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).

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~ by cavalrytales on April 8, 2012.

14 Responses to “How to survive a cavalry charge”

  1. This is such a useful resource. Thanks for making these posts. they are very entertaining as well as educational. 🙂

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    • Thanks Elin. I try not to make them too boring!

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      • Pfft, you can say a lot of things about the cavalry but I’m not sure that boring is one of them. [That’s ignoring the reality of route marches and the interminable process of mucking out, grooming and cleaning tack, of course. I bet that got a bit tedious for the fellows involved.]

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        • I guess it can’t have been that boring because it was easier (thus cheaper) to recruit for cavalry regiments than infantry in the 1800s. Or maybe it was just that marching everywhere didn’t have quite the appeal of travelling on horseback 🙂

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  2. cool! and so helpful 🙂 What about climb a tree 🙂

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    • Never thought of that!
      Being awkward, it depends on whether the opposing armies had passed that way before and used all the reachable branches for firewood 🙂

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  3. Sage advice even though I’m groaning and grinning. So stick together is also something the foot soldiers should conisder

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  4. Reblogged this on Writers Riding and commented:
    Do youwrite battle scenes. This si the blog for you then

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  5. Hm. I would imagine that charging the charging cavalry would have a similar effect to the recommended way of dealing with a charging (unmounted) horse, which is to convince the creature that one is a huge, horse-eating monster that must be fled at all costs! (wave arms…leap into the air…shout…)

    I do have a question, sir: what of infantry facing a chariot charge (I am not joking)? Spooking the horses might work, though you would be dealing with a driver and an archer. Hmm again. You have given me something to mull over.

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    • Hi Diana
      Ah…I don’t really know. But assuming the horses had ‘open’ bridles (no blinkers) and no chamfrons or other faceplates to obscure forward vision, and the infantry were well-formed (no gaps in the line) and armed (spears or pikes) I’d have thought the same would apply. The horses would shy away, given their strong sense of self-preservation. They might break through, if they were hammered hard enough at a weak spot – I guess it depends how frightened the footsoldiers were, how frightened the horses were and whether the latter could see open space behind the defenders. Once one chariot got through I suspect others would follow, same as cavalry into an infantry square.
      Interesting thought, though.

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  6. The Regiment that charged cavalry was the Fifth at El Bodon.

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  7. Wouldnt a chance of someone armed with bayonet to survive one on one encounter with horseman more than five? Some bayonet manuals state man on foot has clear advantage and that its highly propable he would win such a duel with ease.

    I was trying to find evidence to it being otherwise from the point of view, that is more cavalry-biased, but its hard to find. Would anyone have any insight into, what a cavalryman armed with sabre would think about bayoneteer in a duel? (Or maybe anyone tryed it to share his experience and feeling?)

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    • I think it depends very much on individual bravery as well as training – the infantryman must have the nerve to stand. He has a much bigger target to attack, but if he bayonets the horse leaves himself wide open to a sabre cut. Manuals have to inspire confidence in what they instruct, so in my view of course they will say the infantryman has the upper hand.

      There are stories of single men attacked by one or two dragoons beating them off (there’s one instance in Gordon’s ‘A Cavalry Officer in the Corunna Campaign’) so I’m sure it happened regularly – musket and bayonet combined gave more reach than even long French cuirassier sabres. But equally, many must have been killed.

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