Sep 03 2011
‘The Russian Cavalry, with the simple exception of the English, is the best in Europe, and the Russian has this advantage even over the English, that their horses can not only stand more fatigue, but can likewise better suffer all the severities of climate.’1
General Sir Robert Thomas Wilson, who was attached to the Russian Army
Lord Wellington, as he then was, might well have challenged the suggestion that the English had the best cavalry in Europe, but this estimation of the Russian cavalry has considerable validity. Sir Robert Wilson, attached to the Russian Army, was unstinting in his admiration, witnessed at first hand. They were, he wrote in his Polish Campaign,
‘alert and intelligent; in battle brave and capable of every evolution and operation; they charge with rapidity and union, and in all the actions their loss from gallant enterprise and efforts was considerable. At Eylau they sustained the tremendous fire with heroic fortitude, and made desperate and successful attacks. At Friedland, when Buonaparte [sic], by the superiority of numbers, had forced the Russian left, and gained possession of the town of Friedland, with the bridges over the Aller. Notwithstanding their losses on a day when they were repeatedly charged; notwithstanding the position in which they were now exposed, and the rain that threatened by delay in the field; animated with a generous resolution to save the centre and right wing of their army, they rushed across the plain, charged the advancing centre of the enemy, and by their daring efforts and bold countenance, enabled the retreat of the infantry, with all their cannon, through an almost impracticable ford, in the presence of Buonaparte and 80,000 men…’2
A Cossack at the charge. In 1805 there were an estimated 80000 in the Russian Army.
In more general terms, Sir Robert was impressed by the care the troopers took of their horses, which he ascribed to their unfamiliarity with this animal, which required them to study its needs; the zeal and diligence of the officers; and the steadiness displayed under the most destructive fire.
General Count Matvei Ivanovich Platov, commader of the Don Cossacks
Steadiness, however, was not the determining feature of the irregular cavalry attached to the Russian Army, the Cossacks from the Don and Volga areas. Here were men proud of their comparative freedom within the Russian Empire, being subject to their own laws, exempt from taxation and governed by their own chief, Platov. Not surprisingly, the main feature of their service was
‘a liberty of operation. They act in dispersion, and when they do re-unite to charge, it is not with a systematic formation, but en masse, or what in Germany is called the swarm attack; but even then the order should originate from their own officers, who best know their genius and powers, or, which is frequently the case, be the effect of a voluntary impulse that simultaneously animates the whole body, and which is expressed by a yell of excitement more frightful and terrific than the war-hoop of the Canadian savage.’
There was a negative side to this ‘liberty of operation’, however:
‘they are injurious in countries where the good-will of the inhabitants is of immediate importance, or where moderation and regularity can alone provide the armies with their subsistence. Then the Cossaques [sic] are too frequently scourges of terror and desolation, more fatal to friends than foes; sweeping and devastating in the lawless thoughtlessness of barbarian invaders, without any consideration of future necessities.’3
Nevertheless, even Napoleon himself, loth to give credit to his opponents, admitted that the Cossacks were ‘brave, active, dextrous, and high-minded warriors’ – words which may have returned to haunt him as they harried the remnants his Grande Armée out of Russia in 1812.
A further strength of the Russian Army was its artillery, for
‘No other army moves with so many guns, and with no other army is it in a better state of equipment, or is more gallantly served.’4
Russian artillery in action
The only weakness Sir Robert observed lay in the limited education of the officers, in contrast to the training received by the artillery officers of other nations. Furthermore, they received little honour for their efforts, and might well find themselves under the command of an incompetent senior officer (but a favourite at headquarters) on whom would be bestowed the credit for their efforts. In all other respects, though, whether the excellence of the guns and carriages, the strength of the horses or the superiority of the NCOs and men, they were a match even for Napoleon’s artillery.
- The Royal Military Chronicle, Volume I pp.271-272
- Ibid p.273
- Ibid p.342
- Ibid p.274