Saturday, 16 December 2017

French Cavalry

I must firstly apologise to all those wargamers who saw the title of this post and clicked on the link expecting to find pictures of beautifully painted Chasseurs-a-Cheval or hussars, or something of that nature. This is not the blog for you.  I rarely post pictures of anything because my painting skills are not up to being photographed. Mind you, my painting skills are matched in their paucity by my photographic skills.

Those of you who are used to the style of this blog, or who have waded through the first paragraph whether-or-not may be rewarded by a few nuggets about French cavalry, of the period of the French Wars of Religion, 1562-1598. It is, to me at least, somewhat surprisingly interesting.

Now the French state, between the dates stated, did one of those amazing falling apart things that only the French really seem to have been capable of. It is not that the state disintegrated, nor was it particularly heavily invaded, it just sort of paralysed itself, and existed in a state of hostility for decades, sometimes as civil war and sometimes just as barely concealed armed hostility. After much chaos and confusion, not to mention a few battles and large scale death and destruction, Henry IV became French king and everyone went home.

The interesting thing about this, from a historical wargame perspective is the development of the French cavalry arm during this period. At the beginning, everyone was a gendarme, and rode en-haye with a lance to smash the peasants who dared to stand up to their social and military superiors. By the end, cavalry were deployed in smaller blocks, deeper formations and used more firearms. The development seems to have been via the caracole, a deep formation of cavalry (often German reiters) relying more heavily on firearms.

For a number of years I have had a puzzled relationship with the caracole. The idea, basically, is that the horsemen sacrifice mobility and shock for shooting in ranks at the enemy with whatever firearms they had to hand. The front rank fired, turned to the left, the next rank fired and so on. Assorted people are quoted in stating it could be quite effective, but why on earth did cavalry adopt it, even for an apparently short time?

A caracole, properly conducted, could be quite scary. ’a man could see nothing but fire and steel’ a contemporary reported. On the other hand, it is also reported that the whole formation could go ‘bang’ at the same time, from too long a range to be effective, with the rear ranks simply shooting up in the air. Presumably discipline and training had something to do with it.

The reason for the adoption of the caracole seems to have been two fold. Firstly, dealing with solid blocks of pike was not that easy. The French had proved, in the Italian Wars that gendarmes could charge through pike block without winning the battle, and at high cost to themselves. Standing off (or, in the case of riders, sitting off) and shooting at the pike probably seemed like a viable option.

The second reason is that, of course, reiter type cavalry were cheaper than gendarmes and a relatively dense block of them could disrupt and defeat a thin line of lancers en-haye. Once in confusion the gendarmes were just as vulnerable as anyone else and possibly more, as the lance is rather a one shot weapon, while swords and pistols can be used again, even in the same combat.

So the evolution of the French cavalry comes down to money, in the end. Henry IV was permanently cash-strapped and missed several opportunities to finish the civil wars because of it. His cheaper, lesser nobility cavalry were less well armed than the royal gendarmes (who tended to be the higher nobility) and needed more time off to replenish horses and arms. However, they did a good battlefield job.

French cavalry also developed lighter (and cheaper) horse, chevaux-legers and arquebusiers-a-cheval. These gave Henry IV the opportunity to conduct a war of lightening marches, striking at the enemy when they were not expecting. The light horse were the scouts and could form the flank of the cuirassiers. The mounted arquebusiers could fight mounted or dismounted, providing the rest of the horse with a solid firepower base to perform either defensive fire duties of soften up the enemy for an attack. Henry IV developed a hit and run style or warfare, suited to his limited resources.

So, what of wargame terms and wargame rules. Well, obviously, the interaction of lancers and reiter types needs to be pondered. In general, a deeper formation of reiter could disrupt and defeat lancers charging en-haye and, really, there was no other tactic suited for lancers. So, unless the lancers get lucky, the reiter is the way to go.

On the other hand, the reiter is not so clever when it comes to dealing with solid foot formations. Mind you, nor is the lancer, but the key is in the terminology. In favourable circumstances the reiter can use the caracole before closing in with the sword to finish the infantry off. If not then, of course, they are not in particular danger from the latter – infantry cannot outrun cavalry. Further, in Henry IV’s ‘equestrian’ army the reiter can call upon the mounted arquebusiers to dismount and give the infantry a hard time, while hovering to dissuade the enemy from closing in. as with so much of military history, combined arms operations come to the fore to win.

The reason for the post is not a random wander down a back land of military history (although it may be that as well). Academically, there is debate over the military revolution of Maurice of Nassau and Gustavus of Sweden. There is an argument here that some of their innovations were not that new. Henry IV got there first. Secondly, there is an impact on the way wargames of the period should be played, and their rules written. How do we model these interactions?

Love, R. S. 1991. ""All the King's Horsemen": The Equestrian Army of Henri IV, 1585-1598." The Sixteenth Century Journal 22 (3):511-33. doi: 10.2307/2541473.


  1. Hmm, well, yes and no (btw I thought the English and Scots, not to mention the various Germanic states often fell into long periods of polital & social unrest and civil war?)

    Anyway, for starters, while the companies of Gensdarmes had preminence, the French light cavalry had been a well used arm since the Italian Wars. The lighter, lance armed and lightly armoured "archers" of the Gensdarmes company being increasing detached into their own squadrons to act as medium cavalry for example at Ceresole in additon to the argoulets, carabins, stradiots etc used widely for petit guerre and skirmishing on the flanks in battle.

    I admit I was not aware that there was now debate as to whether or not Henri IV favoured the sort of galloping charge by deep squadrons later associated with Gustavus Adolphus, Maurice, Prince Rupert et al. Gustavus supposedly gave him credit though I would have to go digging for attribution.

    The real trick was the improved mobility, flexiblity and control of a compact squadron of charging horse over the old wide thin aristocratic en haie formation of the poorly disciplined gensdarmes.

    References Oman's Art of War 16thC, Denison's History of Cavary and Montluc's memoirs and various other readings over the years.

    None of which answers the final question really.

    1. Oh, yes, more or less everyone fell apart at some point. But the French seemed to go from a very powerful state to internal chaos more frequently, more seriously and more quickly than most.

      anyway, the debate is mostly framed in terms of the 'military revolution' which is, I admit, becoming a bit of a stale category. Mostly, it seems to me, generals, particularly in civil wars, did the best they could with the resources they had.

      My interest here is whether the caracole ever existed. It is a bit of a wargame trope, and I'm sure it was used, but it was surely not the only tactic pistol armed horse had. Yet wargame rules might have us thinking otherwise.

      I also think there is something about deep formations that I don't understand. Why should a block of horse be able to resist a line thereof so much better? Similar questions exist in other eras, of course - Theban depth, for example. But how it 'work', physically or psychologically, I am really not sure.

      anyway, it all adds to the mystery which has to be nailed down somehow in writing wargame rules.

    2. Some thoughts about column vs. line in cavalry. To use lance effectively you need to gain some momentum. So anyone beyond first rank cannot really participate in lance charge, unless during movement gaps will develop in formation and riders from second rank will be able to fill them. With the pistol you do not have such a problem, you do not need momentum to deliver a deadly blow. When rider with lance attacks formation of riders with pistols, he knows two things 1) his lance is not superior to pistol in initial clash; 2) if he survives initial clash he is inferior to the guy with pistol in second rank. So the best option for him is to move away after initial clash. But enemy formation is deep and he cannot move through it. He can only move away if he attack a guy with pistol on flank of the first rank and then moves to the side. All of this would lead to two things riders with lances facing pistol formation would either hesitate approaching it, or would try to move from centre to the sides so they have better chance of survival after initial clash.

    3. Thank you, good points and description of what happens. You would have to be fairly suicidal to attack a block of horse with a lance, although Francis I did charge pike blocks of course.

      Of course, caracole riders do not have an easy ride. Quite a few seem to have fouled the unit next door when turning to reload. Being hit by lancers at that point could ruin your whole day.

    4. Interesting comments from Yuri. Swords though could be a different proposition - maybe that's why we saw the change.

      However, the caracole does sound like it'd need a lot of training and discipline to pull off. Once the front rank has fired, will ALL of the next rank wait until they've cleared out of the way before firing, and the next and so on? With a short effective range horse firing pistols would also be a short bound away from infantry bearing pikes and would surely be at a disadvantage against muskets/arquebuses even at close range.

    5. I think some of the reports indicate the the caracole was difficult to carry out successfully; the front rank seem to have been lucky not to get shot in the back. I guess drill was the name of the game.

      I think the problem with shot on foot protecting the pike is relevant, and that is why the mounted arquebusier came a long. With cavalry in the offing, the foot couldn't advance to see them off, and they could engage shot on foot on equal terms.

      All part of the give and take of tactical development (or re-invention), I suppose.