- Doctrine and Reform in the British Cavalry, 1880–1918
The Cavalry Debate in the British Army began in the nineteenth century and crested in the early years of the twentieth, with the most heated exchanges taking place in the context of the First World War. Put briefly, the debate concerned what some saw as the ill effects of the supposed domination of the army officer corps by cavalry generals, who were deemed to be particularly opposed to any modernization of the army that would reduce the role of the traditional horse cavalry. This debate is at the root of the famous image of the British Army of the Great War as “lions led by donkeys.” The controversial commander of British forces on the Continent during the war was, after all, Gen. Sir Douglas Haig, a cavalry general.
Lately, there has been a reaction against the “lions and donkeys” school within the British military history profession and Stephen Badsey, the author of the book under review here, has been one of its more prominent voices. Like other members of the revisionist strand in the debate, he finds the cavalry generals much more innovative and much less resistant to change than critics have charged. This is not Badsey’s first venture into print on the subject. Indeed, his new book is based largely on his 1982 Ph.D. dissertation at Cambridge University, entitled “Fire and Sword: The British Army and the Arme Blanche Controversy, c. 1871–1921.” Badsey is also the author of an essay in the same vein, “Cavalry and the Development of Breakthrough Doctrine” in Paddy Griffith’s British Fighting Methods in the Great War (London: Frank Cass, 1996).
Badsey has done for the British cavalry of the Victorian and Great War eras what Ian Fletcher did for its counterpart in the Napoleonic wars, in Galloping at Everything: The British Cavalry in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo 1808–1815 (Staplehurst, U.K.: Spellmount, 1999). Fletcher’s and Badsey’s works both illustrate that, while the visibility of the cavalry arm and its flamboyant nature have made it an easy target for criticism, some of it, of course, warranted, critics have gone on to make the mistaken assumption that the all of the tactical, and operational deficiencies of the British Army during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries can be laid at the door of the cavalry. The role cavalry should play on the battlefield in the modern wars of the day was the subject of heated debate in army circles. Opinion was pretty much divided into two camps, one of which held that the cavalry would have to incorporate mounted infantry tactics and train to fight on foot with breech-loading rifles as a mobile unit of firepower. The other camp, known colloquially as the “arme blanche” school, took a more traditional view of cavalry on the modern battlefield, seeing it as a shock weapon, employing the knee-to-knee mounted charge with sword or lance as the primary offensive weapon. Badsey writes that “The British cavalry’s doctrinal response to these issues was one of qualified success, as the cavalry adjusted its composition, its weapons and its tactics to provide a viable and sometimes valuable role in warfare up to the end of the First World War, including the use of mounted charges” (p. 2). Furthermore, it can be deduced that the tactics of the cavalry informed armor doctrine and the breakthrough theories of Ernest [End Page 1348] Swinton, J. F. C. Fuller, and Basil Liddell Hart, which, in turn, influenced the thinking of the Wehrmacht armor leader Heinz Guderian, as expounded in his book Achtung Panzer in 1937.
There are, however, some broad assessments made by Badsey on the effectiveness of the British cavalry on the Western Front that may require closer examination. He does not discuss the negative impact of the cavalry debate on the British High Command in the early stages of the war, in 1914–1915. The...