French Heavy Cavalry Tactic

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At the end of the XVIIth century, cavalry tactic was not yet very well defined; usually, cavalry practised the caracole: a prolonged fire followed by a charge at a trot. Turenne preferred the charge en sauvages (savage charge), Condé the massive charge with blades at a gallop. The disappearance of pikemen and their progressive replacement by musketeers, rendered cavalry always more audacious and it often sought brutal shock. Musket loading was slow, the weapon often unreliable and totally useless on a rainy day. This led cavalry to charge more and more frequently. Cavalrymen's confidence was such that the progress of the musket itself and of the firing techniques were not enough to discourage such a tactic.

During the Seven Years' War, the caracole was not in use any more. However, when the instruction of a French cavalryman is compared to the intensive training to which the Prussian General Seydlitz submitted his cavalry from 1759, the reasons of the progress of the Prussian cavalry and of the bad quality of the French cavalry become clearer. Indeed, French cavalry suffered above all from a lack of instruction. This was its main weakness.

First of all, during peacetime, French cavalry was not barracked, cavalrymen were scattered by company among the inhabitants of the neighbouring villages where they spent happy days with few constraints, few training and horses submitted to the same conditions. A regiment spent one year in garrison and two in quarters. The hastily improvised instruction camps of the years preceding the Seven Years' War were clearly insufficient to remedy the situation.

The regulation of 1755 on cavalry exercises and on cavalry schools was essentially addressing movements and formation into squadrons. It mentioned the publication of a more complete regulation in the near future but this improved regulation had to wait until May 1 1765... There were some military cavalry schools: École de Versailles, École de Lunéville, École des Chevaux Légers who produced illustrious authors such as Bohan, Mottin de la Balme, d'Auvergne and many officers who joined the ranks of the cavalry regiments, bringing with them their knowledge, but there was no common cavalry doctrine, each regiment following its own instruction according to the views of its mestre de camp. There was no manege.


=Frontage of the cavalry formation

A regiment of cavalry deploying in order of battle presents itself with its two squadrons side by side. Each squadron deployed in 48 to 42 men per rank, depending on its effective strength, but theoretically never under 42 men.

A file deployed in ordre serré (close order) occupied a frontage of about 1 m. Thus, the front of a squadron counting 48 or 42 cavalrymen per rank occupied a frontage of respectively 48 m. or 42 m. The interval between each squadron of a regiment measured between 20 to 23 m. wide, roughly half the frontage of a single squadron. Therefore a regiment counting 2 squadrons deployed in order of battle occupied a frontage between 100 and 120 m. depending on its effective strength. The space between squadrons had to be wide enough, especially with unexperimented troops. Indeed, a line of squadrons deployed to close to each other, as a wall, could not absorb the fluctuations appearing during a charge.

When two regiments of cavalry were deployed side by side, they were separated by a space of about 80 m. Thus, intervals existed between squadrons as well as between regiments and brigades. However, the squadrons of the first and second lines usually deployed in a checker board fashion so that a gap in the first line would correspond to a solid front in the second, as practised by the battalions of infantry.

This formation with intervals adopted by the French cavalry contrasted with the formation of the Prussian cavalry who usually presented an uninterrupted wall of cavalrymen. At the end of 1760, the Maréchal de Broglie, in his instructions to the army for the following campaigns, prescribed that the first line of cavalry should now form in a continuous wall while the second line should continue to deploy with intervals.

Depth of the cavalry formation

The regulation of May 14 1754 and the instruction of 1755 prescribed to train the cavalry in formations counting from 2 to 3 ranks, according to the effective strength of the companies. These two formations presented their own advantages and inconveniences. In the 3 ranks deep formation, the second rank was stuck between the two others and had more difficulties to adopt a steady pace. Furthermore, when such a formation became disordered, it was more difficult to re-establish order. On the other hand, the 2 ranks deep formation widened the frontage of the unit by 33%, making it more difficult to maintain its alignment during the advance but allowing to present more cavalrymen for the shock. The instruction of 1755 indicated that “considering that its actual composition is better suited to form in two ranks, one should prefer this formation in the course of ordinary service.”

Indeed, during the Seven Years' War, French cavalry regiments were constantly incomplete and were always deployed in 2 complete ranks. If needed, companies lent troopers to each other to complete these 2 ranks (from 42 to 48 cavalrymen) and the remaining cavalrymen were deployed in a third incomplete rank.

With the instruction of May 1 1765, two years after the war, the French cavalry finally adopted the 2 ranks deep Prussian formation.

Alignment of the front rank

The alignment of the front ranks of the cavalry was very important to provide an adequate shock effect. By the middle of the XVIIIth century, each squadrons aligned on its centre: “When cavalrymen will march straight ahead, those of right will look at their left, and those of the left will look at their right, to all align on the centre.” as prescribed the instruction of 1755. In 1761, Boussanelles, in his Observations militaires wrote: “it is necessary that the two cavalrymen of the centre exactly follow the commander of the squadron, or the chief of the troop, who himself must always scrupulously hold the middle, and that the cavalryman closing the right and the one closing the left adjust themselves on the two of the centre.”

However, when trying to adjust on the centre, there was a natural tendency of the cavalrymen of each wing to close in on the centre, hampering each others and favouring division of the formation. For these reasons, this method was abandoned to the profit of an alignment of all cavalrymen on the extremity of the right wing.

Furthermore, notwithstanding obstacles and unevenness of the terrain who disrupted the alignment of the cavalry, the strictness of seniority rules as well as the rules of precedence determining the allocation of the places of honour, interdicted all modifications to the order of battle. Thus, despite the uneven fatigue accumulated by the horses and cavalrymen during a campaign, each unit deployed in the line of battle according to its seniority and precedence. Regarding this topic, Drummond de Melfort wrote: “it is easy to conceive that a cavalry brigade who would find itself exhausted by the particular service that she would have made during the preceding days, if it is placed in the centre of a line where all other horses are fresher, being unable to go at the same pace, will not only stay behind, but will be in addition unable to act at the end of its charge.” This phenomenon had already been observed during the War of the Austrian Succession, where the Maison du Roi dispensated from fatigue duty and mounted on picked horses, charged with more unity and speed than most other cavalry regiments.

The pace of the cavalry charge

Notwithstanding if a linear cavalry charge was made in a wall formation or in a formation with intervals, the French cavalry always charged at a trot, at the end of the charge, the unit broke into a gallop. On the other hand, the more tumultuous charge à la débandade or charge in foragers was made at the gallop.

Several reasons explained the choice of the linear charge at the trot. The first one was that the captains, who were the owners of the horses of their company, wanted to spare them. The second reason was to maintain the regular front of the squadron, not too loose, not too tight; when everything contributed to disrupt the harmony of the charge: crumbly, frozen or soaked ground, various obstacles, snow, the noise of the cannonade, screams, smoke, falls…

The success of the charge depended on a progressive acceleration up to maximal speed just before the shock, while keeping a good alignment. This is the theory, in practice the line was quite uneven at the moment of impact even though it had to retain the shape of a continuous to be successful otherwise the line broke, horses did not run straight ahead any more, hampering adjacent squadrons, hampering each other and provoking the fall of the cavalrymen.

The Maréchal de Saxe in his Rêveries wrote: “When we charge, we must start at a jogging pace from a distance of 100 paces, increase it as we approach and then break into gallop; we must press the heels against the horse's sides only at 20 to 30 paces from the enemy, and this must be done by a commanding officer who shouts the order A moi (at me). We must style the cavalry to this and train it to make this manoeuvre familiar, so that it is quick as lightning: we must above all teach them to gallop at a well elongated pace. Any squadron who cannot charge 2,000 paces at all speed, without dislocating, is never fit for war. This is the fundamental point: when your cavalry will know how to do that, it will be good, everything else will seem easy.” Unfortunately, the Maréchal de Saxe died young (only 54 years old) in 1750. There is no common riding school, no manege, each mestre-de-camp submitted his cavalrymen according to his own principles. This is why certain French cavalry regiments, composed of mediocre cavalrymen, charged à la débandade or in foragers.

The cavalry charge

Charge was made with drawn sabres, pistols were used only in melee while muskets served mostly for sentinels, during reconnaissance or during combat in foragers.

Aligned, ready for the charge, cavalrymen carried their sabre to the shoulder, sword knot at the wrist. When the charge was sounded, cavalrymen set off, starting at the walk, Then a second bugle call made them pass to trot; a third at the canter. At 90 paces from the point of impact, cavalrymen pointed their sabre (arm raised at eye level, almost fully extended, wrist in tierce) with the point slightly inclined downward and they raised themselves on their stirrups, crouching forward. They passed at full gallop at 20 or 30 paces from the enemy. Finally, it was the shock.


To conclude, here is Frederick II's conception of the cavalry charge. The young Comte de Gisors, son of the Maréchal de Belle Isle, went to Silesia in September 1754, at the invitation of the King of Prussia. During one of their conversation, Frederick exposed to him his vision of a cavalry charge:

“I put my officers in front, out of the rank, because being in the rank they are simple cavalrymen and obliged to let themselves be carried away by the torrent of the squadron. I put others behind to fall on those who would like to flee. I do not let any interval between my squadrons, because squadrons separated from each others present as many flanks to the enemy. I make them charge at full gallop because fear lead poltroons froward, certain as they are, inasmuch as they stop in the middle of the charge, to be crushed by the next squadron. I want that the impetuosity of their charge forces the enemy to give way before they could melee with him…”

At the beginning of the Seven Years' War, the Prussian cavalry had not yet the quality of the infantry and, at Leuthen, Frederick threatened his cavalry, if ever he saw a regiment turning back, that he would dismount this unit and transfer it to garrison duty. But he needed no more than two years to, in 1758 after Zorndorf, put Seydlitz, who was only 30 years old, at the head of the Prussian cavalry. He made this cavalry the best in Europe.



Jean-Louis Vial of Nec Pluribus Impar for most of the content of this article