Reviews: Military Books

Charge! Great Cavalry Charges of the Napoleonic Wars

Smith, Digby. Charge! Great Cavalry Charges of the Napoleonic Wars London: Greenhill, 2003. 304 p. ISBN 1853675415. $39.95. Hardcover.

Charge! is the latest addition to the growing Napoleonic list of the Greenhill publications. Its author, Digby Smith, is author of numerous books on the Napoleonic wars and is certainly familiar to the members of Napoleon Series forum. His new volume looks at major battles of the Napoleonic wars where cavalry played important role in deciding the victor. The author notes in the introduction that instead of detailed descriptions of cavalry actions, he decided to devote “considerable space to explaining the strategic environment in which each of these actions took place so that the overall context of each situation may be understood.” (p. 10)

The book consists of fourteen chapters with appendices. Chapter I contains brief characterizations of the cavalry of the Napoleonic wars. Author starts with heavy cavalry (cuirassiers) and proceeds to line (horse grenadiers, carabineers, dragoons) and light cavalry (hussars, chasseurs-à-cheval, horse jagers), lancers, and irregular cavalry. He briefly outlines history of each cavalry type and illustrates their usage in the European armies. Although the descriptions are concise, they provide useful and insightful information. Author then gives short explanation of the cavalry tactics in the Age of Napoleon, outlining the cavalry organization and tactics in the battle. Several cavalry regulations are named for the French troops, including Ordonnance Provisoire sur l’Exercise et les Manoeuvres de la Cavalerie and Instruction sur l’Exercise et les Manoeuvres de la Lance. However, there are no notes on similar manuals for the British, Prussia or Russian cavalry. While discussing the tactics, author makes important observations on the maintenance of cavalry horses and discusses the endurance, proper forage and other aspects of maintaining a troop of cavalry.

The following twelve chapters (Chapters 2-11, 13-14) describe cavalry actions in the major Napoleonic battles: Marengo, Austerlitz, Eylau, Albuera, Garcia Hernandez, Borodino, Berezina Crossing, Haynau, Liebertwolkwitz, Mockern, Fere-Champenoise and Waterloo. Each action is explained in the similar manner as the author starts by describing the situation prior to the given campaign and then outlines the plans and opening moves in the battle. The narrative is clear and straightforward with enough details to comprehend the intentions and actions of the belligerent sides.

However, in some cases, as in Marengo, the battle description is not concentrated on the cavalry and tends to become another general description of the fighting. Kellermann’s charge at Marengo is not as detailed as it should have been considering the title of the work. While describing Austerlitz, author pointed to the problems within the Allied forces, including lack of unity of command, the language barrier, different calendars, training and experience of the troops. But, the cavalry action is once again depicted in lesser detail. Chapter on Borodino has much better depiction and author cited various sources, including Russian (Bogdanovich), to substantiate his arguments. The descriptions of Liebertwolkwitz and Waterloo also contain many interesting and insightful citations from the contemporaries.

In Chapter 12, the author reviews various raids and cavalry actions during the 1813 campaign and does good job in bringing to light some lesser-known actions. However, some combats are described very briefly, for instance, the action at Berlin on 20 February 1813 is completed in three lines, and the clash at Nordhausen on 19 April is portrayed in two sentences. It would have been better to sacrifice number of actions reviewed for more detailed depictions to highlight the role of cavalry in this campaign. The book is very attractive with color dust cover, thirty-eight black-and-white illustrations, twelve well-drawn maps and an appendix of over fifty pages listing battle orders for the actions described in the text.

In final analysis, Digby Smith’s new book is an interesting addition to the Napoleonic library. The book is written in easy language and reads very fast. It will provide the basic information on the major engagements of the era and will certainly prompt the reader to seek out more information. Those with intimate knowledge of the period would probably find it lacking in details, but certainly enjoy the appendices and the maps. For the newcomers to the Napoleonic wars, this volume will be good way to start.

Reviewed by Alexander Mikaberidze
Placed on the Napoleon Series: June 2003



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