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Light cavalry refers to lightly armed and lightly armored troops mounted on horses, as opposed to heavy cavalry, where the riders (and sometimes the horses) are heavily armored. The missions of the light cavalry were primarily reconnaissance, screening, skirmishing, raiding, and most importantly, communications, and were usually armed with spears, swords, bows and later carbines.
Light cavalry was used infrequently by the Greeks and Romans (though Roman auxiliaries were often mounted), but were popular among the armies and hordes of Central Asia and Southwest Asia. The Arabs, Hungarians, Huns, Mongols, Turks, Parthians, and Persians were all adept light cavalrymen and horse archers.
With the decline of feudalism and knighthood in Europe, light cavalry became more prominent in the armies of the continent. Many were equipped with firearms, as their predecessors had been with bows. European examples of light cavalry included stradiots, hobelars, hussars, chasseurs à cheval, cossacks, chevau-légers and some dragoons.
Armies of the ancient Roman-Germanic wars made use of Light Cavalry as patrolling squads, or armed scouts, and often had them in the front lines during regional battles.
During the Punic Wars, one of Carthage's main advantages over Roman armies were its extensive use of Numidian Light Cavalry. Partly because of this, the Roman General Scipio Africanus recruited his own cavalry from Sicily before his invasion of Tunisia during the Second Punic War.
The Middle Ages
A variety of types of light cavalry were developed in medieval armies.
- Hobelar : Originally Irish, later popular in English and Scottish armies of the 14th. and 15th. centuries
- Koursores : Byzantine light cavalry. The name derives from the Latin term cursarius meaning 'raider'.
- Jinete: Spanish light horsemen, particularly popular during the Reconquista (Jinete is the person riding a horse)
- Stradiot : Of Albanian origin, used as mercenary light cavalry in Italy in the later 15th. century
- Turcopole : A light mounted archer used extensively during the Crusades in the Middle East but also found among the Teutonic Knights in their Baltic campaigns
- Horse Archers armed with composite bows allowed the Mongols to conquer large parts of Asia and Europe in the 13th century. Horse archers were also used extensively in Steppe warfare throughout Central Asia and the American prairies.
The Napoleonic Era
Light cavalry played a key-role in battles in the Napoleonic Era.
- Hussar : One of the most common light cavalry, they originated in Hungary.
- Uhlan : Polish light cavalry armed with lances, sabers and pistols, they were later also used by Russian, Prussian and Austrian armies.
- Dragoon : A type of mounted infantry, they were armed with a carbine.
- Sowar : An Indian horseman armed with a sword. Their rank was equivalent to the Sepoy in the infantry.
Early 20th Century
As late as the early 1900s most European armies still retained a nominal division of mounted troops into light cavalry (reconnaissance, scouting and screening), medium cavalry (attack and defense of specific locations) and heavy cavalry (shock action on the battlefield). While colonial warfare had led to a blurring of these distinctions in the British army, tradition remained strong in the cavalry arm of some other nations. As an example, the Imperial German army maintained a marked difference between the sizes and weights of the men and horses allocated to the hussar regiments that made up its light cavalry and those of the other two categories. The early weeks of World War I saw light cavalry attempting to continue its long established function of being the "eyes and ears" of the respective main armies. However the advent of trench warfare and aircraft observation quickly rendered this role obsolete, except to a limited extent in Eastern Europe.
References and notes
- Bryan Fosten (1982). Wellington's Light Cavalry. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 0850454492.
- pages 568-570, Volume 5, Encyclopaedia Britannica - eleventh edition
- page 570, Volume 5, Encyclopaedia Britannica - eleventh edition
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