Research Subjects: Eyewitness Accounts

The Sword is Longer Than the Pen

By Bob Elmer
Editor of the Journal of the Association of Friends of the Waterloo Committee

In Waterloo - New Perspectives, David Hamilton-Williams writes about Napoléon's Lancers: "Able to impale a standing or mounted enemy by the force of his forward impetus, he could also make stabbing thrusts at men crouching or lying flat on the ground, something virtually impossible for sword- or sabre-armed cavalry." [1]

Now I've heard this said before, in chats at the The Waterloo Society of Melbourne, and it is something that is repeatedly contradicted by contemporary writings. In fact, it was not only possible for a cavalryman to sabre prone wounded troops, but it appears to have been common practice by British as well as by French cavalry. Some examples:

  • Writing about Waterloo, Kincaid tells us: "The French [Cuirassiers] eventually broke and fled, pausing only to stab wounded allied troops as they rode over them. It made me mad to see the cuirassiers, in their retreat, stooping and stabbing at our wounded men. How I wished that I had been blessed with Omnipotent power for a moment, that I might have blighted them." [2] Of course, some dismiss Kincaid as a raconteur who wouldn't spoil a good tale by excessive considerations of accuracy; but many other writers support him.
  • Colonel Robert Wallace [3] tells the following tale: "When charging at Waterloo, a French trumpeter was passed lying on the ground. Few of the regiment forbore to have a slash at their fallen enemy, as they galloped past. But the kind-hearted old Colonel was more merciful. 'I did not slash at him,' he said, 'but the trumpeter slashed at me!'" [4]
  • In Captain George Jones' Waterloo Memoirs is a letter recounting another instance of a Cuirassier stabbing at a wounded man on the ground: "The Major of the 42nd [5], preferring to fight on foot, in front of his men, had given his horse to hold to a little drummer-boy. After severe fighting he fell wounded near a brave private, Donald Mackintosh. The drummer left the horse to assist his friend Donald. A French lancer attempted to seize the horse, on which the prostrate Donald exclaimed, 'Hoot, man, ye manna tak that beast, 't belongs to our captain here!' The lancer, little heeding, seized the horse. Donald, with a last expiring effort, loaded his musket and shot the lancer dead. A French cavalry officer [a cuirassier as later becomes clear], seeing the major bestirring himself, rode up and attempted to despatch him with his sword. As he stooped from his saddle, the major seized his leg, and managed to pull him off his horse upon him. Another lancer, observing the struggle, galloped up and tried to spear the major and relieve his officer; but the former, by a sudden jerk, and desperate exertion, placed the French officer uppermost, who received the mortal thrust below his cuirass and continued lying upon the major's body for near ten minutes, sword in hand. A pause in the battle permitted some men of the 42nd to carry their officer into the square of the 92nd, where he was found to have received 16 wounds."
  • In the Scots Magazine we read, "Marshall, [6] while sabreing a cuirassier on his right hand had his bridle arm broken by his enemy on his left, and had not proceeded much further when he was beset by another crowd of French cavalry, and hurled from his horse by a lance which penetrated his side. While he was falling he received a heavy blow across the body, and another which broke his right thigh. He lay unconscious except when goaded into sensibility by the hoofs of the enemy's horses passing over his mangled body. The ground afterwards becoming somewhat clear he espied a horse without any rider, towards which he crawled, and was about to mount when a French trooper galloping up cut him down in the midst of his hopes, inflicting several severe wounds on his body [ie. after cutting him down]. This part of the field being again occupied by the French, a French artilleryman made Marshall's body a resting-place for his foot while he rammed his gun. For two days and three nights Marshall remained on the field with 19 lance and sabre wounds. On the regiment returning home he was discharged with 2s. per day. Resided at Belfast where he was much respected. Died there, 28th September, 1825."
  • Another account indicates just how near to the ground a mounted man could reach: "Llewellyn [7] was an excellent horseman, and on one occasion in the Peninsula, when employed on staff duty, he was galloping after the retreating French when he came upon an open portmanteau, in which he espied some silver spoons and forks of an antique pattern. As he galloped past he bent in the saddle and made a grab with his right hand at the glittering contents. His dexterity was rewarded with several specimens of old French plate."

Are we to discount all of these eye-witness accounts? Surely not.

The nearest modern equivalent to this horsemanship is the polo player, who strikes a ball only 3 inches in diameter, on the ground. Interestingly, to accomplish this feat he uses a mallet that is virtually the same length as the An IX French Heavy Cavalry Sabre.


  1. Page 113.
  2. Page 169 in the 1981 re-print by Richard Drew Publishing Ltd.
  3. Then a Captain in the 1st or King's Regiment of Dragoon Guards.
  4. Related in a footnote on page 53 of The Waterloo Roll Call by Charles Dalton.
  5. Battalion-Major George Davidson of the 42nd or the Royal Highland Regiment of Foot.
  6. Troop Sergeant Major Matthew Marshall of the 6th Dragoons.
  7. Captain Richard Llewellyn, 28th or North Gloucestershire Regiment of Foot.
  8. Footnote on page 124 of The Waterloo Roll Call.


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