Cavalry Tactics: Lances

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 8:22 am, 13 August 2012]

Cavalry charges and lances have gone together from ancient times into the 20th century. The lance usually depends on the momentum of the horse for effect, so lancers have to charge to be any use. Although crashing horses into each other can’t give an advantage, the lance is a technological solution to this problem, as I’ll explain below. It shouldn’t be any surprise that lances and the concept of shock often go together in early-modern military books. The lance went in and out of fashion more than once, and its effectiveness was often debated.

In the last post I showed that Newton’s Third Law of motion makes the force of a collision equal on both sides. If the force always has to be equal, and if the momentum of a charging horse can be so huge, how was it ever safe to use a lance? In fact the effects of the force don’t have to be equal. The key here is stress: the higher the stress, the more damage is likely to be done.

Stress is force divided by area (Fundamentals, p. 285).

The point of a lance or sword concentrates the collision force into a very small area, giving very high stress. The handle spreads the force over a wider area, putting much less stress on the user’s hand even though the force must be equal. If this wasn’t true, edged weapons wouldn’t work at all. Swords can also work in the same way as a lance if you point them at the enemy while charging, although they can’t reach as far as a lance. It’s better to hit the enemy with a weapon than with the body of the horse, because that skews the odds in your favour. If you charge with a lance, your horse might still collide with an enemy horse, but it doesn’t have to for the lance to work, and it’s better if it doesn’t. Going through the enemy isn’t a failure, because you get a chance to hit them with your weapons. Even taking the unequal stress advantage of edged weapons into account, too much momentum could be dangerous to the user, so this still isn’t a maximizing the shock of impact situation.

(Just to pre-empt questions about this, the same effect also puts cavalry at a huge disadvantage when charging blocks of pikeman, because even if you can get the horse to crash into them, the point of the pike is going to do a lot of damage. If some pikemen are knocked over by the impact, the ones either side can still bring the points of their pikes over to cover the gap. Pistols were the technological solution to this problem in the 16th century, but more about that next week.)

In the middle ages, a lance with the momentum of a horse behind it may have been able to penetrate plate armour, but in the mid/late 15th century armour got stronger because of new metallurgy techniques, so lances probably couldn’t put enough stress on it to pierce it any more (Rogers, ‘Tactics‘, 207-10). This didn’t lead to the lance being abandoned straight away. Men-at-arms and demi-lances still served in 16th century armies. The effectiveness of the lance was debated in military treatises, and there was no consensus. Francois de La Noue argued that reiters armed with pistols could beat men-at-arms who carried lances (p. 199):

For the man of armes useth his speare but for one blow, where ye Reistre carieth 2. pistols wherwith he may shoot 6. or 7. times, which if he doe it in season, doth great hurt. Every man likewise carieth his sword, whose effects may be equal. Sith then ye pistol can pierce the defensive armes, which the speare cannot, we may conclude that the Reistre hath ye advantage in the offensive & is equal in ye defensive.

Bernardino de Mendoza argued against this view (p. 55):

in comming to the shocke, the launce hurteth with a more certeintie then it [the pistol] folowing after wardes the furie of the horse which runneth them over and over, & seldome times doe they fayle two encounters with the launce, although it be brooke in the first, and many times thrise, not beeing the worst that which is left of the great ende of the staffe, or truncheon, since with an encounter therewith a man may be unhorste and throwen downe, in such sorte as it may well abyde two encounters, if not three.

Both authors seem to agree that the lance will usually break when first used, but Mendoza says it can be used again. He implicitly admits that it isn’t likely to pierce armour, but argues that the idea is to knock enemy riders off their horses. The problem with this is that the force must be equal and stress doesn’t come into play, although holding the lance near your waist and aiming high could give more leverage if you hit the enemy’s head or shoulders. Mendoza seems to assign some importance to the body of the horse but it’s not very clear exactly what he means. La Noue seems to define shock as something different from the point of the lance piercing armour (p. 201):

I will say, that although the squadron of Speares doe give a valiant charge: yet can it worke no great effect: for at the onset it killeth none, yea it is a miracle if any be slayne with the speare: onely it may wound some horse, and as for the shocke it is many times of small force

I’ll examine La Noue’s theory of shock later as it deserves a whole post of its own. Mendoza only used the word ‘shock’ twice, once in the passage about lancers quoted above, and once in a section about naval battles (p. 157). John Cruso’s Militarie instructions for the cavallrie (1632) used the word 7 times (I discovered a few more since I first wrote about this), 6 in connection with lancers giving a shock, and once about cuirassiers taking one:

and whereas they [ancient Greek and Roman cavalry, whose lances are earlier said to be weaker than ‘modern’ ones] usually had of the light armed foot entermingled among them, how could they be so serried together for the shock as to do any great effect in making impressions upon their enemie? (sig. A3r)

This kinde of arming [the lance] was first invented to pierce and divide a grosse body, and therefore requires force and velocitie for the shock. (p. 28)

His [lancer] saddle to be handsome, made with advantage, fit for the rider, to keep him firm against the violence of a shock (p. 29)

The manner of carrying the lance, is either advanced or couched, that is, when it is carried so abased, as the enemie can hardly discover it untill he feel the shock (p. 36)

presenting his lance (from the advance) at the half of that distance, and charging it for the shock as occasion serveth (p. 37)

Some authors (for the disposing of the Cuirassiers for fight) hold that they ought to be ordered in grosse bodies, that so (by their soliditie and weight) they may entertain and sustain the shock of the enemie. (p. 42)

If the Lances were to fight against Cuirassiers, they were (by two ranks together) to fetch their careers, and so to charge them, especially on the flanks and reare: every second rank forbearing the shock, till the first had done it, and was wheeled off. (p. 97)

Cruso admitted that heavy lancers were no longer in military use by this time but wrote about them anyway. This is probably a consequence of copying and commenting on older books instead of writing about current practice from personal experience (Lawrence, Complete Soldier, 291-2, 296). Jousting was still practised as a sport in England, but this book is supposed to be Militarie instructions for the cavallrie! The mentions of shock and lancers both seem to be hangovers from the 16th century, and by this time they mostly go together. Later authors were less interested in these things. Robert Ward’s Anima’dversions of warre (1639) only uses the word ‘shock’ twice, and says that modern cavalry mostly use firearms instead of charging in the ancient manner. John Vernon didn’t mention shock or lances at all in his 1644 drill book The young horse-man.

Although heavy lances weren’t considered useful by theorists or regular armies, they were still officially part of English militia obligations into the 1640s. A list of the trained bands in 1638 noted that several counties had to provide 375 lancers between them, although that’s a small proportion of the total of 5,239 cavalry and 93,718 infantry (TNA: PRO, SP 16/381/66, ff. 143-4). Militia obligations were sometimes put towards horse quotas during the civil wars. When Parliament put a quota of 500 cavalry on the county of Essex in the summer of 1643, John Derrivall informed Sir Thomas Barrington that he had demanded horses from everyone who was charged with a lance (British Library, Egerton 2647, f. 123). Thomas Nightingale mentioned in a letter that he was to send his ‘lance’ to Romford, but apparently equipped for an arquebusier, and asked whether he should send lancer’s equipment, which he thought would be no use (British Library, Egerton 2647, f. 251). The Scots army that fought at Marston Moor included a regiment of lancers which apparently performed well against infantry, but they were probably not the kind of heavily armoured lancers that had been used in England.

Lancers made a big comeback in European armies in the 18th and 19th centuries (the British Army didn’t get them until after Waterloo), but they no longer wore armour, and their lances were lighter. By this time, armour had mostly been abandoned because it couldn’t withstand musket balls (although some heavy cavalry still wore breastplates), but a knock-on effect was that unarmoured soldiers were vulnerable to being stabbed with a lance point again. The British Army sometimes found lances useful in the First World War. The 7th Dragoon Guards used them in their successful charge against German infantry near High Wood on 14 July 1916 (Kenyon, Thesis, 60). The even greater firepower available at this time (quick-firing artillery, machine guns, breech-loading magazine rifles) forced infantry into looser formations, giving cavalry an opportunity to ride through the gaps and stab them on the way past. Trenches and barbed wire usually compensated for the inability to form a square in the face of cavalry attacks, but on that day there was a big gap in the German lines. Right up to the end of the First World War, changes in technology and tactics caused the fortunes of lancers, and cavalry in general, to fluctuate instead of making them gradually or suddenly obsolete. We can’t fit this into a narrative of progress or decline.

1st Dragoon Guards?

Stereoview of British cavalry (probably 1st Dragoon Guards) carrying lances during the First World War.


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