Cavalry Operations: A question of balance

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 7:00 am, 9 October 2013]

In the previous post, we saw that having enough cavalry was vital for an army to be able to move safely. But how many is enough?

It’s safe to say that the Earl of Essex and Sir William Waller didn’t get on very well. Despite this, their armies co-operated quite effectively in early 1644. Essex sent a large detachment of cavalry under Sir William Balfour to reinforce Waller’s army, and together they won the battle of Cheriton in March 1644. In May, the two armies linked up and advanced on Oxford fairly quickly. The King apparently didn’t have the cavalry available to stop them, and they nearly managed to surround the city. But on 3 June, the King outmanoeuvred them and just managed to escape with his cavalry (3-4,000 according to Wanklyn, Warrior Generals, 96) and up to 3,000 mounted musketeers (Wanklyn says possibly piggybacking with the cavalry, which solves the problem of where they would have got 3,000 horses at short notice in a city that was nearly surrounded), leaving the rest of his infantry and the artillery in Oxford. This immediately created a problem for the two armies. Should they besiege Oxford, chase the King, or split up and try to do both? Although Essex was technically in command of all forces raised by the English Parliament, this carried very little weight in practice. His subordinates often refused to obey him because of factional politics, personal animosity, self-interest, or whatever. Armies raised in particular regions often had their own financial arrangements that made them partly independent of the central government. This only got more complicated when the de facto government of Scotland agreed to send an army into England to fight the King. The Committee of Both Kingdoms was set up to co-ordinate the operations of several field armies that effectively had no other chain of command. The decisions that Essex and Waller had to make were made more difficult because the committee had demanded on 28 May that someone should go into Dorset to relieve Lyme, which was under siege from Prince Maurice’s army. The generals in the field had a council of war on 6 June and apparently agreed that Essex should go to Lyme while Waller chased the King. Although the committee disputed this decision, they couldn’t change it in practice. (Wanklyn and Jones, Military History, 161-5)

The justification for this decision at the time, and the received wisdom in lots of history written since, is that Waller was better able to chase the King because his army was more mobile (Wanklyn and Jones, 166). In some ways it’s true that Waller’s army was more mobile than Essex’s because it was smaller and had less artillery. But when it comes to operational freedom of movement, a bigger cavalry screen is usually better (Wanklyn, Warrior Generals, 97 hints at this, saying that Waller had more cavalry and less artillery). It turned out that Waller didn’t have enough cavalry to deny the King freedom of movement. A wholly mounted force that doesn’t want to be caught is very hard to catch, especially by a force that can’t mount all of its infantry. If it can be caught, it would only be by having the numbers to concentrate sufficiently overwhelming forces in several places at once. What actually happened was a futile chase around the Midlands, which isn’t worth describing in much detail (cue ‘Yakety Sax’, the universal signifier of comedy chases). Wanklyn and Jones present it as a battle of wits between Waller and the King (Wanklyn and Jones, 166-8). I think that any apparent chances of success for Waller were illusory, even when he linked up with reinforcements that Wanklyn and Jones say brought his force to twice the size of the King’s. When Waller and the Earl of Denbigh met at Stourbridge, they both mentioned having infantry with them, which were more of a hindrance than a help when chasing a mounted force (CSPD 1644, 236, 237, 238). Even if Bewdley Bridge hadn’t been broken down, trapping them on the wrong side of the River Severn, I don’t believe they could have caught the King. In any case, we all agree that Waller gave up and marched down the Severn instead, leaving the King free to go back to Oxford. Charles linked up with his infantry and artillery at Witney on 20 June. This should have made him slightly easier to catch, but when Waller made it back from Gloucestershire, he still didn’t have the cavalry to do the job properly, and was ultimately defeated at the battle of Cropredy Bridge. This was not a conventional battle like Edgehill or Marston Moor where armies had the time and space to put all their units into battle formation before attacking. It was an encounter between the two armies as they both marched north along opposite banks of the River Cherwell. Waller’s cavalry tried to attack the enemy column but were beaten off by their opposite numbers, who then successfully counter-attacked, seriously damaging Waller’s artillery train and killing several hundred infantry (Wanklyn, Warrior Generals, 112-13). Not long after this setback, Waller abandoned the operation, leaving the King free to move his army wherever he wanted. It wasn’t that Waller’s army had been completely destroyed, but its strength, especially in the infantry, fell because of problems of finance and jurisdiction. I think another reason for Waller giving up was that it was practically impossible for him to stop the King’s army from moving, and increasingly unsafe for him to move his own army.

Meanwhile… it’s fairly well-known that Essex’s expedition into the west ended very badly with his army surrounded in Cornwall. Unfortunately, this easily leads to teleological phrases such as, ‘Essex’s disastrous western campaign’. It wasn’t inevitable that he would end up trapped in Cornwall from the moment he left Oxford. If we talk about Essex’s disastrous Cornish campaign, we should also talk about his very successful campaign in Dorset and Somerset. In July, his cavalry mustered just over 2,785 troopers and 420 officers at Tiverton in Devon. Perversely, we only know this because the army lost the piece of paper and a royalist copied it into his diary (Symonds, Diary, 73). It’s not a huge number, but it was enough at first. Prince Maurice’s army, apparently outnumbered two to one, abandoned the siege of Lyme on 15 June and retreated into Devon (Wanklyn and Jones, 167, 191. Lyme was surrounded by enclosed country which was difficult for cavalry, probably making it even easier for Maurice to get away before Essex’s cavalry could catch his column). Essex never managed to catch and destroy Maurice’s army, but this was initially less of a problem than the one Waller had in the midlands. Essex’s objectives were mainly towns, and Maurice couldn’t stop him from achieving them. Soon after relieving Lyme, Essex’s main force captured Weymouth, and a detachment took Taunton (Wanklyn and Jones, 167; Ede-Borrett, Lostwithiel, 5, 10). These places were more important at the time than they might seem now. Weymouth was an entry point for arms imports from France (Edwards, Dealing in Death, 205; Luke, Journal, iii, 260; Wanklyn, Warrior Generals, 98). With the Dorset coast under parliamentary control, these would have to be landed further west, which was less convenient. Taunton had a disproportionate and unexpected effect on the outcome of the war. The need to besiege and relieve a parliamentary garrison in the middle of the King’s territory created dilemmas for both sides in the following year, and affected the forces available at the battle of Naseby.

So things were going pretty well apart from Maurice getting away and nobody being able to control the King. Next, Essex moved into Devon. He spent a few weeks at Tiverton, not leaving until 19 July, by which time he already knew that the King and his Oxford army had advanced as far as Bath (Wanklyn, Warrior Generals, 116). Essex then headed for the friendly garrison at Plymouth, while Sir Richard Grenville’s army abandoned its siege of the city on 23 July and went back to Cornwall (Wanklyn and Jones, 192-4, Ede-Borrett, 14). Whenever Essex couldn’t put enough cavalry in the right place fast enough to stop an inferior force from escaping, he was storing up problems for the future. When Essex left Plymouth, the Oxford army was at Honiton, also in Devon (Wanklyn, Warrior Generals, 116). Essex went into Cornwall on 26 July, an ambiguous move that could be seen as an advance or retreat, and his reasons are obscure and controversial. Wanklyn points out that Essex took up a very good defensive position in the Fowey peninsular where he couldn’t easily be forced to fight against his will and the enemy were likely to suffer heavy casualties in an assault; that his assumption that the army could be supplied and evacuated by sea was reasonable; that there was always a good chance of the cavalry being able to escape over land; that the royalist commanders handled the operation very badly in early August; and that unnecessary delays increased the risk of the royalist armies running out of food (Wanklyn, Warrior Generals, 117-18).

My interpretation is that when Essex found out that the Oxford army was at Bath, he would also have recognised that his own army didn’t have enough of a cavalry screen to guarantee a safe march back east. The Oxford army alone almost certainly had more cavalry than Essex’s army had mustered at Tiverton. I agree with Wanklyn that by the end of July, going into a defensive position on the coast was the best of a bad lot of options, because at least it would negate the huge disparity in cavalry, even when all the armies that he and Waller had failed to stop closed in on him. Ultimately, the plan failed because the wind was in the wrong direction, which stopped the navy from saving the army. Sir William Balfour and the cavalry still managed to escape through enemy lines. Wanklyn points out that although the perimeter was too long too defend everywhere, the royal forces knew about Balfour’s plan and were incompetent in failing to stop it (Wanklyn, Warrior Generals, 119). I still think that Sir William Balfour was pretty awesome for a Scotsman who didn’t become Lord Protector. Essex himself got away in a boat, probably making his masculinity issues even worse (and I suspect but can’t prove that these could have contributed to his decisions in 1644: Wanklyn, Warrior Generals, 97 suggests that Essex may have wanted to restore his reputation with a spectacular victory). And the rest of the army surrendered on 2 September, but the infantry were disarmed and set free.

It should now be clear that how many cavalry is enough depends on what the enemy has and what you’re trying to do. To catch the King, Waller needed far more than he actually had and might even have been attempting the impossible. Essex had enough to keep Maurice out of the way while he rampaged around Dorset and Somerset, and probably would have got away with it if he withdrew after achieving these objectives, as he did with Gloucester the year before. Perhaps the balance of forces, or his perception of them, made Essex overconfident. But if he was going to achieve more, he would need enough cavalry to force Maurice and Grenville to fight at a disadvantage so that he could destroy their armies separately. Essex didn’t have enough to do this, or to get his army out of the Devon/Cornwall peninsula when things went wrong. And this is why just looking at absolute numbers of cavalry can be misleading.

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