How terrifying is it for well-armored elite cavalry to charge at infantry?

Discussion in 'Alternate History Discussion: Before 1900' started by Trailboss49, Jul 10, 2019.

  1. Trailboss49 Member

    Jun 30, 2019
    Cavalry charges are always frequently shown as terrifying in general history books, movies, TV, video games, and fantasy novels. Even accurate historical accounts mentions the ground having an earthquake and things moving in slow motion as you stand with your legs shaking but stuck still on the ground due to fear.

    However I borrowed a book from the library today on Medieval Warfare, and on the Battle of Hasting it described the Norman Knights charges against the Anglo-Saxon shieldwall as something so terrifying that the Norman knights "displayed a most legendary courage very rarely seen in the early Medieval battlefield" and mentions several times how the Norman knights almost routed.

    In addition the book has some battles during the fall of the Roman Empire and the years following it where the last of the Roman Equites and Patricians fought against impossible odds that would have "made brave men flee" as they made desperate attempts to fend off Germanic tribes using their cavalry or to hold onto far away territory. It mentions in Britannia how typical Roman cavalry would hesitate to charge even disorganized Celtic warbands wandering the countryside especially in forests and swamps and it took the Equites, the most elite of the Roman Army's horsemen and often coming from Rome's aristocracy, to be able to hunt down these disorganized local bandits.

    And of course the book praises the Germanic horse warriors in its Rome sections especially after the final Sack of Rome where it was the horsewarriors of the Barbarians who would be the "hammer" of the Catholic Church as it was bringing stability into Europe during the Dark Ages. Especially the Frankish heavy cavalry who would become the basis of the Medieval Knight and the book mentions the Catholic Church's honoring the Frankish horse warriors as the "bravest" of the Church's military and who often took the most difficult and scariest tasks of guarding the Church's laymen throughout Europe.

    I am curious. Nowadays cavalry men especially heavily armored and armed ones such as knights and samurai are often described as being the most terrifying force on the battlefield and since they were so armoured and trained, they had the least chance of dying in war. Modern internet discussion make it sound like being a knight was a favorable position where you're most likely to come back home alive and camera portrayal of knights in movies and TV from a first person perspective show cavalry charges feeling high and mighty especially since the enemies look smaller as the cameramen follows the path of the knights charging and often shows infantry getting slaughtered early on and than retreating within 30 minutes. Modern cavalry charges are portrayed as being so invincible you don't even need to know how to fight but only know how to ride a horse and you can just follow along because victory practically guaranteed.

    I am wondering if it was scary at all to attack even disorganized rabble random robbers on a group of horse? I watched Dragonheart today and the movie opens up with knights trying to put down poorly armed peasants. Despite the knights killing a lot of peasants while on horse, they suffered pretty significant casualties especially after the peasants rallied up from the initial charge and surrounded the 50 knights. Some of the knights actually fled the battle when the peasants counterattacked and surrounded them in the process and they managed to surround the king and jump him by themselves. While the knights ultimately won the battle, the king was killed in the process in a brutal manner as peasants were stabbing him with pitchforks on the ground. In addition they even managed to surround the Prince (who was watching the battle from a distance), and the Prince got wounded in an accident. The whole battle was pretty terrifying even though the knights ultimately won esp when the peasants were swarming the king.

    In addition in Total War its common even against disorganized militia caught in an ambush (like say sending scouts hidden in the wounds to attack them from their unprotected flanks) for cavalry men to lose morale especially after a prolonged fight to flee (in particular if the cavalry men aren't elites like Templars).

    So this makes me curious. Despite how much of Hollywood and public education school books describe how easy the position of cavalry charges are and how its significant militia stood up to them, is actually charging a group of armed men something that takes guts? Even if they are disorganized individualist fighters like barbarian celts in Britain or angry peasants in a riot? I mean seeing the Dragonheart scene and Total War confirms how terrifying Hastings must have been for knights!
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  2. JennyB Old Enough to Know Better

    Mar 11, 2013
    Horses aren't fools. Almost any compact body of infantry can repel a cavalry attack if they are expecting it and stand their ground. But that's a big IF. You think it's terrifying for the knights? Imagine what it's like for the poor bloody infantry.
  3. Zincwarrior Well-Known Member

    Apr 4, 2019
    The infantry also have to be trained to do that. The average dude's experience is that horses are big and powerful, and knights / cataphracts / heavy cavalry are big and powerful on them. but if trained and equipped with spears then yes, definitely.
  4. MrGreyOwl Watching Bird

    Nov 16, 2014
    Unless fighting with ranged weapons, the strength of a cavalryman is his momentum. Let's say you charge at an infantry regiment (an unprepared or distracted one, because charging at a compact square of spears is a death sentence). At the start, yes you're unstoppable, you're going to trample and smack enemies on the way in. But then, unless they break and run immediately, you only have a few seconds to get out, or else you'll find yourself being a large and big target entirely surrounded by pissed soldiers potentially wielding polearms. Doubly difficult if you're slowed down by heavy armor and/or injuries received earlier.
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  5. Grey Wolf Writer, Poet, Publisher, Cat-sitter

    Jan 1, 2004
    Deepest Wales
    I studied the Polish heavy cavalry for my special subject in my degree. It was notable how they would charge, hit. retire. and then the next banner would be up. This was rammed home to me as the only way for heavy cavalry to work - if they all attacked at once, then there is only one hit; if they tried to stay or force on through they would get overwhelmed. The hit was all, and only a highly organised army that rotated the banners in sequence could carry out this sort of tactic more than once in a battle

    Best Regards
    Grey Wolf
  6. alexmilman Well-Known Member

    Apr 24, 2018
    Obviously, Dragonheart is not exactly a documentary, not to mention that cavalry in it are not exactly the medieval knights in the terms of armor and weapons and creators of the movie are following the Hollywood standards rather than history.

    The Normans at Hastings were not exactly the knights of the late MA in the terms of the weaponry and armor (mail, open helmets, short spears, no protection for the horses) but their opponents were not a bunch of the peasants either: they were a well armed heavy infantry.

    It seems that even with a heavier equipment medieval cavalry had difficulties with the frontal attacks on a well-organized adequately armed infantry.

    Falkirk - Scots did not have too much of a protective armor but they had long spears (linger than knights’s lances) and English cavalry attacks on the shiltrons had been failing until the archers “softened” them. Even then, there was not a single crushing cavalry attack but rather a series of charges pushing Scots back and eventually breaking their formations (wisdom of a purely defensive Scottish tactics is a separate issue).

    Bannockburn - shiltrons won a battle.

    Flemish infantry (phalanx-like formations with heavy spears and halberd) had been routinely winning until at Rosebeke the French had infantry to tie the center and attacked on the flanks.

    Swiss pikemen/Landsknechts - at Marigniano (their first loss) Swiss fought for two days combination of the French gendarmes, artillery, landsknechts and numeric odds before retreating. French gendarmes launched numerous attacks but they were rather “push back” then breakthrough activities (breaking into the Swiss formation was a pure suicide). In most battles of the Italian Wars cavalry attacks on the pikemens’ formations were achieving little beyond stopping them and with introduction of the firearms situation became even worse: at Ceresole commander of the French gendarmes after the failed attacks and heavy losses was ready to commit a suicide when he got a report that the battle was won.

    Polish hussars - the last truly heavy cavalry. Had been for quite a while successful against the pikemen because their lances had been longer than infantry spears. However, with the increasing infantry firepower their effectiveness against infantry went down.

    Needless to say that in none of the cases the infantry was just an ad hoc collection the peasants with the agricultural implements. The medieval peasant uprisings had been routinely smashed as soon as an adequate number of the feudal troops was raised. Of course, a small group of the armored cavalrymen could be ambushed by a greater number of the peasants with various chances for success, especially if they start with killing the horses. But Dragonheart is still a BS (it is a fairytale, not a history) and the same goes for the battle scenes in Braveheart.

    Fortunately for them, the medieval knights relatively rarely had been facing a quality infantry but it does look like importance of such an infantry was well appreciated: during the 100YW the French adopted the English habit of dismounting the knights and even afterwards the method was considered effective (in his description of the battle of Monterey Phillip de Comnin described it as a recipie for victory).
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  7. alexmilman Well-Known Member

    Apr 24, 2018
    Well, the Polish hussars were a well trained cavalry capable of much better maneuvering that the French gendarmes. However, the major battles of the Italian Wars quite often involved repeated cavalry charges and attacks by the echelons.

    One of the bonus points for the hussars was that they had lances which were longer then infantry pikes (and konchar as a secondary weapon was much longer than an ordinary sword). Attack in the echelons was, indeed, an effective method but the whole schema kept working only until enemy’s firepower improved.
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  8. b0ned0me Well-Known Member

    Jul 31, 2011
    It’s been a long time since I read any scholarly works on this but I seem to recall that the simple version is that all other things being equal infantry generally beats cavalry, light generally beats heavy if it can keep the range open (and vice versa), and a force with mixed arms generally beats one with only one troop type.
    So heavy cavalry charging equivalent heavy infantry will not work well, which is why I think they usually tried not to but instead charged inferior infantry, outnumbered forces, light infantry, flanks, other cavalry etc. Anything which is a softer target than a peer force with peer weapons but standing prepared on solid footing rather than bouncing round on a horse.
    The obvious implication of this being that:
    • frequently being on the receiving end of a charge was super terrifying because you were outnumbered, under equipped, caught unprepared, flanked or other bad things AS WELL AS having a whole bunch of donkey walloppers out to kill you
    • Sitting on a charging horse thinking “those lads there look like they are ready for us, there’s lots of them, they’re well kitted out and they seem to have done this before” would not be a happy experience at all
  9. John7755 يوحنا Lightweight Faqih

    Dec 30, 2014
    I must disagree with the assessments made regarding the revisionist take regarding the usage of heavy cavalry. While super heavy cavalry such as the cataphracts had weaknesses, due to tiredness and ability of enemy to maneuver, this does not change the general reality for most of the Eurasian Middle Ages. Heavy-Cavalry is certainly the most supreme unit for pitched battles generally.

    The case is simple, that in pitched battles when the enemy cannot easily escape, a heavily armored cavalry charge is most certainly the most effective way to destroy an enemy army, even disciplined ones. At the Battle of Ray for instance, the forces of al-Ma’mun having 9-10k warriors faced against al-Amin’s forces numbering in excess of 40k warriors. In a stroke of action, the forces of al-Ma’mun sent forward 700 heavy cavalry and these 700 crashing into the enemy, completely broke the enemy army in less than 5 minutes. The charge broke the centre of this huge army which shocked, were then beset by a much smaller force and the entire army was routed.

    During the Zanj rebellion, the Zanj armies who had performed excellently in a war of logistics and pitched battles in deep swamps, surged northward toward Bagdad after having expelled the caliphate main campaign of 873. The surge by the Zanj army was met by the caliphal regent, who upon engaging the Zanj in the fields north of the Zanj territories, relied on their heavy cavalry. These Turkic Mamluk cavalry with assistance from the wider Abbasid army, were able to feign retreat and then charge the Zanj army, crashing their centre and savaging the Zanj army which broke after such a charge.

    In the battle of Anzen, between the Byzantine emperor Theophilos and his army, with Kurdish reinforcements battled marshal al-Afshin and his Abbasid army. In said battle, the initial stages included archer exchanges and an infantry engagement, which the Byzantines held decisively the advantage. Said advantage was lost when al-Afshin unleashed his Perso-Turkic heavy cavalry which upon entry, charged with lance, bow and mace and stopped immediately the Byzantine advance. The Byzantine army in turn, losing heart, after the emperor seemed to disappear, fled in a mad rush westward. The emperor not dead, was protected by his Kurdish ‘allies’ and this group fleeing to a hill called Dazimon, were saved by a sudden torrent of storm which forced the cavalry to stay their advance uphill.

    Let us not become to hasty and say that infantry are superior to a true heavy cavalry force in pitched battles. Their use is extreme and their appearances often have the ability to shatter entire armies in moments.
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  10. TyranicusMaximus Irrational Statist

    Nov 21, 2010
    Otto-wank Virginia
    One factor not considered is that even during the rise of infantry armies in early modern Europe it was always the cavalry that were mobilized first. Unlike infantry, who could be trained quickly, cavalry troops were highly skilled and were often the core of any standing force because of that.

    Cavalry, even traditionally heavy cavalry, are capable of raiding and are mobile in ways no infantry force could ever be.
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  11. Michele Well-Known Member

    Nov 9, 2007
    Then you will need to propose better examples.

    The Zanj "army" was a servile uprising. We have no reliable friendly source detailing them, but I doubt they were well trained, well equipped heavy infantry. And you yourself note they were effective as long as they remained in the marshlands of southern Iraq, that is terrain very unsuitable for cavalry.

    In the other two cases you mention, one might point out that success was achieved but not without the help of horse archers, that is, not heavy cavalry relying on impact. And, anyway, in both cases, the losing army panicked on the (real or not) loss of their leader.
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  12. Dolan Lookin fer Gooby

    Apr 4, 2018
    I would also note that Greco-Roman, Phoenician, Iberian, Numidian and Celto-Germancavalry did not have stirrups, while Sarmatian and Parthian Cavalry (as is most Steppe Nomads) already have them since 200 BC. The Classical Age Europeans knew the existence of Stirrups, but they doesn't adopt them until relatively very late (about 500-600 AD, although might be much earlier in Steppe frontier regions).

    Charging up close without stirrups are essentially a deadly gamble. If the infantry hold, they would be easily unseated and thus become sitting ducks. But since untrained infantry are much likely to break anyway, it might still worth the try. Yet at the same time, disciplined, highly trained infantry force EXISTS (Roman Legionaries, Hellenistic Phalanxes, Greek Hoplites, Phoenician Pseudo-Hoplites & Phalanxes, Celtic Neitos, etc) that would not just flee when charged, but stand their ground and inflict horrific casualties to the horsemen. Of course, knowing that, Charging disciplined infantry is essentially a suicide for the cavalrymen of this era.

    Stirrup-wearing forces of the Parthians and Sarmatians, however, is perfectly able to charge into Roman Legionnaries, retreat, and charge again. This is particularly well known in the battle of Carrhae, as Parthian Cataphract charge slaughtered the Romans who survived bombardments from the horse archers.

    Of course, after adopting stirrups, live is much easier now for heavy cavalrymen. But disciplined, determined infantry with pole weapons still manage to spoil their day, if said infantry keep their nerve.
  13. Carl Schwamberger Well-Known Member

    Dec 14, 2012
    Hey, lets just say battle is terrifying and most folks are ready to cut & run on the smallest incentive. My fave example of infantry making a terrified stand would be the Brit 93rd Regiment that stood in the face of Russian cavalry at Balaklava. Just a few hours before the charge of the Light Brigade. The regiment was less than half strength. Most of the ranks sick from the weather and bad food. Further this regiment had not been in very little combat since the Napoleonic wars thirty years earlier. But there were very disciplined and drilled to the point of doing it in their sleep. A series of precisely placed volleys in sixty seconds brought the four squadrons of cavalry to a halt just paces from the line.

    Screen Shot 2019-07-10 at 11.23.06 AM copy.jpg

    Reading up on the American campaigns in the Upper Ohio or NW Territory campaigns I was struck by a cavalry or Dragoon tactic I'd not run across. The best example is from the Battle of the Thames River, but it was used on a smaller & less precise scale earlier. In simple terms the cavalry or Dragoons attack in a narrow column, a single line even, with the object of running straight thru the enemy line without engaging. Maybe firing pistoles or carbines to the flank as they dash through, but the point is to keep mooing until clear and out of range to the enemy rear. This attack is best done as the infantry come into range and engage the enemy line with fires. Once through the horsemen form a line parallel to the enemy and advance back into rage , mounted or dismounted, and fire into their rear. At the Thames the circumstances of timing, and execution were about as good as it gets. Four single line columns ran straight through the line of British regulars. In other examples not so spectacularly successful vs the Shawnee & their Allies.
  14. John7755 يوحنا Lightweight Faqih

    Dec 30, 2014
    Regarding the Zanj, that is a major assumption. We know very clearly from the source material, that the Zanj operated a large scale state in southern Iraq that according to al-Ma’sudi and al-Tabari, has created a city exceeding 100k inhabitants. This city, al-Mukhtara was supported by existing large connections from across the nearby Islamic world through the many Arab tribes which had allied with the Zanj. Further, we know the Zanj controlled the trade routes across Arabia and even ruled Mecca for about 6 years. Zanj forces themselves had gained heavy infantry of some kind also, according to al-Tabari, during the year long siege of al-Mukhtara, there were many heavily armored infantry tasked with the defense of the city. In one case, said infantry with interlocking chains connecting each other were able to protect several passageways until were finally subdued by the Abbasid advance.

    The Zanj were certainly organized, only the first year of the Zanj revolt can we say that their force was disorganized. It was not a servile rebellion in the mold of Spartacus. Rather, it was a revolt began by what we may call a professional set of Khawarij-Shi’a revolutionary who due to circumstances utilized a slave revolt to create a powerful state in Iraq. This is evident in their coins and many customs they brought forward, as well as their banners and the many supposed sayings of Ali ibn Muhammad al-Dibaj. Unfortunately, the most important source on this information that al-Tabari quotes, has been lost to us since the Mongol sacking of Baghdad. There is a reason when approaching the Zanj capital, caliphal regent al-Muwaffaq said that this rebellion was something unique and unprecedented, even after seeing the Saffarid threat, which the Zanj defeated...

    The reasons the army routed do not matter. Without the cavalry, said rout would not have occurred and the smaller army would be at an enormous disadvantage. We are speaking of pitched battles, not just the concept of a single set of infantry defending itself against a single set of cavalry.

    Who are you to say horse archers are not heavy cavalry? It is just supplemented, that is, firing arrows prior to impact. However, said horsemen were heavily armored just the same as Sassanid era heavy cavalry, after all, al-Afshin was from the old Sassanid nobility.
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  15. Dolan Lookin fer Gooby

    Apr 4, 2018
    Heavy Horse Archers operate as mobile bombardment unit though, very rarely used to charge enemy formations unless those are Parthian Azad or Sassanian Grivpanvar, which were equipped with both bows and lances.

    Most of the time though, they only carried swords, axes, or maces. That while could be used to charge enemy line in desperation, is not meant to really do that due to limited reach. They are still fine melee troops when it counts though. Just ask the Mongols.
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  16. John7755 يوحنا Lightweight Faqih

    Dec 30, 2014
    But is this not still heavy cavalry? Just versatile? Once more, al-Afshin used these to charge and break the enemy advance before pulling back and showering the enemy with arrows.
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  17. sloreck Grunt Bear

    Aug 4, 2008
    Prior to gunpowder weapons, the issue of heavy cavalry vs infantry has a lot of variables. How well trained is the infantry and what weapons do they have (ex: a three deep well trained pike formation). The terrain counts, for example are the flanks anchored on terrain that cavalry can't traverse. Also, are they supported by distance weapons, the French found out that charging uphill against English longbowmen is not a good idea (cf: Crécy). The bottom line is that if the infantry stands firm and is properly equipped they usually win. For sure if they break, they are slaughtered.
  18. James XI Well-Known Member

    Jun 30, 2016
    Norman’s at Hastings weren’t really engaging in heavy cavalry charges as would later become the staple of Western warfare. More like a somewhat heavier jinete. Still probably pretty frightening, but not the same as facing couched lances coming at you on chargers. Which I have been told by reinactors is truly terrifying even knowing they aren’t out to kill you.

    Cornwall et al have made a lot about how cavalry won’t charge spears...not entirely true, but more to the point often irrelevant as in most cases infantry will break in the face of a heavy cavalry charge. Remember it doesn’t just take courage and faith the horses will falter to stand up to it, it also takes absolute trust in your fellow spear men. If they break, you doing everything right will still leave you as easy meat for passing cavalry. So, if any of those 3 factors wavers, you’re running.
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  19. Dolan Lookin fer Gooby

    Apr 4, 2018
    The thing is "Heavy" or should I say "Armored" Horse Archers are most often used in a manner that is closer to "Medium" or "All-rounder" cavalry. They are expected to deal casualties through shooting with their bows, hunting enemy skirmishers, and counter-charge lighter cavalry that strays too close.

    They could, and did employed to charge enemy formations from time to time. However, this would be done either in very advantageous moment, or in desperate situation. Most Commanders aren't that keen to waste what is basically their most experienced, best equipped archers on close combat, mind you. Sure, there are exceptions like Grivpanvars of the Parthians, whose charge broke Roman ranks at Carrhae,, but those are rather few.

    Maybe this is what I got from playing too much Broken Crescent and Europa Barbarorum though.
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  20. Michele Well-Known Member

    Nov 9, 2007
    Maybe. The source material isn't exactly clear.

    You can be organized and have a light infantry force, of course. Regardless of how much of the rebellion was based on slaves or not, the Zanj mostly carried out guerrilla raids - which makes one think they had more light infantry than heavy infantry.

    One might hypothesize that without the death or apparent death of the leader, the routs would not have occurred, and the charges would not have achieved much.

    Huh, somebody who read the original post? Horse archers may also be well-armored, but their main weapon isn't the charge.

    At Tours (732), heavy cavalry broke through heavy infantry, but this was well trained, disciplined and well equipped, and the cavalry did not push them into a rout - the smaller army, having no cavalry, won the day.

    At Legnano (1176, just to pick something centuries later) the better trained German heavy cavalry easily defeated the Communal cavalry - and then was stymied all day long by a porcupine of heavy infantry, and lost the battle.

    Not always, but often, when you read about a successful heavy cavalry charge, you'll have plenty of details about that, and then, some sort of footnote: oh, and the charge was prepared by light infantry/archers/horse archers peppering the enemy with missile weapons. And weakening and demoralizing them, of course. Adn the presence of heavy cavalry had forced them to bunch up, so as to become a perfect target for volley arrow fire. Combined arms, in other words, not just knights in shining armor.
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