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They shoot horses, don’t they?

Posted by Daniel Sauerwein on April 2, 2013

They shoot horses, don’t they?

By Dan Wilson

There is a battle scene in the movie “Braveheart” in which a mounted English soldier is charging Mel Gibson’s character, William Wallace, sword in hand, with the clear intent of delivering a killing blow to Wallace when we see Wallace duck, swing his broadsword parallel to the ground, unhorsing his antagonist who is quickly killed by Wallace.

What we are spared from seeing by the careful editing is the amputation of the foreleg of the charging horse which allowed horse and rider to be brought to the ground. The scene allows the viewer to interpret the event without the graphic image of the amputation, this, in a movie in which the viewer is treated to dozens of images of human decapitation and loss of body parts.

As a kid growing up the in the fifties and sixties I had a steady diet of cowboy movies and there is one staple of most of those movies—a group of menacing Indians on horseback circling a fortification, group of settlers, a wagon train or dismounted cavalry, and we see many of the Indians falling neatly from their horses as they are picked off by their besiegers. The horses of course, run off, riderless.

This is the image that perhaps most, if not all people, have of mounted warfare. But at some point, logic must intervene. In actual battle, it was the horse more often than the rider, that got shot, not only because of their much larger mass, hence providing a much larger target, but the kind of marksmanship required to hit the much smaller rider would be beyond the skill level of the average soldier.

But, that doesn’t make for good cinema and moreover, viewers would avoid any movie that showed carnage to animals.

I would argue that squeamishness has distorted our view of history as well, especially the history of mounted warfare. I would venture a guess that I could ask any number of historians how many soldiers were killed in the American Civil War and they would all provide the answer of 650,00 to 700,000 but if I would to ask how many horses and mules were killed they would probably draw a blank (1 million or so.)  Or try WWI (about 8 million).

Horses are treated as collateral damage. Even the death of a horse is regarded in dismissive terminology. “He had his horse shot out from under him”  is the common phrase. Napoleon for example, during the course of his military career had numerous “horses shot out from under him.” The very term implies that someone aimed too low and oops, the horse got killed even though that horse acted as a shield and took the bullet, arrow, or projectile instead of its rider.

In reality, horses make for a better target, and unhorsing the rider is just as effective in removing the  threat as killing the rider. Warriors made no distinction between horse and rider in combat. War is brutal and animals suffered from that same brutality.

At the Battle of Agincourt (1415) the English defeated a much larger French force consisting largely of mounted knights. The English longbowmen unleashed volleys of arrows at the knights, who were armored. But their horses were not.

“As always the horses suffered most from the arrows, becoming unmanageable, bolting, while those that did reach English lines were impaled on the six-foot stakes that were at a horse’s breast-high.”[1]

Historians agree that at Agincourt the panicking and injured horses threw their armored riders who, virtually helpless on the ground, were then easy prey for English troops armed with maces and axes. Some accounts describe the horses looking like pincushions from the arrows.

Some historians have raised questions about historical accounts of mounted warfare. J. Edward Chamberlin studied the tactics of ancient war chariots.

“The standard account has it that battle engagement involved chariot charges. But a big question mark  is in order here. As historians who know about horses have pointed out, the clashes that would have been an inevitable—and indeed intentional—part of any chariot (or cavalry) charge would have been devastating for the horses. So why would any serious warrior, unless absolutely required, indulge in them? Horses were too valuable to but put at such risk, and given the number of horses used to pull chariots, the losses would have been catastrophic.”[2]

Chamberlin posits that chariots were most likely used to transport warriors quickly to needed trouble spots to fight as a mobile strike force from a stationary position rather than the images left us in bas relief of an archer firing arrows at an enemy from a moving chariot.

“For the soldier riding “shotgun” with the driver able to fire an arrow or throw a javelin with any accuracy during a charge, the chariots would have to be going at one of two speeds: a full gallop or a slow cantor…Going flat out at a full gallop, a chariot could not turn quickly and avoid a collision. And at a slow canter, it would become an easy target.”[3]

Horses could also sustain more damage and give their riders a greater chance of escaping harm.

Ann Hyland cites numerous graphic examples of horses’ sufferings in medieval warfare among those the Bayeaux Tapestry, the artistic depiction of the Battle of Hastings (1066).

The tapestry “shows three horses being violently overturned. One has an empty saddle as his rider pitches off, another no saddle at all, and the rider of the third has been thrown forward on to his horse’s neck obviously injured, while an Englishman wields a lance against him and at the same time jerks the horses girth loose. Yet another horse, still upright, has his skull cloven by an axe. In the border below two riderless horses gallop away from the conflict. Grouped together, this scene shows more of violence and its costs than the rest of the tapestry, indicates that horse losses were heavy, and illustrates the type of wounds suffered by the animals..”[4]

She describes this engagement from the Crusades.

“In an encounter with a Frank his horse was hit beside the throat-latch and its head skewed to one side, the lance coming out of the lower end of the neck (near the withers) and piercing Kamil al-Mashtub’s thigh. Both horse and rider survived; the horse was again injured severely in a later engagement by a lance thrust into the frontal bone (of the forehead) which forced it inward. Even when healed, the hole was big enough for man’s fist…Other horses suffered mortal wounds. One had its heart pierced in combat at Hims, and while arterial blood was pumping out still carried Usamah out of danger before collapsing and dying.”[5]

She describes another mount in the same action “even with its entrails spilling out, and strapped up by a surcingle to stop it treading on them, it stayed on its feet through the battle.”[6]

The Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War (1854) is illustrative. With the invention of gunpowder cavalry tactics had to adapt, often timing a head-on charge while infantry troops were reloading. But these attacks became more infrequent as the firepower increased. The ill-fated charge of the brigade on an artillery emplacement at Balaclava shows the effect projectiles have on mounted horses.

Thanks to Tennyson’s poem the common belief is that the majority of “The 600” were wiped out, but that was true of the horses, not the riders. Out of 673 men, 113 were killed and about 180 were wounded. However, 460 horses were killed outright or had to be dispatched due to wounds. About one-sixth of the men were lost compared to two-thirds of the horses.

So were horses targeted? We know that it was common knowledge that horse-drawn artillery were always a target, especially the horses, because disabling one horse was enough to disable the team.

But as to battle tactics the historical record is scant.

Robert Watt’s treatise on the Ninth U.S. Cavalry’s campaign against the Apache Indians from 1879 to 1881 reveals horses became the targets as the Apaches, fighting on foot learned that by killing or disabling the cavalry’s horses they could achieve a tactical advantage. Horses were harder to replace than the men.

“The Apaches wrought the most extensive damage by deliberately targeting the regiment’s horses and mules in ambushes. They also led the Ninth Cavalry on long, grueling pursuits across difficult terrain that eventually wore down or killed the unit’s mounts.[7]

Watt writes, “By June 1880, the Apaches had effectively dismounted the Ninth Cavalry.”[8]

Watt was able to utilize the army’s records of animal losses to show the devastating effects of the Apache tactics.

“Approximately 271 of the 395 horses lost by the Ninth Cavalry from 1879 to 1880 can be directly or indirectly credited to hostile Apache action…Indeed, of the 42 horses lost in August 1881, 33 were shot dead by Apaches.”[9]

As a result, the campaign against the Apaches was a failure.

“The regiment faced opponents whose principals of war struck consistently at its weakest point: the ability to supply its companies with sufficient horses and mules and to keep those animals alive in the field.”[10]

Admittedly the historical record on animal casualties is meager and more research needs to be conducted. However, we should not think of horses as bystanders who sometimes get killed by chance. The outcome of battles was measured in human casualties. Although horses were participants and their casualties mattered as to the outcome as well, they are not included in that calculus. They were targeted more often than we care to think because they were instruments of war and those instruments had to be destroyed.


[1]    Desmond Seward, “The Hundred Years War”, 1978. P. 166.

[2]    J. Edward Chamberlin, “How the Horse Has Shaped Civilization..” 2006. Pp 151-152.

[3]    Chamberlin, P. 152.

[4]    Ann Hyland, “Medieval Warhorse from Byzantium to the Crusades.” 1996. P. 97.

[5]    Hyland, P. 165.

[6]    Hyland, P. 165

[7]    Robert N. Watt, “Horses worn to mere shadows”, The Ninth U.S. Cavalry’s Campaign Against the Apaches in New Mexico Territory, 1879-1881. The New Mexico Historical Review, Spring 2011. P. 197.

[8]    Watt, p. 201.

[9]    Watt, p. 205.

[10]  Watt., p. 218

Posted in Conflict, Medieval Military History, Other military history, World Military History (1500-1700), World Military History (1700-1900) | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Historiographies, Bibliographies and War in European History (1494-1815)

Posted by William Young on October 4, 2012

International History

Jeremy Black. War in European History, 1494-1660. The Essential Bibliography Series. Dulles, Virginia.: Potomac Books, 2006. ISBN 978-1-57488-971-0. Pp. x, 118. $14.95.

Jeremy Black. War in European History, 1660-1792. The Essential Bibliography Series. Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, 2009. ISBN 978-1-59797-246-8. Pp. x, 112. $14.95.

Frederick C. Schneid. Napoleonic Wars. The Essential Bibliography Series. Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, 2012. ISBN 978-1-59797-209-3. Pp. xii, 121. $14.95.

Dr Jeremy Black, Professor of History at the University of Exeter in England, and Dr Frederick C. Schneid, Professor of History at High Point University in North Carolina, provide useful studies regarding the literature on European warfare from the beginning of the Italian Wars (1494) to the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1815).  Black is known  as a military and diplomatic historian.  His numerous studies include European Warfare, 1494-1660 (2002), European Warfare, 1660-1815 (1994), and European Warfare in a Global Context, 1660-1815 (2007).  Schneid is a historian of the…

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Posted in Book Reviews, Early Modern European (1494-1648), Early Modern European (1648-1792), Napoleonic Wars, World Military History (1500-1700), World Military History (1700-1900) | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Book Review of The Road to Rocroi: Class, Culture and Command in the Spanish Army of Flanders, 1567-1659

Posted by William Young on August 24, 2012

Fernando González de León. The Road to Rocroi: Class, Culture and Command in the Spanish Army of Flanders, 1567-1659. History of Warfare series. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009. ISBN 978-90-04-17082-7. Illustrations. Charts. Maps. Notes. Bibliography. Pp. xvi, 406. $210.00.

Originally posted in International History (24 August 2012)

The Spanish Army of Flanders, led by some of the best military officers, stood as Europe’s elite army in the late sixteenth century.  Dr Fernando González de León, Associate Professor of History at Springfield College in Massachusetts, examines the Army of Flanders during the Eighty Years War (1568-1648) and Franco-Spanish War (1635-1659).  The author explains the decline of the officer corps and high command of the Army of Flanders that led to demoralized and incompetent leadership with poor military results during the last two decades of this period.  He believes that long brewing problems with the Spanish officer corps, high command, and organizational weaknesses became evident in dramatic fashion against the French at the battle of Rocroi (1643).

González de León sees the history of the Army of Flanders as broken into two distinct parts during the Eighty Years War.  In the first part the author investigates the School of Alba from 1567 to 1621.    At the beginning of this era, the Duke of Alba established a military command in the Spanish Netherlands as well as a military system (or school). González de León discusses the staffing of the School of Alba, the internal structure and hierarchy of the Army of Flanders, issues of military discipline, as well as reforms involving the Spanish officer corps.  Alba established an effective chain of command, favored Spanish officers and the infantry, provided rigorous officer training, and gave promotions to senior ranks based on experience and merit.  González de León states that, “Alba’s sterling reputation as organizer and commander of the Army of Flanders, the first modern standing army, was considered the very pinnacle of military perfection and the main bulwark of Spanish power in Europe” (p.7).  The author, however, points out that abuses began to creep into the system under the command of the Duke of Parma, Ambrogio Spinola, and the Archdukes Albert and Isabella starting from the 1580s to the Twelve Year Truce (1609).  Even so, the Army of Flanders was open to tactical innovation and had success in the field.

In the second part of the study, González de León addresses the military reforms and policies of Gaspar de Guzmán, Count-Duke of Olivares, from 1609 to 1659.  The renewal of war against the Dutch Republic in 1621 brought out the internal problems within the Army of Flanders.  Olivares saw the problems in the army as the lack of effective leadership.  As such, the Count-Duke initiated reforms in military training and military justice, as well as adopted new policies in appointing officers, including the appointment of inexperienced, high-ranking Spanish aristocrats to senior military positions, hoping that they would succeed as effective commanders.  Nevertheless, the author shows that these inexperienced Spanish officers weakened the high command, had little ability to command in the field, and held prejudices against other nationalities serving in command postitions in the multi-national Army of Flanders.  González de León believes that, “this army was highly divided among nations, ranks and factions and ultimately failed to adapt to many of the new trends in warfare known in historiography as the Military Revolution” (p.373).  This decline in combat effectiveness led to the disaster at the battle of Rocroi (1643).  He stresses that, despite the fall of Olivares in 1643, the Army of Flanders made few changes and produced a string of major defeats against the Dutch, and the French in the Franco-Spanish War (1635-1659).

The author provides an important study on the Spanish Army of Flanders that contributes to our knowledge of the Eighty Years War.  It adds to the recent literature on the conflict, including Geoffrey Parker’s The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road, 1567-1659 (1972), The Dutch Revolt (1977), and The Grand Strategy of Philip II (1998); I.A.A. Thompson’s War and Government in Habsburg Spain, 1560-1620 (1976); Jonathan I. Israel’s The Dutch Revolt and the Hispanic World, 1606-1661 (1982); Marco van der Hoeven’s (editor) Exercise of Arms: Warfare in the Netherlands, 1568-1648 (1997); and Paul Allen’s Philip III and the Pax Hispanica, 1598-1621 (2000).

Dr William Young
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota

Posted in Book Reviews, Early Modern European (1494-1648), Military Revolution, World Military History (1500-1700) | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Book Review of Cross and Crescent in the Balkans: The Ottoman Conquest of South-Eastern Europe (14th-15th Centuries)

Posted by William Young on August 18, 2011

David Nicolle. Cross and Crescent in the Balkans: The Ottoman Conquest of South-Eastern Europe (14th-15th Centuries). Barnsley, England: Pen and Sword Military, 2010. ISBN 978-1-84415-954-3. Maps. Chronology. Illustrations. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xvi, 256. $39.95.

Dr David Nicolle is the author of numerous books dealing with medieval European and Islamic warfare, including Constantinople 1453: The End of Byzantium (2000), Nicopolis 1396: The Last Crusade (2001), Crusader Warfare (2007), and Knights of Jerusalem: The Crusading Order of the Hospitallers 1100-1565 (2008).  He has been a prolific writer for the Osprey military history series.  In the present study, the author provides a narrative that examines the complex history of Southeast Europe and the rise of the Ottoman Empire.  Nicolle addresses the culture of the numerous groups of people in the region, including government and politics, economics, religion, law, literature, as well as military tactics and equipment.  His study focuses on the turbulent history of the Middle East and the gradual unifying effect of Ottoman military might over a fragmented Anatolia and Southeast Europe.

The main thrust of this study that will interest military historians is on the Ottoman conquest of Southeast Europe.  By the fourteenth century the Byzantine Empire was weak militarily.  The Byzantines needed the alliance of the Ottoman Turks in the struggle against Christian Balkan states.  In 1353-55, the Ottomans gained their first foothold on the European continent as an ally of the Byzantine Emperor.  The Turks manned the fort of Çinbi and neighboring towns on the Gallipoli peninsula.  As Nicolle writes: “This would thereafter be the launch-pad for the Ottoman state’s eventual conquest of the entire Balkan peninsula” (p.64).  In fact, the Byzantines soon turned to the Serbs and Bulgarians for assistance against the Ottoman Turks.  But, the Ottomans, under Emir Murat (Murad) I (1362-89), pushed deep into Thrace, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Serbia.  He became “one of the most remarkable conquerors in medieval European history” (p.66).  Having captured Adrianople in eastern Thrace, Murat I renamed it Edirne and established the capital of the Ottoman Empire there in 1365.  He conquered western Thrace and Macedonia in 1371-76, and then obtained the vassal states of Bulgaria in 1376 and Dobruja in 1388.  Murat I took the title of sultan in 1383.  He led the Ottoman forces that defeated the Serbs at the First Battle of Kosovo in 1389.

Bayezit (Bayezid) I (1389-1402) picked up where his father left off.  He forced Serbia and Bosnia to become vassals of the Ottoman Empire in 1389, followed by Wallachia in 1391.  The Ottomans had control of the southern Balkans, having reduced the Byzantine Empire to the area immediately surrounding Constantinople.  In 1393, the Turks captured Nikopol (Nicopolis) in Bulgaria.  At this point, in 1394, Pope Boniface IX, with encouragement from the threatened states of Hungary, Venice, and Genoa, declared a crusade against the Ottoman Turks.  The crusade would include ground and naval forces from France, Burgundy, Hungary, Knights of St. John, the German Empire, Italian city-states, Byzantine Empire, and various other Christian states.  The crusade ended at the Battle of Nikopol, where the Ottomans soundly defeated the Crusaders, in September 1396.  The author stresses that, “the best Crusading army that western Christendom could muster had been utterly defeated in its first real battle” (p.123).  As a result, the Kingdom of Hungary was gravely weakened in its defense against the Turkish threat.  Fortunately, Bayezit I turned his attention away from Europe to the danger of Timur-i Lenk (Tamerlane) on the Asian front.  Timur had already overrun large parts of Russia, Iran, India, and Central Asia.  In 1400, Timur moved his army into Anatolia and northern Syria, capturing Damascus in 1401, and then outmaneuvering and defeating Bayezit I at the Battle of Ankara in 1402.  The Sultan was captured (and died in captivity) while the shattered Ottoman army fled to the west.  Timur ravaged Turkish lands to the Aegean Sea, capturing Izmir in 1402.  Nicolle points out that “the defeat . . . could have spelled the end of the Ottoman state, but the fact that it did not do so says a great deal for the inherent strength of early Ottoman government and military systems” (p.136).  Fortunately, Timur turned towards the goal of conquering Chinese territory.

The Ottoman Sultanate remained in turmoil for a number of years.  The Ottoman Empire experienced a series of civil wars between the four sons of Bayezit I for control of the Sultanate.  As a result, Serbia, Bosnia, and Wallachia threw off Ottoman control.  Eventually, in 1413, Mehmet I (Mehmed) (1413-21) emerged as the leader of the Ottomans.  Ottoman power would rise under the leadership of Mehmet I, his son Murat II (1421-44, 1446-51), and his son Mehmet II (1444-46, 1451-81).  The Ottomans regained the lost Balkan provinces by 1524, and forced Dubrovnik (Ragusa) to become a vassal state in 1430, followed by conquering Epirus and southern Albania in 1431-33.  The growth of Ottoman power resulted in King Wladislaw (Wladyslaw) III of Poland-Hungary launching a crusade against the Turks in 1443.  However, Murat II defeated the Crusaders at the Battle of Varna in 1444.  “Once again,” so declares Nicolle, “a victory against the biggest and best-equipped army that Western Christendom could send against them brought huge prestige to the Ottomans” (p.153).  Now the Turks forced Morea to become a vassal state, and then imposed direct rule over Bulgaria in 1446.  Shortly thereafter, in 1448, Janos Hunyadi, the Regent-Governor of Hungary, led a Hungarian-Wallachian invasion of Ottoman territory.  This time the Turkish army under Murat II defeated the invaders at the Second Battle of Kosovo.  The Turks now dominated the Balkan Region.

The youthful Mehmet II sought to conquer the fragmented remnants of the Byzantine Empire.  The main goal was the city of Constantinople, technically a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, ruled by Constantine XI Palaiologos (1449-53).  The author points out that in “purely military terms the Byzantine Empire was now a very minor player in the events of south-eastern Europe” (p.176).  But Constantinople was protected by massive walls, a small army and navy, and held the strategic island of Imroz off the mouth of the Dardanelles.  Even so, the Ottomans had the advantages of a larger naval fleet, massive siege guns, and a large army against the Byzantines and their allies in the siege of Constantinople in 1453.  The actual siege lasted for fifty-four days before the Turks overran the city.  “The impact of the fall of Constantinople on the Byzantine world,” Nicolle writes, “was of course catastrophic and sent shock waves across Orthodox Christendom . . .” (p.217).

Mehmet II “the Conqueror” next turned towards Wallachia, Moldavia, and Greece, taking control of most of the Balkans by 1460.  All that was left to resist Turkish power in the region were Venetian enclaves around Greece and the Balkans, Venetian and Genoese outposts in the Aegean and Adriatic Seas, as well as Genoese outposts in the Crimea.  The Aegean and Black Seas, however, would become Ottoman lakes in the late fifteenth century, and the Venetian Republic and its overseas empire would continue its struggle against the Ottoman Empire in the Eastern Mediterranean Region.  The Turks would raid into northeastern Italy in the late 1490s and soon be knocking on the door of the Kingdom of Hungary.

Nicolle’s Cross and Crescent in the Balkans: The Ottoman Conquest of South-Eastern Europe (14th-15th Centuries) is a good introduction to the early Ottoman Empire and the conquest of Southeast Europe.  It conveys the complex history of the region with its numerous fragmented states over several hundred years of history.  It is highly informative, but the author goes off track at times from the theme of the Ottoman’s conquest of Southeast Europe and the study almost becomes a general history of the region.  The book has a few typographical errors and mistakes, which the editor should have caught, resulting in frustration and confusion for the reader.  It also lacks notes citing the sources used.  Overall, however, this study is useful for general readers and undergraduate students.

Dr William Young
University of North Dakota

Posted in Book Reviews, Medieval Military History, Other military history, World Military History (1500-1700) | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

An interesting online publication

Posted by Daniel Sauerwein on April 10, 2010

Thanks to the Society for Military History website for making me aware of this online military history publication. A solid group of scholars, who organized as the Michigan War Studies Group created the Michigan War Studies Review, which, according to the announcement on the SMH website, is seeking contributors. I urge everyone to subscribe to this publication,which is free, and to tell others interested in military history about this site.

Cross posted at Doctoral Bliss

Posted in 20th Century Military History, American Military History, Ancient Military History, Conflict, Early Modern European (1494-1648), Early Modern European (1648-1792), General, Greek military history, Medieval Military History, Napoleonic Wars, Other military history, Roman military history, World Military History (1500-1700), World Military History (1700-1900), World War I, World War II | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

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