Comdt. K. Milner (Retd)
In the extensive collection of weapons and artefacts from the 1916-1921 period in the National Museum, Collins Barracks, Dublin is a 1908 pattern British Cavalry trooper’s sword.
The first action taken by the British military authorities on Easter Monday 1916 was to send a troop of lancers up O’Connell Street to the GPO. The subsequent action lasted minutes with the lancers quickly withdrawing leaving a number of troopers and horses dead and wounded in the street in front of the GPO.
The lancers involved in this action were armed with the 1908 pattern cavalry sword which was the last sword issued to the cavalry of the British Army. It was widely held to be the most effective cavalry sword ever designed, ironically just as the sword had become obsolete as a weapon.
In military circles there had long been the debate over whether the use of the point or the edge was the better method of attack for a cavalryman. With the introduction of the 1821 pattern, the British Army adopted a series of “cut and thrust” swords with slightly curved blades which were theoretically stiff enough for a thrust. The 1821 swords and their descendants were inevitably compromises and not ideal for either cutting or thrusting, but the Army considered the adaptability to be of more importance.
John Gaspard Le Marchant, the great trainer of British Cavalry in the late 18th century, felt that the weapon employed in the charge was irrelevant. The effect of the charge was in the momentum of the horse and rider. However the debate still continued throughout the 19th century as to which form of sword was the most effective – curved or straight.
The introduction of the 1908 pattern sword ended the debate. This sword was designed purely as a thrusting weapon. The skewer shaped blade was designed with a thick “T” shaped cross section to prevent the sword from bending in the thrust. It had a large steel bowl-shaped guard to protect the hand. The grip, made of bakelite or rubber, was of rounded rectangular section in a semi-pistol configuration. This design caused the blade to naturally align with the arm when the arm was extended, in position for a charge using the point. A thumb stop was indented on top of the grip, just behind the guard. The long pommel helped to keep the point of balance of the sword close to the guard, balancing the sword for its length.
The length of the blade at just over 35” (890mm) was said to be able to match the reach of the lance (still in use with some armies at the turn of the 20th Century) or the bayonet with the sword arm fully extended. King Edward VII described the sword as “hideous” when the pattern was submitted to him for formal approval, and had to be persuaded of its utility before eventually conceding. Although NCO’s and Troopers were issued with swords, Officers had to purchase their own. Until 1912, officers continued to carry swords with the three bar pattern hand guard. In 1896 this pattern had been officially discontinued, but regulations stated that officers need not adopt the new pattern until their own sword had become unservicable. The old pattern therefore continued until well into the 20th century. All this changed when, in 1912, an officers pattern sword was introduced. This was the same pattern as that on issue to other ranks with embellishments. The bowl was engraved with a floral pattern mimicing the pattern of the 19th century sword. The blade, plain for NCOs and troopers, was engraved and the the grip was of the same form, but the chequered rubber or bakelite grip was replaced by grey ribbed shark skin, bound with German-silver wire. The pommel, plain on the trooper’s version, was chequered and decorated.
The 1908 and 1912 pattern swords can be seen as the ultimate design of the cavalry sword (the U.S. army adopted a very similar cavalry sword in 1913, called the Patton sabre) even though it was a full century after the cavalry sword’s obsolence for military purposes. The most compelling criticism of use of the point in cavalry combat, however, lies in the possibility of it becoming the victim of its own success. With the force of a fast-moving horse and rider behind it, a well-aimed sword thrust would certainly achieve considerable penetration, even up to the hilt. As the horse and rider passed the unfortunate recipient of the thrust, the sword would be very difficult to drag clear of the body, leaving the rider at best disarmed or at worst unhorsed or with a broken wrist.