The enduring images of military futility, bravery, and stupidity are of Polish lancers charging German tanks at the beginning of World War II and of British cavalry on the Western Front in World War I massed behind the lines waiting to charge through the gap that Douglas Haig proposed to blow through the German defenses--and never quite did. In this smart new look at British cavalry doctrine and reform British historian Stephen Badsey attacks the second of these two images. By 1914 the British cavalry had evolved through several decades of reform into a force equally capable of mounted and dismounted action. Most cavalry officers recognized that the massed stirrup to stirrup charge of romance was certain to be the exception, rather than the rule in future wars. In the opening battles of World War I, British cavalry although heavily outnumbered bested its German counterparts. Massed cavalry had little place in the battles of position that followed but small units, say a squadron in size, when close to the lines and allowed to exercise initiative could, once the German defensive crust was broken, advance rapidly, seize key terrain, and hold against counterattacks until the infantry arrived. Badsey references several such episodes on the Western Front. Contrary to popular opinion, it was the Tank Corps that rebuffed efforts by the cavalry to cooperate rather than vice versa. Here institutional politics may have played a key role. In a period of manpower scarcity, the Tank Corps needed men to expand. The Cavalry Corps looked to be the one large readily available source of trained manpower. Anything that suggested cavalry had a role to play on the modern battlefield worked against the interests of the Tank Corps.
Badsey argues that the closest parallel in the British Army to the mission oriented tactics of the Germans (for which they have been widely praised by subsequent analysts) was "the cavalry spirit"---the idea that junior officers had to be aggressive and make split-second decisions based on a rapidly changing tactical situation. Yet in the literature, historians have derided cavalry and the cavalry spirit as antediluvian. To refer to someone as a cavalry officer in the context of World War I has become equivalent to calling him grossly stupid.
Badsey shows how British national security policy, the example of the American Civil War, and the lessons of wars of empire affected the size, composition, mission, and training of British cavalry between 1880 and 1918. He includes a particularly apt discussion of the Boer War, and his treatment of individuals, particularly Lord Roberts, is well done indeed. Badsey is well aware also of all the recent trends in the historiography of World War I and uses them to illuminate the cavalry story. He concludes by remarking that not until the late 1920s or early 1930s was reliable motor transportation that approximated the cross-country ability of cavalry available and until then only the horse soldiers possessed the potential to exploit victory (as they did in Palestine in 1918).
This is a deeply researched, clearly written, and carefully argued book. Badsey has a way of turning traditional assumptions on their heads and making the reader think long and hard about half articulated ideas that undergird the existing historical literature. This book will make you think!