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.