Cavalry of the Napoleonic Wars in Napoleon’s Battles
One recurring question in Napoleon’s Battles is ‘Why doesn’t (fill in the blank) cavalry perform differently in Napoleon’s Battles?
There are several facets to this question. The performance of Dragoons and Lancers versus ‘Light Cavalry’ is one recurring theme, while the range of types of French heavy cavalry compared, with, say the one-size-fits-all Russian Heavy Cavalry is another. The original authors provided their philosophy in the Designer Notes in the original edition, and I remember (reaching back twenty-plus years) profoundly disagreeing with them, yet finding the game played well enough that I came not to care. Additional reading over those two decades improved my understanding, as did more play.
Eventually I came to believe that, given the scale of the game, that the original authors had hit on a 90 percent solution, and the aggravation of tinkering was well beyond the point of diminishing returns. Put a different way I became concerned that giving special tactical factors to certain units produced more harm than good – that most of the presumed benefits were ‘factored in’ to the large range of combat outcomes represented by the dice difference in close combat. There were some simple fixes – in 1813-1814 when the war-ravaged French cavalry deteriorates, one can rate French Dragoons as ‘veterans’ reflecting their unique status of having mostly escaped Russia, and allow them to take the 1812 French LC ratings. Allied cavalry that were particularly well-horsed or well-led could be treated as GLC or GC depending on the list.
Let me share the reasoning that goes behind that position.
One of the important things to remember is that this is a brigade, not battalion-level game. This was the biggest hurdle for me, as in the late seventies our wargame group developed our own tactical battalion level game published as Les Grognards in USA. Since Napoleon's Battles used similar organizations and formation names, it was difficult to get through my head that it was different enough that I had to shed my prejudice.
Napoleon's Battles uses brigades as the base maneuver unit, and in effect each base represents a cavalry regiment or an infantry battalion. The brigade commander determines how to use these assets, and the combat die score represents his success in bringing these units into combat effectively. When you stop to consider that the die roll outcome is potentially +1 to +9 over the opponents and the unit’s base mod is -1 or -2 to +4 you can easily see that the dominating effect is the brigade commander, not the unit’s rating. Indeed, being disordered (-3) is a bigger effect than most unit ratings.
This is in some contrast to tactical games. To cite an example from our old system, Dragoons (and most Lancers) were rated as Line Medium Cavalry. They had a Morale Effectiveness of 75 (75 percent unmodified chance of success), a melee rating of MC, and a Melee Proficiency of Line(+0). When Charging they gained a +2 impetus bonus. A Hussar unit was rated as Elite Light Cavalry, with 80/LC/+1 with +1 impetus bonus. Complicated, right? To charge, a unit had to check first to initiate and second to actually contact and retain the impetus bonus, so the morale numbers gave a slight edge to the hussars to get into contact (64 percent to 57 percent) with impetus. The initial round of melee, assuming both units passed both checks, saw the Dragoons at +2 for MC and +2 for impetus compared to the Hussars at +1 for LC and +1 for impetus and +1 for elite. A ten-sided die for each side determined casualties per engaged base, and the Dragoons are clearly up with +4 versus +3 but without a big dice difference to complement those numbers, the likely result was mutual bloodletting. Both units had to check morale, and if they suffered ten percent casualties (likely) they had to pass a second post-combat morale test. Again the morale edge goes slightly to the Hussars. In fact, the Hussars come off winners because of the morale edge. They will survive the probable series of morale checks 40 percent of the time compared with the Dragoons at 31. A tiny percent of the time – 12 percent, to be precise – the combat would go into another round. With impetus out of the picture, the melee was now flat with the Dragoons at +1 for class and the Hussars at +1 for elite.
The point here is that despite the presumed bonus for being a higher melee class, the lighter Hussars have the edge because of better morale. If you used Line Light Cavalry – French Chasseurs, for example – with 75/LC/0, the extra casualties produced by the Dragoons probably win the day.
Now extend this to a brigade. When the brigade (consisting, shall we say, of three regiments) interacts with another brigade, other issues manifest themselves. The space available might turn the fight into a slugging match with one regiment charging and two regiments waiting on both sides. Or a brigade might charge with all regiments in deep column on that narrow front, counting on meeting a single regiment in line and overthrowing it by causing massive casualties, and scaring off the supporting regiments in a panic. At this point the player, acting as brigade commander, assumes a disproportionate influence, and three regiments of dragoons may indeed smash three regiments of hussars by crushing the leading regiment on impact and paralyzing the supports through ‘Fear of Defeat’ morale checks.
I offer this trip down memory lane because it led to a seminal moment for me. I was very much on the side of ‘additional cavalry classes are important’ and then went through the numbers from our old system and the numbers from Empire, which I also play occasionally. I concluded that the differences between the various types of light cavalry and dragoons were important only at the tactical level in fights of one regiment vs a regiment, and when brigades are considered, and particularly mixed ones as characterized much of the French light cavalry, the dominant factor is tactics, not ratings – and in Napoleon's Battles the brigade commander’s tactical acumen comes out of the combat dice roll.
Now let’s look at specific cavalry types.
One of the biggest ironies of the Napoleonic Wars is that Napoleon revived two dying cavalry types, and the influence of his dead hand carried these troop types into the First World War. When Napoleon took power he inherited 20 demibrigades de cavalrie de bataille. Two were the elite Carabiniers in their massive bearskins and yellow (buff) trousers. Seventeen were ‘heavy’ dragoons wearing bicornes and riding comparatively big horses. Precisely, exactly, one was still wearing breast and backplates.
This situation was not unique to France. The Austrian heavy cavalry had discarded backplates to lighten the load. The Russians and Prussians were seriously considering dropping the armor entirely. The Spanish army already had done so. The British army had disbanded seven regiments of horse, converting them to dragoons and intending to integrate them by historical seniority into the dragoon list. When the peers who held colonelcy in prestigious horse regiments pitched a hissy fit about finding their former 2nd Regiment of Horse now the 6th Regiment of Dragoons, the political firestorm led Horse Guards to keep a second list of dragoon regiments, the Dragoon Guards.
This situation should have marked the final denouement of the armored cavalry of Europe. The Thirty Years War had amply demonstrated that body armor had very little effect on musket fire at the range infantry normally fired. It was already clear that canister and round shot could not be stopped by any weight of armor possible in the 18th century. By the end of the Thirty Years War the cuirassier had shed thigh armor and elaborate helmets were being replaced by the bicorne, sometimes with a skullcap. The armor continued to get lighter through the century, and eventually the buff coat leather underlayment disappeared as well.
The principal advantage remaining to the armor was protection in melee. One thing that worked unnoticed in favor of armor was the general disregard for pistol marksmanship and training in the use of mounted pistols. The caracoling pistoleer of the Renaissance had been overcome by pistoleers charging sword in hand, and Europe’s cavalry had gradually deemphasized mounted pistol combat in favor of ‘showing point’. The flintlock pistol was hopelessly unreliable by comparison to forced ball wheellock pistols of the early 17th century if carried in a holster. The relatively poor horsemen that formed the bulk of the Continental powers heavy cavalry were not up to swapping sword for pistol quickly at the gallop.
Enter General Bonaparte, and his experiences with the Austrian army in 1796-97. The poorly mounted and badly disciplined cavalry of the Army of Italy took nasty wounds in melees with the Austrian cuirassiers, despite frequent tactical advantages. It was clear that as long as the cuirassiers maintained formation with good supports, they would cut up opposing unarmored cavalry badly. In 1801 Napoleon did some calculation on how many big horses the French stud pool could support, and decided that he would retain the two elite Carabinier units, convert twelve regiments of cavalrie de bataille to cuirassiers. Much to their disgust, six regiments were converted to dragoons .
It never occurred to Napoleon the artilleryman that much of the perceived advantage would have been eliminated by providing his cavalry with double-barreled rifled pistols using forced ball or pistols of a breechloading design. It certainly didn’t occur to most of his cavalry commanders.
Napoleon’s decision was not welcomed by the troopers or their colonels. The 4th Regiment de Bataille had been wearing cuirasses since ancient times, and took grave exception with another regiment being identified as ‘First Cuirassiers’. The troopers disliked the weight of armor and the big horses. Napoleon got the troopers on his side by classifying Cuirassiers as elite cavalry, much to the disgust of the Carabiniers. Showy Grecian helmets, red epaulettes, and special pay smoothed a lot of ruffled feathers. The armor proved itself in the 1805 campaign, but poor French horse management meant that a good half of the cuirassiers finished the campaign walking. (French cavalry was arguably the best in the world but the poorest horsemen; you could track a French cavalry regiment by the smell of the saddle sores). The weight of the armor and big troopers was a definite minus to horse survivability.
When the newly-established corps of cuirassiers was a major factor in the victory at Jena and subsequent pursuit, the armies of Europe sat up and took notice. Monkey-see, monkey-do, was a definite influence in military procurement of the day, and body armor began to emerge from the old warehouses. Eventually the revived Prussian army would have five regiments; the Russians would end up with four Guard and eight line regiments; and the Austrians would have eight as well. The British managed to stay out of it. The Spanish rebuilt one regiment before the end of the wars, and most of the minor states of Germany had one or two regiments; Saxony had three.
Meantime the French, with access to Prussian and Saxon stud, upgraded the quality of their horses.
Napoleon would put the Carabiniers in armor in 1810, kicking and screaming, after they suffered heavy losses at Eckmuhl. He also added two more regiments, converting one from the Dutch cavalry and creating a second from the remains of three provisional regiments of heavy cavalry sent to Spain in 1808 as part of the initial wave of occupying troops.
This revival created a momentum all its own, and even the introduction of revolving, rifled pistols didn’t kill it. Armored cavalry would charge at Gravelines and Sedan, mostly unsuccessfully.
What does this mean in Napoleon's Battles?
First, there was a real effect in cavalry-vs-cavalry combat. The combination of protection, extra weight of horse to provide protection, and the morale impact made heavy cavalry of the late Napoleonic Wars pretty formidable opponents to other cavalry. There was also some effect versus infantry, but I’m not sure the vs OT numbers in the rating charts aren’t a little inflated. Getting run over and stepped on by a 900 pound horse with 200 pounds of rider and equipment on its back is not that much easier than an 1100 pound horse with 250 pounds on its back. The LN or COL modifiers, combined with the SQ and disorder modifier for infantry, make it just barely possible to replicate the occasional HC success against prepared infantry.
The game doesn’t differentiate between the early, no/partially armored heavy cavalry brigades of the Allies and the later ones. This probably reflects a conscious decision on the author’s part that the quality of the brigades remained ‘about the same’ while the addition of better horses and body armor to the French inventory warranted adjustment.
Finally, the British probably shouldn’t have HC. Household Cavalry, yes, and now that we have the opportunity to have 2 base units, only permitted as a 2 base unit (the Household Brigade always retained half of each regiment in London, giving a maximum deployed strength of 750 sabers). There wasn’t any difference between the Dragoons and Dragoon Guards, and very little between the mounts of Dragoons and Light Dragoons and Light Dragoons (Hussars). The only heavy cavalry in Wellington’s army until 1813 was the KGL Dragoons, which were mounted to German HC standards in spite of the name, and abolished by conversion to Light Dragoons in late 1813. As another economy measure, you understand.
The term Dragoon comes from the Turkish Dragun and originally described a weapon, not a troop type. The Turkish army of the Renaissance period liked the tactical mobility of the horse. A lot of their infantry could be moved mounted to fight on foot. They also had an early flirtation with firearms, and what the Europeans would call a caliver or arquebus was called the Dragun by the Turks. Not surprisingly, the Europeans kept their own weapons’ name but classified the Turks who moved mounted to fight on foot with firearms as ‘Dragoons,’ and when the late sixteenth century saw the troop type spread to Europe, the name stuck.
Originally European dragoons included mounted pikemen who could dismount and form a hedge to protect the firearms. However, the Europeans discovered what the Turks already knew – the Dragoon could easily zip ahead of the main army and occupy walls, fences, villages and woods that proved better protection against enemy cavalry than the pikes. The pikes disappeared, leaving a trooper with a long firearm (compared to the pistols favored by true cavalry in that day) that might (or might not) have a sword and occasionally, a pistol.
The Thirty Years War saw an evolution in the type, with the one type becoming regiments of Horse – lightly armored compared to cuirassiers of the period, carrying a pistol and sword as well as the long gun. Horse companies were frequently mixed in with cuirassier companies to support the cuirassier charge by firing in from the flanks. Meanwhile ‘true’ Dragoon companies existed to skirmish ahead of the mounted force, scout, and protect the flanks of the cavalry body. Dragoons would finish the Thirty Years War period with advanced firelock carbines. However, Hussars and Croats and Hakkapelles were poaching on the turf of Dragoons, providing an irregular cavalry force capable of doing the same mission.
The next hundred years would see the Dragoons evolve. The old Horse companies were separated from the Cuirassiers, retaining the long guns and becoming ‘heavy’ Dragoons. The independent Dragoon companies of the 17th Century became ‘light’ Dragoons in armies where they maintained the distinction but otherwise submerged in the ‘heavy’ type. Native troops, being cheaper than foreign mercenaries, trained in the style imagined to belong to the irregulars and came to be generically known as Hussars. By the Seven Years War the typical cavalry inventory included Cuirassiers, Dragoons and Hussars. By this time Dragoons had mostly lost their ‘fight dismounted’ function except in France and Russia. The skirmish function was largely absorbed by the Hussars, leaving Dragoons as vanilla-flavored cavalry, neither truly heavy or truly light. Generally there were as many Dragoon units as there were heavy cavalry units, the theory being that the Dragoons would handle the mundane tasks off the battlefield while the heavy cavalry got the glory. Unfortunately the theory was seldom applied – the Allied army destroyed at Rossbach suffered its defeat in large measure from terrible scouting, and had 2 Hussar Regiments, 3 Dragoon Regiments, a volunteer regiment, and 19 heavy cavalry regiments.
This organization was largely replicated forty years later, with military thinking focusing on the value of ‘regular’ light cavalry, largely to prevent the kind of disasters that the Allies had faced in the Seven Years War. Even with autocrats running the show, the fiscal realities meant that changes were on the fringes, and other than a general reduction in the number of units, the armies of the French Revolution were little changed. The French experimented with a kind of ‘light’ dragoon called the Chasseur a Cheval while retaining a number of Hussar Regiments. Britain split its inventory of Dragoons into regular and light. Mounted Jagers and Chevauxlegers (literally, light regiments of Horse) manifested themselves in the Germanies.
The French Revolution produced a number of changes. The most profound was the desertion of a number of French cavalry units to the Allies. The French countered by a major expansion of the Chasseurs. This was largely because it was the cheapest and provided an opportunity for good revolutionary leaders to lead solid citizens in new units, a phenomenon that would be well understood by American leaders of the early 19th century. With the light cavalry mission now in the hands of Hussars and Chasseurs, the French Dragoons became a substitute for heavy cavalry. The dismounted mission remained important; a French general once described his training process as “In the morning I tell them no infantry squares can withstand their charge, and in the afternoon I tell them no cavalry ever raised can break their line”.
The French Army of 1805 saw each of the existing dragoon regiments send three mounted squadrons and two dismounted squadrons off to war. The dismounted Dragoon division was used on the flanks and had a role to play in the campaign but was not distinguished. The Dragoon mounted forces performed well and we read of names prominent later such as Excellmans leading brilliant charges. In 1806 a dismounted Dragoon brigade accompanied the Imperial Guard. The mounted Dragoon divisions performed magnificently at Eylau and Friedland. The Dragoons expanded to a peak of 30 regiments in 1811 before six were converted to Chevauxleger-Lanciers. In 1808 most of the Dragoons went to Spain, where it was supposed that their facility in mounted and dismounted actions would be useful in the sometimes broken terrain of the Spanish outlands. The Cuirassiers accompanied Napoleon in and out, and with the exception of the 13th Cuirassiers, never returned.
The Russian campaign saw four Dragoon regiments partially destroyed out of 24 remaining regiments. The Dragoons withdrawn from Spain formed the heavy cavalry divisions of Arrighi’s Third and Pajol’s Fifth Cavalry Corps in the Fall, 1813 campaign and were among the best cavalry regiments in the Grande Armee of 1813. At Lieberwolkwitz, the ‘Spanish’ Dragoons stood toe-to-toe with the best allied cavalry.
More Dragoon regiments withdrawn from Spain served in the Cavalry Reserve of 1814. Again, after the Imperial Guard, the ‘Spanish’ cavalry were the best serving in the French Army. In 1815 the Dragoons had been reduced to fourteen regiments. Second Cavalry Corps under Excellmans was composed of most of the remaining Dragoon regiments of the French army. It rendered solid service at Ligny and could have provided the breakthrough force at Wavre if Grouchy carried the river. Conspicuously it fought a major dismounted action against Prussian pursuit allowing Grouchy’s wing to escape untouched.
Prior to Barclay’s reforms, the Russians mixed Dragoons and Cuirassiers in combined arms divisions grouped by locality, and the force commander created reserve cavalry formations that differed from day-to-day. Hussars, Cossacks and a handful of Uhlan regiments provided scouting. The Russians consciously imitated the French placing most of their Dragoons in Dragoon Divisions in 1811-12, and using these formations as the backbone of four cavalry corps. The Russian army had a long tradition of using Dragoons in their mounted infantry role, and continued that practice during the Napoleonic Wars. At Borodino, part of the 4th Cavalry Division fought dismounted to provide remounts for the battle-worn 2nd Cuirassier Division. For the 1813 campaign, the Russians again imitated the French, converting part of the Dragoons to mounted Jagers (konni iguerski) and to Uhlans (konni ulanski). These units were largely formed in brigades and even Divisions of the same type, and grouped in five Reserve Cavalry Corps. A scattering of mounted jagers, uhlans, and hussars fought in mixed brigades with Cossacks, who performed most of the corps-level light cavalry duties.
What does all this mean from an Napoleon's Battles perspective? Generally, the Dragoons were not either heavy or elite. The French regarded them as medium, as did the Russians. Other nations regarded them as little different than light cavalry. So generally, treating them as light cavalry is probably the best compromise. The difference between light and heavy cavalry is not so great that Dragoons characterized as light cavalry can’t rise to the occasion and beat heavy cavalry, particularly if supported by horse artillery or friendly infantry.
For the French and Russians, something else is recommended by the historical record. First, the French veteran cavalry (in both Spain and outside Spain) should be considered ‘veteran’ and allowed to use the 1812 ratings in 1813 and 1814. That puts them one number closer to their opponents, and reflects actual performance. This is not, note well, restricted to Dragoons.
The second observation is that French and Russian Dragoons should be allowed to dismount on a battlefield and use the DLN (in the Russian list, LN) ratings.
Finally, I wouldn’t treat British Dragoons as Heavy Cavalry. This would be particularly true in Spain. Partisans of the British make points about the British cavalry using mares in much higher proportion than other nations, giving them additional aggressiveness and equally making them prone to get carried away. While true, it applies equally to light Dragoon regiments. But the only time this matters is shortly after landing. It may have been a factor at Waterloo but it certainly wasn’t a factor at Salamanca.
If Cuirassiers had a low pulse in 1800 Lancers were on life support. The lancer had started its decline in the Italian Wars of the 16th Century when mounted arquebusiers and dismounted musketeers proved capable of shooting through their armor. Thanks to English propaganda everyone remembers Crecy, Agincourt, and Poitiers. Few remember that the combination of Swiss pike, Italian crossbowmen and French chivalry wielded by the revived Valois dynasty WON the Hundred Years War. Even fewer know how that revived French army went on to strategic defeat at the hands of Spanish and Imperialist generals in the first quarter of the 16th century. Finally, the emergence of forced ball wheellock pistols made clear the futility of using gentes d’armas, or gens d’armes, in massed charges. The lance could not overreach the pike; dismounted men-at-arms couldn’t walk through the hail of fire produced by countermarching arquebusiers and musketeers, and charging with a lance at light cavalry armed with calivers had already been proven futile. The pistol wielded by an average shot fired into a mass of charging men-at-arms almost invariably hit something and a fallen horse produces a trainwreck effect in a mounted charge.
Like the almost meteoric decline of crossbowmen and longbowmen with the introduction of the arquebus, there were two major factors in the decision to abandon the lance. The first was training. A man-at-arms literally devoted his life to mastering his trade. It’s estimated that it took ten years to produce a competent longbowman and another ten to produce a master and similar estimates for the man-at-arms are roughly half that. In contrast a pike-armed infantry soldier took mere weeks to train to competency and the ‘shot’ of the middle sixteenth century another similar period. The highly drilled professional infantry of the 18th century were two hundred years in the future and foot soldiers of the 16th century didn’t march in step.
It was pretty easy to apply the same logic to cavalry. Middle class and lower class gentry usually could ride a horse, and provided most of the recruits for cavalry, as well as bringing with them retainers who could also sit a horse. They were not professional soldiers but could achieve a fair degree of competency with pistols in a couple months. It is small wonder that Hugenot ‘millers’ and freikompanie of burghers’ sons called ‘schwarzreiter’ began to be feared on Europe’s battlefields.
The lancers began to disappear. The noble cavalryman still had his place, and improved armor gave some protection from pistol fire to the rider, but a pistol shot easily overreached the lance by 30 feet and a dead horse was just as useful as a dead rider. Self-defense led to the rich men adopting the pistol and the lance was pretty much a dead issue. By 1632 Wallenstein’s company of bodyguard lancers was regarded as an example of hubris or insanity by most of his contemporaries.
That the lance didn’t die out completely is largely to the credit of Sobieski, the Poles, and some of the Cossack hetmen. They faced the Turks, and the Turks fought differently. Many Turks were horse archers with lances as secondary weapons. To get through the beaten zone of the Turkish archers you had to charge fast, and the charge a’ Polonais was recognized as a valid tactic. After Gustavus Adolphus was on the receiving end of such charges, he made that type of attack his preferred cavalry method and the Imperialist cavalry’s more ponderous charges were frequently blunted by the Swedes and their German allies. The main difference between Swede and Poles was the Poles keeping the lance and the Swedes using the pistol. This was in part driven by the availability of Polish drovers who herded mounted using long prods. Such a man could transfer the skills necessary to keeping Master’s sheep undamaged fairly easily to killing Master’s enemies and such prods could be made into lances with a little smithy work.
The Poles made themselves visible to the European mainstream at Vienna and kept their reputation even as the Commonwealth’s fortunes waned. The final partition of Poland put the recruiting grounds for their lancers in the hands of their enemies. Unsurprisingly the Russians, Prussians, and Austrians took shameless advantage, and in 1800 there were three Austrian, two Prussian, and two Russian regular regiments of lancers. The Austrians and Russians called their regiments ‘Uhlans’ and the Prussians 'Towarzysze'. The first was a conscious reference to the noble cavalry of the Crimean Tatars, and the last a direct appeal to Polish sentiment as the rank-and-file of their volunteer National Cavalry had been called by that name. All these units owed their continued existence to their Polish (or in the Austrian case, some Turkish and Magyar) drovers and military traditions. Russian Cossacks continued to use the lance – swords are expensive and pistols eventually rust up – but this was not always an organized choice but rather individual preference.
This happy state of obscurity might have continued indefinitely but for one final group of Polish lancers. There were Polish patriots (some would say hotheads) who couldn’t accept the fate of the Commonwealth. They made their way to France or northern Italy in hopes of joining the purveyors of Liberte, Fraternite and Egalite and formed combined arms Legions in service to the Republic. They not unnaturally expected to be paid. The Directory found it convenient to have their Italian puppet states pay them, and they ended up in service of one or the other, changing names as they did so. One of the units was equipped with the lance, and after many name changes found itself in Spain at a place called Albuera. There, in the company of French hussars, it made history by catching Colborne’s British brigade in line from the flank, and rode them down.
Spain had already been an unhappy place for French soldiers for three long years and the battle of Albuera was a another costly tactical defeat. However, serious losses to Beresford’s forces forced him to lift the siege of Badajoz, and Soult was able to spin that into a strategic success. And the crown jewel of that ‘victory’ was the charge of the 1st Lancers of the Vistula Legion.
Napoleon was by no means impressed with the lance prior to 1811. Despite positive comment on the lance by French generals serving in the Seven Years War, Napoleon insisted that the volunteer Polish Guard of Honor that eventually became the Polish Chevauxlegers of the Guard be armed conventionally with carbine and saber. The Poles had remained in that unhappy state through 1810, when Napoleon caved to their sentiment and made them Chevauxleger-Lanciers after the regiment used lances captured on the field of Wagram to pursue their enemies. Napoleon had allowed creation of the 2nd Lanciers du Vistula from ethnic Poles captured in the 1806-1807 campaign, as many of the recruits came from the Prussian lancer regiment.
The spark of Albuera set things in motion. Napoleon directed the 1st, 3rd, 8th, 9th and 10th Dragoons in Spain and the 29th Dragoons in Italy to reequip as lancers. They became the first six lancer regiments in the French army. The 1st and 2nd Vistula were ‘honored’ by being redesignated the 7th and 8th Chevauxleger Lancers of the French line. The former cavalry of the Dutch Guard became the 2nd Chevauxleger-Lancers de la Garde. An experiment in Chasseurs-Lanciers was cancelled, and the 30th Chasseur-Lanciers became the 9th Chevauxleger Lanciers.
Lincoln once remarked that generals could be created by a stroke of a pen but only God can create horses. Apparently that applies equally to cavalry regiments vice cavalry troopers. The 1st through 5th Lancers barely managed to scrape together a presence for the 1812 campaign. Records duplicated in Nafziger’s work on the 1812 campaign and cited elsewhere show a single company present, with strength of about 100 men each, in these regiments when the Grande Armee crossed the Niemen.
The travails of these regiments doubtless would make an excellent dissertation if it hasn’t been done already. What appears to have happened is the typical response of the military bureaucracy to a withdrawn unit. The designated regiments were scattered all over Spain, and they doubtless were stripped of good horses and superior soldiers before they left, and saddled with the sick, lame and lazy. When they reach their depots, they were saddled with conscripts to make up their numbers. Further complicating the issue, Napoleon specified horses 13 hands high as acceptable in the ‘new’ regiments. Whatever the cause, the new regiments, save for the 6th, made little contribution to the Russian campaign. The 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th were not so lucky.
The 6th’s success was doubtless due to being in Italy near its depot when the orders were received, and further under the harsh eye of General Grouchy and Prince Eugene, neither of whom were likely to tolerate robbing Peter to pay Paul by shuffling men and horses around in the Dragoon Division of the Army of Italy – which later became the 6th Heavy Cavalry Division. Something over 600 men made the trip across the Berezina.
In contrast, the Duchy of Warsaw had steadily expanded its army, and with it, its cavalry. On the eve of the Niemen crossing, the army had sixteen cavalry regiments – a small cuirassier regiment, two hussar regiments, three chasseur regiments, and ten lancer regiments.
The bulk of Lancers in the Grande Armee was thus provided by the Duchy of Warsaw, with minor contributions by some German states caught up in the madness including some Prussian Uhlans. I’ve read extensively on the campaign, and only two anecdotes stand out about lancer performance. One is from a Polish lancer of the Guard, who states that the Cossacks (who mostly used lances but fought in open order) being so impressed with the Polish uhlans that they automatically retreated when confronted by them. He goes on to relate that the Guard Lancers reversed their cloaks and donned bonnet de police to look like French cavalry. This ruse almost worked but when the Cossacks heard commands given in Polish they broke off crying Latki!
The second involves a lancer regiment at Schevardino, the prelude to Borodino. A meeting engagement centered around a redoubt dragged on into evening, and the gathering gloom saw the 8th Regiment of Lancers crash into what it thought was Russian dragoons but was, in fact, Russian cuirassiers. The Lancers were overthrown despite whatever perceived advantage they held. The cuirassiers had apparently not read Empire (A minor note – the original text I read was thirty years ago and I no longer have it – but I am certain that back in 1983 I used the number 8 in a briefing I developed about the foolishness of using modern cavalry recon units as a substitute for armor. So my memory is sharp on the number 8, but I also remember that the author distinctly identified the unit as French. Here’s the enigma – 8th Chevauxleger Lancers was with Oudinot and a couple hundred miles northwest of Borodino on the date in question. 8th Polish Uhlans was present in First Cavalry Corps. And just to complicate things, 9th Chevauxleger Lancers was present in the I Corps Cavalry. In the days before the internet and word processors, either a typo about 8 versus 9 or a loose use of the word ‘French’ might have been easily left in the manuscript. Something else for a worthy graduate student to ponder).
The 1813 campaign was swarmed with Lancers. The five French lancer regiments came forward and the four regiments that went to Russia were rebuilt. The Guard now included two super-sized regiments with Young Guard squadrons. The Russians imitated the French and converted seven dragoon regiments to uhlans. They organized three Uhlan divisions out of their new forces. The Prussians raised nearly two dozen Landwehr cavalry regiments, armed with lances. The Poles rebuilt a few regiments, providing a cavalry force for the V Corps and forming an entire cavalry corps, most of which were lancers.
Here again, finding ‘decisive’ actions that can be exclusively attributed to the lance is difficult. Probably the most famous was the French lancers in the aftermath of Dresden, compelling a large number of otherwise undamaged Austrians to surrender during the heavy rains.
But the course had been firmly set. The French would reduce to a single Guard Regiment in 1815 and just six Line Lancers. Other nations kept their inventory with the British bowing to military wisdom after the war. After all, if the ‘Master’ was in favor of it, it must be right. The best lancer performance was at Waterloo when the line lancers of Jacquinot’s division (not the Guard, as depicted in the movie) butchered helpless Scot’s Greys on blown horses stuck in the mud (-3 for disorder, anyone?). We know that the lancers of Domon’s division had a rough time of it the day before when confronted by the unarmored cavalry of the Household Brigade at Genappe. Pire’s brigade of lancers gave the Black Watch a hard time at Quatre Bras, but were ultimately thrown back.
When I look at the anecdotes scattered over the period from 1811 to 1815 and a sample of ones about lancers from the earlier period, I’m struck by how little of the performance requires a bonus for lancers. There is little doubt that the tactical advantage, man-on-man, of striking first has both a real and a morale effect. Equally, superior cavalry commanders could take a moment, have their pistols and carbines carefully loaded, and receive a charge with saddle fire to surprise and overreach an enemy (Kellerman at Austerlitz and Nansouty at Eckmuhl). But when the game moves up to squadron versus squadron, regiment vs. regiment etc the benefit seems to disappear.
I can stipulate that the lancer has an advantage spearing men lying down or running in open-order combat, but how much of that is represented in Napoleon's Battles? Isn’t the 10-number modifier for being routed or 3 for disordered enough?
In cavalry combat, the lance’s overreach is immediately countered by its inability to be used effectively in a melee. Either the attack wins on morale/impetus, or the lancers are forced to discard their weapons and draw sabers. That’s just awkward. British officers testified that was a factor in the combat on June 17 at Genappe. Indeed, the French and many others stopped using lances in the second line, arming ’second lanciers’ conventionally for just this reason. Since Napoleon's Battles is not just a five minute charge but many more minutes of tactical engagements with the advantage of impetus and order on a regimental level swinging back and forth, the game probably shouldn’t give a bonus to ‘attacking lancers.’
The only thing to jump out of my reading is that there is a real problem with infantry in a downpour vs cavalry in general and lancers in particular. The Austrian disaster at Dresden was matched by a French disaster on the Katzbach the same day. But…Napoleon's Battles’s weather doesn’t allow for downpours, just rain sufficient to degrade shooting slightly. Before giving lancers a bonus in a downpour, we would have to have downpours. If you want to refight Dresden, or Macdonald vs. Blucher, give all attacking cavalry a +4 when the weather precludes infantry firing. If you feel strongly, make lancers +6
In conclusion, at the scale we are playing, lancers shouldn’t have special recognition.
The new rules on interpenetration have reduced the cavalry threat somewhat, but not changed the fundamentals. The first thing to check is the dispersal letter and the response number. They are more predictive than the ‘LN’ or ‘COL’ tactical modifiers about cavalry success. Cavalry units are fragile beasts starting with small strengths (now possibly even smaller). The dispersal level determines the number of times the unit can charge without disappearing. A ‘C’ unit with 12 figures is good for two charges and it’s gone, or so whittled that it can’t be safely used again. How’s that? The typical successful cavalry charge will result in a figure lost to fire and a winner loss. Assuming you make recall, that final charge may come instantly, and if you don’t recall it always happens instantly.
An unsuccessful cavalry charge will rarely result in no losses, usually gets a fire casualty, and may lose two figures to the combat (three typically results in a rout, taking the unit out of play for many turns). So two failed charges will probably disperse a 12 figure ‘C’ unit, and two successes or one of each will make it vulnerable to dispersal. Bigger units and better units clearly have more staying power, but they come with other problems – bringing a five stand unit into combat in LN is not a trivial exercise when reacting, for example.
This means that cavalry charges must count…or be designed in such a way that the cavalry enables another unit to make a decisive action. My friends favor cavalry and infantry units of the same size and then pick the best combo for the modifying unit. I favor larger infantry units so I’m not tempted to use the cavalry – if the infantry fails the cavalry bounces out disordered, and if the enemy suffers a withdrawal outcome, the cavalry still bounces out disordered. This increases the number of attacks where the same cavalry unit contributes to an outcome by as much as three.
Whatever the tactics you prefer, remember that each cavalry unit is precious, and carefully consider the negative consequences of even successful attacks. Average infantry units with a C/2/4 rating can survive two successful cavalry charges before dispersing on the third. A cavalry unit may not survive two unsuccessful charges. Another consideration is that the majority outcome of a cavalry vs cavalry engagement is both units recoiling in disorder. Unless the differential starts at +3 the dice roll and any leadership applied are likely to dominate over cavalry types. The outcomes of net +2, +1, 0, -1 and -2 invariably produce disorder to all sides. Charging with two cavalry units at an enemy cavalry unit seldom produces more than +1 for stands but always produces two disordered cavalry units in a ‘draw.’
Another useful technique to preserve your cavalry is moving to 1” to prevent an enemy unit from reacting with an emergency formation change. Depending on the situation, the attack is carried out by a second unit (either cavalry or infantry). This doesn’t work perfectly when the Optional Emergency Formation Change rules are applied. It is also a useful tool for irregular cavalry like Cossacks, who must check to move to combat contact.
The first conclusion is that the player should evolve his own ‘tactics’ for using cavalry. While there are some generally accepted ways to use them, they are but one tool in a three-tool kit bag. Napoleon's Battles puts a high premium on combined arms, and whether you favor cavalry as the factoring unit in close combat or infantry, you need to use both with a reasonably seasoning of artillery to achieve results.
The second, I hope, is that the history overview you’ve just read will convince you that any tinkering should be on the margins. Tinker away if you still feel strongly about it, and please cite the battles where the actual combat outcome influenced your thinking. (But don’t cite a set of rules, because you’re talking author’s choice.) Love to have a dialogue about a battle I’ve overlooked.
Finally, enjoy the pageantry of the period. Just because the Polish Lancers of the Guard count no differently than the Chasseurs a’ Cheval doesn’t mean they don’t look awesome on the table.