How to survive a cavalry charge
There you are, an infantryman, marching happily along with your musket and pack. When suddenly in the distance, a group of enemy horsemen appear. What are you going to do?
You could, of course, simply pretend you haven’t seen them. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to mean they’ll leave you alone. They might, but if they begin trotting in your direction you know that unless you can find away to protect yourself you’re likely to be in trouble.
So what’s the best way to avoid serious injury, even death? You’ve really only got four options.
(i) Run away
You could try this, but it’s not really recommended. A horse gallops three times faster than a man can run, especially one laden with greatcoat and pack. Strangely enough, the latter two will provide some protection from a sword cut, though British cavalrymen were taught to cut back-handed towards a running infantryman’s face. The only defence against that is to raise your musket vertically in front of you in an attempt to deflect the blow, not easy when you’re running at full pelt. And you risk having your fingers chopped off. Pretty hopeless, really.
Chance of survival = 1/10
(ii) Play dead.
Sounds like a good idea…unless the cavalry have infantry support following close behind. Then you’re just going to end up a prisoner.
Problem is there’s no guarantee the dragoon galloping straight towards you won’t be wise to your ploy and so reach down from his horse to stab you with his sword, just to check you’re really dead and not just pretending. French and Spanish lancers were particularly fond of this tactic, the British less so. Until they were caught out a few times by enemy soldiers who, having collapsed in apparent death throes, rose again once the cavalrymen had passed, firing muskets at their exposed backs. That’s just not cricket, old boy.
Chance of survival = 4/10
(iii) Use your bayonet in the prescribed manner
A technique was available to the redcoat, who might find himself on his own facing a charging horseman, which relied on nimble footwork and accurate use of the bayonet.
Basically you faced up to the enemy, bayonet fixed, musket held across your body. The attacker would try to keep you on his right, within easy reach of his sword arm. Judging just the right moment you stepped smartly to your right, out of reach of the sword, so the horseman passed to your left, at the same time plunging your bayonet into the horse behind its shoulder (ie. through heart and lungs), just in front of the cavalryman’s left leg. The horse would usually collapse immediately, at which point you could finish off the enemy dragoon at your leisure.
Of course, this defence relied on split-second timing. You might not actually have to kill the horse, though, because horses don’t like running into things, especially sharp spikes. So it might shy away from you, and even if the dragoon then turned back, you’d have a much better chance of fighting off a mounted man who was not travelling at high speed. Technically difficult.
Chance of survival = 5/10
(iv) Form square
Ah – the best protection against marauding cavalry. Your regiment manoeuvres into a square formation, sides three or four men deep, shoulder to shoulder and facing outwards. The outermost man kneels, planting the stock of his musket firmly on the ground, bayonet facing up and out. The second man holds his musket over the first man’s shoulder whilst the third (and fourth) man shoulders his musket, ready to fire.
This means every approaching cavalryman faces at least six bayonets (two files of men) head on and cannot reach far enough forward with his sword to inflict any damage. And if he turns side-on, which would allow him enough reach, he faces at least twelve bayonets.
No sensible horse will risk impaling itself on such a deadly hedge, so even if a downpour soaked all the powder, preventing any musket being fired, the men in square should still be safe.
If you were relatively few in number you could form what was called a ‘rally square’, simply a crush of bodies all with bayonets pointed outward. Not as good as a battalion or regimental square, but still pretty effective.
Chance of survival = 9 ½ /10
Sorry – almost forgot. There is one other option:
(v) Charge the cavalry
Are you mad? Charge cavalry…on foot?
Chance of survival = 0/10 Except…on one occasion a British infantry company charged French cavalry who had captured some guns – and drove them off! (I seem to remember it was at Barossa, but frustratingly I can’t find the reference).
So now you know. If you ever have to face up to charging cavalry your slogan should always be:
‘Be there – but be in square.’
(You can all groan now).