Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Austrian Light (2) - the Austrian cavalry in action

Between 1859 and 1866 the Austrian light horse found itself at war with Frenchmen, Italians and Prussians. It has to be said that, despite almost suicidal bravery, it did not go well. Part of the problem seems to have been that they were, well, light. Idolisation of the charge, and disdain for firearms (as expressed to General McClellen in 1855), meant that they flung themselves at the enemy at every opportunity. Against infantry this was disastrous, but even against cavalry it was unwise. In a swirling cavalry melee, man against man, it often came down to sheer physical strength, and time and again contemporary commentators report how they lost to heavier men on larger horses, especially the Prussians, even Prussian hussars.

Not that there wasn't glory to be won.....

The 10th Hussars at Solferino, June 24 1859
Modern tactics of the three arms by General MW Smith 1869

The 10th Hussars at Solferino

The front of the Austrian line was covered by artillery, which came into action at from a thousand to twelve hundred yards' range. The four batteries of the first and second French divisions galloped forward to the line of skirmishers, and came into action. Two tumbrils of the Austrian artillery were blown up, after which they retired. It was at the commencement of this engagement that General Auger lost his arm.

During the artillery action, the 10th Austrian hussars, moving under the cover of the trees, which covered the ground, approached the left of the second French division, with the intention of turning the left of the second corps d'armee. Passing the line of skirmishers, they charged; but Gaudin de Villaine's brigade of cavalry encountered them. They charged three times, but were finally driven among the squares formed by the first brigade of the second division. The successful action of the cavalry, and the fire from the Duke of Magenta's position, held the enemy in check on this point of the battle field.

The 13th Uhlans at Custoza
24 June 1866

The charge of the 13th lancers at Custoza

Near the town of Custoza the Austrian army of 75,000 men was facing 120,000 Italians. It was early morning, and the light brigade under Pulz was shadowing two Italian infantry divisions, one commanded by the Piedmontese crown prince, Umberto, and a division of heavy cavalry (20 squadrons).
Neither commander was under much inclination to attack just yet, but Lt. Col. Maximilian Rodakowski of the 13th “Trani” Uhlans had other ideas. He rode along the front of his lancers, shouting in Polish “Follow me! And when you can no longer see the regimental standard, look out for the plume of my czapka to see where the action is, and show what the Trani-Ulanen can do!
Peeling off his 4 squadrons of Uhlans he charged directly at the Italians.

Pulz assumed that Rodsakowski could not possibly be so stupid as to attack, it must be a feint to draw the Italians off their position. He was wrong. It wasn't just the Austrians caught by surprise, the Italians desperately formed squares and Umberto, taking a morning stroll, only just made it into one in time.

The lancers thundered across the open ground, directly into the murderous fire of two divisions, as Pulz followed their progress as a dust cloud in the distance, with the rapidly increasing sound of rifle and artillery fire. Rodakowski's lancers crashed through a gap between the two divisions, only to run into a deep ditch that send horses somersaulting into the air. Those lancers still upright were halted, making easy targets. Worse, the 1st “Kaiser Franz Josef” Hussars had followed Rodakowski in, and suffered the same fate.

The survivors fled back to their lines, but half the Austrian cavalry had been slaughtered. Incredibly, the Austrians still won. The Italian supply train bolted, blocking bridges preventing the arrival of reinforcements, and panic spread in the rear divisions. Dello Roca, the Italian commander, believed this must be the start of a major attack, and halted advances on his left where the Austrians were weak. After a confusing day in which both sides thought they had lost, an Austrian attack finally broke through and Della Roca retreated.

The Alexander lancers at Sadowa, 3 July 1866
Modern tactics of the three arms by General MW Smith 1869

From the Prussian perspective

Not Sadowa, but Austrian lancers in action against Piedmontese, 1866

The first cavalry division under Major-General V. Alvensleben had, about three o'clock in the afternoon of the day of the battle, received orders to support the Elbe army; in consequence, the light cavalry brigade, Rheinbaden, consisting of one dragoon regiment of the guard, at the head, followed by the first and second Lancer Regiments of the Guard, broke tip from Johanneshof, where the division had been concentrated for some time, and marched in the direction of Nachanitz. The brigade during their march were exposed to a continuous fire, and Ridingmaster V. Bodelschwing, of the First Dragoons of the Guards, when near Lubno, fell mortally wounded.

The brigade crossed the Bistritz at Nechanitz soon after four p.m. The Commandant of the Dragoon Regiment, Lieut.-Colonel V. Barner, had received the order to report his arrival upon the scene of action personally to General V. Herwarth, commanding the Elbe army. It was impossible to find the General in the midst of the tumult and confusion raging on all sides, and nothing remained for him but to use his own discretion, and ride forward into the action; so putting himself at the head of his own regiment he took the direction of Problus; the advance of about five or six miles over broken and intersected ground, mostly covered with standing corn, at an uninterrupted trot, had considerably exhausted the horses during their advance; they encountered different parties of their own cavalry, the fifth, sixth and seventh Lancers, and a portion of the Neumark Dragoons were seen in the direction of Streselitz. As they still advanced they came in sight of a body of the enemy's cavalry to the east of Problus, which had hitherto been concealed from their view, consisting of the brigade Meugden. The King Ludvig of Bavaria's Cuirassiers on the right, the 11th (Alexander) Lancers on the left, and Count Neipperg's Cuirassiers in reserve: these troops had not as yet been in action.

The Alexander Lancers detaching themselves from the left of the brigade moved forward in the direction of the dragoons, who deployed at once and attacked, both regiments charged well home and mutually broke through each others ranks, a general melee and hand-to-hand conflict ensued, and for some minutes, the fighting masses surged hither and thither. Some files of the Austrian lancers rode between the intervals of the guns of Captain Caspasy's battery, which was attached to the Prussian regiment, and which, during the intermingling of friend and foe, had ceased firing. The dragoons at last prevailed in the desperate struggle.

The lancers were forced back, the greater portion towards Streselitz, and the remainder took a southern direction. The first were encountered by the regiment of Blucher's Hussars, under the command of Colonel V. Flemming, which had just appeared upon the battle-field from Unter Dohalitz; in spite of their disordered formation, the lancers stood the charge of the hussars bravely till taken in flank by the fourth squadron of the regiment, they broke and fled towards Streselitz.

At this moment, the first lancers of the guard of the brigade, Bheinbaben came upon the ground, and Colonel V. Colomb, commanding the regiment, was ordered by General V. Bheinbaben to take up the pursuit, and the lancers suffered severe losses in their retreat.

Generals V. Alvenslaben and Rheinbaben took part personally in this part of the action. In general, the different parties of the enemy's cavalry, scattered in retreat towards Streselitz and Laugenhof, mostly succumbed to the fire of the Prussian artillery and infantry stationed in the above-mentioned places; but one body of the Alexander Lancers held together in a most extraordinary manner till they reached the neighbourhood of Lipa, where his Majesty the King had taken up his temporary position; they had the temerity to dash forward and attempt a surprise, but a battalion of the thirty-fifth Prussian infantry received them with a murderous volley, and most of these brave men were sacrificed.

The Hesse Cassel hussars at Saar, 10 July 1866
The Seven Weeks War by HM Hozier 1867

NB. The author gives the name of the Austrian regiment as the Hesse Cassel hussars. Although at this time Hesse Cassel was a separate state, allied to Austria, this appears to be a regiment of the Austrian army and there are references to it in, for example 1854. He describes the prisoners as Hungarians, who would have served in the Austrian army and the description of a blue pelise with yellow facings would match the Austrian regiments.

The monotony of the march was relieved by a spirited cavalry skirmish in the little town of Saar, which is about six miles to the west of Neustadt. On the previous night the Austrian hussars of the regiment of Hesse-Cassel held Saar. The Prussian cavalry was to proceed on the 10th to Gammy, about a mile in front of Saar, and the 9 th regiment of Uhlans formed its advanced guard on the march. The Austrians intended to march the same day to the rear towards Briinn, and the hussars were actually assembling for parade previous to the march when the first patrols of the Prussian Uhlans came rattling into the town. The Austrians were collecting together from all the different houses and farmyards; mounted men, filing out of barns and strawhouses, were riding slowly towards their rendezvous in the market-place; men who had not yet mounted were leading their horses, strolling carelessly alongside them, when, by some fault of their sentinels, they were surprised by the Prussians. The Uhlans were much inferior in number at first, but their supports were coming up behind them, and this disadvantage was compensated for by the Austrians being taken unawares. The Uhlans quickly advanced, but did not charge before one Austrian squadron had time to form, and only while most of the men of the remaining divisions were quickly falling into their ranks, though some were cut off from the rendezvous by the Prussians advancing beyond the doors from which they were issuing, and were afterwards made prisoners.

In the market-place an exciting contest at once began. The celebrated cavalry of Austria were attacked by the rather depreciated horsemen of Prussia, and the lance, the "queen of weapons," as its admirers love to term it, was being engaged in real battle against the sword. The first Prussian soldiers who rode into the town were very few in number, and they could not attack before some more came up. This delay of a few minutes gave the hussars a short time to hurry together from the other parts of the town, and by the time the Uhlans received their reinforcements the Austrians were nearly formed.

As soon as their supports came up the lancers formed a line across the street, advanced a few yards at a walk, then trotted for a short distance, their horses' feet pattering on the stones, the men's swords jingling, their accoutrements rattling, and their lances borne upright, with the black and white flags streaming over their heads; but when near the opening into the broader street, which is called the Market-place, a short, sharp word of command, a quick, stern note from the trumpet, the lance-points came down and were sticking out in front of the horses' shoulders, the horses broke into a steady gallop, and the lance flags fluttered rapidly from the motion through the air, as the horsemen, with bridle hands low and bodies bent forward, lightly gripped the staves, and drove the points straight to the front.

But when the Prussians began to gallop, the Austrians were also in motion. With a looser formation and a greater speed they came on, their blue pelisses, trimmed with fur and embroidered with yellow, flowing freely from their left shoulders, leaving their sword-arms disencumbered. Their heads, well up, carried the single eagle's feather in every cap straight in the air; their swords were raised, bright and sharp, ready to strike, as their wiry little horses, pressed tight by the knees of the riders, came bounding along, and dashed against the Prussian ranks as if they would leap over the points of the lances. The Uhlans swayed heavily under the shock of the collision, but, recovering again, pressed on, though only at a walk. In front of them were mounted men, striking with their swords, parrying the lance-thrusts, but unable to reach the lancer; but the ground was also covered with men and horses, struggling together to rise; loose horses were galloping away; dismounted hussars in their blue uniforms and long boots were hurrying off to try to catch their chargers or to avoid the lancepoints. The Uhlan line appeared unbroken, but the hussars were almost dispersed. They had dashed up against the firmer Prussian ranks, and they had recoiled, shivered, scattered, and broken as a wave is broken that dashes against a cliff. In the few moments that the ranks were locked together, it seems that the horsemen were so closely jammed against each other that lance or sword was hardly used. The hussars escaped the points in rushing in, but their speed took them so close to the lancers' breasts that they had not even room to use their swords. Then the Prussians, stouter and taller men, mounted on heavier horses, mostly bred from English sires, pressed hard on the light frames and the smaller horses of the hussars, and by mere weight and physical strength bore them back, and forced them from their seats to the ground; or sometimes, so rude was the shock, sent horse and man bounding backwards, to come down with a clatter on the pavement.

The few Austrians who remained mounted fought for a short time to stop the Prussian advance, but they could make no impression on the lancers. Wherever a hussar made a dash to close three points bristled couched against his chest or his horse's breast, for the Austrians were now in inferior numbers in the streets to the Prussians, and the narrowness of the way would not allow them to retire for their reserves to charge. So the Prussians pressed steadily forward in an invulnerable line, and the Austrians, impotent to stop them, had to fall back before them. Before they had gone far through the town fighting this irregular combat more Prussian cavalry came up behind the Uhlans, and the Austrians began to draw off. The lancers pushed after them, but the hussars got away, and at the end of the town the pursuit ceased. One officer and twenty-two non-commissioned officers and privates taken prisoners, with nearly forty captured horses, fell into the hands of the Uhlans, as the trophies of this skirmish. Some of the prisoners were wounded; a few hussars killed, and two or three Prussians were left dead upon the ground.

One or two of the privates taken prisoners were Germans, but by far the greater number were Hungarians—smart, soldierlike-looking fellows, of a wiry build; they looked the very perfection of light horsemen, but were no match in a melee for the tall, strong cavalry soldiers of Prussia, who seemed with one hand to be able to wring them from their saddles, and hurl them to the ground.

The Battle of Tischnowitz, 11 July 1866
2nd Prussian Guards Dragoons' regiment against Graf Wallmoden Lancers.

Translated from Der deutsche Krieg von 1866, Volume 1, Part 2
By Theodor Fontane 1870

The battle in Tischnowitzmarket square

To the left of the Hann division, which formed the extreme right wing of the I. Army, was the light cavalry brigade of Duke William of Mecklenburg. The second Guards 'Dragoons' regiment,, under the command of Colonel von Redern led the brigade.

The advance was difficult insofar as the right and left of the terrain led through wooded ravines and steep hills, making searching more difficult. In OIschy, half a mile from Tischnowitz, was found the first enemy, (the Wallmoden Lancers, we later discovered), who appeared in front and both flanks. Colonel v. Redern conducted a squadron immediately right and left, enough to suppress the enemy detachmentment, while the advance half continued under Lieutenant von Dieskau to Tischnowitz.

Tischnowitz was located on the left, beyond its suburb "Vorkloster". A bridge connects the city and suburbs across the Schwaraza river.
In Vorkloster our advanced half encountered a train of enemy lancers, threw themselves at him and chased him across the bridge, into Tischnowitz. Here, however, the attack faltered. In the marketplace were two Austrian squadrons, and with the cry:" The Prussians are here, " threw themselves into the saddle (they had just dismounted) and fell on the advancing Dragoons and drove them out of the city.

But not for long. Just now appeared the first Squadrons under Captain v. Korff and the second attack on Tischnowitz started. On the Schwarzawa bridge between city and suburb, the troops collided. The Lancers seemed to want to form an impenetrable line, but our forwards attacked with dragoon sabers and the horses could only go in the last moments between their horses and so fell in between the Lancers. Major von Schack was wounded by a lance on the left shoulder however the dragoons went so close to the enemy that the lances were unusable.

The scuffle lasted only a few moments, Captain vd Knesebeck, the leader of the enemy squadrons, was carved from his horse, which turned the Lancers and they retreated into the city. The dragoons pursued, but their officers kept strict command, they did not come out of order. When they had gained the road leading to the marketplace, the Lancers tried again to make a front, but once more Dragoons attacked and again pushed the enemy back by the sheer weight of the horses and the force of the blows. The tough battle lasted a long time. The riders were so close together in each other that they could hardly use their weapons and they fought with each other and sought to seize the horses, which, frightened and made wild, reared, and struck out. The force of Prussia prevailed and they pressed their opponents back on the market, where a picture of the Madonna on a high column looked down. Here an Austrian officer was with almost unbelievable power thrown from the saddle, the lighter Austrian riders were not at all able to stand against the greater strenght and violence and turned and hurried out of the city to join regiments outside. A pursuit took place, but was halted by the inequality of forces. The loss of the enemy was 2 officers and 53 men, partly dead and wounded, others trapped. Our part, we had 2 men killed and 10 wounded.

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