Riders of the Apocalypse – Book Review
Professor David Dorondo provides a very good overview of the German cavalry forces from the Franco-Prussian War through WWII. While he delves into doctrine and theory, he manages to give a practical tie to the use of cavalry by the Germans. The book’s focus is WWII. however. With a short lead-in on the Franco-Prussian War to WWI, a short chapter on WWI and then an interwar transition to WWII, the bulk of the book is about the cavalry of the Third Reich. The endnotes and bibliography are excellent. The appendices are interesting but two of the four deal with the Waffen SS cavalry, only a small portion of the overall cavalry employed by the Germans from 1871 to 1945. Approximately 70 pages are appendices, notes, bibliographical references, and indices. This indicates the level of detail involved in the research.
The book is marred by some factual errors. Most of the errors are relatively insignificant—mainly dealing with the particulars of uniforms and equipment. The assertion in Chapter 1 that the “U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth temporarily instituted a military horsemanship program for Special Operations personnel” is untrue. Having served on the faculty for a number of years at the staff college and having been an active rider at Fort Leavenworth, I know for a fact that this is wrong. Surprisingly, absolutely no mention is given regarding the success of South American or South African horse cavalry units that have fought in counter-guerilla roles during the post–WWII period. Since the gist of the opening seems to be in regards to the relevance of horses in modern military operations, this is an important oversight.
The strengths of Dorondo’s work lie mainly in his excellent use of primary source materials—German records and documents. Sometimes the parroting of German terms for no particular reason is a little annoying, but there is no doubt that the materials are of direct consequence to the subject matter. There are some excellent discussions of the problems faced by the Germans in the organization and equipping of their forces between the wars and during WWII that have relevance to today’s U.S. Army and its modular organizations. Some of these issues included: lack of standardization in equipping; constant re-task organization’s second and third order effects on logistics; and the mobility differential of horse-mounted units working in close cooperation with dismounted infantry. These same, or similar problems, exist today with the U.S. Army and the modular unit employment.
As Dorondo aptly points-out, the German cavalry moniker has to be applied to the WWII Wehrmacht as well as the Waffen SS, which eventually fielded three divisions of cavalry. The 8th SS Cavalry Division was really the only substantive organization, formed early enough to participate in major operations during the war. However, both the 22nd and 37th Divisions were fielded in time to fight near the end of the war, they do not garner attention of the author. The 8th Cavalry Division (“Florian Geyer”) however, does get a relatively detailed assessment. Included are not just the conventional operational employments but those against partisans and guerillas in rear areas, a task well-suited to horse cavalry. Unfortunately, the “Florian Geyer” division is heavily tainted with war crimes due to its sometimes indiscriminate, “guilt-by-association” punishment of suspected civilian partisans and gross persecution and murder of Jews. These actions ultimately stained and marred the reputation of the division that otherwise fought well against the Soviets.
Overall, as a resource, this book does a reputable job adding to the body of military knowledge. I wish there were more maps and Imperial and Reichswehr period photos (none of which are shown). The gratuitous remark in the conclusion that attempts to tie Confederate cavalry to Nazi cavalry is un-necessary, un-intellectual, and biased. It is seriously beneath the dignity and credibility of a historical piece of literature. I rate this book as a good addendum to my military library. It complements R.L. DiNardo’s outstanding work, Mechanized Juggernaut or Military Anachronism? – Horses and the German Army of World War II (1991) and should be read alongside it.
LtCol (ret) Edwin L. Kennedy, Jr. is a life member of the U.S. Horse Cavalry Association, former Stable Officer of the Fort Benning Hunt, and former member of the Fort Leavenworth Fox Hunt. He taught horsemanship and horsemastership at Texas A&M University, the only major college level ROTC to have a ceremonial cavalry unit.