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Full Version: Casualty Rates : Infantry vs. Cavalry
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Avete,

After a battle would the winning side typically experience higher casualties among the infantry or the cavalry ? (In percentages, of course)

The infantry had the benefit of fighting in shifts, IIRC. Cavalry, I assume, would all be engaged simultaneously. If I'm right then it would seem to make sense that the cavalry should endure a higher percentage of losses and wounded.

Do we have any hard numbers from historical accounts about casualties broken down in cavalry vs. infantry ?

~Theo
I think the cavalry would have a lower rate of casualties. Cavalry clashes are swift and one side always tends to give way after a short time.
And when a formation is broken, it is difficult to regroup and to counter charge.
This was so in Napoleon's time and with regular cavalry.

For instance the battle of Adrianople... The Roman cavalry was quickly beaten and the infantry was destroyed and I assume there were more infantry casualties here.

Same for Cannae...

The battle of Zama... The Roman cavalry or better the Numidian cavalry quickly route the Carthaginian and then the infantry was destroyed.
Cavalry casualties seem to be quite light compared to infantry.

Cavalry engagements were seemingly quite fleeting and brief (there were exceptions where general "standing melee" ensued, to extend that some cavalry troopers actually dismounted to fight).

Mostly, when defeated, cavalry had means to retreat and scatter. When infantry routed, they were usually suffering badly from pursuiting cavalry.

As what casualty persentage was compared to infantry, I use patented "Harrison-Stetson method" (pulling the figure out of hat..) and would say cavalry lost 20-25% compared to infantry "per capita".
Lower, I suspect. Didn't the losing cavalry have a tendency to gallop away when defeated? Therefore, the winning cavalry would have less casualties because they'd completed their primary goal and could now harass the enemy in sortie attacks from a distance, or raid the enemy's baggage train which in itself would be a blow to enemy morale.

(posted at the same time as Mika)
And as tarbicus said, cavalry had the tendency to gallop away...sometimes even without combat when they felt overwhelmed by enemy numbers.

Even in Napoleonic times, cavalry was very fickle branch of arms. Sometimes there were inadverted charges, due to tendency of horses to follow other bunch of horses. Sometimes cavalry panicked when enemy approached from flanks, sometimes when they encountered unexpected resistance (not that infantry was not prone to that too, but cavalry usually was more prone). Pharsalus is one good example where cavalry led by Titus Labienus degraded to chaos when meeting unexpected infantry line.
One thing that is not considered usually is that cavalry tended to wear out in campaign much faster than infantry, in Napoleonic times it was considered that in order to complete a campaign, cavalry units should have ideally a ratio of 3 horses per cavalryman. In battles after a long campaign it would be very common that a good number of cavalryman would have to fight as infantry
The reason they felt they needed three horses per cavalryman was due mainly to battle loses not from them being rode to long. Yes there would be some loses do to illnes and injury not related to battle but the most would be during battle. As a horseman I know they would be able to travel farther and faster than any infantry soldier. That is why they were used as recon and to chase down routed troops as well as a number of other duties. They would go for weeks with just nightly rest. I'm not sure about them fighting as infantry. At that time they felt it was beneth them to do that. The cavalry was the elite of the army during the Napoleonic time.
Bryan
No, that is not correct, thousands of horses died on the road, usualy not from extenuation, but from bad food and weather, that happened, for instance, in the Russian campaign on an enormous scale. Also I know for sure that French cavalrymen were used as infantry in the Russian campaign.
Agreed with Aryaman here. Horses are fragile, and they tend to be worked to death on campaign ... especially by modern cavalrymen who hadn't been raised from boyhood as horsemen, and who had to campaign for months on end. The medieval solution was to have one horse for the march and one for battle, but that gets expensive and failed on long campaigns (see the First Crusade). Battle losses were always far less than those from accidents, overwork, and diseases, and I'm sure the same was as true for horses as for men. This has only changed with the advent of modern medicine in the World Wars.

Cavalry had a bad reputation for being able to run away and leave the infantry to suffer. For a general to send away his horse and fight on foot was often a sign that he would fight to the bitter end (see eg. Spartacus' last battle or Courtrai). I don't know of a systematic study of relative loss rates, though.
Thank you, everyone, for your responses.

It seems as a rule of thumb that cavalry suffered lower casualty rates in successful battles due to shorter engagement periods. By the way, I didn't mean to include the animals in the casualty rates (though it's an interesting side topic) :wink:

~Theo
Some things from later periods:

Depends what you mean by casualties - later works (i.e. Duffy on the Seven years War) mention lots of painful but not dangerous cuts between elbow and wrist of sword arm. Puts you off the battle but you'd be back on duty at some point.

Also the herd instinct of horses can ruin your day as much has the enemy i.e. French cavalry at Minden (1759) who decided en mass not to brave the musket fire, unhorsing loads.

The French ruined their cavalry and dragoons during the Blenheim (1704) campaign through poor care - think they also had an outbreak of glanders.