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. 

Contemporary Perceptions

By Martin Read

Le Marchant approached the design of cavalry swords and the provision of training in swordsmanship within an eminently reasoned framework, it may therefore be surprising to note that a good deal of deprecatory comment was directed at the 1796 swords and their prescribed mode of use.  This comment was directly connected to the general controversy over whether the cut or the thrust was the most effective way of using a sword.  The following quotations are typical of the criticisms of British swords and swordplay.

“An Officer of Dragoons”, writing in 1831.

"The French dragoon has a long straight sword, the handle is heavy and the blade light, which by adjustment the point is naturally raised without effort, while it feels light and manageable in the hand.  The chasseur sabre, though not quite so long, and slightly curved, is, in point of fact, much the same as the heavy dragoon sword, as it is equally applicable to the thrust and is equally handy.  The sword of the British heavy dragoon is a lumbering, clumsy, ill-contrived machine.  It is too heavy, too short, too broad, too much like the sort of weapon with which we have seen Grimaldi cut off the heads of a line of urchins on the stage.  The old light sabre…. is constructed in utter defiance of Marshal Saxe and his reveries, and as nearly as possible the reverse of what he suggests.  We can answer for its utility in making billets for the fire."[26]

Captain William Bragge, 3rd Dragoons, in his letters 1811-1814, referring to the action at Villagarcia 1812.

"It is worthy of remark that scarcely one Frenchman died of his wounds, although dreadfully chopped, whereas 12 English Dragoons were killed on the spot and others dangerously wounded by thrusts.  If our men had used their swords so, three times the number of French would have been killed."[27]

These views are in strong contrast to the comments of George Farmer (11th Light Dragoons) quoted above.  It is notable that whilst the proponents of the thrust whose opinions are recorded here were both officers Farmer was a private soldier, albeit a remarkably literate one.[28]  The distinction is, I think, an important one.  Rankers would usually join the army with little or no familiarity with swords, not so the average young officer who would have had considerable prior experience.  Young gentlemen of the time were expected to have mastered a number of what might be termed social skills; these included music, dancing, card games, a knowledge of the French language, horsemanship and fencing.  The style of fencing most commonly taught made use of specialised fencing foils or modified small-swords.  In either case the swords were light, straight, slim-bladed and dedicated to the thrust, instruction in their use emphasised the point and taught that the edge was to be despised.  It is therefore not surprising that young men with this background would find both the broad-bladed cutting swords of the cavalry and their prescribed method of use contrary to their previous training and inclinations.   It would probably be inaccurate to attribute the “pro-thrust” attitude on the part of some officers wholly to their youthful instruction in “gentlemanly fencing,” though early training is often regarded as being particularly influential on later opinion. 

Indeed a trend in total opposition to this can be discerned amongst the officer class, namely the great popularity of those eastern (Ottoman or Indo-Persian) curved cutting swords broadly classed as “Mameluke-hilted.”  These swords were made popular amongst officers, light cavalry officers and senior officers in particular, through the involvement of both the French and British in Egypt, though the longstanding British presence in India cannot but have had an influence as well.  It could be argued that the use of these swords was merely a whim of fashion, though logically these swords would not have become popular if their inherent quality had not been recognised.  It is also evident that these swords were regularly used in combat by light cavalry officers and, with war being an uncertain occupation, senior officers would hardly have encumbered themselves with merely decorative swords.  On occasion even commanders in chief had to resort to drawing their swords.[29]

It is clear that the oft-quoted contemporary remarks about the superiority of the thrust and of thrusting swords, and the deprecation of the cut, were an expression of opinion of only a section of British cavalry officers and soldiers.  Undoubtedly a considerable body of the British military was appreciative of the utility and combat advantages of the cut, and of the worth of swords designed to deliver it.

 

 

Notes:

[26] ) “An Officer of Dragoons”. United Service Journal (vol. II, 1831).

[27] Bragge, W.  Peninsular Portrait: The Letters of Capt. William Bragge (Ed. SAC Cassels, London 1963).  An investigation of the relative casualties at Villagarcia does not support Bragge’s thesis very convincingly.  The British suffered 14 killed and 37 wounded, not a particularly high proportion of dead to injured.  The French lost 53 killed and wounded (not discriminated), and 4 officers and 132 men captured.  Casualty figures taken from Smith, Digby’s The Greenhill Napoleonic Wars Data Book (London 1998).

[28] Rankers in the British cavalry were properly styled privates, this usage pertained in some regiments into the 20th century.  The term ‘trooper’ is used elsewhere in this article as convenient shorthand for ‘private cavalry soldier.’

[29] A famous instance of this occurred a few days before the battle of Salamanca when Wellington, Beresford and their staff were caught out by an unexpected French cavalry charge, all were obliged to draw their swords and shift for themselves (see ‘Salamanca 1812’ by Rory Muir ).  Wellington’s favoured weapon, which he wore at Waterloo, was a well-curved sabre of Indo-Persian origin, its hilt was of the general “Mameluke” style but was unusual in being wholly of gilt metal and having a knucklebow.  It can be seen today at Apsley House in London, and is prominent in Sir Thomas Lawrence’s 1824 portrait of the duke.

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: June 2003

 

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