Charge (warfare)

"Cavalry charge" redirects here. For the tactic used in various football codes, see cavalry charge (football).

Romanticized painting of O'Higgins' charge at the Battle of Rancagua during the Chilean War of Independence
Era Prehistoric – Modern
Battlespace Land
Weapons Lances, Pikes, Swords, Bayonets, Rifles, Knives
Type Maneuver warfare, Offensive warfare
Strategy Offensive

A charge is a maneuver in battle in which combatants advance towards their enemy at their best speed in an attempt to engage in close combat. The charge is the dominant shock attack and has been the key tactic and decisive moment of many battles throughout history. Modern charges usually involve small groups against individual positions (such as a bunker) instead of large groups of combatants charging another group or a fortified line.

Infantry charges

Ancient charges

It may be assumed that the charge was practised in prehistoric warfare, but clear evidence only comes with later literate societies. The tactics of the classical Greek phalanx included an ordered approach march, with a final charge to contact.[1]

Highland charge

Main article: Highland charge

In response to the introduction of firearms, Irish and Scottish troops at the end of the 16th century developed a tactic that combined a volley of musketry with a rapid close to close combat using swords. Initially successful, it was countered by effective discipline and the development of defensive bayonet tactics.[2]

Bayonet charge

Greek infantry charge with the bayonet during the Greco-Turkish War of 1897
Main article: Bayonet

The development of the bayonet in the late 17th century led to the bayonet charge becoming the main infantry charge tactic through the 19th century and into the 20th. As early as the 19th century, tactical scholars were already noting that most bayonet charges did not result in close combat. Instead, one side usually fled before actual bayonet fighting ensued. The act of fixing bayonets has been held to be primarily connected to morale, the making of a clear signal to friend and foe of a willingness to kill at close quarters.[3]

Cavalry charges

The shock value of a charge attack has been especially exploited in cavalry tactics, both of armored knights and lighter mounted troops of both earlier and later eras. Historians such as John Keegan have shown that when correctly prepared against (such as by improvising fortifications) and, especially, by standing firm in face of the onslaught, cavalry charges often failed against infantry, with horses refusing to gallop into the dense mass of enemies,[4] or the charging unit itself breaking up. However, when cavalry charges succeeded, it was usually due to the defending formation breaking up (often in fear) and scattering, to be hunted down by the enemy.[5] It must be noted, though, that while it was not recommended for a cavalry charge to continue against unbroken infantry, charges were still a viable danger to heavy infantry. Parthian lancers were noted to require significantly dense formations of Roman legionaries to stop, and Frankish knights were reported to be even harder to stop, if the writing of Anna Komnene is to be believed. However, only highly trained horses would voluntarily charge dense, unbroken enemy formations directly, and in order to be effective, a strong formation would have to be kept – such strong formations being the result of efficient training. Heavy cavalry lacking even a single part of this combination – composed of high morale, excellent training, quality equipment, individual prowess, and collective discipline of both the warrior and the mount – would suffer in a charge against unbroken heavy infantry, and only the very best heavy cavalrymen (e.g. knights and cataphracts) throughout history would own these in regards to their era and terrain.

European Middle Ages

The cavalry charge was a significant tactic in the Middle Ages. Although cavalry had charged before, a combination of the adoption of a frame saddle secured in place by a breast-band, stirrups and the technique of couching the lance under the arm delivered a hitherto unachievable ability to utilise the momentum of the horse and rider. These developments began in the 7th century but were not combined to full effect until the 11th century.[6] The Battle of Dyrrhachium (1081) was an early instance of the familiar medieval cavalry charge; recorded to have a devastating effect by both Norman and Byzantine chroniclers. By the time of the First Crusade in the 1090s, the cavalry charge was being employed widely by European armies.[7]

However, from the dawn of the Hundred Years' War onward, the use of professional pikemen and longbowmen with high morale and functional tactics meant that a knight would have to be cautious in a cavalry charge. Men wielding either pike or halberd in formation, with high morale, could stave off all but the best cavalry charges, whilst English longbowmen could unleash a torrent of arrows capable of wreaking havoc, though not necessarily a massacre, upon the heads of heavy infantry and cavalry in unsuitable terrain. It became increasingly common for knights to dismount and fight as elite heavy infantry, although some continued to stay mounted throughout combat. The use of cavalry for flanking manoeuvres became more useful, although some interpretations of the knightly ideal often led to reckless, undisciplined charges.

Cavalry could still charge dense heavy infantry formations head-on if the cavalrymen had a combination of certain traits. They had a high chance of success if they were in a formation, collectively disciplined, highly skilled, and equipped with the best arms and armour, as well as mounted upon horses trained to endure the physical and mental stresses of such charges. However, the majority of cavalry personnel lacked at least one of these traits, particularly discipline, formations, and horses trained for head-on charges. Thus, the use of the head-on cavalry charge declined, although the fierce Polish hussars, elite Germano-French professional lancers, and Spanish and Portuguese conquistadores were still capable of succeeding in such charges, often due to their possession of the previously mentioned combination of the traits required for success in such endeavours.

Twentieth century

In the twentieth century, the cavalry charge was seldom used, though it enjoyed sporadic and occasional success.

In what was called the "last true cavalry charge", elements of the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the United States attacked Villista forces in the Battle of Guerrero on 29 March 1916. The battle was a victory for the Americans, occurring in desert terrain, at the Mexican town of Vicente Guerrero, Chihuahua.[8][9][10][11]

On 16 May 1919, during the Third Anglo-Afghan War, the 1st King's Dragoon Guards made the last recorded charge by a British horsed cavalry regiment[12] at Dakka, a village in Afghan territory, north west of the Khyber Pass.[13]

One of the most successful offensive cavalry charges of the 20th century was not conducted by cavalry at all, but rather by mounted infantry, when on 31 October 1917, the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade charged across two miles of open terrain in the face of Ottoman artillery and machine gun fire to successfully capture Beersheba in what would come to be known as the Battle of Beersheba.

During the Spanish Civil War, there was a massive cavalry charge by the Fascist ’s division during the Battle of Alfambra on 5 February 1938, the last great mounted charge in Western Europe.[14]

Several attempted charges were made in World War II. On Nov. 17, 1941, during the Battle of Moscow, the Soviet 44th 'Mongolian' Cavalry Division charged the German lines near Musino, west of the capital. The mounted Soviets were ravaged by German artillery, then by machine guns. The charge failed, and the Germans said they killed 2,000 cavalrymen without a single loss to themselves.[15] On 24 August 1942, the defensive charge of the Savoia Cavalleria at Izbushensky against Russian lines near the Don River was successful. British and American cavalry units also made similar cavalry charges during World War II. (See 26th Cavalry Regiment[16][17][18])

After World War II, the cavalry charge was clearly outdated and was no longer employed; this, however, did not stop modern troops from utilising horses for transport, and in countries with mounted police, similar (albeit unarmed) techniques to the cavalry charge are sometimes employed to fend off rioters and large crowds.

Impact of firearms

In the firearms age, the basic parameters are speed of advance against rate (or effectiveness) of fire. If the attackers advance at a more rapid rate than the defenders can kill or disable them then the attackers will reach the defenders (though not necessarily without being greatly weakened in numbers). There are many modifiers to this simple comparison – timing, covering fire, organization, formation and terrain, among others. A failed charge may leave the would-be attackers vulnerable to a counter-charge.

There has been a constant rise in an army's rate of fire for the last 700 years or so, but while massed charges have been successfully broken they have also been victorious. It is only since the late 19th century that straight charges have become less successful, especially since the introduction of the machine gun and breech-loading artillery. They are often still useful on a far smaller scale in confined areas where the enemy's firepower cannot be brought to bear.

Notable charges

Charge of the Light Brigade, Painting by Richard Caton Woodville

Together with the Battle of Bannockburn (below), the battle contributed to the end of the perception of cavalry supremacy in warfare.

Charge of the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade at the Battle of Beersheba.
Charge of Polish hussars at the Battle of Klushino 1610

See also


  1. Connolly, Peter (1981). Greece and Rome at War. London: Macdonald Phoebus. p. 47. ISBN 0-356-06798-X.
  2. Hill, J. Michael (1999). "Chapter 6 : Gaelic Warfare 1453–1815". In Black, Jeremy. European Warfare 1453–1815. London: Macmillan Press. pp. 201–224. ISBN 978-0-333-69224-0.
  3. Holmes, Richard (1987). Firing Line. Harmondsworth: Penguin. pp. 377–9. ISBN 0-14-008574-2.
  4. N. Machiavelli, Art of War, II
  5. A History of WarfareKeegan, John, Vintage, Thursday 01 November 1994
  6. Nicolle, David (2011). European Medieval tactics (I). Botley,Oxford: Osprey. pp. 24–8. ISBN 978-1-84908-503-8.
  7. Rupert Willoughby, 'The Shock of the New' in History Today, 49 (1999)
  8. 2nd Battalion "7th Cavalry Regiment "Ghosts"" Check |url= value (help). Retrieved 2013-01-23.
  9. Boot, Max (2003). The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power. New York: Basic Books. p. 199. ISBN 046500721X. LCCN 2004695066.
  10. Beede, Benjamin R. (1994). The War of 1898, and U.S. interventions, 1898–1934: an encyclopedia. Taylor & Francis. pp. 218–219. ISBN 0-8240-5624-8.
  11. "First World - Primary Documents - General Pershing on Military Operations in Mexico, 30 March 1916". Retrieved 31 October 2015.
  12. "1899 to 1938 – A Short History of 1st The Queen's Dragoon Guards". Regimental Museum of the 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards (The Welsh Horse). Retrieved 24 July 2015.
  13. "Afghanistan". Regimental Museum of the 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards (The Welsh Horse). Retrieved 24 July 2015.
  14. Thomas, Hugh. The Spanish Civil War. Penguin Books. 2001. London. p.772
  15. C. Peter Chen. "Battle of Moscow". WW2DB. Retrieved 31 October 2015.
  16. "The Last Charge". Retrieved 31 January 2008.
  17. "Cavalry Lasts – The Last Cavalry Charge". Retrieved 31 January 2008.
  18. John Skow (23 November 1987). "In Kansas: Echoing Hoofbeats". Times Magazine. Retrieved 12 May 2009.
  19. "Kluszyn 1610, Battle between Polish Commonwealth and Russia (Moscovy)". Retrieved 31 October 2015.
  20. "The Royal Dragoon Guards: History and Tradition".
  21. Newton, Cecil. "Short History of the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards".
  22. The Marquess of Anglesey, History of the British Cavalry, 1816–1919, volume 8, Leo Cooper, London, 1997, pp. 349–52
  23. John Pike. "Cavalry Lasts - The Last Cavalry Charge". Retrieved 31 October 2015.
  24. "Poland in Exile - 1st Polish People's Army". Retrieved 31 October 2015.
  25. The Telegraph, 2004-06-13.
  26. "French peacekeepers assault on the Vrbanja bridge – Bosnian war / French video – French videoları – – sayfa 2". Retrieved 2015-06-30.
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