Field Strength of Cavalry Squadrons during the Napoleonic Wars

 

Cavalry were organised on much the same principles as infantry.  Cavalry regiments were divided into a number of administrative sub-units which most nations called companies (the British called these troops which can cause confusion since a French troop was a half-company).  The norm was 8 companies per regiment but some nations had regiments with 10, 12, 16 or even 20, often with additional depot companies to train new recruits.  These administrative cavalry companies fulfilled exactly the same training and administrative functions as infantry companies.

The primary cavalry tactical unit for all nations was the squadron, not the regiment.  One visual indication of this was the fact that each British cavalry squadron carried a guidon, as a separate rallying and reference point, as in the infantry one set of colours were carried per battalion.  In all nations squadrons were formed from two equalised companies (which, once equalised, the French called peletons and the British called half squadrons).  British regulations describe the equalisation of the troops forming the squadron as follows:

“When the squadron is to be formed, the two troops that compose it close in to each other …..The commanding officer of the squadron completes the files, and equalizes the troops, by shifting a file or two if necessary.” [i]

Squadrons of all nations were remarkably similar in size, which results simply from the fact that equine physiology dictates that there is an optimum number of horses which can be manoeuvred as a single formation.  This general principal was stated clearly by the famous Prussian cavalry commentator General Emanuel von Warnery in the 18th century :

“Squadrons have been fixed at 150 troopers, exclusive of the officers and non-commissioned officers, because if they were stronger, they would be unwieldy and very difficult to manoeuvre with precision and order.”  [ii]

During the 18th century cavalry had formed in 3 ranks but throughout the Napoleonic wars the cavalry of all nations formed in two ranks.  Some nations maintained establishments for their cavalry which were similar to those of the 18th century even although the consequence of the move to 2 ranks was to expand squadron frontages.  Others reduced the established size of the squadron to recognise the effect of the move to 2 ranks.  There were various changes in establishment during the Napoleonic wars but typical established sizes of Napoleonic cavalry squadrons are shown in table 1.

table-1

 

On the whole it can be seen that established strengths were very similar and mostly lay in the range 150 to 200 all ranks.  The exception was the French Imperial Guard which had larger squadrons than normal, but frequently made detachments of officers as couriers, sometimes accompanied by an escort of troopers.  The use of the guard cavalry in this role also explains their very high proportion of officers.  For most nations the effect of similar sized establishments for squadrons meant that squadron frontages were also similar.

There were a few variations from this general principle.  Some nation’s cavalry became so weak that it operated in squadrons the size of other nation’s companies (Spanish and Portuguese were frequently in this situation and in some campaigns Prussian cavalry tended towards this).  Conversely French guard cavalry companies were frequently at full strength and thus operated at the size of other nation’s squadrons. Typical squadron sizes in field conditions are shown in Table 2.

table-2table-2-notes

For cavalry, just like infantry, the Regiment was an administrative unit and most Napoleonic Cavalry Regiments attempted to maintain their optimum Squadron strengths by reducing the number of Squadrons in the Regiment when necessary.  Most nations had cavalry regiments with an establishment of 4 squadrons per regiment and between 150 – 200 men per squadron.  Regiments invariably started campaigns with strengths close to this as recorded by Marbot:

“I had organised four splendid squadrons of 150 men apiece.”  [iii]

In practice such strengths were not maintained for long and invariably squadrons in the field were between 100 – 140 men.  If numbers fell below this then the number of squadrons in the regiment was reduced to maintain squadron strength. At Waterloo for example most of the British and French cavalry regiments were established with 4 Squadrons. The KGL regiments and 1st Dragoon Guards were established for 5 Squadrons but actually fielded 4.  Most British regiments had only 3 Squadrons, and the Household Cavalry regiments only 2.  Some French regiments (particularly light cavalry) established for 4 squadrons actually operated as 3.

It would seem that a typical squadron strength in the field was 120 men.  The British tended to adhere to this, but some other nations accepted squadrons falling as low as 100 men before consolidating regiments into a lesser number of squadrons. Marbot again records such a reduction during the Italian Campaign in Piedmont:

“As you are aware, the number of soldiers and officers comprising a squadron is fixed by the regulations.  Our regiment, having suffered in the preceding affairs, could only put three squadrons in line that day instead of four.” [iv]

Sometimes reductions in the number of squadrons per regiment would be forced not so much by a shortage of cavalrymen as a shortage of suitable horses as happened to the French Army of Portugal in May 1809:

“Soult…resolved to disembarrass himself of another hindrance, his dismounted cavalry, and in each regiment made the 3rd and 4th squadrons hand over their chargers to the 1st and 2nd.  The 1,100 troopers thus left without mounts were armed with muskets, and formed into a column.” [v]

The progressive further reductions in numbers of cavalry squadrons per regiment for the French Army of Portugal are well documented by Oman.  In April 1811:

“The corps-cavalry of Reynier, Junot and Loison also sent back many dismounted men, and hundreds more whose mounts were incapable of use for the present, so that the brigade of light horse attached to each was reduced to a few hundred sabres, many of the regiments having only one efficient squadron left, and none more than two.”  [vi]

By May 1811:

“The cavalry units were in a far worse state than those of the infantry.  Already at Fuentes most of the regiments had shown only two squadrons for want of horses, and had left behind in their cantonments dismounted men in vast numbers.  Marmont, seeing it was impossible to find chargers for them in Spain, was forced to send them all back on foot to Bayonne, to draw horses from the interior of France.” [vii]

Reinforcements did however arrive from time to time, such as that accompanying Drouet’s Corps in June 1811:

“The provisional brigade of cavalry which accompanied him consisted of 3rd and 4th squadrons belonging to the dragoon regiments of the Army of the South.  These were at once treated as drafts, and amalgamated with the depleted units which had been so much cut up at Albuera.” [viii]

Sometimes the French need for cavalry for other theatres forced reductions on the army in Spain.  Napoleon’s edict of 4 January 1813 caused the 15 cavalry regiments of the Army of the South to reduce from 50 squadrons to 35 squadrons, sending 15 squadron cadres back to France to help to reconstitute the Grande Armee after the Russian Campaign. [ix]

The British carried out similar reductions in the Peninsula, although perhaps not on quite such a drastic scale as the French.  Tomkinson of the 16th Light Dragoons records that in October 1811:

“The whole of the cavalry was here reduced to three squadrons per regiment.” [x]

Most British cavalry regiments therefore operated throughout most of the Peninsula campaign on three, rather than four squadrons.  Sometimes even this was not possible and Wellington planned further reductions in January 1813:

“So with the cavalry, he intended to reduce four regiments to a two-squadron establishment, sending home the cadres of their other squadrons to be filled up at leisure.” [xi]

The Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, the Duke of York, did not however agree with Wellington and insisted that the depleted regiments be sent home to recruit, being replaced by four fresh, but somewhat inexperienced, hussar regiments. [xii]

Other nations carried out similar reductions in the number of squadrons per cavalry regiment, with the aim of maintaining an effective strength for the remaining squadrons.  After the battle of Dennewitz the Württemberg cavalry carried out such a major reduction.  Their original strength had been 4 squadrons per regiment but after the battle:

“The 1st and 3rd Württemberg Cavalry Regiments were [each] reduced to a single squadron.” [xiii]

Cavalry regiments tended to start campaigns with squadrons of between 150-180 men but the rigours of warfare reduced these to some 100-120 in practice.   Once squadron strengths fell below 100 there was a tendency to amalgamate them to reduce the number of squadrons per regiment.  Such reductions by cavalry were far more common than those by infantry.  This undoubtedly arose because all nations had establishments of at least 4 squadrons per cavalry regiment, and some had more than that, so progressive reductions by 1 or 2 squadrons could be proportionate to loss of overall strength.  Many nations organised their infantry with only 2 battalions per regiment so any reduction was more significant.  The most significant exception to average squadron size was the French guard cavalry who had companies (half-squadrons) which were the size of other nation’s squadrons.  French guard cavalry therefore tended to act tactically by company rather than squadron.

The Leipzig campaign provided a good example of the reduction in number of squadrons per regiment by the several nations who participated in it.  Table 3 shows the way in which such reductions took place in order to maintain average squadron strength.

table-3

French regiments were particularly reduced, some regiments (4th Hussars and 24th Dragoons having no more than a company (half-squadron).  Only two regiments fielded four squadrons and most were reduced to three, two or even one squadron, although one regiment (10th Hussars) did unusually field 6 squadrons.  Similarly no Russian regiments fielded their full establishment of squadrons, those regiments nominally of 10 squadrons fielding 6 or less and those nominally of 5 squadrons fielding 4 or less.  Austrian cavalry was more up to establishment than most, including one 7 squadron regiment (Klenau Chevauleger).  Approximately one third of Prussian regiments had reductions in the number of squadrons per regiment.

If battlefield attrition caused squadron strengths to drop to unacceptable levels it was not unusual to find cavalry regiments reorganised into a lesser number of squadrons during the course of the battle itself.  Such reductions rarely took place for infantry, apart from the possible linking of a pair of battalions, but were much more commonplace for cavalry whose casualty rates after a single charge were often far higher than infantry units would suffer during an entire battle.

Captain Clark Kennedy of the Royal Dragoons reported that at Waterloo:

“At this time (about a quarter past six), as nearly as I can judge, the Regiment reduced to one Squadron…..The general advance of the Allied Army took place about seven o’clock, by which time, I have been informed by Captain Phipps, that the Brigade which had remained on nearly the same position since about four pm, was reduced to one squadron only.” [xiv]

Captain Barton of the 12th Light Dragoons stated that during the same battle:

“On the morning of the 18th of June the Regiment was formed in close column of three Squadrons….At about 7 pm we were formed into two Squadrons, owing to the great loss the Regiment had sustained in its attack on Durette’s Column.”  [xv]

Similarly Lieutenant O’Grady of the 7th Hussars reported :

“The 7th in these various encounters lost a great many men, being reduced to a squadron.” [xvi]

Cavalry regiments (of all nations, including the British) were very similar in organisational concept to multi battalion infantry regiments, in that although it was normal for all of the squadrons of a regiment to be in the same cavalry brigade, the Brigade Commander would frequently group squadrons from different regiments together for particular tasks.

Tomkinson records several instances of this in the Peninsula:

“The enemy retired from their position without a shot.  Their troops took the Sabugal road, and a squadron from each of the regiments in the brigade (ours of the 16th) was ordered to watch them, at the same time that a squadron of the Royals and the 14th Light Dragoons moved through Guarda.” [xvii]

“On the right, before the 7th Division evacuated the Possa Vehla wood, Major Myers of the Hussars (1 KGL) was in advance with two squadrons – one from the 16th, and one of his own regiment.” [xviii]

It is also clear from memoirs that the French also used such mixed groupings of squadrons from different regiments:

“We soon saw Major Murray’s squadron of the 16th advancing at a gallop to charge.  The skirmishers joined this squadron, and they advanced to attack the leading French squadrons, two of hussars and one of chasseurs.”  [xix]

Several Cavalry Squadrons could obviously co-operate in a single attack but gaps were always left between each Squadron, even when they were from the same Regiment.

During the early 18th century cavalry sometimes advanced without intervals between squadrons (en muraille) but this only worked with ponderous and slow advances.  The speeding up of cavalry movement promoted by Frederick the Great made it essential to leave gaps between squadrons as recorded by the Prussian General von Warnery :

“It is scarcely possible for a line without intervals to advance for any distance without waving, the least accident throws it into disorder, whether the files press too much together, or whether they separate……If a line of squadrons with intervals meets with an obstacle, or even several of them at the same time, they can easily be avoided….without deranging in the least the rest of the line.”  [xx]

British regulations specified a gap of one third of a squadron between each squadron:

“In regiment or line, the squadrons form with an interval betwixt each, equal to one-third of their actual front; nor is there to be an additional interval in a line betwixt regiments, or brigades.”  [xxi]

Since British squadrons were invariably some 120 men, and their regulations specified 34 inches or “nearly one yard” per file [xxii] they would have a frontage of 60 yards which indicates intervals of 20 yards between squadrons.  French regulations allow a slightly looser one metre per cavalryman and specify an interval between squadrons in a regiment of 10 metres. [xxiii] Prussian regulations give intervals of 4 paces (yards) between squadrons of the same regiment and 12 paces between adjacent regiments. [xxiv]

A cavalry formation of 3 or 4 squadrons, whether from the same or different regiments, attacking in line can be seen as the equivalent of an infantry brigade of 3 or 4 battalions attacking in line.  In both cases the squadrons and battalions will conform to a general line but are separate tactical units, which can halt, wheel or face in different directions independently of each other.  The companies, or smaller sub-units, which comprised the squadron or battalion conversely had to remain in a strict and structured relationship to each other (to facilitate formation changing drills) unless they were skirmishing or defending a detached strongpoint.

Although the cavalry of all nations formed their squadrons from two companies (British troops), the primary sub-unit within the squadron was the quarter squadron, referred to in various regulations as divisions or sections.  This element of some 24-30 cavalrymen (12-15 files) proved to be a very convenient size on which to base the internal evolutions of cavalry squadrons.  If you want to see what that looks like, then view the annual Trooping the Colour in London, where a Squadron of Household Cavalry manouvres in quarter squadron divisions. The French memoirs of de Rocca and Parquin comment on this structure (although English translations have described these sub-units as troops or platoons).

“The captain commanding our squadron made his four platoons, who together were only 120 strong, wheel half round to the right.” [xxv]

“The officer commanding his vanguard had pursued some Cossack scouts and had rashly taken his troop through a gorge full of water-mills.  I had to support him with the three other troops from my squadron.”  [xxvi]

That best of British cavalry diarists, Tomkinson, also refers to the utility of the quarter-squadron (British division) for fast manoeuvres.

“Moving quick to a flank in a column of divisions is also very useful, and we might nearly limit any quick pace to this and charging.” [xxvii]

The principles of cavalry organisation were thus well established by the mid 18th century, saw little or no change throughout the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, and in fact continued unchanged into the mid 19th century.

[i] Instructions and Regulations for the Formations and Movements of the Cavalry 1796.  Sect 2. P6

[ii] Remarks on Cavalry.  Emanuel von Warnery.  P11

[iii] The Memoirs of Baron de Marbot. Vol II.  P358

[iv] The Memoirs of Baron de Marbot. Vol I.  P62

[v] A History of the Peninsular War, Sir Charles Oman. Vol II.  P 391

[vi] A History of the Peninsular War, Sir Charles Oman.  Vol II.  P 188

[vii] A History of the Peninsular War, Sir Charles Oman.  Vol IV.  P 362

[viii] A History of the Peninsular War, Sir Charles Oman.  Vol IV.  P 441

[ix] A History of the Peninsular War, Sir Charles Oman.  Vol VI.  P 244

[x] The Diary of a Cavalry Officer 1809-1815.  Lieut-Col William Tomkinson.  P119

[xi] A History of the Peninsular War, Sir Charles Oman.  Vol VI.  P 232

[xii] A History of the Peninsular War, Sir Charles Oman.  Vol VI.  P 233-235

[xiii] Napoleon at Leipzig. George Nafziger. P51

[xiv] Waterloo Letters No 35 (Captain Clark Kennedy).  Edited Major-General H T Siborne. P67

[xv] Waterloo Letters No 58 (Captain Barton).  Edited Major-General H T Siborne. P114

[xvi] Waterloo Letters No 58 (Lieutenant O’Grady).  Edited Major-General H T Siborne. P131

[xvii] The Diary of a Cavalry Officer 1809-1815.  Lieut-Col William Tomkinson.  P89

[xviii] The Diary of a Cavalry Officer 1809-1815.  Lieut-Col William Tomkinson.  P101

[xix] The British Cavalry on the Peninsula.  By an Officer of Dragoons.  P31/32

[xx] Remarks on Cavalry.  Emanuel von Warnery.  P39

[xxi] Instructions and Regulations for the Formations and Movements of the Cavalry 1796.  Sect 4. P11

[xxii] Instructions and Regulations for the Formations and Movements of the Cavalry 1796.  Sect 16. P48

[xxiii] Imperial Bayonets.  Tactics of the Napoleonic, Battery, Battalion and Brigade as found in Contemporary Regulations.  George Nafziger.  P217

[xxiv] Imperial Bayonets.  Tactics of the Napoleonic, Battery, Battalion and Brigade as found in Contemporary Regulations.  George Nafziger.  P228

[xxv] In the Peninsula with a French Hussar.  Albert Jean Michel de Rocca.  P79

[xxvi] Napoleons Army.  The Military Memoirs of Charles Parquin.  P176

[xxvii] The Diary of a Cavalry Officer 1809-1815.  Lieut-Col William Tomkinson.  P136

 

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