- Historic Sites
The Seventeenth Largest Army
The old Regular Army, part fairy tale and part dirty joke, was generally either ignored or disdained. But its people went about their work with a dogged humdrum gallantry—and when the storm broke, they helped save the world.
December 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 8
The cavalry commanded by Major Patton came clattering down Pennsylvania Avenue with sabers drawn, followed by the infantry with fixed bayonets and tear gas and a few tiny tanks. A number of the veterans were swatted with swords held flat, a few pricked with bayonets, some were tear-gassed, and the Bonus Army was gone. No shots were fired by the Army. The matter put MacArthur in poor odor with the public, but when Hoover left and Roosevelt came in, he remained as Army head. As such he battled against Roosevelt’s announced intention to dehydrate the Army even more than it was by cutting the annual appropriation to below $200 million. What is that, about a fifth of the cost of one of today’s Stealth bombers? The two men had it out in the White House.
After the United States had lost the next war, MacArthur remembered himself telling Roosevelt, “and [when] an American boy, lying in the mud with an enemy bayonet through his belly and an enemy foot on his dying throat, spat out his last curse, I wanted the name not to be MacArthur, but Roosevelt!”
“You must not talk that way to the President!” Roosevelt roared, and MacArthur apologized and offered his resignation, which Roosevelt refused to accept. They’d work something out, the President said, and MacArthur left him, got partway down the White House steps, and threw up.
What kept them in the Army those long and dismal dead-end years?
The great American military issue of the twenties and thirties was the horse. Since war began, the horse had been the indispensable adjunct of the commander. An officer did not walk. He rode. There was the “certain indefinable social prestige” that the man on horseback had always had over the man on foot, wrote the chief of cavalry Maj. Gen. John Herr. A charger marked the officer as the cavalier, hidalgo, gentleman—the leader. Most of the prominent soldiers of the World War had been cavalry officers. But what had the horses done in the mud and barbed wire and machine gun- and howitzer-swept reaches of the Western Front? Machine tenders could in a flash wipe out a squadron of mounted knights at arms. That was the problem. The statue in the park or plaza showed Marlborough on a horse, Eugéne of Savoy, or Stuart or Sheridan, but a clanking tank could be heard in the distance.
The Cavalry Journal set its face against engines, gasoline, garagemen. In issue after issue, for more than twenty years, the magazine presented its case: Unlike horses, tanks and armored cars have noisy motors and must use lights at night, and so violate the scouting necessity to remain unobserved while observing. No engine could utilize grass for fuel. Boulders or swamps entrap tanks or artillery trucks and leave their crews as occupants of iron tombs, hoping someone on horse-back or foot will come along and rescue them. Vehicles cannot swim. Peeking through slits, tankers aimlessly spit out bullets while pitching about, with directed fire on the move an impossibility. Motor vehicles knock down trees, and so their path can be seen from the air, while horses slip through forests. There are no development or experimental expenditures for horses.
The entire Western Front experience, The Cavalry Journal said, had to be viewed as a singular and particularized event unlikely to be repeated, one that would never have occurred if the Germans had understood the proper use of the cavalry that could have won the Battle of the Marne and taken Paris in 1914. Perhaps the entire agitation against old dobbin was a scheme of the automobile companies.
Asked by appropriations-committee congressmen if they intended to lead charges against modern machine guns, the cavalry chieftains replied that they would not charge en masse while pointing out that it was difficult to stop a horse coming directly at you even with a machine gun, for its vital organs sat behind a foot of solid flesh. The great debate went on as the mechanized cavalry came into existence, slowly to join in uneasy partnership with the real cavalry. The Cavalry Journal stuck to its guns, joyously reprinting a facsimile of a 1938 Washington Post report on how Spanish Civil War Moroccan horsemen seized the heights of a mountain near Teruel, overwhelmed the fortifications, and left three thousand enemy dead on the slopes, and it was pointed out that at the Pine Camp, New York, maneuvers of 1935 a full 33.3 percent of the United States Army’s serviceable modern tanks, handmade prototypes, were put out of action without any simulated fire being directed at them: one broke down through mechanical failure, and the other immobilized itself on a tree stump. The magazine quoted what Field Marshal Lord Haig had said about horses, Pétain, Ludendorff, Napoleon, all the latest authorities and all the ancient masters of the field; illustrated how machine guns could be off packhorses and ready for action on tripods in less than a minute; reported on new endurance-ride records; and gave the results of cavalry-post gymkhanas featuring musical chairs, bareback riding, and the musical ride. Artillerymen and cavalrymen kept their flaring breeches and high boots in place of trousers and shoes, and so did the Air Corps officers regulations demanded spurs be removed before entering a dirigible—but the world seemed to be wandering away from The Cavalry Journal , and the day was coming when it would change its name to Armor .