A Brief History
On October 31, 1917, during World War I, the war that brought the mass use of machine guns, armored vehicles, airplanes and poison gas into warfare, a singular battle stands out as an anachronism when the British Egyptian Expeditionary Force sent infantry and cavalry units against the Yildirim Army Group (Ottoman Turks and Germans) defending the town of Beersheba in the Negev region of what is now Israel. Incredibly, the largely Australian and Anzac mounted troops made the cavalry charge with their rifles slung over their backs, and their bayonets in their hands!
After some partly successful attacks against strong defensive fortifications by EEF infantry and Anzac cavalry, the British sent the Australian Mounted Division’s 4th and 12th Light Horse Regiments (4th Light Horse Brigade) in what has been called the “last successful cavalry charge.”
The British amassed an attacking force of about 62,500 men, of which about 15,000 were mounted. The defending Ottoman Turks and Germans numbered only around 4400 infantry, but these troops were supported by 60 machine guns and 28 artillery pieces. The Turk/German defenders were also behind prepared defenses, and the machine guns of the day were the type cooled by water so they could keep up a virtually continuous fire, raking the battlefield with hot lead. At this stage of World War I, all sides were well acquainted with the techniques of preparing effective defenses. Defenses at Beersheba included trenches, fortified positions, redoubts, barbed wire, and mutually supporting deployment of machine guns and cannon.
In spite of other incidents, mostly at the beginning of World War I, in which the use of cavalry was throwing away the lives of the troopers, the Battle of Beersheba was a success, largely due to the shocking success of the mounted Australian troopers. (Can you imagine charging into machine gun and cannon fire with a bayonet in your hand as your primary weapon?) The cavalry, with the mobility inherent in mounted troops over open land, was able to move much more quickly than infantry, and the mounted troopers were able to probe the Ottoman defenses for a weak point, and then exploit the breakthrough. British losses were an amazingly light 171 killed, while the Yildirim Army Group lost as many as 1000 killed and almost 2000 captured. The success at Beersheba was followed by a successful campaign by the EEF to retake Jerusalem about 6 weeks later.
The battle at Beersheba and the subsequent campaign to take Jerusalem has been hailed by some Christians as a fulfillment of a Biblical prophecy of returning Israel to the Jews. Whether you believe in the religious aspect of this often fought over region, the Australian nation was rightfully proud of their brave horsemen that won the day at Beersheba.
Other cavalry operations during World War I did not go so well. One of the last cavalry charges of World War I in 1918 saw only 4 British horses survive the attack out of 150 that went into the charge! In fact, the use of cavalry by all participants during World War I was widespread at the start of the conflict. The reality of machine guns and rapid-fire artillery covering fields crisscrossed by barbed wire and trenches quickly made cavalry charges obsolete. The US Army stopped using cavalry almost right away once the US joined the fight, and the Germans had learned the lesson of not using cavalry on the Western Front quite early in the war, though they did continue to use mounted troops somewhat on the Eastern Front. The British persisted in using cavalry throughout the war, though largely limited in scope and used mostly outside of the Western Front. On the other hand, the use of horses to haul equipment, supplies, ammunition, artillery and to pull ambulances was widespread and continued to be widespread by all participating military forces throughout World War I. Although internal combustion engines that powered some trucks, cars and ambulances were indeed making their appearance, by far the primary mode of moving things was by horse drawn wagons.
Horses suffered horribly during World War I, with British equine losses approaching a half million horses during the war! An estimated 10 million horses were employed by the various armies, and of those, around 8 million died. Not only were horses slaughtered by gunfire and explosive shells from artillery, disease and starvation took a steep toll of their numbers as well. Many also diesd horribly during poison gas attacks. Feeding and caring for horses and acquiring new numbers of horses and mules was a constant and important headache for military commanders.
You may or may not be aware that the use of horses and mules by the armies of the world were still in mass practice at the start of World War II in 1939. Incredibly, despite the common perception of the German Army (Wehrmacht) being a highly mobile mechanized force, the fact is they started the war with 80% of their artillery and supplies being drawn by horses and mules, not motorized vehicles! The general reliance on horse drawn wagons became a problem in the fierce Russian winter, when German horses were not bred for the terrible cold weather and died in droves. While various armies engaged in World War II still had mounted cavalry units, one myth is that Polish cavalry lancers made a mass suicidal attack against German panzers and were slaughtered. This mythical attack never occurred. The truth is that the Polish cavalry was the most effective of the ground forces fielded by Poland against the German onslaught in 1939, and the Polish cavalry won some of the rare Polish victories. Would you be surprised to learn the US 26th Cavalry was employed against the Japanese, including Japanese tanks in 1942 in defense of the Philippines? As with World War I, the Eastern Front saw most of whatever cavalry action took place during World War II, with Germans, Italians and Soviets all employing cavalry to various degrees of success. The German army employed an average of about 1.1 million horses during World War II, while the United States probably only employed 20,000 or so horses and mules at a time, including horse patrols of American coasts. The Soviets probably employed the most horses and mules during World War II, of which 300,000 were used by mounted cavalry!
While there were undoubtedly some local successful employment of cavalry during World War II, the Battle of Beersheba is usually credited as the last of the major successful cavalry charges in modern warfare. If you believe a different cavalry charge deserves the distinction as the last successful cavalry charge, please tell us which battle and any details you can provide.
Question for students (and subscribers): Are you surprised at the extensive use of horses in World War I and World War II or were you aware of that fact? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Butler, Simon. The War Horses: The Tragic Fate of a Million Horses in the First World War. Halsgrove , 2011.
Crombie, Kelvin. Journey to Beersheba: The Story behind the Charge of the Light Horse in 1917 and the re-enactment in 2007. Heritage Resources, 2013.
Flynn, Jane. Soldiers and Their Horses: Sense, Sentimentality and the Soldier-Horse Relationship in The Great War. Routledge, 2020.
Johnson, Paul. Horses of the German Army in World War II. Schiffer Pub Ltd, 2006.
Powell, James. Learning under Fire: The 112th Cavalry Regiment in World War II. Texas A&M University Press, 2010.
Rees, Peter. Desert Boys: Australians at War from Beersheba to Tobruk and El Alamein. Allen & Unwin, 2012.
The featured image in this article, the charge of the Australian Light Horse at Beersheba (1917), painted by George Lambert (1920), at the Palestine Gallery in the Australian War Memorial, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Australia license.