Words of endurance: Russian Hussar

The Nicholas Cavalry School, which Littauer attended.

The Nicholas Cavalry School, which Vladimir Littauer attended.

This is one of a series about memoirs, novels, and poems authored by combatants of the First World War. All page numbers shown below refer to Vladimir Littauer’s
Russian Hussar, Shippensburg, PA: White Mane Publishing, 1993.

On July 24, 1915, somewhere in Latvia, German forces advanced against a Siberian infantry regiment. The Russian commander ordered in a cavalry division to support the exhausted Siberians. The division consisted of Dragoons, Cossacks, Uhlans, and Hussars.* Vladimir Littauer of the Sumsky Hussars recalled: “The Hussars’ squadrons were assembling at a gallop and opening formation, with my unit on the left flank. Some 1,600 horses drawn up in four rows with hundreds of lowered lances formed a beautiful and menacing sight. The scene was dramatically lighted by the setting sun. Our battery opened fire to soften the Germans while the regiments moved ahead. The Germans ran even before our charge started…. It seemed to us that the threat of a large cavalry attack had decided the outcome of the battle.” (192)

A body of cavalry moving in orderly formation in the heat of battle: that achievement of discipline must have been impressive to see. As also, for instance, the limbering of the guns in an earlier battle, East Prussia: “The horses galloped to their guns. With great skill and seemingly without halting their horses, the artillerymen hooked the guns to the limbers and pulled away. This was the result of endless drills.” (160)

Or, soon thereafter, when the Germans had nearly surrounded them: “I imagine they already considered us their prisoners…. Then Gourko galloped forward and, as if on parade, gave the command: ‘The division, from the right, by regiment, at regimental distances, forward, walk, march,’ and pointed east with his sword to indicate the direction. The thick column moved forward; almost immediately orders to trot, and then to canter, were given.” (161) The Germans were so surprised that they delayed opening fire, and the Russians escaped.

Littauer’s Hussars were part of the Russian 1st Army under General Rennenkampf. The 2nd Army under General Samsonov had just suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of Hindenburg and Ludendorff in the Battle of Tannenberg, August 26-30, 1914. Samsonov committed suicide immediately afterward, shooting himself in the head rather than face the wrath of the Tsar.

Russian prisoners at Tannenberg.

Russian prisoners after the Tannenberg battle.

But Littauer’s book is not the place to learn about major events in the war, as he tells us himself: as an “unimportant officer,” he can offer only small details of the “great strategic operations.” (8) In his typical way, he gives the humorous example of a low-ranking officer in Napoleon’s army who for weeks told everyone of participating in an engagement near a certain village. Only after considerable time did he discover that it was the Battle of Austerlitz in which he’d fought.

Instead, the book offers the opportunity to sit down comfortably with a man of remarkable experience, a top-notch raconteur, and listen to his astonishing stories. Pretend that you are dining with him at an elegant establishment—let’s even pretend it resembles the best Moscow restaurant of the pre-Revolution era, the “Yar”—and that over much good food and fine wine, he is telling you tales of his life that span the years from cavalry school to regimental life in Moscow to the war, the Revolution, the Whites against the Reds, and finally his exile from his country. You are in a large Empire-style room with ornate green columns and a stage where a gypsy chorus will perform late in the evening. Through large panels of glass, you can see chefs in the spic-and-span kitchen preparing meals in gleaming copper pans.

To be an officer in the Sumsky Hussars, one needed wealth. When in Moscow, officers lunched at their club together, at a long table where the men sat strictly in order of rank. Before sitting down to eat one might stand at the bar and consume varieties of smoked fish while knocking back a few glasses of vodka. A bill was presented at the end of the month.

One always dined out. Those feeling especially flush might invite a female companion to a private room at the Yar and hire the gypsy chorus to perform for the two of them. Even the most junior officers seldom dined alone at the club. Sometimes several of the younger men would pool resources for a supper and hire singers and the regiment’s off-duty trumpeters for entertainment. The official regimental personnel included 16 trumpeters as well as the transport and communications units, the machine gun unit, and the clerks.

Wealth was also necessary for social cohesion. Littauer often speaks of the regiment as a “family.” Officers who did not share the others’ habits and values were driven out—a rare happening, since an intensive weeding-out process had already occurred in cavalry school. But a certain lieutenant from an aristocratic background who secretly married a beautiful gypsy girl was forced to leave. Any marriage required the permission of the commander and, just as importantly, the informal approval of one’s fellow officers. The regiment was so central to the men’s lives that few did take a wife. They satisfied themselves with what the regiment called “the ladies of our circle.” Littauer explains, “These were not prostitutes, but just ladies of easy virtue, and quite a few of them were amusing, besides being pretty and perhaps even chic.” (87)

Russian hussars, 1910.

Russian hussars, 1910.

In cavalry school, the boys were subjected to a regimen of demanding athletic accomplishments. Purely academic subjects such as Russian literature were scorned, and the professor of that subject was reduced to bargaining with his students about their grades. Naturally, everything revolved around horsemanship. The boys were drilled incessantly in a large ring until they could pull off such stunts as “Scythian riding” over low fences without either saddle or bridle.

I did a fair amount of riding when I was growing up, and I expected to find considerable detail about horsemanship in this book, especially since Littauer founded the famous “Boots and Saddles” riding school after he emigrated to the US. But perhaps because he’s written about the subject elsewhere, he doesn’t give it that much attention here. I learned that the Russian cavalry rode in the “manege” or dressage style, with long stirrups and upright posture, inducing the horse to make tight, controlled movements—arched neck, vertical head. In Littauer’s time, some of the younger officers advocated a newer style with shorter stirrups, the rider leaning forward out of the saddle at a gallop or a jump, the horse allowed extension in its movements. But the traditionalists would have none of that. In the field, the formal style often proved impractical. Littauer mentions that as the war went on, they replaced their curb bits with snaffles. The curb puts a lot of leverage on the horse’s mouth, while the snaffle is gentler and better suited to long cross-country rides.

Littauer’s experience of war

The picture presented in Russian Hussar could hardly be more different than the one described in the last book in this blog series, The Notebooks of Louis Barthas. For that matter, it bears no resemblance to any of the Western Front narratives. Of course, we’re on the Eastern Front here, and we’re dealing with cavalry rather than infantry. But it is the social world of the officers that makes the critical difference.

Badge of Sumsky Hussars commemorating its 250th anniversary.

Badge of Sumsky Hussars commemorating its 250th anniversary.

The Sumsky Hussars originated in 1651 as a Cossack regiment from the town of Sumy on the southern Russian plains. It was one of several bodies of Cossacks turned into regular cavalry, and one of four created the same year who all claimed to be the oldest Russian cavalry regiment.

Its officers either came from nobility or (as in Littauer’s case) from very wealthy families. As “younkers” in the Nicholas Cavalry School, they performed for the Tsar and not infrequently met with him personally. The officers’ club had on display such relics as a giant silver punch bowl presented by the town of Sumy on the regiment’s 250th anniversary, and a painting measuring six feet by ten feet depicting an attack by the regiment in the Napoleonic wars. Against this background, behavior was governed by intricate historical tradition.

Member of 2nd Sumsky regiment, 1812.

Member of 2nd Sumsky regiment, 1812.

Littauer’s stories nearly all concern other commissioned officers (he entered the regiment as a cornet, or 2nd lieutenant), or the occasional corporal, sergeant, or adjutant. The regular enlisted man doesn’t make much of an appearance. I don’t believe Littauer lacked human concern for his men. He did appreciate the courage of individuals, as when he describes seeing a dead soldier with a heap of spent cartridges by his side, indicating that he’d remained on the spot for a long time—far ahead of his company’s firing line—shooting until he was killed. “Since then I have seen and forgotten thousands of dead bodies, but this one I remember as though I saw it only yesterday.” (141)

But if Littauer ever felt any sense of horror or meaninglessness, he does not express it. This is in keeping with his personal code: “To make light of what was either boredom, danger, or tragedy, to speak freely of one’s failures, barely to mention one’s acts of bravery, and to joke about both.” (9)

Because he was an officer, he naturally avoided many of the discomforts experienced by his men. He and his fellows were billeted in the nicest houses in the villages they occupied, while the common soldiers slept on hay in the barns. He had better food and drink. Those things would make quite a difference in one’s experience of war.

As part of Russia’s 1st Army, he escaped the 2nd Army’s destruction at Tannenberg. The lack of coordination between the two armies is said to have derived from personal animosity between Rennenkampf and Samsonov that dated back to the Battle of Mukden in the Russo-Japanese War. The 1st Army should have gone to the support of the 2nd, but instead continued marching in a straight line under the willful Rennenkampf. And so, because of a trivial personality clash, Littauer’s regiment avoided going into the maelstrom.

German print of Battle of Tannenberg, showing cavalry of Russian 2nd Army.

German print of Battle of Tannenberg, showing cavalry of Russian 2nd Army.

The 1st Army was pursued by the Germans out of East Prussia, fighting fierce battles and experiencing heavy losses, especially in the period January to March 1915. This is probably the most severe combat Littauer experienced, and he describes seeing bodies stacked like cords of firewood and fields carpeted with the dead: those all-too-familiar images of battle. Thereafter the intensity abated, and eventually the regiment joined the army reserve in trenches along the bank of the Dvina (Daugavec) in east Latvia. But with the small numbers involved, these trenches bore little resemblance to the ones in Flanders and France.

It was while they occupied those trenches that they had word of the Revolution, March 1917. It took them completely by surprise. When Littauer heard that the Tsar was expected to abdicate, “This all sounded so preposterous that we could not believe it.” (229) Before long the men of the regiment requested to form a soldiers’ council, in keeping with the new democratic order. The Sumsky Hussars managed to hold together, with considerable internal tensions, but eventually Littauer quarreled with a platoon sergeant, and the soldiers’ council took Littauer’s squadron away from him. At that point he deserted and went home to St. Petersburg.

Tsar Nicholas in the uniform of the Grodnensky Guard Hussars.

Tsar Nicholas in the uniform of the Grodnensky Guard Hussars.

His odyssey thereafter is too long to detail here. He joined the White Army, eventually realized it was a lost cause, and after many harrowing adventures and narrow escapes managed to leave Russia with his father, his sister, and a family servant.

The other reason why Littauer’s book lacks deep introspection and reflections on the nature of war is that it is largely based on anecdotes, the sort, as mentioned earlier, that would be told among friends over good food and drink. But these anecdotes are exceedingly valuable. Not only do they entertain and provide notes of humor, they give a remarkable description of a world that has entirely disappeared.

Vladimir Littauer, 1892 - 1989. Photo taken 1953 at the riding school of Sweet Briar College.

Vladimir Littauer, 1892 – 1989. Photo taken 1953 at the riding school of Sweet Briar College.

* Dragoons = mounted infantry; Uhlans = lancers; Hussars = light cavalry; Cossacks are their own category.

About Jenny

I am an off-trail hiker, a student of history, and author of "Transvaal Citizen," "Murder at the Jumpoff," and "The Twelve Streams of LeConte."
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28 Responses to Words of endurance: Russian Hussar

  1. A different world…one of unquestioned privilege, unquestioning about its position of privilege until overwhelmed by the deluge.

    • Jenny says:

      To use a different meteorological image, many seismic tremblings occurred before the big 1917 earthquake. Littauer refers to the Revolution of 1905 several times. But it is never in the context of observing the deep social instability within Russia, it is only to note certain practical changes that occurred at that point. For instance, after 1905 (and Russia’s unexpected loss to the Japanese that year as well as the unrest and assassinations), the Tsar decided to restore certain earlier military uniforms, ranks, and categories in the hope of boosting morale. And, for instance (kind of funny), the singing of the national anthem in restaurants was prohibited after 1905 because of violence that occurred when some not-so-patriotic diners refused to stand during that event. Littauer was not a stupid man, and probably his fellow officers were also fairly intelligent to have risen to that rank. But they were so wrapped up in the sense of purpose and determination that came from belief in the honor of their country (and existing order) that they were blind to other concerns. In fairness, it is probably necessary to have this sort of devotion to “Emperor and Nation” in order to perform the courageous and difficult feats that they accomplished. As I observe these major historical circumstances, I don’t especially want to align myself with any particular position, I try to simply observe. I can appreciate both Louis Barthas and Vladimir Littauer, in very different ways. Thank you for giving me the occasion to develop my thoughts on this subject.

      • As you allow me to develop mine…isn’t blogging good for us all – a truly open university.
        My father, who fought in the Spanish Civil War and then became a professional soldier, would have been sceptical about the intelligence required to rise in rank….

  2. Great post. It’s intriguing how the eastern and western military experiences contrasted so greatly in the First World War. As you point out, one of the key arbiters of that were the cultural and social differences. It’s intriguing; the fact that defence (wire, trench, machine gun) had defeated offence (infantry, artillery) on the expanded battlefield of the day effectively reduced the entire war to a battle of attrition between industrialised nations. Until new offensive means were devised (tank, aircraft, artillery) the arbiter of victory became whose society would crack first; and it’s interesting that it was Russia. That social difference again, I suspect – not just in the officer subculture but generally.

    • Jenny says:

      Your comment is interesting, and it starts me thinking along several different lines. Let me focus on just one thing for now: there are many different ways that nations are defeated in wars. Your notion of attrition applies very well, for instance, to the American Civil War. Grant and Sherman understood that the Union could withstand losses better than the Confederates, and they were willing to pay the price in their army’s own casualties. In the Anglo-Boer War, the British had to involve Boer civilians in their strategy before the Boers caved in—this essentially meant that the Boer fighters had no food and clothing (supplied from their own homes and farms). Otherwise, the conflict could have continued unresolved for many years (like the current situation in Afghanistan). In WW2, attrition wore down Germany, but it was different in Japan. Attrition would have forced them to surrender eventually—after all, their resources were small compared to that of the US—but it would probably have taken years longer, due to the unique trait of the Japanese of fighting to the death, if it were not for the nuclear bomb. (Don’t take this as a justification for Hiroshima.) In WW1, the Russians cracked, as you say, but for reasons external to the war as well as internal. They were ripe for social upheaval, for the broad cultural reasons that you mention. So well before the Armistice, they were out of the picture. But this was not really a military defeat. I hope I haven’t rambled too much here.

      • Not rambling at all – this is interesting. The ‘social cracking’ also happened to Germany in 1918, when the war ended without their army being decisively defeated in the field. Again – victory that wasn’t a military victory. The cost was that Germany afterwards was filled with ex-soldiers who felt humiliated by Versailles and knew they hadn’t been beaten. Ultimately, of course, wars are all about people and societies, so these are useful lessons.

    • patholscher says:

      While I agree with Matthew’s comment, one of the great ironies and oddities of the story in the East is that while the Russians themselves cracked first, they soon slid into a civil war of equal barbarity and violence, although one that was much more fluid in nature. We know that, of course, but as beaten down by the Great War as the Russians were, they were soon fighting tooth and nail in a new war that would actually last longer for them than the First World War.

      • Jenny says:

        Their attention had shifted from fighting the Germans to thrashing out their internal conflicts. With sufficient motivation, such conflicts continue a long time. And there was huge motivation that had been building up for decades.

  3. Jenny says:

    I agree that wars are about people and societies. Unfortunately, many at the top level of military establishments believe that wars are about technology. This runs somewhat parallel to the situation in the medical world in which advances in technology outpace understanding about how to use that technology. It’s amazing how people get fixated on technology and think it’s the universal solution. We live in a strange time, in which technology has far outpaced human wisdom.

    • patholscher says:

      Not just in amongst military technologist or in medicine, but rather in everything now. I’d argue that our technology, as wondrous as it is, now actually has potentially started to surpass out ability to really employ it for ourselves, and at that point it starts to in some way be a threat to our nature. We remain, in significant ways, that more primitive man that we once were only shortly ago, and perhaps by our nature long to remain. Technology has been our servant, but we seem to be beginning to serve it, and that won’t make us a happier bunch.

  4. patholscher says:

    A lost world indeed! I hope you enjoyed the book, I know that I did when I read it.

    One of the lost chances I had, which I know very much regret, is to speak to a Russian Imperial cavalry officer who lived in my town when I was a boy, and who even remained alive when I was in college. Very aged, he was a tiny old man who loved to walk the huge dog that belonged to a friend of mine. But in his youth, he’d been an Imperial Russian cavalry officer. When he died, his story died with him, unfortunately. I really wish I’d asked him about it.

    • Jenny says:

      I think there is a strong sadness whenever any such world disappears, just because the aspirations and the ideas and the habits of a time long ago disappear. Not to try to be too profound or poetic, but it is because it makes us aware of the unstoppable passage of time.

  5. Jenny says:

    This is to Helen Devries. The format of this comment section doesn’t allow me to post directly below yours.
    I figure your dad was on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. I take my hat off to him (if I had a hat). I was deeply engrossed in George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia” and the sharp, self-destructive but idealistic emotions that led him and other similar souls to confront the Fascists.

    Yes, there is certainly a bureaucratic aspect to military promotion, in which folks who plod along and follow correct procedures achieve higher rank. But I would argue that, whatever you might say about the Imperial Russian Army, this was not necessarily the case in the more prestigious regiments. There was too much knowledge, too much laughter and scorn—to put it in informal social terms—for any dumb fellow to rise in rank.

    My own dad fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Well, we won’t get into a competition between our fathers. I only say that you can’t always reduce the military situation to a stupid bureaucratic procedure, even though that is true sometimes.

    • patholscher says:

      The reference to the Spanish Civil War reminded me that another author who touches upon subjects Russian is Francis McCullagh. McCullagh wrote a fascinating book on his experiences in the Russo Japanese War, in which he started off imbedded, if you will, with a Cossack unit, but he ended up basically captured by the Japanese and thereafter spent some time with them.

      McCullagh was a good writer, and he later wrote some other books based on his experiences as a war correspondence (which is what he basically was). In that role he was a witness to the Mexican Revolution, World War One, and the Spanish Civil War. I haven’t read any of the later books, but I keep meaning to. During World War One he again went to Russia and ended up being there during the Revolution, and was held by the Reds for awhile on the basis that he might be a spy, which actually was a relatively accurate supposition as he had some connection with the British Army at the time. His last, or maybe nearly last, book is on the Spanish Civil War, during which he sympathized I believe with the Nationalist. I’d note again that the only book of his I’ve read is his first one.

      An Irishman by birth, he self identified as British during the Russo Japanese War and World War One, and then later as Irish, before having a final residence in the United States. Having quite a following in his heyday, in his last months he declined (as so many do) into dementia and died nearly penniless.

  6. Gary Howell says:

    interesting posts and replies .. I guess the Prussians and British also had regiments with longstanding aristocratic traditions. Isn’t there an opera “Daughter of the Regiment”? The aristocracy was a relic of the days when the feudal lords were rated by how many knights they could supply. The French purged the old aristocrats .and got the great Napoleonic armies. The Russian winter and “scorched earth” did in the great army and let the aristocracies convince themselves of their value. The Russians and Brits found a function for their class structures in extending their empires in the 19th century. The Prussians also wanted to play the game and the ruling cousins (czar, kaiser, king) went to war. The 500 had died in Crimea, Gatling guns had done in the Sioux. British planes brought the Bedouin to heel (and I suspect German machine guns were pretty practical against Russian cavalry). WW I put paid to calvaries and aristocracies ?
    Not in the MIddle East. Jordan, Morocco, Saudi, the gulf states survived the Arab Spring.

    • patholscher says:

      Well. . . .

      Napoleon’s armies were raised by mass conscription and were fueled, in part, by revolutionary zeal, believing as they did that they served Republican France even while their leader acted in an increasingly aristocratic manner. That gave the Emperor, who created his own replica aristocracy during his rule, a large effective army, that wasn’t burdened by the dead weight that the French royal army had been to some extent, but it also bleed in profusion. By the time of France’s invasion of Imperial Russia, that “French” army was so heavily supplemented by German levies that it was in effect nearly a German army, serving a foreign power, against the average will of that levied rank and file. Looked at that way, the French Grande Armee wasn’t all that grand, really, and wasn’t even really wholly, or even mostly, French. By the time the combined British, Prussian and Russian efforts finally did it in for good, in some ways what it mostly had done was to bleed France white to little permanent effect, although there was some. It’s notable that in its collapse, the royal system was revived in France.

      Gatling guns had no role in American warfare against the Plains Indians, and they really weren’t effectively employed by the US anywhere up until the Spanish American War, by which time they were already obsolescent. While the U.S. Army did have Gatlings in the post 1865 period, it tended to never employ them as they were not a highly mobile weapon. Probably the most effective use of Gatlings was actually made against the Boers by the British in the Boer war. In regards to the Sioux specifically, the Sioux were defeated in the mid 1870s principally by the American ability to operate during the winter months, which they could not due to the natural resource problems that entailed. There wasn’t a single instance in the 1870s of the U.S. Army deploying Gatlings against the Sioux of which I’m aware. Some people mistakenly believe that they were used at Wounded Knee as they confuse the Hotchkiss Revolving Cannon, a type of Gatling, with the Hotchkiss 1.65 inch cannon, which was a single barreled cannon. It was the 1.65 in. cannot that was used at Wounded Knee.

      The widely held belief that machineguns rendered cavalry an anachronism in World War One is a complete myth. Machineguns were, in part, responsible for the “no man’s land” conditions that prevailed, but not in main part. It was the extremely heavy concentration of artillery that really did that. As has been very ably demonstrated by Kenyon in “Horsemen in No Man’s Land: British Cavalry and Trench Warfare, 1914-1918”, Anglesey in his three volumes on World War One in A History of the British Cavalry, and as earlier touched upon by the U.S. Army’s Cavalry School in its post World War One book “Cavalry Combat”, cavalry was actually extensively used during the Great War. This was so much the case that Angelsey found that he had to devote more volumes to that war than any other the British had been in, in his history of cavalry. Automatic weapons fire in World War One proved to be no more significant against cavalry than against infantry and later use in World War Two, where it was heavily deployed by both the Germans and the Soviets showed that if anything automatic weapons fire was less effective against cavalry than infantry. Indeed, the last cavalry charge of the Second World War actually came in April 1945, just a month before the war in Europe ended. It was artillery that caused the static lines during World War One, not artillery. Of course, that should be evident as machineguns were already in use during the Boer War, during which cavalry was extensively used and one entire army was in fact mounted. A low concentration of artillery in that war was the difference.

      In the East, during World War One, in fact the Russians conducted some very deep long range cavalry raids, and they would do so again during World War Two. The lack of German cavalry probably cost the German’s the war, late war, as they had no means of exploiting their 1918 offensive, and tried to make up for the lack of cavalry both in the assault phase and advance phase through infantry, but were unable to successfully do that due to human fatigue. The examples of successful British and French use of cavalry during the war were followed by an increased American effort to increase the amount of cavalry in the overall Army establishment, and its effectiveness, post World War Two, leading to more cavalry in the U.S. Army during that period.

      • Gary Howell says:

        Thanks, in fact I was referring to the Wounded Knee massacre for the final blow against the Sioux. I guess the last year or so of the American Civil War (Grant’s campaign against Lee) had no machine guns, but did have artillery and static lines (and no shortage of cavalry actions). Siege warfare has a much longer history (Wellington
        had long lines in Portugal, Spanish in the Netherlands around 1600), with earlier technology replaced (Norman style castles in northern Europe), Indian fortifications against British ..due to advances in artillery ..

        A last hurrah for Wellington’s cavalry was putting down British riots .. mounted police can still be effective ?

        ISIS and Somalians put machine guns on pickup trucks — light cavalry. My father and grandfather used horses to herd catlle (embarassing to fall off at age of 9 or so, the horse didn’t need my directions anyway), but these days pickup trucks are more usual.
        Faster. Have more endurance. It seems a shame to waste a 10 or 100 million dollar plane on taking out a pickup truck.

  7. patholscher says:

    Actually, we still use horses to herd cattle (I’m a stockman as well as a lawyer). Horses have endured the introduction of motor vehicles and have outlasted motorcycles and ATVs, both of which came into ranching with predictions they’d supplant the horses and have basically come and went here.

    What 4×4 trucks really did is reduce the need for cowboys, rather than supplant saddle horses. 4×4 trucks made it possible, in the west, to get to places that were distant in a day, and then unload the horses for work at that place, and load them up again when done (although in this part of the country we still trail cattle up and out of the mountains, on horseback, over a period of days). Beyond that, as you can get to distant pastures by truck, and ones that would otherwise be pretty isolated due to weather, you no longer need to keep cowhands out in distant pastures, so you no longer need the hands. So, for most working ranches, trucks, or rather 4×4 trucks (in this part of the country) have meant that smaller ranches aren’t really viable, and larger ranches rely on family members and neighboring ranches, rather than employed hands.

    FWIW, I’ve blogged about this several times on my blog, including noting the revolution that automobiles brought about. That thread is here:


    But in terms of importance, in the Rocky Mountain region at least, horses are as important to cattle operations as ever, and no working ranch can get by without them.

    Now, where horses were supplanted in ranching here is in feeding operations, although some ranches have kept using horses or reintroduced them in recent years in this role. That is, horses in draft to haul feed for cattle in winter. That’s nearly exclusively done by truck and trailer, or at least truck, now, although as noted some ranches have actually reintroduced horses in this role in recent years.

  8. Jenny says:

    This has been an interesting discussion. What about mules? I read an article a few years back that talked about how the US Army still finds mules as pack animals to be far superior to motorized vehicles in certain types of terrain. There is a certain place in, I think, West Tennessee that supplies mules to the army.

    • patholscher says:

      Mules have an interesting post World War One history in the U.S. Army to say the least, and also a pretty interesting one in connection with other powers.

      Following World War One the U.S. began a very advanced and extensive Remount program, the beginnings of which predated the Great War. The reasons for this is that changing conditions had convinced the Army that it needed to switch from a “range” type of horse to more of a sort of hot blooded endurance type. To put it another way, during the Frontier period the Army had focused on getting tough durable horses, at least in the later stages of the Frontier period. By the 1890s, however, it was wanting horses that were more hot blooded and fast. At the same time, however, the Army was cognizant of fact that the supplies for horses like that were drying up, as transporatation was increasingly shifting to other modes, and the big horse market in North America was for draft horses, rather than saddle mounts.

      Without getting into the specifics of the Remount program, following the Great War this was extensively developed and it was still very much in operation at the start of World War Two.

      During World War One, there had been a tremendous demand for American mules, with the market being centered in Missouri. The U.S. Army had relied on pack mules since the Frontier period, and in an interesting parallel with today, it also relied on a lot of contractors for this role. As late as the Punitive Expedition a very large number of American packers in military service were civilians, not soldiers. But the conditions of World War One did not allow for that, and the practice came to an end. Following the war, the demand for mules in the U.S. Army continued on, as pack artillery and other types of pack units remained. Early in World War Two, as it became plain that the demand for horses was going to be much lower than anticipated, the Remount program begin focusing on mules.

      There was a very large demand for U.S. mules in World War Two, and the US employed mules in Italy and the CBI, and supplied mules to the British and the Chinese as well. After the war, this was very much scaled back, and by the 1950s the only pack transportation unit remaining in the U.S. Army was an Army Reserve unit in Colorado. That unit was phased out in the late 1950s, even though the Army and the Marine Corps had locally used mules during the Korean War.

      Following the late 1950s, no more pack transportation units remained in the U.S. military, but the Marine Corps kept its equine transportation school going, and it still exists. It’s located in California and uses horses. The Army, on the other hand, kept an animal transportation capability in the Special Forces. That program is kept pretty quiet and generally civilians know little about it, but it trains on packing animals that vary from horses and mules to elephants. Of course, hands on experience with horses and mules, and dogs, is what is apparently done.

      Quite a few armies have actually used horses and mules since World War Two, and quite a few do today. Armies that have regular horse using units include the German Federal Army and the Russian Army. The U.S. Army found itself using equines again early in Afghanistan, and the Army and the Marines have used pack equines there. The details there are a bit murky too, but it appears that mules have been shipped to Afghanistan for U.S. use. This would have been fairly early in the war there. Since that time, donkeys have been used by the Army and the Marines in that role, with locally procured packers working as contractors.

      • patholscher says:

        One thing I should have added to the last item, is that since the start of the war in Afghanistan, the Army had relied on some local sources of training for packing in horses and mules. Army units have received some training, prior to deploying, from local packers in some instances, and from the U.S. Forest Service, which maintains a packing school at its Nine Mile Remount station in Montana.

        While not a huge program, in the Rocky Mountain West the USFS keeps at least one pack string of horses and mules at all times, with the string being headquartered out of Colorado, but the school being in Montana.

  9. patholscher says:

    On the reference to artillery in the Civil War, that’s an interesting point as Civil War artillery, in terms of field pieces, did occupy a role analogous to automatic weapons in later wars. That’s a point that’s often missed, as by the Spanish American War, a mere 30 or so years later, this was no longer true. But grape and canister shot of that era was used in a direct fire anti personnel role for mass effect, much the way that machineguns would later be used.

    Grape and canister had existed of course for a very, very long time by the Civil War, and it was used very effectively in the direct fire role during the Civil War, but it was actually at the end of its utility. The reason was that just as small arms were seeing the beginnings of a major technological revolution in the form of breach loading weapons, artillery was undergoing the same. Indirect fire artillery had already come in, and was employed during the Civil War (and Mexican War), but the big change would come first in direct fire artillery.

    The change to breach loading artillery meant that new munitions rapidly developed such that exploding munitions could be used in any role, and such munitions could be rapidly used in the direct fire role. So, at Wounded Knee, Hotchkiss guns, which fired a very small round, were very effective. By the Spanish American War modern artillery was beginning to creep in and the old canister and grape were gone. During World War One, which wasn’t that long after, a full range of nearly modern field artillery had been developed and direct fire field pieces were now pretty substantial, and capable of an indirect fire role. A good example is the famous French 75mm field piece, recalled by history as the “French 75”, but it was hardly a unique gun.

    Gatling guns, which are guns that are sort of fondly remembered in a way, really had very little impact in real historical terms as they were so unwieldy. That had been somewhat worked out by the Boer War, but by that time true automatic weapons had been developed. The Spanish American War, for example, saw employment of Maxim type machineguns by the Spanish and a few early Colt machineguns by the US. The British and the Boers both used Maxims during the Boer War. By World War One every army was using some sort of machinegun.

    But it was artillery that made no man’s land static. The amount of artillery employed by the warring sides in World War One is stunning. The profusion of artillery made crossing no man’s land a nightmare for infantry and it made it difficult for cavalry, due to the profusion of craters. For that matter, it also made it difficult for artillery, which was principally horse drawn during World War One and which in any situation needs some sort of passable terrain in order to be used to advance.

    Indeed, when looked at in that context, the introduction of armor was significant not solely because tanks could advance against machineguns (but not artillery, really), but also because its caterpillar drive allowed its occupants to crawl across the terrain. Tanks of that period, more than anything else, were really moving machinegun bunkers, rather than what they’d be during World War Two. Of note, when tanks started to be really effectively employed by the British, their commanding officers sometimes operated on the battleground on horseback, the only effective way to cover the ground between advancing tank formations, and in a few instances, accompanying British cavalry ended up leaving tanks behind as they were so slow.

  10. Jenny says:

    Thanks for the information, Pat. This has filled in a gap in my knowledge about the use of equines in the 20th century. What I do know a little bit more about is the use of US mules in the Boer War. Countless mules were barged downriver from East St. Louis to New Orleans for shipment to Cape Town for use by the British Army. The whole subject of horses and mules in the Boer War is one that never fails to fascinate me. When I did this “Russian Hussar” piece, I thought of drawing a contrast with the use of horses in South Africa and the particular style of horsemanship practiced by the Boers. I may do that as a separate piece.

    • patholscher says:

      It is a fascinating topic.

      I think it’s hard for people to imagine today the extent to which there was an international horse and mule market through the 1940s. During the Boer War, British agents combed for remounts all over the globe. The British bought horses in the U.S., Canada, Argentina, and India for the Boer War, and at least mules from the U.S. Added to that, of course, is the contribution by the Commonwealth forces that deployed their own forces with horses, including contributions from Canada, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. The British had a hard time, even at that, in keeping adequate numbers of horses.

      During World War One the situation repeated itself except that the British had the retained experience from World War One and handled things a bit differently. They worked to acquire as many suitable horses and mules as they could from the United States prior to our entering the war, competing somewhat with the French for mules, as the French also ordered U.S. mules. U.S. mules, which were and are larger than mules from elsewhere, had a particularly good reputation. Interestingly, they did not acquire horses from Canada at first, in spite of Canadian horses being readily available. While upsetting to Canadians, the reason was that the English viewed the Canadian horse stocks as an available reserve and very cleverly figured they’d clear out the US supplies first, a wise decision really.

      Even as it was, horse attrition was so high that the English had a difficult time keeping up and nearly drove one domestic breed, the Irish Draught, into extinction. The French, who ended up disbanding their independent cavalry formations into organic cavalry formations attached to infantry divisions, seemed to do a bit better keeping up, and oddly enough the French ended up mounting the U.S. 2nd Cavalry Regiment, which deployed to France as an independent formation, with French horses, although they used horses that were in a veterinary hospital to do it. Other U.S. Cavalry formations were largely (although not exclusively) deployed as organic cavalry in divisions on the French model and seem to have used U.S. mounts.

      The Germans, for their part, were extremely stressed for horse supplies which in the end spelled disaster for them. They had to disband independent cavalry formations in favor or organic formations as they didn’t have the horses to do otherwise, and in the end had to dismount some of those. The end of the war in the East didn’t seem to help in these regards and every horse they could acquire was pressed into use for draught transportation as they had no choice.

      I’ve often wondered about Russian horse supplies during the war and I’ve never read anything about it of any detail. Presumably Russian horse supplies were all internal to their country and the vast size of it seems to have meant sufficient supplies, given that they used huge numbers of horses during World War One and went on to use huge numbers during the Civil War and World War Two. I know that Russian horses bore a conscription number in to at least the 1950s. Cossack formations were mounted on a different type of horse than regular cavalry, so they paid attention to that. Following the civil war they developed a remount breed, the Budenny, so they were paying attention to what made a suitable mount, although during World War Two they extensively employed a type of horse that the Germans (who used them too) referred to panje, which means “peasant”.

      • Jenny says:

        Littauer does say something about the sourcing of horses in Russia in WW1. I will quote: “The army horses were bought all over Russia, but many of our dark brown ones came from the Cossack region of the Don, where government-owned thoroughbred stallions stood, whose services cost, if I am not mistaken, only three roubles. The army bought their progeny as four-year-olds for as high as 400 roubles, which was good business for the local farmers.” The reference to the dark brown color might not make sense unless you read the following: “The color of our horses was black. This was the color of all odd-numbered Hussar regiments, while those with even numbers were mounted on greys. The Dragoons had chestnuts and the Uhlans bays. Our black horses were further subdivided thus: in the first squadron—pure black; in the second—with white stars or blazes; in the third and fourth—dark brown; in the fifth—with socks, and in the sixth—with socks and stars.”


  11. Jenny says:

    P.S. One of the big themes of the Boer War that I remember is that the Basuto ponies used by the Boers did much better than most of the horses imported by the British. There is a quote somewhere in the wonderful book “With Rimington” by L. March Phillips (in my opinion the best British account of the war) about how the Boer ponies were able to sustain themselves on the packing of a crate of whiskey bottles when the bigger horses were collapsing.

    • patholscher says:

      Boer horses are also called Boerpard, which I believe simply translates as “Boer Horse”. They are very hardy, and of course as they had become acclimated to the region they were less prone to disease.

      Australian horses shipped from Australia suffered terrible losses in shipping due to the extremely poor conditions they were shipped in and were often terminally ill upon their arrival in Africa. During World War One, this lesson had been learned and the same did not reoccur.

      I haven’t read that book, but I’ll have to. This is an interesting aspect of history.

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