Real War Horses - The Experiences of the British Cavalry 1814-1914, Anthony Dawson

Real War Horses - The Experiences of the British Cavalry 1814-1914, Anthony Dawson

This book looks at the organisation, training and performance of the British cavalry between the battle of Waterloo and the first year of the First World War. Between these two major events, the period was dominated by minor colonial wars, with only the Crimean War and the Boer War seeing the British cavalry come up against well equipped and well organised opponents.

It must be said that the cavalry does not impress for much of this period. Wellington was rarely impressed with the performance of his cavalry, describing it rather accurately as too prone to go ‘galloping at everything’. Unfortunately many cavalry officers wouldn’t have seen this as a criticism, so the same problems recur for much of the period, most famously in the Crimea. Even here the disastrous charge of the Light Brigade was remembered with more pride by its survivors and the cavalry establishment, making any sensible reform hard to implement.

We start with an introduction to the organisation of the cavalry, the type of horses it used, training, weapons and even the riding style in use (which turns out to have a big impact on its battlefield performance). This section begins to make it clear why the cavalry suffered for much of the period, with each regiment able to choose many key elements of its training, many horses chosen because they looked impressive rather than with any idea of their suitability for the battlefield, and a belief that the individual skills required for the hunt were what was needed for the far more structured world of the cavalry. Sometimes a picture really does say more than a thousand words. My personal favour here was the band of one of the British cavalry regiments, which included a double bass, surely one of the least suitable instruments for a mounted band! The picture begins to change towards the end of the period, and the cavalry was probably at its best during the Boer War and in 1914, even though the battlefield had turned against it.

The bulk of the book is taken up with eyewitness accounts of the exploits of the British cavalry during this period, using letters home written by the soldiers. Many of these were published in contemporary newspapers, and they have an immediacy that later memoirs don’t always match. The letters are woven into the narrative, with the relevant sections extracted, so we don’t get bogged down in repetition or too much detail. The individual correspondents give us a fascinating view of the life of the cavalryman, their experience in battle, and their own conclusions about what was going on.

1 - Horse and Rider
2 - The Muddy Fields of Waterloo
3 - Colonial Adventures
4 - The Crimean War
5 - The Indian Mutiny
6 - With the Imperial Yeomanry in South Africa
7 - Horsemen in the Trenches

Author: Anthony Dawson
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 242
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2016

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