14 September 2020
Matthew Moss examines the edged weapons and their effectiveness during the Charge of the Light Brigade.
Late in the morning of the 25 October 1856, some 670 cavalrymen of the British Light Cavalry Brigade began their ill-fated charge down a valley just north of the small port of Balaclava. The battle had been raging since the early morning and had already seen a magnificent charge by the Heavy Brigade which broke General Ryzhov’s Russian cavalry.
The Light Brigade consisted of the cream of the British Army’s light cavalry, including the 4th (The Queen’s Own) Regiment of Light Dragoons, 8th (The King’s Royal Irish) Regiment of Hussars, 11th (Prince Albert’s Own) Regiment of Hussars, 13th Regiment of Light Dragoons, and the 17th Regiment of Light Dragoons (Lancers). Light cavalry was intended to be the highly mobile and flexible scouting arm of the Army. Mounted on smaller, fast horses their primary task was reconnaissance, scouting and skirmishing. On the battlefield, their role was rapidly to exploit any advantages or enemy weaknesses such as undefended artillery batteries or broken enemy units.
Opposing the Light Brigade were some 19 battalions of Russian infantry, nearly 50 guns firing from enfilading positions on both sides of the valley and ahead of them and a body of Cossack cavalry. In his famous poem Alfred, Lord Tennyson would accurately dub this the ‘Valley of Death’.
The charge climaxed as the brigade reached the battery of guns spread across the valley floor. The British troopers found themselves in a vicious mêlée facing both the Russian gunners and enemy cavalry. Each trooper was armed with a variety of weapons which included pistols, lances and, of course, swords.
Right: Pattern 1821 Light Cavalry Officer’s Sword, 1847-1854. (c) National Army Museum
A tale of two swords
The Light Brigade was predominantly armed with the 1821 Pattern Light Cavalry Trooper’s Sword, which had replaced John Gaspard Le Marchant’s legendary 1796 Light Cavalry Sabre. However, some troopers were probably armed with a newer sword: the Pattern 1853 Cavalry Trooper’s Sword. It is known for certain that at least some of the 11th (Prince Albert’s Own) Hussars were equipped with this. Both had similar slightly curved blades and were designed for both cut and thrust. The 1821 and 1853 swords both had 35.5in, flat-backed, single-edged blades and weighed roughly 2.5lb.
The Pattern 1853 had been designed as a universal weapon to arm both the light and heavy cavalry – perhaps up to 40% of British cavalry in the Crimean were equipped with the new sword. With the adoption of the Pattern 1853 it was intended that manufacture and supply would be simplified by having a single universal pattern for all cavalry; however, this idea was not well received by all cavalrymen. Some felt that the 1821 sword’s grip offered better ergonomics and blade alignment. The more cylindrical grip of the Pattern 1853 had a tendency to allow the sword to turn in the hand.
Right: Pattern 1853 Cavalry Trooper’s Sword, 1854 (c) National Army Museum
While the Pattern 1853’s three-bar guard was similar in design to the earlier Pattern 1821 sword, the 1853 Cavalry Trooper’s Sword introduced Charles Reeves’ patented ‘solid hilt’. This hilt had a solid tang which was the full width of the sword’s grip, which in theory produced a stronger weapon. The difference in hilts can be seen in the profile of the swords’ grips: unlike the wire-bound grip of the earlier Pattern 1821, the 1853 sword had two leather side pieces simply riveted in place.
The officers of the Light Brigade did not carry the new 1853 sword; instead they continued to use the Pattern 1821 Light Cavalry Officer’s Sword. Early examples of the 1821 Officer’s Sword had a pipe-backed rather than flat-backed blade, but this was quickly found unsatisfactory for both cutting and thrusting. As officers’ swords were expensive items to replace it is likely that some may still have been carried at Balaklava, as the earlier pattern was not officially replaced until 1845. As you would expect of an officer’s privately purchased sword the P1821 Light Cavalry Officer’s Sword was finished to a higher standard and had a better than the ordinary trooper’s sword. It often featured etched blades and fish-skin grips bound with twisted copper or silver wire.
Cut and thrust
The British troopers’ swords proved to be grimly effective and accounts from the battle attest to how both the cut and the thrust were ably used by the men of the Light Brigade. Private Grigg of the 4th Light Dragoons recalled an encounter with a mounted Russian artilleryman: “I made a cut at him and caught him in the mouth, so that all his teeth rattled together as he fell from his horse.” Grigg was obviously a deft swordsman because when charged by a Cossack Lancer he “knocked it [the lance] upwards with my sword, pulled up quickly, and cut him down across the face”.
The temper of the British swords and their sharpness is attested to by the number of accounts from the battle that describe the severing of enemy limbs. A trooper of the 8th Hussars noted that during his first encounter with a Russian gunner, who attempted to unhorse him with his rammer, he cut the Russian’s hand clean off with a savagely efficient cut.
Sergeant Bentley of the 11th Hussars recalled how Lieutenant Alexander Dunn came to his rescue when he was surrounded by Russian cavalrymen: “I saw him cleave one almost to the saddle … he severed a Russian lancer’s head all but off with a single stroke.” Colonel Mayow of the 17th Lancers killed a Russian cavalry officer during the mêlée by cleverly knocking off the Russian’s “shako with the point of his sword, and then laid his head right open with the old cut seven”.
Right: The nine-feet long, ash Pattern 1846 Lance was the 17th Lancers primary weapon. Note the two-tone red and white pennon near the tip of the lance ((c) National Army Museum)
A Hussar of the 8th recalled how effective giving point was when faced with a charging Russian lancer he dodged the lance and killed his opponent with a thrust which “entered his breast and went clean through him, coming out at his back”; the Hussar was forced to “draw it out with a wrench as he [the Russian] rolled over”.
Private William Butler of the 17th Lancers, who had switched to his sword once his lance was lost, engaged two Cossacks taking both with the point and leaving them “on the ground”, while Private Edward Firkins, of the 13th Light Dragoons, struck down a Cossack with a thrust through the Russian’s neck.
The 17th Lancers would have been armed with both sword and a lance of either the 1840 or 1846 patterns. These were approximately nine feet long and made from ash, light in weight - about 4lbs, but deadly in well-trained hands. Contemporary accounts recollect how some lancers lost their weapons during the charge and closed with swords, though Private John Penn of the 17th Lancers recalled killing a Russian gunner with his lance. Penn’s lance “going through his [the gunner’s] body” couldn’t be pulled free and Penn switched to his sword.
The Charge of the Light Brigade is perhaps the most spectacular moment of the Crimean War; it embodied the dash, bravery and bravado of Britain’s light cavalry. French Marshal Pierre Bosquet is said to have exclaimed while watching the charge: “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre. C’est de la folie.” – ‘It is magnificent, but it is not war. It is madness.’ Following the creation of the Victoria Cross in 1856, six members of the Light Brigade were awarded the new medal for their gallantry during the charge. For all of those men it was their weapons and skill-at-arms that enabled them to survive the battle.
Collecting the weapons
For those looking to collect the swords used during the Crimean War and the famous Charge of the Light Brigade there are numerous options. The Pattern 1821 Light Cavalry Sword can be found at auction and from dealers for anything ranging from £150 to £500 depending on the weapon’s condition. The finer, privately made Pattern 1821 Light Cavalry Officer’s Swords and presentation swords frequently appear at auction, often fetching between £500 and £1,000.
Pattern 1853 Cavalry Trooper swords seem to be less common and are frequently more difficult to find. When they do appear for sale they range from £290 to £500, depending on the condition and provenance of the individual sword.
A much cheaper option for collectors, historical enthusiasts and re-enactors might be the replicas of the Pattern 1821 Light Cavalry Sabre, available for around £60.
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