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Cavalry Lasts - The Last Cavalry Charge

When one thinks of a cavalry, often it's of a bugle singing, sword swinging, military hero screaming "CHARGE!" atop a gorgeous white-horse. But there is no precise definition of exactly what constitutes a cavalry charge. Must a bugle sound the classic notes of the charge? Are slashing sabers required or will pistols suffice? How many cavalrymen must participate and must they belong to a bona fide cavalry unit?

The United States made a substantial contribution to the international army that went to China at the turn of the century to protect the various embassies from attack by the Chinese Boxers. During the China Relief Expedition, the 6th US Cavalry conducted a mounted charge on 19 August 1900 against Boxer forces. Sent on a minor expedition from the already-captured Tientsin, a squadron of the 6th Cavalry initially fought dismounted, then mounted and "charged hotly at the enemy." One reasonable candidate for the "last cavalry charge" distinction may be the 11th U.S. Cavalry in the Mexican Punitive Expedition. On 05 May 1916, six troops of that regiment attacked a Villista band at Ojos Azules, Mexico. The bugler sounded the charge as the troopers swept through the area and engaged the enemy -- but with pistols, not sabers. The charge at Ojos Azules was lead by Apache scouts serving alongside the 11th Cavalry regiment. Some accounts claim that the 10th Regiment rode the last cavalry charge against Indians on 09 January 1918, but these claims are poorly attested.

Only a very small portion of the US cavalry saw any mounted service in France during the Great War. On 12 September 1918 U.S. cavalrymen, mounted, were at Nonsard, about five miles behind the original front line of the enemy. Sent out on reconnaissance duty beyond their capabilities, the cavalrymen met the enemy in considerable force and were routed. Later, in the Meuse-Argonne action, the squadron with three troops maintained liaison between flank divisions and those on the front lines.

On 19 September 1918, British infantry, cavalry, and air forces under command of Gen Edmund H. H. "Bull" Allenby stormed through Turkish defenses at the battle of Megiddo. It was one of the greatest exhibitions of mobility and pursuit in the history of World War I. The British missed a rare opportunity to learn what Megiddo might hold for the future of warfare. They focused on the romanticism of the "last cavalry charge" instead of on the efficacy of combined arms operations.

The last American cavalry field manual (FM) written for horses was issued in 1936. With the approach of World War II and the creation of the Armored Force in 1940, one of the most perplexing problems confronting the U.S. Army was the form of organization and tactical doctrine for its cavalry. During the years of peace when economy had been the keynote for U.S. military forces, it had been easy to shunt this problem aside; but now, with danger to the free world increasing and partial mobilization already under way, the Army had to face up to how to organize and equip its cavalry.

At the heart of the question, of course, was the military value of the horse. And cavalrymen themselves were far from being united, thus making any solution even more difficult. Many cavalrymen favored complete mechanization, others supported a combination of horses and machines, and still a third group continued to prefer only horses. The last Chief of Cavalry, Maj. Gen. John K. Herr, in testimony before a Congressional committee in 1939 maintained that horse cavalry had "stood the acid test of war," whereas the motor elements advocated by some to replace it had not. Pointing to this country's more than 12,000,000 horses and over 4,500,000 mules at that time, as well as its predominant motor industry, he held that the United States was in a most favorable position to develop the best cavalry forces in the world, both mechanized and horse. On the role of cavalry General Herr declared that those "who wish to reduce cavalry to a purely reconnaissance arm, are entirely wrong, unless reconnaissance is the only mission which cavalry can perform." To Herr, reconnaissance was important to cavalry, but was not its primary mission. "While cavalry must fight in carrying out its mission of reconnaissance, pursuit and covering," he reasoned, "it must also fight in cooperation with the other ground arms to further the accomplishment of the main mission." On types of cavalry his view was that, "although in some cavalry missions it may be better to use horse cavalry alone or mechanized cavalry alone, on the whole the best results can be accomplished by using them together."

This horse-mechanized principle had been applied to two cavalry regiments, the 4th and the 6th. In those units large vans were used for transporting horses to keep pace with the mechanical elements. The horses could be unloaded quickly and employed in mounted actions to supplement operations of the mechanized cavalry. With the 4th and 6th Cavalry already partially mechanized and the 1st and 13th Cavalry under the Armored Force, ten horse cavalry regiments remained. Of these, the 5th, 7th, 8th, and 12th were organic elements of the 1st Cavalry Division, and by late 1941 the 2d, 9th, 10th, and 14th were in the 2d Cavalry Division. Only the 3d and 11th Cavalry were nondivisional mounted regiments. The Office of the Chief of Cavalry was eliminated in March 1942, along with those of the other combat arms chiefs. Nondivisional regiments and squadrons were completely mechanized in the same manner as were the cavalry components of infantry and armored divisions. Several cavalry regiments were used in farming new armored divisions. Neither of the two cavalry divisions took horses overseas, the explanation being that transportation of horses was too costly in ship tonnage and feeding and upkeep too complex for a motorized army.

The last American mounted tactical cavalry unit in combat was the 26th Cavalry (Philippine Scouts) in Philippines, stationed at Ft Stotsenburg, Luzon, 1942, which fought both mounted and dismounted against Japanese invasion troops in 1942. On the Bataan Peninsula, the 26th Cavalry (PS) staged a mounted attack against the Japanese on 16 January 1942. The battered, exhausted men of the 26th Cavalry climbed astride their horses and flung themselves moments against the blazing gun muzzles of Japanese tanks. This last mounted pistol charge was led by Ed Ramsey in command of G troop, 26th Cavalry. It was the last mounted charge in America's annals, and proved the climax of the 26th Cavalry's magnificent but doomed horseback campaign against the Imperial Japanese Army during the fall of the Philippines in 1941-42. According to a Bataan survivor interviewed in the Washington Post (10 April 1977), starving US and Philippine troops ate all the regiment's horses.

The last Cavalry charge in history took place on 23 August 1942, at Izbushensky on the River Don. The Italian Savoia Cavalry Regiment, and consisting of 600 mounted Italian troops, charged against 2,000 Soviet troops. The Italian Lancers destroyed a pair of Soviet Infantry armored vehicles before being forced to withdraw with thirty-two casualties. Reports of Polish cavalry charges against German tanks in 1939 are pure fiction. These stories were reported by the Italian press and used as propaganda by the Germans.

For operations in jungles and mountains, horses proved to be especially suitable as pack animals. The 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), a task force under Brig. Gen. Frank D. Merrill and nicknamed "Merrill's Marauders," made extensive use of pack animals. In early 1944, during the 700-mile march march to Myitkyina through the jungles of India and Burma, Merrill's Marauders had approximately 340 horses as well as 360 mules. In another action the 3d Infantry Division, while in Sicily, organized the 3d Provisional Reconnaissance Troop, Mounted, which was employed for several months during the invasion of Italy and the subsequent fighting in its mountainous terrain. In September 1943 the troop had 143 horses; 349 mules were also in its attached pack train.

It was clear that horses were being banished from the last cavalry unit and, for all practical purposes, from the Army. The last mounted cavalry unit was the 129th Cavalry Squadron, activated 01 May 1944 for tactical instruction at the Cavalry School, which was deactivated 06 February 1945. However, the 127th Cav deactivated at Ft Riley in 1947. Also, consider the Horse Platoon, 16th Constabulary Squad, in Berlin (originally the Horse Platoon, 78th Cavalry Recon Troop, 78th Div. The last active cavalry post was Ft Riley, KS, where the Cavalry School deactivated on 31 October 1946 or November 1946, including horses & training detachment (129th Squadron?). The last U.S. cavalry horse in U.S. service died on 24 May 1959. The last mounted (horse or mule) US Army unit was the 4th FA Bn & 35th QM Pack Co, both deactivated at Ft Carson, CO, 15 February 1957.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 01:35:06 ZULU