Sing, O Muse, of the Sabre’s Rage…

Over the past few weeks, I’ve received several queries about various types of swords and duelling–which seems somehow to have been a natural development from conversations about horses.  Not clear how that works.  But anyway…

Then too, previous guest blogs by Master Swordsman, Terry Kroenung, have sparked a great deal of interest…and, as it happens, further questions.  

So it seemed the obvious solution to me (he took some persuading) to have him back for another go–that is to say, to have Mr. Kroenung empty his encyclopaedic brain out onto the page again–this time on the subject of sabres, cavalry charges, sabre wounds and all that other equally fascinating and invaluable information.

So, without further ado, here he is:   

“Any hussar not dead by thirty is a blackguard.
– General Antoine de Lassale (who inconveniently lived to age 34)

Sabres are cool.

“Which is not to say that they are practical, easy to handle, or should be one’s first choice when the Huns gallop over the horizon.  But they are admittedly cool.  Sexy, even.

“Much of this comes from their association with dashing Napoleonic hussars in furred busbies and ornately-braided dolmans, thundering at the charge to slash the hated foe.  Much like:

“Admit it.  You swooned a little at the sight of that, didn’t you?

“Sabres and their antecedents have been around forever.  Even the mediaeval period claimed a version.  One of the last statements of Shakespeare’s King Lear is “I have seen the day when with my good biting falchion I would have made them skip.”  Heavy cleaving weapons just feel right in a fellow’s hand.  (Lady readers are invited to apply whatever Freudian analysis they wish to this.)

“The word sabre comes from a Turkic verb meaning to hit or strike, which led to the Hungarian term szablya (to cut). Christian encounters with the advancing Ottomans naturally led to development of weapons similar to theirs.  For our purposes, since we are guests on the estimable Bennetts’s blog, we desire to concentrate on the Napoleonic cavalry version, which owes much to Bonaparte’s foray into Egypt.  There the sword of the Mameluke cavalry made such an impression that the impertinent [upstart Mushroom] Corsican sported one himself.

“Properly-speaking, a sabre is a type of backsword.  That means that it is a one-handed weapon with a single cutting edge and a roughly triangular cross-section.  The back of the blade, the side with no edge, is thick and flat, lending strength.  Pirate cutlasses and Highland broadswords are also considered backswords.  In fact the Gaelic name for the latter, claidheamh cuil, literally means ‘backsword.’  They are meant to cut large chunks of anatomy from one’s opponent, though the point is still serviceable.

“In the interest of convenience we shall focus on the most famous example of our period, the British Pattern 1796 Light Cavalry Sabre, employed by hussar regiments.  Hussars, indeed all light cavalry, performed scouting and screening functions.  Direct combat with the enemy was the job of heavy cavalry.  But war being what it is, messy and inconvenient, the overdressed gentlemen of the hussars had more than satisfactory opportunity to hack at their impertinent opposite numbers.

“The P1796 weighed 2 pounds and its curved blade measured 33 inches from hilt to tip.  That curve was pronounced, some 3 inches from center (more on the reasons for this later).  Its designers, John Gaspard Le Marchant of the British cavalry and Birmingham sword cutler Henry Osborne, desired a light and manoeuverable weapon which would be simple of manufacture and efficient in the cut.  The result met all expectations.  Indeed, this weapon is considered one of the finest mass-produced edged weapons in history.  So splendid was it, in fact, that the German military used it for 100 years.

“As disturbing evidence of this blade’s effectiveness, I offer this excerpt from George Farmer’s memoir of the Peninsular War (1811).  He is recounting trooper Wilson’s last act on earth (his French opponent has already skewered him), which was to:

let fall upon the Frenchman’s head such a blow, that brass and skull parted before it, and the man’s head was cloven asunder to the chin.  It was the most tremendous blow I ever beheld struck; and both he who gave, and his opponent who received it, dropped dead together.  The brass helmet was afterwards examined by order of a French officer, who, as well as myself, was astonished at the exploit; and the cut was found to be as clean as if the sword had gone through a turnip.

“I now pause to allow you to savour that image…

“There are unconfirmed reports that the French actually complained to the British that their cavalry sabre’s cuts were too brutal even for Napoleonic warfare.  After absorbing the above account, comment is superfluous.

“One of the reasons for the sword’s terrific slashing ability was that the tip actually swelled, rather than tapering to a point (visible in the photo above).  Unusually, the end of the blade is actually wider than its base.  This gave added weight and impetus to the blow, but at the cost of diminished thrusting capacity.  Some troopers even ground down their tips to enhance the P1796’s stabbing potential, though that naturally defeated the purpose of the original design.

“This is not to say that the weapon was useless for thrusting.  On the contrary, the point would easily pierce a man through.  It is a common misconception that curved swords are only efficacious in the slash.  Not true at all.  A straight sword will, of course, do a better job when thrust into someone, but a curved blade’s tip has no trouble incommoding anyone unwise enough to open himself up to it.

“Here is an unnerving demonstration of a reproduction P1796.  The thrusting potential is displayed at approximately 1:45 of the video, with the terrifying cuts (severing bone) delivered immediately thereafter:

“While conventional wisdom holds that sabres were curved to deliver a more efficient or more vicious cut, this is actually not the case.  Research with high-speed cameras has shown that cuts with curved or straight blades cause equivalent damage (i.e., a lot).  It is also inaccurate that a curved blade draws through the flesh more, creating a nastier wound.

“What is true, however, is that a curved blade takes up less space in a melee.

“This is also why the vaunted pirate cutlass is short and curved, to avoid entanglement with bodies and rigging on a crowded ship’s deck.  In a cavalry engagement organisation breaks down immediately.  A premium is placed on swinging in wide arcs.  It’s a natural movement when panic shuts down rational thought, as when you find yourself surrounded by screaming men and snorting steeds.  I give you a sample from Winston Churchill’s account (he was a 4th Hussar before transferring to the 21st Lancers) of the charge at Omdurman in 1898:

The collision was prodigious. Nearly thirty Lancers, men and horses, and at least two hundred Arabs were overthrown. The shock was stunning to both sides, and for perhaps ten wonderful seconds no man heeded his enemy. Terrified horses wedged in the crowd; bruised and shaken men, sprawling in heaps, struggled, dazed and stupid, to their feet, panted, and looked about them. The Dervishes fought manfully. They tried to hamstring the horses. They fired their rifles, pressing the muzzles into the very bodies of their opponents. They cut reins and stirrup-leathers. They flung their throwing-spears with great dexterity. They tried every device of cool, determined men practiced in war and familiar with cavalry; and, besides, they swung sharp, heavy swords which bit deep. The hand-to-hand fighting on the further side of the khor lasted for perhaps one minute. All who had fallen were cut at with swords till they stopped quivering, but no artistic mutilations were attempted. The enemy’s behavior gave small ground for complaint.

“Cavalry sabres are poor fencing weapons at the best.  Designed for a slash at high speed, they are not a wise choice for extended thrust-and-parry work.  The user’s arm will give out much sooner than if a better-balanced dueling weapon were employed.  A one-on-one dismounted engagement might begin like this:

“But in a couple of minutes would likely end this way:

“It is worth noting that the infantry employed sabres, too, as well as civilians.  These versions tended to be better-balanced for give-and-take, since one did not have a horse to get one out of trouble after a couple of swings.  They were more often straight and like a traditional backsword.

“If you are dying (possibly a literal outcome) to duel with a sabre, here is a 3-part video tutorial about the basic techniques.  One never knows when even the most esoteric skill may come in handy.  (My personal favorite is employing the sabre’s curve to arc around your opponent’s successful parry.)

“During the Napoleonic wars the French stressed using the point on horseback, as being more lethal and controlled.  Bonaparte’s heavy cavalry (cuirassiers, clad in helmets and breastplates) were renowned for this and their long straight swords were designed to make maximum use of the preference. 

But once in a melee they were at a comparative disadvantage because their blades, some 3-4 inches longer than the British P1796, were more likely to catch on men, horses, and equipment, particularly as a cavalry engagement is very fluid and a clear avenue in one moment can become clogged with bodies the next. 

“Plus, the cuirassiers’ swords weighed 50% more.  If you think the difference between 2 pounds and 3 pounds is slight, I invite you to violently swing a metal rod in each hand as violently as possible and see which arm falls off first.

The French reasoning was that most cavalry engagements only lasted for one rush and that a thrust was more likely to prove decisive.  But the British, who have preferred the good manly edge to the effete Continental point since at least the 16th century, argued that once that initial shock became a free-for-all, the cut was more natural, more useful, and was better at demoralizing the enemy.  Even a superficial cut shed more blood than a fatal thrust, and a solid slash at the face or arm (which the British cavalry manual taught were the optimal targets) would leave a nose or hand on the ground and spurting gore all over the victim and his mates.

“Bad for morale, that.

“The French knew of the British predilection for hacking, of course, which is why their hussars affected cadenettes.  Sometimes woven around wooden rods and accompanied by a similarly-reinforced queue at the nape of the neck, these heavy hair braids afforded some protection against slashes to the head.  In addition, the bag appending from the crown of the busby could be secured to the shoulder, creating a shield of sorts.  One does wonder at the efficacy of all of this, however, after viewing the P1796 cutting demonstration video above.

“As an aside, there are many erroneous beliefs as to why a cavalryman might hold his sword edge up, elbow to the sky as he rides in a charge.  As it turns out, this is not for any arcane tactical reason, but rather one of simple biomechanics.  If you want to carry your sword point-first, the arm tires less easily in that position than if you hold the thumb or the back of the hand up.  I have tried this with a sabre at home.  It is true.

“As conclusive proof that sabres are cool, I offer a more civilized use for this deadly marvel of engineering: the sabrage (the fun begins at about 1:30).

“Try that with your wretched musket!”

One comment on “Sing, O Muse, of the Sabre’s Rage…

  1. […] Sing, O Muse, of the Sabre’s Rage… […]

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