The history of arms branches in Orient and Occident - redux

Humanoid warfare began with light infantry - quite undisciplined groups armed with melee weapons.

"Soon" thereafter (likely hundred thousands of years later, but we know almost nothing about that period) missile infantry joined the fight; slingers, javeliners, bowmen and possibly blowpipe warriors.

It seems that a form of cavalry appeared next; chariots. The earliest use of chariots was in the missile cavalry role, as an elusive platform for missileers. Later on riding was used in combat and light cavalry began to take over that role at lower cost, better robustness and cross-country characteristics.
At about that time heavy infantry - protected by armour and disciplined in the use of battle formations - was introduced and began to dominate warfare in Greece.
The late use of chariots was apparently focused on the heavy cavalry role; shock attacks, even armed with scythes on the axles. They did finally disappear - simple rider cavalry proved superior also in the heavy (shock) cavalry role.

At this point it's interesting to have a look at ancient Hellenic warfare.
It was early on quite formalized and restricted by rules until the civilization-fracturing Peloponnesian War (the ancient equivalent to the First World War - Greece was incapable of further civilization advances afterwards!). Heavy infantry in phalanx formation moved against each other in optimal terrain (ignoring the hills around them) and the winning side did not pursuit the enemy because a won battle usually meant a won war.

That changed over time; skirmishers were introduced. Javelineers (Peltasts from Trace), Bowmen (Cretans) and slingers (from Rhodes) became more important and harassed and exhausted the enemy lines before the clash as well as contributing to a pursuit. These lightly armed skirmishers (a mix of missile and light infantry) were elusive. They were more mobile than the heavy infantry (especially as the latter kept its formation) and not threatened much by cavalry (because horses were rare in greece - only Thessaloniki had much light cavalry).

The late Hellenic army of Alexander the Great's fame was built on a holding phalanx with extra-long lances and a heavy (shock) cavalry for the decisive breakthrough charge (typically aimed at the enemy army leader). This model withered down to a defensively strong but also offensively cumbersome phalanx with little cavalry support as the Macedonian successors of Alexander were unable to afford enough cavalry.

Rome went another path; it began with a graded infantry force with little cavalry and turned towards an army built with excellent heavy infantry supported by mercenaries. That model was fine, but was again given up late in the empire in favour of a less disciplined force with a greater share of heavy cavalry. The conditions had changed over time.

The Northern (Germanic) tribes had an emphasis on light infantry which got employed in a heavy infantry (shock infantry for battle) function, with predictably little success for centuries.
This model withered away in favour of less, but better armed and trained fighters after the Western Roman Empire's end. These new armies of the feudal societies moved towards small all-heavy (shock) cavalry forces (the knight armies).

The pendulum swung back to wards heavy infantry during the 13th to 15th century with another rise of lance-armed infantry (a Swiss reinvention). A revival of the bow happened late in that period with the zenith of bowmen in Europe; the English longbowmen. The quality of their bows was quite mediocre (the Turkish bows were much, much better), but their chosen and highly skilled users managed to exploit defects of the then-dominant heavy cavalry armies.
The combination of heavy infantry with lances and missileers with strong longbows sufficed to push cavalry back into a secondary role next to infantry.

Most European wars from the 16th to 20th century were dominated by heavy infantry of some sort, with notable exceptions on the Balkans (the wars against the Turks that required much light cavalry as well as light infantry) and the huge countries of Eastern Europe (much cavalry).

Firearms (both artillery and man-portable weapons) transformed European warfare to some degree, but their breakthrough came with the bayonet revolution of the mid-17th century. The bayonet gave the musket a dual role as a ranged weapon and as a lance. Pikes and lances had initially been necessary additions to muskets/arquebus because of their repulsion value against cavalry shock attacks. At about 1660 every infantryman was to be armed with a firearm plus melee and even anti-cavalry capability.

Heavy infantry and missile infantry had merged to a new type of heavy infantry (the line infantry) and later on light infantry and missile troops merged into a new type of light infantry (rifle infantry).
The dedicated missile infantry role was kind of taken over by artillery, which added a field artillery role to its siege role by producing sufficiently mobile gun designs.

That model lasted till after the Napoleonic Wars, although heavy infantry became able to fight with less discipline in addition to disciplined formations. Social and political changes of the French Revolution and the rise of nationalism had allowed for that change.

The next revolution came with the Minié ball (which finally made muzzle-loaded rifles practical for all infantry). The Minié ball reigned just a few years until the breech-loaded rifle was finally mature and ready for general use. Both together sealed the fate of horse cavalry as important battlefield factor - both the heavy and the light one.
Heavy infantry was still used with old tactics (despite having light infantry potential as well due to their rifles), and the slaughter was impressive.
The First World War finally helped to press some of the light infantry mindset into the heavy infantry, which was still the dominant branch for line-of-sight combat during WW2.

Early Word War Two demonstrated the return of the heavy (shock) cavalry principle of sorts - the internal combustion engine had replaced the muscles of horses. The wealth of nations after the recovery of the late 40's and the 50's allowed for national armies that focused on this new, most powerful heavy cavalry. The result seems to have been similar to the medieval result: Small forces of very powerful heavy cavalry with a considerable train - and a weak infantry.

The remainder of the heavy infantry (infused with just a few light infantry traits) has recently been pitched against the light infantry mustered by less developed countries and was found wanting; light infantry is still pretty elusive. The ringing alarm bell was heard and it's a question of problem pressure whether the recent experiences will lead to an increased emphasis on own light infantry or not.

- - - - -

Now what's the point of this redux of oriental and occidental military history?

Simple: I wanted to point out that there's more than just our present structure. Most importantly, we seem to neglect the light cavalry pattern today. The only modern equivalent are our weak and neglected armoured reconnaissance forces. The present small wars-driven interest in light infantry is unlikely to help us to regain the advantages that light cavalry has to offer.

Light cavalry showed its full potential in the ancient Parthian light cavalry that faced the infantry-centric Roman armies.
The Romans were superior in melee battles and sieges, but their problems were quite insurmountable every time they invaded Parthia. The enemy light cavalry (armed with composite bows) simply bypassed the Roman main force and attempted to cut off the supply lines. Supply convoys had to be guarded heavily. The Romans tried to use an economies of scale approach with few very large convoys, but even more than one entire legion plus mercenary troops was at times not enough to prevent the complete destruction of an essential convoy.

Now imagine that we would revolutionize our armoured reconnaissance further and turn it into light cavalry, with much greater importance and much greater capabilities than today's armoured recce. Such an approach could be a mightily powerful answer to the challenge of low force density (geography stayed the same, but forces shrunk). Opposing heavy forces would be unable to defeat the more elusive light cavalry, be cut off, threatened all the time from all directions - and would be in a terrible situation if engaged by heavy opposition with great momentum.

In fact, I've been researching into this direction for a while and the many advantages of the concept are overwhelming. The crucial question is of course whether the force density in the theater is indeed low enough to allow for infiltration and exfiltration - light cavalry needs non-linear warfare to excel in its core roles of reconnaissance, counterreconnaissance, skirmishing, raiding, escorting and coup de mains.


  1. This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 1/22/2010, at The Unreligious Right

  2. Great post. I would add one comment to your conclusions though. The overwhelming desire to avoid excessive casualties (see MRAP, folly of) and unreasonable development of technological objectives for future combat vehicles (see FCS, downfall of) may prevent such a light cav concept from evolving. You almost have to be willing to accept risk and heavy unit casualties if your light cav get into something they can't handle. That's not something that our armed forces seem to want to do today.

  3. LRRP and armoured recce soldiers run the same risks - and bitching is no way out in wartime.

    Besides, the legitimate wars - the defensive ones - are wars in which policy and population aren't overly casualty-sensitive.

    All other wars are stupid adventures and honestly, I'd prefer if we extended the casualty aversion in those cases to the extreme and avoided those stupid wars altogether.

    The only exception is likely intervention against genocide à la Rwanda. That case wouldn't call for light cavalry (although their mindset would be helpful).

  4. Great post, although you seem to have bought into the myth of the "dominant" heavy cavalry during the medevial times.

    Cavalry has never been tanks, they have never enjoyed the superiority over infantry on open ground that tanks have. They were never able to make succesfull frontal attacks against prepared infantry that stood their ground.

    Most of the battles during the medevial times were sieges, and infantry was always the dominating part of the armies. Even during the days of the heavy knights, cavalry was mostly used for flanking attacks and pursuits of broken enemies.

    Their charges could be sucessful in scaring and routing unprepared or poorly trained and eqipped infantry, but like I said, they could never break through a prepared and disciplined line.

    The armoured knights were the fighter pilots of their day. Much admired, lauded and written about (which is probably the reason for their exaggerated status in military history) but not at all as militarily influential as their reputation suggests.

  5. There weren't any "prepared and disciplined line"s in the 6th century to 12th century in Europe unless the Byzantines were involved (and even they were not exactly hallmarks of discipline).

  6. Alternatively, one could develop and deploy a Damoclean nuclear arsenal to ensure that no nation state ever sets foot in yours lest they have their name etched their and/or collective human civilization's tombstone. Putting to use the wasted matériel and intellectual capital on the coming soon issues of overpopulation, transhumanism, and human marginalization via robotics; rather than towards a hunter-gatherer trait that still has not been bread out of our stock after 10,000 years of being landed but rears its head in success softened Westerners as a passion for historical militarism but only flaking commitment to hopeless defensive maneuvers when knowing full well that their civilization's living standard was built on the back of a billion corpses and their supposed moral superiority will lead them to be crushed via inferior production capacities because an unscrupulous enemy is fully able to take advantage of War's one true purpose, resource consolidation.

  7. Of course there was good infantry during the medieval times. A good example is the battle of Hastings. Norman heavy cavalry attacked all day with little effect against Harolds line of infantry.

    The battle was only decided late during the day when a faked cavalry retreat made the infantry break their line and pursue. They were then vulnerable and were slaugthered when the cavalry turned back and attacked.

  8. To further illustrate my point, I think the heavy knights should be compared to the WWII German Stuka dive bomber, not tanks.

    Like the Stuka, heavy cavalry had a mostly psychological effect, and could easily panic unexperienced and undisciplined troops. But their actual effect against infantry that stayed and held their ground was very limited.

  9. Well, back to the original quote:
    "These new armies of the feudal societies moved towards small all-heavy (shock) cavalry forces (the knight armies)."

    There were exceptions to the rule at the periphery and I was probably looking too much at Central Europe when I wrote this, but the quote is nevertheless accurate.

    Heavy cavalry certainly gained ever more traction from Augustus' time up to the late 12th century.

    Infantry was at times well-armoured, but it didn't have the ancient Roman or Hellenic discipline until the 14th century, probably not until the Renaissance led to the reinvention of strict discipline for ground war.

    1. To make the answer short: Medieval European warfare had several components, long spears, crossbows and longbows and horses. These formed a mix of troops that either fought on foot or on horseback, much depending on the situation. Additional weapons were axes, long knives and rare swords.
      The crossbow was a javelin replacement, mounted and on foot, comparing it to a composite or longbow is problematic because of a limited number of shared tactical characteristics. If you look at crossbowmen as upgraded javelineers together with lancers on foot and on horseback you have the basic European Medieval warfare formation derived from their older formation of javelinmen and spearmen with archers falling out of favour in most Western regions.

      The problem was the crossbow - longbow/composite bow match. Quite often it is reported as going against the crossbow in the Hundred Years War and the crusades. But this distracts from the other times were for example Oriental armies greatly feared the crossbow (and the very European Spanish Moors even adopted it as their favorite weapon) that provided precise armour piercing(including indirect fire in massed formation) while the bow had more volume, but less accuracy for the same amount of training (don't compare novice crossbowmen with expert longbowmen because both were highly paid professionals). The volume advantage of bows could work under conditions where the crossbow was not able to sufficiently exploit superior accuracy and kinetic energy at a slower rate of shot (due to lacking protection). But this resulted from the European mode of not shooting multiple projectiles with one crossbow shot like their Chinese counterparts.

      Big difference is of course mounted use of bows and crossbows that automatically had light cavalry with these weapons (to what degree were they armoured?). But we currently lack data to access the tactical situation. German Reiters likely originated from crossbow armed predecessors and Poland was the cultural and technological mix between mounted bowmen and crossbowmen, so I'm looking forward to their future contributions on this topic. At least the Mongols' light cavalry did honour the fearsome crossbowmen at the battle of Mohi.

  10. What about airpower? War winner (American) or just another kind of artillery (Soviet)?

  11. I limited this to army combat branches. Engineers, logstics, signallers and the like were excluded as well.
    That's the difference between a free blog post and a book chapter. ;-)

  12. Perhaps you should try your hand at writing books.

  13. Sometime in the next years, yes.
    I'm still busy with research, networking and other stuff, though.

  14. This point of view on european warfare has to do with a mindset that wants to settle conflicts in battle and a historiography that for this reason doesn't equally emphasize the irregular combat in regard to the regular combat.

    Knights for example were foremost mobile well-trained and well-equipped soldiers that unlike a levy had an economic support to allow them participation in extended campaigns. They fought on foot and horseback, with more or less armour according to the situation and it is by no means clear whether they shunned ranged weapons like javelins, bows and crossbows in combat. At Hastings that clearly wasn't the case. What today is seen as knights were mostly non-noble squires who had even less qualms with any restrictions on weapons. The often quoted papal ban on crossbows exists in many versions that all share one trait: all ranged weapons are frowned upon as means of warfare among Christians. This is an ancient idea often returning because ranged combat creates more casualties without the decision achieved in close combat by psychological means.

    The famous German reiters are a good example to research how the regular role of an intermediate cavalry often gets stressed over their feared irregular role. The reiters date further back in time than the pistol, first setting out with crossbows in northern Germany, the region next to mounted archers with bows in the east (Baltic "turkopoles" for example).

  15. Sorry, it's sergeants not squires.