Cuirassier

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French cuirassier (1809) Napoleon Cuirassier in 1809 by Bellange.jpg
French cuirassier (1809)

Cuirassiers ( /ˌkwɪrəˈsɪər/ ; from French cuirassier [1] [kɥiʁasje] ) were cavalry equipped with armour and firearms, first appearing in late 15th-century Europe. The first cuirassiers were produced as a result of armoured cavalry, such as the man-at-arms and demi-lancer, discarding their lances and adopting the use of pistols as their primary weapon. In the later 17th century, the cuirassier lost his limb armour and subsequently employed only the cuirass (breastplate and backplate), and sometimes a helmet. By this time, the sword was the primary weapon of the cuirassier, pistols being relegated to a secondary function.

French language Romance language

French is a Romance language of the Indo-European family. It descended from the Vulgar Latin of the Roman Empire, as did all Romance languages. French evolved from Gallo-Romance, the spoken Latin in Gaul, and more specifically in Northern Gaul. Its closest relatives are the other langues d'oïl—languages historically spoken in northern France and in southern Belgium, which French (Francien) has largely supplanted. French was also influenced by native Celtic languages of Northern Roman Gaul like Gallia Belgica and by the (Germanic) Frankish language of the post-Roman Frankish invaders. Today, owing to France's past overseas expansion, there are numerous French-based creole languages, most notably Haitian Creole. A French-speaking person or nation may be referred to as Francophone in both English and French.

Cavalry soldiers or warriors fighting from horseback

Cavalry or horsemen are soldiers or warriors who fight mounted on horseback. Cavalry were historically the most mobile of the combat arms. An individual soldier in the cavalry is known by a number of designations such as cavalryman, horseman, dragoon, or trooper. The designation of cavalry was not usually given to any military forces that used other animals, such as camels, mules or elephants. Infantry who moved on horseback, but dismounted to fight on foot, were known in the 17th and early 18th centuries as dragoons, a class of mounted infantry which later evolved into cavalry proper while retaining their historic title.

Armour or armor is a protective covering that is used to prevent damage from being inflicted to an object, individual or vehicle by direct contact weapons or projectiles, usually during combat, or from damage caused by a potentially dangerous environment or activity. Personal armour is used to protect soldiers and war animals. Vehicle armour is used on warships and armoured fighting vehicles.

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Cuirassiers achieved increased prominence during the Napoleonic Wars and were last fielded in the opening stages of World War I. Cuirassiers continue to be employed as ceremonial troops by a number of countries. The French term means "one with a cuirass" (cuirasse), the breastplate armour which they wore. [2]

Napoleonic Wars Series of early 19th century European wars

The Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) were a series of major conflicts pitting the French Empire and its allies, led by Napoleon I, against a fluctuating array of European powers formed into various coalitions, financed and usually led by the United Kingdom. The wars stemmed from the unresolved disputes associated with the French Revolution and its resultant conflict. The wars are often categorised into five conflicts, each termed after the coalition that fought Napoleon: the Third Coalition (1805), the Fourth (1806–07), the Fifth (1809), the Sixth (1813), and the Seventh (1815).

World War I 1914–1918 global war originating in Europe

World War I, also known as the First World War or the Great War, was a global war originating in Europe that lasted from 28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918. Contemporaneously described as "the war to end all wars", it led to the mobilisation of more than 70 million military personnel, including 60 million Europeans, making it one of the largest wars in history. It is also one of the deadliest conflicts in history, with an estimated nine million combatants and seven million civilian deaths as a direct result of the war, while resulting genocides and the 1918 influenza pandemic caused another 50 to 100 million deaths worldwide.

Cuirass personal armour for the front of the torso

A cuirass is a piece of armor, formed of a single or multiple pieces of metal or other rigid material which covers the torso. The use of the term "cuirass" generally refers to both the chest plate and the back piece together. Whereas a chest plate only protects the front and a back plate only protects the back, a cuirass protects both the front and the back.

16th and 17th centuries

Cuirassiers giving fire with their pistols (cuirassiers of Gottfried Heinrich Graf zu Pappenheim) Pappenheim Curassiers.PNG
Cuirassiers giving fire with their pistols (cuirassiers of Gottfried Heinrich Graf zu Pappenheim)

The first cuirassiers were similar in appearance to the fully armoured Late Medieval man-at-arms. They wore three-quarter armour that covered the entire upper body as well as the front half of the legs down to the knee. The head was protected by a close helm, burgonet or lobster-tailed pot helmet, usually worn with a gorget for the neck. The torso was protected by a breast and back plate, sometimes reinforced by a 'placate'. The arms and shoulders were fully armoured with pauldrons, rerebraces, elbow couters and vambraces. Armoured gauntlets were often abandoned, particularly for the right hand, as they interfered with the loading of pistols. Long tassets, instead of a combination of short tassets with cuisses, protected the front of the thighs and knees, Riding boots were substituted for lower leg armour (greaves and sabatons). [3] Weapons included a pair of pistols in saddle holsters (these were the primary weapons instead of a lance), a sword, and sometimes a "horseman's pick" (a type of war hammer). Horse armour was not used.

Man-at-arms Armoured medieval soldier

A man-at-arms was a soldier of the High Medieval to Renaissance periods who was typically well-versed in the use of arms and served as a fully armoured heavy cavalryman. A man-at-arms could be a knight or nobleman, a member of a knight or nobleman's retinue or a mercenary in a company under a mercenary captain. Such men could serve for pay or through a feudal obligation. The terms knight and man-at-arms are often used interchangeably, but while all knights equipped for war certainly were men-at-arms, not all men-at-arms were knights.

Burgonet type of light open helmet

The burgonet helmet was a Renaissance-era and early modern combat helmet. It was the successor of the sallet.

Gorget linen or metal worn around the neck, either for defensive purposes or as a decorative element (especially of a military uniform)

A gorget, from the French gorge meaning throat, was a band of linen wrapped around a woman's neck and head in the medieval period or the lower part of a simple chaperon hood. The term later described a steel or leather collar to protect the throat, a set of pieces of plate armour,or a single piece of plate armour hanging from the neck and covering the throat and chest. Later, particularly from the 18th century, the gorget became primarily ornamental, serving as a symbolic accessory on military uniforms, a use which has survived in some armies.

The armour of a cuirassier was very expensive; in England, in 1629, a cuirassier's equipment cost four pounds and 10 shillings, whilst a harquebusier's (a lighter type of cavalry) was a mere one pound and six shillings. [4]

Harquebusier historical profession

The harquebusier was the most common form of cavalry found throughout Western Europe during the early and mid 17th century. Early harquebusiers were characterised by the use of a form of carbine, called a "harquebus". In England, harquebusier was the technical name for this type of cavalry, though in everyday usage they were usually simply called 'cavalry' or 'horse'. In Germany they were often termed Ringerpferd, or sometimes Reiter, in Sweden they were called lätta ryttare.

During the latter half of the 16th century, the heavy "knightly" lance gradually fell out of use perhaps because of the widespread adoption of the infantry pike. Also, the lance required a great amount of practice to perfect its use, whilst proficiency in the use of firearms was considerably more easily acquired. The lancer or demi-lancer, when he had abandoned his lance, became the pistol-armed cuirassier or reiter.

Lance pole weapon that normally has a peak

The lance is a pole weapon designed to be used by a mounted warrior or cavalry soldier (lancer). During the periods of classical and medieval warfare, it evolved into being the leading weapon in cavalry charges, and was unsuited for throwing or for repeated thrusting, unlike similar weapons of the javelin/pike family typically used by infantry. Lances were often equipped with a vamplate – a small circular plate to prevent the hand sliding up the shaft upon impact. Though best known as a military and sporting weapon carried by European knights, the use of lances was widespread throughout Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa wherever suitable mounts were available. As a secondary weapon, lancers of the medieval period also bore swords, axes, hammers, or maces for hand-to-hand combat, since the lance was often a one-use-per-engagement weapon; assuming the lance survived the initial impact intact, it was usually too long, heavy and slow to be effective against opponents in a melee.

Infantry military service branch that specializes in combat by individuals on foot

Infantry is the branch of an army that engages in military combat on foot, distinguished from cavalry, artillery, and tank forces. Also known as foot soldiers, infantry traditionally relies on moving by foot between combats as well, but may also use mounts, military vehicles, or other transport. Infantry make up a large portion of all armed forces in most nations, and typically bear the largest brunt in warfare, as measured by casualties, deprivation, or physical and psychological stress.

Pike (weapon) pole weapon

A pike is a pole weapon, a very long thrusting spear formerly used extensively by infantry. Pikes were used regularly in European warfare from the Late Middle Ages to the early 18th century, and were wielded by foot soldiers deployed in close quarters, until their replacement by the bayonet. The pike found extensive use with Landsknecht armies and Swiss mercenaries, who employed it as their main weapon and used it in pike square formations. A similar weapon, the sarissa, was also used by Alexander the Great's Macedonian phalanx infantry to great effect. Generally, a spear becomes a pike when it is too long to be wielded with one hand in combat.

A pair of long-barrelled wheel-lock pistols, the primary weapon of the early cuirassier Wheel-lock holster pistols, Nuremberg, c. 1650 - Higgins Armory Museum - DSC05494.JPG
A pair of long-barrelled wheel-lock pistols, the primary weapon of the early cuirassier

The adoption of the pistol as the primary weapon led to the development of the stately caracole tactic, where cuirassiers fired their pistols at the enemy, then retired to reload whilst their comrades advanced in turn to maintain the firing. Following some initial successes, this tactic proved to be extremely ineffective as infantry, with superior firearms and numbers could easily outgun the cuirassiers. The change from cavalry being reliant on firearms, to shock-capable close combat cavalry reliant mainly on the sword was often attributed to Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden in the 1620s and 1630s. [5] Gustavus Adolphus also reduced the number of ranks in a cavalry formation from the previously usual six to ten, for pistol-based tactics, to three to suit his sword-based shock tactics, or as a partial remedy to the frequent numerical inferiority of his cavalry arm. [6]

The caracole or caracol is a turning maneuver on horseback in dressage and, previously, in military tactics.

Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden Swedish king 1611–32

Gustavus Adolphus, also known in English as Gustav II Adolf or Gustav II Adolph, was the King of Sweden from 1611 to 1632 who is credited for the founding of Sweden as a great power. He led Sweden to military supremacy during the Thirty Years' War, helping to determine the political as well as the religious balance of power in Europe. He was formally and posthumously given the name Gustavus Adolphus the Great by the Riksdag of the Estates in 1634.

Only two cuirassier regiments were raised during the English Civil War, the Lifeguard of the Earl of Essex and the 'London lobsters,' though individuals within other regiments did serve in full armour. With the refinement of infantry firearms, especially the introduction of the powerful musket, the usefulness of the protection afforded by full armour became greatly lessened. By the mid 17th century, the fully armoured cuirassier was becoming increasingly anachronistic. The cuirassier lost his limb armour and entered the 18th century with just the breast and backplate. [7]

18th and 19th centuries

Body armour, restricted to a breast and backplate, fell in and out of use during the 18th century; for example British cavalry entered the War of the Spanish Succession without body armour, although they readopted it during the conflict. Cuirassiers played a prominent role in the armies of Austria, and of Frederick the Great of Prussia. By the time of the French Revolutionary Wars, few heavy cavalry regiments, excepting those of Austria, wore the cuirass on campaign. The twelve Austrian cuirassier regiments in existence between 1768 and 1802 (when the number was reduced) unusually wore only a front plate. [8] This reduced the burden of the weight carried by the individual trooper but left his back unprotected during a swirling cavalry melee.

Most heavy cavalry from c. 1700 to c. 1785 wore the tricorne hat, which evolved into the bicorne, or cocked hat, towards the close of the century. In the first two decades of the 19th century, helmets, often of hardened leather with brass reinforcement (though the French used iron-skulled helmets for their cuirassiers), replaced the bicorne hat.

A resurgence of armoured cavalry took place in France under the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte, who increased the number of armoured regiments from one to, ultimately, sixteen (fourteen cuirassier regiments plus two Carabiniers-à-Cheval regiments).

During the first few decades of the 19th century most of the major states of Europe, excepting Austria which had retained its armoured cavalry, readopted the cuirass for some of their heavy cavalry in emulation of the French. The Russians fielded two divisions of armoured cavalry, but most other states armoured a few senior regiments: Prussia three regiments, the Kingdom of Saxony three, the Kingdom of Westphalia two, Spain one (Coraceros Españoles) and the Duchy of Warsaw one. The three Household Cavalry regiments of the British Army (1st and 2nd Life Guards and Royal Horse Guards) adopted cuirasses shortly after the Napoleonic Wars as a part of their full dress uniforms, but never had occasion to wear the armour in battle. However as late as 1887 these regiments were still wearing cuirasses on maneuvers in "field day order". [9]

Cuirassiers were generally the senior branch of the mounted portion of an army, retaining their status as heavy cavalry"big men on big horses". Their value as a heavy striking force during the Napoleonic Wars ensured that the French, Russian and Prussian armies continued to use cuirassier regiments throughout the 19th century. The Austrian cuirassiers were abolished in 1868. [10]

For reasons of climate and cost cuirassiers of the 19th century type seldom appeared outside Europe and Latin America. However Ranjit Singh's Sikh Army (the Khalsa) of the 1830s included two regiments of cuirassiers equipped and armed in French fashion. Four hundred carabinier cuirasses were imported from France while helmets and uniforms were manufactured in Wazirabad. [11]

Effectiveness during the Napoleonic Wars

Though the armour could not protect against contemporary flintlock musket fire, it could deflect shots fired from long-range, stop ricochets and offer protection from all but very close range pistol fire. More importantly, in an age which saw cavalry used in large numbers, the breastplates (along with the helmets) provided excellent protection against the swords and lances of opposing cavalry and against infantry bayonets. It also had some psychological effect for the wearer (effectively making the cuirassier more willing to plunge into the thick of fighting) and the enemy (adding intimidation), while it also added weight to a charge, especially in cavalry versus cavalry actions.

Napoleonic French cuirasses were originally intended to be proof against three musket shots at close range; however, this was never achieved in practice. The regulations eventually recognised this, and cuirasses were subsequently only expected to be proof against one shot at long range. [12]

The utility of this armour was sometimes disputed. Prussian cuirassiers had abandoned the armoured cuirass before the Napoleonic Wars, but were reissued with it in 1814. During this period, a single British cavalry regiment (Royal Horse Guards) wore cuirasses during the Netherlands campaign of 1794, using breastplates taken from store. [13] The Austrian cuirassiers traded protection for mobility by wearing only the half-cuirass (without back plate) and helmet. [14] Napoleon believed it sufficiently useful that he had cuirassier-style armour issued to his two carabinier regiments after the Battle of Wagram. Despite being highly advanced from the plate armour of old, the Napoleonic era cuirass was still quite cumbersome and hot to wear in warm weather; however, the added protection that it gave to the wearer and the imposing appearance of an armoured cavalryman were factors favouring retention.

Franco-Prussian War

The last occasions when cuirassiers played a major tactical role as shock cavalry wearing traditional armour, were during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. The French cuirassiers numbered 11 regiments at the outbreak of war but had not seen active service since the Battle of Waterloo. A brigade comprising the 6th and 9th Regiments had served in the Crimean War but had not actually encountered the enemy. [15] Accordingly, the prospect of action against the Prussian Army, which included 10 cuirassier regiments of its own, [16] was seen as an opportunity for a strongly traditional branch of the French cavalry to prove its continuing relevance. In the event, in a series of massed charges against Prussian infantry and artillery at Froeschwiller and Rezonville, the French cuirassiers suffered very heavy losses for little return.

20th century

French cuirassiers in Paris, August 1914. These regiments wore cloth-covered cuirasses and helmets during the early months of World War I. French heavy cavalry Paris August 1914.jpg
French cuirassiers in Paris, August 1914. These regiments wore cloth-covered cuirasses and helmets during the early months of World War I.
Italian corazzieri during a public event 2june2006 374.jpg
Italian corazzieri during a public event

In 1914, the German Army still retained cuirassiers (ten regiments including the Gardes du Corps and the Guards Cuirassiers); as did the French (twelve regiments) and the Russian (four regiments, all of the Imperial Guard) armies. The Austrians had dispensed with heavy breastplates in 1860 [18] and formally abolished the cuirassiers as a branch of their cavalry in 1868. [19] By the end of the 19th century, the German and Russian cuirassiers used the breastplates only as part of their peacetime parade dress, [20] but the French regiments still wore the cuirass and plumed helmet (both with cloth covers) on active service during the first weeks of World War I. Amongst ceremonial units the Spanish Escolta Real (Royal Escort) Squadron, [21] the Argentinian Presidential Bodyguard, [22] and the Italian Cuirassier (Corazzieri) Corps [23] all wore cuirasses as part of their mounted full dress during the early years of the 20th century.

The retention of cuirasses as part of their field uniform by the French Army in 1914 reflected the historic prestige of this branch of the cavalry, dating back through the Franco-Prussian War to the campaigns of Napoleon. Before the war, it had been argued within the army that the cuirass should be limited to parade dress but upon mobilisation in 1914 the only concession made to active service was the addition of a cover of brown or blue cloth [24] over the shining steel and brass of the metal equipment to make the wearer less visible. [25] Within a few weeks, most French regiments stopped wearing the cuirass, as it served no real purpose in this new war. It was not however formally withdrawn until October 1915. [26]

The Russian and German cuirassiers ceased to exist when the Imperial armies in both countries were disbanded; respectively in 1917 (due to the revolution) and in 1918 (due to the Treaty of Versailles). The French cuirassiers continued in existence after World War I, although without their traditional armour and reduced in numbers to only the six regiments that had been most decorated during the war. Five of these units had achieved their distinctions serving as "cuirassiers à pied" or dismounted cavalry in the trenches. The surviving cuirassier regiments were amongst the first mounted cavalry in the French Army to be mechanised during the 1930s. One cuirassier regiment still forms part of the French Army.

Cuirassiers today

Cuirassier harness evolution

The development of firearms, which reduced the effectiveness of expensive heavy armour, led to a considerable reduction of the size and complexity of the latter. This form of protection was reduced in the latter half of the 17th century to the breastplate and the helmet, both of which eventually became largely decorative against projectiles but still retained their effectiveness against swords, lances, and bayonets.

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Pickelhaube spiked helmet

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Hussar light cavalry originally from Hungary

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Plate armour armor consisting of anatomically shaped metal plates


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Uhlan light cavalry

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Lancer type of cavalryman who fights with a lance

A lancer was a type of cavalryman who fought with a lance. Lances were used in mounted warfare by the Assyrians as early as 700 BC and subsequently by Greek, Persian, Gallic, Chinese, and Roman horsemen. The weapon was widely used in Asia and Europe during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance by armoured cavalry, before being adopted by light cavalry, particularly in Eastern Europe. In a modern context, a lancer regiment usually denotes an armoured unit.

Gardes du Corps (Prussia)

The Gardes du Corps was the personal bodyguard of the king of Prussia and, after 1871, of the German emperor. The unit was founded in 1740 by Frederick the Great. Its first commander was Friedrich von Blumenthal, who died unexpectedly in 1745; his brother Hans von Blumenthal, who, with the other officers of the regiment had won the Pour le Mérite in its first action at the battle of Hohenfriedberg, assumed command in 1747. Hans von Blumenthal was badly wounded leading the regiment in a successful cavalry charge in the battle of Lobositz and had to retire from the military.

Reiter

Reiter or Schwarze Reiter were a type of cavalry in 16th to 17th century Central Europe including Holy Roman Empire, Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Tsardom of Russia, and others.

Demi-lancer

The "Demi-lancer" or demilancer was a type of heavy cavalryman found in Western Europe in the 16th and early 17th centuries.

Lobster-tailed pot helmet burgonet with a long neck guard

The lobster-tailed pot helmet, also known as the zischägge, horseman's pot and harquebusier's pot, was a type of post-Renaissance combat helmet. It became popular in Europe, especially for cavalry and officers, from c. 1600; it was derived from an Ottoman Turkish helmet type. The helmet gradually fell out of use in most of Europe in the late 17th century; however, the Austrian heavy cavalry retained it for some campaigns as late as the 1780s.

Heavy cavalry soldiers who engaged in direct combat on horseback

Heavy cavalry is a class of cavalry whose primary role was to engage in direct combat with enemy forces, and are heavily armed and armoured compared to light cavalry. Although their equipment differed greatly depending on the region and historical period, they were generally mounted on large powerful horses, and were often equipped with some form of scale, plated, chainmail or lamellar armour as well as either swords, maces, lances, or battle axes.

Garde du Corps

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Carabiniers-à-Cheval military unit of France

The Carabiniers-à-Cheval were mounted troops in the service of France.

Dragoon helmet ornate metal or leather helmet worn by cavalry soldiers, usually featuring a comb and visors

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