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Cavalry Charge Myths Courtesy of Paintings

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One of my little historical myth buster dissertations over in the Paradox Forums...

 

Movies tend to depict cavalry as charging in massed formations. It looks cool especially if you add some orchestral music to it:

 

 

And it is especially sad when you gatling gun all the men and horses in slow motion:

 

 

To an extent, the reason for this is because most paintings of cavalry depict them in such poses, such as this painting from the Battle of Beersheeba in 1917:

 

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3b/Palestine_Gallery_at_the_Australian_War_Memorial_(MG_9693).jpg

 

There's a little problem with this painting though. It was drawn during the age of photography, and as it turns out we have some actual photos of the battle:

 

http://www.rfd.org.au/site/beersheba.asp

 

And immediately we can go into mythbuster mode and make some key observations:

 

There are four photographs of the Australian Light Horse in the site, three of which depict the cavalry on the march and the fourth depicts them during the charge. The fourth is particularly significant - it might be the sole photograph of an actual cavalry charge ever taken. 

 

What's striking here is that the Beersheeba painting in fact bears most resemblance to the three photographs of the cavalry on the march - meaning they were in column, riding nearly knee to knee

 

Meanwhile, the "charge" photograph is very different - you can in fact see that rather than charging as a massed force, the cavalry had spread itself into three distinct waves - each of which is so sparsely manned that you can still make out individual riders on the most distant third wave. The spacing between each wave is also quite generous - several horse-lengths at least - at complete odds with the painting wherein the cavalry are basically charging as one huge column.

 

Why is the charge formation so different from the painting? Why is real war so different from Tom Cruise getting machinegunned? (No matter how amusing that may be).

 

And the answer, it turns out, is relatively simple: Cavalry charged in sparse waves for the same reason that automobile drivers maintain a minimum safe distance from the car ahead of them: In the event that the car ahead of you suddenly stopped, you want to have enough distance to either evade the car or brake yourself to a stop.

 

Cavalry were no different. If a cavalryman in the first wave got killed, then the troopers in the second wave want plenty of space to be able to avoid his corpse and that of his horse - not for sentimental reasons, but because failing to do so would likely cause your own horse to slip and lead you crashing into the ground.

 

The problem, as we know now from the history of cavalry paintings, is that most of these paintings were not drawn based on battlefield accounts. Instead, most of these paintings were drawn by artists witnessing parade-ground maneuvers (the famed painting "Scotland Forever" was drawn by someone who was not present at Waterloo, as an example) - hence the cavalry could safely gallop in massed columns due to the fact that it was unlikely anyone in the front was going to suddenly stop and cause the rest to pile up.

 

Additionally, painters tended to paint cavalry from the side view - as it seems to be a more impressive vantage point that maximizes the effect of a few horses. The painting at Bersheerba and the photographs on the march in fact seemed to have come from this school of thought.

 

Funnily, much as we want to make fun of The Last Samurai, they actually get this bit right when you look at 0:11 of this video:

 

 

Although the cavalry are charging towards the left (away from the guns and the guy we're supposed to hate), the line is actually only very sparse and contains only "our" brave white man, Ken Watanabe, and a few other extras. This gives each man plenty of space to pretend dying dramatically in slow motion without resulting in any unfortunate tramplings that could cause real injury.

 

That said, we then find out why the cavalry charged to the left and away from their intended target by 0:30 - That way we can now switch to side-view shots of the cavalry dying in slow motion, which again allows the filmmaker to maximize the impact of a handful of riders. There are perhaps just 10 guys in the scene at 0:30 - yet it seems a lot more since so much action is happening in the entire screen.

 

So there you have it, a fun little snarky piece on why people should never, ever believe pieces of Napoleonic "art" depicting cavalry drawn by artists commissioned by governments for the glorification of their armies - artists who by and large never witnessed combat. That last sentence in fact should have already been proof enough why paintings are such bad sources of historical truth, but one can never underestimate how stubbornly some people cling to what "military history" tells them.

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This reminds me about the Great Spear Debate of MMX, in which some people were convinced that vase pictures accurately depicted hoplites using spears overarm (examples of vases below):

gw-hoplites-fighting.jpg

 

detail_of_a_corinthian_vase_sh_hi.jpg

 

Naturally, some who had actually fought with spears - in reenactments and such - pointed out that this was a rather rubbish way of using them:
 

 

 



There were, however, dissenting opinions:



Regardless, I recall being inspired to create this:

Jr9nPpb.png



 

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So how did infantry formations that supposedly fought shoulder to shoulder, like hoplites, deal with similar issues of corpse buildup, the guys in front stopping, irregular terrain, etc?

 

I wonder if they fought looser than they're usually depicted as as well.

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So how did infantry formations that supposedly fought shoulder to shoulder, like hoplites, deal with similar issues of corpse buildup, the guys in front stopping, irregular terrain, etc?

 

I wonder if they fought looser than they're usually depicted as as well.

 

My limited experience fighting like that suggests so. For one thing, I doubt all but the most elite armies were disciplined enough to form a tight formation.

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In terms of the accuracy of cavalry charges in paintings and movies, it should be clear that the artists and directors are opting for visually dramatic portraits rather than an actual manual of arms.. It's like framing a photograph, you want everyone to squish together so you can get the whole gang into the shot.

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My limited experience fighting like that suggests so. For one thing, I doubt all but the most elite armies were disciplined enough to form a tight formation.

On a related note*, archaeological evidence shows that the vast majority of casualties in any given battle occur after one side breaks and runs. Which is one of the reason why the Romans owned the battlefield so hard - having a professional, well-drilled army meant that your guys held together much better than the other side. A good deal of the time, this would result in you winning by default as the enemy would get tired/scared and break.

 

* Which I'm sure is not new information to the folks here.

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So how did infantry formations that supposedly fought shoulder to shoulder, like hoplites, deal with similar issues of corpse buildup, the guys in front stopping, irregular terrain, etc?

 

I wonder if they fought looser than they're usually depicted as as well.

 

Hoplites dealt with the issue by fighting on pretty flat land and/or poorly as best I can tell. I think by the time of the Macedonians they'd opened up the order a bit because they weren't bringing two spear walls up to each other but were instead using blocks of pike, but even then they came apart, and got savaged by the Romans. It's strongly suggested that Marathon was the first time Greek armies had done anything more than march at the enemy, and there's a school of thought that they ran to the limit of the Persian archers' effectiveness in broken ranks and then reformed to use their armor and formation to resist projectiles. Roman phalanxes fighting against Gauls did not do well at all because they tended to break up.

 

 

On a related note*, archaeological evidence shows that the vast majority of casualties in any given battle occur after one side breaks and runs. Which is one of the reason why the Romans owned the battlefield so hard - having a professional, well-drilled army meant that your guys held together much better than the other side. A good deal of the time, this would result in you winning by default as the enemy would get tired/scared and break.

 

* Which I'm sure is not new information to the folks here.

 

There is another massive difference between the Romans and the rest of that world. After the Servian reforms they had the foundation of the century system which meant they had that fantastically useful thing: an NCO corps providing solid junior leadership, both to sieze opportunities like breaks in formation and to stiffen their units by example.

 

Also it's very clearly known that late medieval/early modern pikes fought in looser formation because it's well documented that they stood in formation generally at about the distance where one guy could reach out fully and touch the shoulder of the guy next to him and because it's very clearly documented that when threatened the musketeers ran into the pike formation for shelter. This doesn't keep things like Alatriste from showing tercios bunched up pretty badly, even though the formations were under heavy artillery fire at Rocroi.

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Running charges on foot by formation infantry is silly to begin with, and would be obvious to anyone who observes a marathon. An army is not a collection of automatons, but a collection of individual human beings with different levels of strength and endurance. In a marathon some runners finish way ahead of the pack, while others finish last. In battle, the exact same thing would happen especially in a citizen-soldier army - with the stronger soldiers reaching the enemy line first - and is therefore a recipe for piecemeal annihilation.

 

This is in fact why Swiss Pikemen never advanced at faster than a brisk pace - so that the entire formation arrives at the enemy line at the same time instead of piece of by piece. Meanwhile the stronger pikemen in a formation were equipped with armor - the Swiss typically armoring only the first and second ranks of each pike formation - leaving the weaker soldiers unarmored so that they could still advance at the same brisk pace while ensuring that they had armor for the troops most likely to get hit by injury.

 

It also bears remembering that most "plains" terrain is still full of little obstacles and lots of broken rocks that could bring injury to a running man - that's why people have been paving roads since they were invented. Marathon was in fact an extroardinary case partly because the battle was fought on a beach - with the sand generally not having any of the sort of rocks that could bring injury to a running man.

 

That said, I'm kinda doubtful they really ran full-tilt at Marathon, for the simple reason that sand brings with it a whole different set of problems - sand is loose and therefore "sticky" to a runner, especially one that is wearing armor. It is therefore much more tiring to run on the sand (your feet have to deal with the added friction of the sand since your feet keeps sinking in it), and running will tend to send sand flying all over the place - particularly at the guys behind you.

 

I suspect that if there was any "charging" at Marathon - it was over a relatively short distance, perhaps the final few meters before contact to the Persians.

 

It is much more likely that the Greeks, for much of the battle, were simply advancing at a very brisk pace in formation. They can stay in formation thanks to the "clean" nature of the terrain, while the brisk as opposed to running pace is less tiring and doesn't throw sand into the faces of the rear ranks.

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I'd also say that you didn't want to advance at much faster than a brisk pace in a pike block because if the formation breaks up you're even more vulnerable to things like the flank charges the Swiss got continually hit with at Marignano. Pikemen are very weak. A pike formation on the other hand is very strong.

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I watched those Lindybeige videos and several points came into my mind:

- Reach is a relative statement: if the target zone is hands and face/neck, then at maximum extension overarm should have better reach. If the target is low or mid - then underarm has more reach at maximum extension.

- If the enemy has large shields like aspis or lots of armor, the need for long reach is not so relevant anymore.

- Whilst cutting with onehanded spears is quite hard (other than pulling/pushing), the binding is very important in order to safely thrust and defend yourself.

- You can thrust at the same targets (like 45 degree on the side) with overarm, but with both it is sometimes problematic to thrust to your left since you are crossing your body and thus turning your right side to the enemy.

 

(little break so it's easier to read)

 

- You really don't have to hold the spear from the middle all the time, you can let it slide in thrust or just move it further back for moments only (just like in underarm).

- Stabbing at the feet is a relatively dangerous thing to do, since you have to extend more into it (thus bringing your head closer as your reach is shortened), this is not a problem if you have a big reach advantage to begin with.

- Knocking the spear aside is harder to do against overarm because your grip is closer to the weak of the weapon (the point), and it is easier to do against underarm since the point is further away from the hand holding it. 

- If you're in overarm and your spear is being knocked to the right, you can use the momentum to bring the buttspike in front.

 

(Lindy is a hack fraud)

 

- Parrying with the underarm can be weaker if it is done with the weak part of the weapon (pointy end).

- Ofcourse you don't always have to even parry at the legs since you can just move them (or if you have greaves).

- Also consider that if your primary targets are head and arms -> you might want to have the strong of your spear closer to them.

- Your spear doesn't really bump into your comrades face if you angle it even slightly towards the ground + depends a lot on the formation used. Underarm has similar problems if the formation is very dense.

- Like usual, Lindy cherrypicks a lot of the evidence to support his view. If something is against his view it must be because the source is wrong and if it supports him it must be right.

- Wtf is 'heroic' or 'dramatic' to an ancient Greek or medieval Frenchman is probably different to what is heroic or dramatic to us.

- Almost all fighting manuals show different overarm strikes and almost never in any heroic or dramatic context.

 

(This is longer than I planned)

 

- The fact that Rambo is unrealistic has zero bearing on art created 1000+ years before it. Obviously not everything can be taken as a truth without consideration, but it should be remembered that in some cases the people who made the fucking art might have actually been trained on weapon usage. It is not uncommon for people to be forced to own weapons in case of war in various times and places.

- Again cherrypicking art in discussion about duels v. formations.

- Is his reenactment group allowed to thrust into faces?

- Sometimes it is better to close the distance to the enemy rather than stay further away.

- Grabbing the enemy spear is just as easy regardless of the grip used. What is more important is how stationary the weapon is and how close it is to the enemy.

- Yeah, shoving matches are stupid, but you don't need to resort to it with overhand.

 

 

Just some other considerations:

- You don't get to choose what your enemy does, so you should be able to use both grips for maximum flexibility.

- Sometimes you might not get to choose even what you use (in a hurry for example), so better to know how to use both.

- What are the targets of your enemy? What are your targets the enemy is trying to hit? Do you have equally long weapons? Do you have armour? Do you need to be more squared or more side on to the enemy?

All in all, use both when needed and don't be a retard.

 

Please tell me if my rambling doesn't make sense.

 

Some pics of both over- and underarm

.185469-004-693B862E.jpg7034c5ec5a06b48e7566fab923816234.jpgHoplite+battle-Chigi+Vase.jpg3362444613_5b5a34d399.jpg14d114y.jpg455px-Marozzo_53.png519-4_large.jpg1520-5_large.jpg1191-11_large.jpgAryballos_Macmillan.JPG

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