History Military History

The Better Cavalry (pt. 3)

This one’s for the forgotten

This is the last leg of my trilogy examining various types of cavalries used throughout history. In part 2, I talked you through some reasons why I think elephant cavalries were the absolute best. There are other reasons, of course, but there are also other alternatives. If cavalries are like milk, horses are like dairy; previously, we’ve looked at coconut milk (elephants) – the obviously superior milk.

In this post, I’ll introduce you to some unconventional, bizarre and sometimes just WTF alternatives. These are the soy, rice, oat, cashew and other “mylks” that honestly deserve more love than they receive currently.

Look at all these alternatives! Source: Frankly Fodder

But first, some housekeeping

In the last part, I kind of glossed over the facts of how truly useful horses have been since some drunken maniac in Central Asia decided to jump on a kicky, bitey, foul-tempered animal and somehow managed to survive. Horses have been used for every part of their bodies: from their hides and hair to milk, meat and even bones. That last item is still a popular product and has some anti-wrinkle properties (on a side note, I will never get people’s obsession with having wrinkle-free skin).

But actually, it’s even more than that. Horses have been the single most useful thing for people who want to kill other people and get away with it. Here’s a picture I took of rock carvings in Wadi Rum in Jordan from around 5000 years ago (or so I was told). You can clearly see the depictions of humans coexisting with (and hunting, presumably) what look like horses and oxen.

But here’s the thing: horses have only ever been useful as a great draught animal. And as meat. Their use as cavalry was mostly just experimental until Central Asians started attacking Rome and Romans were so enthralled by the superiority of these nomadic archers that they started adopting all of the Central Asian tactics blindly without any question.

Here’s how I see things: nomadic “barbarians” were simply better at wars than Rome because of their mobility. That’s it. And the role of cavalry was mostly incidental. Urbanised civilizations like Rome and pre-Yuan China always lost to militaristic barbarian invaders; and their loss was always because they were stuck in one place while the barbarians were nomadic, more loosely organised and therfore, more nimble. We see this time and time again throughout history: Gauls were a constant annoyance to Rome, but they had no horses. Vikings overran Britannia in no time and completely displaced the native culture. Was that because of their superior horses, or stirrups or some other stupid reason people always use? No. They were nimble, ruthless and constantly towards the horizon for their next quest. It was this same military zeal that created invaders such as Alexander, Genghis Khan, Timur and countless others. Instead of learning their strategies, we just picked up their tactics.

Imagine you were asked to define what makes a great leader. Let’s say you start to look for clues in history, and go through the biography of every world leader in the last century: Roosevelt, Gandhi, Mandela, MLK, Che, JFK etc. The right way to approach a solution is by outlining some broad, high-level traits they display. Trying to find common personality traits shows us that they’re almost all charismatic, gifted with words, persuasive, empathetic and so on. This is what we are supposed to do with history: take particulars and add a few levels of abstraction. What we’ve done instead is obsessed over details and decided that history is all about the tactics; the particular. Going back to that example, it’s like we went through the biographies and decided that great leaders smoke, drink, sleep and beat their wives. This kind of faux depth in historical analyses is what gives us completely nonsensical books like ‘7 Habits of Highly Successful People’. That book is stupid, shallow and is obviously a very cynical way to appeal to vulnerable people who don’t know any better.

So, to recap: horses were mostly useless as cavalry and their popularity is incidental. Rome was just a convenient target for nomadic Central Asian tribes, which used horses for everything just because they had horses in abundance and knew what to do with them.

The quest for the second best war animal

So, horses are pathetic. Noted. What other options did people have? The answer is: lots. And at some point or the other, nearly every continent on earth had viable alternatives to horses.

The most obvious: cows. Or, to be more precise, bulls and oxen. People have used cows as farm and draught animals for at least as long as horses. There are remains in Harappa and Egypt that show that at least 5000 years ago, people already knew how to tame oxen and use them to transport loads. They offer many advantages over horses: much more sturdy animals, easier to feed and house and can carry heavier loads. As anybody who’s faced up to a bull can tell you, they have a much greater willingness to stand their ground and fight. Disadvantages: slow, clumsy, kinda dumb, hard to train, easy to topple, not pleasant to ride.

If it’s good enough for Mongo, it’s good enough for me.

Overall grade: B-. More or less the same grade as mules and slightly better than donkeys. Way better than zebras though.

On a slight tangent here, we’ve seen from history that moose cavalry was a thing. Sweden and Russia both tried their hand at using moose in war, and Russia almost deployed them in WW2. You can see the allure here: moose are fast, strong and adept at getting through deep snow. The only trouble is, the cavalrymen soon found out that moose are just terrible for war. The biggest issue is that they’re almost comically frightened of gunfire. And even when trained to ignore it, they were unwilling to charge at humans, got all sorts of diseases and as soon as the rider got off, the moose just fled. So, if you lost your footing, that’s it. You’re walking home now.

Next up, pigs and boars. Massive boars are a staple of medieval fantasies: they’re scary, aggressive, almost freakishly indestructible and are definitely capable of carrying a grown man. And war pigs have actually been used in recorded history. Appropriately, they were used by Romans to scare off war elephants because they thought that elephants were scared by the sound of a pig’s squeal. I have no idea if that’s been scientifically shown, but I can see people riding giant boars to battle war elephants.

That’d be quite a sight.

In case you’re thinking “that’s not physically possible! There’s no way a boar can carry a full grown man and all that armour”, think again. There are wild boars in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region that regularly reach heights of over 5′ and weigh close to 250 kg. A few centuries ago, before rampant overhunting made boars smaller and smaller, there were probably giants the size of mules. And people ride mules. You’ve most likely watched this video already, but here’s a video of a bush pig running at a decent speed with a monkey on its back. That’s a pig running with a load of over 40% of its own body weight. So, forgive me for entertaining a notion that riding boars into battle was a thing at some point.

Wishful thinking aside, this never came to be. But, because of the difficulty of proving a negative, we have no proof of its non-existence either. So, my grade is a solid B, but no more. Still way better than ostriches, though.

A ‘war ostrich’ stretches the limits of what might be possible, but not as much the highly dubious idea of a ‘war rhinoceros’, an idea so stupid on so many levels that I absolutely would have liked to pick it apart at some point. Not anymore, though. It got some screen time in ‘Black Panther’, and that got people thinking. Inevitably, everybody realised that it was unrealistic. Even for an idea out of a superhero movie about a prosperous all-black civilization hidden in the mountains of Rwanda and ruled by a strong African leader whom all the white guys respect without any prejudice.

So, I’ll just refer you to this Kotaku article about the challenges of domesticating rhinos to see what I’m talking about here.

Cool concept though.

With all the consolation prizes given out, it is time now to talk about the real second-best cavalry: the humble camel. Specifically, the “hill camel”, a small but sturdy variant of the dromedary camel widespread across much of Africa and west-central Asia. They were common across the deserts of the middle east, parts of western India and northern africa. Beyond the Sahel, though, they were uncommon but not unknown. Through a predictable chain of events, some people decided to populate Australia deserts with camels. And now, even after years of merciless “culling”, Straya has half a million of them, just roaming around, eating cactus shawarma, destroying native plants and having fun making white people feel like shit for letting immigrants in.

The best breed for use as a mount is supposed to be the ‘pahari’ (or hill) breed, found in Afghanistan, Iraq and parts of Iran.

The best camel breeds in India were the small but strong Afghan or
Pahari dromedaries that were also fit for the cold and hilly conditions
of Central Asia. The Mughals were very well aware that good bukhti
dromedaries could be produced from interbreeding one-humped female dromedaries (arwanas) with two-humped male Bactrian camels (bughur).

Jos Gommans, in ‘Mughal Warfare’

A lot of African and Asian countries maintain camel corps. We saw a bunch of them in Jordan, but the camels looked mangy and unimpressive. Despite the obviously Muslim nature of the import, India maintains a small number of camels to patrol the western borders with Pakistan. And for some reason, the same Rajasthanis that reject all things Muslim have taken quite a liking to camels.

That’s some cool cameldung you’ve got there.

They’re actually, a surprisingly useful and versatile animal. For one thing, a camel can carry weights of over 200 kg, more than a horse or ox. Unlike horses, they’re gentle, eat whatever they can find, can go days without food or water, don’t bite and for the most part, get along with very well with humans. The best part: a camel with a human on its back can probably run at least as fast as a horse. Even without any loads, camels are only slower than horses.

Disgusting thumbnail, I know. I’m sorry.

Across the regions where they could be used, camels were the most versatile type of cavalry. Not least because they were larger than horses while having the same kind of mobility. They’re more sturdy, don’t have many natural predators so don’t really get spooked by anything, could be easily trained to ignore gunfire, had low operating costs, sang beautiful songs from the Arabian Nights, and were generally more chill companions to spend a month or two with while making your way across an unfamiliar land to sack a city.

When I put it like that, of course! It’s obvious, right? Yes. Solid A. Can’t give them an S because they’re kind of stupid animals, take forever to grow to a battle-ready size and are highly sensitive to changes in climate.

Camel Camel Camel!

So, to recap, elephants are the undisputed #1. Camels are great in some conditions, but just useless in others. Horses are good overall, but not great at anything. Here’s the full tier list a la TierZoo:

This took a while to make. So, if you’re going to use this image, credit me.

Armed with this knowledge, you are now legally required to convince everyone else around you. Let’s build a movement. No more horse worship! Only prostration at the elephant god’s feet.

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