Cavalry Tactics: La Noue’s theory of shock

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 8:07 am, 3 October 2012]

Francois de La Noue (1531-91) was a protestant commander in the French Wars of Religion. He wrote a military treatise that was translated into English by Edward Aggas and published as The politicke and militarie discourses of the Lord de La Nouue Whereunto are adjoyned certaine observations of the same author, of things happened during the three late civill warres of France. With a true declaration of manie particulars touching the same in 1588. I’ve referred to this book before because it has a lot of interesting things to say about lances and pistols. In the lance post, I mentioned that La Noue had a distinctive theory of shock. Now I’m going to look at it in more detail (or at least the version given in the English translation, which might not be exactly what La Noue wrote; for convenience I’ll be referring to it as ‘La Noue’).

La Noue uses the word shock several times. Although it’s often associated with lancers, it isn’t always. Sometimes it clearly refers to something other than the effect of the point of the lance on enemy armour:

I will say, that although the squadron of Speares doe give a valiant charge: yet can it worke no great effect: for at the onset it killeth none, yea it is a miracle if any be slayne with the speare: onely it may wound some horse, and as for the shocke it is many times of small force (p. 201)

Here the shock is different from killing or wounding with the spear. Sometimes it might refer to the force that knocks a rider off a horse. That seems to be what it means here:

I wil not otherwise speak of these mightie blowes that cleave a man to the waste, or cut asunder a Vantbrasse arme and all: neither of those shockes or fals that doe a man no harme, but that he may rise and leape againe upon his horse back, as he were become a leopard

In other places it seems to mean something else again. La Noue also uses the word ‘overthrow’. Sometimes this could mean riders being knocked off their horses by a lance, as with the shock in the quote above, but sometimes it can’t:

Then did the squadrons of speares growe into credite, who (as I have heard) were so aranged by the Emperour Charles, who meeting our files of men of arms did easilie overthrow them, which also the squadrons of Rheitres have sometimes done: neither is it much to be mervailed that it came so to passe for natural reason sheweth it, which willeth that the strong carrie awaie the weake: Also that sixe or seaven ranks of horsemen joyned together ouerthrow one alone. (p. 186)

Since reiters don’t have lances, they can’t be using them to knock the enemy down, so this ‘overthrow’ must be something else. It could be a metaphor that refers to a psychological effect, or it could just mean ‘defeat’ without specifying how. La Noue soon goes into a bit more detail:

we must not care so much, that everie one at the meeting strike one blow with his speare: but rather that it may bee able to overthrowe all that come agaynst it, which is much bravelyer done when it is in the squadron? It may lykewise bee replyed that the squadron cannot overthrowe above fifteene or sixteene horse at the most of the troupe that standeth in a haie, which is true, but those shall be about the Ensigne, where the Captaines and best men are placed: which being carried awaie, al the rest shaketh, and although that parte that hath not bene touchd doe close up the flankes of the squadron, yet doth it small harme, in that it cannot enter upon the men that are thus in a heap united together: who likewise in their shockes doe strike those as well as the first, and breake them. Yea, although three or foure troupes of horse be araunged in a haie one at anothers heales, yet shall a squadron overthrow them all almost as easilie as the boule doth many rankes of scailes (pp. 186-7)

The reference to a boule is obviously a simile so we shouldn’t take it too literally. But earlier he mentions the 15 men in the middle being overthrown, which causes the others to shake. It seems to me that this means that the 15 who are in the way of the squadron are somehow physically moved, and that this demoralises the rest, who haven’t been touched. It also seems that La Noue imagines that the members of the squadron are somehow rigidly joined together. He makes a clear distinction between a squadron and three or four single lines at each other’s heels. I’m not sure why they should be different as a squadron in a deep formation is still made of several ranks close behind each other but actually moving independently. As I pointed out in the physics post, there’s no way to rigidly join cavalry horses together, so they never physically behave as a single body. La Noue may be appealing to some pre-Newtonian ideas about physics (Aristotle would be one of the usual suspects) but it might as well be magic.

Sith therefore that it is one principle that squadrons doe breake with the vyolent shocke which they susteyne, may we not thereupon inferre, that those that keepe themselves closest and doe strike with the whole bodie conjoyned, doe worke the greatest effect: It is hard to denie it: and who doe better practise those rules then the Reistres? (p. 200)

Here he’s even more explicit that the squadron is somehow joined together. The word ‘break’ is often used as a metaphor in writing about battles, and can mean broken morale, but La Noue could be using it to mean that the joins of the formation are physically broken apart.

Whatever La Noue was saying, his ideas about close formations and shock don’t reappear so prominently in English drill books in the early 17th century. Cruso cited some parts of the original French version of La Noue’s treatise but didn’t discuss this idea of shock in detail, although traces of it are still hanging around:

Some authors (for the disposing of the Cuirassiers for fight) hold that they ought to be ordered in grosse bodies, that so (by their soliditie and weight) they may entertain and sustain the shock of the enemie. (Cruso, p. 42)

Cruso doesn’t say who these authors are (the marginal notes for this passage only mention classical sources which can’t have anything to do with cuirassiers) but it seems very similar to La Noue, who is cited on the same page for his advice to only use the pistol at very close range.

Robert Ward’s 1639 drill book Anima’dversions of warre mostly concentrated on the use of pistols and seems to have completely rejected La Noue’s theory of shock:

Moreover the Wedge is of greater strength than the Rhombes, because it bringeth more hands to fight, for the hinder part of the Rhombe is of no use but to avoyde surprises, for it avayleth nothing in charging, whereas all parts of the Wedge are effectuall (Ward, p. 314)

This discussion of impractical and obsolete formations shows that Ward’s work wasn’t closely related to contemporary reality, but I’m just quoting it here because it directly contradicts pp. 186-7 of La Noue that I quoted above. Although Prince Rupert seems to have used the close-range pistol tactics favoured by La Noue, the testimony of Richard Atkyns and Sir Richard Bulstrode that royalist cavalry were only three deep on at least some occasions suggests that they weren’t influenced by La Noue’s shock theory. The deep and close formation used by Heselrig’s lobsters at Roundway Down is consistent with what La Noue wrote, but this battle just proved that it didn’t work (Young, ‘Praying Captain’, p. 58; I’ll quote it in detail next week).

You should also be able to see parallels with things that I’ve criticized various modern historians for writing. There’s Glenn Foard’s ‘breaking them with the sheer force of impact’, Austin Woolrych’s ‘relying on the sheer weight of impact for their greatest effect’, and of course Wanklyn and Jones’s ‘Close order turned the whole squadron into a single missile, maximizing the shock of impact’ (Foard, Naseby, p. 251; Woolrych, Battles, p. 73; Wanklyn and Jones, Military History, p. 34). Either they’re using misleading metaphors, or they’re repeating the same fallacy as La Noue.

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