Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Battle of the Silver Helmets—Cavalry Clash at Beginning of Industrial Scale War

From a German postcard: "Battle of Haelen 1914, Defeat of the German Cavalry.

It should have been a perfectly splendid affray at the onset of what all sides seemed to think would be a glorious war providing for noble spectacle and opportunities for gallantry and honors sadly missing from Europe for generations.  The Great War was all shiny and new and all of the powers leaping madly into the melee were sure of rapid victory and Christmas at home.  And what could be a more fitting opening chapter than a clash between the dashing cavalry of two opposing armies, each still fitted out in splendor as if for a victory parade down a broad avenue.  It happened near a river ford town named Haelen in Belgium on August 12, 1914.
Thing had moved briskly in Europe since the assassination of an Austrian Archduke in his comic opera uniform and his wife in Sarajevo on June.  July was wasted on a complicated series of threats, ultimatums, and rejection that spread complex patterns to countries far removed from the original clauses.  On July 28 Austria-Hungary finally declared war on Serbia and three days later Germany declared war on Russia for mobilizing to intervene on behalf of its ally and client state Serbia.  The three great Central and Eastern European empires were now committed, but the contagion could not be confined.

On August 2 Germany invaded Luxembourg, obviously intending to move on Russian ally France.  The next Belgian government refused a German ultimatum to open its borders to the passage of German troops and Britain government guaranteed military support to Belgium should Germany invade. Contemptuously ignoring the warning Germany immediately entered Belgium and formally declared war on France, the British government ordered general mobilization and Italy declared neutrality.  The British mobilized and sent another ultimatum to Germany then quickly declared war on Germany at midnight on August 4 Central European time. The Belgium declaration of war was a final formality as the German army moved on Liège.

The problem was that huge armies of the major powers, each calling millions of men to arms, dwarfed anything before it in both complexity and the relatively short periods of time available. The notoriously efficient Germans with their highly trained, professional and largely Prussian General Staff and senior officer corps were able to get their large army on the move more quickly than France, which was still scrambling, and Britain which had to mover an expeditionary force from the home islands. 
But even the Germans, like everyone else, were rusty. They had not been in major combat since the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.  Only a handful of the most decrepit senior generals had even been lieutenants in that conflict.  The French, who were mad to revenge their humiliating defeat in 1870, had fought rebellions in their North African possessions but had mostly used their mercenary Foreign Legion troops who by law could not serve on French soil.  The British had been very busy with a seemingly endless succession of colonial wars in India, the Sudan, Afghanistan, and of course the Boer Wars in South Africa.  They had many combat seasoned officers and highly professional regiments in addition to reasonably trained reserves—and, of course, unchallenged world naval superiority.  But naval superiority would not immediately mean much in a land war in Europe and the British had not engaged a modern European army since the Crimean War which had ended way back in 1856.  And that had gone very badly for the British whose troops were poorly equipped, clothed, and supported and who were pounded in a relentless and brutal trench warfare campaign which should have been taken as lesson, but was, instead treated as an aberration
These armies had modern weaponsbolt action rifles that gave individual soldier and units many times the firepower of their Napoleonic Era counterparts, machine guns whose death dealing capabilities had not yet been fully understood as rendering old fashion mass maneuver and the gallant charge obsolete, light-weight and mobile mortars that could move and advance with infantry, and breach-loading and rifled cannon that could heave explosive shells far beyond the range of smooth bore cannon with greater accuracy.  But they still moved by horse power.  No European army yet had more than a relative handful of trucks.  Civilian automobiles were in use as staff cars and a few were being tried out for scout vehicles, but since they could not operate reliably off roads were of limited use.  Motorcycles competed with bicycles and horses as messengers where telephone lines were down or unavailable. The Germans were using some limited radio communications as well, but the equipment was too bulky to accompany units in the field.  While in the mobilization phase, internal railway systems could deliver men and materiel to marshalling points, but after that—and certainly after entering enemy territory—artillery, ammunition, and baggage  was all horse-drawn greatly limiting the speed with which any army could advance even under ideal conditions with little or no armed opposition.
So, despite light opposition by the Belgians who were scrambling to get their small army in place and hopping for the early arrival of the French and English in large numbers, the Germans were not exactly slicing through the small country at lightning speed.  You are thinking of the highly mechanized Panzer Divisions that enabled the Blitzkrieg of the next war.  The Germans were plodding to Liège slowly and behind the detailed plans of the General Staff.

German Cavalry on the move early in the war.  These are Hussars--note the distinctive jackets worn draped over the left shoulder, the hallmark of this kind of cavalry.
Which is where the cavalry came in.  All of the European armies still carried large forces of cavalry, many still carrying lances for use against tightly packed infantry formations.  All of these forces were now also armed with rifles, carbines, and horse pistols.  They were to be used as cavalry had been deployed for centuries—for scouting and reconnaissance, for screening the flanks infantry to prevent ambushes or surprise attacks, for rapid movements ahead of the main army to seize strategic points like cross-roads and river fords, to harass the enemy rear and disrupt baggage trains, over-run artillery positions, and finally in pitched battle as shock troops to shatter enemy infantry formations.  In the course of such operations it was to be expected that cavalry of opposing sides would discover each other resulting in that most glorious of all actions, a mounted cavalry battle with the blare of bugles, charges and counter charges, sabers slashing.

Like many units of most armies, the Cavalry was still outfitted in the splendor befitting old Napoleonic glory, or an only moderately subdued version of it.  Even infantry was not immune—the French Poilus marched to war in bright blue coats, red trousers, and kepis.  The Germans already preferred their gray uniforms, but many troops still wore patent leather spike helmets.  Only the British who had learned from bitter experience in all of their colonial wars that their traditions scarlet coats only made their troops easy targets, had adapted to dun brown woolens and a variety of soft caps and hat to provide regiments with distinctiveness.  But the cavalry, the glorious cavalry were still in their gleaming silver helmets, or some other elaborate headdress, knee-high polished boots with spurs, cut-away jackets with split tails or waist-length tunics, gauntlets, and scabbered sabers still cut dashing figures.  Uniforms, including the colors of coats and breeches, might vary between types of horsemen—Hussars (light cavalry), Dragoons (multi-purpose assault and reconnaissance, frequently used as mounted infantry to fight on foot), Lancers (assault against infantry and artillery), and Cuirassiers (heavy cavalry with rifles or carbines and assault troops—and between regiments.

Representative uniforms of Belgian cavalry units in World War I.  Some of those at Haelen also wore silver helmets, but they never got to fight from the saddle.
The German generals decided to deploy their gaily bedecked cavalry—they had two whole divisions organized as the II Cavalry Corps under General Georg von der MarwitzCavalry scouts sent ahead to reconnoiter along the routes to Antwerp, Brussels and Charleroi reported on August 7 a gap in the Allied line between Deist and Hay.
On August 11 Belgian cavalry scouts reported a large movement of troops, including infantry, cavalry, and artillery were rumbling on the move.  Anticipating an attempt to breach the gap before more French reinforcements could arrive, the Belgian cavalry division under Lieutenant-General Léon de Witte was dispatched to secure the bridge over the River Gete at Haelen and either block the German advance or delay it long enough for the gap in the line to be filled.  De Witte was also pointedly ordered to use his cavalrymen as infantry and not to challenge the Germans on horseback.
Those are disappointing orders for any cavalry commander, but de Witte complied speedily.  His mounted forces could move quickly to Haelen and had time to take up defensive positions with excellent cover.  His force consisted of five mounted regiments with 2,400 men, bicycle company with 450 riflemen, and one company of pioneers (armed engineers).  He concentrated his forces at the rear of the village and spread some along canceled positions on his flanks should he be overwhelmed.
Also on the 11, the German 2nd Cavalry Division under Major-General von Krane was ordered ahead towards Spalbeek and the 4th Cavalry Division under Lieutenant-General von Garnier was to advance via Alken to Stevoort.  But neither force moved until August 12 because their horses and men were exhausted from a forced march in intense summer heat and sufficient oats for the horses had not caught up to them.
Before they could move, however, the Belgians intercepted an encoded radio message that revealed the German force and its destinations—one of the first such instances in modern war and a red-flag warning to secure messages floating in the airways for anyone to pick up.  Belgian headquarters quickly dispatched the 4th Infantry Brigade to reinforce de Witte at Haelen
Germans from the 4th Division attempted to cross the Gete behind a screen provided by members of two Jäger battalions (literally hunters but elite specialized ranger units used as advanced skirmishers often in conjunction with the cavalry.)  The movement was detected and 200 advanced Belgian skirmishers set up defensive positions in the building of the town inflicting a whiting fire on the attackers.  Belgian pioneer blew the bridge but it failed to completely collapse.  German artillery rousted the defenders from the village sending them back across the river.
Von Krane managed to get about 1000 of his mounted troopers across the bridge and into the town.  He must have been confident that he could scatter an inferior enemy.  He was wrong.  There was soon hell to pay.
The main Belgian line stretched west from the town and was hidden behind copses, hedges, and farm building.  Attacks there were repulsed because the attackers could not, in most cases even see the defenders or make out how they had deployed their line making traps likely.

Haelen and to the south the Jägers and the 17th and 3rd Brigades of the 4th Division tried to advance through some corn fields.  Here they met disaster despite support from artillery and from a machine gun company.  The dismounted Belgians poured vicious fire into repeated charges by the cavalry, cutting the advance units to pieces as men and horses got tangled in barbed wire farm fences and floundered in a sunken road where they were picked off by sharpshooters and raked with machine gun fire.

The grim aftermath of the battle.
At the end of a long afternoon of sharp fighting the German retreated, the battered 4th Division toward Alken and the 2nd Division toward Hasselt.  It was a stunning victory for the plucky and outnumbered Belgians and a devastating loss in pride and prestige for the German cavalry.  Both side sustained heavy casualties—the Belgians lost 160 dead and 320 wounded and the Germans lost 150 dead, 600 wounded, 200–300 prisoners.  But 4th Division alone lost a combined 501 men dead and wounded and 848 horses—casualty rates of 16% for men and 28% for horses.  That far exceeds the classical definition of decimation.  Far from expected glory, the German cavalry was given a grim preview of the relentless war ahead.
Despite the valiant stand, which is still celebrated by the Belgians if forgotten by everyone else, the action at Haelen barely slowed up the German advance across the country.  Germans besieged and captured fortified Namur, Liège,  and Antwerp and were not stopped until the Allies could mass enough troops along the Yser in late October of 1914 leaving the Germans in control of most of Belgium.  Then the war began to settle down into the grinding years of trench warfare so etched in the popular memory.

All that's left of glory--a gleaming helmet of a member of the German 2nd Cuirassiers found on the field of battle.
At home German propagandists turned the defeat of the Cavalry at Haelen as a gallant but futile loss, much as the English had romanticized the doomed Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimea and the Americans had lionized Custer and the 7th Cavalry after the Little Big Horn.  Allied propagandists made hay of the Rape of Belgium by the inhuman Huns, but their German counterparts vowed vengeances for the slaughter of their Knights in the Silver Helmets.
Such is the way of war.

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