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. 

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 War.

"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."[18]

William Tomkinson, 16th Light Dragoons, Villagarcia/Llerena 1812.

"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.[19]

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 brain." [20]

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."[21]

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."[22]

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."[23]

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."[24]

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."[25]




[18] Hay, Captain William. Reminiscences under Wellington (Ed. Mrs SCI Wood, 1901).

[19] Tomkinson, James (Ed). The Diary of a Cavalry Officer in the Peninsular War and Waterloo Campaign, 1809-1815 (London, 1895).

[20] Fletcher, Ian (1999) pp 141 and 130.  Quoting from The Courier 20th April 1811.

[21] Farmer, George. The Light Dragoon (Ed. George Gleig,, London, 1844).

[22] Fletcher , Ian (1999) p 199.  Quoting (with some omitted words restored) from Woodberry, Lieutenant George.  Manuscript Journal of the 1813 Campaign.

[23] Cotton, Edward. A Voice from Waterloo (6th Edition, London, 1862).

[24] Morris, Sergeant Thomas.  Recollections of Military Service in 1813, 1814, and 1815 (London, 1845).

[25] Parquin, Charles.  Military Memoirs (Trans. and Ed. BT Jones, London  1969, reprinted Greenhill Books 1987).



Placed on the Napoleon Series: June 2003

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