Reported in Scientific American, This Week in World War I: October 3, 1914

WWI Cavalry

German cavalry cross a river (probably in France or Belgium), 1914. The men hang onto the horses, who propel the boat across the stream.

The opening weeks of the First World War saw sweeping movements of vast armies. Generals seeking quick tactical victories hoped to outflank or “pierce” or “break through” the enemy’s line, and then exploit this success by sending cavalry charging through the breach to roll up the loose ends of the enemy’s line. As time went on and the trench lines solidified, the war bogged down into a deadlock on the Western Front. Soldiers on horseback would become fairly useless, their mounts left far behind the lines as the troops dismounted to fight in the trenches. But in the early days of the war, cavalry was seen by all sides as a key to a quick and convincing victory:

“The German line runs from near Lille ... to the Swiss border. The Allies are trying to break through this line near St. Quentin in the north and also in the hills north of Verdun. The Germans are trying the same strategy under more unfavorable conditions just east of Rheims, and also north of Toul. Both of the opposing armies are trying the same strategy; the side that succeeds first will force the other back. The danger in having the line pierced lies in the breaking up of the co-ordination of the armies of the defense. When such immense forces are engaged every step of the operations requires co-operation. If the plan is broken up it is difficult to gather up the loose ends to fit the new conditions. The successful assailant has better control of his forces, and can readily turn them where they will gain the greatest results. By concentrating first on one part and later on the other of the divided enemy he can crush the opposing armies in detail.”