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French cuirassier in 1809

Horses were widely used during the Napoleonic Wars for combat, patrol and reconnaissance, and for logistical support. Vast numbers were used throughout the wars. During the War of the Sixth Coalition, depletion of the French cavalry arm through attrition (mainly suffered during the Russian Campaign) and loss of horse-producing allies to provide remounts contributed significantly to the gradual French defeat and downfall of the French Empire. During the Waterloo Campaign, the Armee du Nord had 47,000 horses: 25,000 cavalry, 12,000 for artillery, 10,000 for infantry and supply columns.[1]


"Napoleon I with his Generals" by Ludwig Elsholtz. This painting shows light cavalry horses which come into use as officer's mounts in 18th and 19th century Europe.

The traditional distinction between heavy and light cavalry reduced during the modern period and by the end of the Peninsular War, heavy cavalry were performing the scouting and outpost duties previously undertaken by light cavalry.[2] On the battlefield, the cavalry's main offensive role was as shock troops, providing a mounted charge. Charges were carefully managed for speed, with a charge's maximum speed being 20 km/h (12 mph). Faster progress resulted in a break in formation and blown horses. Charges were undertaken across clear, rising ground, with the cavalry deploying in line or column, and often accompanied by horse artillery. Frequently, infantry followed behind, in order to secure any ground won. Once an enemy army had quit the field of battle and was on the retreat, cavalry would invariably be utilized in pursuit to further exploit a beaten foe's withdrawal and harass that army's rearguard. In defence, cavalry could be used to attack and harass the enemy's infantry flanks as they advanced. In addition, cavalry were used to break up enemy lines following successful infantry action.[3]

A British infantry square depicted in the painting The 28th Regiment at Quatre Bras by Elizabeth Thompson.

Cavalry were extremely effective against infantry on the march, or when formed in line or column.[4] A battalion formed in line was particularly vulnerable to cavalry, and could be broken or destroyed by a well-formed cavalry charge, such as when Lt-Col Colborne's brigade was destroyed during the Battle of Albuera in 1811, with the loss of 1,250 out of his 1,650 men.[5] For protection, infantry sought their own cavalry screens and support. Otherwise, the infantry's only defence was to form square: a tight four-sided formation, presenting walls of muskets and bayonets, each side protecting the others' flanks. These were generally impenetrable to cavalry, but vulnerable to artillery or other infantry.[4] Cavalry were frequently used prior to an infantry assault, so that their charges might force an infantry line to break and reform, into formations vulnerable to infantry or artillery.[6] During these manoeuvres, they remained especially vulnerable to cavalry.[7]


Another major use of horses throughout the period was as draught animals for the heavy artillery. In addition to field artillery, where horse-drawn guns were attended by gunners on foot, the armies generally had horse batteries, where each of the gunners were provided with mounts.[8] Horse artillery generally used lighter pieces, although the British had some 9-pounder (medium-weight) horse batteries; for added speed, these had a team of 8 horses to pull them, rather than 6.[9] In addition, horse artillery ammunition wagons were harnessed with an extra pair (6 horse instead of 4).[10] Heavy artillery pieces needed a team of 12 horses, while Congreve rockets required about 25 horses.[11] With the horses required for officers, surgeons and other support staff, as well as those pulling guns and wagons, each British artillery battery (6 guns) required 160–200 horses.[10]

Horse artillery was generally used to support the cavalry units, and so came under the command of cavalry divisions, but in some battles, such as at Waterloo, the horse artillery were used by the British as a rapid response force, successfully repulsing attacks from the French, and assisting the infantry recapture of La Haye Sainte from the French.[12]

Horse types and breeds[]

The war horse was traditionally of moderate size for both officers and troopers, since heavy horses were logistically difficult to maintain, and less adaptable to varied terrains.[13] Most armies at the time preferred cavalry horses to be 15.2 hh and 450–500 kg, although cuirassiers frequently had heavier horses.[1] Napoleon's Imperial Guard dragoons' mounts had an average size of 15hh.[13] Lighter horses were restricted to scouting and raiding. Cavalry horses were generally obtained at 5 years, from 10 or 12 years service (barring loss) could be expected. Mares and geldings were used in preference to the less-easily managed stallions.[1] Losses of 30–40% were common during a campaign, due to conditions of the march as well as enemy action.[14] As regimental structures developed, many units selected horses of uniform type, some, such as the Royal Scots Greys even specifying colour. Trumpeters, too, often rode distinctive horses, so they might stand out.[15] Regional armies developed preferences, such as the British 15 hh hunters, the Germans' hanoverians, and the Cossacks' steppe ponies, but the low supplies available in wartime resulted in horses of all types being used.[15]

See also[]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Nofi, The Waterloo Campaign, p. 108
  2. Haythornthwaite, The Colonial Wars Source Book, p. 25
  3. Nofi, The Waterloo Campaign, pp. 175–6
  4. 4.0 4.1 Nofi, The Waterloo Campaign, p. 176
  5. Haythornthwaite, British Infantry of the Napoleonic Wars, p. 12
  6. Nofi, The Waterlooo Campaign, p. 204
  7. Carver, Seven Ages of the British Army, p. 111
  8. Nofi, The Waterloo Campaign, p. 124
  9. Nofi, The Waterloo Campaign, p. 129
  10. 10.0 10.1 Nofi, The Waterloo Campaign, p. 130
  11. Nofi, The Waterloo Campaign, p. 128–9
  12. Holmes, Military History, p. 415
  13. 13.0 13.1 Holmes, Military History, p. 416
  14. Nofi, The Waterloo Campaign, p. 109
  15. 15.0 15.1 Holmes, Military History, p. 417


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