Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor
The Horse Soldier 1776-1943: The United States Cavalryman: His Uniforms, Arms, Accoutrements, and Equipments. By Randy Steffen. 4 vols. Volume IV, World War I, the Peacetime Army, World War II, 1917-1943. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979. Illustrations. Index. 136 pages. $25.00.
Reviewed by Clair F. Runyan, Instructor of American and Military History at Grossmont College, El Cajon, California, retired lieutenant colonel, U.S. Marine Corps, and author of From the Delaware to the Mekong, (1979).
The title of this series is grossly misleading, for Steffen has not written about horses and soldiers; instead he has written about what soldiers carried, wore, and used. The subtitle is more accurate, explaining that the cavalryman’s uniforms, arms, accoutrements, and equipments are the subject of the book. Nevertheless, it can not be glossed over that unless one yearns to become as knowledgeable as a quartermaster in a non-existent cavalry department of the U.S. Army, and is willing to pay $25 for the privilege, there is little point in reading this volume.
The book consists of two chapters with the first covering the period 1917-1925, and the second the period 1926-1943. It is liberally illustrated by the author in the artistic style found in the old field manuals: clear and precise, but wooden. Although weapons and equipment are included, it is the uniforms that are covered in infinite detail. Whole sets of army regulations (AR’s) are quoted verbatim, so that we know, for example, the exact physical make-up of service stripes: “To be of olive-drab material, 2¼ inches in length, 5/16 inch in width, on a background of dark blue forming a border of ⅛ inch around the stripe….” The 1921 uniform coat, along with its service stripes and chevrons, is described in not less than 1000 words. Incredible as it may seem, there are whole pages devoted to such minutiae. It is bad enough for the cavalry, but for some reason known only to the author, he included more than two full pages on uniforms worn by aviation units.
The only part of the book not given over to the descriptions of inanimate objects is the epilogue, in which the author implies that the Army was wrong in doing away with horse cavalry in 1943, saying of this decision that it was one that “many believe to have been too hasty, as the war in both theaters of World War II seemed to indicate in the closing years.” He leaves it at that, omitting what operations in 1944-1945 needed cavalry units. As an old infantryman, this reviewer finds it inconceivable that after the debacle of World War I, anyone who professes to love horses would want to take these beautiful beasts into the face of modern machine guns, artillery, tanks and worse. For those unreconstructed cavalrymen who think otherwise, consider the statistics of what was probably the last full-scale cavalry charge in history. In November 1941, near Moscow, the 44th Mongolian Cavalry Division attacked a German infantry division. Within ten minutes 2,000 horses and their riders lay dead and wounded in the snow. There was not a single German casualty.
The value of this volume, if there is any, is as an extremely detailed and narrow reference work. The costume director for a movie or TV show featuring the cavalry might find it useful in creating authentic uniforms and equipment for the period 1917-1943, but for others, even those nostalgia buffs with a specialty in cavalry, I do not recommend it.