Cavalry Operations: Why horse supply matters

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 7:00 am, 13 October 2013]

[Edit May 2016: Peter Gaunt cited this blog post in his review of my book in War in History to show how my thinking had changed, which was nice.]

Over the last three posts, I’ve shown that early modern armies couldn’t move without an adequate cavalry screen, that what was adequate depended on objectives and balance of forces, and that the balance between cavalry in field armies could be affected by small-scale raids. Now I’ll bring it all together, in a post that could be titled ‘how horses won the English Civil War’. (more…)

Cavalry Operations: It’s a raid!

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

[Edit May 2016: The map has gone because I deleted my old Google account and I don’t have time to recreate it.]

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. (more…)

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? (more…)

Cavalry Operations: Moving an army is difficult and dangerous

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

[Edit May 2016: I no longer think these cavalry operations posts are the best thing I’ve written anywhere, but they are the best blog posts I’ve ever written. I was just sketching out a hypothesis here which still needs throroughly testing against evidence (which I’m going to do in my next project, especially if my current funding application is successful).]

At last I’ve written the series of posts on cavalry operations that I’ve been promising for a long time. There are lots of details I haven’t gone into, especially to do with geography and fodder, but the main point I’ll be trying to make is that the number of cavalry available has a big influence on where, how and whether armies can move. This series will be four posts, all about the First Civil War in England, mostly in the South. I’ll be concentrating on the Earl of Essex’s army because that’s the one I know best, it’s been under researched and often misunderstood, and its campaigns give some great examples of how important cavalry were. Along the way, I’ll keep challenging the myth that Essex’s cavalry were useless ‘decayed serving men and tapsters’. The basic facts of the movements of armies in the civil war aren’t disputed much, or at least I won’t be disputing them the way I have with the received wisdom about tactics. I’m mostly relying on Wanklyn and Jones for these facts, and a few other secondary works for more details of certain campaigns. These posts will try to explain why armies moved the way that they did, and how cavalry or lack of it could limit their options. A lot of this is hypothetical and can’t be strongly proved using the traditional method of picking anecdotes from narrative sources (but what can?), but it works for me. (more…)

Early Modern Documents: Horse Casualties

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 8:35 am, 15 January 2013]

In discussions about early-modern cavalry tactics, some people have asked me how many horses were killed in battles. This is the answer. Actually only a partial answer, but it’s the best one I’ve got. Narratives of English Civil War battles are usually very vague about casualties, if they mention them at all. Financial records are usually a better source for numbers. For a few parliamentary cavalry units, I’ve found detailed lists of horses lost in service. In 1644, Parliament set up  the Committee for Taking Accounts of the Whole Kingdom to audit the war effort (you can read the ordinance for appointing the committee at British History Online). One of the committee’s jobs was to certify arrears of pay due to soldiers and officers (Ian Gentles estimated that these ran into millions of pounds). If the commanding officer of a unit couldn’t satisfactorily account for money, horses and equipment he had received, the value would be knocked off his arrears. Losses by enemy action during a battle were usually allowed, giving officers a strong incentive to exaggerate battle casualties in their accounts. This is obviously a problem because the figures they give could be too high, but it also pretty much guarantees that they won’t be too low. The committee concluded that Lionel Copley, a captain of horse in the Earl of Essex’s army, had defrauded the state of lots of money and horses, and overstated his losses at First Newbury to cover it up, but some members of his troop testified against him. I haven’t included his accounts here because they’re incredibly complicated as well as unreliable. Below I’ve put extracts from three other officers’ accounts that give details of horse losses. Doing this made me realise how bad the transcripts I made for my PhD were, but it also shows that I’ve got much better at palaeography. The quoted text is all in Crown Copyright and released under Open Government Licence. Click the links in the document references to see page images on Flickr (non-commercial use only).


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.


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’).


Wharton Letters: 30 September 1642

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 8:00 am, 30 September 2012]

This post is part of a series of letters from parliamentary soldier Nehemiah Wharton during the English Civil War, which will be posted on the anniversary of the day they were written. For more information see the introduction. To find the rest of the series, use the “wharton letters” tag. The original of this letter is held by the UK National Archives, reference SP 16/492/28, ff. 80-81. The text of the letter is out of copyright. Images are available for non-commercial use only at Flickr (click on folio numbers for individual page images).

This week, Wharton sends more information about the battle of Powicke Bridge, and decides that Worcester is like Sodom and Gomorrah


Cavalry Tactics: Dutch, Swedish or something else?

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 12:43 pm, 19 September 2012]

Behind every Great Man there’s another Great Man who is supposed to have inspired him, even though he’s a unique genius. Whiggish narratives of progress in cavalry tactics often say that Prince Rupert and/or Oliver Cromwell got his brilliant ideas from Gustavus Adolphus. Back in the caracole post we saw how Michael Roberts credited Gustavus Adolphus with getting rid of the caracole and bringing back proper, vigorous, manly shock charges. These assumptions have had knock-on effects for historians of the English Civil Wars, who have often tried to classify various tactics as either Dutch (old and rubbish – how quickly they forgot that Maurice of Nassau was a Great Man) or Swedish (new and good). I’ve already discussed how Rupert and Cromwell weren’t necessarily doing anything new, when we can tell what they were doing at all. This week, see how their tactics don’t relate to national stereotypes.


Cavalry Tactics: Cromwell

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 8:32 am, 11 September 2012]

The anniversary of Oliver Cromwell’s death is on 3rd, 13th or 16th September, depending on how you want to define ‘anniversary’ and deal with the discrepancy between the Julian and Gregorian calendars. Since Cromwell died, an awful lot of rubbish has been written about him. The fact that he became Lord Protector in the 1650s has made him a prime target for Whiggish Great Man history. Almost anything that he did in the first half of the 1640s, no matter how banal, can be turned into a sign of future greatness. In an old post I argued that Cromwell was a successful cavalry commander, but not much more so than Sir William Balfour. This post uses only contemporary eyewitness sources to show what we can and can’t know about Cromwell’s cavalry tactics in the First Civil War.