From Horses to Horsepower Cover

From Horses to Horsepower

The Mechanization and Demise of the U.S. Cavalry, 1916–1950

Alexander Bielakowski

Fonthill Media, Stroud, United Kingdom, 2019, 208 pages

Book Review published on: February 19, 2021

As the U.S. Army entered the twentieth century, an ominous development loomed on the horizon. No, it was not Japanese militarism, nor German imperialism, or even bolshevism … it was the gasoline engine.

From Horses to Horsepower: The Mechanization and Demise of the U.S. Cavalry looks at the way motorized vehicles gave the U.S. Army pause when automobiles, trucks, and even primitive airplanes participated in the punitive expedition against Pancho Villa in Mexico. While all the machines had their faults, they also showed promise. The real shock came in Europe when the American expeditionary force joined the Allies on the Western Front and discovered that while horse cavalry was not needed there, the trucks, automobiles, and airplanes only briefly used by the U.S. Army in Mexico were an integral part of industrialized warfare.

Americans also became acquainted for the first time with tanks. Whether they were the huge British models or the small but more nimble French machines, the tank could go where horse cavalry could not: into the face of machine gun fire and through devastated landscapes.

Author Alexander Bielakowski examines the debate between the proponents of traditional horse cavalry and those who felt that cavalry meant maneuver; whether it was on horseback or in trucks or in tanks, the key was to move swiftly and strike the enemy hard. With a hundred years of hindsight it can be seen that cavalry has always been based on speed and shock, but following World War I it was not that obvious. The machines used on the Western Front were still relatively primitive. Tanks in particular were susceptible to mechanical breakdowns that left high percentages of unit machines unavailable for operations. They did little to inspire confidence in their ability to travel for hundreds of miles to deliver decisive blows.

Horse cavalry, on the other hand, was proven on the battlefields of the Civil War, with many devastating raids launched by both sides to strike important targets behind enemy lines. More importantly, the senior officers of the 1920s had grown up with horses and many had served in the cavalry units of Fort Riley, Fort Bliss, and many smaller posts. They were wedded to the traditions and the history of cavalry.

The sparse budgets of the 1920s and 1930s probably did more to keep the cavalry horse-based even as improvements in automotive technology first made armored cars more practical, and then provided tank engines with greater speed and reliability than anything seen in World War I. Military theorists in Europe were looking at massing tanks to move to critical points and deliver devastating blows. This concept became known as “armor.” In the United States military, theorists were suggesting cavalry was still needed in terrain and weather where motor vehicles would be bogged down; tanks would require cavalry to protect their flanks from infantry attacks.

Interestingly, George S. Patton is often seen as the “father” of armored warfare in the United States, but he was in fact a man with one foot in both the cavalry and the armored camps. He was a cavalryman in Mexico who used an automobile to ride into combat. He commanded an American Expeditionary Forces tank brigade in World War I but walked the route amongst his tanks. He led early attempts to evaluate armored vehicles after the war but took command of a cavalry regiment when he had a chance. When the U.S. Army was preparing for World War II, he had his choice between a cavalry division and (maybe) an armored division. He chose armor.

Cavalry could have simply replaced its horses with tanks but tradition died hard. Bielakowski lavishly illustrates From Horses to Horsepower with photos from 1900 to the late 1940s showing the cavalrymen of the U.S. Army drilling, participating in equestrian competitions, caring for horses, and practicing with sabers. It is a subtle commentary on the esprit enjoyed in the U.S. Army’s sable arm even as it had outlived its usefulness.

Book Review written by: James D. Crabtree, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas