Cut vs Thrust Napoleonic Flame War

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Cut vs Thrust Napoleonic Flame War

Postby Richard Marsden » Sun Sep 04, 2011 12:35 pm

As promised, an article with pictures and links on the cut vs the thrust from a historical perspective. Includes images or links to combat manuals. A classic debate in the realms of Western Martial Arts. Much of HEMA focuses on early German works, so I hope this later material proves amusing and informative.


19th Century Flame-War (The Cut vs the Thrust)

During the late 18th and early 19th century the definition of a proper sword varied from nation to nation. Initially, nations sought to choose the 'best' sword for their light and heavy cavalry units so that on the battlefield they would be more effective. Tests and studies were done, data collected and proposals put forth. Somewhere along the line, however, the matter of the cutting sword or thrusting sword became more than one of facts and figures- it became one of national pride.

HUZZAH!
The gallant warcry "huzzah" of the light cavalry and their colorful uniforms inspired the very definition of a cavalryman. The hussars were used by numerous European nations and modeled off Hungary's light cavalry. They were seen as swift, brave, dashing and daring. Their spirited behavior existed throughout the ranks.

Antoine de Lassale was a general in Napoleon's army and commanded the hussars. He rode into battle with a pistol in one hand, his curved saber in the other and the reins in his teeth. His delight of drink led to the founding of the Society of Alcoholics and his drinking binges were so great that a fellow French General asked if the wild Lassale planned to drink himself to death.

Lasalle remarked that any hussar not dead by thirty was a blackguard. Being a blackguard in the Napoleonic era was apparently a very unpopular thing to be. Lasalle continued to drink, swear, and fight outrageously until his death in 1809 leading a charge against the Austrians at Wagram. He was thirty-four years old.

Image
Lasalle and Marshal Murat (A mutton-chopped cavalry man) say 'sup' to one another and admire their mutually bling-tastic attire.

The hussar's choice of weapon was a light, curved saber in the fashion of the Hungarians. This Eastern European weapon was the choice of light cavalry in England and France during the Napoleonic Wars and much admired for its ability to be rapidly used upon fleeing troops. Other blades that were popular at the time were Egyptian, which also were curved sabers and could be used identically to the Hungarian.

Image
The blade could bear a strong curve and be quite stout such as this Hungarian (possibly) blade of the late 18th or early 19th century.

Image
Other blades were more uniform in terms of width. This French hussar blade was used during Napoleon's campaign in Egypt.

Historical manuals on the use of the curved saber are available in English. These manuals usually refer to the use of the Hungarian (or Austrian) blade when using a curved weapon. Examples of manuals can be found in the works of Angelo.The actual Hungarian method of swordplay was different to what England and France actually used and it is better to say the Hussar, his sword, his means of fighting were all influenced by Hungary- not directly copied.

http://jwma.ejmas.com/articles/2011/jwmaart_thompson_0511_1.htm
Russ Mitchel explains what makes up the true Hungarian system in an interview in the journal of Western Martial arts.

In England, late 1700's battles revealed severe flaws in their light cavalry weapons. This was an issue of poor-balance and workmanship in which a sword would rattle to pieces after only a few strokes ( a trend that continued throughout the Napoleonic Wars despite attempts to improve quality). Le Marchant designed for the British a better sword. He was a fanatic about the cut being the best means of inflicting harm during a battle. He argued that thrusting weapons, while technically more fatal to the opponent, were impractical to use in the heat of battle where rapid chops won the day. He proposed a 1796 light cavalry blade that remained popular throughout the Napoleonic wars and furthered the cause of cutting weapons. The blade was of Indian and Hungarian inspiration and had a pronounced tip. This was to make the act of cutting easier and more effective. Thrusting with the weapon would be nearly impossible due to curvature and shape - Le Marchant's intent! This purposeful extreme curve gave rise to some complaints that the weapon wasn't flexible, however it was the heavy cavalry saber that drew the most ire.

Image
http://www.napoleon-series.org/military/organization/c_swordpoint1.html
Martin Read gives an in depth history of the British 1796 Light Cavalry Blade.

Heavy Cavalry
While the cutting, Hungarian-style blade was nearly universally accepted in the light cavalry of the late 1700's and early 1800's, the heavy horse of the era were not so uniformed.

France
The French preferred a monstrous thrusting weapon. French statistics led to an ever-more effective heavy cavalry arm. French heavy horsemen wore a cuirass that covered the chest and the back, as well as wore helmets to protect the head. The armor was noted as heavy and cumbersome to the point that Wellington likened fallen French cuirassiers to upended turtles. Despite the supposed (and possibly mythical) disadvantaged once unhorsed, the cuirassiers of France were terrors on the field when mounted. In an exchange with their Austrian rivals, the French heavy horse came away the victor. The Austrians and French both used heavy thrusting swords, but the Austrians only wore breastplates, and their exposed backs proved to be a critical weakness.

The French heavy cavalry sword was created to be a weapon specifically for horseback and the thrust. The blade is 37 inches in length and the sword weighs three pounds. It is used one-handed giving the overall sword a length of 44 inches. In combat the sword was held in the 'prime' position (the point is shaped in such a way as to encourage this) and defense was not a concern since body armor was worn.

Image
French curiassers do their thing!

Quality of the blades varied. Officers had better swords than the common cavalryman and as the Napoleonic Wars drug on quality of the French blades declined as did their ability to find proper mounts. In terms of raw data, the French were absolutely convinced their thrusting weapon was superior to the heavy cutting swords used by other nations. The issue of the thrust vs the cut became one of national pride and the French heavy cavalry blade is an example of this. The XII for example is just too clunky to swing with effectively. The criticisms of this fact made the English point out in the heat of battle, French cuirassiers after their initial charge were weakened because they were forced to use their weapons to cut with, especially at close quarters. France's counter-claim was that the British heavy cavalry swords couldn't thrust so they'd lose the initial exchange.

Image
An old soldier (Dave Kelly) demonstrates that once you get old and smart you get to have an impressive bookshelf and sword. Because I'm a High School teacher, when I retire I will get one book and a plastic knife. Link to Dave Kelley's impressive armory - http://s747.photobucket.com/albums/xx115/kelly1863/

British Monsters
The British took on a different tactic when creating their heavy cavalry swords. Le Marchant, the creator of the 1796 Light Cavalry blade, was from a school of theorists who were absolutely convinced the cut was superior to the thrust. While statistical data seemed to indicate that the thrust was more fatal, the cut-camp had answers to this.

First, the cut produced wounds that while not fatal, were scary and would demoralize the enemy. John Smith gets stuck in the chest and drops dead is not as scary as Pierre Smite' having his scalp split to the point he needs to hold his face on.

Second, after the initial collision and the tight press of bodies and horses, the cut was more natural and easy to use. Thrusts require precision while cuts could travel in wide arcs. The claim the British made was that even the French tried to start hacking once it came to a protracted melee.

Third, THINK OF ENGLAND!

The heavy blade approved by the Cavalry Board drew heavy criticisms but was adopted by nations opposed to Napoleon including Sweden and Portugal and became part of the struggle against the French- facts be damned. In truth, there is evidence to indicate that the British cavalrymen wanted the best of both worlds. Several samples of the 1796 heavy cavalry sword have been modified- their original hatchet tips meant for cutting having been ground down into spear-points.

http://www.napoleon-series.org/military/organization/c_swordpoint.html
Article on modified heavy cavalry swords.

Image
An unmodified 1796 heavy cavalry saber. Note the tip.

The origins of the 1796 heavy cavalry saber is debatable with German swords, schinovias, mortuary swords and other back-swords being possible contenders. Additionally, 1700's Swedish heavy cavalry blades might also be an originator. They bore a similar shape but even more weight at the tip and a weight of five pounds! Heavy indeed for a single-handed weapon.

Image
Slipping the leg using a Scottish backsword from Angelo's manual. The backsword of Scotland inspired the manuals of the era which claimed to be Hungarian and Scottish in origin, but were not pure systems. The technique of slipping the leg can be found in Fiore's 1409 work, and in the manuals of Fabris and Giganti in 1606.

The End of the Debate (As if people would ever stop arguing!)
The Napoleonic Wars created two distinct camps, those who favored cutting and those thrusting. Both sides cited facts as well as the harder to define psychological factors. While in terms of the light cavalry, the curved blade won the day, the heavy cavalry blades demonstrated what happens when two nations put national pride and a lot of money and time into a debate.

French heavy cavalry blades became the ultimate thrusting weapons. The blades were designed to do one thing only and performed poorly at other tasks. This was intentional.

British heavy cavalry blades were the same.

Soldiers wanted a bit of both as seen in the modifications some made to their swords. In the end, the debate ended with the Napoleonic Wars. Once the Emperor was exiled (then exiled again) the British switched to a uniformed cavalry that was essentially all light. The curved sabers were done away with and a thinner thrusting weapon that could be used to cut took its place. It was acknowledged that on the charge the thrust was best, and afterwards a soldier had to have the ability to use his weapon in the most versatile fashion possible.

America's Civil War should have given Europeans and Americans some sense that the days of the headlong cavalry charge were all but over. However, militaries are by their nature conservative institutions loathe to drop old ideas or adopt new ones. The airplane wasn't taken seriously for example. In Germany, Field Marshal Heinz Guderian in his memoirs makes repeated references to how tanks were not considered valuable and never fully understood by Hitler and his commanders even late in the war.

Throughout WWI Douglas Haig (who repeatedly tried to get my great grandfather killed but only succeeded in accidently gassing him) was convinced cavalry would one day break through the German lines and run rampant.

During this time-period George S. Patton, a man who wished he'd been born a few centuries prior, developed America's last 'true' cavalry saber. The weapon is based off the British India-pattern thrusting sword, and like the India-pattern can cut if needs be. Patton's saber has a pistol grip and he designed it after becoming the Master of the Sword in the US army, competing in the Olympics, and traveling to Europe to learn swordsmanship from the finest masters.

Compared to the heavy, clunky and limited swords of the Napoleonic Era, the Patton saber handles smoothly and easily putting an end to the cut vs the thrust debate by incorporating both. Or so he thought.

Image

http://sbgswordforum.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=swordreviews&action=print&thread=16572
Patton's Sword, the ultimate and last cavalry saber. Includes images as well as how-to drawings from a manual.
The debate is over.

Or is it?
In 1943 the German army found itself attacked by men on horseback armed with curved sabers. They were Cossacks who struck during the winter and hit hard and rode off before the Germans could mount a response.

Image
Staged photo. Since 'the last' anything is important many nations claim to have performed the last traditional cavalry charge including Britain, Poland, Russia, and Mongolia (in 1949!).

Bibliography

This article is a little less-scholarly and has a humor bend to it, and as thus is not as well cited as prior work. However, I did include in-text references and links and would point anyone interested in Napoleonic weaponry and tactics to read any of Phillip J. Haithornthwaite's work. The Napoleonic Source-book is all you'll need! The old-soldier also provided extra information and the article has altered a bit given his input.
Last edited by Richard Marsden on Sun Sep 25, 2011 3:55 pm, edited 5 times in total.
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Re: Cut vs Thrust Napoleonic Flame War

Postby Myles Cupp » Sun Sep 04, 2011 4:59 pm

Nice little overview there. I'll be passing this thread on to another forum I am a member of which exclusively discusses Napoleonic warfare. :)
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Re: Cut vs Thrust Napoleonic Flame War

Postby Richard Marsden » Sun Sep 04, 2011 9:48 pm

@Thanks Myles! Hope they don't get bored with it or treat it as a silly samurai vs knight debate come back to haunt them. Not my intent! I have no idea what 'blank vs blank' topic gets flamey on a Napoleonic board.
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Re: Cut vs Thrust Napoleonic Flame War

Postby Myles Cupp » Sun Sep 04, 2011 11:28 pm

Richard Marsden wrote:@Thanks Myles! Hope they don't get bored with it or treat it as a silly samurai vs knight debate come back to haunt them. Not my intent! I have no idea what 'blank vs blank' topic gets flamey on a Napoleonic board.


I don't think so. I should add that its a community of people dedicated to modding historically accurate and realistic videogames for Napoleonic Warfare. The exact specifications and skins of period uniforms are among the things they get EXTREMELY picky about.

Of course, I tried to log in only to find my account is quite inactive from being a few years absent from the board. Oh well, I'll see if I can do account recovery or some such thing.

In case you're interested, here is the forum:
http://www.thelordz.org/forum/index.php

And here is their subforum specifically for Napoleonic history:
http://www.thelordz.org/forum/viewforum.php?f=12

Its a pleasant mixture of amateur enthusiasm and some really interesting academic scholarship. As a matter of fact, hustle your way over to the Misc. HEMA forum for a repost of something really interesting I found there. :)
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Re: Cut vs Thrust Napoleonic Flame War

Postby william_cain_iii » Mon Sep 05, 2011 5:18 am

At least tell us if camps do develop and a new church of Richard Marsden crops up.
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Re: Cut vs Thrust Napoleonic Flame War

Postby Richard Marsden » Mon Sep 05, 2011 6:57 am

@William Cain III - If only I can get my 'camps' to buy my book. I could be making dozens of dollars! Imagine what I could do then!

@Myles - The modders have my respect by the way. I do like Napoleonic Era material- but I lack the perfectionist-eye and am glad people do have it. I use perfectionists to edit my novels, forum posts, etc.

One of my most profound video-game events was when I was younger I played a game about Waterloo. Every unit and feature of the battlefield was present and the graphics were good for the time. I had at that point known nothing of the Napoleonic era and merrily played the French side, (don't tell my English mother) unaware of how things would work out or what happened historically. I remember saying, "Well, that's not good..." as Prussians showed up late in the day and I was quite busy with the British. It was that game that led me to buy buckets of Napoleonic books and years later sent me to AMU.

Horror-Literature meets Napoleonic Era. Written by me, read by a professional. http://pseudopod.org/2010/02/12/pseudopod-181-spirit-of-nationalism/
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Re: Cut vs Thrust Napoleonic Flame War

Postby Joey Nitti » Mon Sep 05, 2011 4:44 pm

got some interesting information in the article, and quite amusing too!
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Re: Cut vs Thrust Napoleonic Flame War

Postby Myles Cupp » Tue Sep 06, 2011 9:01 pm

I've just crossposted the link to this thread on their forum after recovering my lost password. Here is the link:

http://www.thelordz.org/forum/viewtopic ... 12&t=12715

:)
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Re: Cut vs Thrust Napoleonic Flame War

Postby Jeffrey Hull » Tue Sep 06, 2011 10:13 pm

Excellent article there, Richard! I did learn a lot. And indeed, it teaches us that "flame-wars" of the past actually dealt with life-and-death concerns, unlike all too many of the flame-o-ramas of modern InterWeb - hah!

One conjecture: Could the Napoleonic Era British preference for cutting versus thrusting be a sort of late surviving skeuomorphism which ultimately goes back to the favoured kind of swording advocated by that most Englishly patriotic/nationalistic Master of Defence, Mr. George Silver (circa 1599)? :?: :geek:

Also would suggest the tangentially related book Dog Soldiers about the Cheyenne horse-warriors who wielded Army 1840 and 1860 cavalry sabres more efficaciously and enthusiastically that the contemporary US Army Cavalry against whom they fought.

I would only hasten to add one thing that compliments any discussion of Napoleonic Era swordy-stuff - mention of and link to a fine cinematic feature directed by Ridley Scott based and upon a fine short story by Joseph Conrad:

The Duellists

Enjoy,
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Re: Cut vs Thrust Napoleonic Flame War

Postby Mike Ruhala » Tue Sep 06, 2011 11:49 pm

Jeffrey Hull wrote:One conjecture: Could the Napoleonic Era British preference for cutting versus thrusting be a sort of late surviving skeuomorphism which ultimately goes back to the favoured kind of swording advocated by that most Englishly patriotic/nationalistic Master of Defence, Mr. George Silver (circa 1599)? :?: :geek:


It's possible there might have been some kind of nationalistic preference but the British definitely weren't alone. The Prussians developed a really nice cut-oriented cavalry saber some time in the first half of the 1800's and it was subsequently adopted with various modifications, mostly to the hilt, by other nations... including the US, though I believe we got ours by way of France. I've owned Spanish and Italian versions, they're wonderful weapons and I wouldn't feel poorly armed with either of them if facing an arming sword or even a longsword. Sabers of this type were gradually replaced in the second half of the century but remained popular in the field decades after their official replacement.
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