On Cavalry: "Boots and Saddles" in SCA combat

by Hector of the Black Height

When comparing SCAdian combat to real-life combat (either modern or historic) certain glaring differences appear. Analysis of these differences can be useful in developing tactics and doctrine that will work on the SCA battlefield.

One significant difference is the lack of artillery, and there's very little we can do about that, trebuchets and nerf balls aside. The average SCAdian commander -- in particular the commander readying forces for Pennsic -- doesn't have the ability to direct heavy fire upon a point from multiple locations on the field. Our concentration of force must be temporal and physical; we must deliver people to the key point at the key moment, not just projectiles (see Note 1).

Like the modern military commander and the kings of old, SCAdian commanders have infantry at their disposal. The role of the infantry, set forth in a variety of military manuals, has not changed appreciably in centuries. Infantry close with and destroy the enemy, which is the essence of the Pennsic field battle. Another analysis of the role of infantry is both simple and direct. Infantry seize and hold ground. We see this illustrated in the woods battle, where we hold the ground around the flags, which are the apparent objectives.

Infantry as a category includes light infantry. On the SCA battlefield these often are the clouds of two-stick skirmishers buzzing around the flanks. The role of light infantry, in the presence of "line" or "heavy" infantry, is to be an adjunct to the "heavies". The best general illustration of light infantry (see Note 2) operations that I can come up with is the use of light infantry and rifle regiments by the British in the Peninsular War, as described by Bernard Cornwell in his popular Sharpe series of historical novels. In SCA combat, as in Cornwell’s novels, skirmishers do not hold ground. Like Richard Sharpe and his Riflemen, skirmishers can occupy vacant ground, they can dominate lightly contested ground, they can seize the initiative from the enemy’s skirmishers, they can clear out roadblocks -- physical and metaphorical -- but they cannot on their own win a set-piece battle.

And then there's cavalry. The SCA doesn't allow horses on the field with dismounted fighters, so you may wonder how can we have cavalry? I don't consider cavalry a technical innovation; like many military commentators of this century, I think the word "cavalry" doesn’t describe equipment or transport. Being cavalry isn't just possession of a horse; it's a state of mind. Today's modern armies (especially the Americans) have resurrected cavalry. In the modern army it rolls on tracks or flies in helicopters, but it's still cavalry. Cavalry is what it does, not how it gets to where it's going.

And so my thesis; the next step, and Ealdormere's true role in SCA combat, is to be foot cavalry. I think that by examining the role, characteristics and limitations of cavalry as a fighting force, we can see how and where to best employ the army of Ealdormere on the Pennsic mass battlefield.

What does cavalry do?

Cavalry employ speed and shock action to defeat the enemy. They move fast across country. They charge home fast and hard, with little concern for their flanks. Cavalry scouts for weakness and, with speed, surprise and shock action exploits the weakness it finds.

Cavalry are the eyes of the army (see Note 3). The difference between cavalry and SCAdian scouts is that scouts are tactically passive. Cavalry can and do fight for information, and if the information suggests, cavalry can itself attack and exploit, based on that information.

Skirmishers or light infantry are not cavalry, though cavalry can skirmish. Skirmishers are a local resource with a local effect; skirmishers are occasionally employed as speed-bumps. They don't have the mass or speed to hit hard. Cavalry are proof that physics work. Cavalry isn't a wall of pressure, it's a hammer blow, fast and concentrated, to fracture or to punch a hole.

If infantry have the mass to break the line, cavalry have the speed to exploit the breach. Cavalry scatter the enemy with speed and shock action, infantry clean up what's left with deliberation and thoroughness. Cavalry are afforded the freedom to be selective when engaging targets and have the self-discipline required to exercise that freedom. Infantry are more rigidly disciplined within their units and are more easily controlled by unit and formation commanders due to their slower rate of advance.

Cavalry may over-run ground. Cavalry doesn’t hold ground. Infantry move onto ground opened up by the cavalry and hold it. If the cavalry have to hold ground they abandon speed, mobility and shock action. They "get out of the saddle", stand on the ground and become infantry. Such a decision may be necessary, but it abandons the cavalry’s greatest asset in the offence; momentum. There is a time and place for all things. There will be times when the cavalry have to dismount, hold ground and fight like infanteers. One can only do one thing at a time, and cavalry fighting like foot-soldiers aren’t performing their role as cavalry. Also, a dead -- or legged -- cavalryman can no longer influence the battle in the same way or to the same effect.

How does one become part of a cavalry unit?

First, one must resolve to play a larger part in the battle than just being dog-meat in the shieldwall. Deciding to take ground is very different from deciding to cover ground. Limited objectives are a mark of the infantry. Open ground, open minds and open-ended objectives are all cavalry traits.

Second, one must resolve to be part of a unit. If you’re running from point A to point B to achieve a unit aim, you may just be cavalry. If you’re wandering the flanks aimlessly, looking for single combats, you’re either a skirmisher seeking direction or a tourney jock who wandered onto the wrong field.

Third, you must resolve to let somebody else hold the ground you take. When you burst through an enemy line, you will leave a hole. If you want to stop and fill that hole with your own person, you are an infantryman resolved to seize and hold ground. If you burst through and leave the hole for someone else to fill or exploit, you’re probably part of a cavalry unit.

Fourth, you must be aware of being in the saddle. If you stop moving, are you catching your breath before the next charge or are you holding ground? When you hold ground, you’ve just climbed out of the saddle and tied yourself to the terrain under your feet. Congratulations(?); you just transferred to the infantry. Remember what the wags say; if you have half a mind to join the infantry, that’s enough (see Note 4).

Fifth, is speed your friend? If you like closing up shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest of the shieldwall, you’re an infantryman. If you like moving fast and far, especially to avoid trouble or get out of an unfavourable situation, you’re in the cavalry. You must be willing to sacrifice tight ranks for ease of movement and speed. An infantryman will lock shields with his mates and prepare for the onslaught when the enemy start moving in. In the face of an enemy advancing in strength, cavalrymen will disperse, run away and reform out of immediate danger to press on with their subsequent tasks. Or, if necessary to achieve the aim, cavalry will mass and charge an attacker; cavalrymen understand that momentum is a weapon to be wielded.

This instinctive reaction to lock shields is an infantry response; tighten ranks and hold the ground you’re standing on. Cavalrymen see ground as something they cover to achieve their aim. They won’t try to hold ground; they’ll try to reform elsewhere and keep influencing the battle, or they’ll use their speed and momentum to maximize the casualties they’ll inflict on the enemy before they are overwhelmed.

Speed is relative. If you move faster than the infantry and are willing to keep moving, you may have joined the cavalry. It’s not hard to move faster than the majority of the Midrealm army; they are very much an infantry organization, organized and employed with an infantry mindset. That’s a necessary thing; we need people to hold ground. They need people to use speed and shock action to strike deep, to disrupt and threaten, to tie down the enemy’s reserves, to detect weak spots and to exploit them. The Middle needs cavalry, and right now that’s Ealdormere.

So what do we need to do to be cavalry?

First, we must keep doing what we do. We move, we hit, we reorganize and keep moving. These are trademarks of what we do; we mustn’t stop doing them!

Second, at all levels we must resolve to be flexible. Our commanders must decide, consciously, to look one or two steps ahead. What’s our immediate objective as soon as the gun goes? The Midrealm commanders will give us that in our orders. We have to be willing to select subsequent objectives on the fly. Our commanders must be aware of the overall formation aim; with that information as a basis for decision-making, they can select appropriate objectives after we’ve got past the first line of resistance or after we’ve reached the ground we were assigned initially.

As well, our fighters must be willing to look for the commanders all the time, to listen for orders, to pass information among themselves so everyone knows what’s going on and where we’re heading next. This isn’t as easy or as obvious as it sounds. Also, speed and shock action means that cavalry forces will take casualties on contact with the enemy. Units and sub-units may fragment. The individual fighter, who would be just another shield an in infantry shieldwall, may find himself or herself leading what’s left of what had been a Canton or even a Baronial force. The leader isn’t necessarily the person with the fanciest regalia; it’s often the person on the spot who has to make a decision. Through example, training and good passage of information, leaders can help those scattered cavalry troopers make decisions, reform themselves and carry on with their mission.

Cavalry must be bold. Decisions must be made quickly; ground must be covered just as quickly. Flanks will be left open, and the rear will be where our dust is, and that’s about it. Cavalry operations are risky; they’re seldom dull. Life can go wrong, big-time. That’s the cavalry’s lot. Cavalry must be willing to risk and lose. They can also risk and win, which is what makes it all worth the trouble.

I believe the Midrealm sees Ealdormere as its cavalry. In the open field we are given flanking missions; we are expected to cover ground fast. The challenge we have is to behave as cavalry once the initial plan has been relegated to the history books. Are we reforming on the move, to maintain our momentum? Are our commanders looking for opportunities and exploiting them quickly and effectively? Are we hammering home our attacks, leaving flank clean-up to the wounded and the slow?

Think like cavalry; act like cavalry; be cavalry. This is a radical change from the "lock shields/shieldwall dog-meat" philosophy that permeates some portions of the fighting community. It's a different way to look at the battlefield. It also rounds out the "all arms" war-fighting team and adds an important dimension to our Kingdom's army, as well as the armies of our allies. That added dimension adds up to new challenges and new fun, and an important piece of a winning alliance.

NOTES to this essay:

Note 1: To be fair, I am a Midrealmer from Ealdormere. I have very limited experience with combat archery. While archery delivers "lethal" force from a distance, that distance is far less than the stand-off distance of artillery, whether propelled by traction, torsion or chemical reaction. The important thing to remember about artillery is not its destructive power; a company of troops at the charge can deliver just as much impact on a shieldwall as a battery of siege engines. The key is distance. For example, the longer the range, the more weapons can be concentrated on a specific target. In other words, if a bow can shoot 50 yards, archers from 100 yards of our line’s frontage can engage a central point. If a siege engine can fling 200 yards, than siege engines from 400 yards of our line’s frontage can engage that same central point. That could be a lot of siege artillery hitting one spot!

Note 2: There has been a great deal of interest in light infantry in the US and Canadian armies in the past ten years. This has little to do with skirmishing and a lot to do with the fact that no modern army can afford all the armoured vehicles modern "heavy" infantry require on today's battlefield. Modern light infantry units are driven less by visionary doctrine than by budget constraints; it's not a question of inventing a new way of fighting, it's a question of making a bargain-basement solution to a military problem work or try to work. Modern light infantry doctrine must be considered with this basic premise in mind when comparing SCA combat and modern infantry combat.

Note 3: This doesn’t mean that there is no need for cavalry on the open field, where the commander can see the entire battlefield. Cavalry are still fast, powerful and aggressive, which are characteristics ideal for open, clear terrain. It also doesn’t mean that cavalry must thrust deep into the woods and then draw back to report. Rather, cavalry can be given a list of questions to answer or can be given a list of tasks in order of importance and then can thrust deep, beyond line-of-sight, to explore and perform based on what their exploration reveals.

This concept of "fire-and-forget" operations hammer home three basic facts about cavalry operations. First, cavalry commanders must both have imagination and initiative, and they and their commanders must be willing to exercise both. Second, a cavalry commander must have a very clear understanding of the overall formation aim and plan, so that, while acting independently, the cavalry can support the overall plan and help achieve the overall aim. Third, there will be significant periods that the cavalry and the main body of the army will be separated, including periods when either or both the cavalry and the main body will be in contact with the enemy. For a wonderful, albeit out-of-period, illustration of these basic facts, consider Jeb Stuart's cavalry operations immediately prior to and during the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863.

Note 4: And, to be fair, an infantryman describes the relationship between a cavalryman and his horse as symbiotic; the cavalryman brings the money and the horse brings the brains. But I digress…

Copyright 1996, 1998 Arthur McLean. All rights reserved.