What is Light Cavalry?

Introduction

Light cavalry comprises lightly armed and lightly armoured troops mounted on horses, as opposed to heavy cavalry, where the riders (and sometimes the warhorses) are heavily armoured. The missions of the light cavalry were primarily raiding, reconnaissance, screening, skirmishing, patrolling, and tactical communications. They were usually armed with swords, spears, or bows, and later on with pistols or carbines.

Light cavalry was used infrequently by Ancient Greeks and Ancient Romans (though Roman auxiliaries were often mounted), but were popular among the armies of Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Western Asia, and Eastern Asia.

The Arabs, Cossacks, Hungarians, Huns, Kalmycks, Mongols, Turks, Parthians, and Persians were all adept light cavalrymen and horse archers.

With the decline of feudalism and knighthood in Europe, light cavalry became more prominent in the armies of the continent. Many were equipped with firearms, as their predecessors had been with bows. European examples of light cavalry included stradiots, hobelars, hussars, chasseurs à cheval, cossacks, chevau-légers, uhlans and some dragoons.

Brief History

Armies of the ancient Roman-Germanic wars made use of light cavalry as patrolling squads, or armed scouts, and often had them in the front lines during regional battles.

During the Punic Wars, one of Carthage’s main advantages over Roman armies was its extensive use of Numidian light cavalry. Partly because of this, the Roman general Scipio Africanus recruited his own cavalry from Sicily before his invasion of Tunisia during the Second Punic War.

Middle Ages

Types of light cavalry that were developed and used in medieval armies.

Hobelar: Originally Irish, later popular in English and Scottish armies of the 14th and 15th centuries
Koursores: Byzantine light cavalry. The name derives from the Latin term cursarius meaning ‘raider’.
Jinete: Spanish light horsemen, particularly popular during the Reconquista (Jinete is the person riding a horse)
Stradiot: Of Albanian and Greek origin, used as mercenary light cavalry in Italy in the later 15th century
Turcopole: A light mounted archer used extensively during the Crusades in the Middle East but also found among the Teutonic Knights in their Baltic campaigns
Horse archers: light or heavy cavalry primarily armed with bows. This allowed the Mongols to conquer large parts of Asia and Europe in the 13th century. Horse archers were also used extensively in steppe warfare throughout Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and the North American Great Plains.

Napoleonic Era

Light cavalry played a key role in mounted scouting, escorting and skirmishing during the Napoleonic era. Light horse also served a function in major set-piece battles. While lacking the sheer offensive power of heavy cavalry, light cavalry were still extremely effective against unprepared infantry and artillery. All infantry commanders were forced to respect the danger any cavalry presented to their forces, and light cavalry were effective at changing the movement of enemy forces simply through their presence. In the aftermath of battles, light cavalry were used to press a victor’s advantage or to screen retreating forces from further attack.

  • Hussars:
    • Distinctively dressed light cavalry of Serbo-Hungarian origin.
    • Locally recruited Hussar regiments were incorporated in most Napoleonic armies although by this period their functions and equipment were the same as other categories of light horse.
  • Uhlans:
    • Originally Polish light cavalry armed with lances as their primary weapon, in addition to sabres and pistols.
    • Locally recruited lancer regiments with this designation were later also used by the Russian, Prussian, and Austrian armies.
    • The long reach of the lance made them an effective shock force against dispersed infantry.
  • Carabiniers:
    • A mounted soldier armed primarily with a carbine.
    • The carbine was considered a more appropriate firearm for cavalry use than a full-length musket or rifle, since it was lighter in weight, shorter in length, and easier to manipulate from horseback during combat.
    • Carabiniers differed greatly between militaries, but were generally regarded as medium cavalry that used weapons and tactics that were complementary to mounted infantry.
  • Dragoons:
    • Originally a type of mounted infantry armed with swords and muskets, dragoons had by the late eighteenth century evolved into heavy and light dragoon classes.
    • The latter performed the usual functions of light cavalry, although they might on occasion still undertake dismounted action using carbines.
  • Lancers:
    • A mounted soldier armed primarily with a lance and tasked with charging enemy infantry, cavalry, and artillery formations on the battlefield.
    • They also served in the light cavalry roles of scouting, screening, and skirmishing.
  • Mamluks:
    • A slave warrior, soldier, or mercenary that originated mostly from Turkic and Caucasian peoples that served between the 9th to 19th century in the Islamic world with a higher social caste than most free peoples or citizens.
    • They fought mostly as light horsemen armed with a lance, sabre, pistols, carbine, or javelins.
  • Sowars:
    • An Indian light horsemen usually armed with a lance, sword, or musket. Cavalry with this designation had comprised the bulk of Indian cavalry forces between the 16th to 19th century.
    • Regiments of sowers designated as Light Cavalry were subsequently widely employed by the British East India Company.
  • Chasseurs à cheval:
    • The main element of the French light cavalry that performed the same functions as hussars.
  • Cossacks:
    • Russian irregular light horsemen armed with a lance, sword, bow, pistols, or musket and recruited on a semi-feudal basis from frontier communities.
    • Required to provide their own horses and equipment and meet long-term service obligations in return for land grants.
    • They played a major role in harassing the French and allied armies during the Retreat from Moscow of 1812.

Early 20th Century

As late as the early 1900s, most European armies still retained a nominal division of mounted troops according to the size and weight of the men, into light cavalry (raiding, reconnaissance, and screening), medium cavalry (offense or defence), and heavy cavalry (direct shock). While colonial warfare had led to a blurring of these distinctions in the British army, tradition remained strong in the cavalry arm of some other nations. As an example, the Imperial German army maintained a marked difference between the sizes and weights of the men and horses allocated to the hussar regiments that made up its light cavalry and those of the other two categories. The early weeks of World War I saw light cavalry attempting to continue its long established function of being the “eyes and ears” of the respective main armies. However, despite some early success, the advent of trench warfare and aircraft observation quickly rendered this role obsolete, except to an extent in the Middle East in 1917, and in Eastern Europe where light cavalry mounted actions on a diminishing scale continued to occur until the revolution of 1917 took Russia out of the war.

Late 20th Century and Modern Day

During the Vietnam War, the US Army converted parts of the 1st Cavalry Division for heliborne tactics with a concept known as Air Cavalry. Helicopters were used to insert troops and support them. They were also used for suppression fire, search and rescue, medical evacuation, scouting and resupply. This concept was first tested at the Battle of Ia Drang Valley. Modern tactics call for the use of gunships to dominate the airspace and provide fire support while transport helicopters ferry ground forces and supply them.

Light reconnaissance vehicles (LRV) are also being used by cavalry squadrons and infantry scout units for scouting, skirmishing and providing light fire support.

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