Charge?

Military History Carnival #25 is now up at The Edge of the American West. My favourite selection this time around is from Beachcombing's Bizarre History Blog and concerns the question of the last cavalry charge in history. As an Australian, I am legally obliged (I think it's in the Constitution, somewhere near the back) to claim (loudly, if necessary) that 4th Light Horse Brigade's action at Beersheba in 1917 holds this distinction; but according to Dr Beachcombing Polish, British, American and Italian mounted forces all charged their enemies at some point between 1939 and 2001. Well, obviously I don't know about that but it's an interesting read, as is the rest of the blog -- it even has a tag for forteana.

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12 thoughts on “Charge?

  1. To be fair, the incident cited from 2001 didn’t involve charging anyone – making their approach march on horseback and calling in air, yes. ISTR David Fraser had the 23rd Hussars going in with sabres drawn and trumpets sounding near Chanak in 1922.

  2. I find it interesting that a cavalry charge is a matter of national pride in Australia, whereas in Britain they’re more likely to be seen as a national embarrassment. In a piece I’m working on I’m looking a little bit at the difference between perceptions and reality of the horse in war. There seems to be a long tradition of popular culture denigrating horses and cavalry as obsolete and associating them with conservatism and social privilege, even though they continued to be useful into the 20th century. Now I’m wondering if this is specific to Britain. How does Australian pride in the light horse fit with other myths of the First World War? For example, Haig often gets criticized for being too obsessed with cavalry. That’s part of the whole futility myth in Britain, and I would have assumed that it would be part of the Australian myth of British incompetence too.

  3. Post author

    I did possibly exaggerate the significance of Beersheba in Australia today :) It wouldn’t ring a bell with most people I’m sure (unlike eg Gallipoli or Kokoda). But it definitely has been more prominent in the past. I would hazard a guess that fighting from horseback appealed to the Australian self-perception of being rugged bushmen. Maybe too it was appealing as harking back to a more romantic view of war, unlike the technowar fought by Monash and his men in France. And no doubt there was a social cachet as well: the Light Horse had very distinctive uniforms, with bandolier-style ammunition pouches and ostrich (or maybe emu??) feathers in their slouch hats. The snob value of such things even in a supposedly egalitarian society like Australia shouldn’t be underestimated!

    There have been two very Australian successful films made featuring Beersheba: Forty Thousand Horsemen (very significantly released in 1940, and directed by the nephew of the commander of the Australians at Beersheba), and more recently The Lighthorsemen (1987). That’s probably one more than has been made about any other single Australian action from the First World War …

  4. I certainly recall people in northern WA getting emotional and boozy about the Desert Mounted Corps and Beersheba (where the Poms and the Kiwis dismounted to attack, but the Aussies went right in there…mate *manly tear*), so the memory was alive in 1999.

    Clearly, the memory of cavalry is closely associated with the charge, which is precisely the bit that had gone obsolete well before 1914 – having a highly mobile reconnaissance force (with machine guns) remained useful much later, especially in places where there are no roads. I think Slim’s army swapped some of its recce regiments for Indian cavalry after it was noticed that the Bren carriers and Daimler armoured cars didn’t work very well in a swampy triple-canopy jungle.

  5. Brett: I’d guess that it’s still more fondly remembered in Australia than any cavalry action is in Britain. Ask British people and I suspect they either won’t know of any cavalry charges or they’ll name the charge of the light brigade. The rugged bushmen thing is probably quite important. Maybe Australia’s relationship with the horse has more in common with South Africa than with Britain. I know from Sandra Swart’s work that horses were important for Boer identity partly because they were associated with freedom and independence, especially from the British. (And congratulations on the BBC History article.)

    Alex: I think that’s a key thing. In the popular imagination the role of the horse in war gets reduced to cavalry, and the role of cavalry gets reduced to charges, so we end up with horses = cavalry charges = futility.

  6. Neil Datson

    Flicking through my cultural memory of horses in battle, my first recollection is of the charge of the light brigade (as described by A Lord Tennyson), my second is of Agincourt (as depicted by L Olivier).

    If the Good Lord had wanted the English to fight on horseback, he’d never ever have given us the longbow!

  7. Ian Brown

    I did not know about the Chanak charge but if anybody had asked me the question “when was the last British cavalry charge my mid would have said SYRIA 1941 against Vichy forces.
    But I can’t recall where I read this.
    Am I the only person to have read this somewhere?

    The topic interests me because every November we help an old Chelsea pensioner off the train at Edinburgh station (where I work.)
    This old gent has a huge number of medals and when talking to him he will tell you how upset he was when they took away his horse and gave him an armoured car to play with.
    He is ex ROYAL SCOTS DRAGOON GUARDS.

  8. Post author

    Ian, I don’t know for sure but I found some interweb references to a mounted action fought by the Cheshire Yeomanry in Syria in 1941. Might that be it?

  9. john Hickson

    Thats right Brett
    Look up Oswald Dearden – a relation- now deceased of the Manchester Evening News he was in that battle

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