Horses for Courses: cavalry charges in miniatures wargames

This post has been inspired by Dr. Brett Devereaux’ blog, A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry – a look at the history of battle in popular culture. Brett is an academic historian (ancient history) at North Carolina State University. While his research interests are Roman economy and the Roman military, he has a broad and deep understanding of ancient Mediterranean history, including “the nuts-and-bolts” of everyday life in the ancient world, and a broad and deep understanding of military history too. His blog examines films, TV series, books and other artifacts of popular culture and their portrayal of battle and other military topics, critiquing them against his understanding of the topics as an historian. This is important in his view, and I concur, because the popular understanding of the ancient and medieval worlds – and later periods I might add – is coloured by their portrayal by Hollywood and Netflix. If you’ve not seen his blog before, I recommend you go and have a look at it – for cavalry in general, here; and those famous cavalry charges in Lord of the Rings here and here.

I’m going to be a bit of a pedant myself here. I want to examine in some detail how cavalry charges against formed infantry ready to accept the charge are depicted in miniatures wargames, and how these representations match with some historical evidence. I should stress that I’m not a historian, and my research is not comprehensive. Some of the issues here are controversial amongst military historians (and wargamers!), so I will start by saying that there may not be “a single simple truth” out there – it may be impossible to dissect the minutiae of cavalry charges because of the lack of incontrovertible evidence.

For simplicity’s sake, I’m restricting this blog post to cavalry versus infantry, and further to what I will term “heavy cavalry” versus “heavy infantry”. By the former, I mean cavalry armed with spears, lances, or swords whose tactical purpose was to charge and destroy infantry (and secondarily other cavalry), and who were often armoured and usually mounted on large horses trained for war. By heavy infantry, I mean close order infantry, whose tactical purpose was to form the front line in the battle, and to defeat the enemy’s front line in the battle (and secondarily to defend against heavy cavalry). In pre-musket days, these would usually have been armoured in some way and armed with long pointy objects – mainly pikes, spears, and the like. Later, these would be armed with muskets and bayonets. You might notice that I’ve not specified any particular period. I’m hoping that what I’ll say will cover the generality, from Alexander’s Companions (Hetairoi) to Napoleon’s Cuirassiers, though I’m remaining more tentative when thinking about very heavily armoured cavalry in the early modern period, particularly with fully armoured horses.

What happens when cavalry charges infantry in a miniatures wargame? I’m interested in a fairly typical wargame situation, where a line of heavy cavalry launches a charge at a line (or square in Napoleonics) of heavy infantry that is more or less ready, so I won’t be examining different formations, or cases where one side has been outmanoeuvred. My main examples here are the Napoleonic rules called General de Brigade (GdB), designed by David Brown, with De Bellis Multitudinis (DBM; by Phil Barker and Richard Bodley Scott) and Fields of Glory (FoG) by Richard Bodley Scott, Simon Hall, and Terry Shaw, as more generic examples each covering both ancient and medieval battles. There are many other rulesets out there that are relevant, and I cannot claim to be familiar with all of them! Don’t worry, I won’t descend simply into the “this is unrealistic” stance. I’m intending to be more nuanced.

Typically in a miniatures ruleset, a cavalry charge is governed by distance – is the cavalry close enough, but not too close – the morale of the cavalry, and the morale of the target infantry. Terrain, formations of the units, surprise, and fire at them, will almost invariably affect morale, as you might expect. If both sides have good morale, a melee ensues, and after some time, dependent on period and rules, one side will prevail. If the cavalry has bad morale, then its charge generally won’t go ahead. If the infantry has bad morale (usually strongly influenced be the observable fact that it is being charged by heavy cavalry – a discouraging circumstance), then the cavalry win the day, with greater or lesser certainty and decisiveness, again dependent on period and rules.

In General de Brigade, to charge, the cavalry must be within charge range of the target infantry and the infantry must be to their front. The cavalry formation will typically be a line. A formed regular body of infantry in close order receiving cavaly would typically be in square formation, though line with protected flanks is not unheard of. In simplified form, the charge sequence in GdB is as follows.

  • Cavalry must declare their charge, then they move half of the distance to the target.
  • They then receive fire from the target and any others in range.
  • At this point, the cavalry must roll morale dice, and they can only proceed with the charge if their morale is still OK.
  • If they succeed with this test, they “charge home”,
  • and the target infantry must roll morale dice too.
  • If the infantry succeeds, they stand, if they fail, they might retreat or rout. They might instead “falter”, possibly the most dangerous result, because they do not fall back, but suffer disadvantages in the subsequent melee.
  • If both units’ morale is good, a melee happens later in the turn.
  • If the infantry retreated or routed, the cavalry charge might still catch them, in which case a melee happens with the infantry at a terrible disadvantage.
  • The cavalry may be able to pursue.

In DBM, each individual element in the game acts as the smallest unit capable of independent action, though there are features that permit blocks of elements to act together. These features are vital in DBM, lest an element be flanked, leading to often critical attacker advantages against some unit types. There is no distinction between close up shooting (rather than at a great distance) and melee; it’s all assumed to be close up enough combat to count. This is important, because it means horse archers attacking infantry are not in melee with them! There is also no real concept of morale checks for charging cavalry or for charged infantry in DBM – these are to an extent factored into the d6 dice-vs-dice run-off at the element level, with modifiers for situation, terrain, and element type of attacker and defender. Instead, formal morale stuff is handled at the higher level of a ‘command’ – a significant proportion of an army – and then at army level itself. Heavy cavalry are represented by ‘knight’ elements, with ‘cavalry elements’ usually a combination of melee weapons and bow, though occasionally they could be classed as heavy cavalry. Heavy infantry would be primarily ‘spears’, ‘pikes’, or sometimes ‘blade’. A bunch of knight elements charging a line of spear-armed infantry elements from the front will be able to close to hand-to-hand combat. Combat factors (all other things being equal) favour the infantry; the knights gain +3 to the dice roll v other foot, the infantry gain +4, but with an additional +1 for extra ranks (pikes get even more for extra ranks). Each overlap (adjacent element with no enemy element to its front) gives +1 to the dice roll, so tactical factors like this are very important, particularly on the flank ends of a formation, even if the contact is front to front. On average, the infantry will win. However, we know that “on average” doesn’t happen all the time, and it can be worth charging and hoping, especially if you have a lot of cavalry. My own example is a number of Scythian light horse of mine, inexcusably trapped between my lines and the enemy lines; a charge into the enemy spears should have resulted in their demise, but they managed a rather unlikely breach, and we won the battle.

Field of Glory offers a further example, like DBM covering ancient and medieval battles. FoG has battle groups as its smallest formation that can act independently, each usually made up of several bases of the same troop type. Like General de Brigade, a cavalry charge has several stages:

  • Declaring charges
  • Responding to charges
  • Moving chargers to contact
  • Resolving combats for battle groups in contact

While there are complexities around wheeling, units that may charge without orders, and formation changes to avoid other battle groups, in essence a frontal charge is literally straightforward. Once it is established that a battle group can charge, the target can opt to receive the charge or evade (technically, there might be interception charges, but that involves more units, and not infantry ones at that). As it happens, heavy infantry cannot evade, so they must receive the charge. There is an Impact Phase for when the contact occurs, then later in the sequence of play, a Melee Phase, presuming that neither side has broken. There are Points of Advantage (modifiers, PoA) for combat dice rolls. In short, spearmen (“Heavy Foot”) get a PoA against “Knights”, “Cataphracts”, and other cavalry that we might term as heavy cavalry. A PoA basically gives the spearmen 4+ to hit on a d6, whereas the cavalry have 5+ to hit, and as it happens, this PoA is relevant for both Impact and Melee phases, though if one has heavier armour it will cancel out a PoA in the melee. Deep formations of pikemen will get an extra PoA to the great detriment of charging cavalry. If a battle group loses a close combat (Impact or Melee), then it must take a morale check – in FoG, this is called a Cohesion Test and reflects both morale and organisation, or lack thereof. Losing is a result of taking more hits than your battle group inflicted. Failure to pass a Cohesion Tests drops the battle group a cohesion level – Steady > Disrupted > Fragmented > Broken. Against Steady spearmen, the heavy cavalry charge is not expected to result in victory, though this would be an uncommon occurrence, rather than a rare one. Against Steady pikes in deep ranks, it’s very unlikely that the cavalry will prevail, because of the double disadvantageous PoAs (3+ versus 5+ in rolls). However, FoG like DBM is a d6 dice game, and with enough combats, very unlikely results are possible.

Let’s review this against some historical evidence, with particular focus on the close quarter interaction between the cavalry and the infantry, the part where contact is or is not made. Some of the best evidence derives from John Keegan’s seminal work The Face of Battle. His section on Agincourt is not really relevant to our example, as it deals with cavalry against archers, and I am not. Chapter 3, Cavalry versus Infantry, which provides examples from the battles of the Waterloo campaign is certainly relevant. The focus of the chapter is on French heavy cavalry – mainly Cuirassiers – charging British infantry, which happened several times at Quatre Bras and Ney’s cavalry charges at Waterloo, and British cavalry charging French infantry, famously through Uxbridge’s overthrow of d’Erlons attack columns. The main thrust of Keegan’s argument is that formed infantry invariably got the better of cavalry. “Formed” in this case means that they kept their formation and cohesiveness, presenting a bristling front of bayonet points and occasional volleys of fire towards their assailants. The key point here was that the infantrymen’s morale was not shaken sufficiently to disturb their cohesion as a unit. Where there was disturbance to morale through the unexpected appearance of cavalry, or where the infantry was caught changing formation leading to a collapse in morale (for example, 69th Foot at Quatre Bras), or a freak occurrence (for example, at Garcia Hernandez in the Peninsula War a dead dragoon horse “did not collapse until directly above the bayonets of the front rank”), the infantry could disintegrate. Infantry casualties could be great in these cases – possibly as much as 2,000 prisoners were taken from D’Erlons Corps during the charge of the Union Brigade at Waterloo – although many could escape by playing dead or forming small groups to discourage the horses. When in square with flanks protected, cavalry was invariably unable to engage the infantry at Waterloo in hand-to-hand combat, and instead suffered casualties from musketry till driven off.

Scottish Highlanders at Waterloo

A couple of rather older examples may suffice for further illustration. At the battle of Hastings, the English well-formed infantry remained safe from William’s knights on Senlac Hill, though not from his missile-firing infantry nor his own heavy infantry. Early in the long battle, only the attacks of the Norman infantry could help the Norman cavalry make any impression on the shield wall by creating gaps to be exploited. This was insufficient to shift the English, until an initial flight of the cavalry (whether feigned or not) encouraged parts of the English infantry line to pursue. After this first occurrence of “feigned flight”, William continued with these alternating tactics of infantry attack, cavalry support and flight, to provoke pursuit by elements of the English line that lacked the discipline to remain in place.

A bit of the Battle of Hastings, showing Norman knights

The third example is from the wars of Edward I against the Scots. At Falkirk in 1298, the Scots formed their heavy infantry – primarily pike-armed and used in deep formations (schiltrons) – in an all-round defensive position behind a swamp. The English knights quickly dealt with the Scottish cavalry and archers in combination with Edward’s longbowmen, but they could not readily disturb the schiltrons. There must have been contact, because accounts talk of heavy losses in horses at least. Several charges were made by the impetuous knights before Edward put a stop to it. Then, the English brought up their archers and the battle was effectively lost from the moment the shooting started, as the pikemen had no answer. As gaps began to appear in the ranks, the formations started to break up and the knights shattered them.

A charge at Falkirk

My small contention in this post is that our wargaming rules enable effective cavalry charges against formed infantry from the front, while the historical evidence suggests that this is nigh on impossible. Designers have properly recognised that heavy cavalry charging formed heavy infantry from the front will suffer from a disadvantage, but it seems to me that the extent of that disadvantage is often downplayed.

Unarmoured horses, such as French Napoleonic cuirassiers or Norman knights at Hastings, were, I believe, generally unable to make effective contact with the heavy infantry, which would have required urging a horse onto a wall of spikes. By “effective contact”, I mean the reality of a physical attack with a sword against infantry brandishing bayonets at the end of muskets, or with a lance against a shield wall bristling with spears. There is no evidence that unarmoured horses carried out effective impetus attacks by charging into and through lines of formed heavy infantry. This would not be expected, on two grounds: firstly, by definition there are no gaps for the horses to penetrate, and secondly, the horse is not a battering ram, and any attempt to use it as one would be disastrous for the horse. So, the horseman’s weapon has to be used against the defending infantryman, and the horseman with a sword is at a terrible disadvantage. From shoulder to end of sword is insufficient to reach an infantryman across his horse’s shoulder in a charge movement, and to lengthen his reach by avoiding the horse’s head and shoulder, he has to turn his horse, thereby denying it impetus. This then leaves him and his horse extremely vulnerable to a bayonet or spear thrust.

The Norman lance is a slightly better proposition, though it is worth bearing in mind that in the 11th century, this is not the couched lance of the high middle ages or Renaissance, but the overhand thrusting or even thrown spear. This might have some chance of damaging the shield wall, as these thrown spears could probably penetrate the Anglo-Saxon shield. However, this would not result in hand-to-hand combat, as contrary to Hollywood presentations, formed infantry do not immediately break up into a multitude of one-on-one personal duels, but rather they stay formed up and will happily deal collectively with any horseman careless enough to try to get within spear, sword or battle axe reach.

Heavy cavalry with armoured horses may be a slightly different case, though I remain to be convinced. It’s clear from Falkirk, and probably other late medieval or early modern battles, that impetuous (foolhardy?) knights did charge into pikes, and predictably suffered many killed horses and men doing so. I looked at Charles the Bold’s battles against the Swiss that he famously lost despite having ostensibly the most powerful army in Western Europe at the time, including many knights, eventually dying at Nancy probably at the hands of a Swiss halberdier, but in these examples the Burgundians seem to have been uniformly outmanoeuvred and scarcely able to mount a knightly charge at all. Most of the melees seem to have been instigated by the swiftly moving Swiss heavy infantry in situations where the knights were unable to manoeuvre effectively.

I would like to see our wargame rules cover this types of situation better. I contend that heavy cavalry on unarmoured horses cannot charge into contact against formed heavy infantry; charging heavy cavalry on armoured horses can make contact by some form of short-lived impact attack, but it would be extremely rare for this to do damage to the infantry. In neither case should formed heavy infantry be engaged in melee with heavy cavalry, as this is simply not a practical proposition. If the heavy infantry’s cohesion and morale remain good, the cavalry can do nothing, and should at least retire from contact, if not flee.

The implication for General de Brigade is that it matters not if the heavy cavalry pass their morale test; if the heavy infantry to their front stand, the cavalry will not complete their charge, and no melee will ensue. This is likely to be disadvantgeous to the cavalry, and the designer might well choose to have cavalry automatically fall back if this happens.

DBM seems more abstracted, more chesslike if you will, but nevertheless the outcomes are perhaps reasonably accurate at the element level, and the design of DBM does neatly do away with some of these difficulties in the interests of game play. With the concept of “recoil” in DBM, an element can separate from its opposing element, though the winner may sometimes choose to follow up and stay in contact. Knights recoil from spears and pikes if beaten (though are destroyed if well beaten), and cavalry will usually recoil from these troops if the cavalry don’t beat them. Only if the modified dice rolls are equal will full contact be maintained. However, it looks to me as if DBM has avoided the difficulty here by abstracting the concepts of formed troops and morale at anything higher than the element level. In practice, a bunch of knights/cavalry and infantry can still look like they are meleeing in circumstances where a melee would not have occurred historically, with the possible exception of knights with fully armoured horses. Instead, either the cavalry should bounce – recoil with no follow up, or flee – or the infantry should be destroyed. In fairness, it is quite possible that DBM’s potentially chaotic outcome, but favouring the infantry, has it right, but with no strict concept of ‘units’, it’s difficult to assess it conclusively.

In the circumstances described above, FoG has a much more organised view of things, as it depends on its battle groups for battle structure. The whole charge, impact and melee process is as structured as GdB, possibly more so. This makes for a good game experience, but has the same difficulty as GdB, in that we have formed heavy cavalry charging into formed heavy infantry, with impact followed by melee, and the attrition of losses causing one side or the other to collapse. Unfortunately, this seems to be historically incorrect, as shown by examples above, with the previously noted possible exception of cavalry with fully armoured horses. It’s possible to envisage an Impact Phase to reflect the charge, but if the infantry hold, melee is not practical, and the cavalry should be forced to fall back.

In conclusion, I’m proposing that charging cavalry will not close to effective contact with formed heavy infantry, with the possible exception of cavalry with fully armoured horses. By “effective contact”, I mean a melee engagement with the disorder of the cavalry and infantry that this implies. For the rather long-winded “heavy cavalry with fully armoured horses”, an impact is perhaps possible, but no follow-on melee unless the infantry break or at least lose cohesion. An advantage of this change is that the purpose of battlefield heavy cavalry becomes much clearer and more historically accurate. It is to place the heavy infantry at a sufficient disadvantage that it becomes disorganised or demoralised or both, and therefore vulnerable to a charge. This can be effected by manoeuvre, typically to flank or rear, or combination with other arms. A good cavalry commander will try to manoeuvre, not carry out a direct charge, except where the infantry are wavering. With the type of change I am suggesting, it may still be possible to carry out a speculative frontal charge. Perhaps the formed heavy infantry in front of the cavalry will not unreasonably quail at the sight of the massive horses bearing down on them, will lose their cohesion, fail to stand their ground, “falter” in GdB terminology, “disrupted” or “fragmented” in FoG, with terrible results for them. On the other hand, if the heavy infantry are able to stand firm, points to the fore, then all would be well for them.

Why might this be important? It’s not as important as the focus of Brett’s blog, which is to reduce the impact of misconceptions about history in the public mind. Wargamers are hardly the general public, after all. However, there are some aspects of some wargames rules that seem to me to take a mechanistic, or “gamey” if you like, view of some aspects of combat. Often, these issues are established by a false reading of history, or at least one lacking in nuance. There is a tendency for rules to enable offensive action, often risky offensive action, as a way of injecting more drama into the game (I like a good cavalry charge as much as the next wargamer!). But, commanders were often more circumspect than we plastic soldier heroes. And I think our rules should reflect this more, while still allowing the Marshal Ney in us to escape occasionally, but with predictably disastrous results.

Obviously, I have not here presented overwhelming evidence, but simply a small sample – as ever, further research is necessary.

8 Responses to “Horses for Courses: cavalry charges in miniatures wargames”

  1. 1 Pete S/ SP January 5, 2021 at 01:22

    Great post. Not a period I know that much about but you make your case convincingly.



  2. 3 Graham Evans January 5, 2021 at 11:54

    An interesting post. Your main problem is the lack of historical examples – that doesn’t mean your analysis is wrong, just that your set of data is very small. It might be better to look at what cavalry does and where it is deployed. In ancient battles it was mainly on the flanks, where it fights other cavalry, before turning in on the flanks of the main infantry. Armati does this rather well.

  3. 4 benthamfish January 5, 2021 at 14:35

    I agree, Graham, more examples needed. I do have a lot of stuff all over the place from reading lots of relevant material over the years, but it’s not collected together or sifted. Fortunately, I don’t think I need that for a blog post, rather than a learned article. You’re right about cavalry on the flanks, obviously, and the sensible general (or plastic soldier hero) would / will have done that. My beef is only about rules often encouraging the unrealistic frontal charge. I’ve taken advantage of that myself, and also had my own share of “we unfortunately we mislaid the flag” moments!

  4. 5 rmcarlysle January 6, 2021 at 17:08

    I really enjoyed this both in terms of content and also readability ~ not sure that I agree that you are not a historian! (I seem to recollect training alongside you). I agree with your analysis of cavalry’s inability to charge home against solid infantry ~ I remember that Prof Brown (who actually had been both a horse-flesh and mechanised cavalryman) used to stress the fact that even a trained warhorse will not run full tilt into an obstacle it cannot see a way over, around or through (which is why, unlike a bike, you cannot ride a horse into a wall, and why showjumpers sometimes refuse). I suspect that cavalry have a better chance of riding down single (or even double) line formed infantry but anything more than that and the Horses are going to sheer off unless they are from Rohan.

    • 6 benthamfish January 6, 2021 at 17:24

      Thanks, Bob. I never claim to be a historian, because I’m not a practicing academic! It’s a major divide, I find because proper academics have a lot more time than I do for this type of thing, especially backing it up with references.

      I love Brett Devereux’s ACOUP blog referred to in the post. He has particularly good series on Lord of the Rings and Game Thrones. His analysis of the scene where orcs are casting weapons in LOTR is entertaining – basically, every single thing they do in the scene is wrong, in terms of ancient and medieval weapons making. Worth a look

  5. 7 Benjamin French May 11, 2021 at 00:04

    Thanks for the article. I enjoyed it. I just want to point out that in FoG, cavalry will break contact against formed infantry in the Joint Action Phase. So they have an impact and melee combat to try to disrupt the foot to remain in combat. It wasn’t clear in your post. Perhaps you are suggesting the break off should occur if the impact combat is unsuccessful?

    • 8 benthamfish May 11, 2021 at 10:16

      That’s a good point, Benjamin. It does make FoG superior in this context, and better than most – I admit I had forgotten that aspect. I suspect it would be better if they broke off prior to melee, but that sounds a bit nick-picky.

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