View Full Version : Napoleonic Cavalry Tactics/Doctrine

Panama Red
17 Nov 06, 08:00
I know there has been some debate in the past concerning the doctrine and tactics of Napoleonic cavalry. In reading the following article, it looks like the Napoleonic cavalry had a lot more going for it than some people might imagine. Here is a small excerpt that I read from this web article entitled: French Cavalry At Eylau, 1807 And Napoleon's Cavalry Doctrine (http://www.napoleon-series.org/military/organization/c_eylau.html) :

IV. Napoleon and his cavalry: Ignorance or Innovation?
"When you are occupying a position which the enemy threatens to surround, collect all your force immediately, and menace him with an offensive movement. By this maneuver you will prevent him from detaching and annoying your flanks."
-Maxim XXIII [23]

The cavalry charge at Eylau, some have argued, was an act of sheer desperation, by a commander who didn't truly understand the proper use of the cavalry arm. However, a careful study of Napoleon's attitude toward tactics and his historical employment of it shows that he, in fact, consistently used his cavalry in this manner and that for the most part was quite successful. While it is difficult to find a doctrinal "smoking gun" to explain Napoleon's innovative use of cavalry throughout his campaigns, the historical evidence is strongly in the favor of this argument. None of Napoleon's enemies employed cavalry consistently in this manner. They were typically much more conservative, using the cavalry for counterattacks, flank security, and pursuit.

Napoleon, on the other hand, seems to have developed a much different doctrine for his horse. He specifically "developed the arm as an instrument for shattering the enemy line, a masse de rupture." [24] Noted Napoleonic historian David Chandler agrees, saying "French cavalry tactics were all based on the shock action of mounted charges." [25] That Napoleon intended his cavalry to be something special, something more than scouts, flankers, or even some sort of reserve counterattack force is clear from his tactical development of the arm. Several concrete factors support this argument. First, the French army under Napoleon was the first in Europe to concentrate its cavalry by type. The grouping of cuirassiers (heavy cavalry) into heavy divisions appears a distinctly French innovation, occurring around 1800 when the French armies were reorganized into brigades. [26] The other Europeans were slow in following this, adopting this innovation late in the wars:Russia-1807, Austria-1805, Prussia-never did, British- late in the Spanish campaigns. [27] By massing his heaviest, most powerful cavalry, Napoleon clearly intended to use his cavalry as a shock force unlike any seen before. Another sign that the cavalry was destined for a pivotal role as a masse de rupture is the leadership given the cavalry. In his analysis of period regulations and formations, George Nazfiger supplies the leadership ratios of Napoleonic cavalry, that is, number of troopers per leader. The French consistently have the lowest ratios of the major powers and of the French cavalry, the cuirassiers have the lowest: from 4.6 to 6.3. [28] Other nations have far less leadership: Russia-7.8, Britain- 6.1, Austria- 8.1, Prussia- 6.5. [29] Numbers are not all, however. Nazfiger also analyzes the position of the leadership within the squadron on the move. The command element of the French Squadron was in front of the squadron with NCOs on the flanks. As Nazfiger correctly points out, "the French system provided a large degree of control on every flank and face of the squadron, thereby ensuring that it should behave as desired in battle and that, once it had completed a charge, it should rally more quickly." [30] The positioning of leadership and their large numbers demonstrates that the French cavalry was destined for the more complicated and dangerous charge against a fixed position than for foraging and flank security operations. The combination of abundant leadership, excellent battlefield control, and homogenous heavy units made the French cavalry a force destined for the charge and the shock attack. Other nations do not show this degree of control and leadership.

The infamous cavalry action at Waterloo, it seems, has portrayed the cavalry charge as a desperate gamble doomed to failure. However, Napoleon historically used a mounted attack on fixed positions effectively throughout his career. Indeed, at Eylau we see the French cavalry breaking Russian squares with alacrity. At the battle of Hof, just days prior to Eylau, D'Hautpol's cavalry (2nd Cuirassier Division), "smashed all resistance by brute force, jabbing at the enemy faces with their sword-points, breaking down an infantry square, pressing their powerful horses through the line of guns and riding down the gunners." [31]

Two other famous battles merit mention in proving the use of cavalry as a true shock force: Austerlitz and Borodino. At Austerlitz, Napoleon employed his cavalry against the formed Russian Imperial Guard to retake the Pratzen Heights. This charge destroyed not only the elite Russian Infantry, but their mounted counterparts as well. These units had formed on the heights and the cavalry were preparing to charge the fleeing French infantry. Napoleon's penchant for shock tactics was apparent to many, including Marshal Bessières with the Guard Cavalry. On seeing the Russian Guards climbing the slope and the French retreating he remarked to his aide-de-camp, "we shall have a cavalry action soon, Laville." [32] The Guard cavalry charged up the heights and annihilated both the infantry and the cavalry. A Guard cavalryman remembers Napoleon himself praising his cavalry saying, "my Horse Guards have just routed the Russian Imperial Guard." [33] On the left, French cavalry was again charging en masse. Ten regiments of heavy cavalry broke the enemy lines; "they overthrew them at the first impact," remarked a horse artillery lieutenant. [34]

Borodino, however, provides the most extreme example of the cavalry as shock weapon. The Russians had created a strong set of entrenchments and were behind them in strength. Napoleon had his opportunity for a decisive battle against the Russians and his cavalry would play a vital, if devastating, role. Twice, he committed his mounted troops in massed charges against fortified positions. First, in the bloody fighting in the flèches, Latour-Mauborg's IV Cavalry Corps was instrumental in driving off the Russians in conjunction with Ney's III Corps. [35] But perhaps the most celebrated of the cavalry actions at Borodino was the charge on the Great Redoubt in the center of the Russian line. The plan for the assault called for the II Cavalry Corps under Caulaincourt to " [smash] its way through the Russian line immediately to the south of the Redoubt." [36] An assault by massed heavy cavalry against a well defended position, this time even fortified, was true to Napoleon's style. And, as Chandler relates, "the French cavalry duly made their penetration and swept into the Redoubt as planned." [37] Borodino was a bloodbath for all, but especially for the cavalry. They suffered huge losses, especially in leadership. But they had demonstrated immense fighting power and bravery, and accomplished the mission. Again, Napoleon had given his heavy cavalry a shock mission completely alien to any other cavalry arm in Europe. And it had succeeded at a terrible price.

17 Nov 06, 21:23
The Russian campaign's disaterous toll on men and horses left the French cavalry a shell of its former self. The loss of German horse breeding areas in 1813-14 completed the job. Borodino was the last great charge of the french heavy cavalry. One can debate whether it won the battle though, and the Eylau charge saved the french from defeat, but gained no victory. Austerlitz was won before the charge was made.
I should state that I have always, since the Talonsoft days felt that cavalry is too strong in these games. In my Ligny/QB scenario I have them in squadrons, which helps a bit. Fact is, for strategic movement over long distances cavalry does not move much faster than infantry (horses demand longer rest and feeding periods than men). Also cavalry does not charge in road march formation, they form line to charge. But in these games cavalry doesnt have to change formation to get the charge benifit. What wargamer with 600+ cuirassier units, moving 40% faster than infantry who dont need to change formation to charge will Not become a 19th century Blitzkrieger?