Cavalry Operations: It’s a raid!

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 7:00 am, 11 October 2013]

One of the many problems with concentrating only on big battles is that it distracts attention from small-scale operations that were more common and can tell us interesting things about how war worked in practice. But studying small wars for their own sake can also obscure links with bigger issues. This post will try to explain why small cavalry raids happened and how they could affect operational decisions.

The previous two posts showed that cavalry were important and that the numbers of cavalry were important. This was a problem for all armies because cavalry were very expensive. During the English Civil War, armies usually paid between £5 and £10, sometimes more, for troop horses, when they could afford to pay for them at all. This was about as much as an unskilled labourer could expect to earn in a year. Saddles, weapons and armour all added to the cost. Horses constantly had to be replaced because of attrition from battle casualties, disease, exhaustion, and theft (see this old post). If we’re going to avoid the enormous condescension of posterity, we should accept that these costs had to be met somehow because armies could not usually operate properly without cavalry, as we’ve seen in the previous posts. We also saw in the cavalry tactics posts that fights between cavalry in set piece battles could go on for a long time, and whether they did or not, the results were always unpredictable. One problem seems to have been that even the lighter cavalry were too well protected against swords. If only there was some way to get an unfair advantage…

Another problem with horses is that they eat an awful lot. This isn’t just an extra expense that has to be paid for. It also limits what cavalry can do and where they can go. They can’t keep moving all the time because the horses sometimes need to stop for rest, food and drink. At least some of the food will have to be grass, and grazing means that the horses have to spread out. Civilians have stocks of dry fodder that can be bought or requisitioned, but each settlement can only support a limited number of horses, so the cavalry will need to spread out to find food and lodging. Of course the riders will also need food and rest. These physical needs can make cavalry very vulnerable at certain times and present opportunities to the enemy to inflict losses with very little risk. Raiders who are mounted, armoured, and have their pistols loaded and spanned do have an unfair advantage over enemies who are dispersed, unprepared, and perhaps asleep. After screening, raiding each other’s quarters is one of the most important things that cavalry can do.

Let’s start with an obscure but typical example. On 12 August 1643,Colonel John Dalbeir led just over 100 cavalry of the Earl of Essex’s army from their quarters in Surrey towards Berkshire. Just after dawn on 13 August, they attacked enemy quarters at Theale near Reading. According to the conventional wisdom, Essex’s ‘decayed serving men and tapsters’ aren’t supposed to beat the cavaliers. On this occasion, they did everything right and the operation was a complete success. Dalbeir captured 26 men and 40 horses (Bodleain Library, Tanner 62, f. 255). I don’t believe that Essex’s troopers were essentially inferior, but even if they were, a raid like this would be a good way to overcome their disadvantages. Even so, I suspect that this incident is so obscure partly because it disagrees with so many prejudices.

After Essex’s cavalry getting it right, here’s a more famous incident where things went more wrong for Prince Rupert than you might have been led to believe. The basic facts are that Rupert raided Essex’s quarters on the night of 17-18 June 1643 and won the battle of Chalgrove Field on the morning of 18 June (most of the facts here and below come from Stevenson and Carter, ‘Raid on Chinnor‘; I’ve made a Google map to make the action easier to follow.).  I think that this is the most misunderstood battle in the English Civil War. One unnecessary distraction is that John Hampden happened to be mortally wounded there and died a few days later. This should just be seen as a random accident, like Lord Brooke getting shot at the siege of Lichfield or Sir Ralph Hopton getting blown up by a powder wagon. It’s teleological and anachronistic to see it as the whole point of the battle. Another distraction is the supposed awesomeness of Prince Rupert and his cavaliers, which can turn the story into a condescending narrative of progress towards inevitable victory and lead to a circular argument about cause and effect: we know they were awesome because they won, and we know they won because they were awesome. This kind of hindsight can even lead to the view that Rupert wanted to provoke the roundheads into fighting because he knew that he would definitely win. In real life, any general who is that confident is stupid. Just maybe it explains the English chevauchee strategy in the 1350s, but even then I’m a bit sceptical. S.R. Gardiner’s fanciful and flowery version of the action has Essex deliberately spreading his men out to provoke an attack. Gardiner also suggested that Rupert was trying to capture a convoy of money coming from London to Essex’s headquarters, but Tom Crawshaw’s detailed research on the army’s financial records shows that the £21,000 had already been received on 16 June, before Rupert set out on his raid (Gardiner, Great Civil War, 175, 176); Crawshaw, ‘Military Finance‘ thesis, 262-3).

I don’t think there’s any need for a special explanation. The events of 17-18 June are entirely consistent with the way cavalry normally quartered themselves and raided each other’s quarters. The Earl of Essex had his headquarters at Thame, and his mounted units were dispersed in the surrounding area, including a few hundred newly raised dragoons under Sir Samuel Luke quartered at Chinnor. According to Gardiner’s Great Man history, followed by Stevenson and Carter on this point, ‘it is said’ that John Hampden warned Essex that this was a bad idea. If Hampden did say this, he was only half right: keep your cavalry too far apart and they’re at risk of raids, keep them too close together and they soon run out of fodder.  Essex’s cavalry had plenty of experienced professional officers who were probably used to managing the risks and opportunities of quartering cavalry. One of them was the aforementioned John Dalbeir, who also played a part in this action. Another one, John Urry, had just changed sides, and apparently told the royalists about the money convoy, which now looks like a red herring, and the location of Essex’s quarters, which was the sort of intelligence that scouts routinely reported anyway. Rupert set out from Oxford on 17 June with a force usually reckoned to be 1,700 strong. The secondary works that I’ve looked at (I can’t get at the eyewitness accounts) say this force included a few hundred infantry, but I assume this means temporarily mounted musketeers like the ones the King led out of Oxford in June 1644. Although I’m arguing that Rupert wasn’t quite as awesome as the fanboys say, I doubt that he’d be thick enough to take footsoldiers on a raid like this, where mobility was the most important thing.

Rupert’s force crossed the River Thame (a smaller river, not to be confused with the Thames) at Chiselhampton bridge unopposed, but they were spotted and fired on by parliamentary sentries at Tetsworth. Rupert ignored this and carried on towards Chinnor, capturing a few of Essex’s men at Postcombe on the way. Rupert’s force then surrounded Chinnor and took the dragoons mostly by surprise, killing about 50 men and capturing about 120 men and all the horses. This might look like a successful raid, but because the alarm had already been raised before the objective was reached, Rupert had put his force at risk of being caught. John Hampden and three troops of Essex’s cavalry were quartered at Watlington, a long way south of Rupert’s original approach but well placed to cut off his retreat. Either Urry’s intelligence was out of date, or Rupert was knowingly taking another risk. Hampden and the three troops, joined by Dalbeir, attacked the rear of Rupert’s force as it passed. Although this attack was beaten off, Rupert clearly had problems by the time he got to Chalgrove. He sent the infantry and dragoons to  secure Chiselhampton bridge and set up an ambush nearby, but Hampden and Dalbeir caught him again before he could get his cavalry away, and more parliamentary reinforcements were not far off. Rupert counter-attacked while the enemy were still outnumbered, and beat them although they fought well. A bigger force under Sir Philip Stapleton came up soon afterwards, but failed to catch Rupert before he got back across Chiselhampton bridge.

The fact that Rupert got away with it in the end obscures the other important fact that things had gone a bit wrong for him. Maybe he was given faulty intelligence, or maybe he made some bad decisions. Raiding was supposed to be a way to avoid fighting the enemy in the open when they were fully armed. Even so, Rupert’s minor victory may have helped to change Essex’s operational plans, as we’ll see in the next post.

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