Review of “The last great cavalry charge”

The last great cavalry charge: the battle of the silver helmets, Halen, 12 August 1914

by Joe Robinson, Francis Hendricks and Janet Robinson

published in 2015 by Fonthill Media
illustrated hardback 131 pages plus afterword, appendix, endnotes, bibliography and index.
cover price £18.99
ISBN 978 1 78155 183 7
reviewed by Chris Baker on 23 June 2015

Before the British Expeditionary Force had begun to set foot on the continent of Europe, the vast forces of Germany and France were already engaged in mighty and bloody struggle along the mutual border. To the north,the strong German right wing had begun its advance across neutral Belgium in an attempt to outflank the French. It did not expect much resistance from the small, under-funded and obsolescent Belgian Army. At the obscure village of Halen on 12 August 1914, the Belgians gave the invader a very bloody nose. Wave after wave of German cavalry charges were mown down, in a sharp action that became known as the ‘Battle of the Silver Helmets’.

The battle is easily summarised: after the fierce fight for Liege in the first few days of war, the German First and Second Armies began to fan out for the planned sweep across Belgium. Ahead of the sweating ranks of infantry and artillery that began their long march, the regiments of cavalry moved swiftly ahead for reconnaissance and to deal with enemy rearguards and skirmishers. On 12 August 1914 the German cavalry, crossing the River Gete by the one bridge east of Halen in the far east of Flanders, came under heavy Belgian artillery fire as it passed through the confines of the town. On debouching past the railway that lay to the west, it also began to come under small arms fire from Belgian dismounted cavalry and cyclists hidden in the sunken lanes and higher ground beyond. In an effort to break the enemy resistance the Germans mounted eight distinct cavalry charges, each of which was cut down with heavy loss. The first charge was along the cobbled road toward Zelk, where the Belgians fired from behind a crude barricade; the German troops found that their route of escape into fields on their left was blocked by simple wire fences. They were routed, as were each of the charges that tried to reach the Belgians on the higher ground. The romantic glitter of helmets, lances, sabres, pennants and colours of old was tarnished by a welter of blood as Uhlans, Hussars and Lancers alike fell under Belgian fire. The German cavalry was never the same after Halen and scarcely features as a mounted element in the remaining battles of the Western Front. The feared “Oo-lans” were suddenly understood to be not so fearsome after all, and the “Battle of the Silver Helmets” proved to be a small, isolated but important action in the early stage of the Great War. That it took place in an area where the civil population was still present and within sight of any in Halen who braved the shellfire makes it even more unusual.

“The last great cavalry charge” is the first English-language book to explore this battle, as far as I am aware, and is one of very few to cover the actions of the Belgian Army at all. As such it is welcome. Although the core of the book is a well-researched blow-by-blow account of the battle, it also provides us with some excellent background into the history, structure, tactics and objectives of the German cavalry. It may surprise readers that despite the mounted arm being believed to be a key part of the German army, only nine of its cavalry brigades were assigned the “strong right wing” whose job was to sweep through Belgium. Two of them took part in the fight at Halen and were effectively destroyed. It certainly surprised me that virtually no organised supply existed to keep the cavalry fed, watered and able to fight. To a great extent it was expected to live off the land, and even by Halen – just a few days into the war – the cavalry was already showing signs of weariness and shortages that would affect it at Halen. So much for vaunted German efficiency. The Belgians are not neglected, and we learn much of the pre-war strategic thinking and of their unexpectedly fine defensive performance in August 1914. Even in victory there are controversies, and the book covers two of them that relate to the battle: the unfortunate positioning of the poor cyclists, who entrenched between the main Belgian firing line and the enemy ahead, and lost heavily as a result; and the late (or not) arrival of reserves in the form of the 4th Mixed Brigade. There are good maps and a collection of photographs that greatly add to the reader’s understanding. My only other observation is that the narrative does not flow too well in parts and I found I was having to track back and re-read; but I have no wish to be churlish: this is a good book that deserves a much wider readership that I suspect it will get.

Although it is off the beaten British track that seems to stick rigidly to Ypres and the Somme, Halen is a most interesting little battlefield that repays a visit. There is a small museum, several memorials and cemeteries – although many of the German dead were moved to distant Langemarck and Vladslo several decades after the event. The pattern of lanes, hills and woods, and the central Ijzerwinning Farm, are unchanged and make navigating the battle straightforward. Having a copy of “The last great cavalry charge” to hand on the ground will help make for an intriguing battlefield trip. It could be argued that Halen was not the last great cavalry charge at all, but no matter. It was certainly the end of fond hopes that the mounted “arme blanche” of the Napoleonic era could fight on equal terms with modern technology and firepower, and is rightly a proud Belgian battle honour.

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