Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Beau Sabreur: Alam el Halfa

(Warning: not a single scholarly or musically redeemable link above the fold. Plus a repeat!)

Seventy years ago, more or less, Alam Halfa is over. Egypt is saved, or so they said. It's a battle that turns on tanks charging tanks. But was it a cavalry battle?

Or Kipling, a bit more mawkish than Tolkien letting an old man rise from his dotage to redeem the world, and himself:

By the brand on my shoulder, the finest of tunes
Is played by the Lancers, Hussars, and Dragoons,
And it's sweeter than "Stables" or "Water" to me--
The Cavalry Canter of "Bonnie Dundee"!
Then feed us and break us and handle and groom,
And give us good riders and plenty of room,
And launch us in column of squadron and see
The way of the war-horse to "Bonnie Dundee"!

In Walter Scott's "Bonnie Dundee," Graham of Claverhouse rides out of Edinburgh when the Convention condemns him, and no-one dares to challenge him. That's the riding. (And what Ned Stark should have done.) When it comes to fighting, Scott's back with to "on foot should be all Scottish war," than which no dumber advice has ever been given to the lord of Lothian. "Before I own an usurper, I'll crouch with the fox," and so the "wild war cry of Bonnie Dundee" fades away into the old, romantic Scottish scenery.

Whereas Bonnie Dundee shattered the army of the Convention with a wild cavalry charge at Killecrankie, but you've got to be a real Celtic Renaissance diehard to revive "Killekrankie," and, as Scott would smugly remind us, he died doing it. Good man, wrong side of history.

Or was he a bold sabre, with no-one to take the battle in hand after he fell, sabre in hand? 

Seydlitz, they say, was riding across a bridge with Old Fritz, when the King asked him what made a good cavalryman. "First, he must never be taken," Seydlitz answered. But aren't you taken now, Frederick asked? And in that same moment, Seydlitz took his horse over the rail of the bridge, plunging twelve feet into the water, only to emerge a moment later on the bank of the river and ride off. That's the other side of things. 

So was Alam Halfa really a cavalry battle? The outline story is that whie the Antipodean infantry matched Axis counterparts passively in the north of the El Alamein position, the Afrika Korps and the Italian 20th Motorised penetrated the minefields in the south and tried to hook around the flank of the Commonwealth position, only to run into the mass of the British armour, dug in along Alam el Halfa ridge. The Afrika Korps' wild charge broke against the position, and the Axis forces, short of fuel, withdrew back along the tracks through the minefield. Battle over, Egypt saved, Montgomery's "grip" on the battle demonstrated. 

But what kind of cavalry receives a charge at the rest? Bad cavalry, that's who. Monty just didn't get it. Like the men who had the temerity to defeat Napoleon or Lee in the field, Monty's victories will always be presumptively illegitimate. 

Yeah, whatever. This blog speaks to the substructural history of strategy. Cavalry has a substructure, too.

I'm going to start with a table completely ripped off of Ian Malcolm Brown, British Logistics on the Western Front. I include an Amazon link even though it's "temporarily" out of stock. Because Ian deserves the shout out, and not just because I feel guilty to be ripping him off this way.

Formation Type
Number of Men
Number of Animals
Number in France, October 1914
Total Number of Men
Total Number of Animals
Infantry division
Cavalry Division
Infantry Brigade
Cavalry Brigade
Heavy Battery
Field Artillery Brigade
Horse Artillery Brigade
(Brown, 67.)

The British Army had a lot of cavalry, and the cavalry had a lot of horses. Going back to the official history, we learn that the the First Line of the BEF was 6 infantry  divisions and 1 cavalry. The infantry divisions were of 3 brigades each of 4 battalions, 12,000 rifles. There was also a divisional cavalry squadron of about 150 sabres, (3 each of 15th Hussars and 19th (Queen Alexandra’s Own) Hussars. There was also an independent Cyclist company, in case those "bicycle" things turned out to be useful. Throw in the artillery and the train, and you get 18,000 men, a bit big, by virtue of a large artillery complement, but otherwise (and that's a big otherwise) pretty standard for its day. 

The Cavalry Division, by contrast, had four brigades of 3 regiments each, plus divisional troops (Ibid, 473,) 2 brigades RHA, each of 2 batteries, two brigade ammunition columns, 1 Field Squadron RE, 1 Signal Squadron, 1 Cavalry Divisional A.S.C., 4 Cavalry Field Ambulances. A like proportion of services were attached to 5th Cavalry Brigade, operating independently. The British cavalry division thus had some 9,500 sabres. That's most definitely not standard. French cavalry divisions were only half the size of the British, at 3 brigades each of 2 regiments of 3 squadrons, plus horse artillery brigade, a total of 4500. A German cavalry division, formally of the same organisation as the French, was bulked up to 5,200 all ranks. Cyclists and machine guns are added at the corps level with an independent Jäger regiment, because all the cool armies have them. 

Leaving the infantry aside, the cavalry balance in the west was 10 French divisions, 1 Belgian, 10 German, although obviously the French had no absolute guarantee that the Germans would leave another 3 in the East. this was enough for some adventurous grand tactics. By the end of the 1914 fighting, six of the German cavalry divisions would be united as a temporary army-sized formation under the command of General der Kavallerie Manfred, Freiherr von Richthoffen, just to see what all of that  mobility could do. As it happens, what they could do is firm up the Ypres salient so that the fighting could go another direction with what would soon be known as the "Mackensen Phalanx" of massive lashings of heavy artillery shooting the infantry onto the objective.(1)

So the British mounted arm was pretty big, compared to its neighbours, No surprise, I've been over that before, too.

The point then was that mobilisation takes place under couverture, and, to an extent, it's still a point. The British government ordered the mobilisation of the BEF at 4 PM on 4 August 1914. It is sometimes supposed that the process took place in a very different way in Britain from the continent, given the lack of a draft in Blighty, but since that only takes two-legs into account, it as well to note that the War Office promptly swung into action to levy the 120,000 horses necessary from the national register. Embarkation, held in check neither by difficulties over equids or the bank holidays, began on the 12th. This was late by French reckoning, early by German. The British staff plan was that every train-load should be a complete unit or sub-unit, allowing every unit to go directly to march or rest camp on arrival, also went ahead as planned, so embarkation was the same as deployment. On the 5 days of peak activity, 1800 trains were run in the UK (32). On the busiest day, 80 trains, carrying the equivalent of a division, were run into Southampton Docks and loaded onto ships, of which a daily average of thirteen, with average gross tonnage of 52,000 were sent.

Meanwhile, the situation on the Continent developed rapidly. On the night of ¾ August, it became clear that the Germans intended to advance through Belgium, permission or no. On the morning of the 4th, they entered the country, advancing on Visé, north of Liege.
British units began to cross over on 12th August. On the 14th, the British began rail marches towards the area of concentration, between Maubeuge and Le Cateau, with the cavalry on the north-eastern end as the hinge connecting with the French. This concentration was completed by the 20th, deemed six days late by the French.

Stop right there. I think that it is safe to say that we shall never again see a military movement of such speed and precision as the arrival of the BEF at the forward edge of the battle area only 14 days from the announcement of mobilisation. Sichelschnitt has nothing on this.I'm not saying this to make some specious point about British organisation, by the way. The same can be said of everyone's mobilisation. The mobilisations of 1914 were easy, far too easy, as the 1.8 million casualties of the next three months would show.

Why? I know that everyone talks about railway timetables and General Staffs and nationalism. If you're wonky enough, you can talk about new branch lines and prefabricated railway bridges and unloading platforms, and fortresses. The problem is that all of this assumes an invisible competence. Where was it in 1870? or 1939/40? On either side?

Correct me if I'm wrong, but this kind of thing couldn't happen in 1940. It wasn't just that a division could fit into 52,000 tons, or that formed fighting units could be packed onto a single troop train and marched off it in formation, although that's an interesting point that I shall certainly return to at a later date. It's that the British would have been insane to assume that they could mobilise on the French frontier, even under the cover of a fort such as Maubeuge, when the Germans had already been in Belgium for 16 days. Who would be so crazy as to send trains full of troops that close to the enemy? But it did work. It worked because someone, somewhere, was not doing their job. I guess that I've telegraphed my point when I suggest that it was the cavalry, on both sides.

A good way of looking at this is through General Edmonds' reviews of foreign books on cavalry operations (especially assuming, from the biting, smartest-guy-in-the-room tone, that he is also the author of the anonymous summaries published at the head of Army Quarterly's "review of Foreign War Books,"). Edmonds has a particular interest in cavalry opeations, for all that he's a Royal Engineer, although see below.

Anyway, in the fall of 1924,Edmond/the anonymous reviewer notices Commandant Grasset's Ethe. It's the story of one of the terrible battles of the Frontier that cost Europe a generation in three months. In the course of 22--3 August, 7th French infantry division, comprising with the 8th the 4th Corps of 7th Army, marched into the little town of Ethe, just inside the "forest of Arden," as the poet has it, for something a little less pleasant than a pastoral comedy. They are in search of the hinge between the two German wings here in this forested country, "where cavalry did not penetrate and aviator could not see" and find an army instead.

Two roads, six miles apart, were available to the corps. 7th Division's, after reaching Ethe, turned east to run across the presumptive enemy front before plunging into the woods following the deep valley of the Tron. Led forward by the advanced guard, the 7th Division stepped off on a very foggy morning. At the edge of the woods, the cavalry of the advanced guard drew aside to let the infantry lead. Our reviewer adds that "[I]t may be added here that the lieutenant colonel commanding the cavalry, who notoriously considered inaction the worst crime that cavalry could commit, about 8 am, as the fog lifted a little, proceeded to charge at nothing in particular, lost two-thirds of his men, and was himself killed."(2)

How, exactly, 150 sabres, all recalled reservists on drafted horses, Strachan notes (218) could have recovered their position at the head of the advance, without charging, Edmonds does not suggest. In an era when the cavalry otherwise made little use of reservists on grounds of their inefficiency, one can well guess just how ready these men were for action. The infantry plunged into the forested gloom, and the leading, 14th Brigade, was attempting to pass through Ethe, partly in a tangle in the village, partly in column of march along the road, when the fog cleared, revealing numerous Germans on the ridges, who immediately brought all available fire, notoriously including those high-trajectory howitzers, well suited for action in hilly country, to bear. General Trentinian sought to bring his other brigade into action, but it was pinned by fire, as well. The Germans then attacked, got their own noses bloodied, and, just as they were preparing to finish off the six battalion brigade trapped in Ethe, were recalled, apparently accidentally.

The 14th Brigade then withdrew, practically passing through a village occupied by some German cavalry, who failed to notice. Thus ended a battle in which a single French division, and mainly a single brigade of it, had lost nearly 5200  men. The historian adds that it was the single battalion of 14th Brigade that "got involved in Ethe" that actually got to fired its weapons. The damage done to the Germans in all of this, which was not inconsiderable, was accomplished by what artillery could get into action (for as long as their ammunition held out), and that single battalion. Everyone else was there to die. And the role of the cavalry on both sides was simultaneously to kill horses by exhaustion and infantry "by inaction," having allowed two major infantry forces to blunder into each other in complete ignorance of each other's position.

At other points (this is code for "I didn't take enough notes when I was reading the reviews in Army Quarterly), Edmonds covers a history of the German cavalry in the great war volume by volume. He is particularly struck by the way that the Germans attempted, and failed, to launch successful cavalry raids on the Eastern Front. In spite of their featuring as dramatic and valuable operations of war in prewar planning, German efforts were ineffectual, as they lacked pack horse-carried pontoon bridges, saddle packs for machine guns, or even mounted engineers attached to their cavalry divisions. (Anyone know Edmonds' biography well enough to know whether he ever served in a cavalry-attached field engineer squadron?)

In his usual tone, Edmonds adds that the Germans were surprisingly backwards in these arrangements compared with the British. He does not, however, draw  much attention to the global figures for German mobilisation published elsewhere: 3 million men and 880,000 horses.

That's 880,000 German horses versus 120,000 British horses. I've constantly been struck by the way that matters equestrian in WWI shadow matters internal combustion in the next, and here's another. The British, with an army one-twelfth the size of the German, have one-seventh the number of horses. If there is a parallel between cavalry and tank, the BEF of 1914 is what Corelli Barnett dreams that the army of 1940 should have been: an army with vastly more horsepower, including horsepower in combat formations, than the Germans. By the same token, the desperate expedients of the French (reservist cavalry), and Germans (Jager battalions, foot engineers accompanying horse cavalry) are more readily understood. These armies have come to the limit of their horseflesh before they've come to the limit of their manpower, and their armies lack the necessary cavalry.

So, on the one hand, the reason that couverture worked so well in 1914 is that apparently neither cavalry could do its job. Whether cavalry could, in theory do the job is one thing. The other thing is that they lack the horses to do it properly. On the other, the British mobilisation was covered by the best arm of couverture of any power. 

The source of the cavalry's problems in 1914 was that they weren't where they needed to be. This is often explained in terms of the dominance of fire, but we could talk about any number of other things if we were of a mind. Better bridges? Better clothes? Better roads? Railroads?

Or we could face the fact that the cavalry has lost what was crucial to its basic role: its manoeuvre edge over the infantry. It's easy to forget in all the talk of charges and sabres, but  that they possessed in previous warsIt might all be worth investigating, but leading interwar British military intellectual Leslie Keith Lockhart. gets us there in a 1937 paper.(3)  It is as simple as that the Field Service Regulation delegates the task of the advanced guard to the mounted cavalry element because it can go faster than infantry. Movement, down one road, depends on reconnaissance, so that you don't run into masses of Germans who shoot you down in column of march. So you have to be able to scout off the roads and still keep ahead of the infantry. Mounted troops, FSR says, "while carrying out the necessary reconnaissance," must move 30 miles/day. Infantry makes 15. The best interpretation of the fiasco at Ethe is that the cavalry couldn't make their 30. But the FSR regulations add a stage of bussed movement to the infantry. Because why not use ammunition resupply column? Lacking anything else to do, they come up on the trailing infantry brigade, load it aboaard, drive it up to the head of the marching column, and dump it off (provided there is still a security screen, i.e., advanced guard, making this safe), before they drive back to the rear to repeat. Now the infantry does  27 miles bussed as well as 15 miles on foot. That's 42 miles. 

Can horse cavalry do 42 miles a day, "including all necessary reconnaissance?" No, they cannot. The day of fighting horse is over. Never mind the cavalry division; what about the advanced guard? A bright young lad by the name of Bernard Montgomery put the alternative in one of his few published staff college lectures: a motorised advanced guard, consisting of detachments of all arms from the division, including any reincarnated divisional cavalry in tanks or whatnot. After all, what was the point of developing the Bren carrier, or the embryonic divisional artillery radio network if these assets could not be used in their full implications for concentration of effect rather than of quantity?

Move ahead to Alam el Halfa: when one speaks of the Afrika Korps, one includes the 90th Light Division, and its counterpart in the Italian XXth, the Trieste Division. The infantry of the 8th Army includes 2nd New Zealand Division, as expert in mobile desert operations as 9th Australian was at holding positions in the desert. These infantry divisions keep up with the armour: to the extent that the cavalry has been replaced by armour, the couverture problem has not been solved. The armour can't stay ahead of the infantry. This isn't an existential criticism, but it does mean that encounter battles are not going to go very well, unless someone can come up with an alternative.

Alam el Halfa went wrong for Rommel before it even began. It was not, as far as he knew, an unwinnable battle. Sure, he didn't have the fuel to prosecute it for very long, but, then, he had won battle after battle over the last three months on the strength of captured Commonwealth provisions. The realities that forced his enemy to dump vast stores just behind the front had not changed. All he had to do was win ground, and the rest would follow. Theoretically, he was outnumbered in armour, but his force consisted of a homogenous force of "cruiser" tanks, while the Commonwealth force was a mixed bag of cruisers and infantry types. Even the larger of the underwhelming Italian tanks were a match for some of the machines that the Commonwealth cruisers. People tend to write about the Allied armoured arsenal at Alam el Halfa as though it had been completely revived by the arrival of the latest American type, because it finally had a 3" gun. In fact, it is hard to be charitable about the M2 Lee/Grant, an overheight monstrosity with the armament pioneered by the Char B but without the transmission that made a hull-mounted gun practical. 

I'm not saying that the German armour was better, or worse. Any judgement would have to be nuanced by a clearer discussion of WWII firepower than I'm currently prepared to deliver. (Because I have to clear the ground first by talking about light machine guns and barriers and morning fogs and a lot of other stuff.) All that I am saying is that I'm not inclined to side reflexively with Rommel's critics here. As far as he knew, Alam el Halfa was not an unwinnable battle. 

Problems emerged, first, when he engaged elements of 7th Armoured Division in the minefield gaps. the old-timey cavalry guys like to talk about how when cavalry charges meet, the losing side is "overthrown." Gavin Robinson is pretty persuasive that this is not a literal description, so I'm inclined to imagine horses balking, instead. One cavalry force rides on, the other balks, rears, throws riders, whatever. It's a triumph of physical athleticism and horsemanship, but also of morale, hence leadership.  That's why a beau sabreur is a beau sabreur. He leads the horse. 

The Afrika Korps certainly did not overthrow 7th Armoured on this occasion, and I could extend the metaphor, too. Generals Nehring and Bismarck both became casualties at this stage, just like our anonymous French lieutenant colonel at Ethe, and not at all like Bonnie Dundee. (Although Rommel did manage to jump the bridge railing one more time, just like Seydlitz.)

Again, though, I'm not convinced that the cavalry metaphor is helping, because I'm not convinced that armour has the requisite mobility advantage.  It's therefore telling that there's another aspect of the fight in the minefield lanes that gets prominent play: Fairey Albacores of the Fleet Air Arm dropping flares to  light up the scene for night bombing by Vickers Wellingtons.

Ha! Ha! What an old plane! Only not really. The Fairey Albacore was designed to a 1936 specification for the same torpedo, search, and reconnaissance specification as the Fairey Swordfish, but with a dive bombing requirement thrown in on top, because the Swordfish was so overly specialised. The Albacore was supposed to be able to dive at 215 knots, recover flaps up or down, even very close to the water, and to do it with 4x500lb bombs under the wings. It needed a navigator's "office," which in this version is enclosed and heated, a good radio, and excellent deck handling abilities that fed into good night operational capability. Technically, this was achieved by good aerodynamics, full flight flaps, and a brand-new Taurus engine running a constant speed airscrew.

Not that anyone cares. The Albacore was replaced in service by its own predecessor, and the Taurus was famously rejected for production in Australia in favour of an American radial by virtue of the difficulty of overhauling a sleeve valve engine, and making the sleeves in the first place. It's a surprising amount of technical ambition packed into a single plane, and the biplane configuration allowed the designer the confidence to experiment in other areas.

And it pretty much all comes down to this. Only 800 Albacores were built. They dropped some famous torpedoes at Matapan and some ignominious ones against Tirpitz, but, basically,  their war effort comes down to this, pretending to be the air cavalry that didn't exist yet for a few summer nights of 1942.

So, er, take away? Aeroplanes: the cavalry of 1914--45. I know. Where do I keep coming up with these radical new ideas?

1. Edmonds, Military Operations: France and Flanders, 1914: 1:  471—98; also I want to talk up the other Ian: Ian F. W. Beckett, Ypres: The First Battle, 1914. 
2. "Notes on Foreign War Books," Army Quarterly 9, 1 (October 1925): 153.
3.  "Movement of a Division by Mechanised Transport," (AQ 34, 1 (April, 1937): 98--106.)


  1. Damn, that table has just made me realise that I misread a key passage in David Kenyon's thesis, leading to me massively under-representing the number cavalry in the BEF in my essay on horses and social status. But it's in a Brill volume, so no-one will notice what they can't afford.

    Kenyon also says be suspicious of Edmonds because he was prejudiced against cavalry, but the examples he gives are more about the tactical level, especially the 'last machine gun' myth.

    I'd say another problem with cavalry in the 20th century is the logistics of supporting such a huge number of horses. In the English Civil War, numbers were small enough that they could survive by buying or requisitioning dry fodder from civilians. In 1914, Cavalry Corps was an order of magnitude bigger than any ECW field army's cavalry (and ammunition consumption was probably much greater). Presumably they had to be supplied in much the same way as the infantry, which would limit their mobility. Cavalry seem to have performed best in Palestine, where more of the transport was motorized. It's a counter-intuitive paradox that the huge concentrations of horses achieved in WW1 depended on new technology.

  2. Of course, Liddell-Hart's gloss on Alam Halfa is that the British armour finally got to fight like the Royal Tank Regiment wanted to, and like the Germans had been, not like the cavalry - manoeuvring to commanding ground and then halting-to-fire, with the anti-tank gun line. Famously, one of the armoured brigade commanders (Gatehouse?) asked Monty who was going to be responsible for "loosing the armour" and got a flea in his ear. Nobody was going to be "loosed" anywhere and the armour would stand on the line of Alam Halfa ridge.

    And of course, being BLH, this is the final victory of all the good stuff he rolled up in the RTR black beret over the Evil of Cavalry.

    Now, Erik is no doubt going to tell us that Liddell-Hart was full of shit. But I think you can make a case that the (successful) tactics of Alam Halfa are quite close to the (successful) tactics of the British cavalry in 1914 - move, then shake out and defend with firepower - and the (failed) tactics of Gazala are more like the (failed) tactics of von der Marwitz's dashing squadrons racing towards the British flank and then, er, not.

    (ISTR Guderian sez they ran short of fodder as early as 6th August, and of course every time they met Allenby they came off worst, the Allied flank was never turned, and well, the Germans lost the war with well-known results like Barbarossa and Spike Milligan.)

  3. Ian (Malcolm Brown) has a great quote about how the cavalry absorbed such a disproportionate amount of the motor transport in WWI, moving all of that fodder. I was going to put it in, but decided that the post was already riding off in enough directions.

    Because we know that's what the cavalry does wrong, right? All of that mobility stuff? They should just go where the enemy is going to be, dig into impregnable positions, and then slaughter the charging enemy with firepower.

    Wow. I'll bet that would work as a book about strategy. I wonder if I could get an endorsement from some IDF generals?

  4. Isn't that precisely the point of mobility?

  5. The tricky part is figuring out where the enemy is going to be.

    No, wait, scratch that. The tricky part is figuring it out, and then persuading the enemy to impale themselves on you, as opposed to going around.

    1. heigh ho, the mystery of command and the profession of intelligence analysis.

      which may bring you back to Ernest May.

  6. That's it. I've got to talk about the Forest of Arden.

  7. I have relatives who lived there in the 1990s. Cyberstalker.