by David R. Dorondo
Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2012. Pp. xiv, 312 352.
Illus, notes, biblio., index. $36.95. ISBN: 1612510868
While the German Army of the world wars has drawn substantial attention in the literature, some of its components have been neglected. The branch that perhaps has been most ignored, was the cavalry. With Riders of the Apocalypse, Prof. Dorondo (Western Carolina), previously author of Bavaria and German Federalism: Reich to Republic, makes an attempt to fill that gap, and a largely successful one at that. He opens with a look at the performance of the Prussian cavalry in 1870. During the Franco-Prussian War, the cavalry made its best contribution in an operational sense, in the roles of reconnaissance and screening. While cavalry did make an appearance tactically, battlefield success, exemplified by the "death ride” of Friedrich Wilhelm von Bredow’s cuirassiers, was small in scale and dearly bought. German military thinking after 1870 held that cavalry would still have a place in accomplishing operational roles, but its day as a factor on the battlefield was over.
Such thinking was validated with the outbreak of war in 1914. Although Dorondo shows that the German cavalry played an important part in the opening campaign in the West, once the campaign settled into deadlock, the mounted arm’s significance virtually disappeared. Even when the Germans reintroduced their version of mobile warfare in 1918, the cavalry remained absent. Although cavalry had a bit more play on the Eastern Front, which Dorondo highlights, the German Army itself admitted during the war that aircraft were a far superior means of reconnaissance, given the inferiority of German cavalry in numbers and effectiveness against their Russian opponents.
Although the Great War had shown the limitations of cavalry, the Reichswehr under Hans von Seeckt still believed that the mounted arm had its place in modern warfare. Dorondo does a very good job following the debates in the German Army during the interwar period over the question of the future of cavalry. Although mounted cavalry did have its advocates, the cavalry itself did not try to stand against the rising tides of motorization and mechanization and yell “Stop!”, a matter to which Dorondo might have given a bit more coverage.
Dorondo devotes the balance of the volume to the operations of Germany’s mounted units during World War II, essentially the 1st Cavalry Division, the 8th SS Cavalry Division Florian Geyer, and the I Cavalry Corps. The cavalry was able to perform its traditional role in both Poland and the 1940 campaign in the west. After the 1941 Russian campaign,
however, the 1st Cavalry Division’s commander, Kurt Feldt, recommended that the division be converted to a panzer division, which was done.
Despite the conversion of the 1st Cavalry Division jnto the 24th Panzer Division, mounted units could still play a role on the Eastern Front, especially in the areas bordering the Pripet Marshes. The SS employed mounted units, first the Cavalry Brigade and later the Florian Geyer, to conduct anti-partisan operations, in which they displayed their usual penchant for committing atrocities. In 1944 the army created a small cavalry corps, composed of two brigades and the Hungarian 1st Division, which were employed more conventionally until the end of the war.
Dorondo’s book has several strengths. First, he shows a knowledge of horses that is both deep and nuanced. The research is meticulous, based on documents from the National Archives, as well as wide array of secondary sources. The writing is engaging, and the work is enhanced by some excellent photos, many from the author’s personal collection.
Although the cavalry was but a minor part of the German Army in the World Wars, its story was one that needed telling. Dorondo has succeeded most admirably in that endeavor.
Our Reviewer: Prof. Richard L. DiNardo is an instructor at the Marine Corps Command and staff College, in Quantico. He is the author or editor of several notable works in military history, among them Mechanized Juggernaut or Military Anachronism? Horses and the German Army of World War II, Breakthrough: The Gorlice-Tarnow Campaign, 1915, Germany and the Axis Powers: From Coalition to Collapse, and James Longstreet: The Man, The Soldier, The Controversy. Prof. DiNardo has previously reviewed several works for StrategyPage, most recently Robert Citino’s The Wehrmacht Retreats: Fighting a Lost War, 1943.