Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Caracole

There are few contemporary descriptions of the caracole. One, by the Englishman Digges, describing reiters attacking infantry methodically, is exceptionally clear:

“I well like the manner of the Germans, who keep always their main troop standing, and cause only one rank from the front to charge, and the same being repulsed to retire to the tail of the standing troop, and then another to charge and retire to the tail of the former, whereby they maintain the whole troop in full strength till they see the footmen sway or break, and that the horsemen enter. Then presently they back them with another rank, and those again with another, till they see cause either to follow with the whole troop or stay. And this is the surest and most orderly form of charging of all others.”

Digges wrote ca. 1579.

Reiters (Part 4)

Above: Reiters (NYPL, Vinkhuijzen Coll.)

Reiters in Combat
The first campaigns of note in which reiters participated were those of the Schmalkaldic Wars during the German Civil Wars (1546-1553). Incidentally, the reiters then fought for both the Imperialists (Holy Roman Empire) and the Protestant League of German princes.

Following these actions, the reiters took advantage of the discord in Western Europe, some fighting for France under Henri II against Spain at St. Quentin (1557) and Gravelines (1558), in addition to serving in various Italian armies.

With the cessation of Franco-Spanish hostilities, reiters found new employment with both the Huguenot and Catholic (Royalist) parties in the French Religious-Civil Wars. The reiters were considered tactically superior to the Catholic gendarmerie, who adhered to the feudal tactic of attack in line with lances. (Note: Blaise de Monluc, a Royalist, felt that the reiters possessed the advantage of attacking in one great body, not spread out in a thin line. He confirms the effect that the reiters had in changing the tactics of their adversaries: “We quit them (lances) for the German pistols.”)

Accounts of various actions are too varied for proof positive, but the high loss rate among reiters indicates determination, if not effectiveness. In a campaign of 1568, one reiter army was reduced to 1,200 men (slightly larger than a squadron). Schwartzreiters fought at Dreux (1562), Jarnac (1569), and Moncontour (1569), but at Ivry (1590), everything went wrong. From the start, the Royalist squadrons were formed too close to one another; firing ranks were unable properly to caracole in order to reload. The units that did close with the Huguenot foot found that arquebusiers had been situated within the ranks of pikemen, and these mauled the surprised Germans. After being disrupted by shot, the squadrons found themselves smashed by Huguenot cavalry and were forced to retire.

In addition to combat in the Wars of Religion, reiters served with the Dutch rebels against Spain in the Netherlands Wars of Independence (1568-1609). Following varying performances, the reiter units gradually faded from the battlefields of Europe, being replaced by more disciplined horsemen. Their tactical style, however, had been adopted nearly universally by all types of firearm-equipped cavalry by 1600. It would take the Thirty Years’ War and the professionalism of the hard-charging, determined Swedish cavalry, led by the “Lion of the North,” King Gustavus Adolphus, to make them truly obsolete.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Reiters (Part 3)

Above: Reiters (from the NYPL, Vinkhuijzen Coll.)

Organization and Tactics

The cavalry of the 16th c. was divided into units that varied in number according to the commander’s custom and battlefield demands. The basic unit was the troop or cornet of 60-120 men, commanded by a rittmeister, in German-speaking lands. Larger units of 300-1,000 pistoleers, as many as 30 ranks deep, were called squadrons.

The first troops to make widespread use of pistols, reiters found it necessary to revise the standard cavalry tactic of attack in line (en haye) in order to gain the maximum effect of concentrated firepower. Intended primarily for use against infantry squares, a tactic known as the caracole was evolved.

In the most common version, a unit as large as a squadron was formed in column, wedge, or square, on average 10-15 ranks deep, and advanced towards the enemy at a slow trot, towards the front, flank, or at an angle to the enemy formation. The unit halted just beyond the ranks of the enemy pikes. Each reiter rank then advanced in succession, the individual troopers holding their fire until the last possible moment. They halted again and turned their mounts to the flank (to avoid blasting the horse’s ears off). With the faustrohre on its side, lock up to insure that the priming powder would make contact with the main charge, each reiter fired into the mass of foot and, wheeling his horse around the flank of the formation, trotted back to rejoin the tail of the column.

The following ranks would move up and repeat the procedure, thus giving the troops who had fired time to reload their wheellocks, a process which took as many as 14 separate steps. Continuously applied, this tactic could and often did result in the disorder of the enemy foot—unless they were hardened veterans, especially trained against cavalry. Once a break had been made, the reiters would charge into the gaps, using clubbed pistols, swords, and loaded pistols to force the enemy from the field of battle.

All of this worked in theory of course. In reality, the caracole was a very difficult maneuver to perform properly. Unless the troopers were well-trained, they would often fire a premature volley (not necessarily at the enemy), then, instead of rejoining the column, would ride away from the battle. Some who hadn’t fired at all would ride to the rear with those who had. In addition, due to the short effective range of the pistol, only tough troops would continue to caracole and take losses without becoming disorganized, or broken by enemy countercharges. While the front rank was filing to the rear, the whole formation was vulnerable to attacks by determined sword- or lance-wielding horsemen. For example, at the Battle of Mookerheyde (1574), reloading reiter cavalry was charged by Spanish lancers. The reiter front broke, causing chaos in the following ranks and the reserves. The resultant panic spread to the Dutch infantry, who also fled.

Opposing caracoles would often engage in prolonged fire combat without decisive results until one or the other finally broke.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Reiters (Part 2)

Armor and Weapons

If armored, reiters wore three-quarter or half-armors with high leather boots often reaching above the knee. Such armor was frequently painted black with borders left natural metal, giving the armor its “black and white” finish. The paint helped retard rusting, eliminated the need for polishing, and covered any defects present in a cheap armor. Mail was often worn in the form of sleeves or a shirt, and also in cape form, the so-called “bishop’s mantle.” Headgear ran the gamut from civilian caps, “iron hats,” morions, cabassets, and most frequently, open-faced burgonets. Gauntlets of both mitten and fingered types were used, or just leather gloves with a bridle gauntlet for the left hand. The average weight of a reiter’s harness would be about 25-30 pounds with helmet. Most often, the horse was unarmored except for barding in the form of heavy leather straps on the hind quarters.

Initially armed with a lance of boar-spear form and a thrusting-sword (estoc), reiters soon developed an affinity for, and increasing dependence on, firearms. Pist’ala, a Bohemian word meaning firearm, is noted in Silesian records of 1483, but the weapon as discussed here is believed to have originated in eastern Germany circa 1507. The form favored was the faustrohre (fist-pipe), a .70-calibre weapon, of wheellock ignition, varying in length from 18-24” and weighing about five pounds. Firing a one-oz. ball, the weapon was accurate against individual targets up to 20 yards and against massed targets 50 yards distant. As many as four faustrohren would be carried—two in tubular leather holsters at the saddle-bow, one thrust precariously into the right boot and, occasionally, one in the waist belt or sash.

A pistol could be loaded, primed, and spanned (cocked) several hours in advance of use without difficulty, but care had to be taken in handling the delicate lock mechanism and the brittle pyrites used in ignition.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


The Black Horsemen – German Reiters

This article, by the scholar Walter J. Karcheski, Jr., was originally published years ago in Gorget & Sash, Vol. II:2. It is republished in serial form here, by kind permission of the editors of G&S. Dur Ecu has added his comments to the original text where it seems appropriate to add something to, or extend, the author’s text.


Renaissance battles, such as those of the Italian Wars (1494-1559), provided concrete evidence of the deadly effectiveness of hand-held firearms. The first mounted troops to make widespread use of these weapons were the German reiters. These horsemen, who were also called schwartzreiters (black riders), diables noirs (black devils), and barbouilles (bedaubed) for their preference for blackened armor and habit of staining face and hands to appear more ferocious, helped change forever the tactics of mounted warfare.

Reiter units were a form of medium cavalry, German in origin, recruited from the areas of Brunswick, Saxony, and the Rhineland-Palatinate. Men of little or no principle, they fought for whoever provided money. When pay was slow in coming, they were prone to go on strike, to mutiny, plunder friendly localities, or return to Germany en masse. In view of this independent mercenary spirit, even the native German princes, who were often in command, were hard-pressed to control them.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Numbers in War

Some thoughts on numbers in war. Others have been quoted in the same vein: Stalin comes to mind.

“Dieu est toujours pour les gros bataillons.” (God is always on the side of the big battalions.) -- Attributed to Turenne by Joseph de Maistre.

“Dieu est d’ordinaire pour les gros escadons contre les petits.” (God is usually for the large squadrons against the little ones.) – Bussy Rabutin, Lettres, 4:91 (Oct. 18, 1677)

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Council of War

“The same consequences which have uniformly attended long discussions and councils of war will follow at all times. They will terminate in the adoption of the worst course, which in war is always the most timid, or, if you will, the most prudent. The only true wisdom in a general is determined courage.” – Napoleon (Maxim LXV, The Military Maxims of Napoleon)

Meetings: Some things never change.

First Bayonet Charge

Dur Écu had previously thought that history’s first bayonet charge was made by French troops in 1693, either at Marsaglia or Neerwinden. See, for example, his article on French line infantry of the Thirty Years’ War (which extends forward into the latter decades of the 17th c.), excerpted here:

The French were the first to experiment with the bayonet, the weapon that eventually rendered the pike redundant. According to Belhomme, the primitive plug bayonet was first employed in 1642 in the Army of Flanders. These bayonets were hafted weapons, about two-feet long. The blade was one-foot long and was fastened to a wooden haft, also one-foot long, which could be plugged into the muzzle of the musket. Puységur, a contemporary, described French soldiers using plug bayonets in 1647, and his description of the weapon is identical to Belhomme’s. But it is clear from these and other accounts that the plug bayonet was not employed to any great extent until the 1670s.

The early plug bayonet was employed defensively, but within a couple of decades the offensive possibilities of the weapon were recognized. The French infantry is generally considered to have made history’s first bayonet charge at Marsaglia (4 October 1693). Since some controversy attaches to this distinction, it may be best to cite authority. Broglie, citing Rousset, states:

Les charges, commandées par les officiers, l’epée à la main, et faites, d'apres l'ordre exprès du maréchal [Catinat], “au pas de course, la baionette au bout du fusil et sans tirer un coup,” furent remarquables et exécutees avec une vigueur qui décida du sort de la journée.

Another source accords the honor to the French Guards at Neerwinden (29 July 1693), just a few months earlier (Eugene François de St. Hilaire, Histoire d’Espagne).

Now recently, Dur Écu noticed a reference to a bayonet charge by French infantry at the Siege of Valenciennes in 1677 in an article by John A. Lynn, the dean of historians of the army of Louis XIV. In examining the source cited by Professor Lynn, a letter of French War Minister Louvois, it is clear that the French infantry on this occasion counterattacked cavalry in street fighting and drove them off with grenades and the plug bayonet. So, this episode may have been not only history’s first bayonet charge but also a remarkable example of the prowess of infantry armed with the new weapon against cavalry.