American Cavalry in World War I: Military Ignorance or Necessity?

by MAJ John A. Regan

World War I on the Western Front is associated with trench warfare and infantrymen assaulting across a lethal “no man’s land,” where advances were measured in yards, not miles. Minimal gains extracted heavy casualties from both sides in any attempt to gain a decided advantage in bringing the war to an end.

Man’s ability to harness new technologies for military purposes during the Industrial Era rendered maneuver on the battlefield virtually immobile, thus perfecting man’s capability to destroy his adversary on a grand scale.

The United States entered the war in its last year. Observing three years of destruction provided American military leaders an opportunity to assess the situation in Europe and devise ways of returning mobility to the battlefield. European armies attempted this many times, but on every occasion nothing worked. Their elite cavalry formations were decimated. The mechanically unreliable tanks proved incapable of pursuing a retreating enemy once penetration of the battlefield occurred.

So why were American military planners adamant on sending 2nd Cavalry Regiment as part of the American Expeditionary Forces? How practical was it to equip and employ one regiment for service in France? Was this organization effective operationally against entrenched German forces on the Western Front?

Historiographers have continuously discounted the effectiveness of any cavalry force on the Western Front based on the British experience early in the war. An industrialized battlefield created a predominate feeling of horse cavalry being both suicidal and antiquated. This article seeks to prove that American military leaders knew what they were doing in their decision to deploy 2nd Cavalry Regiment with the AEF. Also, it will show the tactical competency used in the cavalrymen’s employment on the battlefield, and it will assess 2nd Cavalry’s effectiveness on a battlefield that had become inundated with the technology of the Industrial Revolution.

Cavalry operations

Cavalry operations during the Great War remains one of the most overlooked areas when reflecting on a conflict that occurred at the beginning of a new century. Small, independent unit activities remain buried inside the volumes of recorded histories of divisions, corps and armies. However, 2nd U.S. Cavalry Regiment possesses the distinction of being the only mounted unit the AEF fielded.1

Cavalry influences in military organizations were prevalent at the conflict’s beginning. Nearly all senior officers in the British army were former cavalry officers. This may serve as an explanation for early tactics used on the Western Front, which resulted in the war becoming a stalemate.2

Mounted troops were considered a vital component of offensive operations. Europe’s major powers maintained about one-third of their strength in cavalry.3 Armies considered cavalry their elite formations, thus preserving the ability to directly tip the scale of victory in one’s favor.

The primary advantage cavalry held over infantry during the Great War was speed. While mounted, troops were able to vacate an area being shelled, reducing the number of casualties. Speed also afforded the ability to move faster than an artillery observer could direct adjustments to a firing battery.4

The early defeat and subsequent retreat of British forces in 1914 greatly contributed to the assumption that cavalry had been rendered obsolete. Cavalry’s role certainly required modification. To a greater degree, institutional arrogance in British cavalry leaders contributed to cavalry’s failure.5 After the British retreat at Mons, the era of large mounted formations effectively ended on the Western Front. Europeans continued to mass large mounted units on the Western Front early in the war; since they proved ineffective against the machinegun and trench warfare, cavalry played a minor role on the Western Front compared to the Eastern Front, where Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia and the Ottoman Empire employed them with success.

“Only [12] cavalry charges were executed in the west by all sides, whereas in the east it is recorded that the Russians conducted [400] alone,” wrote Alexis Wrangel in The End of Chivalry: The Last Great Cavalry Battles, Nineteen Hundred and Fourteen Thru Nineteen Hundred and Eighteen.6 In comparison, 129 cavalry charges were conducted in the U.S. Civil War. In the west, the British, French and German armies all maintained smaller cavalry units for reconnaissance, liaison duties and security missions.

Technology available at the time was revolutionary; many of its attributes are still are a viable part of military operations today. However, important technologies were all in their infancy:

  • Use of messengers served as the primary source of communication throughout the war,7 as wireless communications did not become available until the war’s end. Wire communications were employed when soldiers were occupying defensive positions, but the wires were routinely damaged by breaks in the line from artillery shelling.
  • Both sides used aircraft, which assumed many traditional reconnaissance roles. Weather and visibility determined when military planners employed aircraft. Considering the weather conditions common in Western Europe, aircraft without optics or imaging devices were limited at this time.
  • Tanks were used during the war, but they continually were mechanically unreliable. Tanks were able to slowly make their way across no man’s land without breaking down but found it impossible to exploit any penetration at 4 mph.8 Dismounted infantrymen and, more importantly, horse-drawn artillery could displace more quickly.
Equipment and structure

The 2nd Cavalry Regiment’s cavalryman’s individual equipment drew inspiration from lessons-learned, not only from the British and French, but also American, experiences in the Philippines and Mexico.9 For example, at the turn of the century, the U.S. Army had determined that the saber was only suitable for ceremonial purposes, so the trooper’s primary weapon during a mounted attack was the .45-caliber, M-1911 semiautomatic pistol. Also, the trooper was armed with the .30-caliber M-1903 bolt-action rifle. This was the main weapon for all dismounted operations.

Being equipped with two firearms was unique. Cavalrymen were the only American enlisted soldiers and officers armed in such a manner.

Photo: PVT William Woods of Troop C, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, prepares his 1917 equipment.

The 2nd Cavalry Regiment was also one of the few American organizations to be equipped with the experimental Browning Automatic Rifle during World War I. Firing while mounted had never been preferred for cavalrymen because of lack of accuracy. Most direct-action missions U.S. cavalrymen performed before and during the war were all conducted dismounted.10 (American cavalry at the time were “dragoons,” which was, in essence, a mounted rifleman who could fight from horseback or on foot.)

The troop could fight dismounted as two platoons, in contrast to European armies’ cavalry, which only fought while mounted. Also unlike European armies, American cavalry regiments were not sub-organizations for higher formations such as a division. They were independent, rarely conducting tactical operations as a squadron – tactical employment was predominately executed at troop-or-below level. European cavalry doctrine did not make this adjustment until the end of the first year of fighting.11

Doctrinal templates of the time called for two regiments of cavalry to be assigned to each of four division corps. Within the corps, two squadrons were to be assigned to each division. The remaining squadron remained at corps headquarters for training and replenishment purposes. This recommended template in the table of organization and equipment of the time never took form. Before World War I, U.S. cavalry assets totaled 14 regiments stationed worldwide, including the Philippines and Hawaii.

The 2nd Cavalry Regiment was the only regiment to conduct cavalry operations during the war. In Europe the regiment consisted of three squadrons and a regimental headquarters. First Squadron consisted of five troops: A, B, C, D and E. Troops F, G, H, I, K and L troops formed 2nd Squadron. Third Squadron consisted of Headquarters, Supply, Machine Gun and M troops.12

In contrast, an infantry company consisted of six officers and 250 men, whereas a cavalry troop consisted of five officers, 105 men and 260 horses (three mounts per trooper). Only 80 men represented the actual fighting strength.13 The first sergeant, two cooks, two buglers and 25 horse-holders were not factored in.

Horse-holders were personnel assigned the task of maintaining the two additional mounts required per cavalryman. During operations, they would bring fresh mounts forward as the mission required.

When comparing the two fighting organizations, the cavalry troop was much smaller and logistically more cumbersome. The European Allies used this reasoning to rebuke American attempts to deploy cavalry horses using their ships. As a result, 2nd Cavalry went to France with everything required to conduct mounted operations except horses. Mounts were procured upon arrival at Bordeaux.

Battles and campaigns

Among the first contingent of 67 Americans who landed in France June 13, 1917, with GEN John J. Pershing, 35 of them were cavalrymen: 31 were members of 2nd Cavalry Regiment. Pershing, a former cavalryman himself, maintained a close relationship with the regiment during the war. One officer and 20 troopers were permanently detailed from A and C troops to serve as Pershing’s personal-security detachment at AEF headquarters in Chaumont.14

The 2nd Cavalry departed Hoboken, NJ, March 22, 1918, and arrived at Bordeaux April 6, 1918. Troops H and I were immediately placed in-sector with 2nd Infantry Division, who had been in-theater for a mere two days.15 When 2nd and 3rd squadrons of 2nd Cavalry arrived at Pauillac, they were ordered to various locations: Troop M moved to south France to bring up horses; Headquarters and Machine Gun troops moved to Valdehon to establish a remount station; and 42nd Division received troops F and G attached as divisional cavalry, operating in the Baccarat sector until May 6, when they rejoined the regiment at Gievres.

Photo: The 2nd Cavalry Regiment in France, 1918. (Photo by U.S. Army Signal Corps)

The rest of 1st Squadron in Selles-Sur-Cher was tasked with running remount stations as part of the Service of Supply Corps. Remount stations held a great number of horses and mules, animals that were vital to logistics operations.

The 2nd Infantry Division released Troop I April 30, allowing them to rejoin 1st Squadron. Troop H remained to perform patrols and courier duty.

During the Aisne-Marne campaign, A and C troops went to First Army to conduct escort duty for prisoners of war, reconnaissance patrols and military-police duties. They continued to perform these types of missions for First Army, moving to various locations closer to the frontlines. The regiment sustained its first casualties when the A and C troop commanders were wounded by indirect fire while conducting a patrol Aug. 1 near Bazu St. Germain.16

The first week of August 1918 found Troop I attached to 10th French Cavalry located at Les Pres-Fremes (Death Valley). Within the next few days they conducted small patrols, consisting of 12 men or fewer, locating and verifying German strongpoints.17 Conducting dismounted reconnaissance of positions under cover of darkness served to mediate warfare’s technological advances.

Troop I continued patrolling in the French sector until Aug. 16 at a cost of 11 men killed, seven from gas. Then Troop I was attached to 3rd Infantry Division to perform military-police duties in the division rear area.

AEF headquarters directed 2nd Cavalry to form a mounted provisional squadron at Camp Jeanne d’Arc near Neufchateau Aug. 30. Their horses – a hodgepodge mixture ranging from Percheron draft horses to a Spanish pony – were provided from various remount stations they had been operating as part of SOS. All the animals were wounded veterans, either from bullet wounds or gas attacks. Regardless, the squadron formed within 15 days from 14 officers and 404 troopers.18

Troop I contributed to the planning process for the first American offensive operation of the war at St. Mihiel. Their reconnaissance of St. Maurice, Woel, Vigneulles, St. Benoit, Thiacourt, Pannes, Heudicort and Chaillon, in combination with aerial-reconnaissance platforms, helped solidify the American plan.19 Troop B was detached and assigned courier duty under 1st, 42nd and 89th infantry divisions, leaving only D, F and H troops intact for the St. Mihiel operation.

The cavalrymen were ordered toward Vigneulles and Heudicort through open country Sept. 12, 1918, finding themselves five miles behind the frontlines near Nonsard. There they encountered considerable German resistance when they ran into a large column staged for withdrawal to the east. Troop H deployed to establish a support-by-fire position with BARs. The remaining troops attacked the column head-on with a charge. However, German machinegun crews routed the assault and, in the chaos, some of the horses bolted.20

Map: Plan of attack by First Army Sept. 12, 1918.

The German attack forced 2nd Cavalry to withdraw. However, able to regroup, the troopers advanced through St. Maurice, Woel and Jonville. Pursuing retreating Germans continued until Sept. 15, when 2nd Cavalry was ordered back to Menil la Tour. There the cavalrymen refitted and assumed military-police duties.

Within a three-day period, 2nd Cavalry captured 60 prisoners and 56 machineguns.21 The regiment also earned many letters of commendation from corps, division and other commanders of various organizations.

When the squadron’s combat debut ended, the squadron commander’s after-action report to AEF headquarters recommended and observed that:

  • Each troop should be equipped with six automatic rifles and more horses to carry ammunition;
  • 50 men per troop should be equipped with hand grenades;
  • A demolition pack should be improvised for each troop;
  • Cavalry efficiency cannot be maintained if troopers are used between times as military police or prison guards; and
  • Several couriers’ mounts were forcibly taken away by line and staff officers, leaving troopers without a mount or with an unserviceable one.22

The squadron’s mounts’ condition served as evidence of the impact the St. Mihiel offensive had on the squadron. CPT Ernest Harmon, Troop F commander, remarked that the “effects of combat and weather had rendered half the horses unfit for service under normal conditions.”23

The squadron prepared for action in the Meuse-Argonne; completing refit Sept. 17, the troopers moved to Les Isltettes. Troop B, previously detached, joined enroute.

Upon arrival in the Argonne and attachment to 35th Infantry Division, 2nd Cavalry consisted of 14 officers and 302 troopers. When offensive operations commenced in the Argonne early the morning of Sept. 26, Troop B patrolled the right flank and maintained liaison with 91st Infantry Division. Troop F patrolled the left flank and kept liaison with 28th Infantry Division. Troop H screened the center of the division, and Troop D served as the reserve at Charpentry. Still attached to III Corps, Troop I patrolled the right flank.24

Map: American and Allied attacks on the Western Front Sept. 26-Nov. 11, 1918.

In the Meuse-Argonne offensive, every division in the AEF went into action for 47 days of continuous combat. The AEF objective was the Sedan-Merieres railroad, which served as the main German supply route on the Western Front. If it could be taken, the Germans would be forced to withdraw into Germany.25

Considerable advances were made during the operation’s first 48 hours, but the AEF encountered stubborn resistance Sept. 28 that would be the campaign’s hallmark. After that, the cavalrymen conducted operations dismounted because they encountered extensive entrenchments. Reaching Exermount, 2nd Cavalry secured Bois de Montrebeau. Elements of 1st Infantry Division relieved them Sept. 29.

The squadron remained with 1st Division until Oct. 17. During this phase, they led the Big Red One to Sommerance and Fleville. Then the squadron retired to Rarencourt due to the toll taken on its operational strength. Poison gas had claimed most of the casualties.

A detachment of one officer and 15 troopers from Troop F stayed with the Big Red One until the infantrymen reached Sudan. During the advance, Troop F knocked out two machinegun bunkers and captured a battery of heavy German artillery. Two troopers captured 18 Germans on the first day of the campaign. Then the squadron withdrew to the III Corps sector Oct. 2.

Removal from the front left the squadron with an operational strength of 150 men and 211 horses. In two months of combat, the squadron had its organization reduced by 75 percent.26 These losses were generally the same as an infantry unit’s. However, the highly specialized training required for a cavalryman made these losses harder to sustain.

Photo: The 2nd Cavalry Regiment passes through the ruined French countryside, 1918. (Photo by U.S. Army Signal Corps)

The armistice Nov. 11, 1918, found 2nd Cavalry Regiment scattered throughout France performing a variety of tasks.

Transition to occupation duty

Transitioning from combat to occupation duty resulted in 2nd Cavalry’s division into different areas. Half would occupy Germany with its regimental headquarters. The regiment’s remaining subunits were distributed throughout France: Headquarters Troop in Dondasle; Machine Gun Troop in Verdun; Troop E in Clermont; Troop F in Dun-Sur-Meuse; Troop G in Grand Pre; Troop H in Rarecourt; Troop K in Mars-La-Tour; and Troop L in Commerey.

Consolidation of the AEF for German occupation occurred in Luxemburg. When the Allies lined up to march in and occupy Germany Dec. 19, 1918, Troop I led the formation. When they were crossing the Rhine at Remagen, a slight delay arose while the troopers allowed their mounts to claim the “honor” of the first Allies to drink from the Rhine River.27 On the march into Germany, A, B, C and M troops were assigned to divisions as advance guards at the head of each column.

In Germany, elements of 2nd Cavalry were stationed along the Rhine, headquartered in Coblenz. Troop A was in Arzheim; Troop B in Daufenbach; Troop C in Molsburg; Troop D in Hannengen; Troop I in Ehrenbritstein; and Troop M in Hausen.

The entire regiment stayed in Europe as part of the American Army of Occupation until June 1919. Then, in July 1919, 2nd Cavalry redeployed to the United States. The regiment arrived at Hoboken with 54 officers and 1,337 men. Demobilization left the regiment with 23 officers and 354 men when 2nd Cavalry was assigned to Fort Riley, KS.28


American military planners were wise in their insistence on bringing 2nd Cavalry Regiment into the fight, even if their employment deviated from the European model. Instead of a large, mounted shock force, they were a vital command-and-control asset before the era of wireless two-way communication. The 2nd Cavalry maintained coordination among division commanders across a 20- to 40-mile front.

They were also the AEF’s long-range reconnaissance force at a time before helicopter and parachute insertion, providing critical intelligence needed to plan for ground offensives that could only be gained by getting up close with the enemy.

Perhaps their most overlooked contribution to the AEF was operation of remount stations. The U.S. Army remained primarily horse-drawn in World War I, as were all armies in the war. Keeping horses and mules available for logistic efforts supplied the AEF with the ability to conduct sustained combat operations. Since the AEF’s lines of communication stretched across France, this was important.

In their occupation role, 2nd Cavalry’s inherent mobility proved ideally suited as a constabulary force responsible for an area of operations three times the size their infantry counterparts had.

American military leaders were determined to return mobility to the Western Front. Mobility meant turning the conflict away from a defensive nature to one of a series of sustained offensive actions to end the war. Given the instruments of warfare available to achieve this, World War I proved to be the United States’ last conflict for practical employment of horse-mounted cavalry.

Technological advancements had sufficiently reduced the relevancy of horse cavalry on the battlefield. However, technology did not produce the means to completely replace the traditional cavalryman until after the war’s end.


MAJ John Regan is a military-intelligence officer assigned to 6th Battalion, 1st Special Warfare Training Group, U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, Fort Bragg, NC. He has served as an intelligence doctrine analyst writer at USAJFKSWCS; assistant professor of military science, Creighton University; intelligence adviser, 3-1 (Mechanized), Iraqi National Police, Baghdad; and company executive officer and platoon leader, Company C, 2-70 Armor, Fort Riley, KS. His military education includes the Military Intelligence Captain’s Career Course, Irregular Warfare Course, Military Intelligence Transition Course, Armor Officers Basic Course, Infantry One-Station Unit Training for 11Bs, Basic Noncommissioned Officers Course, Drill Sergeant School, Airborne School and Master Fitness Training Course. He holds a bachelor’s of arts degree from the University of Nebraska-Omaha and a master’s of arts degree from American Public University.


1 Stubbs, Mary Lee, and Connor, Stanley Russell, Armor-Cavalry Part I: Regualr Army and Army Reserve, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1969.

2 Wrangel, Alexis, The End of Chivalry: The Last Great Cavalry Battles, Nineteen Hundred and Fourteen Thru Nineteen Hundred and Eighteen, New York: Hippocrene, 1982.

3 Ibid.

4 Ross, Tenny, “Characteristics of the Three Arms,” lecture at the Infantry and Cavalry School, Fort Leavenworth, KS, Dec. 12, 1907.

5 Gardner, Nickolas, “Great Retreat of 1914: the Disintegration of the British Cavalry Division,” The Journal of Military History, January 1999,, accessed Aug. 10, 2010.

6 Wrangel.

7 U.S. Army, Infantry, Cavalry and Field Artillery Notes, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1917.

8 United Kingdom, Scouting and Patrolling; Army War College, Cavalry Notes, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office,1917; Infantry, Cavalry and Field Artillery Notes.

9 Ross.

10 Ryan, John P., “Weapons and Munitions of War: Cavalry Weapons,” presented at the Infantry and Cavalry School, 1907; Perry, Redding, “The 2nd Cavalry in France,” Cavalry Journal, January 1928; Cavalry Notes; Sherrill, Stephen, “The Experiences of the First American Troop of Cavalry to Get into Action in the World War,” Cavalry Journal, January 1923.

11 Department of the Army, The Army in World War I 1917-1918: Volume I, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office,1949; Gardner.

12 The Army in World War I Volume I; Herr, John, and Wallace, Edward, The Story of the U.S. Cavalry 1776-1942, Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1953.

13 The Great War Society, “Doughboy Center,”, accessed Sept. 27, 2010; The Army in World War I Volume I.

14 Perry and Sherrill.

15 Perry.

16 Sherrill.

17 Ibid.

18 Herr and Wallace.

19 The Army in World War I Volume I.

20 “American Cavalry in Fight,” New York Times, Sept. 12, 1918,, accessed Aug. 8, 2010; Perry.

21 Ibid.

22 Sherrill.

23 Harmon, Ernest N. CPT, “The Second Cavalry in the Meuse-Argonne,” Cavalry Journal, January 1922.

24 Department of the Army, The Army in World War I 1917-1918: Volume II, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1949.

25 Harmon.

26 Ibid.

27 Perry.

28 Ibid.

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