Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

Best of Series Award

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

Some Peculiarities of British Cavalry of the Napoleonic Era

By Martin Read

In the nature of its cavalry forces, as in many other ways, the British military possessed certain distinctions from what pertained on the continent.   The combination of a relatively modest cavalry establishment and a countryside richly productive in good quality horseflesh led to a blurring of distinctions between heavy and light cavalry roles.  On the continent careful gradations of size of mount and rider were observed and officially prescribed, the larger men and horses were assigned to the regiments of heavy cavalry, smaller men and horses to the light cavalry regiments.  In Britain there are indications of an apparent recognition, due to the limited numbers of cavalry available, that all cavalry regiments should be fully capable of making an effective formal battlefield charge.[6] Additionally there existed a natural desire in regimental commanding officers (excepting for a few fraudulent officers) to obtain the best quality mounts possible.  This combination of factors resulted in a situation where the difference in size of mount of heavy and light regiments was negligible.

Despite there being only slight practical differentiation in battlefield prowess and capability within the British cavalry notable distinctions between light regiments (Light Dragoons and Hussars) and heavy regiments (Household Cavalry, Dragoon Guards and Dragoons) in weaponry, uniforms and other equipment were maintained.  That the two types of cavalry were given essentially identical training when part of the “Home Establishment” merely serves to reinforce the apparent illogicality of this situation.  This formal training extended to horsemanship, weapons drill, battlefield manoeuvres (usually conducted at the most rapid speed possible – order apparently being deemed less important than velocity) and in conducting the charge. [7] The light cavalry consequently had to learn the arts particular to their branch of the service, these being piquet and patrol work, in the hard school of active campaigning.

Examples of British light cavalry’s abilities in conducting formal battlefield charges are numerous.  In the Peninsular War British Hussars and Light Dragoons bested French Dragoons, a nominally heavier form of cavalry, in equal contests on several occasions, notably at Sahagun (1808) and Campo Mayor (1811).  Indeed during the Battle of Waterloo a number of instances are recorded of British and King’s German Legion light cavalry repulsing French cuirassiers, who were amongst the heaviest cavalry in Europe. A contemporary British officer wrote “His [the English bred horse’s] impulse forward is indeed prodigious; and it has been truly said, that the lightest British cavalry is not only far more active than any French body of horse, but is, in the charge, infinitely more powerful and weighty than the heaviest squadrons of the enemy.”[8]



[6] Queen’s Regulations of 1844 stated: “both Heavy and Light Cavalry should be equal to the Charge in Line.”  This was merely the belated official recognition in print of what already pertained, and had been a recognised fact, throughout the history of British light cavalry.

[7] Cavalry manoeuvres and tactics were based on Sir David “Pivot” Dundas’ Instructions and Regulations for the Formations and Movements of the Cavalry, printed for the War Office in 1796.  This was required reading for all cavalry officers – though several recorded unfortunate incidents indicate that a number of senior cavalry officers were largely ignorant of it.

[8] Fletcher , Ian (1999) p 31.  Quoting from ‘British Cavalry,’ in The Royal Military Chronicle, October 1811.



Placed on the Napoleon Series: June 2003


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