Author Topic: Cavalry manoeuvrability on the battlefield  (Read 279 times)

Justin Swanton

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Cavalry manoeuvrability on the battlefield
« on: January 15, 2020, 05:14:56 PM »
This is something I've been musing about for some time. We all assume that cavalry units moved and manoeuvered with complete freedom on the battlefield, but I have a growing suspicion that that was not the case. I'd like to bounce the topic off the forum.

Cavalry usually came in three formations: the square, the rhombus and the wedge (I'll leave out specialist formations like the Cantabrian circle for now). Every time Polybius or the other tacticians mention cavalry changing direction, it appears, like infantry, to be in 90 degree increments:

      
At the most cavalry in a regular engagement is drawn up eight deep, and in the midst of [μεταξύ - metaxu] each of the squadrons there is need for a space equal to the fronts [of the squadrons] inasmuch as it is equivalent to [squadrons] wheeling [left/right] and caters for [squadrons] wheeling about [to their rear]. - Polybius, Histories: 12.18

Right- or left-facing, then, is the movement of the individual men, 'by spear' to the right, and 'by shield'—called in the cavalry 'by rein'—to the left; this takes place when the enemy falls upon the flanks and we wish either to counter-attack, or else to envelop his wing, i.e., overlap the wing of the enemy. - Asklepiodotus, Tactics: 10.2

The rhombus is designed to change direction in 90 degree increments very quickly, by the individual horses turning in place to face a new corner man, which then becomes the formation leader, but there is no indication that the corner men did anything else but move straight ahead once they had become the leader of the formation:

      
It appears that the Thessalians were the first to use the rhomboid formation for their squadrons in cavalry fighting, and this with great success both in retreat and in attack, that they might not be thrown into disorder, since they were able to wheel in any direction; for they placed their crack troopers on the sides and the very best of these at the angles; and they called the man at the fore angle a squadron-commander [ilarches], the one at the rear angle a squadron-closer [uragos], and those on the right and left angles flank-guards [plagiophylakes]. - Asklepiodotus, Tactics: 7.2

And yet the rhomboid formation has seemed more necessary for manoeuvring because it bears toward a leader and because, like the square, it is capable of both rank and file arrangement, for which reasons some have ordered it with this in mind, namely that attention be paid to both rank and file, others have paid attention to neither rank nor file, some to rank only and not to file, and still others the opposite. - Ibid. 7.5

The wedge would also seem to be limited to 90 degree wheels, since in describing its wheeling ability Asklepiodotus compares it to the square which, it seems fairly clear, is limited to 90 degree wheels. Nowhere does Asklepiodotus or anyone else imply that cavalry ever wheeled in increments smaller than 90 degrees:

      
It is said that the Scythians and Thracians invented the wedge formation, and that later the Macedonians used it, since they considered it more practical than the square formation; for the front of the wedge formation is narrow, as in the rhomboid, and only one half as wide, and this made it easiest for them to break through, as well as brought the leaders in front of the rest, while wheeling was thus easier than in the square formation, since all have their eyes fixed on the single squadron-commander, as is the case also in the flight of cranes. Asklepiodotus, Tactics: 7.3

So, using Occam's Razor, is it reasonable to conclude that cavalry limited their changes in direction to right angles, at least on the battlefield?



  • Justin Swanton

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Re: Cavalry manoeuvrability on the battlefield
« Reply #1 on: January 16, 2020, 09:24:33 AM »
So, using Occam's Razor, is it reasonable to conclude that cavalry limited their changes in direction to right angles, at least on the battlefield?

No.

:)

As previously discussed, I don't think it's reasonable to conclude that infantry were limited to right angles either. I fear this may not be as fruitful a topic as you hope, but by all means have at it, others.
  • Richard Taylor

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Re: Cavalry manoeuvrability on the battlefield
« Reply #2 on: January 16, 2020, 11:33:04 AM »
I'm sure we discussed this at length recently.  I am unclear, from the examples given, why you think the formations can only wheel in 90 degree increments, as I can't find any reference to angles at all, except "any direction".  It does seem turning in place for individuals was at 90 degrees

"Right- or left-facing, then, is the movement of the individual men, 'by spear' to the right, and 'by shield'—called in the cavalry 'by rein'"

As to rhomboid formation, it is tempting to see the point men as being leaders in turns of 90 degrees but the passage appears to be about wheeling, in which the relative positions of the front and flanks remain the same.  The value of the flankers in a wheel is they control the pace and the rest formate on them, so you need experienced men there.
  • Anthony Clipsom

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Re: Cavalry manoeuvrability on the battlefield
« Reply #3 on: January 16, 2020, 12:09:29 PM »
A square bears towards a leader, the right ( or left) marker, as long as all the troopers maintain relative distabcevto the front and right ( or left) .
Isn’t line another formation?
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Mark G

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Re: Cavalry manoeuvrability on the battlefield
« Reply #4 on: January 17, 2020, 07:25:19 AM »
We discussed this recently looking at wheeling, which is the method you need to understand mechanically.

I cannot see why only right angles are required, all you need to change direction, is time to wheel to face it and space to complete the movement
  • Mark Grindlay