British sabreurs through French eyes

Yesterday was the 205th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. I thought it would then be interesting to translate a few sword fighting anecdotes from French soldier memoirs facing British ones. It is very rare to find mentions of fights with British swordsmen in French sources, which is not that surprising when you consider that the two nations rarely fought on land; Waterloo and the Peninsular War being two exceptions. The British army was also very small compared to other continental armies numbering around 30 000 troops, compared to the hundreds of thousands fielded by the armies of Austria, Spain, France or Russia.

A few words of caution. I am always very wary of putting too much trust into fight descriptions. Most of the time, there are no indications that the accounts are true, which is a problem that was noted by Jean Norton Cru in his 1929 seminal work on First World War memoirs where a massive number of stories ended up being pure fabrications. Even repetitions are not necessarily a guarantee of authenticity. As Cru noted, several writers simply included common myths to their memoirs. There is also the issue of witness testimonies. People who have experience dealing with witness testimonies from crime scenes will know that these testimonies can vary widely, even from the people who were directly involved. There is also the important issue of propaganda. Cru also noted how many memoirs, especially contemporaries to the war itself, were written as pure propaganda pieces to encourage nationalistic sentiment and the morale of the troops. Marbot himself, whom you will read about in this article, notes how one of the British officers he fought threatened to publish in the London Gazette that he made a French officer of a general staff run away if he did not come and duel him on the field of battle. Add to this that most memoirs were written years if not decades after the facts, and these sources become less and less reliable when we are dealing with events including so many precise details such as sword fights.

The details reported here are nonetheless interesting, and sometimes confirm elements seen in practice or in medical treatises. They show the preference of the thrust in the French army, and probably why pure cutting swords such as the 1796 LC sabre were discarded after the Napoleonic Wars.

General Marbot fights hussards at Miranda de Corvo

I rushed on the English officer.. we meet… he throws to me a cut to the face with his sword; I plunge my sabre through his neck… his blood gushes abundantly on me, and the poor sod, falling from his horse, falls on the dirt which he bit hard! Nevertheless, the two hussars hit me from all around, mostly on the head. In a few second, my shako, my pouch and my pelisse were riddled, but without any of them wounding me. But finally, the older hussar, a soldier with a grey mustache, thrust about an inch of his sabre in my right flank! I riposted with a vigorous backedge cut and the edge of my blade, hitting the man’s teeth, and passing through his jaw, at the moment he was shouting to animate himself, cut his mouth and his cheeks up to his ears!… The old hussar went away rapidly, to my great satisfaction, as he was the bravest and the most enterprising of the two. When the younger one found himself alone against me, he hesitated a moment, because the head of our horses were touching, he understood that turning his back to me to enter the woods meant exposing himself to being hit. He still attempted to do it seeing several French voltigeurs coming to my aid; but he did not avoid the wound he was fearing, as, pushed by anger, I chased him for a moment and gave him a thrust in his shoulder which made him run even quicker! (Marcellin de Marbot, Mémoires du général baron de Marbot. Madrid-Essling-Torrès-Védras, 1891, p. 438)

Parquin duels a British officer

On the 15 of July 1812, a few miles from Salamanca, the Marshal Duke of Raguse, accompanied by some officers of his general staff, was doing a reconnaissance near the enemy line, when an officer, going past the flagships of his army, came towards the outposts of the French army, prancing his horse.

-What does this officer want? said the Duke of Raguse.
Being adjudant-major of his guard, I responded:
-My lord, this officer probably wants to exchange sabre strokes, and if I was not in the service of your excellency…
-Nevermind, he went on, you have my permission.

These words were barely pronounced that I put my horse on the gallop and joined the English officer. I parried the cut he threw at me and riposted with a thrust which threw him off his horse. I quickly passed my sabre through the reins of his horse and brought the animal on leash to the acclamations of the marshal and his aides, Richemon, Perregaux, Lancelot and Denys, the latter chief of squadron commanding the guard. I sent back the portmanteau of the officer while asking for news about him. I learned with pleasure that his wound, though dangerous, would not be fatal. (Souvenirs militaires du commandant Parquin, 1897 p. 208-209)

We always used our sabres with the point, while the English used only the edge of their sabres which had a width of three inches. So 19 times out of 20 their strikes would fall flat, but if the edge touched us once, the cut would be terrible, and it wasn’t rare to see an arm fall from its body. That’s what happened to the brave colonel Sourd of the 2nd lancers, whose arm disappeared at Waterloo. In front of Sabugal, we witnessed, along with the marshal’s guard, of a beautiful charge of dragoons led by general Carlier who was wounded and made prisoner, his horse cut down in the English line. It was easy to see the losses that the dragoons had inflicted to the Hanoverian chevau-leger, even though they were reputed as an excellent cavalry: each thrust given by the dragoons killed. (Souvenirs militaires du commandant Parquin)

At the battle of Majadahonda, the 22nd Dragoons fight the King’s German Legions’ Dragoons

I was commanding the 1st platoon of the reserve squadron. A ditch seperated us from the enemy. I jumped the first ditch. The English resisted the charge, the melee was terrible. We were so close that we could barely use our weapons. I fought hand to hand with an English officer, he cut my sabre’s guard, and the handkerchief around my wrist. I had the chance to give him a thrust that went through his body. (Mémoires manuscrits du Sous-Lieutenant Charles Gabriel de Sallmard de Peyrins)

Chasseurs à cheval de la garde, Waterloo

We must cite a feat of arms that is perhaps unique in history: The Guard’s cavalry, we stood in front. We saw coming toward’s us a regiment of English cavalry which was coming to charge us. They couldn’t know our numbers as we moved in tight squadron columns: “Let them come, said the generals, but no sabre cuts, only thrusts, good thrusts.” They fell on us with their red uniforms, high on their horses, drunk on brandy and sword in hand, making their bad sabre fly left and right… We opened a little… they enter… and within 10 minutes not a single red coat on horse. This beautiful regiment, which, I think, was part of the Royal Guard, was entirely erased… we also destroyed an English dragoon regiment and killed its general. (Lieutenant Chevalier, Souvenirs des guerres napoléoniennes)

Chasseurs de la garde at the battle of Benavente, 1808, by General Dezydery Chłapowski

Many chasseurs showed us the contusions on their backs and their arms, and the blacks marks on their faces. They told us that the English hit us with the flat of their sabres instead of the edge, as their sabres’ blade was too large and the blade did not allow them to guarantee their cuts like ours. (Général Désiré Chlapowski, Mémoires sur les guerres de Napoléon 1806-1813).

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