So Peter Jackson was right all along!
Film directors always get them wrong. Their cavalry always charge too early. Riders always seem to be in control of their horses. And they always smash through the enemy’s defensive line.
My favourite charge of recent times comes from Return of the King, third film in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. At first viewing, you’re carried away by the sheer scale of the battle, the magnificence of the CGI and the fact that just as you think the good guys have won, along comes a regiment of mounted Oliphants to stir things up again. It’s only with subsequent watchings that criticisms creep in. They did charge too early. They were under control. And they did smash through the enemy’s line of spear and pike men. Peter Jackson made the same mistakes as countless other directors and that spoilt the battle scenes for me, a stickler for accuracy as far as horsed cavalry are concerned.
Until…I looked a little closer.
You see, cavalry charges against massed infantry became a popular tactic in Europe during the Middle Ages, when ranks of heavily-armoured knights would charge en-masse, to soften up their opponents before their own infantry waded in to finish the job. How did they manage it? At that time, infantry would have been armed with pikes, and anyone who has studied the Napoleonic period knows that horses would rarely charge home against steady infantry formed in square, when a dense hedge of bayonets was presented at attacking cavalry. Horses aren’t that stupid – they would have stopped, or sheered off to one side, and usually did. So why the difference?
It was all down to armour. Knights’ chargers wore a Shaffron, an iron face-plate stretching from ears to nostrils to protect their heads. The picture of Henry VIII’s armour clearly shows that the eye-holes of this plate were either flared outwards or had shields attached to protect the eyes, designed to deflect blows from arrows or hand-held weapons. These acted like blinkers, but in reverse. It meant the horses could not see forward, but only to the side. They couldn’t see that they were galloping towards a bank of razor sharp iron-tipped stakes, but they could see the galloping horse on either side. And their herd instinct, together with the fact that they charged late and galloped more slowly than the lighter-weight animals of later centuries, helped keep them in formation.
So the knights on their big, heavy, mounts would smash into the enemy in a single, unbroken line. Not many infantry formations could resist such a weight of attack. Steady infantry might, if they were closely packed together, but take another look at Sauron’s orcs. They weren’t particularly steady. They weren’t standing shoulder to shoulder. And a lot of Bernard Hill’s – sorry, King Theoden’s – cavalry horses wore Shaffrons.
But they still charged much too early!
PS. I’ve now seen Shaffron spelt, and presumably pronounced, ‘Chamfron’. Which is right? Maybe both. When I find the answer I’ll post it here. It’s interesting how words can change over time, but that’s a whole new post!