The British Army
Dr. Gavin Hughes

'The rifle, effective as it is, cannot replace the effect produced by the speed of the horse, the magnetism of the charge and the terror of the cold steel.'
- British Army Council, 'Cavalry Tactics' (1907)


In 1914 the British cavalry, arguably contained the finest horse soldiers the world could offer. Along with the massed units from India, Canada, South Africa and Australia, their appearance at ceremonial duties showed them as a colourful, and carefully constructed, symbol of military might. To many, the cavalry were a glittering showpiece of Empire. Yet, behind the spit and polish, these men were also professional fighters who, when war came, were swiftly transformed into modern mounted soldiers. Hopefully, the following suggestions on wargaming British cavalry of the period will provide some intriguing ideas for future scenarios in your Great War games. Given their compact numbers, it may even inspire you to recreate a famous regiment's squadron or two and try them out on the table...

From 1914-1918, the structure of the cavalry ranged from the smallest Troop, an integral part of a squadron, to an entire Division, which was an independent formation. This consisted of four Brigades, two Horse Artillery Brigades (armed with 13 pdrs), a Field Squadron of Royal Engineers, a Signal Squadron and a Cavalry Field Ambulance. Cavalry Brigades included their own Headquarters Staff, three cavalry regiments, twenty-four machine-guns and two or three batteries of Horse Artillery. There were also 'Mounted Brigades' which contained either one cavalry regiment and two mounted infantry battalions or one mounted infantry battalion and two cavalry regiments. Although the structure of each differed depending on which type of 'Mounted Brigade' was fielded, in general, each had their own Headquarters, Horse Artillery Batteries, Ammunition column and Field Ambulances. Yet, like their infantry colleagues, the solid core of the British Cavalry was the regiment. A regiment was formed from three squadrons of one hundred and fifty-five men (including six officers), a Machine-gun Squadron and the Headquarters Staff. This gave a cavalry regiment a theoretical full strength of twenty-six officers and five hundred and fourteen other ranks.

When war began, Britain had thirty-one Regular cavalry regiments, comprising of approximately 16,740 actual 'fighting' troopers (including officers). These included three regiments of Household Cavalry (1st and 2nd Life Guards and Royal Horse Guards) and seven of Royal Dragoon Guards. There were also three dragoon regiments (the 1st Royal, 2nd Royal Scots Greys and 6th Inniskilling), twelve hussar regiments and six regular Lancer regiments ( 5th Royal Irish, 9th Queen's Royal, 12th Prince of Wales' Royal, 16th Queen's, 17th Duke of Cambridge's Own and 21st Empress of India's). The vast majority of these regular cavalry served on the Western Front, although there were some notable exceptions. For example, the 21st Lancers spent the war in India, as did the 1st (Royal) Dragoon Guards from April 1917, whilst the 7th (Queen's Own), 13th and 14th (King's) Hussars found themselves on duties in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). In true keeping to their cavalry spirit, these regiments all remained horsed (although fighting in a dismounted capacity was also common) until the end of the war. Ironically, only the Household regiments were officially dismounted, in 1918, and formed into machine-gun troops.

Additionally, there were fourteen Line and three Household reserve cavalry regiments, which were created specifically for Home Service and to fill gaps among ranks at the Front. There were also fifty-four regiments of mounted Territorials - or Yeomanry - and three regiments on the 'Special Reserve'; King Edward's Horse (King's Overseas Dominions Regiment), South Irish Horse and North Irish Horse. This last regiment was the first 'Yeomanry' unit (with the S.I.H. they were its equivalent on the Irish Establishment) to go on active service in August 1914. These Yeomanry regiments saw varied service, in many arduous fighting theatres. For example, the Yorkshire Hussars (and Dragoons) fought on the Western Front, as did the Lothian and Borders Yeomanry (before being sent to Macedonia), whilst the Staffordshire Yeomanry fought in Egypt and Palestine. The only Yeomanry regiment specifically created for the war was the Welsh Horse and this also served with distinction in the Holy Land.

Whilst British cavalrymen wore the same khaki service tunic as their infantry colleagues, they were distinguished by their 90 round brown leather bandoliers, which were worn from the left shoulder. In the early years of the war, a stiffened flat-topped cap was worn but, on active service, it was sometimes replaced by an infantry soft cap, with the only regimental distinctions being capbadges and shoulder titles. Cavalry were also issued with 1903 pattern brown leather equipment and wore cord breeches, puttees and ankle boots. Officers also wore breeches but with knee-length riding boots which encased the calf and ankle. On active service, a mass of impedimenta collected around both horse and trooper. Equipment carried included a ground sheet, a rolled greatcoat, a bag of oats, a picket post, a canvas water bag and, in addition to all this, around the horse's neck were extra ammunition bandoliers. This belied the true weapon of the British cavalryman - the .303 Short Magazine Lee Enfield rifle. It was carried on the saddle in its specially constructed 'rifle bucket' for easy access. The sabre was positioned on the opposite side to the rifle bucket, on which the metal mess tin was strapped. Interestingly, it is widely judged by armoury scholars that the 1908 pattern cavalry sabre was, perhaps, the best designed and weighted edged weapon the British Army had ever produced. Ironically, the sword was also one of the most under used. One 'Fragment from France' cartoon by Captain Bruce Bairnsfather illustrated the dilemma perfectly; in one picture, a smartly dressed officer dashes heroically forth with his sabre aloft - the caption underneath reading 'That Sword. How he thought he was going to use it'. The following picture showed the same officer, begrimed and now thoroughly miserable, sitting by a little brazier toasting a bit of bread on the sword-point, with the caption: ' - and how he did use it.'

Yet, there was another weapon issued to British cavalry - although its use was limited - the lance. In 1903, the six lancer regiments had been officially stripped of their traditional weapons, with the lance relegated to ceremonial use only. However, in 1909, the lance was readopted for active service, most probably in reaction to the trend across continental Europe (most notably in Germany) and the 'craze' for lancer units. Unlike other countries, the British lance was made of bamboo (with a steel tip and end-fitting) and British lancers were as adept with a sabre or rifle as they were with the lance. In fact, far from the popular image of the British cavalry's impractical fondness for antiquated methods, many cavalrymen were excellent shots; indeed, a good many were of marksman standard. With such high training, most cavalry troops proved invaluable as 'Divisional Cavalry', acting as scouts and protective screens for their allotted infantry division and assisting in the relay of messages. A cavalry troop was often retained by Divisional HQs for escort duties, whilst the rest of its squadrons acted in reconnaissance or defensive roles. Consequently, there were many skirmishes between British cavalry and the enemy, especially during the early weeks of the war.

In the days before the battle of Mons, French Army Command had informed Sir John French that the German forces against the B.E.F. consisted of two Army Corps, with a possible Cavalry Division at its head. These reports were confirmed by aerial reconnaissance and British cavalry scouts, who had penetrated along the Brussels road and reached the town of Soignies. On the 22nd August, at Casteau on the Soignies road, 'C' Squadron of the 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoon Guards encountered a small German Uhlan patrol and attempted to ambush them. Two troops dismounted and concealed themselves as the Uhlan patrol approached them along the road - whilst two other troops, under Captain Hornby, remained mounted, ready to pursue. The Uhlans, however, turned back; forcing one British trooper (Corporal Thomas) to open fire on them. These were the first British shots of the war. Then, in response, Captain Hornby pursued the Uhlans down the road, followed by Major Bridges and the rest of 'C' Squadron. Unfortunately for Captain Hornby, his headlong dash brought him straight into contact with the supporting Uhlan squadrons which were following the patrol. Yet, amazingly, these Uhlans also turned and fled. A mad dash then followed as the 4th RDGs chased the Uhlans for over a mile and a half, during which time their ranks had been bolstered by a number of fleeing troops of German Hussars. Eventually the enemy were caught on the slope of a hill by a chateau and the Dragoon Guards were able to get '...right in amongst them, sabring several.' [Rev. Gibb, p.4, Record of the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards 1925) Consequently, Captain Hornby became the first British officer to 'draw blood' and with this skirmish, as Major Bridges realised, his relatively small squadron had actually engaged the forward regiments of the waiting German Cavalry Division.

Other cavalry actions were soon to follow. On the 24th August, the British 5th Infantry Division, under General Fergusson, was being picked off by murderous shellfire from eleven German guns which overlooked their position. These were entrenched on a hillside, by the edge of a wood, at Andregines on the Cambrai road. The 2nd Cavalry Brigade was ordered to silence them and a disastrous charge, notably by the 9th (Queen's Royal) Lancers, followed. Initially, only 'A' and 'B' Squadrons were ordered to attack, however, 'C' Squadron appeared as they were lining up and the entire fighting force of the regiment, some 400 men, charged towards the guns. However, they only managed to get as far as a thousand yards before they were ripped to pieces. One corporal recalled that as he rode across the fields, at about 200 yards from the guns, he could only see three troopers and an officer alongside him. Then, at 150 yards from the gun position, twenty concealed machine-guns opened fire. The result was utter carnage. As the rest of the Brigade wheeled to the right and obliquely onto their objective, the Lancers ploughed into the guns and the wire defending them. Although the guns were eventually neutralised, at the rallying point (a nearby railway embankment) only 72 Lancers formed up; at roll-call the next day the regimental strength was only 220 men. Whilst the charge of the 2nd Cavalry Division at Andregines saved the 5th Division from extinction, it was an ominous warning on the use of massed cavalry in modern warfare. A

few days later, on the 28th August, the British 5th Cavalry Brigade (under Chetwode) engaged the German eastern column at CÚrizy, outside St. Quentin. A number of charges were made against the Germans by the Scots Greys, 20th Hussars and 12th (Prince of Wales' Own) Lancers, which eventually routed the column and decimated its leading regiment. In particular, the 12th Lancers managed to catch the German infantry unawares, whilst they were traversing a field of stacked oats. The lancers charged them twice, running the startled enemy down and causing over 400 casualties. In Sir John French's despatch on the engagement he stated that this leading German regiment was 'almost broken up' by the charge of the 12th Lancers. On the same day, south of the river Somme, the 3rd Cavalry brigade (under Gough) went into action and engaged, and routed, the German Uhlans of the Guard. In these early days of the war, it was unthinkable that, within a few short months, such traditional cavalry actions would become brutally anachronistic.

However, one example of a late-war cavalry action would be the charge against Guislain Ridge at Cambrai, on the 1st December 1917. At a time when British cavalry were already fighting in a dismounted capacity around Bourlon Wood, two regiments from the Mhow Indian Cavalry Brigade were sent into mounted action against a heavily defended position along the Ridge. They were to be supported by tanks, but these never arrived. Their objective was at the end of a long ravine ('Twenty-Two' or Pigeon Ravine) which was bristling with wire entanglements and machine-gun nests; the outcome, naturally, was predictable. The first regiment to charge the ravine was the 2nd Indian Lancers (Gardner's Horse), closely followed by the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons. Both regiments were raked by machine-gun fire and shrapnel and, although the objective was taken, very heavy casualties were inflicted (the Inniskillings alone lost 169 men and 271 horses). In contrast, when the conditions were right, as in Palestine, such cavalry tactics could prove successful. This was shown by 'Light Horse Harry' Chauvel and, in particular, the charge of the Australian Light Horse at Beersheba. This was supported by brigade artillery and covered some 3,500 yards to the Turkish trenches. The A.L.H., lacking swords, charged carrying bayonets - and got right into the Turkish front-line trenches, dismounting and quickly clearing them. Beersheba, like Megiddo and Damascus, is still considered to be amongst the finest cavalry actions of the war.

Far from there being little scope in the use of cavalry in Great War games, there is an exciting array of possible scenarios. Wargaming options for British cavalry actions, such as those of August 1914, give an excellent opportunity for gaming numerous 'meeting engagements' or mounted skirmishes. On the other hand, you may feel adventurous and wish to recreate one of the rarer massed cavalry charges, such as that at Andregines or Guislain Ridge. Either way, gather your squadrons, issue your orders and 'prepare for mounted action'!

Suggested further reading:

There is a considerable amount of republished regimental histories on the British Army during the Great War, with new research being added almost daily. With regards to British cavalry, there are many very fine works available. The following suggestions are nothing more than an attempt to include some of the most relevant to the gamer whilst highlighting others which may be of interest or use.

  • Andrew, A. W. - Cavalry Tactics of Today (London, 1903)
  • Home, Sir. A. - Diary of a World War One Cavalry Officer (Tunbridge Wells, 1985)
  • Holmes, R. - Riding the Retreat (London, 1995)
  • Fosten D.S.V. & Marrion, R. J. - British Army 1914-18 (Osprey, No.81, 1984)
  • Gibb, Rev. H. - Record of the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards 1914 -1918 (1925, Reprint 2002, Naval & Military Press)
  • Scott, B. - Galloper Jack (Macmillan, 2003)
  • Mollo, A. - Army Uniforms of World War One (Blandford, 1977)
  • Moore, W. - Wood Called Bourlon, the Cover Up after Cambrai 1917 (London, 1988)
  • Westlake R. & Chappell, M. - British Territorial Units 1914-1918 (Osprey, No.245, 1991)

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