What was a cavalry regiment?

The regiment was the basic tactical unit of the cavary of the British army in the Great War of 1914-1918. At full establishment, it consisted of 549 men, of whom 26 were officers. It comprised a Regimental Headquarters three Squadrons and a Machine Gun Section.

The Regiment was usually subordinate to a Cavalry Brigade. The peacetime establishment of the Regiment was much larger than than the war establishment described below, to allow them to leave a nucleus of a Reserve unit behind and to provide a pool of men for providing batmen and other roles for GHQ and other senior Commands.

Regimental HQ

The Regiment was usually commanded by an officer with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. A Major was Second-in-Command. Regimental HQ also had three other officers: a Captain or Lieutenant filled the role of Adjutant (in charge of Regimental administration); a Captain or Lieutenant was the Quartermaster (responsible for stores and transport); a Lieutenant or 2nd Lieutenant was Signals Officer. An officer of the Royal Army Medical Corps was also attached, as was an officer of the Army Veterinary Corps.

Regimental HQ also included the Regimental Sergeant-Major (RSM, the most senior Non-Commissioned Officer) plus a number of specialist roles filled by Sergeants : Quartermaster, Transport, Signaller, Sergeant-Trumpeter, Sergeant-Cook, Farrier Quartermaster-Sergeant, Saddler-Sergeant, Armourer (often attached from the Army Ordnance Corps) and Orderly Room Clerk.

A Corporal and two Privates of the Royal Army Medical Corps were attached for water duties; a Corporal and 4 Privates were employed as Signallers; 7 Privates acted as drivers for the horse-drawn transport; 13 Privates acted as officers batmen (personal servants) and two as orderlies for the Medical Officer. One man acted as Saddletree-Maker.

Squadrons

Usually lettered A to C, each of the three Squadrons numbered 227 heads at full establishment. Each was commanded by a Major, with a Captain as Second-in-Command. Squadron HQ included a Sergeant-Major, a Quartermaster Sergeant, 2 Privates acting as batmen and 3 as drivers.

Machine Gun Section

The Section was the command of a Lieutenant, and consisted of a Sergeant, a Corporal, 14 Privates in the gun teams plus 8 as drivers and 2 as batmen. These men were trained in the maintenance, transport, loading and firing of the heavy machine gun. These men made up two six-man gun teams, armed initially with the Maxim pattern gun, which was soon replaced by the Vickers.

Each Regiment had a detachment at its Base Depot, which did not take the field when the Regiment was on active service. The Base Detachment consisted - in theory - of a subaltern, 2 Sergeants and 46 Privates to form a first reinforcement (to make good Regimental casualties or other losses); 3 Storemen and the Sergeant Master Tailor.

The members of the Regimental Band were distributed among the Squadrons when on active service. They were trained in first-aid and acted as stretcher-bearers.

Horses

In total, a Regiment had 528 riding horses with another 48 with the first reinforcement. There were also 74 draught and 6 pack horses.

Regimental equipment

All ranks except those men who were the drivers and signallers carried a sword. Sergeants and above carried a Webley pistol, while junior NCO's and other ranks carried a rifle - which for the regular units (and after the early days when all sorts of older equipment was supplied to the Yeomanry and Reserve Regiments, all of these were eventually similarly equipped) was the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE). Unlike the infantry, no sword-bayonet was carried.

War experience

The cavalry was found to be very vulnerable to the infantry and machine gun tactics of the Western Front. In many of actions, cavalry fought dismounted. British cavalry had been trained in dismounted tactics and operatioons before the war. Though they remained to the end the only mobile force that could exploit a breakthrough if one could be forced, no such opportunity arose. At High Wood on the Somme in 1916, at Monchy-le-Preux and Cambrai in 1917, and on a few other occasions, the cavalry made costly tactical charges.

In the Egypt and Palestine theatres, this was much less the case and the cavalry operated much in the way they were intended.

As the war progressed, all units struggled to remain at establishment strength.

Exceptions

Regiments of the Household Cavalry had four Squadrons, as did units in India. The 3rd Dragoons had an extra kettle-drummer on the strength - a tradition dating from the Battle of Dettingen in 1743.