Light cavalry

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Polish-Lithuanian light cavalry during the Battle of Orsha in 1514, by Hans Krell Krell Battle of Orsha (detail) 31.jpg
Polish-Lithuanian light cavalry during the Battle of Orsha in 1514, by Hans Krell
The famous Charge of the Light Brigade, in the Battle of Balaclava in 1854 (painted by William Simpson in 1855) William Simpson - Charge of the light cavalry brigade, 25th Oct. 1854, under Major General the Earl of Cardigan.jpg
The famous Charge of the Light Brigade, in the Battle of Balaclava in 1854 (painted by William Simpson in 1855)

Light cavalry comprised lightly armed and armored cavalry troops mounted on fast horses, as opposed to heavy cavalry, where the mounted riders (and sometimes the warhorses) were heavily armored. The purpose of light cavalry was primarily raiding, reconnaissance, screening, skirmishing, patrolling and tactical communications. Prior to the early 17th century they were usually armed with swords, spears, javelins, or bows, and later on with sabres, pistols, shotguns, or carbines.


Light cavalry was used infrequently by Ancient Greeks (who used hippeis such as prodromoi or sarissophoroi) and Ancient Romans (who used auxiliaries such as equites Numidarum or equites Maurorum), but were more common among the armies of Eastern Europe, North Africa, West Asia, Central Asia and East Asia. The Arabs, Cossacks, Hungarians, Huns, Kalmycks, Mongols, Turks, Parthians, and Persians were all adept light cavalrymen and horse archers.

With the decline of feudalism and knighthood in Europe, light cavalry became more prominent in the armies of the continent. Many were equipped with early firearms, as their predecessors had been with bows or javelins. European examples of light cavalry included stradiots, hobelars, hussars, chasseurs à cheval , cossacks, chevau-légers , uhlans, and some dragoons. [1]

Historical use

Armies of the ancient Roman-Germanic wars made use of light cavalry as patrolling squads, or armed scouts, and often had them in the front lines during regional battles.

During the Punic Wars, one of Carthage's main advantages over Roman armies was its extensive use of Numidian light cavalry. Partly because of this, the Roman general Scipio Africanus recruited his own cavalry from Sicily before his invasion of Tunisia during the Second Punic War.

Medieval period

Mongol soldier on horseback, preparing a mounted archery shot Mongol warrior of Genghis Khan.jpg
Mongol soldier on horseback, preparing a mounted archery shot

Types of light cavalry that were developed and used in medieval armies.

Early Modern and Napoleonic periods

French 4th Hussar at the Battle of Friedland, 14 June 1807. "Vive l'Empereur!" by Edouard Detaille, 1891. Edouard Detaille - Vive L'Empereur - Google Art Project.jpg
French 4th Hussar at the Battle of Friedland, 14 June 1807. "Vive l'Empereur!" by Édouard Detaille, 1891.
Polish cavalry at the Battle of Somosierra in Spain, 1808 January Suchodolski, Bitwa pod Somosierra.jpg
Polish cavalry at the Battle of Somosierra in Spain, 1808

Light cavalry played a key role in mounted scouting, escorting, and skirmishing during the Napoleonic era. Light horse also served a function in major set-piece battles. While lacking the sheer offensive power of heavy cavalry, light cavalry were still extremely effective against unprepared infantry, cavalry, and artillery. All infantry commanders were forced to respect the danger any cavalry presented to their forces, and light cavalry were effective at changing the movement of enemy forces simply through their presence. In the aftermath of battles, light cavalry were used to press a victor's advantage or to screen retreating forces from further attack.

Early 20th century

As late as the early 1900s, most European armies still retained a nominal division of mounted troops according to the size and weight of the men, [10] into light cavalry (raiding, reconnaissance, and screening), medium cavalry (offense or defense), and heavy cavalry (direct shock). [11] While colonial warfare had led to a blurring of these distinctions in the British army, tradition remained strong in the cavalry arm of some other nations. As an example, the Imperial German army maintained a marked difference between the sizes and weights of the men and horses allocated to the hussar regiments that made up its light cavalry and those of the other two categories. [12] The early weeks of World War I saw light cavalry attempting to continue its long established function of being the "eyes and ears" of the respective main armies. However, despite some early success, the advent of trench warfare and aircraft observation quickly rendered this role obsolete, except to an extent in the Middle East in 1917, and in Eastern Europe where light cavalry mounted actions on a diminishing scale continued to occur until the revolution of 1917 took Russia out of the war. [13]

Late 20th century and modern day

During the Vietnam War, the US Army converted parts of the 1st Cavalry Division for heliborne tactics with a concept known as Air Cavalry. Helicopters were used to insert troops and support them. They were also used for suppression fire, search and rescue, medical evacuation, scouting and resupply. This concept was first tested at the Battle of Ia Drang Valley. [14] [15] Modern tactics call for the use of gunships to dominate the airspace and provide fire support while transport helicopters ferry ground forces and supply them.

Light reconnaissance vehicles (LRV) are also being used by cavalry squadrons and infantry scout units for scouting, skirmishing and providing light fire support. [16]

See also

References and notes

  1. Bryan Fosten (1982). Wellington's Light Cavalry. Osprey Publishing. ISBN   0-85045-449-2.
  2. Brzezinski, Vukšić, Richard, Velimir (25 July 2006). Polish Winged Hussar 1576–1775. Osprey Publishing. ISBN   1-84176-650-X.
  3. Caferro, William; Reid, Shelley (2010). The Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology, Tom 1. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. p. 10. ISBN   9780195334036.
  4. Thomas, Robert H.G. (28 November 1991). The Russian Army of the Crimean War 1854-56. pp. 7–8. ISBN   1-85532-161-0.
  5. Hofschroer, Peter (27 March 1985). Prussian Cavalry of the Napoleonic Wars 2 1807-15. pp. 33–35. ISBN   0-85045-683-5.
  6. Pavlovic, Darko (July 1999). The Austrian Army 1836-66 (2) Cavalry. pp. 3–4. ISBN   1-85532-800-3.
  7. Reid, Stuart (18 August 2009). Armies of the East India Company 1750-1850. pp. 23–37. ISBN   978-1-84603-460-2.
  8. Sumner, Ian (17 July 1995). The French Army 1914-18. p. 5. ISBN   1-85532-516-0.
  9. Spring, Laurence (19 March 2003). The Cossacks 1799-1815. pp. 11–12. ISBN   1-84176-464-7.
  10. Von Koppen, Fedor (26 February 2015). The Armies of Europe Illustrated. p. 5. ISBN   978-1-78331-175-0.
  11. pages 568–570, Volume 5, Encyclopædia Britannica – eleventh edition
  12. page 570, Volume 5, Encyclopædia Britannica – eleventh edition
  13. Littauer, Vladimir (May 2007). Russian Hussar. pp. 3–5. ISBN   978-1-59048-256-8.
  14. "Air Cavalry Tactics in Vietnam". 6 September 2018.
  15. "Air Cav: How Soldiers in the Sky Reshaped Combat on the Ground". Historynet. 24 July 2013. Retrieved 18 March 2022.
  16. "Coming soon: Details for the Army's Light Reconnaissance Vehicle". 15 June 2017. Retrieved 18 March 2022.

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