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24th January 2005When is cavalry not cavalry?
By Paul Cubbin
In one of the articles below, Peter Ewart poses a small but interesting question that I think deserves a little wider attention.
Just when can mounted soldiers be classed as cavalry and when as mounted infantry? Now, the obvious answer is to say, 'Why, if they are meant to dismount to fight they are infantry and if they fight whilst mounted they are cavalry.' But many cavalry regiments already dismounted to fire and the line was probably blurring even way back in the seventeenth century as dragoons became popular. Does the answer lie in the ability and expectation to charge? For 'irregulars' such as the Natal Mounted Police and Frontier Light Horse, is it even worth attempting to define them as one or the other as they would undoubtably have been expected to do either action as circumstances dictated. The small number of Boer volunteers were certainly proficient at firing from the saddle and from the ground, so where do we file them?
25th January 2005Graham Alexander
Cavalry was originally considered to be any force who were carried to the battlefield by a horse. As the role of cavalry changed throughout the years, so did their use. In the
" Golden age " of cavalry during the Napoleonic wars, heavy cavalry had a role to break opposing cavalry. Medium cavalry, when using firearms performed the role of Dragoons, being trained to fight on foot as well as on horse. Light cavalry were usually armed with lancers and performed the roles of reconaissance and pursuit of the enemy.
Conventional. ie. regular cavalry, rarely if ever, fought on foot, until the power of the modern rifle forced them to take cover behind their steed or any other shelter that they could find.
Lord Chelmsford's irregulars performed the roles of scouts but could not be considered capable of actually launching a concentrated charge against an unbroken enemy. They were quite happy to fire at the enemy from a distance and retire on their horse as the Zulus closed in on them. To define their role is difficult as their uses were many.
When the Imperial lancers finally arrived in South Africa, they were not used as a shock force to confront the Zulus. They never charged at Ulundi until the Zulus had started to waver and break.

25th January 2005Julian whybra
Basically, cavalry was intended to fight on horseback and were trained a such.
Mounted infantry were intended to fight on foot - the fact they were mounted merely allows them to be moved swiftly about the battlefield/terrain - a C19 equivalent of mechanised infantry.
25th January 2005Mike Snook

Can't agree with your opening line I'm afraid. But am entirely d'accord with the rest of your post. Lots of very examples exist of infantrymen who rode to battle but dismounted to fight one.

1066. King Harold's thegns and housecarls travelled to York to fight Hadrada and back again to Hastings to fight the Normans. They rode. But their tactic was the famous Anglo-Saxon shieldwall. They were infantrymen par excellence.

Hundred Year War. Many of the Anglo/Welsh infantry - archers rode - but fought on foot.

1513. Flodden. Many English troops rode north to meet the Scots but fought on foot with bills and bows.


The crucial difference between cavalry and mounted infantry is the matter of shock action - hence the weapons with which a horseman is equipped. If he carries neither lance or sabre - then he is MI. A cavalryman, has lance or sabre, (or sometimes both - vide 1914), AND a carbine. A MI bloke has only a carbine. Traditionally light cavalry scout and heavy cavalry charge - though in practice shortage of cavalry often led to light cavalry charging too. MI is something you improvise to do your scouting when you haven't got any (or enough) real light cavalry.

If you want a very real idea of what a heavy cavalryman is like, and is all about, then there is a time machine you can resort to. (HG Wells eat you heart out!) Go and watch the Trot Past of the Household Cavalry on the Queen's Birthday parade (also televised annually as you will know - but you can't feel the ground shake in your sitting room, like you can at Horse Guards!!) Look at the horses. These are the same bloodstock that charged at Waterloo and Balaclava (Heavy Bde not that cissy Light Bde!!). These horses come from where the army has always got its horses from - Ireland. They are the best cavalry horses in the world. And they are massive!!

You might find a MI guy on a pony - the size of his horse doesn't matter. But get a look at those guys on Horse Guards and you will know at once what a cavalryman is!!

Size of horse. Weaponry. Shock Action or not. These were what defined Cavalry or MI.

'Dragoon' is a real danger area and it's best not to go there unless you are writing a military history of mounted warfare!!

Boers were MI. NMP FLH et al were MI. None of these charged - nor would they ever have been expected to. Charge is not the same thing as ride your horse fast towards the enemy or in pursuit of the enemy.


25th January 2005Mike Snook
Sorry - point of amplification - a lancer will always have a sabre too because lances break or stick in victims - they are pretty much a one shot weapon. Then its sabres.

25th January 2005Graham Alexander
Just in order to clarify my opening statement a little, I have blown the dust off my books which cover the earliest form of mounted troops. What I wanted to impart was that the first organised armies ie. Assyrian and Persian, although having cavalry units, used them only as a supporting arm of their infantry. The riders would reach the battlefield, dismount and use their bows. Fighting from horseback had not, at this early period, yet found a defined role.
I could not agree with you more about
" Heavy " cavalry horses. The size and power of these animals is just awesome. Without the ability to form a defensive square, infantry would be simply brushed aside by these massive yet gentle creatures. It was a complete shame that horseflesh had no defence against a bullet.
25th January 2005Paul Cubbin
So really, the bottom line is armament? Heavy, medium, light CAVALRY were armed with a hand weapon for mounted engagement, whereas MOUNTED INFANTRY, although they may have charged down opponents occasionally, were armed to fight at a distance (preferably dismounted) - is that right?
Is so, that clears it up nicely. Just a another one then. Is this sufficient purely for this period of engagement of is it a general definition? I enquire because one of the most interesting (and overlooked) periods of conflict in my humble opinion is the First World War in Palestine. I regard it as the last successful 'Hurrah!' of cavalry in large scale operations. There were, of course, cavalry units equipped with the lance, but many (and I'm interested specifically in the Australian Light Horse) with rifle armed and dismounted to fight - but they were still designated as cavalry! You can see why I get confused (by the way, I still don't know the difference between a ship and a boat).
25th January 2005Keith Smith

Mike is perfectly correct in his analysis of the difference between cavalry and MI. The two troops of the Mounted Native Contingent with Durnford at Isandlwana were certainly MI. From the sources it is plain that in their retreat to the donga, they dismounted alternately by troop to fire at the advancing Zulu, then mounted and retreated again. I believe that Buller's FLH also used the same tactic.

26th January 2005Peter Quantrill
Post Isandlwana, the role played by the mounted infantry in the AZW was crucial in the tactical and stategic thinking of both Chelmsford, Wood, Buller and Newdigate.
The 17th Lancers and King's Dragoon Guards completed Marshall's imperial cavalry,( under Newdigate) whilst under Buller command were the motley volunteers of Baker's Horse, Bettington's Horse, Raaff's Transvaal Rangers, D'Arcy's Frontier Light Horse, Whalley's Natal Light Horse. In addition Cochrane and Shepstone, commanding the Natal Native Horse and Edendale troop together with Captain Browne's Infantry Mounted Squadron completed the regular and iregular cavalry.
Their task was five fold.
1. To garrison forts and protect lines of communication, i.e. A squadrons of KDG's to garrison Fort Newdigate and a squadron of 17th Lancers at Fort Marshall.
2.In an impending action, to draw the Zulus on to prepared British positions, i.e. Kambula and Ulundi.
3.Pursuit and ruthless execution. i.e. At Gingindlovu, Kambula and Ulundi.
4. Long range reconnaissance, mainly by Buller's command.
5. The equally ruthless execution by Buller of Chelmsford's scorched earth policy, which included the total destruction of thousands of umuzi,( homesteads, villages,) major amakhanda,( military barracks,) grain silos, and confiscation of all cattle to starve the Zulus into submission.
The only occasion of a semblance of a cavalry charge at an undefeated amabutho resulted in Frith's death when Marshall ordered Drury Lowe to make a fool hardy charge on Zulus who were in well prepared positions on the Zungeni Hills.
The role of the mounted elements of Imperial and Colonial Cavalry was absolutely critical in Chelmsford's strategic thinking and possibly historically, their value underestimated.
Greenhill's publication of "Zulu Vanquished" later this year will amplify the above.
26th January 2005Graham Alexander
I think that you have probably hit the nail on the head by suggesting that armament did define the role of the cavalryman.His role continually changed over the years from mounted bowman, to swordsman, to mounted rifleman and finally the Tank. His main weaponry dictated the role that he could play on the battlefield.
The vast range of the desert before Damascus called out for cavalry action and the Australian light horse armed with rifles, suitably fitted that bill. They were certainly cavalry, but their use was that of mounted infantry. It is interesting that in their advance they were assisted by aircraft which attacked Turkish strongpoints. Indian cavalry, not only armed with carbines but also lances, also played a major role in this campaign
Finally, my understanding of your conundrum is that a boat has only one deck while a ship has more than one.
26th January 2005Keith Smith

I'm sorry but neither Cochrane nor George Shepstone commanded anything. Lieutenant Cochrane was Durnford's Transport Officer and Captain Shepstone was his Political Assistant. The two troops of Native Mounted Contingent out with Durnford were commanded by Lieutenant H.D. (Harry) Davies (Edendale Troop) and Lieutenant Alfred Henderson (Hlubi's Troop).

To change the topic slightly, Buller, and Wood, spent most of their time accumulating prize money from the very profitable cattle lifting in which they indulged. Indeed, there was a Local General Order which spelled out the rules of the game (No. 196, undated, Times of Natal 15th November 1878.) This was carried to the point where the British government was embarrassed and Wolseley recommended that three months pay be granted to officers and men serving in Zululand in lieu of prize money (and as compensation for wear and tear of clothing).(See PRO WO WO 32/7783.) Hlobane was the perfect example of this. I cannot put my hand on the document but I think the government may have put a stop to it later in the war.
27th January 2005Peter Quantrill
I am of course referring to the Second Invasion of Zululand, not Isandlwana. Sorry if I did not make this clear.Both Cochrane and Shepstone had independent commands as stated by me.
For example, Shepstone's Edendale troop was part of Buller's reconnaissance on the Ulundi plain on 3 July.Simeon Kambule received the DCM. (Should have been the VC.)
Shepstone's command was also responsible for torching, on Chelmsford's orders, the major ikhanda of Indabakwombe, located east of oNdini on 4 July.
Cochrane is specifically mentioned as an independent command in Buller's post battle report.
Your reference to 'cattle lifting' and the rules, together with primary source are more than amplified in our forthcoming book.

27th January 2005Mike Snook
Paul and Graham,

There was a famous charge was there not, involving the Australian Light Horse (so called) in which they used their bayonets for their Enfields as swords - was it at Beersheeba? (Dull and distant memory of having read something about it). If they did then I would suggest that whatever they might have labelled themselves they were in fact, by classification, if not by name, mounted infantrymen.

Certainly they were not expected to charge and were breaking all the rules if they did so. But I would ventrue to suggest that they rode fast at an enemy that was already a bit jittery and didn't require to be broken up by a bona fide cavalry force.
27th January 2005mike snook

I have always wondered why Shepstone left the Carbineers to command a native mounted force in the second invasion. Any thoughts on this? What was behind it? Did the Carbineers participate in the 2nd Invasion? Off the top of my head I can't think I've read anything of them in the later phases of the war.

27th January 2005Graham Alexander
The charge at Beersheba is little known about by most Australians today. The 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade were ordered to charge and break through Turkish defenses by General Chauvel. Far from being jittery, the Turks were well entrenched and were supported by machine guns and field artillery.
The 500 Light Horsemen, despite initial high casualties when riding at the trot, reached and rode over the Turkish trenches. Armed with only rifles and bayonets, the men captured 38 officers and over 700 men. An intercepted Turkish signal later revealed that the Turks were terrified of Australian Cavalry.
This had to be one of the few times in the Great War that horses succeeded against entrenched infantry, and mounted infantry ( technically ) played such a decisive role.
27th January 2005Peter Quantrill
First an amendment to my previous post.The ikhanda of Indabakwande was located west of oNdini, not east.
The Carbineers took no part in the Second Invasion. possibly influenced by Henry Bulwer's concern following the casualties sustained. They remained in Natal.
Shepstone however wished to see action and took command of the Native Horse, which became known as Shepstone's Native Horse. He was sent to the Free State to recruit more men, and succeeded in bringing his strength to 186 all ranks at the start of the Second Invasion.
By the time he reached the Umfolozi, his command had been reduced to 110 all ranks.
On the advance to Ulundi, Shepstone commanded the colonial cavalry protecting the rear of force.
27th January 2005Mike Snook

Thanks a lot - that explains it.


Thanks for that. V. Interesting. Typical Aussies - not going to let a few MGs get in the way! Advance Australia Fair.


27th January 2005Paul Cubbin
it is ironic that the 'backwater' Turkish Front, being fought with troops not wanted in the Western Front produced exactly the kind of mobile, relatively economic casualty wise (with a couple of notable exceptions) war that Britain had wanted and expected in 1914. The Australian Light Horse and New Zealand Mounted Rifles were the surprise package and performed feats that defied existing combat doctrine (like charging on horseback up a steep hill against entrenched machine guns and defenders that outnumber, but no less heroic were the various Yeomanry, Indian and other Commonwealth troops involved.
27th January 2005Peter Ewart

The charge at Beersheba is little known about by Aussies today? What! Has the country gone to the dogs? Shame on them! Courage & dash equal to Gallipoli & Pozieres.

Their most famous casualty at Beersheba was none other than their fastest Test bowler of the age - "Tibby" Cotter. Very, very fast, by all accounts. Two tours of England (or was it three? I'll have to look it up). Enjoyed bouncing English batsmen - now there's a surpise ...

Along with Kent & England's Colin Blythe, Cotter was by far the most celebrated Test player to succumb in 1914-18 (apart from Trumper in 1915, who wasn't a war casualty, and WG the same year, who was getting on a bit!)

Given that Waugh got the Ashes party to stop off at Gallipoli last time, perhaps Ponting will next year arrange a break in their journey at Beersheba & fill them in a bit?

(This is not a crafty way of saying "Bring on the Aussies." They'll be here soon enough!)

Roll on.


27th January 2005Keith Smith
To defend my fellow-countrymen, I know that the charge at Beersheba is very well known here in Oz, if only because Mel Gibson took part it in in an very early film. Aussies tend to remember the past glories of their soldiers by frequent re-enactments and a public holiday of remembrance called Anzac Day.
28th January 2005Peter Quantrill
Of interest, Wood referred to Buller's Mounted Corps, Flying Column, as ' Light Cavalry.'
28th January 2005Graham Alexander
Good on your fellow countrymen to remember a very brave exploit. I wish that History was as well remembered in the U.K.
A few weeks ago I was talking to a 14 year old who thought that only English and German soldiers fought in the first world war. He also had NEVER heard of the Duke of Wellington or Nelson. The wonders of a modern education !
28th January 2005Paul Cubbin
Graham - I was talking to my wife's cousin before she went to University to study history and was appalled at the gaps in current ediucation. I think wars and conflicts are no longer deemed important enough events....why does each generation insist on making the same mistakes as previous ones, rather than learning from their ancestors' errors?
29th January 2005Michael Boyle

I may have dorked the whole thing up but I think that Mel was "Gallipoli" and that the prior engagement at Beersheba was "The Lighthorse" (which I have yet to find on region one DVD) and seemed to accredit them with the 'last' cavalry charge.


29th January 2005Keith Smith

Yep, you're right - sorry. Just shows how often I go the movies! Still, my point is remains valid, because our military exploits are still well known here and talked about on ANZAC day.