Author: Stephen Badsey
Publisher: Ashgate, Aldershot and Burlington (Vermont) (July 2008)
It is a truth universally acknowledged that British generals clung to a belief in the cavalry. The Charge of the Light Brigade, the industrial war between the American states, the increase in firepower with machine guns and quick-firing artillery, the invention of smokeless powder and magazine rifles all meant long before 1914 that the day of the horseman on the battlefield was over. Still the generals kept their illusions. Behind the trenches of the Western Front waited innumerable glorious cavalry regiments, pennons on lances fluttering in the breeze, anticipating a break-through that never came, their horses consuming vast amounts of fodder, their very presence clogging up supply lines and tactical thinking alike.
Readers of the Marquis of Anglesey's magisterial History of the British Cavalry will know that the foregoing is ill-informed, but still widely believed. Now .Stephen Badsey's widely researched, carefully argued and absorbing book should deliver another body blow to this incomplete view. Badsey's thesis,expanded from his Ph.D. work, is that until the development after 1918 of armoured vehicles with cross-country speed and capabilities equal to that of horsed soldiers, the cavalry had a vital part to play on the battlefield.
He concentrates on British thinking and practice, with references to foreign comparisons. He takes us through the cavalry-versus-Mounted Infantry arguments of the Wolseley years and the part played by Sir John French's cavalry division in early 1900 enabling Lord Roberts to turn the tide of war in South Africa; makes a carefully reasoned case that Roberts's prejudice against cavalry embittered the latter's attitude towards reform, although already cavalry commanders were aware that their men must use rifle as well as the arme blanche ('cold steel'); and describes continued cavalry debate and reform in the years before 1914 even as society was adopting the car and the airplane was taking to the skies. His last and longest chapter falls after the period of Soldiers of the Queen, but shows how on the Western Front at squadron and sometimes regimental level cavalry had a serious role, and in the Middle East under Allenby cavalry triumphed over the Turks. His account reaches its climax in 1918 with the twin victories of Beersheba (or Megiddo) in which the cavalry role has always been known, and Amiens (8 August 1918) in which they fitted into General Lord Rawlinson's all-arms attack, a fact ignored in many accounts.
It is, as the author movingly tells us, a story 'of courage, death and occasionally of black farce'. He quotes from participants what it was really like to be in a cavalry charge; not the first to do so, but in a way that particularly illustrates the blood-lust that may overcome men in battle and the reaction that sets in afterwards. Moving and persuasive is his account of the charge of Canadian cavalry led by the wonderfully-named and heroic Lieutenant Flowerdew who won a posthumous V.C. in March, 1918, the charge frustrating German attempts to reach Amiens by its moral force as well as skewering seventy Germans with sabres.
Breadth of research and clarity of writing cannot be faulted. I would differ with Badsey's view that coming war in South Africa was known by June (the Salisbury ministry thought until September the Boers would back down), that Roberts left Kitchener in charge of fighting at Paardeberg (on 21 February he sent him south to oversee to lines of communication), and I reckon Roberts's dispatches in W032 show he had a good idea of what the cavalry had achieved. A really determined anti-cavalry fanatic could pose the rhetorical question, 'What did the cavalry achieve compared to artillery in 1914-1918?' That last would miss the point (cavalry and guns both had a part in the all-arms battle), and the others are small niggles. Everyone interested in the history of British cavalry, and indeed of the British Army in this period, should read this book. Do not be put off by the rather dull title, which presumably comes from its being first in the Birmingham Studies in First World War History. It is fascinating and informative. It is also beautifully produced. Photographs reproduce moments described in the text. If you cannot afford the £58, persuade your library to acquire a copy.