Such is the experience of an Infantry subaltern in his first battle … .

Looking along to our right we saw a brave sight, the bravest possible — a body of cavalry charging. It was none other than the renowned Cavalry of the Guides, which by a wonderful effort had crossed the seemingly impassable nullah, and was now falling with dauntless fury on ten times their numbers of the enemy. They whirled past us, and we, cheering like mad, dashed after them.

It is a splendid sight, such as no other perhaps equals, the wild charge of horsemen. Each man going for all he is worth, yelling to Allah, or other deity, to help him ; yelling curses the most blood-curdling on his enemy ; low bent so as almost to be lying along his horse’s neck, and swish after swish, bringing his keen curved sword on to the head, or neck, or back, of a flying enemy.
No time here for quarter, given or taken. The pursued, when overtaken, stops, turns, fires point-blank at his pursuer, or slashes at him with his long knife, and next instant either escapes unscathed, or goes down like a blade of corn. These were separate single combats, but here and there were little miniature battles, where clumps of the enemy had got together, and where clumps of The Guides were attacking them. These seemed always tough knots, and we could see many a horse and man go down before the knot was cut.
Then came the 10th Hussars, charging in more regular fashion, and doing bravely their share of the pursuit. Next, with a rattle and clatter and bang, up came the Horse Artillery, and began planting shells amongst the larger and more distant groups, and these too now began to melt away ; and soon the whole plain behind the ridge was covered with flying figures.
Flying much too fast for us on foot to catch them, but the sun still glittered on the blades of the
Cavalry as they hunted on, till at last man and horse could do no more. The sword arm was weary, and could no longer rise to strike ; and the horse, ready to drop with fatigue, could barely be urged out of a walk. The Cavalry had shot its bolt, and four hundred of the enemy, killed with the sword, lay along that stricken line of flight.
And so ended our first battle, a day full of adventure, with some honour and not a little glory; more exciting than any of our schoolboy games. Even the long, weary march back to camp failed to freeze the tingle down, and it was only late at night when, dog-tired, stumbling into the tent and lighting the lantern, we noticed one little camp bed empty, never to be filled again.
Such is the experience of an Infantry subaltern in his first battle … .

Major-General Sir George Younghusband, A Soldier’s Memories in Peace and War (1917).

4 thoughts on “Such is the experience of an Infantry subaltern in his first battle … .”

  1. In a good charge one holds the reins between one’s teeeth, a pistol in one hand and the sabre in the other. The horse kicks and bites. Gets the blood flowing in the morning.

    The standard formation to stop cavalry was the square with shielis on the outermost rank. Second rank were the pikemen (12 foot pikes, but firmly planted on ground, point aimed to catch horse of chest – well shined to catch the horse’s eye). Inner ranks held shields overhead to protect against rainfall of arrows. If an outer rank died, they stepped forward to man the fallen pike or shield.

    The square gave birth to close order drill.

    Cannon disrupted the squares. Squares were replaced by the line charge when cavalry were absent. When enemy cavalry were present, enemy cannon could not be used because cavalry were of higher birth than mere gunners. Unused cannon meant the squares reformed. Muskets with very long bayonettes replaced the pikemen and, absent arrows, shields were no longer needed.

    Battles were chracterized by rapid changes from line to square and back to line for the British. French preferred columns to lines because columns made it easier to prevent deserters.

    Machine guns ended lines, columns, squares, cavalry and most of the upper class.

  2. }}} French preferred columns to lines because columns made it easier to prevent deserters.

    What? The French? Yellow, Craven, Cowardly Deserters?

    Nawww. Cain’t Be…

  3. Thanks, Lex. I never read Younghusband. I wonder how I missed him. Brings to mind Farwell’s “Queen Victoria’s Little Wars” and, of course, Flashman.

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