Cavalry Combat and the Sword: Sword Design, Provision, and Use in the British Cavalry of the Napoleonic Era.
By Martin Read
Though there exists an air of chivalry around the use of the arme blanche, particularly when associated with the spectacle of the thundering charge of massed horsemen, we should not ignore the fact that sword fighting was a vicious business. Melee fighting, consisting as it did of men vigorously engaged in attempting to kill one another with yard-long bars of sharpened steel, can only have been searingly brutal to participate in or to witness. In these days of long distance combat, when the pull of a trigger kills at yards or hundreds of yards distance, or indeed the push of a button will send missiles to kill many miles away, it is difficult for most to imagine how it must have felt to fight hand to hand. Sword combat was very intimate; it took place at a distance where the expression on the face of an opponent could be clearly seen and where death or injury was inflicted directly by the strength of arm of the combatants. It is almost a cliché, but is still worth stating, that the people of the Napoleonic era were of a different stamp to the people of the developed world today. They lived in times where casual brutality was relatively more common and this cannot but have had a profound influence on their outlook. It was a less squeamish age by far, and one where death was a more familiar occurrence in day to day life than is the case in the modern world. The society in which these people lived, with its public executions, widespread corporal punishment, bare-knuckle fighting and many other sanguinary aspects perhaps goes far to explain how so many participated in hand to hand fighting with, apparently, so few qualms. It is clear that alongside psychological distinctions to today’s population other differences are discernible, there are many examples of the people of the Napoleonic period showing phenomenal physical toughness. Frederick Ponsonby, commanding the British 12th Light Dragoons at Waterloo, was wounded and unhorsed in melee by French lancers, he sustained incapacitating wounds to both arms, a severe sabre blow to the head and suffered a lance thrust which pierced his back. He survived in this state, lying in the open, from around 2:30 pm on the 18th June to 8:00 am the following morning before being taken for treatment. That this treatment largely consisted of repeated bloodletting is further testament to his robust constitution.
In addition to the possibility of death in combat, sword wounds could leave a man crippled or appallingly disfigured for life. A prominent example of the effect of sword wounds is the fate of the French general Durutte at Waterloo. During the collapse of his division (part of D’Erlon’s corps) in the closing stages of the battle Durutte was attacked by a Light Dragoon of Vandeleur’s brigade, he lost his right hand to a sabre cut and in this defenceless state received a severe blow to the head and face. This blow left him physically debilitated and blind in the right eye. However, he survived his injuries and lived to a reasonably old age. Despite their often frightful appearance sword injuries were usually much cleaner, both in regard to the extent of tissue trauma and the likelihood of infective material being introduced into the wound, than those inflicted by smallarms or artillery. Sword wounds were therefore easier to treat and much less likely to lead to post-operative sepsis and gangrene.
The importance of effective weapons training and the self-confidence this engenders in the cavalryman cannot be over emphasised. Mounted combat was inherently more fluid than combat on foot and had a higher tendency to sudden reversals of fortune; cavalry were a potentially devastating battlefield tool for a commanding general, but one which was distinctly less resilient than the infantry. A cavalry arm that was confident in its weapons and skill in using them was a great advantage. Whatever other faults the British cavalry had, notably a tendency to run out of control in pursuit of a broken enemy, these advantages it had in great measure. In the actions of Sahagun and Benevente, and in later clashes the British cavalry seem to have asserted a level of moral superiority over their foes. Indeed after Campo Mayor the French cavalry in the Peninsula operated with less confidence and elan when faced with substantial bodies of British cavalry than was their wont in other theatres of war against other mounted forces. Not that the French cavalry fought badly, in general they stood up well to the charge of the British. For example at Campo Mayor British and French cavalry repeatedly charged and threaded one another and it was not until a general melee developed that the French were broken and put to flight. This action, I feel, is an exemplar for many others, seldom indeed did the French cavalry break before contact, and they seem to have taken the shock of the impact of a charge well. It is only in the subsequent melee that, on many occasions, they were bested and subsequently put to flight. The quality of mounts, collective discipline or skill in manoeuvring of a body of cavalry had no substantial impact on the result of a melee. It was the horsemanship and more importantly the swordsmanship of the individual combatants which decided it. The availability of swords of good quality and workmanlike design and especially the provision of thorough and intelligently designed sword fighting training were, I would maintain, the greatest factors in the British cavalry successes of the period. Both of these advantages were the direct result of the insight and applied intelligence of John Le Marchant.
Following his practical involvement in teaching the sword exercise to both regular and yeomanry cavalry Le Marchant was rewarded with a lieutenant colonelcy in the 7th Light Dragoons (Hussars) in 1797. However, his penchant for military education soon took him away from active service. He became convinced that there was a need for a central military college to educate officers in the art of war. Despite opposition from some quarters he succeeded in enlisting the decisive support of the Duke of York and the Royal Military College was brought into being. This later became the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst which educates British army officers to this day. Le Marchant was transferred from his position as the Lieutenant Governor of the college in 1811 to return to active soldiering; he was given command of a brigade of heavy cavalry in the Peninsula. It was here that he had his first opportunity to see both his sword and swordsmanship training in action. At Villagarcia Le Marchant led the 5th Dragoon Guards in a charge which ensured the rout of Lallemand’s French cavalry (2nd Hussars, 17th and 27th Dragoons). Later, at the Battle of Salamanca, Le Marchant led his dragoons in one of the most devastating charges ever made by a single brigade of cavalry. The irresistible onset of his scarlet-coated troopers converted the imminent defeat of the left wing of the French army into an utter devastation. At the end of this epic attack, after personally cutting down half a dozen enemy soldiers with the sword of his own design, he fell struck in the groin by a shot. In this undeniably heroic manner died a soldier who perhaps deserves to be more widely remembered, especially by the nation he so notably served.
A finer epitaph could not be written than the following quote from an officer of the 13th Light Dragoons, Campo Mayor 1811.
For further articles on swords by Martin Read see:
 Fletcher, Ian (1999) pp 141 and 130. Quoting from The Courier 20th April 1811.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: June 2003
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