Cavalry Operations: Why horse supply matters

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 7:00 am, 13 October 2013]

[Edit May 2016: Peter Gaunt cited this blog post in his review of my book in War in History to show how my thinking had changed, which was nice.]

Over the last three posts, I’ve shown that early modern armies couldn’t move without an adequate cavalry screen, that what was adequate depended on objectives and balance of forces, and that the balance between cavalry in field armies could be affected by small-scale raids. Now I’ll bring it all together, in a post that could be titled ‘how horses won the English Civil War’. (more…)

Cavalry Operations: It’s a raid!

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 7:00 am, 11 October 2013]

[Edit May 2016: The map has gone because I deleted my old Google account and I don’t have time to recreate it.]

One of the many problems with concentrating only on big battles is that it distracts attention from small-scale operations that were more common and can tell us interesting things about how war worked in practice. But studying small wars for their own sake can also obscure links with bigger issues. This post will try to explain why small cavalry raids happened and how they could affect operational decisions. (more…)

Cavalry Operations: A question of balance

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 7:00 am, 9 October 2013]

In the previous post, we saw that having enough cavalry was vital for an army to be able to move safely. But how many is enough? (more…)

Cavalry Operations: Moving an army is difficult and dangerous

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 7:00 am, 7 October 2013]

[Edit May 2016: I no longer think these cavalry operations posts are the best thing I’ve written anywhere, but they are the best blog posts I’ve ever written. I was just sketching out a hypothesis here which still needs throroughly testing against evidence (which I’m going to do in my next project, especially if my current funding application is successful).]

At last I’ve written the series of posts on cavalry operations that I’ve been promising for a long time. There are lots of details I haven’t gone into, especially to do with geography and fodder, but the main point I’ll be trying to make is that the number of cavalry available has a big influence on where, how and whether armies can move. This series will be four posts, all about the First Civil War in England, mostly in the South. I’ll be concentrating on the Earl of Essex’s army because that’s the one I know best, it’s been under researched and often misunderstood, and its campaigns give some great examples of how important cavalry were. Along the way, I’ll keep challenging the myth that Essex’s cavalry were useless ‘decayed serving men and tapsters’. The basic facts of the movements of armies in the civil war aren’t disputed much, or at least I won’t be disputing them the way I have with the received wisdom about tactics. I’m mostly relying on Wanklyn and Jones for these facts, and a few other secondary works for more details of certain campaigns. These posts will try to explain why armies moved the way that they did, and how cavalry or lack of it could limit their options. A lot of this is hypothetical and can’t be strongly proved using the traditional method of picking anecdotes from narrative sources (but what can?), but it works for me. (more…)

Horses and men again

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 4:07 pm, 28 March 2007]

[Edit May 2016: I now think the reforms of 1645 were more than an incremental improvement, since Tom Crawshaw has disproved my argument that the finances of Essex’s army improved in 1644.]

Following on from yesterday’s post, here’s an added bonus: some paragraphs that I’ve just cut from the article I’m working on. I’ve decided not to take it too far into the debate over “determinism” and the outcome of the war because it’s not entirely relevant to what the article is really about, and I needed to lose some words somewhere. It’s also not very safe territory to be on, and I’ve changed my mind about some of this stuff since I wrote it, so I don’t necessarily believe everything that’s written below.


All the King’s horses and all the King’s men

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 12:33 pm, 27 March 2007]

[Edit May 2016: I’m still wrestling with this problem now but I think I’ve got a better answer. See my post on why horse supply matters. As the bibliography at the bottom correctly states, A Military History of the English Civil War was actually published in 2005 and was co-authored by Frank Jones. Wanklyn has since offered a more sophisticated analysis in The Warrior Generals. The introduction of my book, Horses, People and Parliament, includes a conversion narrative of how I came round more to Wanklyn’s view after writing this post. I can now see that my attempt at a determinist explanation for Parliament’s victory was entirely conventional at the time I wrote my thesis. Jeff Hoppes got in touch with me because of this post to tell me about his PhD research on ordinary soldiers in the civil wars but I don’t know if he ever finished it.]

When I set out on my PhD I was hoping to use the supply of horses to English Civil War armies as a case study to demonstrate how logistics influenced the outcome of the war. In the end it didn’t work out like that. The biggest problem was loss of royalist records. Because they lost the war there wasn’t much reason to keep their archives, and many officers burnt their papers before surrendering. It seems like a miracle that so many parliamentarian records survived the Restoration and ended up in the Public Records Office. This means that there’s a huge disparity in surviving administrative records that makes it difficult to compare both sides. The comparisons I could make weren’t very helpful to my original hypothesis. Where there was definite evidence of how the royalists got their horses it was quite similar to the methods used by parliament at the same time. Clutching at straws, I deduced that the royalists were unlikely to have been able to buy horses on the scale that parliament did in 1644-46 because they didn’t have similar tax revenues. That wasn’t a very safe assumption, and Martyn Bennett quite rightly demolished it during the viva (although the viva was actually a pleasant experience, and I passed with minimal corrections mostly consisting of commas and apostrophes!).

Ultimately there wasn’t much evidence that the royalists were suffering from a major shortage of horses at any crucial stages of the war. It wasn’t until the very end of the war in 1646 that royalist cavalry were making do with worn out or low quality horses. That makes it look like horse shortages were a consequence, not a cause, of defeat. So the study of horse supply doesn’t provide much evidence that finance, supply, or logistics contributed to royalist defeat. Malcolm Wanklyn would say, of course not, that’s far too determinist.


How to find a civil war army

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 10:45 pm, 8 November 2006]

[Edit May 2016: John Ellis’s new work on intelligence has shown that military operations were often reported quickly and accurately in the London press, which adds more weight to my argument that civilians would know where to find the armies. (Although I’ve found that some newsbook reports were pure fantasy: see this post.) Ellis has also conclusively disproved the myth that neither army in the Edgehill campaign knew where the other was.]

Feeding an early-modern army was a major logistical problem. The New Model Army had a centralised supply system to take care of most things (weapons, armour, clothing, horses, saddles) but food was a big exception. Lynette Nusbacher has noted that the quantities of food supplied through centralised purchasing were far too small to keep the army fed (see “Civil Supply in the Civil War”, English Historical Review (115, 2000, pp. 145-60), which summarises some of the most important points in her PhD thesis). Her answer to this problem is that food was mostly supplied by private victuallers who brought food from London and sold it directly to the soldiers. This makes a lot of sense, because compared to the population of London (estimates for the civil war period are usually between 200,000 and 300,000), feeding an army of 20,000 was not such a big deal. In contrast, most of the areas where the army campaigned were unlikely to have enough food supplies to support the army. Ben Coates (The impact of the English Civil War on the economy of London, 1642-50, 2004, ISBN: 0754601048, pp. 91-2) questioned this view, partly because Ian Archer pointed out that it would have been difficult for the victuallers to find the army when it was on the move. Having spent years studying military operations and logistics I would suggest the opposite: it would have been difficult to miss an English Civil War field army.