Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

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Cavalry Combat and the Sword: Sword Design, Provision, and Use in the British Cavalry of the Napoleonic Era. 

John Le Marchant and the Arming of the British Cavalry

By Martin Read

Prior to 1788 British cavalry regiments were armed at the whim of their commanding officers.  Though broad similarities existed in the type of sword used within the heavy cavalry as a whole, and again within the light cavalry, much variation in length of blade and other characteristics were found.  A Board of General Officers convened in 1788 under General Henry Seymour Conway, after examining specimens of the swords presently in use, produced two patterns of sword one for the heavy the other for the light regiments.   These patterns were far from specific and the method of testing blades was far from rigorous.  However, this process enabled the British cavalry to enter the Revolutionary War with a certain uniformity of cavalry sword provision.  The efficiency of these swords was tested in the Low Countries campaigns conducted under the command of the Duke of York.  Both forms of sword, though particularly the heavy cavalry specimen, were found to be seriously wanting, especially when compared to the swords of the allied Austrian cavalry.  The swords were too long in the blade, 38 inches for the straight heavy cavalry sword and 36 for the curved light cavalry sword, unwieldy, unbalanced and liable to turn in the hand or break when in contact with an enemy sword.  Indeed so unwieldy was the heavy cavalry pattern that a very unhealthy incidence of self inflicted wounds was the consequence of its use. 

A witness to these shortcomings in sword provision was a cavalry officer of Guernsey origins serving in the 2nd Dragoon Guards, John Gaspard Le Marchant.  A talented and intelligent soldier who, though only a captain at the time of the campaign, was to have a profound influence on the future effectiveness of British cavalry and indeed on the army as a whole.  It is necessary to explain how a relatively junior officer, he was promoted to major in 1795, was able to have such an impact.  His ability to influence the workings of the army was based squarely on patronage, a powerful feature of the workings of the contemporary British army.  Although often vilified for promoting a number of ineffective men to positions of power and influence, it was also instrumental in the accelerated rise of such luminaries as the Duke of Wellington.  For Le Marchant patronage was to come from the very top.  In 1789 he was serving as a lieutenant in the 6th Dragoons when they were on escort duty to George III.  At this time the ambitious, personable and thoughtful young officer came to the notice of his king and a friendly relationship ensued.   Another well placed patron of this promising officer, was the prominent politician and government minister Sir George Yonge.[9]

During the campaigns in the Low Countries Le Marchant, in addition to making a critical assessment of the British cavalry’s failings, took careful note of the equipment, of which he drew many sketches, and training of the allied Austrian cavalry.  His observations of the decidedly superior, at least in terms of equipment and training, Austrian cavalry inspired in him a desire to make an effort to materially improve his own service.  On his return to Britain he was given a superb opportunity to put his ideas for the improvement of the cavalry into effect.  Now a major in the 16th Light Dragoons he was again on royal escort duty, and therefore had considerable access to King George.  No doubt the king was impressed with Le Marchant’s ideas and the meticulous observations he had made on campaign, for he agreed to lend him his not inconsiderable support.

Le Marchant seems to have developed distinct opinions as to what qualities a practical and efficient cavalry sword should possess.  He regarded the type of the sword in the hand of a trooper to be of only marginal importance during a formal battlefield charge.  Of far greater importance, he considered, were factors such as the quality of the cavalry’s mounts, and the morale, discipline and horsemanship of the troopers.  In this he was not alone, General von Seydlitz, Frederick the Great’s superb leader and trainer of cavalry, was of identical opinion.[10]  Once the lowly position of sword type within the hierarchy of factors leading to a successful charge is admitted it then becomes logical to provide cavalry with swords optimised for use in the melee, that is well-curved sabres.   In designing a new sword for the cavalry Le Marchant did not work in a vacuum, influences from Eastern Europe and more importantly from even further east can be clearly discerned.  It is probable that the broad bladed well-curved hussar sabres of the Austrian army had some general influence, though the form of curve in the new British sword was distinctly different.  Unlike the Austrian examples (1768 pattern) in which blade curvature is essentially equal from hilt to tip, the British sword had only a slight curvature in the half of the blade nearest the hilt, while the distal half displayed a distinctly increased curve.  This form of curvature is found on many Indian sabres of the tulwar type, as well as some other eastern swords.   The other unusual feature of the new sword, the widening of the blade near to the tip, is identical in effect (though differing in shape) to the expanded yelman found on the blades of such eastern slashing swords as the Ottoman kiliç.  Indeed, Le Marchant is recorded as referring to the “blades of the Turks, Mamalukes, Moors and Hungarians…[as] preferable to any other”.  A retrospective support for the influence of Indian sabres can be seen in the popularity of the British sword with Indian mounted troops throughout the Nineteenth Century.[11]  The native Indian horsemen often had British sabres re-hilted and scabbarded in the local style, in which form they appear to have used them to devastating effect.[12]

Whatever the design inspiration, the prototype sword was produced as the result of a collaboration with a Birmingham sword cutler named Henry Osborn.   Great pains were taken to produce a lighter, handier sword than the previous pattern, with the hilt in particular stripped of all superfluous weight.  In June of 1796 a Board of General Officers approved the adoption of this sword, with a slightly lengthened blade (increased from 31.5in to between 32.5 and 33in,) as the 1796 Pattern light cavalry sword.  Le Marchant was to be disappointed in one respect, his sword was not to be uniformally adopted by all the British cavalry, the heavy cavalry was to be issued with a different sword.  The generals seem to have balked at giving the heavies a curved sabre and insisted on a straight sword.  The probable influence of Le Marchant can, however, be detected in the design of sword adopted, which was a direct copy of the Austrian 1769-75 heavy cavalry pattern.[13]  Though straight bladed, it was a dedicated cutting sword having a heavy 35-inch blade and a disc guard.  This was the famed and often derided 1796 Pattern heavy cavalry sword.   This sword, with its blunt hatchet point, was something of an anachronism.  Being straight bladed it should have been given a tip which would at least allow the thrust to be made, even if the thrust was not the recommended form of attack.  Later modifications were carried out, in a less than uniform way, on this sword which made the tip more acute and therefore more suited to the thrust.[14] 

The two patterns of sword were manufactured by a number of cutlers, some even warranting their blades “Never to Fail”, while this may be exaggeration the quality of blades was, in general, greatly improved over those of the 1788 swords.  This was largely due to the introduction of a far more rigorous regime of testing and inspection before swords were accepted. 

Swords of the two patterns saw extensive use by foreign countries, either through direct exportation of swords from Britain or by the adoption of identical models for local manufacture, or a combination of both; these countries included Portugal, Spain, Prussia, Sweden and the USA.

 

 

Notes:

[9] Sir George Yonge (1731-1812) a lord of the Admiralty 1766-1770, Secretary at War 1782-1794 and Master of the Mint 1794-1799.

[10] Von Seydlitz stated that in the charge the trooper  “should bear in mind the unshakeable resolution to ride the enemy down with his horse’s breast.”

[11] The 1796 light cavalry sword had a very long history of use in India.  Though officially superseded by a new pattern of sword in 1821, photographs show it still in use, even by European troopers, during the Indian Mutiny of 1857-58.

[12] Nolan, Louis. Cavalry: its History and Tactics (Bosworth 1853, Pallas Armata facsimile reprint 1995).  The author, a British cavalry officer, was killed in the Charge of the Light Brigade (Crimean War).  In his work he describes the high incidence of horrendous wounds (decapitations and severed limbs) caused by refurbished British P 1796 light cavalry swords when wielded by troopers of the army of the Nizam of Hyderabad (serving as British allies).  

[13] The exact sequence of events in the adoption of the 1796 swords is difficult to ascertain.  There is, however, a considerable amount of evidence that Le Marchant intended that his curved sabre should be adopted by the British cavalry as a whole.  Being disappointed in this desire it is therefore reasonable to suppose that, considering his prior experience of the sword, he probably put forward the Austrian heavy cavalry sword as an alternative model. From Le Marchant’s point of view it was a good compromise, whilst being straight bladed it was nevertheless a dedicated cutting sword.  Had the Board decided on a longer, narrower bladed weapon in the French tradition of thrusting swords then the “Rules and Regulations” would have been scarcely applicable to the heavy cavalry.

[14] The P 1796 heavy cavalry sword had its hatchet tip ground down to produce a more acute point in a variety of ways.  It has been suggested that this was done at the regimental level.  However, existing swords and a near contemporary painting by Denis Dighton (in the collection of HM The Queen), of the capture of a French eagle by the Scots Greys at Waterloo, where troopers bear both spear-pointed and hatchet-pointed swords, give the distinct impression that such modifications may have been made at the level of the troop or even the individual soldier.

 

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: June 2003

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