Cavalry types, organisation, formations and basic equipment
Both the armies of the 1812 Russian campaign had many cavalry units, however the actual number of men far less when compared to the amount of infantrymen. Cavalry comprised two basic categories: heavy and light. Sometimes a third category is mentioned: medium. This category are the dragoons. Theoretically the dragoons were able to perform both the light and heavy roles and also capable of fighting on foot as well. In order to prevent making things too complicated I will not use this third category as a separate one. Heavy cavalry was that mounted upon large horses, used to execute a decisive charge in pitched battles. It included cuirassiers, mounted karbiners and grenadiers, chevalier-gardes and (heavy) dragoons. The light cavalry was made up out of the hussars, chevau-léger, mounted chasseurs, lancers (or uhlans), light dragoons and the hordes of irregular and Cossack cavalry employed by Russia. These were able to act similar as their heavy counterparts but in addition fulfilled outpost duties and skirmishing actions or formed the basis for flank protection of large attacking infantry formations. Light horsemen were mounted on smaller, lighter but also faster horses than the heavy cavalerists.
The cavalry was organised in regiments but the squadron was the basic tactical formation. Several squadrons formed a regiment. In 1812 two or three regiments were grouped together in a brigade and two brigades usually formed a division. Both Russian and Grand army had some of these divisions in separate cavalry corps. The Grand Army however always had a cavalry division or brigade attached to an infantry corps.
Because cavalry charges were very noisy affairs and made during battle circumstances it was very difficult for the men to hear the vocal commands of their officers. Therefore the squadrons had trumpetters giving rhythmical orders in battle. As with the infantry cavalry regiments and squadrons often carried flags. These were primarily a testimony of their ‘esprit de corps’, and served as recognition points when on the battlefield and rallying points for the men after engagements.
When cavalry went into battle the units formed up either in lines, echelons or columns. Attack in echelon formation allowed cavalry units the best manoeuvrability. The direction of the advance could rapidly be changed. There existed echelons by squadrons, regiments, brigades and even by entire divisions. Echelon provided an attack where the cavalry formation carried out successive shock waves on the enemy, hitting them at intervals. The rear echelon of a formation could be held in the back as a reserve awaiting the result of the first echelon's charge. This was done in order to exploit a successful charge and to be able to support an exposed flank or a retreat.
Cavalry attacks in columns was also possible. Such columns could be built up by ranks of half squadrons, squadrons (most common) and multiple squadrons. The interval between these ranks usually was ten metres. A column attack hit like a hammer on a particular point of the enemy line. Besides the compact formation of a column made it hard for the enemy to judge the actual number of horsemen attacking them. However charges in deep columns were vulnerable. Its long flank exposed it too much to artillery fire and to flank attacks from enemy cavalry. Therefore this normally was not done, but too much excitement or inexperienced leadership sometimes did often with devastating consequences for the attackers.
When cavalry attacked in line it did so in a two ranks deep line. In this way more troopers could be engaged in close combat. The width of this formation often brought along outflanking possibilities. However it was very difficult to keep the formation intact, except at short distances over easy going, flat terrain. In practice the attacking line formation fell apart in clumps of cavalrymen. These groups then continued the charge.
In order to deliver a cavalry charge the troopers began their advance at a slow pace and finished galloping. The slow pace helped to maintain order in the ranks. However out of fear the men often quickly sped up and went out of contol of their officers. This created gaps in the formation. Soon after this the troopers became a noisy horde. When falling on well alligned enemy troops in these conditions they were lost. For this reason most of the horsemen trying to avoid collision with the enemy fell in disorder and fled back to their own lines. At that moment the enemy cavalry (when present) began their pursuit, this frequently at a gallop. Only battle-hardened and disciplined troops advanced in a slower, steady pace. They sped up gradually and kept good order until the very last moment when officers ordered them to the gallop. This was best when done at a distance of between 60 and 15 metres from the enemy. The gradual increase of speed also was important to keep the horses fit enough when the enemy was reached and fighting occurred.
The appearance of charging cavalry en masse and in good order could have a great impact on moral of those being attacked. When the cavalry of opposing armies fell into melee there usually were small losses on both sides. The colliding horsemen somehow rode through each other ranks and only had little time to exchange thrusts and place cuts. Most melees lasted only a few minutes, but this was greatly influenced by the number of cavalrymen involved. Fleeing troops suffered greater casualties than those in pursuit. In pursuit a small troop should chase the enemy and was follow by a larger body of horsemen that could resist enemy counter-attacks.
Large cavalry charges in pitched battles frequently threw up clouds of dust and could obscure the view.
Groups of light cavalry or dragoons normally were sent out as videttes to screen the army's advance and in order to gathering intelligence. Without these videttes it was almost impossible for commanders to react to sudden enemy manoeuvres in time. Light cavalry was extensively used to skirmish in order to locate weak points in the enemy's battle line. Skirmish formations were loose, allowing individual movement. Normally there would be some more cavalry support nearby. The skirmishing horsemen fired at advancing enemies thereby forcing them to slow down or even halt. Sometimes a charge was made to drive enemy skirmishers away.
During the Napoleonic Wars the majority of cavalrymen carried a saber, one or two pistols and either a carbine, a rifle or a musket. Basically it depended on the type of cavalry. The light cavalryman was armed with a short and curved saber and the heavy cavalryman carried a long and straighter saber or had a broadsword. In 1812 the Russian cavalry was ordered to hand over their muskets and most of their carbines to the newly raised and expanded infantry units. This was not very disturbing because mounted cavalry in battle did not use firearms very extensively. Some troopers were armed with lances, as the lancers or uhlans did. In combat the lance was most dangerous in first contact. Its length allowed the cavalryman to inflict wounds on or to kill an opponent. When that opponent managed to get past the lance it was the lancer that became more vulnerable. Only well-trained and battle-hardened lancers were able to deal with armoured cavalry (cuirassiers and karabiners) but normally the lances point proved unable to pierce through cuirasses. In melee, when the lancers had to fight for their lives, many discarded their lance and fought on with the saber. Lancers had almost no advantage over infantry armed with muskets and bayonets fixed especially when these had formed square.
Cavalrymen had several means to protect themselves. Mounted karabiner and cuirassier troopers normally wore a cuirass as protection. It proved a very adequate piece of body-armour against lance and straight saber and it offered protection against musket and pistol shots fired at longer range too. There existed both full cuirass (front and back plates) and half-cuirass (front plate only). Some cuirassier regiments did not wear a cuirass at all. Helmets protected the men against saber blows made at their head. Leather helmets did not do as well against these blows as metal ones did. Many cavalrymen had their greatcoat rolled over from one shoulder diagonally across their torso for it protected them against enemy saber thrusts.