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Can someone explain a heavy cavalry charge? A bunch of 500kg animals smashes into a dense crowd of men at speed of 40km/h. This simply cannot end good for neither side. Let's say the charge fails. The front ranks of the infantry are definitely dead. But what about the front line of the horsemen? Wouldn't they be thrown off from the saddles, flying over the battle-line (and into the enemy ranks, where they would be cut down or trampled by advancing cavalry? Isn't it a suicide to be the horseman in the first line, even if the charge is successful?

And what happens if the charge fails, the infantry doesn't rout and the cavalry loses its momentum. How can they safely maneveur out of the melee, when they are surrounded and deep in the enemy ranks, the horses might be injured and have hard time moving in all the armor, while there are piles of bodies below them, slowing down their retreat?

Edit: Additional questions: How does cavalry maneveur out of a failed charge? Do the horses disengage right after the first line of the horsemen touches the enemy line? What about the horses that are in the second and third lines, who keep pushing the front line forward into the enemy?

Interested in Early medieval ages to late medieval ages

  • I've been trying to find similar discussions on the internet, but no one really discusses the distaster that occurs in the frontlines of both armies. So the impact is really what interests me. Thanks for all shared insight you can provide. – Jotunn Jun 4 '17 at 4:33
  • I'd think that the reality was that heavy cavalry generally didn't charge into a line of prepared infantry from the front. The tactic would be to use the horse's speed to outflank the infantry line and hit them from the side or rear - which would break up the infantry formation and make it far easier for the cavalry to contine the attack. – Steve Bird Jun 4 '17 at 7:25
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    There are 10 related questions on use of cavalry. What research have you done on the actual use of Heavy Cavalry? Your question seems very broad and misguided in that you seem to be focusing on the horse as the physical weapon, but it was really the delivery system for the lance and knight. – justCal Jun 4 '17 at 14:05
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    I understand the fact the horsemen weren't unarmed. But lance can take as many as one or two men at most, before the horse smashes into the enemy line. I was curious as how such cavalry charge works when it fails to break the enemy. Do the horses disengage right after the first line of the horsemen touches the enemy line? There are historical instances when the cavalry charged into the infantry lines that weren't routing and withstood the charge. That is what I was interested in. – Jotunn Jun 4 '17 at 19:45
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    These "multiple questions" are common things everyone who wonders about cavalry charge asks. Take them more as sub-questions - points that should be addressed in an answer of this topic, for the very reason that an answer would be complete and satisfying. – Jotunn Jun 7 '17 at 16:15
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Your question is underpinned by a key misunderstanding of the course of an ancient or medieval battle: the slaughter occurs in the pursuit (or endgame if you will), not what might be termed the battle proper (or midgame).

Prior to the invention of artillery, and breech-loading and automatic rifles, very little death is dealt out during the main course of most battles. Battles were about slowly eroding the endurance and will of the opponent, so that they were the first to decide that the legs were too weak to power a blow, and the arms too tired to hold the shield up or parry. At that point the opponent has lost morale and breaks; and the pursuit begins. Over the course of a long or large battle, both sides typically would have opportunities to rout, and inflict significant casualties on, small portions of the other side during this jockeying for advantage.

Heavy cavalry was used to push an already tired opponent over the edge through the psychological effect achieved on the enemy. As the charge closes to within a hundred yards and the horses enter their gallop, the very ground quakes to such extent that the facing infantry are physically shaken, their knees forced to wobble by the very movement of the earth. Tired infantry, experiencing this for the first time, can be physically thrown to the ground like a landlubber in his first storm at sea. When the charge has been properly timed, the infantry breaks and the pursuit begins; first by the heavy cavalry to prevent a reforming of the infantry, then by the light cavalry to complete the slaughter.

If the charge has been ill-timed, the horses pull up about 20 yards from the infantry, and the combination of frame saddle and stirrups enable the riders to comfortably remain mounted. Lancers can now engage in a little square-breaking unless the infantry is either similarly equipped; or supported by either missile infantry or friendly cavalry who can readily target or counter charge the (now slow-moving) enemy cavalry;

During the European Medieval Period infantry was nearly always either a conscripted levy or mercenaries; only the latter would have the discipline, training, and experience to withstand the morale shock of a heavy cavalry charge. Consequently the end-game exploit of a heavy cavalry charge moves up in the order, and can be executed very early in an attempt to either immediately rout the opponent, or gain an advantageous position for one's own archers. It is this arrogance on the part of the French knights, understandable in other circumstances, that leads to the English victories at Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt due to premature charges.

With rare exceptions due to exceptional training, morale and equipment, only when cavalry is able to find the flank of its target, utilizing its speed and mobility, is a charge ever carried home against a formed opponent:

Contrary to the popular belief, the cavalry charge as well as the defence mounted by the square of infantry were chess--like games of cat and mouse. The Polish--Lithuanian Commonwealth's Hussars were known to charge the same square many times before committing themselves to penetrating and dispersing it. A beautiful example of a success of such fast mobile, but cautious tactics is the Commonwealth's victory during the battle of Klushino. It took the Polish--Lithuanian Hussars 8 to 10 attempts to break through and route the Russian and Swedish forces. [ibid]

Note the psychologically wearing effect on the infantry of not knowing when the charge will be carried home, but of having to be completely ready every time.

There are a number of successful square-breaking examples from the Napoleonic period, which can be classed into four categories:

  • deceit - typically when Hussars can pretend to be a different nationality;
  • accident - black powder smoke prevents the horse from seeing the square in time, who then pull up too late and fall into the square allowing successive riders in.
  • mismatch - elite cavalry against untrained infantry, with the square routing just before impact.
  • timing - square incompletely formed at impact, equivalent to cavalry finding an open flank.
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    There are some cases when the cavalry charge has been ill-timed and indeed proceeds to smash into the infantry line, failing to rout it. How does cavalry maneveur out of such situation? Do the horses disengage right after the first line of the horsemen touches the enemy line? What about the horses that are in the second and third lines and keep pushing the front line forward into the enemy? – Jotunn Jun 4 '17 at 19:51
  • @Jotunn: Cavalry charges in only two lines, with at least 20 yards between them at the full gallop (the last hundred yards or so). There is no pushing of the front line, a maneuver which would shock a cavalryman and quickly both knock horses over and risk dismounting riders. Heavy cavalry charges with the horses hip-to-hip (at least initially, the line may stretch a bit as the charge is carried home), so the horses of the first line must initially back away from any formed infantry (or opposing cavalry) that refuses to break. – Pieter Geerkens Jun 5 '17 at 4:48
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    Remnants of this philosophy continued. WW1 saw huge cavalry armies waiting to exploit breakthroughs that never came (Liddell-Hart), yet they were not used to try to make breakthroughs. When armor theory was being experimented in the 1920s and 1930s, it was often along the same parallels as the cavalry practices described above. – Smith Jun 7 '17 at 13:49
  • Only in two lines? Interesting point that I didn't know about. Is this some universal rule for all medieval cavalry charges? – Jotunn Jun 7 '17 at 16:27
  • @Jotunn: Anyone in the third row is unable to see, and endangered by that. Cavalry cycle charges (individual units alternately charging and reforming) or wave charges (distinct units charging in succession) rather than attempting any sort of rugby scrum. Practice of centuries has simply taught that the advantages of unit width and fast repetition far exceeds any from additional depth. – Pieter Geerkens Jun 8 '17 at 0:45
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The first thing is that medieval cavalry charges were made possible by the stirrup. That was a metal frame attached to the horse that riders put their feet into. The stirrup largely prevented the riders from being thrown from their horses and into the crowd.

The second part of the "physics" is that riders would seldom charge directly into the infantry masses, which, as you pointed out, would be "mutually assured destruction." Instead, riders were looking to "hit and run," that is, charge, cut down a few infantry, ride off before the latter could retaliate, and charge again. Such tactics were often successful, but mainly in flat ground and good weather. In hilly ground or mud, the horsemen often could not "disengage" and were often slaughtered after the first charge.

The Battle of Falkirk was an example of how cavalry won. After an initial failed cavalry charge, the introduction of archers sufficiently disrupted the Scots formations for the cavalry charges to succeed.

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    It was my - admittedly non-expert - understanding that cavalry were never (or extremely rarely) used against fresh, trained, unbroken infantry. As the question itself implies, it simply didn't work. – TheHonRose Jun 4 '17 at 22:16
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    Alexander the Great and his stirrup-less Companions would disagree that stirrups were required for cavalry charges. "Alexander wheeled round towards the gap, and forming a wedge as it were of the Companion cavalry and of the part of the phalanx which was posted here, he led them with a quick charge and loud battle-cry straight towards Darius himself. For a short time there ensued a hand-to-hand fight; but when the Macedonian cavalry, commanded by Alexander himself, pressed on vigorously, thrusting themselves against the Persians and striking their faces with their spears" - Arrian – Slow Dog Jun 5 '17 at 22:20
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    @TheHonRose: In the right situation, on the right ground, in the right weather, cavalry charges could be devastating. eskify.com/10-heroic-cavalry-charges In other instances, cavalry was at a disadvantage. – Tom Au Jun 6 '17 at 0:29
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    @TomAu Yes, I totally accept that, and military history isn't my thing, but that's a lot of provisos. Just saying. – TheHonRose Jun 7 '17 at 3:55
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    As I understood it, "medieval cavalry charges were made possible by the stirrup" is increasingly challenged assertion. See e.g. youtube.com/watch?v=DZsrfaEqvE8 for explanations. – Denis de Bernardy Jun 25 '17 at 9:20

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