“Now’s your change, Charles – after them with the sword!’ With a thunder of hooves, Hornby led 1st Troop in hot pursuit of the Germans, followed a short while later by 4th Troop. The Dragoon Guards caught up with the Germans – from the 4th Cuirassier Regiment – in the village of Casteau, but as well as the patrol they were also confronted by a large group of enemy cavalry. Undaunted, Horby drew his sword and charged.”
With these words, Adrian Gilbert (2014, p. 16) describes the very first moment of the first major battle the British fought in the Great War: under the command of captain Charles Hornby, the British cavalry charges, saber drawn, against the German forces to achieve a brilliant victory in the Battle of Mons (21-09-1914). In this battle captain Hornby shows his exceptional courage and even obtains the questionable honor of being the first who killed a German soldier with his saber.
Hornby’s action evokes the image of medieval knights in shining armor, who bravely charged against their enemies, though… since the American Civil War (1861-1865) the role of the cavalry and it’s main weapon, the saber, gradually diminished and finally lost it’s strategical role on the battlefield. Horsemen swinging their sabers in the air became a romantic anachronism and didn’t stand any chance against heavy artillery or machine guns. A terrible example of this is the Battle of Mussino (Russia) on the 17th of November 1941 where the fourth Mongolian cavalry division, counting about 2000 horsemen, was slaughtered by the German artillery. Only a dozen Mongolian soldiers escaped while not one German was hurt… They should have known better because in the Napoleonic wars, officers had already understood that a cavalry charge was unable to break a line of well trained riflemen (Amberger, 1999, p. 34).
The purpose of this article is not only to give the reader a brief introduction to the use of the saber and some other ‘medieval’ weapons and armor (except helmets, which I have omitted for obvious reasons) in the Great War*, but also to show some other medieval style weapons from those days. With this article I hope to stimulate the research into the use of edged weaponry (and cavalry) during the First World War. The reader will discover that medieval practices and that the ‘Don Quixotes’ of the cavalry were not as far away as generally assumed. And though an anachronism, the saber was indeed a deadly weapon in the hands of a trained soldier.
In my article, which is an elaborated version of a lecture given on the 9th of November 2013, I will focus on the use of the saber in Belgium and by Belgian troops. Most of my pictures of weapons and armor come from the Collection in Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres (Belgium) or are from private collections of postcards and pictures.
‘Medieval’ weapons during the Great War
The traditional image of fighting during the Great War is that it happened with firepower and that close distance weapons – except maybe bayonets – only played a minor role. Of course this is correct, but one can not neglect the fact that some medieval looking weapons were actually used in the war.
This was certainly the case in hand-to-hand-combats, but mainly happened during ‘quiet operations’. For these operations, soldiers (sometimes convicted soldiers who tried to escape punishment by suicide actions) tried to sneak into the enemy trenches to gather information (by taking prisoners) or in certain cases even to kill other soldiers with dagger, bayonet or steel garrote wire.
“What are our weapons? The pistol, the rifle, the bullet, the bayonet, knuckle-dusters, hook knives with which to rip up, daggers for the heart, butchers’ knives for the throat, the bomb for random work, once the prisoner has been extracted and bags of aminal thrown into the dugouts, served up with time fuses, to blow whole companies to smithereens.” (Crozier, 1930)
Sometimes soldiers even made their own not official knifes, as this picture shows:
A much more popular weapon in close combat was not the bayonet… but the trench shovel. It was filed to have razor sharpness and sometimes one edge was even serrated. This made it possible to use the shovel as a saw, but it also made the shovel wounds more nasty.
Of course serrated knives also existed:
Source: Collection In Flanders Fields Museum, Ypres (Belgium)
Picture by Stijn Gevaert
A real weapon out of medieval times was the lance, used by German and allied forces, as the pictures above show.
But even more medieval were the many home made maces and clubs:
Similarities with medieval warfare are even bigger if we look at the breastplates worn by soldiers to protect their torso:
Germany (10 regiments), Russia (4 regiments) and France (12 regiments) had units of cuirassiers: cavalry soldiers wearing a breast-and backplate, called a cuirass. Most of them wore their cuirass only in military parades, with the exception of the French soldiers who seem to have escaped from Napoleonic warfare. Though they looked impressive, the impact of the (French) cuirassiers was relatively small in the Great War. Because their shiny cuirass was not only a bad protection against lethal bullets and also made the cuirassiers a beautiful target, the French army commandment officially forbade the cuirass in battle actions.
The sword as symbol of status… or more?
The medieval looking cuirass was abolished very quickly during the Great War, but the ultimate symbol of medieval combat, the sword, was kept in use. In the cavalry regiments every mounted soldier wore a saber, except the Australians. Besides this, every lower officer also had a saber, a custom still to be found in armies throughout the world.
Many of these sabers were very beautiful and it is highly questionable if they were really used on the battlefield. During my visit to the collection of the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres (Belgium) I had the chance to take tens of these officer’s sabers in my hand and I could only conclude that they were probably never used to fight: not a single notch, scratch or any other trace of combat could be found on the blade, guard or on the hilt. Many times the guards and blades were wonderfully decorated:
In my quest to find sabers which were really used,I suddenly made an amazing discovery. In a rusty scabbard, placed in the corner of the museum collection of the In Flanders Fields Museum, an unremarkable saber caught my attention. The hilt had a very economical design and immediately became clear that the weapon in my hands was the British M1908, a saber actually used in battle! On pulling the sword out of it’s scabbard I found the blade full of notches. Without any doubt this weapon had been used and was much more than a parade saber.
The last saber, designed to be used in a war, was the US M1913 cavalry sword, heavily based on this British M1908 (Loades, 2010, p. 466-468).
This American version was designed by lieutenant George Patton (1885-1945) who was quite remarkable for his flamboyant and eccentric leadership. During the Second World War he would even obtain the nickname ‘Old Blood and Guts‘. Patton was a fencer and as a pentathlete he participated at the Olympic Games of 1912. In those days the pentathlon consisted of shooting, swimming, horse riding, fencing and cross country running, spread over five days between the 7th till the 12th of July. In fencing, Patton obtained a third place, maybe because of his reckless style or maybe this style placed him third and not higher (Cohen, 2010, p. 221) ? When Patton returned to become an active soldier in Fort Riley (US), he became the first Master of the Sword in the Mounted Service School. In that position he designed his saber, seen by him as an extension of the arm and thus as ergonomic as possible.
According to Patton, the saber had to be used to thrust and cavalry had to be used as shock troops, which had to chase away the enemy, with what Patton called ‘Offensive cavalry spirit‘. Maybe because the recruits didn’t have time to train with this weapon and also because the war consumed soldiers at a very high rate, Patton focused his training on the thrust, which needed less practice than cutting. Research did show however that a full thrust from horseback causes a horseman to undergo two different things: “or he falls from his horse or he breaks his wrist…” (Amberger, 1999, p. 43) Hence the soldiers called their M1913 “old wrist breaker” (Cohen, 2010, p. 222).
In spite of Patton’s efforts, his saber was never used by the American army, because the military leaders saw the superiority of fire weapons above sabers and bayonets. The saber and the cavalry were for them, in a world full of military changes, “more of a folly than a useful manoeuvre (Latham, 1966, p. 35).”
Training with the saber
To further illustrate his ideas, Patton published a booklet, ‘Saber Exercise‘ (1914). In one paragraph, we can read his most important ideas: “The saber is solely a weapon of offense and is used in conjunction with the other offensive weapon, the horse, In all the training, the idea of speed must be conserved. No direct parries are taught, because at the completion of a parry the enemy is already beyond reach of an attack. The surest parry is a disabled opponent. In the charge and in the melee, the trooper must remember that on the speed of his horse in attack, and on his own offensive spirit, rest nine-tenths of his chances of success.”
I leave it to other people to study the exercises of Patton more into detail!
The recruits not only studied theory from books and fencing masters, in certain cases even wooden horses were applied to practice mounted fencing.
In many military schools officers were trained to handle the saber and the Olympic version of the saber was already in use in the Olympic Games since 1896. The chivalric training, bound by certain rules of fair play, used in the schools was probably not so very useful in the merciless and dirty fights on battlefield.
That was even the case if students trained until the first bleeding wound, as was custom in the student groups of universities in Germany and Austria: the Mensur.
In this tradition of fencing, which was very popular in the 19th century and even in some groups today, the fencers (called Paukanten) tried to hit their opponent in the face, using only their fencing hand, cutting from above with the blade of their weapon (Schläger). It was even forbidden (or seen as shameful) to draw back the head to avoid a cut (Matthey, 2012, p. 267-269). The aim was to show bravery and standfastedness in the face of risk of injury and pain, not seldom involving a bloody wound (called a Schmiss). Causing and obtaining the Schmiss was by some seen as an important badge of honour and some went to great lengths to gain it, occassionally even faking it, while others frowned upon it and regarded it as the mark of a bad fencers.
The martial value of this way of fencing (in which only one hand could be moved) was quite low, although overcoming one’s fear in battle or the fear of being hurt and to bleed of course had its merits. In this way the purpose of the Mensur fencing was quite similar to the practices of the Fechtschülen.
Wounds caused by the saber
A cut by a Mensur Schläger only caused some minor bleeding, but a cut by a military saber, no matter how hard or soft given, could cause permanent bodily injuries. At least the military saber could cause a deep bleeding wound or break bones (Bell and Bell, 1826, I, p. 68.). Policemen at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century used their blunt sabers mainly for this purpose, though the weapon was also used to make an impression on people.
At close distance in a cavalry engagement, the best targets were the hand used to control the reins, the reins and the sword hand, but also the face and the neck of the enemy.
Direct beheadings almost never occurred, but a cut on the front of the head could bleed enormously and had a great psychological effect. Besides this, other injuries could also happen as this picture shows (Hennen, 1830, p. 227 and Amberger, 1999,44)
Infantrymen who were attacked by cavalry soldiers mainly risked cuts on the upper part of their body, especially their shoulders (Bell and Bell, 1826,I, p. 194 and Hennen, 1830, p. 60 and 227). Sometimes soldiers were wounded on their lower arms, because they tried to protect themselves by holding their arms in front of their face to protect themselves (Bell and Bell, 1826, I, p. 68).
It is very surprising that detailed descriptions of how to treat saber, dagger or bayonet wounds are missing in medical handbooks used during the Great War. Not one word is mentioned in The Royal army medical corps training (1911), Larousse médical illustré de guerre (1917), or other medical books. To find treatments for saber wounds, one has to return to books written before 1850.
Thus we read in the medical handbook of Charles and John Bell that saber cuts are generally stitched and that care has to be taken to avoid inflammation (1826, I, p. 57). John Hennen also states several times that saber wounds might look terrible, but are easily treated, certainly when no time is lost. In the case of open wounds from sabers, stabbing wounds from lances, bayonets or daggers, most of the surgical treatment can be done on the field. First one must clean the wound of dirt and blood, and – if necessary – remove the weapon. The openings of the wound have to be brought as close as possible and then surgically sutured, sometimes with extra bandage covering the wound (Hennen, 1830, p. 59, 231, 280 and 285). In medical literature one can rarely find references to the treatment of stabbing wounds, caused by a saber, but on the other side, one can read that cuts to the head can cause a traumatic brain injury (Hennen, 1830, p. 256).
Some examples of the use of the saber on the battlefield
In the eyes of certain people the saber was a relic of long forgotten times, but it had been used (quite successfully in a few battles): the already mentioned Battle of Mons (12-08-2014) and the battle near the forest of Moreuil (30-03-1918) where the German cavalry was defeated by the Canadian Cavalry, to mention only a few. To my great regret, only a few stories can be found about individual soldiers who used their saber on the battlefield. Latham (1965, p. 35) mentions Lieutenant Gordon Flowerdew, who successfully used his M1909 at the Battle of Moreuil. He killed several opponents with his saber but died from his wounds after the battle…
Officially the last great cavalry battle was fought in Europe on the 12th of August 1914 where the German cavalry was defeated by the Belgian army at the Battle of Halen, but only few people know that the last cavalry charge happened…in Belgium. On the 19th of October 1918, near Burkel (Maldegem) the Belgian cavalry charged against retreating German soldiers to achieve a brilliant victory. In this (small) battle one high ranking officer was killed, count Francis de Meeus, with five of his cavalry soldiers (Raemdonck, 1992, p.27). Saber in hand, shouting “Long live the king”, and without dealing one blow, they were killed by the bullets of a German machine gun.
For many centuries the sword was the ultimate symbol of (male) courage and bravery on the battlefield and this might be the reason why people still opted to use it in the Great War. With saber in hand, brave (or naive?) soldiers tried to fight against windmills. Sometimes they managed to damage the wicks of those mills… but the mill kept on turning and mercilessly the proud sabreurs were killed or heavily mutilated in action. In this war, and all other wars to come, there was scarcely place for a decent and honest man-to-man- fight, except maybe in the darkness of the trenches where medieval times were still alive, or high up the sky in the fights between pilots… but the latter is not really a subject for historical european swordsmanship… This modern war replaced the sword with guns, heavy artillery (machine guns and cannons), bombers and gas attacks. In contrast to the “honest” wounds of edged weapons, the wounds caused by these modern weapons were not easily treated.
The chivalric ideal of the sword wielding knight was not buried and stayed alive in the ceremonial function of the saber, but in a high technological, merciless war there was no place anymore for simple steel…
Hereby, I wish to thank Dominiek Dendooven and Els Deroo of the In Flanders Fields Museum for their invaluable assistance. I also wish to thank my brother Stijn Gevaert for escorting me to this museum and taking the pictures used in this text. Further thanks to Jozef de Faudeur for letting me borrow books and postcards on horses and cavalry.
* Unarmed combat is omitted in this text, readers interested in this can take a look at Nash, J.S. (2012): The Martial Chronicles: In the trenches (http://www.bloodyelbow.com/2012/11/12/3614692/the-martial-chronicles-in-the-trenches)
Amberger, J.C. (1999): The secret history of the sword: Adventures in ancient martial arts. Multi-Media Books, Burbank.
Bell, C. and J. Bell (1826): The principles of surgery, as they relate to wounds, ulcers, fistulae, aneurisms, wounded arteries, fractures of the limbs, tumors, the operations of trepan and lithotomy. Also of the duties of the military hospital surgeon with commentaries, and a critical enquiry into the practice of surgery. (Vol. I) Thomas Davison, London.
Cohen, R. (2002): By the sword: gladiators, musketeers, samurai, swashbucklers and Olympic Champions. Pocket Books, London.
Crozier, F.P. (2008, reprint of 1930): A brass hat in no man’s land. Hesperide Press, London.
Delepine, Y., Windels, B. (text) and Dejasse, C. (illustrations) (1975): La belle époque de la cavalerie Belge. Paul Legrain, Brussels.
Gilbert, A. (2014): Challenge of Battle: the real story of the British army in 1914. Osprey Publishing, Oxford.
Hennen, J. (1830): Principles of military surgery; comprising observations on the arrangement, police and practice of hospitals, and on the history, treatment, and anomalies of variola and syphilis, illustrated with cases and dissections. Carey and Lea, Philadelphia.
Lloyd, R.A. (2006, reprint of 1938): Troop horse and Trench: the experiences of a British life guardsman of the household cavalry fighting on the Western front during the First World War 1914-1918. Leonaur Ltd, Milton Keynes.
Latham, J.W. (1966): British military swords from 1800 to the present day. Air Pilot Publisher, New York.
Loades, M. (2010): Swords and swordsmen. Pen and Sword Books Ltd., Barnsley.
Matthey, I. (2012): Eer verloren, al verloren. Het duel in de Nederlandse geschiedenis. Walburg Pers, Zuthpen.
Nash, J.S. (2012): The martial chronicles: in the trenches (http://www.bloodyelbow.com/2012/11/12/3614692/the-martial-chronicles-in-the-trenches)
Patton, G.S. (1914): Saber exercise. Government Printing Office, Washington. (http://www.pattonhq.com/saber.html)
Raemdonck (1992): Maldegem en de laatste Belgische cavaleriecharge tijdens het eindoffensief van 1918. Thesis submitted to become professional officer, Royal Military Academy Brussels.
Simmons, S. (ed.) (1984): The military horse: a story of equestrian warriors. Marshall Cavendish Limited, London.