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Dragoons of the Imperial Guard Horse Guards Officer, by Gericault (click to enlarge)
The Emperor salutes Cuirassiers preparing to charge at Friedland (click to enlarge)

Cavalry was regarded by Napoleon as the most decisive element of his armies. While other forms of horsemen in the Grand Army, the Cuirassiers and Carabiniers and Hussars, for instance, all had their roles to play, it was the heavily armoured 'Big Heels', the  Imperial Guard Horse Grenadiers, that could turn the tide of a battle with the sheer force of their charge.

During the 18th Century, the French heavy cavalry were tall, strong men mounted on large, powerful horses. During the Revolutionary Wars, their numbers were thinned and, since most heavy mounts were imported from German states, there was a dearth of suitable heavy horses.

This is one of the great portraits of Officers of the Imperial Horse Guards by Theodore Gericault

Their 25 regiments were substantially understrength and poorly mounted, but Napoleon solved that problem by dissolving the last seven regiments, allocating both men and horses to the remaining eighteen.  The elite companies of these dissolved regiments were allocated to the Carabiniers.  From these eighteen regiments he took the strongest men and most powerful horses to form the twelve regiments that eventually became the Cuirassiers. The remaining men and horses formed six regiments of Dragoons. This basic structure remained essentially unchanged for the duration of the Napoleonic era.

There were two basic types of cavalry generally employed by the European armies in the period: the Heavy and Light. The accuracy of these two classifications is a point of contention among military historians and Napoleonic aficionados. French historical sources from this period indicate that Line cavalry consisted of Light cavalry and `Battle Cavalry'. Further confusion is added by the peculiarities of the elite mounted units of the Imperial Guard.

A Cuirassier General and his Troopers on Campaign

Light Cavalry

In the French Army, the Light Cavalry consisted of Hussars, Chasseurs, and Lancers. The Chasseurs a Cheval whose simple uniforms of a green tunic, white breeches and high jack boots Napoleon made into the stuff of legend, were Light Cavalry. In 1804, there were 24 regiments of Chasseurs, with Napoleon subsequently forming an additional five.

Although the Light Cavalry could stand in line and fight as battle cavalry, its best purposes were reconnaissance, screening, raiding, pursuit, and field security.  The Light Cavalry maneuver units were intended to be broken down into small tactical units for use as pickets and vedettes, and for deployment in reconnaissance roles.  The focus on independent tactical employment of small Light Cavalry units accounts for the higher number of noncommissioned officers in the Light units compared to the battle cavalry.  The Light Cavalry, particularly the Hussars, were also capable of massed charges on the battlefield.

Gericault's portrait of a Trumpeter of the Polish Light-Horse Lancers of the Guard

Heavy Cavalry

The Napoleonic Heavy Cavalry was organized into distinct Cuirassier, Carabinier and Dragoon regiments.  Dragoons were of strictly European origin, the concept eventually moving to the Americas with the migration of the European military culture. They had an intricate evolution from Renaissance times with the emergence of firearms through the wars of the 17th Century as mounted infantry.

As the mobility of the horse combined with the firepower of the musket, Dragoons became truly universal cavalry, typically employed for a broad range of both mounted and foot duties. At first, most nations mounted Dragoons on lower quality horses with resulting detriment when caught and overrun by opposing cavalry.

In response, senior officers and sponsors of Dragoon regiments improved the quality of the mounts, and improved the training of the Dragoons, particularly in swordsmanship. This evolution found twenty Dragoon regiments in the French Army of 1800, operating principally as Heavy Cavalry and with little capacity for employment as infantry.

A Carabinier by Gericault

Cavalry Weapons

There were dozens of types of sabres used by cavalry during the Napoleonic Wars. Britain had two main styles, the 1796 pattern light-cavalry sabre (pictured) and the straight-bladed 1796 heavy-cavalry sabre, but this did not stop a whole host of various weapons being used at the whim of the men who led their regiments.

Unwieldy and poorly balanced, the 1796 patterns were used as hacking weapons and while they would cause terrible wounds the use of the edge of the blade rather than the point resulted in fewer killing strokes. French horsemen preferred to use the points of their swords and run the enemy through so there was a large disparity in casualties between the two styles. The French suffered more ghastly wounds, while the British more initial deaths.

To carry the cuirasse and iron and brass helmet, the trooper needed to be big and strong.  In accordance, the horse to carry them was large and together the Cuirassiers and their mounts would hit opposing cavalry with brute force.The main components of the lance - a sharp stabbing point on the end of a wooden shaft - were the Poles, Austrian Uhlans and Russian cossacks, whose fighters had used the weapons for centuries. Napoleon's famous lancers were excellent for pursuing fleeing infantry, or trying to break up squares by outreaching bayonets.  Other cavalry, however, were seemingly not too worried by the longer reach as once past the razor-sharp blade of the lance the swordsman had the advantage.

The fashionably-attired Empress' Dragoons

Hussars

Hussars were both the eyes and egos of the Napoleonic armies. Tactically, they were used as scouts and a screen for the army to keep their commanders informed of enemy moves while denying the same information to the foe. They had their own code - that of reckless courage that bordered on a death wish - and it was said by one of their beau sabreurs, General Antoine Lasalle, that any of them that were alive by 30 were "Black Guards".

Lancers

Some of the most feared cavalry in Bonaparte's armies were the Polish lancers, who gave no quarter.  The British discovered this at Albuera when Polish lancers, covered by a rainstorm, managed to get the jump on a redcoat brigade and wiped it out within seconds.  Lancers were excellent against infantry in square - where their lances could outreach the infantry bayonets - and also in hunting down a routed enemy.

A Polish Light-Horse Lancer of the Guard