Horse Soldier! Horse Soldier!

For my master’s, the subject matter has changed from historigraphy to more historical study, which is great. The title for this 11 week course has been The Western Way of War, which examines the nature to which the west (Europe) conducts conflicts. Non-west generally refers to everything not in Europe – with the exception of areas that have been completely colonized by European powers – Asia, the Middle East, Africa, etc. It’s a facinating subject.

Something that I came across last year was a song by Corb Lund and the Hurtin’ Albertans, the title track from their latest album, Horse Soldier! Horse Soldier. While I was listening to my iPod yesterday, this came up, and I realized that it was a pretty good representation of the changes in warfare, but also some of the elements of Western vs. Non-Western conflict.

The following are some excerpts from the lyrics:

I’s with Custer and the 7th in ‘76 or ‘77
Scalped at Little Big Horn by the Sioux
And the pain and desperation of a once proud warrior nation
This I know ‘cause I was riding with them too

This line concerns the use of the US cavalry during the plains wars that followed the American Civil War. This time period was an interesting time in military history, because it’s an interesting clash between technologically superior Western forces, against a numerically and technologically inferior non-western force. What makes this interesting is how the Native Americans adapted numerous Western innovations, such as the horse and gunpowder technology, while not becoming a western force.
What this also brings up is the question to how much crossover can there be between styles of warfare, and to what extent can a foreign power become a Western one? Does borrowing western technology make the Native Americans western? I believe the general consensus is no – and I don’t think that it does. The Native Americans never adopted disciplined, rank and file forces, an infrastructure that supported offensive weapons creation or anything along those lines.
I drank mare’s blood on the run when I rode with the Great Khan
On the frozen Mongol steppe when at his height
I’s a White Guard, I’s a White Guard, I’s the Tsar’s own palace horse guard
When Nicholas was martyred in the night

Here, we have a look at the use of the Horse by the Mongols, then a little about the Russians. The Mongols are an interesting group of people, because they were numerically inferior to all those that they conquered, but ruled that part of the world anyway. One reason was because of their use of mounted forces, combined with mounted archers. Their dependence on cavalry is one reason why they didn’t operate very effectively in Europe – there was a distinct lack of grazing land that was otherwise available to them in Asia.

I knew Salah al-Din and rode his swift Arabians
Harassing doomed crusaders on their heavy drafts
And yet I rode the Percheron against the circling Musselman
And once again against myself was cast

One of my lessons focused on the clash between the Middle East and the West during the crusades, where mounted forces proved to be crucial. Where European forces were quick to adopt technology (this is one of the big aspects of the WWoW), Muslim forces were not, mainly because of the nature to which they relied on Cav forces – as a result, their tactics were very quick, utilizing ambushes and strikes. Given how slowly technology evolved, especially with items such as artillery, it wasn’t feasible for them to really utilize those.

On hire from Swiss or Sweden, be me Christian, be me heathen
The devil to the sabre I shall put
With a crack flanking maneuver, I’m an uhlan alles uber
Striking terror into regiment of foot

This refers to the military revolution, or just before. The use of Cavalry was a dominant thing in the battlefield during the middle ages up through to the point where gunpowder sparked a major revolution in how wars were fought – not so much with the actual use of firearms, but the discipline and infrastructure, not to mention the role to which governments supported war, helped bring combat to a much more modern style. This included the use of rank and file infantry, where the use of Cavalry suddenly became diminished, because large groups of massed soldiers proved to be a very effective means of countering this.

I knew my days were numbered when o’er the trenches lumbered
More modern machinations de la guerre
No match for rapid fire or the steel birds of the sky
With a final rear guard action I retreat
No match for tangled wire or the armoured engines whine
Reluctant I retire and take my leave

Today I ride with special forces on those wily Afghan horses
Dostum’s Northern Alliance give their thanks
No matter defeat or victory, in battle it occurs to me
That we may see a swelling in our ranks

These last two sections refer to the essential replacement of Cavalry forces, except in small circumstances, such as US special forces using them in Afghanistan. Starting with the American Civil War, one can really trace the growth of modern warfare through to the two world wars, where items such as Machine guns and armored vehicles, took control, and have since pushed the use of horses off from their traditional uses. The last parts of the song reference Polish lancers charging German tanks, as is what happened in the Second World War, and shows the degree to which technology can be used and replaces obsolete aspects of combat in the Western Way of War.

Overall, the song is an interesting look at the ways in which horses have been used in battle over the years, from very early on to within a couple of years, and speaks to the nostalgic image of the mounted soldiers.

Watch/Listen to the song here:

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