On horses and history

Saturday, February 6th, 2010

The Offshore Balancer discusses horses and history:

Actually the horse was never ‘replaced’ so straightfowardly. In the mythologised ‘Blitzkrieg’ conquests in 1939–40, only a small part of the Wehrmacht was mechanised. In the invasion of Poland, many vehicles actually broke down on the plains, while most of the Wehrmacht moved on foot, and supplies were often transported in horsedrawn wagons. In fact, the Wehrmacht, probably the most lethal land force of the century, was heavily reliant upon horses.

Horses remain vital. Who could forget our own special forces in Afghanistan in 2001–2, on horseback with laptops? That photo above was taken at that time, and is a warning against glib historical assumptions. The horse is not a premodern relic, but in some contexts, a remarkably effective vehicle.

The historical view of the horse as an obsolete tool of direct battlefield offensive is simplistic. Competent medieval commanders knew that a direct cavalry charge on a well-prepared and dense enemy line could be disastrous. The value of cavalry never fully rested on their ability to make direct assaults on enemy lines. They did many other valuable things. In combat, they were a tool of exploitation, thrust into a disorganised or fleeing enemy to hammer home success. Outside it, they were used for reconnaisance and supply. The Wehrmacht relied upon them extensively on the Eastern Front of World War Two, where mechanised units ran into many enviromental problems of their own, like extreme weather, primitive roads and stretched supply lines.

Liddell Hart’s own intellectual record on the issue is murkier than Richards allows. He was a prophet of tanks, but his ambitious vision of armour as a single, self-sufficient instrument was very wrong. As more cautious interwar experts argued, tanks were only effective when used as part of a combined arms system.

Ironically, one of the reasons that the interwar British did not fully embrace armour to Liddell Hart and Richards’ satisfaction was not because of intellectual backwardness or a fetish for cavalry, but because there were simply too many competing demands on scarce resources, including the job of policing its empire. This meant that heavy tanks lost out to other things, such as light armoured vehicles and colonial constabularies. The task of fighting ‘wars amongst the people’ that Richards believes the UK must prioritise now came at the expense of preparing for armoured and mechanised warfare. Britain was under-prepared to fight a continental war partly because of its investment in small wars. I hope we never have to re-live that shortfall…

For every battleship admiral or cavalry general, there is a wild-eyed visionary who sees a revolution in military affairs:

Alfred Nobel thought dynamite was such a radical change from the past that it would render armed conflict impossibly costly and lead to the end of war. Ivan Bloch thought the same for the machine gun…navalists in France thought the development of torpedo-wielding light surface vehicles would sweep the capital ship from the waves in the 1880’s and lead to a whole new era of naval warfare. Prior to World War I, airpower visionaries looked at the new technology of the airplane and reasoned that this changed everything: land warfare would become impossible in the face of bomber fleets attacking attacking cities directly from the air…After the war, US Army and Air Force concluded that the atom bomb would revolutionize warfare and make traditional continental operations impossible; both organisations abandoned their conventional methods and restructured to fight the atomic wars of the future. For the Air Force, this cost lives in subsequent nonnuclear land wars in Korea and Vietnam; for the Army, it resulted in the ignominous abandonment of the atomic-optimised Pentomic Division structure by 1961.

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