Cavalry Tactics: How close was close order?

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 8:30 am, 10 October 2012]

Writing about cavalry charges often uses the phrases ‘close order’ or ‘knee-to-knee’. But what do these actually mean, and how close can you keep charging horses? This post won’t necessarily answer these questions satisfactorily, but it will show that there are lots of different opinions in drill books and eyewitness accounts.

Francois de La Noue, The politicke and militarie discourses of the Lord de La Nouue, trans. Edward Aggas (London, 1588):

the Germaines exceede all other nations, because they seeme to bee not onely close, but even glewed each to other: which proceedeth of an ordinarie custome that they have to keepe alwaies in bodie, as having learned as well by naturall knowledge, as by profe, that the strong alwaies carie away the weake. Also the more to testifie that they sieldome fayle in this, whensoever they be broken, in their retire and flight they still remaine unseperate and joyned together (p. 200)

But when a troupe is set in a wing, although the good, which ordinarily are the smallest number, do march cheerely to the onset, yet the rest that are not so willing to bite, (which faine to bleede at the nose, to have a broken stiroppe, or to have their horse unshooed) doe staie behinde, so as within two hundred paces of waie, we shall see glasse windowes in that long file, & great breaches wil appeare therein, which greatly incourageth the enimie: and many times among an hundred horse, scarce 25. doe enter in (p. 188)

There’s obviously a double standard here because La Noue was arguing for the position that reiters in deep squadrons were better than lancers in single lines. I’ve already shown that his theory of shock was based on the fallacy that horses can be rigidly joined together. It would be wrong to cherry-pick either of these quotes to prove that close order was or wasn’t possible.

Gervase Markham, The souldiers accidence (London, 1625):

for you must know that a Troope of horse consisteth of Ranks and Files as well as a Company of foote, and having set file unto file close, that is Cuise unto Cuise, or knee unto knee (p. 47)

It is then to be understood, that in Horse-troopes there are but two sorts of Distances or Orders, eyther in Rankes or Fyles; That is, Close Order, and Open Order, Close order in Fyles, is Cuish to Cuish, or knee to knee, and Open order in Fyles, is six foote (which is accounted an Horse length): So Close order in Rankes, is to the Horses Crooper, or without Streete, and Open order is sixe foote, above which the Rankes must never open. And therefore that the Troop may March orderly and keepe their Distance truly (p. 55)

Markham isn’t very reliable, but this at least shows that the phrase ‘knee to knee’ was used in the 17th century. He doesn’t go into any more detail about exactly what it means, but the most likely meaning is that the troopers’ knees should be touching each other.

My notes don’t make it clear whether John Cruso’s Militarie instructions for the cavallrie (1632) said much about this, but he did say that ‘The principall strength of Cuirassiers consisteth in keeping themselves close serried together; for this the Germanes are commended.’ (p. 98). This could be derived from La Noue but it’s not a direct copy.

Robert Ward, Anima’dversions of warre (London, 1639) says almost exactly the same thing as Markham (p. 295). This could be because it’s true, or because of writers copying each other.

John Vernon, The young horse-man, or, The honest plain-dealing cavalier (Andrew Coe, London, 1644):

those troops that are to give the first charge being drawn up into battail as before, are to be at their close order, every left hand mans right knee must be close locked under his right hand mans left ham, as hath bin shown before. In this order they are to advance toward the Enemy with an easie pace, firing their Carbines at a convenient distance, always aiming at their Enemies brest or lower, because that pouder is of an elevating nature, then drawing neere the Enemy, they are with their right hands to take forth one of their Pistols out of their houlsters, and holding the lock up are most firing as before, always reserving on Pistoll ready charged, spann’d and primed in your houlsters, in case of a retreat as I have shown before, having thus fired the troops are to charge the Enemy in a full career, but in good order with their swords fastned with a Riband or the like unto their wrists, for feare of losing out of their hand, if they should chance to misse their blow, placing the pomell on their thigh, keeping still in their close order, close locked as before. (p. 43)

This is the most explicit and detailed description of close order in this period, but that’s the problem: it’s unique. As far as I know, no-one else writing in English in the first half of the 17th century said anything like this. That doesn’t automatically mean that it’s wrong, but it should at least be grounds for suspicion. I haven’t found an account of a civil war cavalry charge that matches Vernon’s prescription. A lot of this is because most accounts aren’t detailed enough. As I’ve already shown, we usually don’t know whether charges ended at the gallop (like Vernon says they should be) or not. But it could be significant that no eyewitness ever explicitly mentions firing during the charge. We know that Rupert at Edgehill and Byron at Roundway Down gave definite orders against it, but things are less clear for parliamentarian charges.

The other big mystery is what happens at the end of the charge. Vernon doesn’t say exactly what the cavalry are supposed to do when they get to the enemy. As they’ve already fired twice and are supposed to save their third shot for a retreat, this can’t be the mingled fire tactics that La Noue, Rupert and Byron advocated. Vernon doesn’t seem to want to use swords as shock weapons like lances: with the pommel resting on the thigh and the troopers locked tight together, the point probably isn’t going to reach the enemy. Ultimately, if both sides manage to do what Vernon wants then they have to crash into each other, and as we should all know by now that’s disastrous for both of them. Maybe he wants to intimidate the enemy into running away, but he doesn’t explicitly say that, and the emphasis on keeping hold of the sword suggests that Vernon was expecting close combat.

(Also I’ve only just noticed that Vernon’s book was printed by Andrew Coe. I don’t know exactly what significance that has, but it would be worth investigating.)

Sir Richard Bulstrode’s account of Edgehill said that Rupert ordered his cavalry ‘to march as close as possible, keeping their Ranks with Sword in Hand’ (Bulstrode, Memoirs, p. 81). He didn’t say exactly how close it was possible to march.

As usual, Cromwell’s writings aren’t much help. Two of his letters about Gainsborough mention ‘close order’ but don’t go into any detail about what it means (Abbot, i, pp. 243, 245; quoted in my Cromwell post). Be suspicious of any historian who does claim to know exactly what it means, especially if they appeal to John Vernon’s authority.

Richard Atkyns gives the best description of close order in his account of his charge against Heselrig’s lobsters at Roundway Down:

we advanced a full trot 3 deep, and kept in order; the enemy kept their station, and their right wing of horse being cuirassiers, were I’m sure five, if not six deep, in so close order, that Punchinello himself had he been there, could not have gotten in to them. All the horse on the left hand of Prince Maurice his regiment, had none to charge; we charging the very utmost man of their right wing; I cannot better compare the figure of both armies than to the map of the fight at sea, between the English and the Spanish Armadas, (only there was no half moon) for though they were above twice our numbers; they being six deep, in close order and we but three deep, and open (by reason of our sudden charge) we were without them at both ends (Young, ‘Praying Captain’, p. 58)

This implies that it was easier to keep in close order when defending, and that charging led to formations opening out.

There’s now a big gap in my knowledge as I haven’t looked at the later 17th century or early 18th century for a long time. We’ll pick up again with Major-General Warnery, whose treatise was published in England in 1798 but drew on the author’s experiences under Frederick the Great.

Warnery isn’t as explicit as Vernon but does seem to want very tight formations:

When it is reflected, what bruises a trooper is liable to in his legs, with the present suple boots, from the holsters, knees, carbines, scabbards, &c. of each other, when the squadron charges close and firm as it ought to do, to give it weight and effect. I think it will not be denied, that stiff boots, which will defend the trooper from such accidents, ought to be given him; they will at the same time enable him to charge closer in line, than they have ever been able to do since suple boots has been adopted (pp. 48-49)

I don’t think Warnery wants horses to crash into the enemy. Although he talks a lot about shock and weight, when he goes into more detail, it’s always about the sword point:

Since the lance has been rejected, the sword is, without contradiction, the queen of arms for the cavalry; and it is upon that alone, that they should depend in action, until the enemy is dispersed (p. 16)

The point of the sword is more advantageous than the edge, because with it you can reach your enemy at a greater distance than with the other, the smallest wound with it renders the wounded incapable of serving during the remainder of the action at least; it does not require so much force to give a dangerous wound with a thrust as with a cut (p. 16)

The troopers of the front rank raise their swords to the height of their faces, the arm extended in tierce, the point against the eyes of his enemy, and the hand a little turned, that the branch of guard of the sword may cover his own; they must raise themselves a little in the stirrups, the body forward, and aim to place a thrust with the point against the man or the horse opposed to him; in a word, he must do his best, either by thrusting or cutting, to disable his enemy; thus the shock or charge is soon finished (pp. 46-47)

Warnery doesn’t see the main effect of the charge as psychological:

It will easily be conceived what terrible blows must be given by two brave troopers who meet each other in the charge; many people are however of opinion, that the shock of two lines of cavalry never takes place, one always giving way before the other arrives to it; though this is most frequently the case, it is nevertheless an error to say, that always happens; at the battle of Guastala the shock was general: at Strigau likewise (p. 49)

Although the rest of the book implies that these ‘terrible blows’ are given with the sword, if Warnery gets his way then there has to be a big collision between horses. In his ideal charge, the cavalry are in such close order that the troopers’ legs are getting bruised, and neither side turns away, so there’s nowhere else for the horses to go but straight into each other (there’s also a lot of stuff about rear ranks adding weight to the shock and preventing horses in front from stopping, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt about that for now).

Some later British drill books disagreed with Warnery, saying that horses getting too close was a bad thing.

Instructions and Regulations for the Formations and Movements of the Cavalry (1799):

Any attempt to close the files at the instant of the charge, would only increase the intervals in a line, and tend to impede the free movement of each horse, who at no time requires to be more independent than when galloping at his utmost exertion; and every rub to right or left diminishes that effort in a degree. (p. 32)

Manual of drill for mounted rifle Volunteers or Volunteer irregular Cavalry (1863):

Any closing in or crowding at the instant of the charge must impede the horses and impair the effect, and must therefore be avoided. It is from the uniform velocity of the line that the greatest effect is produced (p. 100)

Both of these drill books were definitely talking about something called ‘shock’ but they said that it depended on velocity, not on a tight formation. They both insist that horses shouldn’t be rigidly joined together and that they need to move independently.

British practice in the First World War also seems to have been not to get too close. Farrier Sergeant Albert Turp of the Royal Dragoons described taking part in a charge against German infantry at Collezy in 1918:

We had of course been taught that a cavalry charge should be carried out in line six inches from knee to knee, but it didn’t work out like that in practice and we were soon a pretty ragged line of horsemen at full gallop. (Kenyon, ‘British Cavalry‘, p. 234)

Even the ideal was looser than what John Vernon recommended in the 17th century and was hard to achieve in practice. The aim seems to have been to ride through the enemy and stab them with the sword point on the way past. Sgt Turp continues:

I remembered my old training and the old sword exercise. As our line overrode the Germans I made a regulation point at a man on my offside and my sword went through his neck and out the other side. The pace of my horse carried my sword clear and then I took a German on my nearside, and I remember the jar as my point took him in the collarbone and knocked him over. (Kenyon, ‘British Cavalry’, p. 235)

There’s a controversial photo that may or may not show the Australian Light Horse charging at Beersheba in 1917. This shows a fairly loose formation. Although there are a some small bunches of horses galloping close to each other, there are big gaps between the groups and it’s hard to make out any straight ranks or files in the foreground.

This is just a small sample, but it shows a wide range of opinions from theorists and eyewitnesses about how close cavalry could and should get during a charge. I’m inclined to agree with the British Army view that if you can get horses into very close order it would be counterproductive. Galloping horses can trip over very easily. If one goes down, others are likely to trip over it. This can lead to a domino effect. The most famous example (at least in Britain) is the 1967 Grand National, when a huge pile-up at the 23rd fence allowed outsider Foinavon to win by default. The best footage of the accident has been taken down from YouTube because of a copyright claim, but this is the British Pathe film, taken from a different angle (about 1:30):

You definitely wouldn’t want that to happen to a cavalry troop in a battle (unless it was on the other side, of course). This is a more recent example, from Aqueduct in the US:

Lots of horses came down even though they were more spread out.

I’m still not in a position to strongly argue that close order was impossible, but if it could be achieved, I don’t think it was necessarily a good idea. Apart from the risk of horse accidents, it would get in the way of using swords and lances as shock weapons. It’s much better to go through the enemy and stab them with a point than it is to crash your horses into them.

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