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Thread: 1796 LC sabre - French complaints

  1. #1

    1796 LC sabre - French complaints

    Regarding the British P1796 light cavalry sabre, I have heard many times on this forum and elsewhere (for example, Baden Favill mentions it in his little book on the 1796) the story that the French made an official complaint about its ruthless efficiency and the terrible wounds it inflicted. I have always thought this to be a myth as I have yet to find any contemporary reference or document in support.

    However, on the off-chance, does anyone know the origin of this story?

    Richard.
    Celeriter nil crede

  2. #2
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    Richard,

    I too have heard this many times and am trying to remember where I saw (I think ) an original documentation of this account, but yet again, I'm stuck here at work away from my reference material. Sure someone else will come up with it before I get home to do a bit of searching.

    I beleive it was more of a battle account than a "offical" compliant by French officers, but again, not exactly certain.


    Cheers,

    Bill

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    i read yesterday on an old thread or on the napoleonic series that this legend is attributed to the observations and battle reports, not to an official complaint i have never found a reference to an official report anywhere

    Martin Read writes
    'The blade was 33 inches in length (measured from hilt to tip in a straight line) and was broader near the tip than at the junction with the hilt, a feature which apparently evoked complaints from French officers who witnessed the wounds inflicted by the P1796 sword. As troopers were taught to cut only with the distal portion of the blade often only the final 6 to 8 inches of the blade were honed to full sharpness'
    http://www.napoleon-series.org/milit...ordpoint1.html
    i have found references to his piece as well as other battle reports but as i said no indication of a formal report

    dont know if this helps
    “Do you know what astonished me most in the world? The inability of force to create anything. In the long run, the sword is always beaten by the spirit.” Napoleon Bonaparte

  4. #4
    I think (but can't remember for sure, as the book is at my parents' house) that Philip J. Haythornthwaite mentions this in Weapons and Equipment of the Napoleonic Wars . He might cite a source for the story (if I am remembering correctly). I believe he discusses LeMarchant and his role in the 1796 pattern cavalry swords, and mentions the story of the French commenting on the wounds inflicted by the light cavalry sword.

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    Probably just good marketing!

  6. #6
    Well, I was completely wrong about the Haythornthwaite book on weapons and equipment. I probably read it in one of the Osprey Men-at-Arms series books (probably by Haythornthwaite).

    Edit: The quotes in Robson regarding the 1796 light cavalry saber are quite unfavorable, as is the one coment in the Haythornthwaite book I mentioned in my first post; "...we can answer for its utility in making billets for the fire..."

    The 1796 light cavalry sword is highly praised by people on SFI who use reproductions for cutting exercises. I wonder if it isn't a better fruit chopper than casualty-inflicting weapon?
    Last edited by J.G. Hopkins; 06-16-2006 at 04:12 PM.

  7. #7
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    Originally posted by J.G. Hopkins
    The 1796 light cavalry sword is highly praised by people on SFI who use reproductions for cutting exercises. I wonder if it isn't a better fruit chopper than casualty-inflicting weapon?
    I'm on my way out of the office for the weekend, but this caught my attention. Unless I'm mistaken, wasn't the average British cavalry trooper something of a neophyte when it came to fencing? I seem to recall some anecdote from the Crimea(?) in which an observer expressed great distress at the British trooper's habit of ignoring both cut and thrust and instead using his saber as an oversized brass knuckle, punching his opponents with the guard.

    Also, the high regard in which the 1796 light cavalry saber is held around here may illustrate precisely what you're suggesting; frankly, horses frighten me, so I can't speak to this sword's utility on horseback. However, soldiers often judge their equipment on a very different set of criteria than the collector; it seems to me that comfort, ease of repair, and simplicity count far more "in the field" than performance in combat. After all, cavalry melee took up a matter of moments, but one would be stuck hauling one's saber all over Iberia for months on end.

    Just a few disjointed thoughts on a Friday afternoon, please continue your well-informed discussion...
    Cicatrices Virgines Placent.

  8. #8
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    This article

    http://swordforum.com/articles/ams/cavalrycombat.php

    for those who haven't read it, cites several memoir descriptions.

    I can't imagine any sort of "official complaint" in those pre Hague convention days.
    hc3

  9. #9
    H.C.,
    I forgot that the article contained so many accounts of the 1796 LC in action. It sounds as if the quotes I have run across are from those who preferred the thrust.

  10. #10
    Originally posted by J.G. Hopkins
    Well, I was completely wrong about the Haythornthwaite book on weapons and equipment. I probably read it in one of the Osprey Men-at-Arms series books (probably by Haythornthwaite).

    Edit: The quotes in Robson regarding the 1796 light cavalry saber are quite unfavorable, as is the one coment in the Haythornthwaite book I mentioned in my first post; "...we can answer for its utility in making billets for the fire..."

    The 1796 light cavalry sword is highly praised by people on SFI who use reproductions for cutting exercises. I wonder if it isn't a better fruit chopper than casualty-inflicting weapon?
    Well, if you can get hold of a copy of Kaufman's book on Musket-ball and Sabre Injuries in the first half of the C19th , you'll see the results of various sabre cuts on bone, many of which were not fatal, at least right away. Which on the face of it would seem to support your point. With any weapon and in any life/death situation, you need to cause serious trauma to the central nervous system to reliably incapacitate your opponent; and with C21st hindsight, a cutting sword is not the tool to use if that's what you're trying to do (think of the law enforcement experience with firearms and suspects not "dropping"). This book quotes John Bell, writing in 1795 (bit early annoyingly!) who states that: "The difference between gunshot wounds and and the clean cut of the sabre is so great, that while a touch upon the head, by the grazing of an oblique ball, is very commonly fatal, it often happens that a soldier escapes, whose head has been so cut with the sabre as to lose the bone and scalp, and even part of the dura mater, with a wound, even of the brain itself, which requires many months to cure". The book shows various skull specimens with sabre cuts, some with signficant bone loss, and nearly all wounds show signs of healing or have associated histories that show the patient surviving, sometimes for many years afterwards. Even where the *yuck* brain was protruding from the wound during treatment. Infection and fungus following treatment appear to have been the killers in some of those cases. Elsewhere on the body, blood loss and infection would be the true killers; only a sword thrust to the heart (not likely with the 1796) or a severed artery (eminently possible I would think) would be near-immediately fatal wounds. Everything else would be survivable (with a lot of luck!).

    So certainly sabre victims could survive serious wounds (even if not for much longer afterwards). Men did fight on with severe cuts and missing limbs (no references to hand but I'm sure we've all seen sources). On the other hand, the psychological effect of any head wound or gash in the torso or limbs, from a weapon like the 1796, allied to the inevitable pain, shock and loss of co-ordination, probably made for an adequately effective removal of the typical victim from the fight. Overall, how many individuals were getting up and heading right back into the fight? Not many, I suspect. I also suspect that a weapon like the 1796 LC was very capable of removing a man from the fight in this way. There are certainly some very effective (ie penetrating) head cuts by sabres shown, two of which were on Frenchmen at Waterloo. No mention of the "complaints" though!
    Last edited by Jonathan S Ferguson; 06-17-2006 at 04:13 AM.

  11. #11

    Found it!

    I should have kept reading earlier - I've found a reference for the French complaints in the book I mentioned. In case anyone else can check it out before I get access to a copy, it's:

    Robson, B. (he of the army sword bible), 1990, "Warranted Never to Fail: The Cavalry Sword Patterns of 1796": In: (ed.A.J. Guy) "The Road to Waterloo: the British Army and the Struggle Against Revolutionary France, 1793-1815", published by the National Army Museum.

    The reference puts it as "complaints from French officers". Come Monday morning I should be able to check the source for you.

  12. #12

    Re: Found it!

    Originally posted by Jonathan S Ferguson
    I should have kept reading earlier - I've found a reference for the French complaints in the book I mentioned. In case anyone else can check it out before I get access to a copy, it's:

    Robson, B. (he of the army sword bible), 1990, "Warranted Never to Fail: The Cavalry Sword Patterns of 1796": In: (ed.A.J. Guy) "The Road to Waterloo: the British Army and the Struggle Against Revolutionary France, 1793-1815", published by the National Army Museum.

    The reference puts it as "complaints from French officers". Come Monday morning I should be able to check the source for you.
    Hello Jonathan,

    I was aware of the reference in Brian's essay on the 1796 in "The Road to Waterloo". Talking about the curved blade as a slashing weapon, Brian says " ... indeed, there were complaints from the French side about the horrific wounds it was capable of inflicting". This is exactly this sort of unattributed reference I was referring to when I started this post. It implies more than a little grumbling by the French amongst themselves, rather he is almost saying there was an official complaint from the "French side" to implicitly the "English side". Regrettably since Brian died in the middle of last year, we cannot ask him what his source was. However, Brian was not infallible as he would be the first to admit (neither are any of us of course), it may be that he was just perpetuating something he had heard. What I am looking for is the contemporary source of the statement. As I said above, I am yet to be convinced that it is not simply myth.

    Richard.
    Celeriter nil crede

  13. #13
    Ah, sorry Richard; I was hoping to follow the sources back to something more concrete, but I should have realised you'd already done something similar.

    So it's the old problem of writers lending weight to hearsay by using established sources that are themselves unverified? From what you say, I tend to agree. It sounds a little like other "silver bullet" myths, e.g. the various WW2 aircraft that were supposedly known as "whistling death" by the enemy, or the the Russian "poison bullet" used in Afghanistan, i.e. exaggerated, quoted out of context, misunderstood (e.g. the British Sea Harrier's nickname of "La Muerte Negra"), embellished, or just plain made up.

  14. #14
    Originally posted by Jonathan S Ferguson
    Ah, sorry Richard; I was hoping to follow the sources back to something more concrete, but I should have realised you'd already done something similar.

    So it's the old problem of writers lending weight to hearsay by using established sources that are themselves unverified? From what you say, I tend to agree. It sounds a little like other "silver bullet" myths, e.g. the various WW2 aircraft that were supposedly known as "whistling death" by the enemy, or the the Russian "poison bullet" used in Afghanistan, i.e. exaggerated, quoted out of context, misunderstood (e.g. the British Sea Harrier's nickname of "La Muerte Negra"), embellished, or just plain made up.
    Yes I think that's correct Jonathan. The problem is that when someone with the authority of Brian Robson uses such a reference, it tends to become an established fact (when clearly it isn't). In this instance, we are all too ready to believe since it is nice to think that we (the English) outdid the French by inventing the perfect sabre.

    Richard
    Celeriter nil crede

  15. #15
    Just out of interest, there's another example of the "French complaint" in Thoumine's "Scientific Soldier, the Life of General Le Marchant" - It [the 1796] was carried in the service for the next twenty years and earned a unique compliment from a French commander who protested against the fearful wounds it inflicted.
    Celeriter nil crede

  16. #16
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    Originally posted by Richard Dellar
    Just out of interest, there's another example of the "French complaint" in Thoumine's "Scientific Soldier, the Life of General Le Marchant" - It [the 1796] was carried in the service for the next twenty years and earned a unique compliment from a French commander who protested against the fearful wounds it inflicted.
    Richard

    Thank you for bringing up this fascinating subject. I am really fascinated by the British P1796 light cavalry sabre. Did the French try to copy this British model? I mean taking the fact into consideration that the French saw the efficiency of this blade, did they try to copy it?

    Regards

    Manouchehr

  17. #17
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    Of course the Prussians did copy it, and that was after having a quantity of British ones issued to Prussian soldiers.

    I would submit that in serious thought about sword use, there was always the unresolved tension between the long straight blade's usefulness in charge and pursuit and the short blade's melee value.

    Little is said about a third factor, the aesthetic one. That's a combination of fashion, history, and prettiness- on parade, in the hand, and on the reception floor.

    The Russians copied both French Napoleonic swords. The British abandoned both 1796 patterns and adopted a modified French light cavalry blade. The French stuck with both the mildly curved and straight blades, issuing each to different units.

    I would offer that those were the last meaningful sword selections. They followed an extended period in which large armies used, and were targets of, swords. After 1815, swords ceased to be used ENOUGH in battle for meaningful choices about their form as to the blade.

    The post 1840 sword changes were all made by soldiers with no experience of actual sword use in battle, or by those with limited experience which they extrapolated into general principles. And I do not discount the human, and especially 19th century, contempt for the old and desire for the new.

    Look at 1885, when one little fight caused the British army to panic itself into a huge sword testing and redesign program, despite the exampes of four major wars indicating that swords would never again matter on the battlefield in a big way, and that revolvers were far superior for combat.

    And 20 years later, another compete redesign spurred on by a fencing teacher! This after a personally received spanking in the South African war, in which swords were rarely, if ever, used. The pointless charge at Omdurman cast a very long shadow.

    I don't mean to suggest that or 19th century ancestors were stupid, they were not. But armies appear to learn only in significant battle.
    hc3

  18. #18
    Originally posted by hc bright

    I would offer that those were the last meaningful sword selections. They followed an extended period in which large armies used, and were targets of, swords. After 1815, swords ceased to be used ENOUGH in battle for meaningful choices about their form as to the blade.

    Even Le Marchant only viewed the sword to be of real value in the melee. He was of the opinion that the most effective weapon of the heavy cavalry at least was the weight of the horse.

    As far as the infantry is concerned, the date of redundancy can probably be pushed back to just after the 30 Years War and English Civil War when "push of pike" is replaced by line and square.

  19. #19
    Some interesting ideas there hc. A couple of comments (also with particular reference to Manoucher's question above):

    The Prussians adopted the 1796 design because they had been using British 1796 sabres since 1807. Britain sent supplies of weapons to all of her continental allies during the Napoleonic wars, so for example Sweden also adopted the 1796 as the basis for its P1808 light cavalry sabre (until Bernadotte became king they reverted to the French style). The Russians followed the French designs for their 1826 model sabres because they had also been using captured French sabres from the 1812 campaign and they looted thousands of French sabres during the French retreat across Europe in 1813-1814. So it was really a case of adopting the sabre you know and were familiar with rather than objective choice. (For Manoucher, no the French did not copy the English style, it is not in their psyche and never will be!)

    Interesting that you should also mention aesthetics. I agree that this is a rarely mentioned topic and it clearly formed part of the selection criteria as far as officers were concerned. I have just written an article for CA&M on your favourite (but elusive) P1796 heavy cavalry officers's sword where I think aesthetics did play a big part.

    Richard
    Celeriter nil crede

  20. #20
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    Originally posted by Richard Dellar
    Some interesting ideas there hc. A couple of comments (also with particular reference to Manoucher's question above):

    The Prussians adopted the 1796 design because they had been using British 1796 sabres since 1807. Britain sent supplies of weapons to all of her continental allies during the Napoleonic wars, so for example Sweden also adopted the 1796 as the basis for its P1808 light cavalry sabre (until Bernadotte became king they reverted to the French style). The Russians followed the French designs for their 1826 model sabres because they had also been using captured French sabres from the 1812 campaign and they looted thousands of French sabres during the French retreat across Europe in 1813-1814. So it was really a case of adopting the sabre you know and were familiar with rather than objective choice. (For Manoucher, no the French did not copy the English style, it is not in their psyche and never will be!)

    Interesting that you should also mention aesthetics. I agree that this is a rarely mentioned topic and it clearly formed part of the selection criteria as far as officers were concerned. I have just written an article for CA&M on your favourite (but elusive) P1796 heavy cavalry officers's sword where I think aesthetics did play a big part.

    Richard
    Thank you Richard very much for your input. I really appreciate it. You know how much I love this British saber . It has such an appeal. Thanks HC and David as well.

    Regards

    Manouchehr

  21. #21
    It certainly does appeal aesthetically, in a way that the majority of military swords haven't (for me). I'd love to get hold of an original piece myself. What's the going rate for a 1796 LC at the moment? Ebay and auction catalogues aren't very illuminating.

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    They range from $200 for sword only beaters to about $2500 for better condition blue and gilt officer's versions. Standard trooper swords with scabbards in ordinary conditition run about $500. Those are the auction prices I see.

    It has always seemed strange to me that p96 LC swords trade for less than U. S. m1860 cavalry swords, which are the most produced, most preserved, and most often seen 19th century sword by far.
    Last edited by hc bright; 06-18-2006 at 05:19 PM.
    hc3

  23. #23
    Just wanted to compliment the principals of this thread on their skepticism about the French complaint "fact." This level of critical reflection is generally lacking in sword studies, so it's nice to see us as a community questioning and evaluating our sources in order to improve the foundation of our knowledge.

  24. #24
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    I've noticed a big jump in price on these just recently. I used to reply to people interested in getting the repros that they could get a real one off ebay for a little more and while I've only owned a repro '96 HC, the difference between it and a real one is pretty marked. Proportions would seem to be pretty on, but the difference in weight is startling.

    It wasn't but a little over two years ago that I was offered a marked 96 LC with scabbard for about $350 (14LD). One sold on ebay a couple of months back for $1200.

    Another thing that has affected prices is the exchange rate of the US dollar against the pound. I'm sure that the increase has been less noticed in the UK than it is here.

  25. #25
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    Originally posted by hc bright


    It has always seemed strange to me that p96 LC swords trade for less than U. S. m1860 cavalry swords, which are the most produced, most preserved, and most often seen 19th century sword by far.
    I think the 1860 fetches a higher price in the US based solely on the love in this country of anyting attached the US Civil War. Doesn't matter if the sword is dated 1865 -- it will be described as having been carried in the Civil War and , if on ebay, possibly at Gettysburg.

    That's why many sellers (dealers and private) of the common British 1851 pattern cavalry sword describe it as "possible Civil War use."

    All in all, I've had both and prefer the p1796 LC sword. I would hated to have been broken infantry in the field being hounded by a regiment armed with these blades.

    Andre

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