Cavalry Combat and the
Sword: Sword Design, Provision, and Use in the British Cavalry of the
British Cavalry Swords in Use
By Martin Read
The use to which the British cavalry swords were put is best illustrated
by quoting the comments of those who wielded them and other eyewitnesses.
The following passages refer to the 1796 pattern light cavalry sword.
The first shows a rather unorthodox use of swordsmanship, though the
effectiveness of the sword in cutting is well illustrated. The third
and fourth quotes describe vertical cuts to the head delivered to great
effect. These were not cuts prescribed in the regulations, which illustrates
that although the regulations formed a framework for the cavalry’s swordfighting
they were not slavishly adhered to in the heat of combat. Indeed this
was in accord with Le Marchant’s intentions, personal initiative being
a key element in his combat philosophy. However, the final quote is
a textbook example that could have been taken directly from the Rules
and Regulations. The thrust of a French trooper is parried and once
inside his opponent’s guard the British cavalryman makes a cut to his
enemy’s face resulting in a severe and disabling wound (evidently cut
5 or 6).
Lieutenant William Hay, foraging during the Peninsular
"In an instant we were amongst the unfortunate sheep, and one
fellow’s head off his body from the powerful blow of my friend’s sharp
sword. Just at this moment a tremendous hollering commenced in our
rear, there were the shepherds coming to the rescue. No time was
to be lost! The Duke of Wellington’s orders were most strict on the
subject of anything bordering on plundering the inhabitants."
William Tomkinson, 16th Light Dragoons,
"The prisoners were dreadfully cut, and some will not recover.
A French dragoon had his head nearer cut off than I ever saw before;
it was by a sabre cut at the back of the neck.
An officer of the 13th Light Dragoons,
Campo Mayor 1811.
"The French colonel (Chamorin, 26th Dragoons)…..was
killed by a corporal (Logan) of the 13th; this corporal
had killed one of his men, and he was so enraged, that he sallied
out himself and attacked the corporal – the corporal was well mounted
and a good swordsman, as was also the colonel – both defended for
some time, the corporal cut him twice in the face, his helmet came
off at the second, when the corporal slew him by a cut which nearly
cleft his skull asunder, it cut in as deep as the nose through the
Private George Farmer 11th Light Dragoons,
involved in a skirmish on the Guadiana River 1811.
"Just then a French officer stooping over the body of one of
his countrymen, who dropped the instant on his horse’s neck, delivered
a thrust at poor Harry Wilson’s body; and delivered it effectually.
I firmly believe that Wilson died on the instant yet, though he felt
the sword in its progress, he, with characteristic self-command, kept
his eye on the enemy in his front; and, raising himself in his stirrups,
let fall upon the Frenchman’s head such a blow, that brass and skull
parted before it, and the man’s head was cloven asunder to the chin.
It was the most tremendous blow I ever beheld struck; and both he
who gave, and his opponent who received it, dropped dead together.
The brass helmet was afterwards examined by order of a French officer,
who, as well as myself, was astonished at the exploit; and the cut
was found to be as clean as if the sword had gone through a turnip,
not so much as a dint being left on either side of it."
"The wounds inflicted in this trifling affair were all very
ghastly. Being inflicted entirely by the sword, and falling, at least
among the French, chiefly upon the head and face, the appearance presented
by these mangled wretches was hideous; neither were we, though in
every instance pierced through, one whit more presentable. It is
worthy of remark, that the French cavalry, in nine cases out of ten
make use of the point, whereas we strike with the edge, which is,
in my humble opinion, far more effective. But, however this may be,
of one fact I am quite sure, that as far as appearances can be said
to operate in rendering men timid, or the reverse, the wounded among
the French were much more revolting than the wounded among ourselves.
It is but candid to add, that the proportion of severely wounded was
pretty equal on both sides."
Lieutenant George Woodberry 18th Hussars,
Morales de Toro 1813.
"I had a cut at one man myself, who made point at me, but which
I parried. I spoil’d his beauty, if I did not take his life for I
gave him a most severe cut across the eyes and cheek and must have
cut them out. However, in the scene of confusion, when the enemy
fired their first shot (French artillery), he and many other
prisoners made their escape."
The next two quotes describe the use of the
1796 pattern heavy cavalry sword. The second of these excerpts shows
the manner in which this sword, undoubtedly with a modified point, could
perform against the lauded Klingenthal thrusting swords of the French
cuirassiers. Both of the British cavalrymen concerned appear to have
been very practised and effective swordsmen. Probably a good pointer
to the excellence of the swordsmanship training they had received.
Sergeant Charles Ewart, 2nd Dragoons (Scots
Greys), Waterloo 1815.
"It was in the charge I took the eagle off the enemy; he and
I had a hard contest for it; he made a thrust at my groin I parried
it off and cut him down through the head. After this a lancer came
at me; I threw the lance off my right side, and cut him through the
chin upwards through the teeth. Next, a foot soldier fired at me,
then charged me with his bayonet, which I also had the good luck to
parry, and I cut him down through the head; thus ended the contest."
William Morris, 73rd Foot, observing combat
between the Life Guards and French cuirassiers, Waterloo 1815.
"I noticed one of the Guards, who was attacked by two cuirassiers
at the same time; he bravely maintained the unequal combat for a minute
or two, then he disposed of one of them by a deadly thrust to the
throat. His combat with the other one lasted about five minutes,
when the Guardsman struck his opponent a slashing backhanded stroke,
and sent his helmet some distance with his head still in it. The
horse galloped away, the headless rider sitting erect in the saddle,
the blood spurting out of the arteries like so many fountains."
Finally, the following is the view of an enemy cavalry officer on the
use of British cavalry swords. He exaggerates the width of blade of
the British swords, though not their cutting effect.
Captain Charles Parquin, Chasseurs-à-Cheval
of the Imperial Guard.
"We always thrust with the point of our sabres, whereas they
always cut with their blade which was three inches wide. Consequently,
out of every twenty blows aimed by them, nineteen missed. If, however,
the edge of the blade found its mark only once, it was a terrible
blow, and it was not unusual to see an arm cut clean from the body."
 Hay, Captain William. Reminiscences under Wellington (Ed. Mrs
SCI Wood, 1901).
 Farmer, George. The Light Dragoon (Ed. George Gleig,, London,
 Morris, Sergeant Thomas.
Recollections of Military Service in 1813, 1814, and 1815
Placed on the Napoleon Series: June 2003