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22 May 1859, Edinburgh M.D., Kt, D.L., LL.D., Sportsman, Writer, Poet, Politician, Justicer, Spiritualist Crowborough, 7 July 1930

Cavalry Training

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Cavalry Training is a letter written by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in The Pall Mall Gazette on 6 april 1910.

Cavalry Training

Sir, — Might I make a few comments upon your Military Correspondent's article upon the question of Cavalry training, as it is one in which I have long taken a keen interest, and I do most heartily believe, with Mr. Erskine Childers, that we are in Imminent danger of losing all the lessons which we purchased so dearly in South Africa?

In the first edition of The Great Boer War, which appeared towards the close of 1900, I added a chapter on the military lessons of the war, which was omitted in subsequent editions, not because I felt that my views had been shaken by the expert criticism to which they were subjected, but because each succeeding edition contained so much more narrative that this supplementary chapter was squeezed out. In this essay, with all that I have seen, heard, and read in South Africa fresh in my mind, I expressed some strong opinions, but I venture to say that subsequent events have seemed to justify them. I said, among other things, that there was, outside artillery, only one weapon in the world, the magazine rifle, and that the only place for swords, lances, and revolvers was a museum. I said, also, that good Mounted Riflemen must always dominate Cavalry, and I gave my opinion that the whole Cavalry force with its splendid personnel should at once be rescued from impotence by being rearmed and put on a level with their foes. This was not done at the time, but within a year or eighteen months we had learned our lesson, and the Cavalry had actually returned their arms to store, received their rifles, and become mounted riflemen. I mention this to show that the views I advocate are my own, and that I am not merely repeating Mr. Erskine Childers' argument, though I agree most heartily with all of it.

This was the practical lesson shot into us on the veldt, a land which, when compared to any European country, is a perfect terrain for Cavalry. What has occurred since then to alter it? I claim that everything has been in the direction of enforcing the lesson. The "arme blanche" can never improve, but the rifleman has been reinforced by quicker fire and a lower trajectory. If he dominated in South Africa he has increased his superiority since. And yet our Cavalry, while, it is true, retaining their rifles, have gone back to the sword and lance, with those prehistoric shock traditions which these implements imply. It is, indeed, a sad thing that we should put aside our dearly-won experience, and follow German theorists who have never seen a shot fired in anger.

Your correspondent follows the Cavalry manual in the opinion that a soldier may be trained to be equally expert with sword, lance, and rifle. But the tactics of the shock horseman and of the mounted rifleman are absolutely contradictory, and it is not possible to train a habit of mind to take two irreconcilable shapes. The shock horseman is always looking for good ground and some one to charge. The mounted rifleman is looking for bad ground where he and his horse can both be concealed, with a good fire field. You can have it either way, but you cannot have it both. Which is the better way of extracting the most value from the soldier has surely been shown by all modern warfare, but most of all by the American Civil War and the African War, where men of our own blood, faced with the practical conditions of a long campaign, evolved in each case the same form of mounted soldier. In the past we would have been wiser to study the methods of Americans like Sheridan and Stewart than those of Continental Cavalry. Now that our own African lessons have reinforced those of America, it would indeed be sad if the traditional conservatism of our Cavalry were permitted to overlook them.

Passing from the general to the particular, your correspondent's article seems to me to abound in statements which might be challenged. He goes back to the wars of the eighteenth century for his examples of Cavalry success, but it would be more convincing if he could name any single deed of the Cavalry in South Africa during three years which could not have been done as well by mounted riflemen. It would be easy to give a score of deeds by mounted riflemen which could not possibly have been done by Cavalry.

The Cavalry prejudice is continually evident in your correspondent's remarks. For example, he talks about "lowering the Cavalry to the level of mounted infantry." But why lowering? The object is to produce the more formidable soldier. If, as South Africa showed, the mounted rifleman is so, then it is not to lower, but to raise, the Cavalry when they are converted to that type.

Your correspondent's chief argument is the old one that Cavalry can charge, and that mounted riflemen cannot. Both propositions may be disputed. Neither in the Boer War nor in that of Manchuria has the Cavalry ever shown that they could charge under modern conditions. On the other hand mounted riflemen have charged in the Boer service again and again, and, indeed, the charge on horseback was their normal method of attack during the last year of the war. Your correspondent mentions Potgieter's charge, which was arrested. But he does not mention the Boer charges at Vlakfontein, Tweebusch, or Bakenlaagte, which got home with deadly effects. The mounted riflemen's charge does not depend upon shock, but it is none the less deadly, arresting itself at the last moment for the use of the rifle. Botha at Bakenlaagte stopped his horsemen only thirty yards from the British line, but under a fold of ground, with the result that our force was annihilated. What could sword or lance do more? And is it fair to say that if Cavalry become mounted riflemen they can never hope to charge? I believe the reverse is the fact, and that it is not until they have become mounted riflemen that they will ever be able to play a spirited role in modern warfare.

There is no use in parading one thing in peace time and hoping for another in war, in scouring the heaths of Aldershot with swords and lances. but reserving the rifle, and the rifleman's habit of mind for real business. We must be logical and whole-hearted in this matter. The change should be thorough. I will never believe that it has been effected until I see a hundred lightly-equipped men, with rifles slung on their hacks, and bandoliers across their chests, riding behind the King's State carriage, in the place of the present picturesque, but mediaeval, guard. That will mark the final triumph of the modern type.

Yours faithfully,

April 5.