Last Sunday, 11 October, I got together with half a dozen friends to start learning, or rather teaching ourselves, how British Napoleonic cavalry operated and fought. It proved to be a very interesting experience with a few things I thought worth sharing.
One of the problems with recreating British Napoleonic cavalry lies with the official manual for it, Instructions and Regulations for the Formations and Movements of the Cavalry (London, 1796), better known as the 1796 Regulations. These Regulations assume a knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the relevant drill and are written for a full strength squadron of cavalry. Reverse engineering some basic drill from this for small numbers has not been easy. Fortunately I have come across a very useful publication, The Light Horse Drill, Designed for the Use of the Volunteer Corps of Great Britain (London, 1800). This was, as the title states, written for volunteers in order to instruct them in what they needed to know to be able to execute the 1796 Regulations. This has made it possible to carry out the correct drill with a handful of riders.
The other aspect of our activities is learning to use the 1796 Light and Heavy Cavalry swords properly. There is a manual for this, Rules and Regulations for the Sword Exercise (London, 1796). This is not the most clearly written set of instructions. Of course, at the time it was taught by instructors, not learnt from a book. We have to learn from the book. (So far all of us are using the light cavalry sabre, for which the Exercise seems best suited)
What was particularly interesting as we wrestled with the drill and the sword exercise was that we made the same mistakes as the manuals warned about. The basis of the drill is six riders in two ranks. These are the ‘threes’ so often referred to in accounts. To move a unit quickly to one flank or the other the threes wheeled left or right to form a column six wide, the front rank three in a line with the rear rank three. The manual explains that each three has to wheel on the spot, that is, if wheeling into a column to the right, the centre rider has to turn their horse on the spot, the left hand rider has to make a very tight turn/wheel to the right and the right hand rider has to do the same, but backwards! It was a bit challenging, but a reasonable approximation was made. Now, the space between the front and rear ranks is half a length, about four feet. The manual warns that if the threes just wheel on the spot there will be a gap in the middle of the new rank of six that is equal to that half length. Sure enough, at the first attempt there was. The rear rank three has not only to turn on the spot, but also dress towards the front rank to close the gap.
When it comes to the sword exercise the book warns that beginners will have trouble. ‘Care must therefore be taken, neither to incline the hand to the right or left of the given position, nor to sink it below the level of the antagonist’s left ear; but above all, not to bend the elbow: these are faults which beginners are extremely apt to commit.’ This is very true and it is very difficult not to bend the arm, particularly if one has any previous experience with swords.
According to the Sword Exercise it took 120 hours to train a cavalryman thoroughly in the Exercise. After just one hour we were beginning to get the idea, of the first two cuts. Only four more cuts, the use of the point and the eight guards to go. Against cavalry that is. Then there are the cuts and guards against infantry. But it is proving to be an informative, challenging and enjoyable experience. Everyone finished looking forward to learning more.