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Saturday, 1 December 2018


Another excerpt from The Speed of Nearly Everything.

According to Lord Cardigan, the Light Brigade charged the Russian guns in the Crimea at 17 miles per hour, a speed that was quite possible, though we have no idea where he got the figure from. That's about 27 km/hr.

Horses are herd animals, so they are comfortable galloping together at close quarters. The idea of the cavalry charge was to form a line, with the horses close together, and then move forward, first at a trot, and later, over the last hundred yards or metres, at the full gallop, riding down a wretched infantry, terrifying them and causing them to flee.

The theory of the cavalry charge began to come apart when the longbow came into use, because longbowmen could shower many arrows down on the approaching line, injuring the horses and possibly the riders while they were unable to harm the infantry.

Then there were the pikemen, who used long pointy sticks to impale the horses as the charge reached them, palisades and other defences, but the cavalry could often manoeuvre around the defences, which were hard to move around on the churned-up battlefield. Muskets had a practical range of perhaps a 100 yards, and even the best infantryman was unable to fire more than four shots a minute.

In the reload time of 15 seconds, Cardigan’s men would have covered 125 yards between shots, so the infantry had just one chance to kill, wound or stop the cavalry who were hurtling at them, half a ton of thundering horse with a razor-sharp sabre swinging down at their heads and shoulders.

Instead or infantry, Cardigan found himself charging fifty guns that fired grape and round shot over far greater distances, with Russian riflemen on his flanks picking off more riders. The wonder is not that so many were killed (118) or wounded (127) from the 670 men who started out, but that so few were hit.

The tradition of the charge was maintained into the First World War, when infantry were repeatedly sent “over the top” to charge an enemy equipped with machine guns and repeating rifles with a far greater range, and the Australian Light Horse undertook a successful cavalry charge, one of the very last, at Beersheba in 1917.

These were really mounted infantry who rode to the battle and dismounted to fight. Only Poland had cavalry in World War II, but they were mounted infantry like the Light Horse. 

Their Turkish opponents never expected them to charge, and when the ALH did, the Turkish rifles were all set for extreme range, which mean aiming higher, and soon the Australians were riding in, under the bullets, but you could only pull that trick once.

The role of the cavalry passed to the much faster tank regiments, though cavalry ranks like squadron leader (major) and wing commander (lieutenant-colonel) in some air forces reflect a cavalry origin. Tank regiment officers often wear silver insignia, another cavalry tradition.

Aircraft were obviously never used to charge infantry, though tanks were often used, like cavalry, for infantry support in World War II, along with air cover. The charge has largely ceased to be an effective military tactic.

Animals still charge, though. An elephant at 30 mph (50 kph) weighs as much as 12 horses and travels roughly twice as fast. American bison weigh about a ton, but have the same top speed. The bulls of Pamplona, the ones that people run through the streets with, have been clocked at 35 mph (55 kph), the same speed reported for giraffes and African buffalo. We will come back to some of these later.

With the onset of summer, I'm in a bit of a writing doldrum right now, so I thought looking at speed would be appropriate.

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