Sunday, December 28, 2008

Carabins and Light Cavalry

Dur Écu sallies forth on yet another foray into the French cavalry of the Thirty Years’ War and finds that the pickings are getting mighty slim.


Efficient light cavalry like the Croats, Poles, and Cossacks that served the Imperialists so well was an essential element of the armies of the period. The French, however, were generally quite deficient in light cavalry. This is remarkable, considering the light cavalry tradition of the French army. But the excellent stradiots and useful but shabby argoulets of the Italian Wars and the Religious‑Civil Wars had disappeared, replaced during the reign of Henry IV by the more disciplined carabins, who did some things better but most things worse.

The carabins, so-called because their principal weapon was a 3½-foot long carbine (usually a large-caliber wheellock shoulder arm), originated in the small troops of 25-50 men attached to units of gendarmes and chevau-légers during the latter stages of the Religious-Civil Wars to perform the duties of true light cavalry. Also, some companies were raised as bodyguard units for the princes and generals. Thus, according to Ambert (1:260), the 1st Company of Mousquetaires of the Maison orginated as a bodyguard of carabins of King Henry IV.

Indeed, Henry IV was so enamored of the carabins, who were the elite of his army, that his enemy Parma referred to him as a "carabin." The tradition of excellence, combined with a propensity for derring-do was enshrined in a phrase of the time, applied to any spectacular feat, which was described as an action plutot digne d'un carabin, or a "deed worthy of a carabin."

Besides the large-caliber arquebus, the carabin was armed with one pistol and a sword. He usually wore the cassock and gaiters--not boots--which facilitated his ability to fight on foot (Bellon, Principes de l'art militaire, cited in Ambert, 1:262).

During the reign of Louis XIII the carabins became a separate corps of light cavalry, organized under their own chief, the Mestre de camp général des carabins de France (who reported to the Colonel général de la cavalerie légère). This was likely in 1609, when Balzac de Gié was named Mestre de camp général des carabins (this according to Ambert, 262; Choppin states that the carabins received their own Mestre de camp général only in 1621).

The Mestres de camp général des carabins during the Thirty Years' War were:

Pierre de La Mothe Arnauld, 1621-1622
Isaac Arnauld de Corbeville, 1 April 1622-

The carabins wore a burgonet or a soft hat, the cuirass enchancrée, which appears to have been cut away at the right shoulder to allow the carbine to be couched, and the casaque. Many wore buff coats as well.

On 3 October 1634, there were 7 companies of carabins in the French army. This was 7% of the total of 98 companies. In 1636, the French army in Italy had 16,000 foot and 2,000 horse, including 700 carabins. Thus, the carabins were 35% of the horse in one French army that was deficient in cavalry. But, it would appear that generally the number of carabins in any French army was equal to the number of gendarmes. The Annuaire militaire of 1643 states that there were 12 regiments of carabins.

The carabins gradually died out. They were last mentioned in an ordinance in November 1665, and finally in 1684 they were suppressed.

"Eastern" Light Cavalry

An appreciable number of "eastern" light cavalry served France. These consisted of Hungarians, Croats, and Germans, and were true progenitors of the regular hussars, the first regiment of which was established in 1692. The comte d'Espenan raised a regiment of Hungarian light cavalry that existed from 8 July 1635 to December 1637 and served at the Battle of Avein (1635). There were in addition the Croat regiments of Chack and Raab, which served at Rocroi (1643). Chémerault's Regiment at Lens (1648) may have been Croatian. There were, apparently, 3,000 German and Hungarian light horse serving with the French army in 1640, nearly 17% of the total cavalry establishment, and Louvois is said to have disbanded the same number at the conclusion of Franco-Spanish hostilities in 1656.

The actual representation of light horse in field armies was somewhat smaller, usually because of the participation of ephemeral units of battle cavalry (units of "volontaires," and of the ban and arriere-ban), plus in many instances the participation of foreign heavy cavalry (the Weimarians, etc.). Moreover, in actual battle, the light horse do not appear to have contributed in any important respect to the decision. Two cases illustrate these points.

In the Rocroi campaign the service of light cavalry and dragoons for the French army was performed by the Croat regiments of Chack and Raab and by the Fusilers à cheval (Aumale, 4:41). At the Battle of Rocroi the Croats were deployed "en fleche" with the Gardes de M. le Duc on the extreme right of the first line of cavalry of the right wing. Each of the Croat regiments was organized for combat as one squadron. The peculiar deployment of these units, in which the Croats and the Gardes were thrown forward of the main line of battle en echelon (to the left rear) suggests that they did not participate in the combat in the formal manner of the battle cavalry.

The Fusiliers à cheval were deployed on the extreme left of the first line of cavalry on the left wing. Likewise, they do not appear to have participated in the formal combat of the line of battle. Aumale describes them as being "en observation." The regiment of Fusiliers à cheval was organized for combat in two squadrons.

At Rocroi the French had 6-7,000 horse in 24 regiments and 7 independent companies. These were organized for combat in 32 squadrons, of which 4 were light horse or dragoons. If, as seems likely, the squadrons were of approximately equal strength, about 12.5% of Enghien's horse was light cavalry. (Depending on the total number of cavalry, the squadrons averaged 188 or 219 men, and the total of light cavalry was 750 or 875 troopers.)

At the Battle of Lens only 1 of 45 squadrons in the French order of battle can be positively identified as light horse. The unit was the squadron formed from the carabins, and it was deployed on the left flank of the first line of cavalry on the left wing. Again, if the cavalry squadrons were of approximately equal strength, the representation of light horse in the army would have been just 2.2%. If the squadron formed by Chémerault's Regiment (right flank of the second line of cavalry of the left wing) was Croatian, which is possible, the percentage of light horse would have been 4.4.

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