"instrument which multiplied the fighting value of even the smallest forces, allowing them to outflank and avoid, to surprise and overpower, to retreat and escape according to the requirements of the moment.A man fighting from horseback also had the advantages of greater height, speed, and inertial mass over an opponent on foot. Another element of horse mounted warfare often overlooked by modern day observers is the psychological impact a mounted soldier can inflict on an opponent.
The mobility and shock value of the cavalry was greatly appreciated and exploited in the Ancient and Middle Ages armed forces, and some consisted mostly of the cavalry troops, particularly in nomadic societies of Asia, notably the Mongol armies. In Europe cavalry became increasingly armoured cavalry and eventually became known for the mounted knights. During the 17th century cavalry in Europe lost most of its armour, and by the mid-19th century only some regiments retained the cuirass. In the period between the World Wars much of the cavalry troops were motorised and mechanised or reformed as tank troops, However some cavalry still served during the Second World War, notably in the Red Army. Most cavalry units that are horse-mounted in modern armies serve in purely ceremonial roles, or as mounted infantry in difficult terrain such as mountains or heavily forested areas.
The power of mobility given by mounted units was recognized early on, but was offset by the difficulty of raising large forces and by the inability of horses (then mostly small) to carry heavy armor. Cavalry techniques were an innovation of equestrian nomads of the Central Asian and Iranian steppe and pastoralist tribes such as the Persian Parthians and Sarmatians.
The photograph above right shows Assyrian cavalry from reliefs of 865–860 BC. At this time, the men had no spurs, saddles, saddle cloths, or stirrups. Fighting from the back of a horse was much more difficult than mere riding. The cavalry acted in pairs; the reins of the mounted archer were controlled by his neighbour’s hand. Even at this early time, cavalry used swords, shields, and bows. The sculpture implies two types of cavalry, but this might be a simplification by the artist. Later images of Assyrian cavalry show saddle cloths as primitive saddles, allowing each archer to control his own horse.
As early as 490 BC a breed of large horses was bred in the Nisaean plain in Media to carry men with increasing amounts of armour (Herodotus 7,40 & 9,20). But large horses were still very exceptional at this time. Excepting a few ineffective trials of scythed chariots, the use of chariots in battle was obsolete in civilized nations by the time of the Persian defeat at the hands of Alexander the Great, but chariots remained in use for ceremonial purposes such as carrying the victorious general in a Roman triumph, for chariot racing. The southern British met Julius Caesar with chariots in 55 and 54 BCE, but a century later, in the Roman conquest of Britain chariots were obsolete even in Britannia.
Cavalry have played a relatively minor role in Ancient Greece, with conflicts decided by massed armored infantry. However, Thessaly was widely known for producing competent cavalrymen, and later experiences in wars both with and against the Persians taught the Greeks the value of cavalry in skirmishing and pursuit. The Athenian author and soldier Xenophon in particular advocated the creation of a small but well-trained cavalry force; to that end, he wrote several manuals on horsemanship and cavalry operations.
The Macedonian kingdom in the north, on the other hand, developed a strong cavalry force that culminated in the hetairoi (Companion cavalry) of Philip II and Alexander the Great. In addition to these heavy cavalry, the Macedonian combined arms army also employed lighter horsemen called prodromoi for scouting and screening, as well as the Macedonian pike phalanx and various kinds of light infantry. There were also the Ippiko (or "Horserider"), Greek "heavy" cavalry, armed with kontos (or cavalry lance), and sword. They wore leather armour or chainmail and hat. They were medium cavalry, rather than heavy cavalry. They were good scouts, skirmishers, and chasers.
For the most part, Roman cavalry during the Republic functioned as an adjunct to the legionary infantry and formed only one-fifth of the showing force. This does not mean that its utility could be underestimated, though, as its strategic role in scouting, skirmishing, and outpost duties was crucial to the Romans' capability to conduct operations over long distances in hostile or unfamiliar territory. In some occasions it also proved its ability to strike a decisive tactical blow against a weakened or unprepared enemy, such as the final charge at the Battle of Aquilonia.
After the Battle of Carrhae, the Romans learned the importance of large cavalry formations from the Parthians and began to substantially increase both the numbers and the training standards of the cavalry in their employ, just as nearly a thousand years earlier the first Iranians to reach the Iranian Plateau introduced the Assyrians to a similar reform.
The most widespread employment of heavy cavalry at this time was found in the forces of the Parthians and their Iranian Sassanid successors. Both, but especially the latter, were famed for the cataphract (fully-armored cavalry armed with lances) even though the majority of their forces consisted of lighter horse archers. The West first encountered this eastern heavy cavalry during the Hellenistic period with further intensive contacts during the eight centuries of the Roman-Persian wars. At first the Parthians' mobility greatly confounded the Romans, whose armoured close-order infantry proved unable to match the speed of the Parthians. However, later the Romans would successfully adapt such heavy armor and cavalry tactics by creating their own units of cataphracts and clibanarii.
The decline of the Roman infrastructure made it more difficult to field large infantry forces, and during the fourth and fifth centuries cavalry began to take a more dominant role on the European battlefield, also in part made possible by the appearance of new, larger breeds of horses. The replacement of the Roman saddle by variants on the Scythian model, with pommel and cantle, was also a significant factor as was the adoption of stirrups and the concomitant increase in stability of the rider's seat. Armored Cataphracts began to be deployed in eastern Europe and the near East, following the precedents established by Persian forces, as the main striking force of the armies in contrast to the earlier roles of cavalry as scouts, raiders, and outflankers.
The late Roman cavalry tradition and the mounted nobility of the Germanic invaders both contributed to the development of mediaeval knightly cavalry.
Early organized Arab cavalry under the Rashidun caliphate was a light cavalry armed with lance and sword, its main role was to attack the enemy flanks and rear. Armor was relatively light. The Muslims' light cavalry during the later years of Islamic conquest of Levant became the most powerful section of army. The best use of this lightly armed fast moving cavalry was revealed at the Battle of Yarmouk (636 A.D) in which Khalid ibn Walid, knowing the importance and ability of his cavalry, used them to turn the tables at every critical instance of the battle with their ability to engage and disengage and turn back and attack again from the flank or rear. A strong cavalry regiment was formed by Khalid ibn Walid which included the veterans of the campaign of Iraq and Syria. Early Muslim historians have given it the name Mutaharrik tulai'a(متحرك طليعة ), or the Mobile guard. This was used as an advance guard and a strong striking force to route the opposing armies with its greater mobility that give it an upper hand when maneuvering against any Byzantine army. With this mobile striking force, the conquest of Syria was made easy.
The Battle of Talas in 751 CE was a conflict between the Arab Abbasid Caliphate and the Chinese Tang Dynasty over the control of Central Asia. Chinese infantry were routed by Arab cavalry near the bank of the River Talas.
Later Mamluks were trained as cavalry soldiers. Mamluks were to follow the dictates of al-furusiyya, a code of conduct that included values like courage and generosity but also doctrine of cavalry tactics, horsemanship, archery and treatment of wounds.
The Mahabharata, Ramayana, numerous Puranas and some foreign sources numerously attest that "Kamboja cavalry-troopers were frequently requisitioned in ancient wars". All these sources also agree that the horses of the Sindhu and Kamboja regions were the finest breed. JAOS attests: "Most famous horses are said to come either from Sindhu or Kamboja; of the latter (i.e the Kamboja), the Indian epic Mahabharata speaks among the finest horsemen" .
Mahabharata (950 c BC) speaks of the esteemed cavalry of the Kambojas, Sakas, Yavanas and Tusharas, all of whom had participated in the Kurukshetra war under the supreme command of Kamboja ruler Sudakshin Kamboj . Mahabharata and Vishnudharmotari Purana especially styles the Kambojas, Yavansa, Gandharas etc as "Ashva.yuddha.kushalah" (expert cavalrymen) . In the Mahabharata war, the Kamboja cavalry along with that of the Sakas, Yavanas is reported to have been enlisted by the Kuru king Duryodhana of Hastinapura .
Herodotus (484 c BC – 425 c BC) ) attests that the Gandarian mercenaries (i.e. Gandharans/Kambojans of Gandari Strapy of Achaemenids) from the twentieth strapy of the Achaemenids were recruited in the army of emperor Xerxes I (486-465 BC), which he led against the Hellas.. Similarly, the men of the Mountain Land from north of Kabol-River equivalent to medieval Kohistan (Pakistan), figure in the army of Darius III against Alexander at Arbela with a cavalry and fifteen elephants.. This obviously refers to Kamboja cavalry south of Hindukush.
The Kambojas were famous for their horses, as well as cavalry-men (asva-yuddha-Kushalah) . On account of their supreme position in horse (Ashva) culture, they were also popularly known as Ashvakas, i.e. the "horsemen" and their land was known as "Home of Horses" . They are the Assakenoi and Aspasioi of the Classical writings, and the Ashvakayanas and Ashvayanas in Panini's Ashtadhyayi. The Assakenoi had faced Alexander with 30,000 infantry, 20,000 cavalry and 30 war elephants. Scholars have identified the Assakenoi and Aspasioi clans of Kunar and Swat valleys as a section of the Kambojas . These hardy tribes had offered stubborn resistance to Alexander (326 c BC) during latter’s campaign of the Kabul, Kunar and Swat valleys and had even extracted the praise of the Alexander’s historians. These highlanders, designated as "parvatiya Ayudhajivinah" in Panini's Astadhyayi , were rebellious, fiercely independent and freedom-loving cavalrymen who never easily yielded to any overlord .
The Sanskrit drama Mudra-rakashas by Visakha Dutta and the Jaina work Parisishtaparvan refer to Chandragupta's (320 C BC – 298 c BC) alliance with Himalayan king Parvataka. The Himalayan alliance gave Chandragupta a formidable composite army made up of the cavalry forces of the Shakas, Yavanas, Kambojas, Kiratas, Parasikas and Bahlikas as attested by Mudra-Rakashas (Mudra-Rakshasa 2) . These hordes had helped Chandragupta Maurya defeat the ruler of Magadha and placed Vhandragupta on the throne, thus laying the foundations of Mauryan Dynasty in Northern India.
The cavalry of Hunas and the Kambojas is also attested in the Raghu Vamsa play of Sanskrit Poet Kalidasa . Raghu of Kalidasa is believed to be Chandragupta II (Vikaramaditya) (375–413/15 AD), of the well-known Gupta Dynasty.
As late as mediaeval era, the Kamboja cavalry had also formed part of the Gurjara-Pratihara armed forces in 8th/10th centuries AD. They had come to Bengal with the Pratiharas when the latter conquered part of the province.
Ancient Kambojas were constituted into military Sanghas and Srenis (Corporations) to manage their political and military affairs, as Arthashastra of Kautiliya as well as the Mahabharata amply attest for us. They are attested to be living as Ayuddha-jivi or Shastr-opajivis (Nation-in-arms), which also means that the Kamboja cavalry offered its military services to other nations as well. There are numerous references to Kambojas having been requisitioned as cavalry troopers in ancient wars by outside nations.
Xiongnu or Hun, Tujue, Avars, Kipchaks, Mongols, Cossacks and the various Turkic peoples are also examples of the horse-mounted peoples that managed to gain substantial successes in military conflicts with settled agrarian and urban societies, due to their strategic and tactical mobility. As European states began to assume the character of bureaucratic nation-states supporting professional standing armies, recruitment of these mounted warriors was undertaken in order to fill the strategic roles of scouts and raiders. The best known instance of the continued employment of mounted tribal auxiliaries were the Cossack cavalry regiments of Tsarist Russia. In eastern Europe, Russia, and out onto the steppes, cavalry remained important much longer and dominated the scene of warfare until the early 1600s and even beyond, as the strategic mobility of cavalry was crucial for the semi-nomadic pastoralist lives that many steppe cultures led.
Further east, the military history of China, specifically northern China, held a long tradition of intense military exchange between Chinese infantry forces of the settled dynastic empires and the mounted "barbarians" of the north. The naval history of China was centered more to the south, where mountains, rivers, and large lakes necessitated the employment of a large and well-kept navy.
In 307 BC, King Wuling of Zhao, the ancient Chinese ruler of the former State of Jin territory, ordered his military commanders and troops to adopt the trousers of the nomads as well as practice the nomads' form of mounted archery to hone their new cavalry skills. Soon afterwards the cavalry tactics employed by the State of Zhao forced their enemies in the other Warring States to adopt the same techniques in order to mount any effective attack against their swift movements on the battlefield.
The adoption of massed cavalry in China also broke the tradition of the chariot-riding Chinese aristocracy in battle, which had been in use since the ancient Shang Dynasty (c. 1600 BC-1050 BC). By this time large Chinese infantry-based armies of 100,000 to 200,000 troops were now buttressed with several hundred mounted cavalry in support or as an effective striking force. The handheld pistol-and-trigger crossbow was invented in China in the 4th century BC; it was written by the Song Dynasty scholars Zeng Gongliang, Ding Du, and Yang Weide in their book Wujing Zongyao (1044 AD) that massed missile fire of crossbowmen was the most effective defense against enemy cavalry charges.
On many occasions the Chinese studied nomadic cavalry tactics and applied the lessons in creating their own potent cavalry forces, while in others they simply recruited the tribal horsemen wholesale into their armies; and in yet other cases nomadic empires have proved eager to enlist Chinese infantry and engineering, as in the case of the Mongol Empire and its sinicized part, the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). The Chinese recognized early on during the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD) that they were at a disadvantage if lacking the amount of horses the northern nomadic peoples mustered in their armies. Emperor Wu of Han (r. 141 BC-87 BC) went to war with the Yuezhi for this exact reason, since the Yuezhi were hording a massive amount of tall, strong, Central Asian bred horses in the Hellenized-Greek region of Fergana (established a bit earlier by Alexander the Great). Although experiencing some defeats early on in the campaign, Emperor Wu's war from 104 BC to 102 BC succeeded in gathering the prized tribute of horses from Fergana.
Cavalry tactics in China were enhanced by the invention of the saddle-attached stirrup by at least the 4th century, as the oldest reliable depiction of a rider with paired stirrups was found in a Jin Dynasty tomb of the year 322 AD. The Chinese invention of the horse collar by the 5th century was also a great improvement from the breast harness, allowing the horse to haul greater weight without heavy burden on its skeletal structure.
The cavalry of Korea was first introduced during the ancient Korean kingdom Gojoseon. Since at least the 3rd century BC, there was influence of northern nomadic peoples and Yemaek peoples on Korean warfare. By roughly the 1st century BC, the ancient kingdom of Buyeo also had mounted warriors. With contacts, military intercession, and sailed ventures to Korea, cavalry of Goguryeo were called Gaemamusa (개마무사, 鎧馬武士) and were similar to tanks in the age of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. King Gwanggaeto the Great often led expeditions into Baekje, Gaya confederacy, Buyeo and against Japanese invaders with his calvalry.
Although Roman cavalry had no stirrups, their horned saddle allowed the combination of a firm seat with substantial flexibility. But the introduction of the wraparound saddle during the Middle Ages provided greater efficiency in mounted shock combat and the invention of stirrup enabled a broader array of attacks to be delivered from the back of a horse. As a greater weight of man and armor could be supported in the saddle, the probability of being dismounted in combat was significantly reduced. In particular, a charge with the lance couched under the armpit would no longer turn into pole vaulting; this eventually led to an enormous increase in the impact of the charge. Last but not least, the introduction of spurs allowed better control of the mount during the "knightly charge" in full gallop. In western Europe there emerged what is considered the "ultimate" heavy cavalry, the knight. The knights and other similarly equipped mounted men-at-arms charged in close formation, exchanging flexibility for a massive, irresistible first charge.
The mounted men-at-arms quickly became an important force in Western European tactics, although it is worth noting that Medieval military doctrine actually employed them as part of a combined-arms force along with various kinds of foot troops. Still, Medieval chroniclers tended to pay undue attention to the knights at the expense of the rank and file, and this has led early students of military history to suppose that this heavy cavalry was the only force that mattered on Medieval European battlefields--a view with hardly any grounding in reality. Massed English longbowmen triumphed over French cavalry at Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt, while at Gisors (1188), Bannockburn (1314), and Laupen (1339), foot-soldiers proved their invulnerability to cavalry charges as long as they held their formation. However, the rise of infantry as the principal arm had to wait for the Swiss to develop their pike squares into an offensive arm instead of a defensive one; this new aggressive doctrine brought the Swiss to victory over a range of adversaries, and their enemies found that the only reliable way to defeat them was by the use of an even more comprehensive combined arms doctrine as evidenced in the Battle of Marignano. The introduction of missile weapons that were simpler to use, such as the crossbow and the hand cannons, also helped remove the focus somewhat from cavalry elites to masses of cheap infantry equipped with easy-to-learn weapons. These missile weapons were very successfully used in the Hussite Wars, in combination with Wagenburg tactics.
This gradual rise in the dominance of infantry led to the adoption of dismounted tactics. From the earliest times knights and mounted men-at-arms had frequently dismounted to handle enemies they could not overcome on horseback, such as in the Battle of the Dyle (891) and the Battle of Bremule (1119), but after 1350s this trend became more marked with the dismounted men-at-arms fighting as super-heavy infantry with two-handed swords and poleaxes. In any case, warfare in the Middle Ages tended to be dominated by raids and sieges rather than pitched battles, and mounted men-at-arms rarely had any choice other than dismounting when faced with the prospect of assaulting a fortified position.
Ironically, the rise of infantry in the early 16th century coincided with the "golden age" of heavy cavalry; a French or Spanish army at the beginning of the century could have up to 50 percent of its numbers filled with various kinds of light and heavy cavalry, whereas in medieval and 17th century armies the proportion of cavalry seldom rose beyond twenty-five percent. Knighthood largely lost its military functions and became more closely tied to social and economic prestige in an increasingly capitalistic Western society. With the rise of drilled and trained infantry, the mounted men-at-arms, now sometimes called gendarmes and often part of the standing army themselves, adopted the same role as in the Hellenistic age - that of delivering a decisive blow once the battle was already engaged by either charging the enemy in the flank or attacking their commander-in-chief.
From the 1550s onwards, the use of gunpowder weapons solidified infantry's dominance of the battlefield and began to allow true mass armies to develop. This is closely related to the increase in the size of armies throughout the early modern period; heavily armored cavalrymen were expensive to raise and maintain and it took years to replace a skilled horseman or a trained horse, while arquebusiers and later musketeers could be trained and kept in the field at a much lower expense in addition to being much easier to replace. The Spanish tercio and later formations relegated cavalry to a supporting role. The pistol was specifically developed to try and bring cavalry back into the conflict, together with manoeuvres such as the caracole. The caracole was not particularly successful, however, and the charge (whether with sword, pistol, or lance) was remained as the primary mode of employment for many types of European cavalry, although by this time it was delivered in much deeper formations and with greater discipline than before. The demi-lancers and the heavily armored sword-and-pistol reiters were among the types of cavalry that experienced their heyday in the 16th and 17th centuries. These centuries also witnessed the high-water mark of the Polish winged hussars, a force of heavy cavalry that achieved great success against Swedes, Russians, and Turks alike.
Cavalry retained an important role in this age of regularization and standardization across European armies. First and foremost they remained the primary choice for confronting enemy cavalry. Attacking an unbroken infantry force head-on usually resulted in failure, but the extended linear formations were vulnerable to flank or rear attacks. Cavalry was important at Blenheim (1704), Rossbach (1757), and Friedland (1807), remaining a significant factor throughout the Napoleonic Wars. Massed infantry was deadly to cavalry but also offered an excellent target for artillery. Once the bombardment had disordered the infantry formation, cavalry were able to rout and pursue the scattered footmen. It was not until individual firearms gained accuracy and improved rates of fire that cavalry was diminished in this role as well. Even then light cavalry remained an indispensable tool for scouting, screening the army's movements, and harassing the enemy's supply lines until military aircraft supplanted them in this role in the early stages of World War I.
There were cavalry variations for individual nations as well: France had the chasseurs à cheval; Germany had the Jäger zu Pferd; Bavaria had the Chevaulegers; and Russia had Cossacks. Britain had no cuirassiers (other than the Household Cavalry), but had Dragoon Guards regiments which were classed as heavy cavalry. In the United States Army, the cavalry were almost always dragoons. The Imperial Japanese Army had its cavalry dressed as hussars, but fought as dragoons.
In the early American Civil War the regular United States Army mounted rifle and dragoon regiments were reorganized and renamed cavalry regiments, of which there were six. Over a hundred other federal and state cavalry regiments were organized, but the infantry played a much larger role in many battles due to its larger numbers and much easier recruitment. However cavalry saw a role as part of screening forces and in foraging and scouting. The later phases of the war saw the Federal army developing a truly effective cavalry force fighting as scouts, raiders, and, with repeating rifles, as mounted infantry.
Post Civil War, as the volunteer armies disbanded, the regular army cavalry regiments increased in number from six to ten, among them the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment of Little Big Horn fame, and the African-American U.S. 9th Cavalry Regiment and U.S. 10th Cavalry Regiment. These regiments, which rarely took the field as complete organizations, served throughout the Indian Wars through the close of the frontier in the 1890s.
The British Indian Army maintained about forty regiments of cavalry, officered by British and manned by Indian sowars (cavalrymen). The legendary exploits of this branch lives on in literature and early films. Among the more famous regiments in the lineages of modern Indian and Pakistani Armies are:
Several of these formations are still active, though they now are armoured formations, for example Guides Cavalry in Pakistan.
The French Army maintained substantial cavalry forces in Algeria and Morocco from 1830 until the Second World War. Much of the Mediterranean coastal terrain was suitable for mounted action and there was a long established culture of horsemanship amongst the Arab and Berber inhabitants. The French forces included Spahis, Chasseurs d' Afrique, Foreign Legion cavalry and mounted Goumiers.
At the beginning of the 20th century all armies still maintained substantial cavalry forces although there was contention over whether their role should revert to that of mounted infantry (the historic dragoon function). Following their experience of the South African War of 1899 - 1902 (where mounted Boer citizen commandos fighting on foot from cover proved superior to regular cavalry) the British Army withdrew lances for all but ceremonial purposes and placed a new emphasis on training for dismounted action. In 1908 the lancer regiments resumed this impressive but obsolete weapon. Between 1881 and 1910 the Imperial Russian Army converted all its line hussar, lancer and cuirassier regiments to dragoons with an emphasis on mounted infantry training. In 1910 they reverted to their historic roles, designations and uniforms.
In August 1914 all combatant armies still retained substantial numbers of cavalry and the mobile nature of the opening battles on both Eastern and Western Fronts provided a number of instances of traditional cavalry actions, though on a smaller and more scattered scale than those of previous wars. The Imperial German Cavalry, while as colourful and traditional as any in peacetime appearance, had adopted a practice of falling back on infantry support when any substantial opposition was encountered. These cautious tactics aroused derision amongst their more conservative French and Russian opponents but proved appropriate to the new nature of warfare. Once the front lines stabilised, a combination of barbed wire, machine guns and rapid fire rifles proved deadly to horse mounted troops. For the remainder of the War on the Western Front cavalry had virtually no role to play. The British and French armies dismounted many of their cavalry regiments and used them in infantry and other roles: the Life Guards for example as a machine gun corps; and the Australian Light Horse as light infantry during the Gallipoli campaign. The German Army dismounted nearly all their cavalry in the West.
Some cavalry were retained as mounted troops behind the lines in anticipation of a breakthrough of the trenches that it seemed would never come. Unfortunately these cavalry forces looked upon the new tanks that began to appear late in the war with derision, thus they did not support tank attacks aggressively. This had unfortunate consequences as the tanks were able to achieve breakthroughs but did not have the reliable range to exploit them. Since the cavalry was not on hand to exploit the breakthroughs, history recorded no significant role for cavalry in mechanized warfare, and post war planning in the allied nations replaced horse cavalry with mechanized cavalry.
In the wider spaces of the Eastern Front a more fluid form of warfare continued and there was some use for mounted troops, and some wide-ranging actions were fought, again mostly in the early months and years of the war. However, even here the value of cavalry was over-rated and the maintenance of large mounted formations at the front by the Russian Army put a major strain on the railway system, to little strategic advantage..
In the Middle East mounted forces (British, Indian, Turkish, Australian, Arab and New Zealand) retained an important role, though of the mounted infantry variety.
The last major cavalry battle was the Battle of Komarów in 1920. Colonial warfare in Morocco, Syria, the Middle East and the North West Frontier of India provided some opportunities for mounted action against enemies lacking advanced weaponry.
Interestingly the post-war German Army (Reichsheer) was permitted a large proportion of cavalry (18 regiments or 16.4% of total manpower) under the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles. The US Cavalry abandoned its sabres in 1934 and commenced the conversion of its horsed regiments to mechanised cavalry, starting with the First Regiment of Cavalry in January 1933.
In the British Army, all cavalry regiments were mechanised between 1929 and 1941, redefining their role from horse to armoured vehicles to form the Royal Armoured Corps together with the Royal Tank Regiment.
The thirty-nine regiments of the Indian Army were reduced to twenty-one as the result of a series of amalgamations immediately following World War I. The new establishment remained unchanged until 1936 when three regiments were redesignated as permanent training units, each with six, still mounted, regiments linked to them. In 1938 the process of mechanism began with the conversion of a full cavalry brigade (two Indian regiments and one British) to armoured car and tank units. By the end of 1940 all of the Indian cavalry had been mechanised, receiving light tanks, armoured cars or 15cwt trucks. The last horsed regiment of the Indian Army (other than the Viceregal Bodyguard and some Indian States Forces regiments) was the 19th King George's Own Lancers which had its last mounted parade at Rawalpindi on 28 October 1939. This unit still exists (though in the Pakistan Army) with an armour TOE.
During the 1930s the French Army experimented with integrating mounted and mechanised cavalry units into larger formations. Dragoon regiments were converted to motorised infantry (trucks and motor cycles), and cuirassiers to armoured units; while light cavalry (Chasseurs a' Cheval, Hussars and Spahis) remained as mounted sabre squadrons. The theory was that mixed forces comprising these diverse units could utilise the strengths of each according to circumstances. In practice mounted troops proved unable to keep up with fast moving mechanised units over any distance.
A popular myth is that Polish cavalry armed with lances charged German tanks during the September 1939 campaign. This arose from misreporting of a single clash on 1 September near Krojanty, when two squadrons of the Polish 18th Lancers armed with sabres scattered German infantry before being caught in the open by German armoured cars. Two examples illustrate how the myth developed. First, because motorised vehicles were in short supply, the Poles used horses to pull anti-tank weapons into position. Second, there were a few incidents when Polish cavalry was trapped by German tanks, and attempted to fight free. However, this did not mean that the Polish army chose to attack tanks with horse cavalry. Later, on the Eastern Front, the Red Army did deploy cavalry units effectively against the Germans. (See also Polish cavalry.)
A more correct term should be "mounted infantry" instead of "cavalry", as horses were primarily used as a means of transportation, for which they were very suitable in view of the very poor road conditions in pre-war Poland. Another myth describes Polish cavalry as being armed with both sabres and lances; lances were used for peacetime ceremonial purposes only and the primary weapon of the Polish cavalryman in 1939 was a rifle. Individual equipment did include a sabre, probably because of well-established tradition, but in the case of a melee combat this secondary weapon would probably be more effective than a rifle and bayonet. Moreover, the Polish cavalry brigade order of battle of 1939 included, apart from the mounted soldiers themselves, light and heavy machine guns (wheeled), anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapon, artillery, light and scout tanks, etc.
By the final stages of the war only the Soviet Union was still fielding mounted units in substantial numbers, some in combined mechanised and horse units. The advantage of this approach was that in exploitation mounted infantry could keep pace with advancing tanks. Other factors favouring the retention of mounted forces included the high quality of Russian Cossacks and other horse cavalry; and the relative lack of roads suitable for wheeled vehicles in many parts of the Eastern Front. Another consideration was that the logistic capacity required to support very large motorised forces exceeded that necessary for mounted troops.
Romanian, Hungarian and Italian cavalry had been dispersed or disbanded following the retreat of the Axis forces from Russia. Germany still maintained some mounted (mixed with bicycles) SS and Cossack units until the last days of the War. 18th Indian Cavalry Regiment (later 18 Cavalry of Indian Army), fought in a dismounted role, in Tobruk as part of 9th Australian Division. The US 26th Cavalry Regiment (PS); a small mounted regiment of Philippine Scouts, fought the Japanese during the retreat down the Bataan peninsula, until it was effectively destroyed by January 1942. All British cavalry had been mechanised since 1942 and the last horsed US Cavalry (the Second Cavalry Division) were dismounted in March 1944.
The final cavalry charge by British Empire forces occurred on 21 March 1942 when a 60 strong patrol of the Burma Frontier Force encountered Japanese infantry near Toungoo airfield in central Burma. The Sikh sowars of the Frontier Force cavalry, led by Captain Arthur Sandeman, charged in the old style with sabres and most were killed.
The last substantive and successful classical cavalry charge of the war was probably that made by a cavalry unit of the Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia (Corpo di Spedizione Italiano in Russia, or CSIR) on the Eastern Front. A charge by the 3rd Dragoons Savoia Cavalry Regiment of the Prince Amedeo Duke of Aosta Fast (Celere) Division was not only made, but it was successfully made.
The Soviet Army retained horse cavalry divisions until 1955, and even at the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was a separate horsed cavalry squadron in Kyrgyzstan.
Several armored divisions of the modern United States Army retain the designation of "cavalry". The United States also had "air cavalry" units equipped with helicopters, though that designation has fell out of use, with the term Air Assault coined for that mission and modern "cavalry" being retained for ground-based mobility.
While most modern "cavalry" units have some historic connection with formerly mounted troops this is not always the case. The modern Irish Defence Force (IDF) includes a "Cavalry Corps" equipped with Panhard armoured cars and Scorpion tracked combat reconnaissance vehicles. The Irish Defense Force has never included horse cavalry since its establishment in 1922 (other than a small mounted escort drawn from the Artillery Corps when required for ceremonial occasions). However, the mystique of the cavalry is such that the name has been introduced for what was always a mechanised force.
Some engagements in late twentieth and early twenty first century guerrilla wars involved mounted troops, particularly against partisan or guerrilla fighters in areas with poor transport infrastructure. Such units were not used as cavalry but rather as mounted infantry. Examples occurred in Afghanistan, Portuguese Africa and Rhodesia. The French Army used existing mounted squadrons of Spahis to a limited extent for patrol work during the Algerian War (1954-62) and the Swiss Army maintained a mounted dragoon regiment for combat purposes until 1973. There were reports of Chinese mounted troops in action during frontier clashes with Vietnam in the mid 1970s. The Portuguese Army used horse mounted cavalry with some success in the wars of independence in Angola and Mozambique in the 1960s and 1970s. During the 1964-79 Rhodesian Bush War the Rhodesian Army created an elite mounted infantry unit called Grey's Scouts to fight unconventional actions against the rebel forces of Robert Mugabe and Joseph Nkomo. The horse mounted infantry of the Scouts were very effective and feared by their opponents in the rebel African forces. In the 1978 to present Afghan Civil War there have been several instances of horse mounted combat.
South and Central American armies maintained mounted cavalry longer than those of Europe, Asia or North America. The Mexican Army included a number of horse mounted cavalry regiments as late as the mid 1990s and the Chilean Army had five such regiments in 1983 as mounted mountain troops (see Jane's "Armed Forces of Latin America" by Adrian J. English).
A number of armored regiments in the British Army retain the historic designations of Hussars, Dragoons, Dragoon Guards or Lancers. Only the Household Cavalry squadrons maintained for ceremonial duties in London are mounted.
Cavalry or mounted gendarmerie units continue to be maintained for purely or primarily ceremonial purposes by the United States, British, French, Italian, Danish, Swedish, Dutch, Chilean, Portuguese, Moroccan, Nigerian, Venezuelan, Brazilian, Peruvian, Paraguayan, Polish, Argentine, Senegalese, Jordanian, Pakistani, Indian, Nepalese, Spanish and Bulgarian armed forces. The Army of the Russian Federation has recently reintroduced a ceremonial mounted squadron wearing historic uniforms.
In the United States, the Horse Cavalry Detachment of the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division is made up of active duty soldiers, still functions as an active unit, trained to approximate the weapons, tools, equipment and techniques used by the United States Cavalry in the 1880s. In addition, the Parsons' Mounted Cavalry is a Reserve Officer Training Corps unit which forms part of the Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M University.
The French Army still has regiments with the historic designations of Cuirassiers, Hussars, Chasseurs, Dragoons and Spahis. Only the cavalry of the Republican Guard and a ceremonial fanfare (trumpeters) for the cavalry/armoured branch as a whole are now mounted.
In the Canadian Army, a number of regular and reserve units have cavalry roots, including The Royal Canadian Hussars (Montreal), the Governor General's Horse Guards, Lord Strathcona's Horse, the Royal Canadian Dragoons, and the South Alberta Light Horse. Of these, only the Governor General's Horse Guards maintains an official ceremonial horse mounted cavalry squadron.
Both the Australian and New Zealand Armies follow the British practice of maintaining traditional titles (Light Horse or Mounted Rifles) for modern mechanised units. However, neither country retains a horse mounted unit.
Today, the Indian Army's 61st Cavalry is reported to be the only remaining non-ceremonial horse-mounted cavalry in the world.. It was raised in 1951 from the amalgamated state cavalry squadrons of Gwailior, Jodhpur, and Mysore. The 61st Cavalry together with the President's Body Guard parade in full dress uniform in New Delhi each year in what is probably the largest assembly of traditional cavalry still to be seen in the world. Both the Indian and Pakistan Armies maintain a number of armoured regiments with the titles of Lancers or Horse, dating back to the nineteenth century.
As of 2007 the Chinese People's Liberation Army employs two battalions of horse cavalry in Xinjing Military District for border patrol work (see China-Defense.com website). In the wake of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake there have been calls to rebuild the army horse inventory for disaster relief in difficult terrain.
Early light cavalry (like the auxiliaries of the Roman army) were typically used to scout and skirmish and to cut down retreating infantry and for defeating enemy missile troops. Armoured cavalry like the Byzantine Cataphract were used as shock troops — they would charge the main body of the enemy and in many cases, their actions decided the outcome of the battle, hence the later term "battle cavalry".
During the Gunpowder Age, armored cavalry began to approach obsolescence. However, many units retained cuirasses and helmets for their protective value against sword and bayonet strikes and the morale boost these provide to the wearers. By this time the main difference between light and battle cavalry was their training; the former was regarded as a tool for harassment and reconnaissance, while the latter was considered best for close-order charges.
Since the development of armored warfare the distinction between light and heavy armor has persisted basically along the same lines. Armored cars and light tanks have adopted the reconnaissance role while medium and heavy tanks are regarded as the decisive shock troops.
For this reason, and because of their often decisive military role, the cavalry has typically been associated with high social status. This was most clearly seen in the feudal system, where a lord was expected to enter combat armored and on horseback and bring with him an entourage of peasants on foot. If landlords and peasants came into conflict, the peasants would be ill-equipped to defeat armored knights.
In later national armies, service as an officer in the cavalry was generally a badge of high social status. For instance prior to 1914 most officers of British cavalry regiments came from a socially privileged background and the considerable expenses associated with their role generally required private means, even after it became possible for officers of the line infantry regiments to live on their pay. Options open to poorer cavalry officers in the various European armies included service with less fashionable (though often highly professional) frontier or colonial units. These included the British Indian cavalry, the Russian Cossacks or the French Chasseurs d' Afrique.
During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries most monarchies maintained a mounted cavalry element in their royal or imperial guards. These ranged from small units providing ceremonial escorts and palace guards through to large formations intended for active service. The mounted escort of the Spanish Royal Household provided an example of the former and the twelve cavalry regiments of the Prussian Imperial Guard an example of the latter. In either case the officers of such units were likely to be drawn from the aristocracies of their respective societies.