A 500-Mile March By French Cavalrymen Helped Bring an End to the First World War

Photo Credit: Buyenlarge / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Buyenlarge / Getty Images

Images of the First World War often capture the difficulties of trench warfare, with soldiers on all sides of the conflict engaging in a war of attrition, attacking when they were able to. Other images often exemplify the experiences of cavalrymen who are dressed in military uniform while riding in formation.

Although World War I was increasingly fought with new technology that cavalries just couldn’t keep up with, they still played an important role. One instance that demonstrates this best was when a French unit pushed for a Bulgarian surrender while helping to solidify the signing of an armistice.

Cavalry in the First World War

Despite the difficulties cavalry faced against weapons, they were used by both the Triple Entente and Central Powers throughout the First World War. Particularly on the Western Front, many served as infantrymen, as that made them more useful; their use on horseback had been diminished due to the static nature of trench warfare.

They were also useful for reconnaissance, prisoner duties and mounted police work on the Western Front.

Canadian cavalrymen riding horses down a muddy hill
Canadian cavalrymen undergoing training at Shorncliffe Army Camp, October 1915. (Photo Credit: Topical Press Agency / Getty Images)

Cavalry were significantly more useful during operations in the Middle East, due to the need for highly mobile units. However, they acted more as mounted infantry, as opposed to traditional cavalry.

They were initially heavily relied on out on the Eastern Front for the same reasons, but, later in the war, many were overhauled out of a need for more infantry and horses to pull supplies and weapons. They were used for mounted combat, however, at certain points of the Balkans Campaign, which saw conflict in Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Greece and Bulgaria.

Gen. Louis Franchet d’Espèrey

One of the men to oversee the French cavalry was experienced Gen. Louis Franchet d’Espèrey, who served in a field command position throughout the First World War. He was known for being extremely energetic and intimidating, earning himself the nickname “Desperate Frankie.” He initially served on the Western Front, before commanding the Entente forces on the Eastern Front.

Louis Francois d'Esperey holding a map while sitting at a desk
Gen. Louis François d’Espèrey, commander of the large Allied Army based at Salonika, conducted the successful Macedonian Campaign. (Photo Credit: Universal History Archive / UIG / Getty images)

The fighting during the Salonika Campaign was where he had the most military success. As soon as he arrived, he implemented a strategy organized by Gen. Adolphe Guillaumat, who’d held the position before him. Known as the Vardar Offensive, the plan consisted of a number of phases to be carried out by a combined Serbian, French and Greek force against the Bulgarians in the region.

Launching the Vardar Offensive

The Vardar Offensive was launched on September 15, 1918. The first phase involved an attack on the Bulgarian forces at Dobro Pole, while the second included attacking the Bulgarian First Army between the Vardar River and Doiran Lake.

Men leading mules down a steep flight of stairs
Allied forces landing at the Saloinka Front during the First World War. (Photo Credit: Paul Thompson / FPG / Archive Photos / Getty Images)

Lastly, d’Espèrey was tasked with marching troops through Demir Hisar, Rupel, Petrici, Blaguša, Gradec, Štip and Belessa, before taking the city of Skopje. He also planned to have troops stationed at Kastania and Tetovo to ensure the Bulgarians wouldn’t be able to flank his forces.

The plan was exceptionally effective, as the offensive only lasted until September 29, 1918.

The 500-mile cavalry charge

One of the reasons for the quick ending to the Vardar Offensive was d’Espèrey’s deployment of the French cavalry. While most of the forces were tasked with fighting along the Bulgarian line, he directly sent 3,000 cavalry troops 500 miles to Skopje. As with the others, the cavalrymen traveled through the Vardar Valley to Skopje, which was vital to the Central Powers’ communication in the Balkans.

Boats parked side-by-side to create a bridge for horses to cross
Pontoon boat bridge transporting cavalrymen over a Serbian river, 1918. (Photo Credit: Buyenlarge / Getty Images)

Despite the cavalrymen only having personal weapons and lances, they were ordered by Gen. François Jouinot-Gambetta to attack the city, which was held by 50,000 Bulgarian soldiers with machine guns and rifles. Against the odds, the French emerged victorious; this cavalry charge played a vital role in getting the Bulgarian government to sign an armistice.

Bulgarian surrender and the end of World War I

After word reached other Bulgarian forces that Skopje had fallen, they assumed it was because there were large numbers of French forces behind their lines, prompting them to surrender without a fight. Although the German troops were ordered to retake Skopje, they knew they were unlikely to be successful without the Bulgarians on their side.

Serbian military recruits standing together with firearms
Serbian military recruits during the Balkans Campaign of World War I. (Photo Credit: Paul Thompson / FPG / Archive Photos / Getty Images)

More from us: How Canadian Soldiers Exploited German Troops During World War I

Instead of trying to take back the city, the Germans began a retreat, which cut them off from the Ottomans. It wasn’t long before the Entente led troops toward Constantinople, prompting the Ottomans to ask for an armistice, as well. The remainder of the Central Powers followed suit shortly after, bringing an end to the First World War on November 11, 1918.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.