Cuirassiers in battles and campaigns


King Frederick the Great of Prussia at the Battle of Leuthen on December 5, 1757. Painting by Hugo Ungevitter
Gathering the weapons after them and removing the armor from the enemies …
The Second Book of Maccabees 8:27

Military affairs at the turn of the eras. The 18th century began, new cuirassiers appeared on the battlefields. Whom did everyone begin to look up to in the first place, who to take an example from? But from whom: from the Swedes!

After the end of the Thirty Years War, in which the Swedish army, led by King Gustav Adolf and commanders Baner, Hurn and Tosterson, won a series of victories over the imperial armies, Sweden’s role in continental affairs was limited to the Baltics. Military affairs gradually withered away, but in 1675 Charles XI ascended the throne of Sweden and began a series of significant military reforms.

At the end of the 17th century, there were 2.5 million people living in Sweden, of which only 5 percent lived in cities. Its most important competitor, Russia, had ten times as many men, and therefore much more resources to recruit an army. The constant presence of large numbers of people under arms would destroy the Swedish economy, so the king introduced the administrative organization Indelningsverkt, under which soldiers and officers of the regular army were allowed to work on royal land on which they were allocated farms. There were typical projects for the construction of farms, depending on the rank of the owner. People from the same county belonged to the same detachment, so they knew each other well, and therefore their morale was higher than that of the mercenaries. Although, if the unit suffered serious losses, the district could be devastated. Then he simply would not have enough manpower!

The cavalry regiments became the strike force of the Swedish army, although there were few of them. The main organization of the regiment was four squadrons of 125 people each. In peacetime, soldiers worked the land and took part in exercises. In wartime, all the forces of the regiment converged at the gathering point and went to the main army camp, where they already underwent continuous training.

During the time of Charles XI, uniforms were introduced in the Swedish army, modeled on the French, the era of Louis XIV. The cavalry was divided into national cavalry and dragoon regiments, with one squadron Trabant Garde (Royal Guard) and a corps of nobles (adelsfanan). In 1685, a royal decree determined a special test for the blades of cavalry broadswords: they had to bend in both directions and withstand a strong blow against a pine board. The blade received the mark only if it passed this test. Cuirasses were worn only by royal trabants. The cheapness of the army was one of the principles of the policy of Charles XII.

In 1697, Charles XII became king of Sweden. He continued military reforms and turned the cavalry into a powerful fighting force that proved itself in many battles against the Danes, Saxons, Poles and Russians during the Great Northern War (1700-1721). How dangerous these battles were is clearly illustrated by the example of the Royal Guard; of 147 soldiers who went to war in 1700, only 17 returned in 1716.


Swedish cuirassier trabant 1709 Fig. from the book: V. Vuksic, Z. Grbasic. Cavalry. The history of fighting elite 650BC – AD1914. L .: Cassell, 1994. P.155

It should be noted that the creation of the first national mass armies became a serious test for the economies of European countries. Yes, before that you had to pay for the mercenaries, but then their “men” were at hand and paid taxes. Now it was necessary to tear people away from fields and farms, to take artisans into the army, and feed, water and dress all this mass in fashion. Moreover, no one even thought about how to really simplify uniforms. The great reformer Peter I did not even bother to think that the meaning of a regular army is not in laces and triangular hats, but in tactics, and … he immediately changed his entire army in a Western manner, although he had before his eyes well-dressed archers! So I would take away their birches and teach them in a new way, and leave the old clothes: for winter, spring and autumn – a long caftan-overcoat and high, goatskin leather, boots, and on the head a three-cap and a hemispherical helmet with small brims, and for summer – a short caftan and a hat with a lapel along the edge. And that’s it! And there would be a huge economy for him, and the enemies … purely subconsciously, it would be scary to see so many people dressed in a completely different way. And the soldiers should have left the beards – they would have looked worse! But he was a man of traditional thinking and could not think of such a thing.

True, attempts were made to reduce the cost of the already expensive cuirassier uniform. But they were not very successful. This is how, for example, a traditional European cuirassier of 1710 looked like a caftan made of moose skin under a cuirass, which could be either double or single, that is, only on the chest. There is a traditional cocked hat on the head, but with a metal “lining”. She is wearing an equally traditional tie – croat. Tall leather boots. Armament: straight long sword, two pistols in holsters at the saddle and a carbine. Cuirasses could be polished or painted black.


European cuirassier 1710 Fig. from the book: V. Vuksic, Z. Grbasic. Cavalry. The history of fighting elite 650BC – AD1914. L .: Cassell, 1994. P.161

In France, the medieval cavalry was reorganized in 1665, when all the cavalry units were transformed into 17 regiments of regular cavalry with companies of 250-300 people. According to earlier tradition, some of them were called gendarmes, while others were legionnaires. The first four (including 1st Scottish and 2nd English) belonged to the king; the rest to the queen and various princes. Each company was commanded by a lieutenant commander, equal in rank to a colonel in the army cavalry. Cornet – Lieutenant Colonel, Sergeant – Captain, Brigadier – Lieutenant. Four gendarmes shared one servant, who took care of them and transported their equipment on a pack horse.

The gendarmerie was not a guard, but it had practically the same status. On the battlefield, she was kept as a cavalry reserve in the amount of 2-3 thousand people, usually together with the guards, and was sent into the fire at critical moments of the battle, regardless of losses. The gendarmes participated in all French campaigns, and with noticeable success, but by the time of the Seven Years War, the French army had only 10 detachments of gendarmes.


Breastplate, late 17th century Germany. Front view. Back plate weight 6577 g; chest plate weight 6350 g. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Like the guards, they were allowed to wear red camisoles, but breast cuirass can be worn under them. Each company had its own insignia, embroidered with silver thread on holsters, saddle-cloths and carabiner belts. They were armed with a rifled carbine, two pistols and a broadsword, and on their heads they wore a steel “cap” (calotte de fer) under a hat.


Cuirass lashing straps. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

However, Frederick II paid the most attention to cuirassiers among European monarchs. When he ascended the throne in Prussia in 1740, he had 22,544 horsemen at his disposal, half of whom served in the cuirassier regiments. Immediately after his coronation, he formed the Guards Cuirassier Regiment (after 1756 it was a Cuirassier Regiment of three squadrons, number 13 in the army’s list). He also changed the name of the 10th cuirassier regiment to the gendarme regiment, the 11th to the life carabinieri, and the 3rd to the life cuirassier, and included all these regiments in his guard. Other regiments had black cuirass, but the cuirassiers had shiny metal cuirasses.


French gendarme 1750 Fig. from the book: V. Vuksic, Z. Grbasic. Cavalry. The history of fighting elite 650BC – AD1914. L .: Cassell, 1994. P.165

At the beginning of the War of the Austrian Succession, at the Battle of Molwitz in 1741, Frederick learned of his victory only at the very end. Austrian cavalry defeated their Prussian opponents and nearly captured the Prussian king, but his superior infantry turned defeat into victory. As Frederick later wrote, he had the opportunity to see on the battlefield how bad the cavalry, which he inherited from his father, was. Most of the officers did not know the service, the horsemen were afraid of horses, few knew how to ride well, and the exercises were carried out on foot, as in the infantry. Worst of all, the riders on horseback moved very slowly. He decided to reorganize his cavalry and issued numerous rules and instructions that most of all concerned the cuirassier regiments, which became the best in Europe.

Frederick decreed that recruits for the cuirassier regiments must be healthy and strong, at least 160 cm in height, in order to carry heavy cuirassiers. Those selected were mostly the sons of peasants who knew how to handle horses. The height at the withers of 157 cm was declared the minimum permissible for horses, and the most popular horses were the Holstein breed. Holstein horses have been bred at monasteries in the Elbe Valley since the 13th century, where local mares interbred with Neapolitan, Spanish and Oriental stallions. The first rules for horse breeding were published in 1719, and in 1735 state stud farms in Prussia had already begun to breed Holstein horses for the army. They were very popular and exported to many European countries. They were large, black and dark brown, strong-built and dynamic horses.

By the end of that century, the uniforms of Prussian and other European cuirassiers had become almost universally white; the color was the only reminder that they had once been made from bleached leather. The cuirassiers were armed with a carbine, two pistols and a broadsword, and the regiments consisted of five squadrons, each of which had about 150 people.


Prussian cuirassier 1756 Fig. from the book: V. Vuksic, Z. Grbasic. Cavalry. The history of fighting elite 650BC – AD1914. L .: Cassell, 1994. P.165

At the Battle of Rossbach in 1757, five cuirassier regiments, a total of 23 squadrons, under the command of Major General Seydlitz, twice attacked French troops and ultimately decided the outcome of the battle in favor of Prussia.


Breastplate from the Royal Armory of Hyderabad. 1778-1779 Belonged to Ali Khan (ruled 1762-1803), who led the state of Hyderabad during its economic growth, during which it became an important cultural center of India. The unusual one-piece design of the bib and back plate, which resembles a stylized human torso, may reflect European influences. Both plates are forged from crucible steel, which is also referred to in the literature as polished steel due to the fine ripple pattern seen in the metal structure. Polished steel was often used for sword and dagger blades, but rarely for armor, and only of the highest quality. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

To be continued…

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