Reading about the exploits of the Austrian hussars and lancers in Mexico inspired me to look a little further into the Austrian light cavalry of the Victorian age. Once again I am indebted to Major General McClennan for his guide to European armies in 1855/6*, after the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, and before the Franco-Austrian war of 1859.
In the Austrian army there are 16 regiments of heavy cavalry—i.e. 8 of cuirassiers and 8 of dragoons; and 24 of light cavalry—i.e. 12 of hussars and 12 of lancers. Each regiment of light cavalry has 8 active squadrons; the men and horses of the hussars being Hungarian and Transylvanian; those of the lancers are, for the most part, from Poland.
Each regiment has a colonel, one field officer for every two squadrons, an adjutant, paymaster, quartermaster, and judge advocate. The squadron is the unit for the administration and interior service; the division of 2 squadrons commanded by a field officer is the tactical unit. Each division has a standard.
A squadron of light cavalry consists of: 1 captain commanding. 1 2d captain. 2 lieutenants. 2 sub'lieutenants. 2 sergeants. 12 corporals. 2 trumpeters. 1 saddler. 1 veterinary. 200 men and 201 government horses.
The overcoat for all the cavalry is of thick white cloth, with sleeves and a long cape; it is made very long and loose. It may here be stated that this white cloth, of which the uniform coats of the infantry are also made, is stated by the Austrian officers to be excellent for the field; it is cleaned by washing and pipe-clay; and they seem to prefer it to any other color.
The uniform coat is a short, double-breasted frock, with a standing collar, cut away in front; the lancers alone wear epaulettes. This coat is white for the heavy cavalry; dark green for the lancers; light or dark blue for the hussars. A spencer, of the same color as the coat, is worn by all the cavalry on certain occasions; it has a rolling collar, and is made so loose that it may be worn over the uniform coat. The pants are of the colour of the coat; those of the hussars fit perfectly tight to the leg, and are worn under the boots; those of the other cavalry are reenforced with leather as far up as the knee.
The hussars wear boots reaching nearly to the knee; the rest of the cavalry wear half-boots. No spare boots are carried on the march The stable-frock, neatly made of coarse white linen, serves as a uniform coat in the summer. No linen pants are issued or worn. For service in cold weather, gray cloth overalls are issued; they button all the way up, on the inside and outside of the legs. On the march, in winter, the men wear the vest, uniform coat, spencer, cloak, pants, and overalls.
The lancers wear the well-known Polish lancer hat. The hussars wear a cylindrical shako, with a peaked visor. The forage-cap is the same for all the cavalry, it is of a very dark color, and is somewhat of the shape of the French kepis, the visor being more peaked, and the top larger.
For the cavalry, equitation is of the greatest importance. It consists not only in the ability to sit the horse, but also in knowing how to conduct and use him under all circumstances. The walk is the easiest gait for the rider, and the natural gait of the horse; it should be at the rate of about 120 steps per minute. The trot is the most lasting pace of the horse, but the hardest for the rider; as it does much towards giving a good seat, the men should be much exercised at it; the common trot is at the rate of about 250, the trot out 300 steps per minute. The full gallop is at the rate of 500 steps per minute; the hand gallop somewhat slower. The charge is at the rate of about 600 steps per minute.
Marches are conducted at the rate of from 3 to 4 miles per hour, (for the most part at a walk,) and usually last about 5 hours. About half an hour after starting, a short halt is made, to allow the horses to urinate. Over very rough or steep ground the horses are generally led. The hussars march long distances at the trot, and know no obstacles; rivers, marshes, mountains, and obstructed ground, check their course but little.
Since it is often necessary for light troops to swim their horses, they should be taught beforehand to throw the carbine over the shoulder, to allow the curb-reins to hang loosely, and to guide the horse by the snaffle, not straight across the stream, but a little against the current. The rider must grasp the mane, and never look at the water, but at the bank, lest he become giddy. In the event of being swept from the saddle, he can still keep above water by keeping hold of the mane; if he loses this advantage, he must endeavor to seize the horse's tail, and allow the animal to take him ashore.
The firearms are only used on guard, vedette, &c., to give the alarm, it being taken as a maxim to trust only to the steel. There were several instances during the Hungarian war when the Hungarian hussars stopped to fire; the result invariably was that they were ridden over by the lancers.
The order of battle of a brigade of light cavalry is, one regiment with all its divisions deployed in line, the other formed in line of columns, with closed intervals, 500 paces behind the centre of the front line. Independently of the reserves above mentioned, every body of cavalry which charges detaches, at the moment of taking the trot, a portion of its own force to secure its flanks and rear.
When a single division charges, the flank platoons fall out, and form, in columns by platoons, about 300 paces in rear of the centre; the captains on the flanks close in on the charging platoons; their whole duty is to watch and protect the flanks of the charging body.
When a regiment charges, the flank squadrons act in the same manner, but each squadron remains behind the flank to which it belongs.
In the manoeuvres of large bodies of cavalry, the Austrians form them in one line, throwing in advance the' artillery, and a few squadrons, intended to make false attacks, and to clear the way for the main body: their reason for this is, that if the 1st line is broken it is very apt to carry the 2d with it.
While we were in Vienna, on the morning of the 9th January, at 6 A.M., the 12th lancers were suddenly alarmed; in 40 .minutes the regiment was formed in marching-order, baggage packed, platoons told off, officers at their posts, &c. This was considered sharp work for quarters. The whole garrison was alarmed at the same moment; this is done, not unfrequently, by the emperor.
Hussars - Sabre, pistol, and carbine.
Lancer - Lance, sabre, and two pistols; 16 men in each squadron have a carbine in the place of one of the pistols.
The light-cavalry sabre has a blade about 32 inches long, and not much curved; the scabbard and guard of steel. It is rather heavy, and not particularly well balanced. Many of the officers think that the sabre should be more curved, as they prefer cutting to pointing. I was informed that although the steel scabbard dulls the sabre it is regarded as being, on the whole, better than wood, as not being so liable to injury by fire &c. In the field the sabres are first ground, and afterwards whetted every two or three weeks. It is a well-recognized principle that a dull sabre is entirely useless.
The lance has a point 8 inches long above the knob; two iron straps extend some 3 feet down the shaft, which is about 9 feet long; the butt tipped with iron; pennon black and yellow; the ordinary lance-sling. In time of war the lance-points are kept sharp by filing.
The ordinary carbine and pistol present nothing remarkable; the pistol has no strap to the butt. The pistol-carbine has been introduced, and will probably supplant the old firearms. It is a long single-barrel pistol, with a carbine-stock, which is attached by two spring catches, so that it may be used either as a pistol or carbine; the stock, when detached, is carried in one of the holsters. The two holsters are strapped to the saddle; two slits in the scbabraque, which may be closed by buckles, allow the pistols to be drawn.
No pains are spared to perfect the men in the use of their weapons; for they regard this and individual horsemanship as the most important qualifications of the cavalry soldier.
The light-cavalry horses are excellent; they are of fine appearance, active, hardy, intelligent, and seldom vicious. They are mostly from Hungary, Transylvania, and Poland. Large numbers are imported from Russia. The horses of the same squadron are not necessarily of the same color. If he rides him for 20 years, he becomes the owner of the horse and equipment, and may take him away when he leaves the service.
Comparison of Austrian and United States cavalry
The imperfect sketch of the Austrian cavalry given in the preceding pages will show that, as might have been expected, it presents many things well worthy of imitation, and much to be avoided.
The foundation of the efficiency and well-deserved reputation of the Austrian cavalry would seem to be the great perfection of the individual instruction of the men: without this, no organization, however perfect it maybe, can lead to good results; with it, the defects of a very bad organization may be overcome or lost sight of. The exercises preliminary to the instruction in equitation are worthy of imitation; while it would by no means be advisable to follow blindly all their conditions for a good seat.
The manner of posting the officers in a division is worthy of the most attentive consideration. There may well occur exceptional cases in which it is absolutely necessary that the officers should be in front of the men to lead and encourage them in desperate situations; but it would seem that the Austrians have good reasons for placing the officers in the ranks. They say that since the officers have, as a general rule, perfect control over their horses, they will keep them in the proper direction, and thus prevent the men from opening out, the charge being thus rendered compact and effective: they state that this formation results from the experience of actual charges upon an enemy.
The system pursued in the purchase of horses is good. The general features of their veterinary system might be followed in our service to great advantage. Their system of depot squadrons is good, and produces good results. The cooking-utensils seem to be well adapted to the end in view.
The tactical unit would appear to be entirely too large to permit the great mobility and celerity which are the essential conditions of the success of cavalry; this defect is probably overcome only by the perfection of individual instruction. The number of non-commissioned officers is too small, in comparison with the number of privates.
The articles of clothing would appear to be altogether too bulky: no doubt the comfort of the man is a very important consideration; but, if that object is gained at the expense of the efficiency of the horse, the result cannot be doubtful. The number of things carried by the men, and the excessive weight of the equipment, seem pernicious and absurd in the extreme. I was informed by cavalry officers that the men usually manage to throw away the greater part of their load before many days passed in the field.
In conclusion, I would state that much valuable information may be demed from the Cavalry Tactics, Nadosy's "Equitations-Studien," Halfzensir's "Innern Dienst der Cavallerie," and other works; those mentioned are in the possession of the War Department, and should, by all means, be consulted by any officers engaged in the preparation of a revised system for our own cavalry.