Lancers

A lancer (uhlan) was a cavalry soldier who fought with a lance.

Although cavalry had used lances for thousands of years, lancers in the modern European sense originated in Poland in the 18th century. Polish lancers serving with the French Army proved highly effective during the Napoleonic Wars, and by the end of the war all major European states had established lancer regiments of their own.

At Waterloo, French lances were "nearly nine feet long, weighed seven pounds, and had a steel point on a wooden staff," according to historian Alessandro Barbero. He adds that they were "terrifyingly efficient." Commander of the French 1st Corps, 4th Division General Durutte, who saw the battle from the high ground in front of Papelotte, would write later, "I had never before realized the great superiority of the lance over the sword."

Although the lance had its greatest impact in the charge, lancers were vulnerable against other cavalry, as the lance proved a clumsy and ineffective weapon (compared to the sabre) at close quarters. By the late 19th century, many cavalry regiments comprised troopers with lances (as well as sabres or other secondary weapons) in the front rank and men with sabres in the second, the lances for the initial shock and sabres for the mêlée.

Lancers typically wore a double-breasted jacket (kurta) with a coloured panel (plastron) at the front, a coloured sash, and a square-topped Polish cap (czapka). Their lances usually had small swallow-tailed flags (known as the lance pennon) just below the spearhead. The use of these pennons was originally intended to disconcert the horses of opposing cavalry in close combat but they eventually became a decorative parade item, normally removed or wrapped in a canvas cover on active service. With the improved range and accuracy of infantry rifles the high profile presented by lancers with their conspicuous weapons became a problem. The uhlans, as lancers are known in the Polish and German languages, of the Imperial German Army were trained to lower their lances when scouting on hill tops.

In 1914 lances were still being carried by regiments in the British, Indian, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Japanese, Turkish, Belgian and Russian armies, amongst others. Almost all German cavalry (hussars, dragoons and cuirassiers as well as uhlans) retained a steel lance as their primary weapon. The British lancer regiments lost this weapon for all but ceremonial use following the Boer War but a conservative backlash led to its reintroduction for active service from 1908 to 1928. The French army did not have lancer regiments as such but lances were carried by all dragoon and some light cavalry units.

Volunteer Representative Squadron of the City of Pozna— in the uniform of the 15th Uhlan Regiment of Pozna— from 1939, prior to the outbreak of war there had been fierce controversy as to whether lances or sabres were the most effective "white" weapons (that is edged weapons) for cavalry but neither proved to be a match for modern firearms. Lances continued to be carried throughout World War I but seldom saw use on the Western Front after initial clashes in France and Belgium in 1914. On the Eastern Front mounted cavalry still had a role throughout the war and lances had some limited use by the Russian, German and Austrian armies.

Some cavalry units today are still designated as Lancer regiments, even if they now go to war in armoured fighting vehicles. There are examples in the British ( the 9th/12th Royal Lancers and the Queen's Royal Lancers ), the Belgian, Portuguese, Italian and Australian Armies. The Italian Lancieri di Montebello occasionally parade honour guards and other dismounted ceremonial detachments in the regiment's nineteenth century blue uniforms, armed with the lances carried until 1920.

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By kind permission of Military Stories, Anecdotes and Facts (Myspace Groups)

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