How terrifying is it for well-armored elite cavalry to charge at infantry?Not just as shieldwalls or blocks of spears, but even disorganized infantry?

Jan 2017
71
North Carolina
#1
Cavalry charges are always frequently shown as terrifying in general history books, movies, TV, video games, and fantasy novels. Even accurate historical accounts mentions the ground having an earthquake and things moving in slow motion as you stand with your legs shaking but stuck still on the ground due to fear.

However I borrowed a book from the library today on Medieval Warfare, and on the Battle of Hasting it described the Norman Knights charges against the Anglo-Saxon shieldwall as something so terrifying that the Norman knights "displayed a most legendary courage very rarely seen in the early Medieval battlefield" and mentions several times how the Norman knights almost routed.

In addition the book has some battles during the fall of the Roman Empire and the years following it where the last of the Roman Equites and Patricians fought against impossible odds that would have "made brave men flee" as they made desperate attempts to fend off Germanic tribes using their cavalry or to hold onto far away territory. It mentions in Britannia how typical Roman cavalry would hesitate to charge even disorganized Celtic warbands wandering the countryside especially in forests and swamps and it took the Equites, the most elite of the Roman Army's horsemen and often coming from Rome's aristocracy, to be able to hunt down these disorganized local bandits.

And of course the book praises the Germanic horse warriors in its Rome sections especially after the final Sack of Rome where it was the horsewarriors of the Barbarians who would be the "hammer" of the Catholic Church as it was bringing stability into Europe during the Dark Ages. Especially the Frankish heavy cavalry who would become the basis of the Medieval Knight and the book mentions the Catholic Church's honoring the Frankish horse warriors as the "bravest" of the Church's military and who often took the most difficult and scariest tasks of guarding the Church's laymen throughout Europe.

I am curious. Nowadays cavalry men especially heavily armored and armed ones such as knights and samurai are often described as being the most terrifying force on the battlefield and since they were so armoured and trained, they had the least chance of dying in war. Modern internet discussion make it sound like being a knight was a favorable position where you're most likely to come back home alive and camera portrayal of knights in movies and TV from a first person perspective show cavalry charges feeling high and mighty especially since the enemies look smaller as the cameramen follows the path of the knights charging and often shows infantry getting slaughtered early on and than retreating within 30 minutes. Modern cavalry charges are portrayed as being so invincible you don't even need to know how to fight but only know how to ride a horse and you can just follow along because victory practically guaranteed.

I am wondering if it was scary at all to attack even disorganized rabble random robbers on a group of horse? I watched Dragonheart today and the movie opens up with knights trying to put down poorly armed peasants. Despite the knights killing a lot of peasants while on horse, they suffered pretty significant casualties especially after the peasants rallied up from the initial charge and surrounded the 50 knights. Some of the knights actually fled the battle when the peasants counterattacked and surrounded them in the process and they managed to surround the king and jump him by themselves. While the knights ultimately won the battle, the king was killed in the process in a brutal manner as peasants were stabbing him with pitchforks on the ground. In addition they even managed to surround the Prince (who was watching the battle from a distance), and the Prince got wounded in an accident. The whole battle was pretty terrifying even though the knights ultimately won esp when the peasants were swarming the king.

In addition in Total War its common even against disorganized militia caught in an ambush (like say sending scouts hidden in the wounds to attack them from their unprotected flanks) for cavalry men to lose morale especially after a prolonged fight to flee (in particular if the cavalry men aren't elites like Templars).

So this makes me curious. Despite how much of Hollywood and public education school books describe how easy the position of cavalry charges are and how its significant militia stood up to them, is actually charging a group of armed men something that takes guts? Even if they are disorganized individualist fighters like barbarian celts in Britain or angry peasants in a riot? I mean seeing the Dragonheart scene and Total War confirms how terrifying Hastings must have been for knights!
 
Likes: haiduk

betgo

Ad Honorem
Jul 2011
5,985
#3
It stopped working when so well when small arms became more powerful. However, it was very effective in ancient and medieval times.
 
Aug 2016
338
Poland
#4
It was always extremally difficult to stand against charging cavalry. Even in the beginning of 20th century there was recommended that every infantry unit gets "charged" by cavalry as mental training. The discipline of standing infantry was their only hope of survival - if infantry is shattered it is easily slaughtered and most of casaulties happened in this case. Certainly depending on period the balance was either favoring infantry or cavalry. For example Roman infantry was effective agaist most of cavalry units, however already not so much against heavy cavalry of Parts. Europe's heavy cavalry was dominant until introduction of effective pikemen units and dethronized by mixed formations like tercios.
Have you ever stood against a unit of mounted policemen? Just try...
 
Likes: Kotromanic
Mar 2019
549
Kansas
#5
It was always extremally difficult to stand against charging cavalry. Even in the beginning of 20th century there was recommended that every infantry unit gets "charged" by cavalry as mental training. The discipline of standing infantry was their only hope of survival - if infantry is shattered it is easily slaughtered and most of casaulties happened in this case. Certainly depending on period the balance was either favoring infantry or cavalry. For example Roman infantry was effective agaist most of cavalry units, however already not so much against heavy cavalry of Parts. Europe's heavy cavalry was dominant until introduction of effective pikemen units and dethronized by mixed formations like tercios.
Have you ever stood against a unit of mounted policemen? Just try...
Yeah cavalry charges lost a lot of their shock and awe as infantry went from being levees to trained discipline troops. But if everyone stands their ground and stays organized the cavalry is suddenly in a world of hurt.
 

Edratman

Ad Honorem
Feb 2009
6,481
Eastern PA
#7
Infantry properly armed with long weapons, such as spears, pikes, long guns with bayonets, combined with the training, discipline and leadership to present a solid wall are quite impregnable to cavalry charges. Lacking any of that, a cavalry charge is terrifying to foot soldiers and is then overwhelming.

In battle, every formidable maneuver has a counter that negates the maneuver.
 
Nov 2010
7,515
Cornwall
#8
Cavalry charges are always frequently shown as terrifying in general history books, movies, TV, video games, and fantasy novels. Even accurate historical accounts mentions the ground having an earthquake and things moving in slow motion as you stand with your legs shaking but stuck still on the ground due to fear.

However I borrowed a book from the library today on Medieval Warfare, and on the Battle of Hasting it described the Norman Knights charges against the Anglo-Saxon shieldwall as something so terrifying that the Norman knights "displayed a most legendary courage very rarely seen in the early Medieval battlefield" and mentions several times how the Norman knights almost routed.

In addition the book has some battles during the fall of the Roman Empire and the years following it where the last of the Roman Equites and Patricians fought against impossible odds that would have "made brave men flee" as they made desperate attempts to fend off Germanic tribes using their cavalry or to hold onto far away territory. It mentions in Britannia how typical Roman cavalry would hesitate to charge even disorganized Celtic warbands wandering the countryside especially in forests and swamps and it took the Equites, the most elite of the Roman Army's horsemen and often coming from Rome's aristocracy, to be able to hunt down these disorganized local bandits.

And of course the book praises the Germanic horse warriors in its Rome sections especially after the final Sack of Rome where it was the horsewarriors of the Barbarians who would be the "hammer" of the Catholic Church as it was bringing stability into Europe during the Dark Ages. Especially the Frankish heavy cavalry who would become the basis of the Medieval Knight and the book mentions the Catholic Church's honoring the Frankish horse warriors as the "bravest" of the Church's military and who often took the most difficult and scariest tasks of guarding the Church's laymen throughout Europe.

I am curious. Nowadays cavalry men especially heavily armored and armed ones such as knights and samurai are often described as being the most terrifying force on the battlefield and since they were so armoured and trained, they had the least chance of dying in war. Modern internet discussion make it sound like being a knight was a favorable position where you're most likely to come back home alive and camera portrayal of knights in movies and TV from a first person perspective show cavalry charges feeling high and mighty especially since the enemies look smaller as the cameramen follows the path of the knights charging and often shows infantry getting slaughtered early on and than retreating within 30 minutes. Modern cavalry charges are portrayed as being so invincible you don't even need to know how to fight but only know how to ride a horse and you can just follow along because victory practically guaranteed.

I am wondering if it was scary at all to attack even disorganized rabble random robbers on a group of horse? I watched Dragonheart today and the movie opens up with knights trying to put down poorly armed peasants. Despite the knights killing a lot of peasants while on horse, they suffered pretty significant casualties especially after the peasants rallied up from the initial charge and surrounded the 50 knights. Some of the knights actually fled the battle when the peasants counterattacked and surrounded them in the process and they managed to surround the king and jump him by themselves. While the knights ultimately won the battle, the king was killed in the process in a brutal manner as peasants were stabbing him with pitchforks on the ground. In addition they even managed to surround the Prince (who was watching the battle from a distance), and the Prince got wounded in an accident. The whole battle was pretty terrifying even though the knights ultimately won esp when the peasants were swarming the king.

In addition in Total War its common even against disorganized militia caught in an ambush (like say sending scouts hidden in the wounds to attack them from their unprotected flanks) for cavalry men to lose morale especially after a prolonged fight to flee (in particular if the cavalry men aren't elites like Templars).

So this makes me curious. Despite how much of Hollywood and public education school books describe how easy the position of cavalry charges are and how its significant militia stood up to them, is actually charging a group of armed men something that takes guts? Even if they are disorganized individualist fighters like barbarian celts in Britain or angry peasants in a riot? I mean seeing the Dragonheart scene and Total War confirms how terrifying Hastings must have been for knights!

I wonder if you have ever stood next to a police horse or - less likely over there - a cavalry horse? Then imagine 1, 2 or 5000 of them charging toward you. Would you rather be stood waiting for them or on the horse charging?

There is a thread on cavalry charging infantry on here now, still active a few days ago, by I can't remember exactly which forum. Have a search. Trouble was, with heavy cavalry charges, if the opposition had a way to counter, there was no plan B and the horses and riders became spent and vulnerable.

But these counter measures usually involved expendable forces. To quote the Hispanic medieval theatre - unarmed fanatics/jihadists or less reliable allies which were just put in the way to get killed and soak up the charge, backed by good infantry and ultimately light cavalry and archers.

Either way the people in the very front line were f****d
 

Chlodio

Ad Honorem
Aug 2016
3,674
Dispargum
#9
For most of the Medieval Period, cavalry, especially knights, dominated European warfare. There are always exceptions and the OP mentions a few. Cavalry charges are most effective over flat, unobstructed terrain. In forests, swamps, and other difficult terrain cavalry is less effective and infantry might actually be more effective than cavalry. The weakest part of cavalry is the horse. It's far easier to train a knight for battle than a horse. If the horse doesn't want to fight, it will run away. If you encounter historical examples of cavalry running away from infantry, consider the possibility that it was the horse, not the rider, that decided to run.