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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Books on military subjects

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.

Cavalry probably reached its zenith on the battlefield in the seventy-year period between Hohenfriedberg and Waterloo, and cavalry charges are among the most memorable and dramatic actions of the Napoleonic Wars. They certainly made a profound impression on contemporaries. 'Sublime' was the word one observer used to describe Ney's great cavalry attack on 18 June 1815, while another spoke of its 'awful grandeur.' "It moved me more than I can express," wrote a third, "despite the perils I myself was running, I had tears in my eyes as I shouted my admiration for the cavalrymen." One can see why the subject attracted itself to Digby Smith.

After an introductory chapter on 'Types of Cavalry,' the book uses a narrative format to describe thirteen cavalry actions. These have been well chosen. So we have examples of coup d'oeil (Marengo, Albuera, Garcia Hernandez), grand set-pieces (Austerlitz, Eylau, Borodino, Waterloo), smaller battles (Beresina, Haynau, Mockern, Fere-Champenoise), an all-cavalry battle (Liebertwolkwitz) and, for good measure, an example of detached service ('Allied Cavalry Raids of 1813'). The book is attractively produced with thirty-eight black-and-white illustrations and an appendix of over fifty pages listing Orders of Battle for the actions described in the text.

In his introduction the author says that he has "devoted 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," and in this he succeeds admirably. The chapter on Marengo is a good example of his approach. Here there were two cavalry actions that demonstrate "the amazing potential power of the mounted arm." The first of these was a 'minor' Austrian charge (which nevertheless 'wrecked' the Consular Guard); the second, of course, was Kellermanns famous intervention in the closing stages of the battle. Alas, so much space is taken up in setting the scene that Kellermanns charge is rather overshadowed, occupying only three-quarters of a page out of twenty-two, while the Austrian one is disposed of in five lines! Indeed, the author seems to be rather less concerned with the role of cavalry in this battle than with the issue of Napoleon's personal contribution to the victory (for, as he rather inelegantly puts it, "his chestnuts [were] pulled from the fire by his friends, Desaix and Kellermann, at the very last minute.")

Cavalry has to battle for space elsewhere as well. In the Eylau chapter, for example, Murat's celebrated charge perhaps the pivotal event of the day occupies a mere two pages, while in the chapter on Austerlitz rather less text is devoted to the great cavalry battle on the northern flank than to an (admittedly interesting) discussion of the campaign at sea in 1805.

At this stage one might be forgiven for wondering why, in a book ostensibly to do with cavalry charges, so little attention is actually paid to the subject. To this the author has a ready answer: "I was sure that there was little merit in just trotting out [no pun intended?] a series of descriptions of cavalry charges. This would be at best repetitive and boring." "One [charge]," he adds challengingly, "was very much like another (in essence) once the order to go had been given."

This last remark would explain why, beyond a few perfunctory remarks in the introductory chapter, he has nothing to say about doctrine or tactics. The opinions of Napoleon and other senior commanders on the efficacy of cavalry charges are not sought, no contemporary drill manuals of the period are quoted from, nor are there any references to the works of modern authorities such as Nafziger, Muir or Nosworthy (who devoted four chapters in his book, Battle Tactics of Napoleon and His Enemies, to cavalry). It must be said that there is certain logic at work here, because there is not much point in discussing the theory of cavalry charges if you take the view that there was an uncanny sameness in the result.

But there is a danger of over-simplification here. For example, the author prefaces his account of Garcia Hernandez by stating correctly in my view - that a square formed of steady infantry was "almost invulnerable to cavalry attack," and that "examples of [steady] squares being broken were rare in the extreme." On the other hand, there are literally scores of well-authenticated cases of squares in varying degrees of unsteadiness having been broken during 1792-1815 (a fair number are mentioned in this book) for reasons that are not always as clear cut as they were at Garcia Hernandez. It would seem that cavalry charges were rather more complicated affairs than Mr. Smith would allow.

The author largely abandons his self-imposed embargo on describing cavalry charges when he moves on to the campaigns of 1812-13, and in the chapters on Borodino, Liebertwolkwitz and Mockern, in particular, sabres clash and bugles blow on every page. Extensive use is made of German sources such as Roth von Schreckenstein's Die Kavallerie in der Schlacht an der Moskwa and the recollections of Edouard von Lowenstein. These lengthy extracts will be familiar from his earlier books on Borodino and Leipzig, but they do provide good "experiential" depth, sorely missing elsewhere.

Nowhere is this more true than of the chapter on Waterloo, for which of course excellent first-hand accounts are available, not only from participants in cavalry charges but also, equally importantly, their intended targets. The last charges of the Napoleonic wars witnessed extraordinary scenes. One French cuirassier, his arms mutilated by sabre cuts, said that in that case he would use his teeth. Another, apparently unable to bear his shame or agony, and having failed to kill himself with his sword because it was too long, fell on a nearby bayonet instead. What drove these men to such desperate acts? The book does end with a wonderful passage from de Brack that goes some way towards supplying an answer, but by then its too little, too late.

I very much wanted to like this book. Digby Smith is a regular contributor to the discussion forum on this website, and judging by his lively contributions, and his earlier books, he is hugely knowledgeable on the Napoleonic wars. However, for the benefit of potential readers who might think that there is nothing to add to our received idea of cavalry charges in this period, I have to say that this is most emphatically not the case.

Reviewed by Jack Harvey
Placed on the Napoleon Series: May 2003