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A Magnificient Anachronism
by jason taylor
05/28/08
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The Cavalry of World War II by Janusz Piekalkiewicz

One of the greatest myths of sublime courage to come out of World War II was that of the Polish Cavalry charging the German tanks. Curiously it was made by the German propagandists as a way of ridiculing the alledged backwardness of the Poles. It also shows the difference in types of millitarisms and that Nazis were not just vicious but vulgar. An old-school officer, German or otherwise would not have gloated at such a thing.
There is another thing to know about the event. It never took place. Actually never is such a strong word. It might have taken place, war is always rather confused and the Polish campaign seems more confused then usual. If it happened it was either a miscalculation, a deliberate sacrifice(to cover another unit for instance), or simply an act of despair. But even the legendary specialty-chauvinism of cavalry did not extend that far. Nontheless this legend is taken as both an example of the desperate courage and quixotism of the Polish people and the obsolescence of the horse. The first is no myth, or rather no falsehood; the Poles fought well in their lost cause and in the end all they received was honor. The second is false. For cavalry, with it's limitations rightly understood was a very useful tool. What it could not do in a modern battlefield is as important as what it could do. It could not be "heavy cavalry" any more. That is it could not be concentrated at a weak point like a wedge jammed into a wall to be hammered home after the infantry crowbar had pried it open. That role was exclusively the tanks. It could not monopolize the "light cavalry" role of scouting, pursuit, and "exploitation"(roughly, marauding and terrorizing rear-echeloners)as there were now aircraft and armored cars. However the horse had a niche of it's own in the "light" role. It can go over broken terrain that machines can't reach. It can(to some degree) live on grass*. And it is often easier to buy or steal fodder then to do so with fuel. This made the horse important in wild places like the wastes of Russia.
The author gives tales of the horse as it fought round the world. There are such various interesting tales. But most of the book is given over to photos that give a remarkable show of the cavalryman's life.
Perhaps it is appropriate that the book was written by a Pole, a nation proud of it's "horseiness". And a nation that is the home of lost causes. For a Polish cavalryman fought for two lost causes at once-that of Poland, and that of the horse. Neither succeeded but both had a good run for it. So read this book which is a great tribute to, to paraphrase the German analyst in the movie Patton: "The Mounted Warrior, A Magnificient Anachronism."



*European horses, unlike central-asian ones are too big from artificial breeding to live on grass alone.

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