When historian and novelist MM Bennetts invited me to write a guest blog I was – well…intimidated, actually. After all, MM is a well-known expert on all things Napoleonic: I, a rank amateur by comparison. Even so, with a talk to the Napoleonic Association under my belt I thought I’d stick my neck out and blog about that bane of historical writers – at least from my point of view – the R word.
Research. But from a slightly different perspective.
Let me explain. The problem with ‘real’ history is that it tends to be dry, academic fact. Dates and events: two of the very things which, as a schoolboy, virtually destroyed my interest in the past. Now the function of an historical novel, apart from telling a cracking good yarn, is to pick up the reader and dump him or her unceremoniously slap-bang in the middle of the period – hard on the close packed stones of an arrow-straight Roman road, or deep in the stinking mud of a Medieval pigsty, to give two examples.
The problem is, historians don’t often provide the sort of information novelists actively seek – did a knight’s armoured joints squeak as he was shoved up onto his horse? – because they simply don’t know, or can’t find out. And to them, the little niceties and quirks which can really bring history to life for the uninitiated are unimportant when compared with the bigger picture.
But they are important to us; critical, in fact. Not hundreds of them; not an exercise in regurgitating every even slightly pertinent fact, because that would be boring. Only those that serve to move the story forward: to illuminate a particular place, or event. To suggest a sound, a smell – a sight, even.
So how do we find them?
Dectective work. And logic. Even imagination. A brilliant example is the 1796 pattern cavalry sabre pictured here. Designed by John Gaspard Le Marchant (actually copied from the Austrians who copied it from the Prussians, acknowledged leaders in the field of 18th century cavalry tactics), as was the Heavy Cavalry sword, (carried by the ubiquitous Richard Sharpe as well as…okay – by the heavy cavalry) it has been variously commented on as ‘a superb cutting weapon’ and ‘I can attest to its efficacy in chopping firewood.’ So it was good, then. Or maybe not.
Anyhow, you can see in both pictures that the sword slides into its iron scabbard through a slot in a steel blanking plug or ‘throat’. But every time the sabre is drawn or replaced, scraping through the throat blunts its edge slightly. Dragoons due to travel abroad were specifically forbidden to draw their swords while still on British soil for this very reason. Historians tell us that, but what they probably won’t say is that the scabbards were lined with wood, to help stop the sabre rattling inside and further save its edge. And the lining caused a problem.
Portugal and Spain suffered very heavy rain: numerous diarists of the period comment on it. Wet caused the timber scabbard lining to swell, often trapping the sword inside. A bit of detective work proves this meant it could not be drawn with one hand, which wasn’t a problem for the Light Infantry Officer – he could hold the scabbard with his left hand and draw with his right (see picture above). The cavalryman, of course, held his horse’s reins in his left hand. This meant his sabre had to fit loosely enough in its scabbard so the two were easily parted, not as in the picture below! Imagine the consternation of a dragoon who found himself unable to draw his sword with the enemy bearing down on him (naked, breeches-soiling terror, more like).
Eventually, all wooden scabbard linings were removed, which apart from blunting the sabres even more quickly had a couple of other unwanted effects. Sabres now rattled as the horses moved; a bit of a pain on a night march if you were trying to creep up on an unsuspecting enemy. One rattle its own is not too bad when added to the muted jingle of curb-chain and bit-rings, but even a single troop numbered eighty sabres; double that for a squadron. That’s a lot of rattling. They tried to deaden the noise by ramming a piece of oiled cloth down to the toe of the scabbard and fitting a thicker leather washer under the sabre hilt; both logical, though not entirely successful, measures. And at least every dragoon could now draw his sword.
But there was another, possibly even more drastic, result of this simple equipment modification. The now-unlined scabbard was so light that, hanging down behind the cavalryman’s left thigh, it tapped his horse’s flank as it moved. It’s not too bad while the animal walks, as it happens, but with sabre drawn and the horse in trot, the scabbard performs a kind of mad bouncing dance, slapping against the horse’s side like a dervish. And as the horse accelerates into a gallop, the slapping becomes more violent still.
Anyone who rides horses will know that a tap on the flank is a ‘GO’ signal. Now, you have a cavalryman riding with reins in one hand trying to control a galloping horse being urged to go even faster by a flying iron scabbard. And if a line of troopers was, by some miracle, still in close order, with a two-foot gap between each horse, the scabbard was long enough to hit the horse to its left, urging that animal on to greater effort. Even the wickedly curved cheeks and high ports of curb bits which were the four-wheel-disc-brakes of the day struggled to stop horses obeying their natural instincts – to run.
So it’s no wonder that in the early years of the Peninsular war, or when newly arrived regiments went into action, cavalry attacks were often blighted by a seeming lack of control. All thanks to a missing piece of wood.
And the last part is not imagination, in case you were wondering. I’ve done it: galloped a horse one-handed with sabre drawn and empty scabbard flogging it across the backside. It’s really difficult to pull up, I can tell you.
Maybe that’s why historians can never tell the whole story. For some researching, it helps to be ever so slightly…mad.
‘It is occasioned entirely by the knack our cavalry officers have acquired of galloping at everything.’ Lord Wellington’s angry remark on the ‘debacle’ at Maguilla, Spain 1812. (For any cavalry buffs out there, it was Jack Slade’s fault. Again).
You can find Jonathan’s website at www.cavalrytales.co.uk.