Riders of the Apocalypse: German Cavalry and Modern Warfare, 1870-1945
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Despite the enduring popular image of the blitzkrieg of World War II, the German Army always depended on horses. It could not have waged war without them. While the Army’s reliance on draft horses to pull artillery, supply wagons, and field kitchens is now generally acknowledged, D. R. Dorondo’s Riders of the Apocalypse examines the history of the German cavalry, a combat arm that not only survived World War I but also rode to war again in 1939. Though concentrating on the period between 1939 and 1945, the book places that history firmly within the larger context of the mounted arm’s development from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 to the Third Reich’s surrender.
Driven by both internal and external constraints to retain mounted forces after 1918, the German Army effectively did nothing to reduce, much less eliminate, the preponderance of non-mechanized formations during its breakneck expansion under the Nazis after 1933. Instead, politicized command decisions, technical insufficiency, industrial bottlenecks, and, finally, wartime attrition meant that Army leaders were compelled to rely on a steadily growing number of combat horsemen throughout World War II. These horsemen were best represented by the 1st Cavalry Brigade (later Division) which saw combat in Poland, the Netherlands, France, Russia, and Hungary. Their service, however, came to be cruelly dishonored by the horsemen of the 8th Waffen-SS Cavalry Division, a unit whose troopers spent more time killing civilians than fighting enemy soldiers.
Throughout the story of these formations, and drawing extensively on both primary and secondary sources, Dorondo shows how the cavalry’s tradition carried on in a German and European world undergoing rapid military industrialization after the mid-nineteenth century. And though Riders of the Apocalypse focuses on the German element of this tradition, it also notes other countries’ continuing (and, in the case of Russia, much more extensive) use of combat horsemen after 1900. However, precisely because the Nazi regime devoted so much effort to portray Germany’s armed forces as fully modern and mechanized, the combat effectiveness of so many German horsemen on the battlefields of Europe until 1945 remains a story that deserves to be more widely known. Dorondo’s work does much to tell that story.
Therefore on land, on the sea, and in the air, the aim of re-armament under the Nazis was the alteration to Germany's advantage of the European balance of power, and that as rapidly as possible. 9 As early as 8 February 1933, Hitler insisted in Cabinet that “every publicly sponsored measure to create employment had to be considered from the point of view of whether it was necessary…to rendering the German people again capable of bearing arms for military service. This had to be the dominant thought, always and everywhere.
Its and the Horyn's tributaries, and most other rivers in the western Soviet Union, flowed perpendicular to the Germans' axis of advance, thereby creating innumerable large and small riparian barriers to the invaders and requiring “an infinite number of bridges. ” All of the Pripet Marshes' watercourses drained a shallow basin that at its widest extent stretched some one hundred miles (160 km) north to south. Extensive forested belts included thick stands of willow, birch, and alder. In 1941 the Pripet Marshes sheltered a sparse human population living close to the land on both sides of the border in villages and small towns.
After Jena in 1806, for example, Napoleon I “unleashed his cavalry in a pursuit designed to complete the destruction of the enemy and the enemy state; a deep penetration to spread panic among the enemy population and destroy all hope of recovery. ”51 Even so, he had seen in his cavalry not only “an exploitation force or reconnaissance asset” but also a “true shock force that could have effects disproportional to its numerical size” as at Eylau in 1807. 52 If the latter were true, if the massed attack were still to be the French cavalry's main reason for being, then massing them in the rear and holding them in place until the critical moment, though frequently condemned, would be a logical tactical disposition.
In spite of these successes, however, the Rumanian forces in Wallachia southwest of the capital managed to launch a fairly strong counterattack on 1 December against Falkenhayn's forces and those of General (and Death's Head Hussar) August von Mackensen attacking from below the Danube. Here, too, however, the German cavalry made a signal contribution. To help stem this Rumanian counterattack, Falkenhayn dispatched a combined cavalry-infantry force against the right wing of the Rumanians. The horsemen and their accompanying infantry struck the right flank of the Rumanians, broke through, and got into their rear areas.
17 By 1939 standard expectations for a good Trakehner stallion or gelding included heights measuring between 15. 3 and 16. 2 hands. Suitable girths measured between 75 and 79 inches (190–200 cm). The same measurements for Trakehner mares were 15. 2 to 16 hands and 70 to 79 inches (177–200 cm) in girth. 18 A second major source of horseflesh for the army's needs lay in another traditional region of German horse breeding. This was in Hannover, in what is today Lower Saxony. Centered on Celle—the aforementioned location of the army's Cavalry School—this area stretched northward from the River Aller into the Lüneberg Heath.