In the first few weeks of the First World War all the armies fielded sizable cavalry formations, and during August and September those cavalry formations were able to perform the roles they had trained for before the war.
It must be said this is a rather niche topic. The three battles selected took place within three weeks of each other, during the one period in the war where cavalry operated in something resembling its traditional manner and opposing forces of cavalry could hope to meet. This ended with the formation of the Western Front, with its lack of open flanks for the cavalry to exploit or gaps for scouts to get through.
The section on the opposing sides has some surprises. The German cavalry of 1914 has retained an impressive reputation, but its horsemanship was worse than the British, both in the chosen method of riding, which was less effective in cross-country riding, and the care it took of its horses. It also had far less recent combat experience than its British opponents, who had learnt from the Second Boer War and had practical experience of other colonial wars. In contrast the German cavalry hadn’t seen action since the Franco-Prussian War. However the German cavalry was present in much larger numbers than their British opponents. This is reflected in the available sources – on the British side these clashes were seen as significant encounters, to the Germans they were just another set of minor clashes between reconnaissance units.
The first of the three clashes examined, at Casteau, could easily have come from the Napoleonic period. The battle began with a British attack on German cavalry, followed by a long pursuit which ended when the Germans fell back on dismounted infantry support. The second clash, at Cerizy-Moy, was on a much larger scale, involving a British cavalry brigade and German cavalry division. Here we see how warfare had changed – at one point the British were able to launch a near perfect surprise attack on dismounted cavalry, but modern rapid firing rifles meant that the leading attackers suffered heavy losses (although the Germans suffered worse once they were overrun). The third one comes during the counter attack leaving to the battle of the Marne, when British and German cavalry forces were both acting as flank guards for larger armies, but still involved a proper cavalry charge with lancers on both sides. However this clash includes an incident that demonstrates that the day of this sort of cavalry action was over, when the British 18th Hussars were able to stop a German cavalry attack with rapid gunfire, despite the Germans only starting 30 seconds away.
Although this form of cavalry action was short lived, it is still interesting to see how the two sides compared in these early clashes
The Opposing Sides
Casteau, 22 August 1914
Cerizy-Moy, 28 August 1914
Le Montcel – 7 September 1914
Author: Alan Steele