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.
On Friday 19 and Saturday 20 June this year I had the awesome experience of participating in the 200th anniversary reenactments of Waterloo. This I did as a cavalryman, in fact commanding the small British squadron of Light Dragoons, the 12th and 16th working together. I’m a member of the 16th.
I think I can safely say that I found the experience informative as a military historian. Indeed, one of my comrades, a Falklands veteran, reckoned that it was as close to the real thing as you could get without firing ball.
The first informative experience came in our very first engagement. We went down into the valley, past La Haye Sainte (a reconstruction) and charged up the other side into a huge, whirling mass of British heavy cavalry and French Lancers. I was out in front of my squadron and immediately engaged a couple of French. Then I looked around to see how my unit was doing. It had completely disappeared. Eventually I rounded up a few and we started back across the valley, with others joining in as we went. The last four joined us after we had been back and reformed for some five minutes or more.
On reflection, a few things contributed to this. The whole British cavalry amounted to little more than a real squadron, about 120. The Allied cavalry totaled about 170. The squadron was the smallest tactical unit and whilst I lost my dozen or so there were plenty of British cavalry around. With a trumpeter the whole would have been a lot easier to withdraw than a dozen mixed in with everyone else. That is to do with the nature of reenactment.
Turning to things that are related to reality rather than reenactment; the post 1812 British Light Dragoon uniform looks very French, the shako and epaulettes, its general style, make it difficult to pick out from other French cavalry, particularly in poor visibility.
Smoke was a major factor. The battlefield we had was huge, by reenactment standards, about a kilometre square. At times we could see right across it and watch the French, particularly during the deployment phase. At other times the smoke from the cannon and musketry reduced visibility to less than 50 metres. One friend of mine in a Prussian battalion told me they received a volley at 25 metres from a French battalion that they never saw. Another friend in a British unit told me that they had considerable difficulty identifying cavalry because in the smoke all colour disappeared and they could only go by shape. The French infantry and artillery could only be located by their muzzle flashes.
Both battles finished at ten o’clock at night and so a large portion happened as night was falling, which added to the general confusion and difficulties. It became harder and harder to identify the nationality of bodies of troops, particularly as the scale of the event meant that you were looking at a unit 200 metres away or more, rather than the more usual 50 metres in a reenactment.
Towards the end of the second battle all the British and most of the Allied cavalry were sitting quietly in line on top of the Allied ridge. Our horses were steaming and almost blown. Riding through the breast high wheat was tiring for them, as, I am reliably informed, it was for the infantry marching through it. As we sat there we watched a French infantry brigade march down into the valley and around our side of La Haye Sainte to try to take a Dutch Brigade in its flank. They were some 300 metres directly to our front. We were 120 in two ranks. We walked forward, we trotted down the hill, at about 100 metres from them we cantered. When we were about 25 metres from them they saw us coming! With the smoke, the confusion, the noise, their focus on the Dutch, I can only assume that they just didn’t see us sitting on the ridge or start our advance.
On another occasion my squadron went up the French side of the valley, unable to see what was waiting at the top. On coming over the brow of the slope and on to the top we were confronted by the flank of four ranks of French heavy cavalry, standing, waiting to counter-charge our heavy cavalry. There was absolutely nothing they could do about it as we went into them.
On one occasion, after fighting in the valley bottom in the smoke I looked up to find that I was looking 180 degrees opposite to the way I thought I was facing. That was extremely disconcerting for a moment.
I have mentioned the noise, at times it was deafening and command by shouting all but impossible.
Those are my thoughts about what might help me as a military historian who has not, thank goodness, seen real action, not that anyone living has seen action of that style. I now understand the fog of war in the black powder era, I understand how you can get lost on a battlefield. How the smoke can come and go. How you can’t see colour in the smoke and the gloom. How your vision can go from long distance to a few metres to just your immediate opponent in seconds. How disorientating it can all be.
I am extremely pleased to have been at Waterloo 200 and experienced something that approached reality more closely than anything else I have done.
My thanks to all the photographers, lots more, and the best, can be seen here;
My publisher seems pleased with Destructive and Formidable, so much so that they have asked me to write a sequel, taking the story up to Waterloo and 1815. At the moment I am trying to get to grips with the American War of Independence. No spoilers, you will have to wait, but something odd appears to be going on.
I will also be continuing to work on cavalry. My post on cavalry camp life in the Peninsular has been well received, and there will be more on other aspects of cavalry.
As I think is obvious from other posts I am a reenactor, currently with the 16th Light Dragoons of the Napoleonic Association. Nowadays at re-enactment events there is a demand for living history displays in addition to the usual battles and skirmishes.at events. With this in mind I have been researching just how the 16th lived during the Peninsular campaigns. This article addresses camping, or, rather, bivouacking and its associated equipment.
There are a number of references in various journals and diaries to tents used by the cavalry, mostly by Hussar officers. Tomkinson, however, whose journal of his time in the Peninsular is a treasure trove of information, refers to the 16th as in tents on only one occasion, on 9th May, 1809 when the 16th bivouacked for the first time.1 Subsequently he makes a number of assertions that the cavalry had no tents. Admittedly, his account breaks off after 11 May 1809, when he was seriously wounded, starting again in March 1810 when he returned to the Peninsula and rejoined the 16th.
In July 1810 he records camping in a small wood. ‘We had been so long in this bivouac that we made huts for ourselves, many of the men doing the same.’2
Of another bivouac he records ‘It was a most excellent camp, the trees affording capital shade; and from the length of time we had been there, each man had a good hut, and the encampment wore the appearance of a small village. Cocks and myself had nothing with us but a change of linen, a pot to boil potatoes, and the same to make coffee in, with a frying pan, which were carried on his led horse’.3
On 12 June 1811 he recorded ‘In using the word camped I ought to say bivouacked, as the army had no tents. The men put one blanket on the ground, lay down in their cloaks, and being two together had another blanket to cover them. The officers did the same, and if it rained we got wet.’4 On 20 August 1812 he wrote; We moved so late that we encamped (or rather bivouacked, never having any tents) on the banks of the river…5 The following year, on 29th May 1813 he wrote ‘the infantry are all under canvas… The cavalry have no tents; we shall get the oftener into the villages’.6
Billeting in villages seems to have been the preferred option for the cavalry. On occasion they were in very poor buildings, on others in convents, monasteries and the like.
Captain Cocks of the 16th recorded their marching to Mafra on 11th October 1810, ‘We had been almost constantly in the field without even tents, for near four months…’7
Hawker of the 14th Light Dragoons records a similar tale of poor billets and bivouacking in the open. 11th May 1809, ‘We passed the night without any cover; the dews were falling so heavy as to soak our clothes and be wrung from our night caps’.8 The 14th also made huts, on 14th July 1809 he refers to ‘making our huts’ and how, on 20th July ‘a large pomegranate-tree saved some of us the trouble of building a hut…’9
The preference for bivouacking seems to have been to find a wood. Obviously, this would provide a degree of shelter, firewood and materials for building huts if time allowed. Less obviously it also appears to have facilitated picketing the horses.
Mollo, in Waterloo Uniforms, 1, British Cavalry, states that there was one picquet rope for every nine horses. There was also a pair of forage cords for every horse.10 Farmer, who was in the 14th Light Dragoons recalled how the horses had to be trained ‘to sleep picketed and in the open air…’11 There are no mentions of picket poles or anything to support a picket line. This could explain the liking for woods; the lines could be set up between trees. An unknown officer of dragoons records camping in a ‘magnificent chestnut grove’ and how the horses were tied to the trees ‘by means of a forage cord encircling the tree’.12 Presumably the mature chestnuts were too far apart for the piquet lines.
Another aspect of the life of the light dragoons is that the horses were rarely unsaddled when anywhere near the enemy. Tomkinson wrote on 26th June 1810; ‘We never unsaddle excepting in the evening, merely to clean the horses; and at night the men sleep in the appointments, with their bridle reins in their hands, ready to turn out in an instant. At two in the morning the whole turn out and remain on their alarm ground until the picquets relieved, come in, and all is quiet’. Again, on 4th July 1810; ‘We soon learned to sleep in the day or at any time – never undressed – and at night all the horses were bridled up, the men sleeping at their heads, and the officers of each troop close to their horses altogether’.13
With regard to equipment, it nearly all had to be carried on the horses. An order issued by Wellington at Abrantes, 19th June, 1809;
Each regiment of cavalry has fourteen mules, eight for carrying camp kettles, one for the Surgeon, and one for the Paymaster, which, bat money having been received for them, the persons respectively are liable to keep up. Besides these, a regiment of cavalry has one mule for the Veterinary
Surgeon, one for the Serjeant Armourer, one for the Serjeant Saddler, and one for the intrenching tools.14
A list of equipment is given by Mollo;15
Canteens and straps 1 per man
Haversacks 1 per man
Blankets 1 per man
Bill-hooks 1 per 10 men
Camp-kettles 1 per 10 men
Sets of forage-cords (4 per set) ½ set per horse [28 lbs per horse]
Picquet ropes 1 per 9 horses
Water buckets 1 per 12 horses
Nose bags (hair) 1 per horse
Cornsacks 1 per horse [to hold 30 lbs]
Reaping-hooks 10 per troop
Spades 1 per troop
Shovels 1 per squadron
Pickaxes 1 per squadron
Felling-axes 1 per squadron
The forage-cords, picquet ropes, nosebags and cornsacks were carried on the horse while the remaining equipment was carried in the regimental baggage.
Another item of equipment that is not on the above list is the water deck. An order issued at Badajoz, 31st Oct 1809;
Orders having been received to draft the horses of the 23d Light Dragoons…
The collars and chains will be delivered over with the horses…
…to transfer to the regiments…such number of swords, pistols carbines, sets of horse appointments, cornsacks, water decks, and blankets as will complete the effective strength of those regiments…16
A water deck is, apparently a square of canvas, 54 inches square.17 Red ones are visible in paintings of the Scots Greys at Waterloo.
A cornsack can hold 30lbs of corn, it also had other uses. In October 1811 Wellington examined the contents of the corn sack of a dismounted man of the 16th Light Dragoons. It contained; ‘his bags, three blankets, a jacket, &c, haversack, accoutrements, pots, pans, &c, &c’.18
Pairs of forage cords were replaced with pairs of forage nets at some point, but either could hold/secure approximately 30/40lbs of green forage.
Picket posts are mentioned on the official return form and in 1815, but there is no mention from anything relating to the Peninsular, just as with tents.19
There is a possibility that each man had a blanket or two in addition to that under the saddle, but this far from certain.
1 Lieut.-Col. William Tomkinson, The Diary of a Cavalry Officer, 1809-1815 (Frederick Muller, London, 1971), p. 3
2 Tomkinson, Diary, p.32
3 Tomkinson, Diary, p.37
4 Tomkinson, Diary, p.107
5 Tomkinson, Diary, p.197
6 Tomkinson, Diary, p.235
7 Julia V. Page, Intelligence Officer in the Peninsula (Spellmount, Tunbridge Wells, 1986), p.87
8 Peter Hawker, Journal of a Regimental Officer during the Recent Campaign in Portugal and Spain under Lord Viscount Wellington (J Johnson, London, 1810), p.52
9 Hawker, Journal, p.86 and p.88
10 John Mollo, Waterloo Uniforms, 1. British Cavalry (Historical Research Unit, London, 1973), p.78
11 G R Gleig, The Light Dragoon (George Routledge, London, 1850), p.35
12 An Officer of Dragoons, The British Cavalry in the Peninsula, in The United Service Journal, 1832, Part II, p.336
13 Tomkinson, Diary, p.25 and p.30
14 Lieutenant Colonel John Gurwood, The General Orders of Field Marshall The Duke of Wellington, KG (William Clowes, London, 1837), p.217
15 Mollo, Waterloo, British Cavalry, p.78
16 Gurwood, General Orders, p.55
17 Major G Tylden, Horses and Saddlery (J A Allen, London, 1980), p.123
18 Lieutenant Colonel John Gurwood, The Dispatches of Field Marshal The Duke of Wellington (John Murray, London,1838) vol VIII, p. 328
19 Gurwood, General Orders, p.585 and
It’s been rather a long time since I posted anything, so here’s a bit of an update.
First of all, my book is out, hurrah! Destructive and Formidable: British Infantry Firepower, 1642-1765. It’s available from Frontline Publishing or Amazon.
At the moment I am trying to get on with some research into British Cavalry from 1642 to 1815. I am making some progress, at both ends. I started looking at the English Civil War, but have recently been distracted by the Peninsular War. Still, it’s all good stuff.
I have begun work on my British cavalry research project, however, difficulties lie ahead as I no longer have access to the research resources I had when doing my PhD. In particular databases like Early English Books Online. This has a digital copy of every English Language book published before 1700. Now a lot of stuff has been quoted and published in secondary sources, but it is always advisable to go to the original source if at all possible. There are two main reasons for this, first, if a source contains one thing of interest there might be more. Secondly, you cannot be sure that the transcription of the source is accurate. Let me give an example.
The skirmish at Powick Bridge, one of the first actions of the English Civil War, was, according to one book, described as follows. ‘We let them [the Royalists] come up very near so that their horses’ noses almost touched those of our front rank, before our’s gave fire, and then their’s gave fire, and very well (to my way of thinking with their coolness). But all of a sudden we found all the troops on both sides of us melted away.’ Now, to me, that tells me that the opposing cavalry units were very close before the Parliamentarians fired first, followed by the Royalists. This firing seems to have settled the outcome of the engagement in favour of the Royalists.
However, in another book the account is given as follows. ‘As soon as Sir Lewis Dive’s troop [Royalists] had discharged upon us, we let them come up very near that their horses’ noses almost touched those of our first rank before ours gave fire, and then they [the Parliamentarians] gave fire, and very well to my thinking, with their carbines, after fell in with their swords pell mell into the midst of their enemies, with good hope to have broken them (being pretty well shattered with the first charge of their carbines). But of a sudden we found all the troops on both sides of us melted away, and our rear being carried away with them’. That is a very different account.
In the first version, both sides fire at very close range and the implication is that the fight is decided by firepower. In the second the Royalists seem to have fired at some distance and then advanced. The Parliamentarians fired at very close range and considerably disrupted the Royalists. this was followed by s period of hand to hand combat with swords before the Parliamentarians retreated.
Which is correct? Knowing the two works in question I would put money on the second, but it has to be checked, and who knows what other little gems there are in that account about cavalry combat?
I have at last managed to get myself underway looking at British cavalry. I have started with the English Civil Wars, or whatever you want to call them. I call them that because no matter how much you argue about the accuracy of that label, everyone knows what you mean.
Anyway, in the best academic manner I am currently reading what other think about English Civil War cavalry. What is interesting is that the same old stuff is being rolled out again and again, frequently citing the previous user of some ‘fact’ or opinion. And some of it just doesn’t ring true, somehow. I think this is where my experience as both a horseman and a reenactor comes in useful. I read something and don’t take it at face value, I ask what does that mean, practically speaking, how does it work, how does it happen? See my piece on Practical Military History.
I am absolutely delighted to tell you all that I am going to be receiving research funding from a heritage organisation in the USA. https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-New-Sotterlee-Project/142916989102109?ref=ts&fref=ts.
The outcome of the work will be a thorough examination and explanation of how British cavalry operated on the battlefield during the 17th and 18th centuries in a number of different theatres. These were primarily Western Europe and North America, but also included India and Scotland, which all presented different challenges requiring different approaches. The research will cover a number of subjects, including, but not exclusively:
• The drill and combat techniques of the individual soldier, including such things as the use of the sword and horsemanship.
• The combination of individuals into units and their organisation, how these units were moved and fought, their management and command and control.
• The tactics employed in battle under varying circumstances.
• Where possible the effectiveness of the cavalry would be analysed.
I have now started work on the cavalry research project, scouring the military manuals of the mid-seventeenth century and ploughing through contemporary accounts looking for useful material. There is some and some ideas are beginning to take shape, which probably means going back over everything again looking for what I missed the first time.
I have also started organising a group of people to recreate a detachment of the 16th Light Dragoons during the Peninsular War and Waterloo Campaign. That is interesting and challenging. But uniforms are ordered, I have a very nice reproduction Paget carbine, tack is expected shortly and I am looking forward to getting my hands on a 1796 Light Cavalry Sabre so I can start doing the 1796 Sword Exercise properly. I am also getting ideas about that which will contribute, in time, to the research project.