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I know that some people in Europe very much admire Russian Cossack cavalry and think it is very effective. But in Russia there was a proverb that one hussar is equal to two cossacks, one dragoon is equal to two hussars and one cuirassier is equal to two dragoons. This places a cossack to be only 1/8 as effective as a cuirassier.

This possibly is not exactly true but in fact the cossack cavalry rarely participated in battles, making disturbing raids instead (and even in that they were thought to be worse than regular light cavalry).

So my question is whether Cossack cavalry was indeed so ineffective?

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One might wonder if that quote didn't originate from a cuirassier... – T.E.D. Jun 18 '12 at 14:44

4 Answers 4

  1. Cossacks in early 1800th were the light cavalry. The lightest one. Even Hussars needed carts with grain and food. But Cossacks used them only if it was absolutely impossible to "take" everything in site. So, they were very very quick. Yes, in battle they were weaker. But they were not meant for the battle lines, but for innercepting on the enemies communications. For this work they were formidable.
  2. It is senseless to speak on Cossacks not naming the time. In 16th or 20th centuries everything was very different... There were no dragoons, for example in 16th. And Ccossacks in 20th were very different, too.
  3. All the time Cossacks worked also as saboteurs, as special regiments, and that role only increased in time. Yes, Bruce Lee is weaker than a tank.... Sometimes.
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Also Cossacks before 18th century were known as an excellent infantry, in opposite to weak (very light) cavalry. – Darek Wędrychowski Mar 26 '13 at 13:05
Yes, at this time even cossack cavalry resembled later dragoons. – Gangnus Mar 26 '13 at 14:59

Both sets of statements are true: The Cossacks were inferior to other types of cavalry, and the Cossacks were "effective," because they were good enough to do the job.

To take just one example, the cuirassiers were the most heavily trained, heavily armed cavalry around. That means that there were relatively few of them.

The Cossacks were the opposite: They were "random" soldiers drawn from nomads and "runaways" of the borderlands between Russia and modern Kazakhstan. Compared to other forms of cavalry, they were lightly armed and poorly trained. But there were a lot of them, and they were "handy" to have in tight situation.

For instance, Cossacks were instrumental in executing Peter the Great's "scorched earth" strategy against Charles XII of Sweden (whose troops were elite).

How and why did Charles XII Get to Poltava?

The Cossacks weren't great soldiers. Not really good enough for battles. But (barely) good enough to conduct raids and get a lot of (dirty) jobs done, meaning that they were "effective."

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Well Cossacks were not composed of Kazakhs, I hope this is a joke. – Anixx Jan 15 '12 at 18:35
@Anixx: To the best of my knowledge and belief, many Cossacks were at least partly of Kazakh descent, and the name Cossack is derived from Kazakh. (But, of course, not all.)The whole point is that Cossacks were Russian "runaways" (from serfdom) who fled toward Kazakh lands, and later intermarried with them. – Tom Au Jan 15 '12 at 20:21
Still most of the Cossacks live not in Kazakhstan, but in Russia and Ukraine, they speak Slavic language, and not Turkic, and they practice Christianity, and not Islam as Kazakhs do. – Anixx Jan 15 '12 at 20:30
1. There were some kipchaks among cossacks, but they were not the main bulk. They started from the lesser nations (mainly Torks and Berendeis) on the border against kipchaks. 2. In these times there simply were no Kazachs. This name appeared in 18-19th cent. As a branch of Kyrgizes. So, the name derivation you mentioned is impossible. 3) Kipchaks or their other name, Polovci, were blond ("polova" = the straw) and hardly could look like Kazachs. Any more ideas? – Gangnus Jan 29 '12 at 0:07
Your citation "Put a Kazakh on a horse and give him a sword, and you've got a Cossack." is obviously a result of misreading or bad translation. Where have you got it? Your argumentation doesn't support it even a little bit - mass users of proverbs didn't know the history of cossacks. – Gangnus Jan 29 '12 at 0:14

During the Napoleonic period cossacks were generally not regarded as "battle cavalry" and rarely did much on the battlefield. Though is rough hierarchy of cavalry weight hussars, dragoons, cuirassier, there are many examples of lighter cavalry overthrowing heavier cavalry.

However there is vast range of other tasks required of cavalry in addition to performing on the battlefield. Scouting, pursuit, outposts, guarding prisoners, police functions in rear areas. The cossacks were used predominately in these functions, and with greater endurance, light supply needs ideal for many of these functions. While poor in massed charges they were adapt as small skirmishers particularly in rougher ground the regular cavalry could struggle.

Russian cossacks intros period took most of this workload off the regular Russian cavalry which meant they would be conserved and fresher for battle. Their raiding in 1812/13 greatly added to the french difficulties in supply , movement and rear areas with greater escorts needed. Small detachments of regular cavalry and horse artillery were attached to the cossack flying columnist give them a bit of punch.

Cossacks were also available in large numbers, and were relatively cheap to raise. Guard cossacks were different and had a good battlefield record.

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It depends on what you are doing. If you line up a brigade of Cossacks versus heavy cavalry in a battle and charge both, the Cossacks would be wiped out. If you had the same brigade of each trying to control the areas around the two armies in the field, the Cossacks would run rampant over the area and the Heavies would be useless and vulnerable.

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