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Crimean texts

The Times 26.3.1855 p 12




Sir, — I have this morning met with a passage extracted from a work written by the late Sir Charles James Napier, GCB, which corroborates so strongly the opinions I have expressed as to the inutility of our cavalry as they are, that I hope you will afford it a prominent place in your columns. Perhaps Lord Panmure, impatient of the interference of civilians with military matters, may be more willing to listen to common sense when uttered by the voice of the illustrious dead.

Sir Charles James Napier wrote,—

“We must assume as the type of the cavalry horse the charger on a Hounslow-heath parade. Well-fed, well-groomed, well-trained, he goes through a field-day without injury, although carrying more than 20 stone weight, he and his rider presenting together a kind of alderman-centaur. But if, in the field, half-starved, they have, at the end of a forced march, to charge an enemy, the biped, full of fire and courage, transformed by war work to a wiry, muscular Dragoon, is able and willing, but the overloaded quadruped cannot gallop — he staggers!

This is the picture which should regulate the dress of horsemen, bearing also in mind the wasting sun which in India enervates man and beast.

Our poor horses, thus loaded, are expected to bound to hand and spur while the riders wield their swords worthily. They cannot, and both man and animal appear inferior to their Indian opponents.

The active vigour of the dark Eastern horseman is known to me; his impetuous speed, the sudden volts of his animal, seconding the cunning of the swordsman, as if the steed watched the edge of the weapon, is a sight to admire; but it is too much admired by men who look not to causes. The Eastern warrior’s eye is quick, but not quicker than the European’s; his heart is big, yet not bigger than the European’s; his arm is strong, but not so strong as the European’s; the slicing of his razor-like scimitar is terrible, but an English trooper’s downright blow splits the skull. Why, then, does the latter fail? The light-weighted horse of the dark swordsman carries him round his foe with elastic bounds, and the strong European, unable to deal the cleaving blow, falls under the activity of an inferior adversary.

Look at our officers, mounted or on foot! Look at the infantry British soldier, with his bayonet! What chance has an Eastern against them in single combat? Neville Chamberlaine, Robert Fitzgerald, Montague M’Murdo, Charles Marston, John Nixon, Francis M’Farlane, and many more have, hand to hand, slain the first-rate swordsmen of the East. Oh, no! there is no falling off in British swordsmen since Richard Cour-de-Lion with 17 knights and 300 archers at Jaffa defied the whole Saracen army and maintained his ground.

Why, then, is the Englishman inferior to the Eastern horseman in India?

1. The black man’s horse is his own property, and private interest beats the commissary in feeding; the Eastern’s animal feeds better than the Englishman’s.

2. The hardships of war are by our dressers of cavalry thought too little for the animal’s strength; they add a bag, with the Frenchified name of “valise,” containing an epitome of a Jew’s old-clothes shop; notably so if the regiment be Hussars — a name given to Hungarian light horsemen, remarkable for activity, and carrying no other baggage than a small axe and a kettle to every dozen men. . . Hussars our men are not; a real Hussar, including his twelfth part of a kettle, does not weigh 12 stone, before he begins plundering.

The heavy cavalry horse, strange to say, carries less than the light cavalry — only 20 stone! A British regiment of cavalry on parade is a beautiful sight; give it six months’ hard work in the field, and, while the horses fail, the men lose confidence; the vanity of dress supersedes efficiency. Take eight or ten stone off the weight carried, and our cavalry will be the most efficient in the world.”

If anybody doubts the truth of this experienced and successful veteran’s opinions, let him look to the condition of our cavalry in the Crimea; let him inquire into the destructive results of the only two reconnaissances executed by our cavalry in Bulgaria and in the Crimea — destructive not to the enemy, for on neither occasion did they meet any, but to themselves alone.

Another military writer, Captain Hartmann, of the 15th Hussars, less distinguished than Sir Charles Napier, but, nevertheless, evidently master of his subject, has within the last few days, in a “letter to Lord Panmure,” thus expressed his views as to the costume of our cavalry soldiers — a costume, be it recollected, which has been the study of our most influential cavalry officers during 40 years of peace:—

“I believe it would be impossible,” says Captain Hartmann, “for any person, however great his ingenuity, to devise a dress more unsuited to a horseman and a soldier than the one in which our cavalry have so long figured before the public. By a strange fatality, every part and portion of their dress is constructed so as to cause the greatest possible discomfort and to impeded the soldier in the performance of his duties. The result is, we hear of shakoes thrown away, straps and braces nowhere, overalls stuffed into boots, jackets ripped open at the seams, &c. Our cavalry are clothed as if their sole use was to show off in Hyde-park or the Phonix, and please the eye of the ladies. It never seems to have entered the minds of the people who devised this clothing that the work the soldier has to do is the roughest, dirtiest, and severest that a man can be called upon to perform; and that to put him into tight clothing, strap down his overalls, haul taut his braces, half choke him with his stock, tie in his waist, put a thing on his head which requires all his attention to keep there, and which, if worn for a short time, drives him to distraction by its weight and pressure, and, in addition to all this, hamper him with braid and lines and tags and tassels, is not exactly the way to dress a man who has to do the hardest possible work, and live day and night out in the open air in all kinds of weather. One of the consequences is that to keep all this frippery clean the soldier is encumbered with a lot of otherwise useless lumber.

The extra suit which a Dragoon carries about with him, and which is called ‘his stable dress,’ is no stable dress at all. It is a jacket and pair of overalls as tight and uncomfortable as his full dress. He has no bona fide stable dress, no dress in which he can comfortably perform stable or fatigue work. He does all such work in his shirt-sleeves; so he has two suits of clothes to carry, neither of then suited to the work he has to perform. . .

The present plan of boots inside the overalls is bad. In wet weather the overalls get saturated, suck up the water, and keep a man wet nearly to his knees. The mud also works up between the boot and the bottom of the overalls, and gets clogged about the spur. How is it possible to be otherwise, when men have to move about their horses in a ploughed field after a night of rain, or such mud as at the camp near Balaklava, with cloth overalls strapped tight down to the sole of their boots? . . .

The present fixed spur also interferes greatly with the dragoon’s comfort; he cannot take it off, and must do all his dirty work and even sleep in it. Another source of discomfort in the present dress is that a man cannot take off his boots without undressing himself. Any man who has slept a few nights in his clothes is competent to judge how great is the suffering that sometimes arises from this cause. . . .

A blow of the sword aimed at the head often misses it or glances off and falls on the shoulder. I would therefore recommend some defence for that part. The present scale answers that purpose, but it destroys the comfort of the wearer. With the present contrivance the Dragoon cannot use his swordarm with full effect, and, as it projects beyond his shoulder, he cannot sleep on his side; he must lie flat on his back or not at all. It also renders his cloak a positive nuisance and torture when worn. The scale catches the whole weight of the cloak, and is so pressed into the shoulder as to cause great pain — so much so, that the Dragoon would infinitely prefer getting wet to wearing his cloak any length of time on the line of march.”

I wish, Sir, that I could continue to extract from Captain Hartmann’s pamphlet, so full is it of information and good sense; but I fear that I have already trespassed too lengthily on your space. I will conclude by begging those of your readers who take that interest which all loyal Englishmen ought to take in the success of out arms and the proper application of our means, to reflect whether the Commander-in-Chief and the Minister of War are justified in disregarding the advice and suggestions, not of a mere civilian like myself, but of such practical and illustrious writers as those I have quoted from today. We are about immediately to ship for the Crimea 1,600 cavalry horses; as many more are on their way thither from the East Indies; by the time they are landed at Balaklava they will represent a money value of at least 100l each — 320,000l. Their food, their accoutrements, their riders, may be computed at an equal sum at least. And what will be their fate when called upon to perform the duties of light cavalry during the approaching campaign with from 18 to 22 stone on their backs. The experiences of the campaign of 1854 afford a ready and a melancholy answer to the question.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant

March 24.

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