Object Title

Year XI/XIII Line Cavalry sword

Development

During the last years of the 18th century, French cuirassiers and dragoons often carried different swords to one another. From 1784 cuirassiers had carried straight swords with a decorative brass hilt. The long, double-fullered blade was narrow yet thick and despite its slim hatchet point it was used as a thrusting weapon. Initially the design upon the hilt had been a fleur-de-lys, but the royalist connotations of the fleur-de-lys motif was far from suitable for a weapon of the fledgling republic and was later converted to show a rod of fasces surmounted with a Phrygian cap - the cap of liberty. Whether with royalist or revolutionary emblems, this sword type with its swirling florid designs is known as the 'fleuron' hilt.

Whilst this sword was carried by dragoons, they also used swords of a different form. From 1781 a dragoon sword was used, with an asymmetrical double-fullered cut-and-thrust blade, known as a 'Montmorency' blade after the regiment of the dragoons that introduced it, and the general form was copied for the flat-bladed 1790 chasseur sabre. All three swords were carried by dragoons in the Revolutionary and Consular period.

In Year IV of the Revolutionary calendar (1795-1796) shortages in copper meant that the 'fleuron' hilt was briefly made in iron rather than brass, and blade production was simplified to a single fuller. These Year IV versions of the 'fleuron' swords were issued to both dragoons and cuirassiers. The only difference was that dragoons, who could be deployed dismounted, used a lighter leather scabbard rather than the steel one of the cuirassiers.

With France at war with almost all her neighbours, the thin metal of the 1784/86/IV 'fleuron' guard was found to be too thin and susceptible to breakage, hence a new hilt form was sought.

A new sword was approved for the expanded arm of cuirassiers in Year IX of the revolutionary calendar (1800), whereas dragoons retained the 'fleuron' sword. Inspiration for the four-bar hilt of the Year IX was taken from the 1784 sword of the disbanded royal bodyguard.

Although the hilt design was a success, the flat unfullered blade was found to be too heavy, and in Year XI (1802-03) it was replaced with a double-fullered version, identical to the 1784 blade. Still only in use with cuirassiers, the combination of sword and scabbard now proved to be problematic. Whereas the light steel scabbard had been suitable for the heavy and flat blade, it did not provide adequate protection to the double-fullered version of the Year XI. A fall when mounted could see the scabbard compress around the double-fullered blade, making withdrawal impossible. In order to remedy this defect an extremely heavy second pattern scabbard was introduced. In addition, the area of the sword's hilt where the bars of the guard meet the 'pommel' had been found to be an area of weakness for the Year IX and Year XI, and consequently was reinforced in the sword's final Napoleonic designation of the Year XIII. This final designation was issued to both cuirassiers and dragoons, with the dragoons again retaining the leather scabbard better suited to dismounted duties.

Use and Effect

The Year XI/XIII (so called as they are the same pattern of sword, with only the smallest difference) was designed and employed as a thrusting sword. The cuirassiers were the quintessential shock cavalry of the period and were expected to charge in close order. Together with dragoons, they provided the line cavalry, whose main purpose was formed charge on the battlefield. In such formed heavy cavalry shock actions it was generally held that the thrust was the preferred method of attack.

In the hands of the dragoons, the Year XI/XIII had become well respected by the British, who encountered it in the Peninsular. At Bienvenida, in April 1812, Captain Bragge of the 3rd Dragoons remarked upon the lethality of the French swords stating that '12 English Dragoons were killed on the spot and others dangerously wounded by thrusts.'

At Waterloo, when the British finally faced Napoleon's cuirassiers in battle, the advantage that the Year IX/XIII afforded its user was commented on by Lieutenant Waymouth of the 2nd Life Guards who spoke of 'the great disadvantage arising from our swords, which were full six inches shorter than those of the cuirassiers'.

Although not intended for cutting, the nature of the cavalry combat often meant that the theory was not always carried on into practice. Captain Wallace of the 1st King's Dragoons Guards reports of his regiments combat with cuirassiers at Waterloo resulting in 'many of our men having severe sabre wounds, particularly about the face'. Although its narrow, straight double-fullered blade would have made the Year XI/XIII an inefficient cutting weapon, the sword had enough mass that the edge could still be applied with deadly effect. Following the counter charge of French cuirassiers on the Union Brigade Corporal Couter of the 28th Line Regiment stated: 'I found myself close to an English Dragoon officer who had been killed in the melee. A sabre blow had split open his head and the brain had burst out of the skull'.

Year XI/XIII swords were not only used by the French but also by their enemies. Significant numbers were captured by the Prussian army during the War of Freedom who subsequently reissued the swords to their own cavalry. Just as the French continued to issue swords modelled on the Year XI/XIII for over a hundred years, many other European militaries copied this iconic sword for their own forces over the next century.

Statistics

Blade length 97 cm (38 1/4 in)
Country of manufacture France
Date entered service 1802
Overall length 1.14 m (44 3/4 in)
Weight scabbard 1.53 kg (3 lb 3 oz)
Weight sword 1.34 kg (2 lb 15 oz)

Author

Henry Yallop