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Weapons of World War One:
A soldier fighting from horseback is one of the oldest forms of warfare known to man. A mounted warrior has the advantage of greater height, speed, and inertial mass over foot soldiers. A wall of cavalrymen rushing toward infantry at great speed can often cause shock and panic, which can break an enemy line before it ever reaches it. The speed of cavalry also allows them to exploit gaps or breaks in enemy lines or carry out flanking maneuvers. They could quickly move into enemy territory on raids and escape before resistance was mobilized. Cavalry also played an important role in reconnaissance and in screening their own army’s position from enemy probes. In the years preceding the Great War, cavalry was still a substantial component of every nation’s army. There were debates over the types of cavalry that were most useful in modern warfare but not over the need for them.
In August 1914, while the Germans were besieging Liege, they sent a cavalry corps over the Meuse just north of the city and dashed for Louvain. Blocking their way were dismounted Belgian cavalry defending a bridge. In the ensuing battle of Haelen the Germans were repulsed with heavy losses. At the time it was hailed as a great Allied victory, but it only represented one of numerous small actions that took place on the Western Front early in the War. By October when a continuous line of trenches were laid between the Swiss Alps and the English Channel the usefulness of cavalry had vanished. They could not approach an entrenched line with any hope of survival, and without any flanks to turn they could only sit and wait.
Entanglements such as barbed wire were not meant to stop an infantry attack but slow it down long enough so those trying to cross over it could be shot down before they could reach a manned line. If a major obstacle for a soldier, it was even worse for cavalry that could not carefully make their way through it. Some cards graphically show the horrific consequences of a horses that strayed into fields of barbed wire. It was the presence of all this wire that largely kept cavalry off the battlefield.
Even after the trench line on the Western Front was established, great amounts of cavalry were still held in reserve, for most generals deemed this situation unnatural and thought it only a temporary phase in the conflict. When Germany refocused its attention on the Eastern Front and developed a defensive policy in the West, it became apparent that trenches were here to stay. The great reserves of cavalry at hand were still kept on the ready because the new Allied strategy would attempted to punch large holes in the enemy line that cavalry were needed to exploit. The largest attempt to implement this strategy came at the Battle of the Somme in the summer of 1916. A cavalry charge was made at High Wood in July but an opportunity never arose to make a real breakthrough. Hopes were raise in 1917 when the introduction of tanks promised to punch holes in the German trench line. Defenses were breached but they were never held open long enough for cavalry to play is scripted role.
For the most part cavalry units deployed on the Eastern Front were able to play their traditional role. The front line here was not continuous, which meant that cavalry had many gaps to exploit and they could be used in a fluid manner. Cavalry was also important because the War was fought over a great expanse where poor roads discouraged the use of motorized vehicles. Even with these advantages the expanded power of rifle fire and the use of machine guns made cavalry attacks against infantry more dangerous than ever, and unlikely to succeed. Only the Germans initiated a practical policy for their cavalry units to fall back on infantry support if seriously challenged. Those in command of cavalry units did not take kindly to this doctrine. They generally saw themselves in elitist terms, and were reluctant to give up their traditional ways of fighting even if they no longer made sense. Success on the battlefield was seen as a matter of character not weaponry.
Even if overall policy forbid cavalry from engaging in battles on their own, commanders in the field could not always pass the temptation. A prime example is the Battle of Jaroslavic fought in August 1914 between an Austro-Hungarian and a Russian cavalry division out in Galicia. At this early stage cavalry commanders looked down at dismounted fighting as being cowardly, and both sides made an impetuous rush into battle without infantry support. This was the largest cavalry battle of the War, and it was reproduced on many postcards. Though the Russians were victorious, the engagement was reproduced on many Austro-Hungarian cards because the public’s great romantic associations with cavalry battles made such imagery highly desirable.
Another battle fought on the Galician front was that of Krasnik. While not an engagement of major consequence, it was the first Austro-Hungarian victory over the Russians and as such depictions of it made there way onto many postcards. Even though more cavalry fought here than at Jaroslavic, both sides together deploying over five divisions of cavalry, it was primarily an infantry battle. Despite this it is cavalry that is most often used to represent this battle on cards due to the public’s fascination with them.
Cavalry units played a vital role on the Middle East Front, which often required mobile forces to achieve results. Here British, Indian, Ottoman, Australian, Arab and New Zealand troopers were all active in the Sinai and Palestine Campaigns. One of the few successful charges against a defensive position anywhere took place in October of 1917 at Beersheba. Here Australian light cavalry quickly gained the enemy position, and then took it through hand to hand combat. Unfortunately the battle taught many the wrong lesson; they thought this proved that cavalry can be effective in charging trenches without considering there was no barbed wire obstacles here to impede them. Cavalry would also play a pivotal role in September 1918 at the Battle of Megiddo. Once the Ottoman defenses were breached, the Desert Mounted Corps rushed in far behind their lines nearly surrounding them.
Many units fighting in the Middle East and Africa turned to the traditional use of Camels for mobility as they were better suited than horses when operating in extreme environments. The British began corralling camels in lower Egypt on Lord Kitchner’s advice early in the War, and by 1916 the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade was formed that fought in all campaigns of that region. Camel mounted troops were common in the Ottoman Empire and they played a major role in the Arab Revolt. German troops fighting alongside Turks were sometimes mounted on camels. The Germans also fielded a Camel Corps while fighting in South West Afrika. None of these units however were officially designated as cavalry.
Eventually realizing their ineffectualness on the Western Front, the Allies would reduce their cavalry by about 80 percent, sending the remaining men to fight in the front lines as infantry. The Germans would eventually dissolve nearly all their cavalry units. This move wasn’t just a reaction to needing more men at the front; horses ate 15 to 35 pounds of hay and oats per day, about ten times as much food by weight as a humans, and supplying them was a monumental task. The bulk of American aid to its Allies in Europe came not in the form of munitions but in feed for horses. In periods of successful U-boat warfare or bad harvests, dwindling feed rations curtailed military operations and many animals died of starvation.
Although the British gained some ground in 1917, these were small advances with more cavalrymen fighting as infantry despite the mounted reserves. Postcards sometimes acknowledged this fact in their narratives but still pictured cavalry on the move because that is what the audience at home expected. The only real use of cavalry this year came in April when the British mistakingly thought they achieved a breakthrough at Monchy-le-Preux and impetuously rushed their horsemen into disaster. When the German lines on the Western Front finally collapsed in the last months of 1918, what remained of the British cavalry was finally able to act as an advanced screen but this was not the role envisioned. Although the Germans fell back there were no major breakthroughs to exploit or German cavalry left to battle with. Coming so late in the conflict, this active cavalry role was generally overlooked by postcard publishers.
By the time the Americans entered the War, shortages of infantry to man the trenches had forced commanders to tap into cavalry units that had long been held in reserve. Nearly all German cavalry was dismounted and formed into special regiments (Schutzen Regimenter). In any case the United States was never able to ship enough horses to Europe to satisfy its needs. American cavalry saw some combat in the offensives at St. Mihel and on the Meuse, but they also usually fought dismounted in battle. Some American commanders lamented that their cavalry forces were not large enough to take advantage of the disintegrating German defenses, but this might be more in line with romantic fantasies than critical assessments when considering cavalry’s role up to this point.
Swords are not just weapons but instruments that hold great symbolic significance. They define a warrior by associating the man with past glories and chivalric ideals. As such they are often involved in rituals. It was not only common for professional cavalrymen was to have their sabers sharpened before going off to war, they were often blessed as well. This habit was also extended toward the officers of many armies who were still issued sabers as a sidearm. By World War One these weapons, at least for officers, were primarily ceremonial though many still carried them onto the battlefield. It was common for soldiers to have photographs taken of themselves before going off to war. If they were issued a saber then posing with it became an important part of this ritual. These images were largely distributed as postcards, though not necessarily mailed.
There are numerous postcards depicting cavalry charges and combat with sabers drawn high, but they are based more on 19th century traditions of romantic painting than the reality of modern warfare. While cavalrymen did carry sabers, they were also usually armed with carbines, and in the case of the British, rifles. Most often they would fire these guns from a dismounted position but this did not fit into the public’s expectations. To sell postcards they had to align with the myths that people were comfortable with. Many cards of cavalry actions were produced as generics so that they could satisfy public taste without contradicting facts. The numbers they were produced in however distort the use of cavalry in the War.
Cavalry often saw combat as the result of raids. These were common on the Eastern Front because neither side had enough troops to form a continuous line. The goal of these raids was not to launch attacks but to harass and disrupt enemy communications and supply lines. As undramatic as this sounds, it was a common subject on postcards, perhaps because the narrative was easy to understand. German publishers produced postcards depicting cavalry raids by all the belligerents, but they were only shown to be successful when conducted by German cavalry.
Much of cavalry’s duties consisted of patrol and reconnaissance. While this was an unglamorous task it was another theme that was still well represented on postcards. Sometimes a few cavalrymen are depicted meandering through the quiet of the countryside, at other times they can be seen keeping a watchful eye on the enemy. They are a reminder that there are many ways soldiers serve outside of battle, and these are necessary tasks to keep all safe. In this way they are performing just like sentries, which is another very common theme on postcards.
Another subject that was popular as a military theme long before the Great War was dueling cavalrymen. Sometimes this is nothing more than a single pair of men engaged in hand to hand combat that have been isolated by the artist from the larger battle surrounding them. While there are similar cards of infantrymen, those compositions that contain at least one mounted figure are the most common. The romance surrounding cavalry as a special branch of service was not only felt by the cavalry but by the postcard buying public at large. This theme was often romanticized further in scenes of a single isolated cavalryman being hunted down by his enemy. Despite the odds he makes a last heroic effort to fight back. What all these cards have in common is the reduction of an unfathomable war into a scale where individual abilities and will still matter.
Like any other type of military equipment, horses needed to be maintained to ensure they would perform to their best ability. Unlike other military equipment they had to be maintained whether they were in use or not as their physical condition could deteriorate rapidly. Not only did they have to be constantly fed, they also needed proper shelter and medical care. While not numerous, this undramatic aspect of cavalry was also captured on printed and real photo postcards depicting stables and blacksmiths.
Horses were not only maimed or killed in battle, the deprivations and demands placed on them at the front caused many to just wear out beyond their capacity to continue preforming their duties. Their was a constant need for new horses, and this was largely organized through the British Remount Department. Not only did they supply horses to the British army, they grew to become a major multinational horse trading business that also supplied other Allied nations. Demands were so great that the supply of the best mounts quickly dwindled, and the Remount Department’s task of finding horses grew even more difficult after years of procurement. This was especially true for breeds like Clydesdales that were used to haul guns. Even after all this work, not all these animals made it to the front; thousands died when their transports went down in the U-boat war. While not common, postcards can be found depicting the transport of horses to Europe.
Cavalry is an all-encompassing term for mounted fighters, but over the centuries this occupation grew ever more specialized. Cuirassiers, the one with a cuirass (armored breastplate), evolved from the fully armored 15th century knight, to a more lightly armored warrior whose only armor was a helmet and breastplate. Russia, Germany, and France all used Cuirassiers as heavy Cavalry during the Great War but only French troopers continued to wear breastplates in battle, at least until October of 1915. Though still an effective defense against saber blows and the bayonet, this type of armor had long lost its usefulness when up against bullets, which most cavalry now faced. There are many French postcards showing their armored Cuirassiers in bright uniforms engaged in combat.
The term Dragoon once referred to a mounted infantryman. They were trained to fight on foot, and only rode horses to gain greater mobility. By World War One the term was more traditional than meaningful as they basically all performed as light cavalry carrying out reconnaissance, scouting and screening. The nature of modern warfare had generally made it too difficult for cavalry to engage in traditional tactics; most units ended up fighting on foot. There were however some traditional cavalry to cavalry encounters but they tended to be small in scale unlike centuries past.
Hussars were another type of armored heavy cavalry that first appeared in late 15th century Hungary, and they became the backbone of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. By World War One they were still being used in the armies of Austria-Hungary, Great Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Romania, and Russia, but they had largely taken on the form of light cavalry units. Austria-Hungarian and Russian Hussars both continued to wear red breeches into battle, which now makes them easy to identify on postcards.
Chasseurs were originally organized as a combination of infantry and cavalry trained as light forces for rapid movement. By World War One the term was only used by the French to designate light units of elite alpine troops. There were however the chasseurs d’Afrique, which were exclusively made up of Algerian cavalry. They were primarily used for reconnaissance but postcards tend to show them engaged in combat probably because the added drama increased sales.
One of the oldest weapons to be used by cavalry was the lance, and thus those who fought with them were termed lancers. As time went on only light cavalry were still referred to as lancers since cuirassiers, hussars, and dragoons also often carried lances, which was especially the case in Germany. Though an ancient weapon, it was more of a romantic holdover than of practical use by World War One. Those with a forward looking vision had removed the lance from their nation’s arsenal before the War, but traditionalists lobbied to bring it back into service and were sometimes successful as in the case of Great Britain. Cavalry units of Belgium, India, Germany, Italy, and the Ottoman Empire also used lances going into the Great War though they found their greatest use on the Eastern Front.
The Uhlan is another term for a mounted lancer that originated in Poland but was primarily used by the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Polish Legion cavalry during World War One. Many of these troopers were dismounted as the war dragged on but their name remained so popular that nearly all cavalry units of the Central Powers were eventually referred to as Uhlans. Since Germany was the largest producer of postcards, it is the Uhlan that became the most widely depicted type of cavalryman. The true Uhlan is distinguishable by his square-topped, based on the czapka traditionally worn by Polish lancers.
There were also cavalry regiments that were given special attention on postcards because of their long regimental history. The Royal Scots Greys was such a unit that fought for Great Britain since 1707, and gained legendary status for their charge at the Battle of Waterloo. At some point in their early history they came to be mounted on all grey horses, and thus their name. Though they were dyed brown during the Great War so not to give away the units designation to the enemy, they were still pictured on postcards in their legendary color. They fought as cavalry at Mons, but were soon dismounted when more infantry were needed to man the trenches.
Not all noted cavalry regiments came from Europe. The Bengal lancers were one of these, made up of a number of Indian regiments that held legendary designations associated with the old Bengal Army. After Great Britain strengthened its grip over the region, these troops were eventually assimilated into the Indian Army but the romance that surrounded them continued to flourish. They were often singled out for special attention on postcards because of there exotic nature that was enhanced by the backdrop of the Western Front. Though usually depicted with lances to match the expectations of the postcard buying audience, many wound up fighting as infantry in the trenches.
Cossacks were another type of light cavalryman that sometimes used a lance when fighting for the Russian Empire but their distinction goes well beyond that. These are ancestors of the Kievian Rus that were incorporated into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania when the Mongols retreated eastwards. Still subject to Tartar raids, they took up their own defense becoming a militaristic society of Cossacks (Free Warriors) in the process. By World War One their lands had been assimilated into the Russian Ukraine but these tribal people still kept up many of their traditions and mobilized their entire society for war. The Russians provided them with rifles but they were allowed to carry traditional family weapons as well.
By 1914 the image of the Cossack had become a common stereotype to denote Russians or exceptional horsemanship. Western publishers had the greatest fascination for them, and they are probably the most common Russian subject to be found on Allied postcards. Few might know their history or that there were different types of Cossacks from different regions, but nearly all had heard of them and believed them to be an asset to the shared cause. Russian publishers also had a fascination with them and Cossacks appear on many of their cards. These did not have to be realistic portrayals as they were conveying myth rather news.
Cossacks were basically organized into two battle groups. The Steppe Cossacks wore an ordinary uniform while the Caucasian Cossacks fought in their traditional tribal dress with black Kaftan headgear and rough woolen coats. Since Austria and Germany dominated postcard production depicting the Eastern Front, most representations of Cossacks show them in flight, often with Uhlans close behind. In reality the Russian cavalry was probably the best trained of all the belligerents, and many had entered the War with practical experience gained from the battlefields of the Russo-Japanese War. During the Great War Cossacks made up about half of all cavalry serving Russia.
Another stereotype to be found of Cossacks on German and Austro-Hungarian postcards is that of pillager. They are often shown burning villages, and then fleeing at the first sign of the enemy. While this is meant to convey the derogatory message that they only know how to destroy not fight. The Russians did have a scorched earth policy designed to prevent the advancing enemy from finding desperately needed supplies. Cossacks were well suited to carry out this mission.
In conspicuous contrast to depictions of Cossacks, the cavalrymen of Germany and Austria-Hungry are shown peacefully fraternizing with the civilians they encounter in enemy territory. Men offer directions while women offer refreshing drinks. There can even be brief moments of flirtation to be found. These depictions can be so serene that they could almost pass for typical genre paintings of the countryside if the mounted men were not in uniform. Their behavior is truly exemplary considering they are fighting a war.
Postcards, especially from Austria-Hungry, depict the strong emotional bond formed between the trooper and his horse. There are scenes of cavalry men tending to their wounded horse, scenes of horses crying out in rage as they stand before the body of their fallen rider. Sometimes horses even seek out their wounded master in hospitals for a sentimental reunion.
By showing the close bond between a cavalryman and his horse, publishers were able to contrast the more human side of their soldiers with the bloodthirsty enemy. This obvious play for emotions also appealed to many animal loving customers and increased sales. While there were propaganda and financial incentives for pursuing these types of depiction, it does not necessarily make these events unreal. There are also real photo cards of the same pairings that also express a true emotional bonding. Most of these are personal snapshots that were never meant for mass reproduction.
Some postcards were specifically published to honor the bonding between animals and man. This theme is sometimes found in images of War Dogs and their handlers, but it is most often expressed in depictions of cavalrymen and their horses. It was a way of softening the image of the man taken from his everyday life with his family to play the role of a killer. It was a careful line for publishers to walk. The warrior must be strong and capable of protecting the homeland while demonstrating traits of honor that would be suitable to embrace when he returns home from war.
When one thinks of horses and war, the first image conjured up is usually that of a cavalryman. Horses of course were the backbone of military transport during the Great War for both supplies and artillery. Artillery horses are rarely depicted outside of their role of moving guns or getting wounded in the process. If there is a romantic aspect to their presentation it is primarily in their ability to achieve the task assigned to them. There are however some exceptions that show the same bonding between horses and artillerymen as found with depictions of cavalry. These cards are also meant to show the more human side of soldiers.
None of these emotional expressions by Austrian cavalrymen is by accident as they seem to fit into a larger cultural model. These cavalrymen are no ordinary warriors focused solely on the destruction of their enemy; they are depicted helping wounded comrades, romancing young peasant girls, and praying at roadside alters. Some have suggested that this lack of toughness represents a feminizing influence, but it really seems to harken back to the chivalrous conduct expected of knights. It was a socially accepted compromise that allowed good Christians to kill. There was a great deal of romance surrounding the cavalry, so much that there are a disproportionate number of postcards depicting their activities when compared to their actual performance. There was nothing new to this for the cavalry had been well romanticized in both word and art for centuries.
The high casualty rate among horses was not the result of callous treatment but the realities of war. Horses were considered essential to the war effort as they not only served in the cavalry but pulled ambulances and transported guns and supplies. They were not an unlimited resource and by 1917 Generals often considered the loss of a horse worse than that of a soldier. Knowing the severe hardships their losses caused, horses were often specifically targeted for destruction. In some armies, horses were treated at veterinary hospitals specifically set up for their care. While the British Army Veterinary Corps, sometimes aided by Blue Cross workers saved the lives of over a half million horses, such care was not available everywhere and cavalrymen often had to tend to their wounded mounts as best they could. While the Blue Cross published their own charity cards, they often overprinted their message on the backs of other publisher’s cards with related subject matter.
Horses died in the war in the same way soldiers did; gunshot wounds, artillery fire, and even poison gas. They also died of exhaustion and by breaking bones when they fell into deep shell holes. Their presence in damp trenches made them susceptible to skin disease for which there was not always medicine to cure. Sometimes they just starved to death. About 25 percent of horses serving the military died in combat alone during the war, which means millions. This darker side to the War was also captured on many postcards.
The shattered remains of horses may seem an unsuitable subject for postcards and yet they were published in high numbers. Their disfigured carouses become the symbols of war’s true cost on many printed postcards. They often serve as a substitute for a fallen soldier who cannot be portrayed in as gruesome of fashion because of censorship or social convention. Real photo postcards that were informally produced have no such restrictions and often show dead horses and men lying side by side on the battlefield.