Continuing the brief discussion on cavalry weapons started yesterday…
The simplistic popular view of history maintains that the machine gun made cavalry an obsolete anachronism by the First World War. The truth is not so clear cut. At least as early as the American Civil War infantry weapons could deliver enough firepower to devastate a cavalry charge at medium range. The increasing military use of obstacles such as wire and entrenchments were a further problem for cavalry. Cavalry continued to have an important role for strategic operations such as raiding. The horse was the best cross country system that the military had available. Tracked vehicles did not start to see wide military usage until the latter part of the First World War. Wheeled vehicles were dependent on firm ground or roads and supplies of petrol. Cavalry forces were a significant component of the Russian Civil War 1917-1922. During the invasion of Poland a cavalry attack successfully dispersed a battalion of German motorized infantry. German propaganda changed this event to a futile “charge against panzers” that many people still believe actually happened. During the Russian campaigns both the German Army and the SS expanded their cavalry components into a force of several divisions' strength.
By the beginning of the 20th century cavalrymen mainly used their horses for transport and were encouraged to dismount for combat. The cavalryman effectively became a mounted rifleman. Recognizing this in 1904 the British Army took the controversial step of issuing both cavalry and infantry with the same pattern of rifle, the SMLE. For mounted combat multi-shot revolvers and automatic pistols saw increasing use. In the latter half of the 19th century the practice of mounting a sword on the saddle rather than the cavalryman's belt becomes increasingly common. A dismounted cavalryman no longer expected to need his sword to defend himself. Given this, it may be asked why cavalry swords were not only issued, but continued to be refined and developed.
While large scale charges had become costly shock action could still be highly effective against disorganized or retreating infantry or softer targets such as artillery and baggage trains. A cavalry unit could not outgun a larger formation but correctly applied shock action was capable of proving decisive.
In the latter part of the nineteenth century a debate had raged over whether a cavalry sword should primarily be a cutting or a thrusting weapon. The British 1908 sabre was a victory of the latter school of thought. Theoretically the 1908 sabre was also intended to be capable of cuts but in practice the designers seem to have not worried too much about trying to make it an effective slashing weapon. The result resembles a sort of “horseman’s rapier”. The blade is often described as “T-section”. The forte has a strengthening rib down the back and is fullered to within 8 inches of the point. The blade becomes narrower and double edged for the last six inches. While cuts can be made with a 1908 I feel it is unlikely to bite that deeply. The grip of the trooper’s model was made of plastic. The officer’s model (the 1912 sabre) uses leather Aluminium was considered for the guard material but steel was used on the final pattern.. The grip has a curved shape and features a prominent thumb rest. For me, one of the most striking features about the grip is its length. The entire hilt is 6¾ inches long. I believe this feature is intended to allow part of the grip to rest pressing up against the wrist area and counter-balance the blade when the weapon is held in the charge position. A variant intended for Indian troopers had a shorter grip to accommodate smaller hands. The point of the blade aligns nicely with the extended arm and the 1908 does not require the wrist and forearm strength needed to manipulate some slashing sabre designs. In an age when more time had to be spent on marksmanship rather than sword exercise or when recruits were briefly trained conscripts this was an advantage.
The 1908 has a blade of 35¼ inches length, 1 inch wide and 5/16th inch thick. Weight 2lb 15¾ oz. Balance point is 3 inches ahead of the guard. The balance is such that the 1908 feels lighter than some lighter swords such as the 1796 Light Cavalry Sabre. The reach of the 1908 has been described as similar to a 1896 pattern cavalry demi-lance held in standard grip. As a thrusting weapon the 1908 is used in much the same way as a cavalry lance but is more convenient to carry hung from a saddle. It proved itself to be a handy weapon even against lance-armed foes during the Great War. Many potential adversaries in the colonies still used body armour that had been found to be effective against slashing cavalry weapons. In many “modern” armies heavy cavalry still wore breastplates. The thrust of a 1908 with the speed and weight of a horse behind it would counter these protections.
I have heard it suggested that the 1908 “was not designed or intended for sword fighting” but I take that statement with some reservation. In the early 20th century the British Army was still policing the Empire and many of its enemies still made effective use of spears, lances and swords. More modern foes would be expected to use bayoneted rifles. George Patton’s manual for the similar US 1913 saber shows a number of guard positions intended to protect man and horse. Interestingly these are similar to the guards shown for use with a cavalry lance in some other manuals.
The 1913 cavalry saber invented by George Patton had a double edged blade, although the upper edge was only sharpened for part of its length. It is often described as being influenced or derived from the British 1908. Patton studied swordsmanship in France so it is likely that French ideas and designs also made a contribution. The manual for the 1913 saber (Saber Exercise 1914) often emphasises that the speed of the horse was an important component of an attack with a saber. The manual does not bother teaching parries and encourages the trooper to ignore an enemy's blade since “The speed of the horses is such that the enemy will be out of reach before the trooper can make an effective lunge at him (if parrying), whereas if he disregards the other’s saber and lunges at his body, he will, in so doing, force his adversary’s saber aside and transfix him."
The 1908 was a logical design for an age when the cavalry had become mounted riflemen and did not routinely use shock action. To claim the 1908 was introduced after swords had become obsolete is a nonsense, however. A number of successful sword charges were conducted during the Second World War. Shock cavalry action may have been used as late as the 1970s in Rhodesia. How effective the 1908 sabre would have been if introduced a century or more earlier is hard to judge. Certainly cavalry had made effective use of thrusting swords in the past. The medieval knight had his estoc and the Polish Hussar his Koncerz.
An interesting bit of trivia is that the first German killed by a British Solider during World War One was killed by a 1908/1912 sabre.