Check the Source!

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?

Finally underway.

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.

More anon.

Research Funding

I am absolutely delighted to tell you all that I am going to be receiving research funding from a heritage organisation in the USA.

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.

Book update 1

Today I posted the first draft of my book to my publisher.

Book Deal

I have just signed a deal for the publication of my doctoral thesis; ‘Destructive and Formidable’: British Infantry Firepower, 1642 – 1765. The publisher is Frontline Books, part of Pen & Sword. It is, however, going to be about a year before it comes out. In the meantime I shall start work on a companion volume dealing with cavalry.

Volunteer Manuals

Interpreting military manuals is not easy. The problem is that professional soldiers knew what they were doing and their skills, drill, practices and procedures were taught to them by other professional soldiers. The purpose of manuals seem to have been to establish regulation, not to be teaching aids. This leaves the modern historian, with no access to a veteran, in something of a difficulty.

Fortunately those involved in raising and training volunteer units were in the same position as the historian today. True, they frequently hired a professional NCO or drill master, but they also had access to manuals written specifically for them. In these things are spelt out and explained in just the way required by a historian.

In the introduction to The Light Horse Drill, (London, 11798), p. iii, the unknown author writes of the Drill Regulations that ‘the rudiments of the exercise are of course familiar (to Regular Officers), and a detailed explanation of them would have unnecessarily increased the bulk and expence of this book’. He adds that his work is intended as an introduction to the Regulations. For which I am grateful.

The Next Research Project

After some thought, pottering about looking at stuff, talking to a couple of people and thinking that whatever I do needs to be something enjoyable, I have settled on taking a look at the combat techniques and practices of British Cavalry. I am going to start in the English Civil War and take it all the way up to Waterloo.

My study of infantry firepower was originally also going to go up to Waterloo, but as it was a thesis I ran out of words in 1765.  I did think of continuing the work on infantry up to Waterloo, but a lot of work as been done on the American War of Independence and a huge amount on British infantry in the Napoleonic Wars, so I am not sure that would add much.

Cavalry, on the other hand, has been relatively neglected, beyond fairly standard campaign, or regimental, narrative histories. My approach, as defined in my article on Practical Military History and employed in my doctoral thesis, ‘Destructive and Formidable’: British Infantry Firepower, 1642 – 1765, will be concentrating on how things were done, rather than the straight narrative.

In a slight departure, I also intend to actually apply the lessons learned to the Napoleonic re-enactment group that I am putting together. It will be fascinating to see rediscovered skills put into practice.

1796 Sword Exercise

As part of my research into British cavalry I have started trying to learn the 1796 Sword Exercise devised for British cavalry by Le Merchant. It is not easy. I am having to use an American Civil War sabre that is a little longer and, I think, a little heavier than a 1796 Light Cavalry Sabre, but lighter than the Heavy Cavalry Sabre. Although the illustrations show a Light Dragoon with the Light Cavalry sabre the Exercise is clearly meant for both Heavy and Light Cavalry.

What has helped considerably is doing exactly what the manual says and marking the lines of the six cuts on a wall at the correct height. The cuts are actually quite short, but that’s all they need to be, given the size of the target, another person on a horse and that they need to be kept high to avoid your own horse.

The hardest bit is keeping the arm straight and the hand above shoulder height, it is all in the wrist. there are a couple of key quotes;

‘In opposing cavalry the arm becomes a pivot, round which the wrist wheels the sword independent of any other action but what may be derived from the shoulder.’

‘It should be always remembered that the force of the stroke against a person on their own level, must be derived from the sweep of the blade, and not from the motion of the arm.’

Still, it is hard work. Half an hour at a time is the most I can manage at the moment and my arm aches.

What to do?

So far all my endeavours to secure funding in order to continue my research have come to naught. Rather disappointing as quite a few people who are familiar with my work seem to think I am on to something and should keep going. It is impossible to be sure, but I suspect that military history is still not seen as a serious field in some quarters. But I think that is a topic for another day, soon.

Consequently the rather grand scheme outline in my post about Proposed Research will have to go on hold in favour of something a little more modest. At the moment I am torn between a couple of ideas. The first is an examination of British cavalry over a similar time span to my thesis to see if there is any tactical or doctrinal development. Just how different were the cavalry of the English Civil Wars and the Napoleonic wars. Obviously their appearance is very different, but a horse is still a horse, or is it? Did the military horse change, did the way it was used change? the second idea is to take an in-depth look at how British Napoleonic cavalry did things. In this I have to admit to being influenced by the facts that I am getting involved in Napoleonic re-enactment as a British Light Dragoon in order to go to Waterloo in 2015 and that there may be a market for such work because of the interest that will be engendered by Waterloo, if the scarlet isn’t swamped by the khaki of WWI. Which is another possible topic.

Either way, the big obstacle will be finding the wherewithal for the inevitable trips to London and the British Library, The National Army Museum and the National Archives.