How They Fought
Website of the Royal New South Wales Lancers Lancer Barracks and Museum
The key elements of mobile combat if not all combat are:
Until the saddle was developed, it was difficult for a soldier to fight from a horse. This meant that for many thousands of years, cavalry delivered foot soldiers to the point of battle, chariots were the means soldiers fought on the move. By the end of the first millennium the saddle had changed all this, armoured knights with long reach lances dominated the battlefield.
By the end of the Fourteenth Century, there had been another change, at least in Western Europe. Massed archers with steel tipped arrows had proven effective against the once invincible knights. Soon direct fire artillery and muskets would dissolve the protection armour of the time could offer.
Cavalry found shorter weapons (swords) to be just as effective and easier to handle. Tactics evolved whereby cavalry was used for reconnaissance, to fight other cavalry, and against the flanks of infantry in line.
Reconnaissance involved use of ground. Deploying to high points to observe, and using mounted messengers to pass information using the routes obscured from the other side.
Use of Cavalry against Cavalry negated the shock or un-balancing advantage able to be gained by the high-speed approach of a mounted force.
Infantry would attack and defend in line in order to bring maximum fire to the front. This exposed a flank where a small number of soldiers could fire. Typically in the Fifteenth Century, battle arrays would be drawn up with cavalry on the flanks of infantry lines, and direct fire artillery (cannons) to the flanks. As a prelude to the battle, the cannonade would attempt to engage the enemy (often at an "appointed" hour)
An advance would quickly follow. The cavalry would be the first to engage. They fought on horseback unless dismounted in action, sword against sword.
The victor of the Cavalry battle then had great influence on the final outcome. While infantry engaged infantry with pike (a sort of spear) and musket (50m max range, a lot of smoke when fired, and a lengthy reload time), the Cavalry could either head for the baggage train (with its stocks of food, goodies and camp followers (noble ladies, etc)); or turn and attack the flanks of the opposition infantry. A choice of pleasure or ultimate victory.
By the early Nineteenth Century, tactics had been developed whereby infantry would form defensive squares. The square could deliver fire to all sides, and by using bayonet and pike (by this time pikes were usually only held by markers, often senior NCOs) disrupt charging cavalry using short weapons (swords). Artillery was drawn into the squares where possible, or left in open field, with gunners removing a gun wheel and rolling it to the square. Guns without wheels being difficult for cavalry to ride off with.
In Eastern Europe, the Polish cavalry had kept lances. These Lancers were not armoured but had weapons with a reach long enough to penetrate an infantry square. As Napoleon's army marched eastward in the early years of the Nineteenth Century, it encountered Polish Lancers, and their effectiveness was noted. The Poles were incorporated into the Grand Armée, and some French cavalry converted to Lancers. Polish trimmings were used; the red and white Polish pennant topped the lance [red over white, an upside-down Polish flag, the concept was that when the lance was lowered in the charge, the flag would be the right way up and the flapping would distract the horses of the enemy], the offset Lancer (Uhlan) helmet, and a gold belt with two red stripes (the Lancer Girdle).
The British encountered French Lancers at Quatre Bras, Wellington created Lancer Regiments in the post war British Army.
Lancers could penetrate infantry squares.
By 1860, the effective range of a rifle had been increased from 50m to 2,000m. In the American Civil War, cavalry were not successful in the charge. The most useful mounted soldiers did not fight on horseback; Forrest's Cavalry tied their horses to trees and fought on foot.
It was in 1885 that New South Wales sent a contingent of infantry and artillery to the Sudan. The war was over before they arrived, the commander Major General Richardson, was impressed with the English Lancers in parades and drills. When he returned, the Sydney element of the New South Wales Cavalry Reserves became the Sydney Lancers.
By the time the NSW Lancers first went into battle, in South Africa at the turn of the Century, the Lance was next to useless. The regimental history records some successful engagements, however, in truth, the lance as a weapon was seldom used. Rapid-fire breach loading rifles and machine guns with a range of up to 2,000m with smokeless powder could defeat any "shock weapon" charge by soldiers on horseback. Infantry making use of ground cover, in trenches, and protected by barbed wire could knock down horses over a great distance.
Australian Cavalry commanders, who fought in South Africa, noted that as in the American Civil War, the most successful mounted troops fought dismounted, using their horses to speed them to the point of battle. Thus when the Australian Military Forces were formed in 1903, all mounted units became "Light Horse". Light horse units were armed with rifle (.303 (7.7mm rimmed) rifle and bayonet (47cm) only (no sword or lance). Lances were used for ceremonial only.
Light Horse were trained to reconnoitre in the way cavalry had traditionally operated, using ground not only to impede vision, but as protection against long range weapons.
In the attack, the Light Horse would use a covered approach, moving behind ridges, and along ravines and tree lines. In sections of six, they would dismount in a covered location, or outside the range of the major weapons. One of the soldiers (the horseholder) would remain mounted and take in hand the other five horses, and gallop to a place of safety or a forward rally. Dismounted, fire and movement tactics, where one section would use available ground cover to bring aimed fire on entrenched defending enemy, keeping their heads down and permitting the movement of other sections were gradually developed. Artillery was also used to disrupt the capacity of an entrenched enemy to bring fire to bear on attackers.
In the defence, the Light Horse dug in like any infantry, with the horses being held in the rear, and brought forward by the horseholder to mount the defenders permitting swift redeployment or withdrawal.
In the advance, the Light Horse would form the core of the Advance Flank and Rear Guards.
In the withdrawal, the Light Horse added flexibility, enabling a fighting withdrawal. And masking the new defensive position.
In World War 1, the Australian Light Horse went into battle for the first time as dismounted infantry reinforcing other Australian troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula. There they defended from trenches, and took part in ill-fated attacks where up to 90% casualties were suffered. The story of this terrible sacrifice is told in the story of the 10th Light Horse (Western Australia) in the film Gallipoli and in the Regimental Battle Honour Sari Bair. The Light Horse also took part in the only successful element of the battle, the withdrawal (the only part planned by Australian rather than English Officers), where elaborate measures of deception confused the Turkish enemy. They did not realise that there had been a withdrawal until it was complete. The battles fought at Gallipoli became the legendary foundations of the Australian Commonwealth and modern Turkish Republic.
On withdrawal from Gallipoli, the Light Horse was for the most part not sent to France with the Australian Infantry (there were exceptions, the 13th Light Horse served in France, engaging German Uhlans (Lancers) at Bapaume in March 1917). Mounted on horseback again, most fought in Palestine. They proved effective in all phases of mobile warfare. At the township of Beersheba in 1917, the 4th (from Victoria) and 12th Light Horse (from the Hunter Valley, New South Wales) took part in an attack where out of character action proved very effective. Lieutenant General Sir Harry Chauvel, commander of the Desert Mounted Corps decided to outflank the Turkish positions at Gaza by an attack on the town of Beersheba to the East. The manoeuvre into an attacking position took some three days, with the horses without water for most of this time. As he approached Beersheeba Chauvel was faced with a dilemma, after three days without water, the horses would not last another; and two hours of remaining daylight would not permit the planning and execution of a set piece attack. Noting the defences were lightly wired, he chose to charge using the Light Horse. He hoped that the Turkish Artillery would hold their fire waiting for the Light Horse to be vulnerable in their dismount point. A dismount point that would never come. The ruse worked, the artillery did not get to fire effectively at all, by the time the gunners realised the horsemen were not going to dismount, they were closer that the guns' minimum range. The men charged the trenches with bayonets drawn; and the defenders were overwhelmed. The last successful horse mounted charge in history had concluded.
This success was misinterpreted by the brilliant minds that shaped the post war army. The light horse were issued with swords, and trained as cavalry, never to fight that way again.
The Tank had proven the major breakthrough weapon in World War 1. These lumbering "Willies" powered by fume belching petrol engines, with over hull tracks were able to cover the forward movement of dismounted infantry, and with their crews protected by steel brought fire to bear from machine guns and side firing cannons.
In the latter stages of the war, tanks appeared with turrets that stood clear of the tracks, permitting fire to the front by cannon.
At the end of the First World War, there was substantial theoretical consideration as to the use of Tanks and in subsequent years there were technological advances. The British considered that there would be a need for a range of tanks, armoured cars, small "tankettes", cruiser tanks, where armour had been sacrificed for speed, and lumbering "I" tanks designed to support infantry attacks. Few of the British designs met the needs of battle effectively. The Germans developed a similar range, and found their PZ4, a medium sized tank with a 76mm gun to be most effective. The Americans had some of the best-engineered weapon systems, with their Sherman, a vehicle, which came close in specification to the PZ4 was the best. The Russians, however, developed by far the best of the WWII tanks. The T34 broke rules; the gun overhung the front of the vehicle, permitting the use of a highly accurate piece of artillery. The vehicle was low, permitting effective use of ground cover, and the surfaces sloped to deflect enemy rounds. When the Germans encountered the T34, they completely re-designed their vehicles, with the PZ4 becoming the state of the art (for the time) Panther.
With the best Tank, the Russians had the worst tactics. Communist Russia had a concept that everything had to be planned and executed centrally. Commanders in the field had little or no control. Tactics were to roll in waves with all the tanks in forward units being destroyed, then replaced by those following. With no authority, local commanders could not exploit situations as they arose. Battle for battle, the Russians lost. But tank to tank, they won and with an unlimited supply of tanks and men; they could not loose.
The Germans, by contrast permitted almost total control by local commanders, they were required to operate under broad directives, able to take the initiative, as the situation required it. The success, battle to battle was astounding, it continued until the situation deteriorated in Russia. Central control was imposed; this hastened the end.
As the war developed, so did tank minor tactics. They consisted of covering the movement forward of two tanks, with the fire of one to two others. The tanks used the ground, in the same way as cavalry when scouting. In close country the Tanks moved along tracks with the weapon of one covering the movement forward of another. As hand held anti-armour weapons developed, infantry had to move with tanks, particularly in close country.
The first major victory of soldiers without tanks over those so armed occurred at Tobruk in 1941, when the 6th Australian Division under Major General Morsehead permitted the tanks to roll over entrenched infantry, who then attacked the following infantry. The tanks were then without support when engaged at close range by Artillery. As World War II proceeded, vehicles were developed to provide armoured protection to supporting infantry.
How tanks manoeuvre between bounds, the distance of a move, is ½ the range of the main or covering weapon, or 2000m whatever is the shortest, tanks break cover together, and approach the next ruse with the commander standing in the seat, so as not to expose the vehicle until, the ground has been surveyed. Moves are controlled by hand signals or radio.
The 1st Army Tank Battalion and 1st Armoured Regiment (Royal New South Wales Lancers) fought with Matilda Tanks in the Jungles of New Guinea. They fought against a most tenacious enemy, who had little defence against Armour. The Jungle itself with its difficult going became the major enemy. This type of warfare is described in the Regimental Battle Honour Sattleberg.
Prepared for the NSW Lancers Museun by Lieutenant Colonel J. Howells RFD (Retired) 1999
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