For almost two hundred years, from about 1630 through the eighteenth century, Western Europeans had discarded the lance for use in mounted combat. During the Napoleonic wars, this long-ignored tool of the horse soldier was reinstituted on the battlefield, although heated disputes about its military suitability soon followed.After the Anglo-Danish conflicts, including the Norman Conquest in 1066, mail-clad feudal horsemen ruled the battlefield for roughly 250 years. Armor-protected knights charged on horseback wielding lances ten to eleven feet long (cut down to as short as five feet by both the French and English at the Battle of Agincourt). The age ended with the rise of the bowmen in the fourteenth century. While the devastating volleys of English longbow men had initiated the change at Crecy on August 26, 1346, it was massed bodies of pikemen that really thwarted cavalry charges, as they did at the Battle of Pavia in 1525. Widespread use of gunpowder made the knight’s charge futile, even suicidal, by the 1560s.
Horsemen turned to the wheel-lock pistol themselves. The Schwartzen Reiter (Black Riders) employed mounted volley fire and countermarch tactics (the caracole), although by about 1630 the cavalry was replacing unreliable and short-range pistols with swords and sabers. Sweden’s King Gustavus Aldolphus, for example, abandoned the lance in favor of arming his cavalry with swords and pistols during the Thirty Years’ War. In a relatively quick period of time, all but the peoples in Europe who had been under Eastern influence, such as the Russians, Hungarians, Cossacks, and Poles, abandoned lancers.
The lancer began reappearing in European armies almost unnoticed. The Hapsburgs formed a lancer regiment shortly after acquiring parts of Poland in the third partition of that nation by Austria, Prussia, and Russia in 1795. They raised a second regiment in 1798, and another in 1801. Russia converted a number of light cavalry formations into lancers in 1803. Both countries enrolled Poles and Lithuanians exclusively in their new lancer units. The prowess of these peoples with the lance gave the Hapsburgs and the Russians a ready pool of skilled and well-trained lancers.
In Western Europe, the greatest impetus for reintroducing lancers came from France. That country had not employed mounted troops with lances since the days of Herman Maurice, marshal de Saxe, in the mid-eighteenth century, and even these amounted only to a meager number of Polish volunteers and adventurers. De Saxe used them for scouting and raiding; the French army did not even officially recognize them.
After Napoleon conquered Prussia in 1806, he marched his Grande Armée into what had been Poland. As he traveled from Poszan to Warsaw, a guard of honor — one hundred mounted Polish nobles — accompanied the French leader. From them he learned of the famous Winged Hussars, who, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, carried fifteen-foot-long lances and rode specially bred steeds to victories over the Turks, Russians, and Swedes. After arriving in the Polish capital, the emperor marveled at the expert manner in which Polish cavalrymen handled their lances.
A reading of de Lessac’s book De l’Esprit Militaire, which stressed that the ‘true weapon of the cavalry was the lance, convinced Napoleon to create his own regiment of lancers from Polish volunteers. Although designated under the decree of March 2, 1807, as the Regiment de Chevau-Legers Polonais de la Garde, it did not obtain lances until after the Battle of Wagram in 1809. It was renamed in 1811 Le 1er Regiment de Chevau-Legers Lanciers de la Garde Impériale, the first lancer unit in the French army, and a component of the emperor’s Imperial Guard.
From this beginning sprang a dramatic resurgence in lance-equipped mounted regiments among the armies of Europe. The Austrians formed their third regiment in 1813. By the end of the Napoleonic wars, Russia maintained twelve regular lancer regiments, plus dozens of irregular Cossack regiments and squadrons sporting the weapon. By 1815, Prussia had eight lancer (or uhlan, a Polish word) regiments, as well as a squadron attached to the Guard. Further single squadrons or companies of lancers were added to nonlancer regiments in all the armies of Europe, to give those units more shock power. Examples include Russian hussar regiments and the French 31st Chasseurs a Cheval, all usually armed with saber, carbine, and pistol as well as a lance.
Napoleon, spurred on by the energy six Allied Polish lancer regiments expended during the Austrian campaign of 1809 (especially at Wagram), two years later formed nine regiments of this category of troops (called the French lancers) by converting six existing French dragoon regiments and one chasseur regiment, as well as the old Lancers of the Vistula. These regiments of the line were soon followed by three more such organizations that became members of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard. Uniformed in hussar fashion, they generally carried lances measuring six feet nine inches long, light cavalry sabers, and pistols into combat.
Yet the French cavalry regiments generated controversy about their effectiveness in battle. The officers and enlisted men first questioned the efficacy of using lances on the nineteenth-century battlefield. Many of these critics had participated in the Napoleonic wars. As light cavalry, lancer units were expected to be able to scout and skirmish with enemy horsemen. However, critics pointed out that the lance was virtually useless against cavalry in close quarters — it was more of a pole than a weapon — and it prevented the user from either retreating or advancing rapidly.
Advocates of the lance insisted that it came into its own when horsemen charged opposing cavalry, especially on level ground where the attacks had ample space to maneuver. The frightful impact of a body of lancers moving at twelve to fourteen miles an hour toward the enemy, they reasoned, would always overthrow the adversary. The shock of collision would propel the lance right through the enemy, cause the survivors to flee, and allow the lancers to rally and move back to the safety of their own lines.
Opponents countered that in most engagements cavalry charging against other cavalry was forced to slow its attack once contact was made, and a melee would inevitably result. In that situation, the lancer with his long, cumbersome weapon would be at a considerable disadvantage against an opponent briskly wielding a saber.
Such was the experience of Lieutenant Tomkinson of the 16th British Light Dragoons in the Peninsular campaign of 1811. On September 25, Tomkinson’s regiment met the lancers of the Vistula Legion before the town of Azava. As the lancers trotted toward the Light Dragoons, the Redcoats spurred on against them, driving them back. Advancing at the charge this time, the legionnaires were countercharged by Tomkinson’s regiment and fled before making any contact.
Tomkinson believed the fight at Azava demonstrated that in a melee, after the tight formations disintegrated — the typical outcome when cavalry units collided — riders armed with sabers would win over lance-hampered soldiers, as the shorter weapons were easier to handle. In a general combat, the lancer became a much more clumsy fellow…his weapon was more difficult to manage and his ability to control his mount suffered accordingly. In addition, the lance might become embedded in an enemy soldier or horse and be of no further use.
Lance devotees argued that lancers could defeat enemy cavalry in a melee. On June 17, 1815, during the Waterloo campaign, French lancers were working their way through the Belgian town Genappe. As they debouched from the village, British light cavalry and then heavy cavalry attacked them, both units armed with sabers. According to French sources, the lancers easily beat back the first enemy assaults, but additional attacks caused the lancers’ line to break. British versions of the event say the heavy cavalry of the Union Brigade prevailed in close hand-to-hand fighting, forcing the French from Genappe.
French lances themselves may explain how at Genappe and in other cavalry engagements, horsemen equipped with sabers could best Frenchmen with lances. Commenting on the poor quality of French lances, General Antoine de Brack, a veteran of the Napoleonic wars, pointed out: The ash of which the staff is made is so heavy that it makes it difficult to handle….The wood does not, by its strength, compensate for this disadvantage; for being cut in blocks and the grain crossed, it breaks easily. French lance construction was so defective that a few sword blows would weaken the weapon to such an extent that the next hit could crack it and render it useless.
Proponents of the lance insisted that due to its longer reach vis-à-vis a saber, the lancer would have a decided advantage over the swordsman through intimidation as the two sides rushed toward each other. The weapon’s morale affect is the greatest, de Brack extolled, and its thrusts the most murderous of all the armes blanches [sharp-edged cavalry weapons]. The Prussian cavalry authority Jean Roemer pointed to instances where lancers had been successful against opponents equipped only with sabers. These included General M.I. Platoff’s six hundred Cossacks of the Don who held off, for a short time, the French at Eylau; Denizoff’s Cossack Guards who severely punished the French cuirassiers at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813; and the French lancer regiments under Colonel Bro that did so much damage to the British Household and Union cavalry brigades at Waterloo that the two units were rendered hors de combat.
However, to be truly effective against the saber, regardless of de Brack’s and Roemer’s opinions, the lancer had to be an expert with his weapon — and his opponent had to be a less-experienced horseman.
Nevertheless, seldom were the lancer units highly skilled, and even when they were there was no guarantee that the lancers would prevail. In his memoirs, Baron Jean-Baptiste-Antoine-Marcelin de Marbot discussed a classic example of the saber winning out over even the best lancers. Marbot, colonel of the French 23rd Chasseurs a Cheval at the Battle of Polotsk on August 26, 1812, found his light cavalry regiment, armed only with sabers, face to face with well-trained, veteran lancer units of the Russian Cossack Guard Cavalry. He reported that during the encounter:
My regiment met with more resistance from the Cossacks, picked men of large stature, and armed with lances fourteen feet long….I had some men killed and many wounded; but when, at length, my troopers had pierced the bristling line of steel, all the advantage was on our side. In a cavalry fight, the length of lances is a drawback when their bearers have lost their order and are pressed closely by adversaries armed with swords which they can handle easily, while the lancers find it difficult to present the points of their poles.
Thus, the perceived advantage of the lance as a tool that could accurately strike its intended target before the rider came within saber range could never be fully realized or exploited against enemy cavalry, even under the most favorable conditions for its use.
However, if the protagonist favoring the lance found himself on shaky ground when it came to fighting against cavalry with sabers, he stood on firm terrain when the discussion turned to lancers engaging infantry. In 1815, Sergeant James Anton of the 42nd Highlanders found himself facing French lancers at the crossroads town of Quatre Bras. Describing his feelings afterward, he said, Of all descriptions of cavalry certainly the lancers seem the most formidable to infantry, as the lance can be projected with considerable precision and with deadly effect without bringing the horse to the point of the bayonet….
Napoleon’s marshal Auguste Frederic Louis Viesse de Marmont, a veteran corps commander of the Grande Armée, expressed the same feeling when he noted after Waterloo that The lance is the weapon for cavalry of the line, and principally for those destined to fight against infantry. He added that cavalry armed only with sabers will be stopped by enemy bayonets before they can strike a blow themselves, and thus will be repulsed, whereas the same line of cavalry, furnished with a row of pikes [lances] which stand out four feet in front of the horses will rout the foot soldiers.
Of course, lancers unfortunate enough to be subjected to sustained musket fire from the target infantry, especially infantry formed into squares, faced almost certain defeat unless they had cannon or infantry support. If the soldiers in a square could not fire, however, they were also easy prey to the lancer. Such was the case at the Battle of Dresden, when a heavy rain the night before the battle of August 17, 1813, made it impossible for the infantry to discharge their flintlocks. The mud was so deep that the cavalry could attack only at a quick walk. With about fifty lancers leading his brigades in a third assault on two huge Austrian infantry squares, French General M.V.N. de Fay Latour-Maubourg’s troopers came within a few feet of the enemy, who could not fire their weapons. The lancers methodically proceeded to spear their way into the squares, breaking them completely.
The same situation presented itself at the Battle of the Katzbach River, August 22-26, 1813, fought in a heavy downpour. The 23rd Chasseurs a Cheval, armed with sabers, repeatedly attempted to break a Prussian infantry battalion’s square and failed, even though the Prussians could not fire a single round at the French. The impasse was resolved when the French 6th Lancer Regiment crushed in the front of the Prussians at the first charge because of the advantage of their longer weapon.
Lancer enthusiasts particularly appreciate the destruction of Sir John Colborne’s British infantry brigade of Stewart’s 2nd Division at the Battle of Albuera on May 16, 1811. Three of the four battalions were sent forward in line formation during a violent storm. Blinded by rain and deafened by the thunder and clatter of hail, the English were surprised when the 1st Vistula Lancers and the 2nd Hussars struck their flank just as they were being raked in front by musket and cannon fire. Within minutes, Colborne’s command lost fifty-eight officers out of eighty and twelve hundred of its sixteen hundred enlisted men. Their attackers, numbering only eight hundred, suffered two hundred casualties.
Nevertheless, those dismissive of the lance argued that only when the infantry could not respond with musket fire due to poor weather, or on those rare occasions when infantry found themselves surprised and unable to form a square, was the lance effective against steady troops. They even suggested that the lancers attacking Colborne’s flank caused less loss than did the enemy fire to their front.
Regardless of the examples of lancer usefulness and uselessness during the Napoleonic wars, European militaries continued to employ lancers after 1815. Great Britain raised its first lancer regiments in 1816, using them against the indigenous peoples of the empire. When World War I broke out in 1914, all the major combatants fielded lancer formations. Of course, they quickly discarded them when barbed wire and machine gun fire prevailed on the battlefields.
Just as in the seventeenth century, the evolving technology of war doomed the lance, along with the horse-borne trooper who carried it into battle.
This article was written by Arnold Blumberg and originally published in the Winter 2006 edition of MHQ. For more great articles, subscribe to MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History today!