The New Lighthorsemen
Early in he history of warfare, the ancient warrior discovered the shock value of the horse. When new cart and chariot pulling techniques were used on the battlefield, they were the scourge of primitive tribesmen outside the fenced cities of the day, but also mobile fortresses used in conflicts among the civilized kingdoms. As such, they became the forerunners of our industrial age tank, that is powered by the internal combustion engine of many “horsepower”. The heavy armored vehicles of the Mesopotamians and later the lighter versions of the Egyptians and Hittites ruled the powerful nations of the east.
The blitzkrieg tactics utilized by the charioteers came to an end with the rise of the armored foot solider, and the increased use of archery. The discipline of Western armies especially hastened its decline, more notable in the East (though not uncommon in European warfare), especially the hoplites of Greece and the Legions of Rome ending the wheeled reign of terror. Even so a competitor was already borne that would cause the warrior of the West much grief.
In conjunction with the chariots, light horsemen provided essential reconnaissance and also were effective skirmishers for the slow wheeled armies. This function would be their primary one well into modern times. The Persians under Cyrus were early practitioners, who also developed heavy cavalry for its shock effect. Regrettably for the decendents of this great eastern emperor, the Thessalian Greeks also developed mounted warriors, later used to effect by the Macedonian kings.
The Romans could handle cavalry well, and proceeded to prove it by sweeping up the divergent Greek kingdoms that arose after Alexander the Great met an early demise. For centuries, infantry tactics dominated warfare in the West, since the Caesars felt uncomfortable on the horse, often preferring to hire Auxiliary tribes more adept to its use such as the Sarmatians. Whenever the Romans ventured into the East European steppes or the deserts of Arabia, they were often roughly handled by the Sassanid-Persians and later the Parthians, whose light horse archers stayed well clear of the Legion’s short range pilum.
Usually a competent general and a disciplined force could beat a cavalry charge, but by the late Imperial Era, there were few such available for Rome. Though the horsemen who overran the Empire may not have possessed the stirrup, they did have lances and bows. This new mobile firepower coupled with the slackened discipline of the Legions swept away the reign of the foot soldier for a millenia.
The Byzantine heirs of Rome were truly Greek, proceeding to showcase their heritage from Alexander’s Companions by adopting the steppe horse tactics for their own, making use of the legendary cataphract as Rome never did. This new Roman Army was a combined force, but the heavy cavalry reigned supreme, and used to great effect by famed generals such as Belisarius, John Tzimisces, and Basil II “the Bulgar Slayer“, keeping that Empire alive for the bulk of the Middle Ages.
But it was the lighthorsemen, as deployed by the Turks, which swept away the over-confident cataphracts at Manzikert. It took a little longer in the West Europe, but soon the foot soldier ended the reign of the armored Knight, with the rise of the English longbow and the Swiss Pikemen. These weapons of a new era were not dissimilar than those which brought down the Persian charioteers. History then, had come full circle.
Despite the new vulnerability of the horsemen, none could match his versatility and mobility, as the Turks proved. He survived into the gunpowder age, by adapting these same weapons for his use. Often it was for shock purposes, though never with the former impact, and the screening and scouting role predominated. Even his (almost) complete demise in the modern era was more due to the fossil fuel vehicles than to his mobility, the latter so much more practical and enduring.
Like its horse-drawn predecessor of ancient times, today’s chariot or armored knight, the main battle tank has often met its match in the face of disciplined infantry, well equipped with artillery or new anti-tank guided missiles. I don’t see as yet the threats to the tanks bringing about its demise so much as the titanic expense of current versions, practically at its limit of weight and cost, barring some dramatic technical breakthrough we have yet to see (not for lack of the government trying).
Note the pattern of change, then. The heavy chariot gives way to the lighter chariot, like the heavy tank is giving way to lighter vehicles, which seem perfect for the mounted and mobile warfare currently engaged by the Western armies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even those supreme practitioners of tank warfare, the Russians, are shredding their expensive to maintain behemoths at a rapid rate. China has many deployed but these are vastly less capable than the Western landships like Challenger or Abrams, and also inhibited by geography from the West.
Modern tracked infantry fighting vehicles like the German Puma, the Swedish CV90, or the General Dynamics ASCOD are as large as World War 2 tanks, and often better armed. With reactive armor or appliqué steel plates, many can resist modern anti-tank weapons as good as main battle tanks. Specialized wheeled vehicles have also become very popular, the modern versions of the dragoons, with loaded infantry ready for dismount.
As long as the gasoline engine, or its newer hybrid alternatives are with us, then there will be a need for this motorized version of the horse. That history is currently repeating itself, the transference from the heavy armored cavalry force to the light, should come as no surprise.