the German cavalry in the remaining years of the war, they never quite seemed to recapture the essential nature of their traditional fighting character. There were notable exceptions, of course, such as the campaigns in the Balkans, the withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line in 1917 and the 'Kaiserslacht' Offensive of March 1918. Yet, it is 1914 that, perhaps, best illustrates the identity and character of Imperial Germany's mounted wing. One of the last 'traditional' mounted engagements of the period was on the 8th October, the day after the Germans had entered Ypres. A seven-man Uhlan patrol calmly rode into a neighbouring sleepy village, only to be ambushed and massacred by a waiting Belgian squad. Prophetically, that village's name was Passchendaele.
Suggested further reading:
There is a mass of excellent published material on the German Army during the Great War. Whilst the following only touch the surface, they are some of the most accessible and useful works for any wargamer looking to research the German cavalry and the their role in the early months of the war.
NB During the first weeks of the war, one correspondent claimed that the White Kurassiers of the Prussian Guard still fought in cuirasses, at Nancy, in September 1914.
- Craig, G. - Politics of the Prussian Army, 1640-1945 (Oxford U.P., 1975)
- Fostern, D.S.V. & Marrion, R.J. - German Army, 1914-1918 (Osprey, No.80, 1978)
- Hicks, J.E. - German Weapons, Uniforms, Insignia 1841-1918 (La Canada, 1958)
- Mollo, A. - Army Uniforms of World War One (Blandford, 1977)
- Nash, D.B. - German Infantry, 1914-1918 (Almark, 1970)
- Thomas, N. & Babac, D. - Armies in the Balkans 1914-18 (Osprey, No.356, 2001)
- Vuksic, V. &. Grbasic, Z. - Cavalry - The History of a fighting elite (Cassell, 1993)