Military History

The History of Cavalry, Infantry and Ranged Units

By Night_Raider

Cavalry, infantry and Ranged units have always been a major part of all ancient armies, for obvious reasons. Each type of unit was used for certain jobs during the heat of battle. For example, cavalry was often used to break enemy lines by charging through a weak spot. Infantry was often used as the main battle line and they used a variety of weapons. Ranged units, being Archers and skirmishers have always played the role of morale breaker, next to the cavalry. The ability to attack and yet not be attacked has always been a distinct advantage.

Cavalry and Its Uses

Cavalry served many, many roles. They also took many, many forms. Some cavalry were simple: just men on horseback wielding a sword, spears, (in some cases) a javelin for throwing, and a large variety of other weapons. Other types of cavalry were more complex, chariots for example. Chariots were basically carriages pulled by one or more horses around the battlefield. Still other cavalry were more complex, being mechanical war machines. In the early days, cavalry were mounted soldiers trained to fight on horseback. They are not to be confused with mounted infantrymen, who would ride horses between battles, but would fight on foot. Cavalry was always prized for its speed and mobility, and those key aspects was why cavalry occupied a dominant force on the ancient battlefields.

The earliest known cavalry were horse-drawn chariots. The wheels of some of the war-chariots would often be equipped with scythed blades, used to cut down enemy infantry men during a violent, demoralizing charge, literary multiply a chariots effectiveness. Although cavalry units were employed by the ancient peoples such as the Babylonians and Assyrians, the first regular cavalry consisting of trained mounted troops, probably was created by the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II. By the 6th century B.C.E., and with the rise of the Persian Empire, cavalry became a deadly, fully operational war force.

The ability of the Greeks to employ cavalry was largely hindered by their regions lack of available, trainable horses. However, in Macedonia, where available horses were beyond plentiful, King Phillip II of Macedon and his son, Alexander the Great, forged their weak kingdom in the military powerhouse that conquered the Persian Empire. They did this by adding wings of cavalry onto the main battle line of heavy infantry formed into a phalanx. Other empires, such as Carthage, Rome, and the Gothic barbarians that conquered Rome in the 5th century AD used cavalry with devastating effect in much the same way.

The earliest cavalry weapons were the lance, the javelin, and other weapons that could be thrown by hand; the sword; and the bow and arrow. Prior to 300 AD, mounted troops rode without saddles, but were protected by leather armor and helmets made of metal or leather. The Middle Ages saw the true rise of the Cavalry powerhouse. This came in the form of the mounted knight, who rode into battle wielding heavy iron armor and a steel-tipped lance or a double-edged sword. The Mongol leader and military genius Genghis Khan used masses of mounted cavalrymen armed with bows and arrows and swords to conquer much of Asia and Russia during the 13th century AD. Tightly coordinated and extremely disciplined, his armies used the smoke screen and such devices as signal flags and signal lanterns.

In the 14th century, cavalry organization and strategy drastically changed. The use of gunpowder brought about this change. Heavily armored knights no longer battled disorderly. Mounted troops were forged into disciplined forces armed with swords and hand-held firearms. The importance of infantry was also heightened by the use of gunpowder. Under the French ruler, Napoleon, mounted troops became an elite force, although the infantry still did most of the fighting. He was the first general to use cavalry to hide the movements of his main force, or to reconnoiter the front. The Cossacks of Russia became famed for their daring and skills as formidable cavalrymen. The emergence of the repeating rifle in the later part of the 19th century was a serious blow to the importance and necessity of cavalry. Armed with automatic weapons, charging cavalry was an easy target for infantry. As time moved on, horse cavalry became used less and less. Slowly the cavalry was replaced with the use of armored cavalry such as tanks and helicopters.

Infantry and Its Uses

The largest and oldest branch of the military was the Infantry. Infantry fought primarily on foot, using close-combat weapons such as the sword, axe, knife, or the more modern gun. Infantries have been the core of most historical armies. They served as the main battle line; they were used to chase down fleeing enemies or repel an assault. The most common infantry formation was the phalanx and later, the legion, which could reach several thousand men in size.

The Assyrian and Persian armies were more or less professional forces, while other civilization such as the Greeks depended on a sort of civilian militia. The backbone of the Greek army was the armored spear men, known as the hoplite. A Hoplite commonly fought in a formation known as the phalanx, which formed a sort of porcupine wall of spears. This formation was by far the most formidable formation on the early battle field. A phalanx was almost impossible to defeat in a frontal assault, especially going uphill. Although the phalanx was powerful, it was slow and lacked the maneuverability of later formations.

Initially, the Romans, like the Greeks, depended on a sort of civil militia. The largest unit of the Roman army - the legion - was more maneuverable than the phalanx and therefore more preferred. During the Punic Wars (A series of three wars between Carthage and Rome during the 3rd and 2nd century B.C.E.) the Roman army became more professional. Units in the army were drilled. Discipline was the key. Individual Roman infantrymen were skilled in using heavy javelins and the short sword, or gladius. The Roman army was now more organized. Rome had a solid system for supplies to reach her armies.

After the 2nd century AD, the Romans began relying more and more on mercenaries. This action by Rome weakened her military power and left her open to barbarian attacks from the Germanic peoples to north. As the middle ages progressed and the knight dominated the battlefield, infantries were seen as somehow inferior. Cavalrymen would often believe in their superiority so highly, that they would disorderly charge massed infantry formations. As gunpowder found its place in the battlefield - in the infantrymen's hands - Cavalry became almost obsolete. It was no longer a wise choice (it never really was, but now it was even more unwise) to charge disorganized mobs of knights into enemy infantry formations armed with rifles. Infantry would again rule the battlefield.

Ranged Units and Their Uses

There are several different types of ranged units, however the most common was the archer. An archer was equipped with relatively little or no armor. He was armed with a bow and arrows, and in some cases, such as the Roman Archers, carried around a sword used for hand to hand combat.

Authorities date the practice of archery as far back as 25,000 years before the modern era, during the Aurignacian period. The earliest people known to use the bow and arrow were the ancient Egyptians, who adopted the weapon at least 5,000 years ago. During the time of the earliest pharaohs, the Egyptians practiced archery in hunting, as well as in warfare against the ancient Persians. The Egyptians were at a distinct advantage over the Persians, as the Persians were only equipped with spears and slingshots. The bow and arrow became heavily used soon after. The Assyrians and Babylonians depended on the weapon, and the Old Testament of the Bible refers several times to archery as a characteristic skill of the ancient Hebrews. In China, archery can be dated back as far as the Shang dynasty (1570?-1045? B.C.E.). A normal war chariot consisted of a carriage pulled by one or more horses, and commonly held three men: a driver, a lancer, and an archer. During the Zhou (Chou) dynasty (1045?-256 B.C.E.), nobles often attended archery tournaments which were accompanied by music and a variety of other elegant things.

Roman military superiority must be owed to their experienced archers. At the beginning of the medieval era, the Romans were defeated by the better skilled archers of the Goths, Huns, and Vandals. The European English longbows were the most famous archers of the medieval era. Repeatedly during the 100 years war between the English and the French, British Longbows proved their worth more than enough times over their opposing French knights. The Middle East during the medieval period excelled at archery. Archery also has its own special place in the folklore of the middle ages. One of the most famous folklore would be that of renowned Swiss marksmen, William Tell during the 14th century. William was ordered by an Austrian governor to shoot an apple of his own son's head with nothing but a bow and arrow. Another famous folklore would be that of Robin Hood. Robin was noted for 'taking from the rich and giving to the poor'. Robin carried only a simple bow and arrow. He was renowned for his amazing archery abilities, including the ability to split an arrow in half using another arrow.

European accounts during the Renaissance revealed the bow and arrow to be the most important weapon used in East Asia, The Americas, Central Africa, and the Arctic regions. The demise of the bow and arrow came with use of gunpowder for military purposes. In the defeat of the Spanish Armada by the English in 1588, for example 10,000 English troops were experimentally equipped with firearms, while the Spanish relied on archers. This convinced military theorists that warfare with the bow and arrow was inefficient. Nevertheless, East Asian armies continued to employ archers in warfare as recently as the 19th century, and the use of this miraculous weapon continues in hunting and intertribal warfare in Central Africa and South America even today.