The last Cavalry charge

The cavalry was the mainstay of every army since prehistoric times. After infantry and chariotry they are the oldest military units and their unique mobility has swung many historic battles. Until the advent of firearms (and indeed for some time after) the lightning speed of Cavalry units ruled the battlefields. A man fighting from horseback has the advantages of greater height, speed, and inertial mass over an opponent on foot – they were rightly feared by any other combat arm (maybe with the exception of sailors).

Although it’s commonly believed that the guns of conquistadores subdued the Mesoamerican civilizations, it was in fact Spanish Jinetes and their light Calvary tactics that conquered the new continent (in particular in South America). Cavalry remained the most important military units in the new world until the mid 20th century, although units like the famous US Cavalry technically were Dragoons (they dismounted to fight).

The Second World War was the last major conflict that saw the use of regular Cavalry units. By this stage they had technically outplayed their usefulness, but many European nations retained Cavalry units (even the USA had Cavalry engaged in combat). In 1939 Poland had launched a number of brave Cavalry attacks against superior German panzer units, but at no time were they able to press home a charge – for all intend and purpose Calvary warfare was dead.

polish cavalry

Battle of the Bzura: Polish cavalry in Sochaczew in 1939

1942 saw the Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia encamped near Isbushensky on the Don River. The corps was composed of three divisions, two motorized and the mounted 3 Cavalry Division Amedeo Duca d’Aosta. In reality the 3 Cavalry Division was a mixed motorized and mounted division and by this stage in the campaign only the division’s 3. Savoy Cavalry Regiment and 5. Novara Lancer Regiment were able to field a fully mounted force.

Italian Cavalry officers on the Eastern Front - 1943

Italian Cavalry officers on the Eastern Front - 1943

In august 1942 the Savoy Cavalry was shielding the southern flank of the German summer offensive. 600 troopers under leadership of Count Alessandro Bettoni were approaching the Don River circa 170km north of Stalingrad, when on the evening of the 24th a patrol encountered a Red Army rearguard of about 2000 men. Count Bettoni ordered his men into defensive positions and settled down for the night.

3. Savoy Cavalry Regiment on the move during the summer of 1943

3. Savoy Cavalry Regiment on the move during the summer of 1943

Perhaps the equestrian Count knew the days of his beloved Cavalry was approaching the end, perhaps he was just of the old school military that saw attacks on superior forces as a matter of personal pride. Whatever the reason, Bettoni started the next day by ordering his regiment in battle order. In the field the regiment was divided into four squadrons of 150 troopers and with Bettoni in the lead they started towards the 812th Siberian Infantry Regiment holding up across a field of sunflowers. The Cavalry approached their opponent in a walk, before breaking into a trot, canter and finally an all-out gallop. As they set off the battle cry went up: “Sabres. To hand. Charge!

The second squadron broke right and hammered directly into the Siberians left flank, while two squadrons pressed home the charge with a brutal sabre attack. With the Siberian defense in complete disarray the Italian Cavalry dismounted and engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. As the battle raged the last squadron launched a charge on the Siberian right flank. Despite their numerical superiority the Red Army’s resolve crumbled under the relentless onslaught and when the smoke cleared the Italians had won the day. The Savoy Cavalry had lost only 40 men against a Soviet loss of 150 killed and 500 prisoners.

In military terms it was a magnificent victory. However, it was also the last time an army would charge with a fully mounted Cavalry Regiment. The Division Amedeo Duca d’Aosta remained on the Eastern Front throughout the autumn of 1942, but was destroyed during fighting in the Battle of Nikolayevka on the Don River that December. The survivors were formed into a Kampfgruppe under German command and continued fighting for another two months, after which the division was withdrawn to Italy and disbanded.

It is somewhat befitting that after more than 3000 years as masters of the battlefield the last full Cavalry charged had been pressed home with success. Following the Second World War most Cavalry combat units were disbanded (the famous US Cavalry was absorbed by the regular army in 1951, although the 1st Cavalry Division still exist as an armoire division). Today many armies retain Cavalry units in purely ceremonial roles, but many modern units have kept their historic designations of Hussars, Dragoons, Dragoon Guards or Lancers.

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