When we go to public events, we often get the question “Didn’t cavalry disappear after 1914, at least on the Western Front because of machine guns?” Well, the answer is yes (sort of) and no. There is no doubt that the days of the full-blown cavalry charge into massed infantry or guns was over and officers in all of the major armies recognized it, in spite of the protestations of more traditional-minded officers. The experiences of the Boer War, and to a lesser extent the Russo Japanese War, had driven home the idea that cavalry’s utility was in its ability to conduct scouting operations as a means of assessing the strength and location of enemy forces (a function that would be ultimately supplemented by aerial reconnaissance). Also, cavalry was still useful for conducting raids against the enemy’s logistics infrastructure or attacking targets of opportunity.
The one major lesson drawn from the Boer and Russo-Japanese Wars was that now cavalry was basically nothing more than mobile infantry that would use their horses to get to a particular position and then dismount and fight. It was this last idea that cavalry officers had a hard time grasping because it meant that cavalry as an arm of decision was no longer viable. The reality was that changes in technology, and especially with the advent of rapid firing artillery and machine guns, had negated the cavalry’s function as being the arm of decision. At best, fighting would be between cavalry forces as each attempted to prevent the other side from fulfilling its scouting mission.
During the initial campaigns of the war, cavalry fulfilled its traditional role as the “eyes and ears” and there are numerous examples of this both on the Western and Eastern Fronts. And cavalry’s failures were also amply demonstrated, especially when it failed to carry out its primary mission. For the Eastern Front, in the north were the remarkable Battle of Tannenberg and the follow-on Battle of the Masurian Lakes which pretty much brought the Russian Army to a screeching halt, giving the Germans breathing space while they attempted to defeat the Allies in the West. To the south, the Russians, with the aid of Austrian military incompetence, managed to wreck the Austro-Hungarian Army and drive it back to the edge of the Carpathian Mountains. The Germans then attempted to relieve the Austrians by launching a drive on Warsaw that ultimately failed. By December, both sides were too exhausted to conduct any major military operations and the front settled down to a state of inactivity.
On the Western Front, the Germans narrowly missed defeating the French and gaining a decisive military decision with the Battle of the Marne and then through the Fall attempted to gain a decisive result during the feverish “Race to the Sea”. In the end, the Germans failed due to a variety of factors and by December the front had stabilized with both sides too exhausted to conduct major military operations.
So what changed? Well, besides the overall exhaustion of the combatants on both fronts, there was the added problem on the Western Front that there were too many troops in relation to the existing space- the Western Front was roughly 465 miles long while the Eastern Front was over a 1,000 miles long. In the west, armies could easily concentrate firepower to defeat any frontal attack and flanks were non-existent.
For cavalry, this pretty much meant that they would be unable to fulfill their major wartime mission of scouting. So what was left? Mostly rear area security operations, cooperating with the Feld Gendarmerie. As the war went on, the now idled cavalry was looked upon as a source of manpower for the infantry and the horses for the field artillery. Also, what reconnaissance operations that were conducted were now conducted on foot and the troopers functioned pretty much as their infantry comrades.
In the east, the situation was more fluid and the scope for major cavalry operations remained. The front was never as solidified as was the case on the Western Front and once this thin shell was pierced, cavalry could be used to exploit and wreck havoc in the rear areas. This was especially the case when the Russians were able to successfully breech the Austrian front such as during the Brusiliov Offensive in 1916.
So, in the end, on the Western Front cavalry never completely “disappeared” but rather its tactical and strategic role were redefined. The traditional rear area security operations never really changed and in the front lines, the cavalry acted in a dismounted role either performing reconnaissance operations in no-man’s land or acting as a reserve to be thrown into the front line as needed.
However, it must be noted that even after the war attrition settled in on the Western Front, the British and French still maintained division-sized cavalry formations in the rear, waiting for the perfect opportunity to exploit any breach. There was some limited success with the Battle of Cambrai in 1917 and later battles in mid to late 1918 as the Germans fell back through Belgium.
For the Germans, they could not afford to keep large numbers of men and horses idle while at the same time fighting a multi-front war and having to lend ever increasing amounts of material assistance to the Austrians.
On the Eastern Front, as noted before, cavalry was able to maintain its traditional role to a greater extent with full-blown charges being done on occasion, With Russia’s exit from the war in 1917, the Germans used cavalry to patrol the large expanses of their newly-won empire in the Ukraine, keeping a lid on the increasing turmoil generated by the Bolshevik Revolution until the Armistice.
There are never any absolutes in this is especially so with military matters and when it comes to cavalry. The key is to dig deeper with the research and make every effort to bring this information to light. For living history purposes, it helps to document that like the other branches of the German Army, the cavalry also evolved in its tactical and strategic roles and it is our job to bring these ideas to the public’s view.