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The life and times of Frederic Baron von Eben

What does a hero of the Spanish-American Wars of Independence have in common with the 10th Hussars, the adoption of the rifle by the British Army, and the Battle of Waterloo — quite a lot as it turns out. Frederic Christian Baron von Eben was a Hanoverian, born at Creutzburg in Silesia in 1773. The son of a Prussian general, he joined the Prussian Army in 1787 at the age of fourteen, distinguishing himself in his father’s regiment of Hussars fighting the French in the Low Countries between 1792 and 1795, and earning the Prussian Order of Merit for his bravery.

A man with a mustache and sideburns is wearing a ornate blue and red hat while a horse looks energetic in the background.

Frederic Baron von Eben, his appearance in the larger painting of ‘HRH The Prince of Wales at Review’ signifies his importance to the Prince Regent. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Mass.

When Prussia refused to renew the war against France in 1799, Eben resigned his commission and travelled to England. He gained a commission as a captain in the York Hussars in 1800, and by 1802 he was in the 10th Light Dragoons (Prince of Wales’s Own), where due to his status as a socialite, he became friends with the Duke of Sussex who was the brother of the Prince Regent. During his service with the 10th Light Dragoons he composed a book, ‘Observations on the utility of good riflemen‘ which contained instructions for the use of rifle-armed light cavalry and infantry. At a time when fighting was done by standing in long lines and manoeuvring to get the upper-hand on the enemy, the employment of troops using dispersed, hit and run, tactics was something of a bold idea.

Observations on the Utility of Good Riflemen

An old book laid out with its pages open. One side has a picture of a man shooting wit his rifle resting on the back of his horse. Right hand page has hand written notes on rifleman ship.

‘Observations on the Utility of Good Riflemen’

It is unknown how many copies of Eben’s book were produced, but only three which we know of survive. One was presented to the Prince Regent and is held in the Royal Collection, another was presented to the Duke of Clarence, and the third appears to have been his own copy, which is now in the Royal Armouries collection. His book may well have influenced the Duke of York who at that time was in the process of raising the Experimental Rifle Corps (the famed 95th Rifles), which was armed with the Baker Rifle.

A Baker Rifle on a white background. The body of the gun is made of dark red wood and the metal is polished brass.

The Baker Carbine issued to members of the 10th Hussars and used at the Battle of Waterloo.

Eben’s book goes into extensive detail on the employment and training of riflemen. The most important part of his work was the emphasis on the skill of the men chosen and their training. He stated the men “must be of the most sound body and mind,” and of course good marksmen, as their main goal was to use their rifles to expertly harass the enemy. He drew up numerous methods for training soldiers how to hone their shooting skills including ringed targets with associated score cards, moving targets pulled on trolleys and static targets painted as French soldiers. The emphasis was placed on training multiple times a week with the rifle as opposed to the normal infantry soldier who would not fire his weapon very often and even if he did, might not even shoot at a proper target.

The Prince of Wales’s Own

A man in horse in a red British officer uniform points to the distance while troops maneuver in the background

HRH The Prince of Wales at Review, Attended by Lord Heathfield, General Turner, Col. Bloomfield, and Baron Eben; Col. Quinton in the Distance. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Mass. You can see Eben on the right wearing a red hat.

At the bequest of the Prince Regent, Eben raised a squadron in the 10th Light Dragoons based on the Hungarian Hussars and armed with Baker Carbines for use as mounted riflemen. Their training and uniform which he designed were probably a significant influence when the whole regiment was converted into Hussars in 1806.

A man poses in an ornate black uniform with extensive white trim, a red waste sash, a tall fur helmet and sword.

Officer of the 10th Hussars showing the uniform design laid down by Eben and adopted by the Prince of Wales. National Army Museum.

Although Eben left the regiment in 1806, his works may have had a direct influence on the employment and success of the Hussars. The regiment embarked for Portugal in 1808 and was used to screen Sir John Moore‘s retreat to Corunna in 1809. Evacuating with the rest of the army in January 1809 the 10th Hussars didn’t return to the Iberian Peninsular until 1813, taking part in the invasion of France in 1814.

During the Waterloo Campaign, the 10th Hussars distinguished themselves during the retreat from Genappe on 17 June, when they were ordered to dismount and take up a position on the opposite bank of a river the French needed to cross. When the French came near they opened fire with their Baker Carbines, halting the French advance and preventing them from crossing the river. This action led to the Duke of Wellington’s army being able to move into the positions near Waterloo without harassment from French cavalry. Thanks to the swift action of the 10th Hussars, and the skill of its mounted riflemen, a possible disaster was averted.

Frederic Baron von Eben’s final years

After Eben left the 10th Hussars in 1806, he spent a year fighting as a volunteer in Prussia under General Blücher. In 1808 he went to Portugal where after the embarkation of the British army at Corunna, he formed a corps of a thousand men from volunteers and scattered English soldiers. He was made commander of the region of Braga, and occupied Oporto with around 19,000 troops, but a few days after his arrival his forces were routed by the French under Soult and forced to flee the city.

A painting of mounted riflemen ride across a bridge and one shoots his rifle at the enemy

10th (Prince of Wales) Royal Hussars. Retreat from Corunna 1808 from painting by Richard Simkin.

Eben continued to serve with the Portuguese forces in the army commanded by Wellington, and by 1814 he had been made an aide-de-camp to the Prince Regent. He remained in Portugal, and offered to serve the King in the Army of Brazil, but by the contrivance of his enemies he was implicated in the conspiracy of General Freire de Andrade, was arrested, and sentenced to exile. He made his way to Hamburg where he lived for several years, and then in 1821, he travelled to South America, where he offered his services to the Republic of Colombia. Eventually, he was appointed A Brigadier-General in the Army of the Republic, helped organise and train the army, and played a significant role in the victory of Simón Bolívar.

His final years were spent in Colombia, living his life as a successful commander and hero of republic, and died in Bogata in 1835. Although he wasn’t very well known, his legacy lived on through the 10th Hussars and the other light cavalry regiments, who had adopted many of the methods laid down by his work, and 60th and 95th Rifles.

Two pistols from the Royal Armouries collection, illustrate perfectly the thrifty manner in which some Prussian firearms were put together in the late-18th–early-19th centuries.

flintlock pistol

Flintlock muzzle-loading pistol, Model 1789 (conversion), about 1789. Potsdam, Prussia, Germany. XII.1844

Flintlock pistol

Flintlock muzzle-loading pistol, Model 1789 (conversion), about 1789. Potsdam, Prussia, Germany. XII.1843

At first glance, both pistols appear to be the Model 1789, however there are slight differences. For example XII.1843, the darker stained pistol is 4mm longer in length than XII.1844, the lighter coloured pistol.

The Model 1789 was in the height of service from 1790–1813 however, due to the poor state of the Prussian economy in 1815 it most likely also featured on the field at Waterloo. In order to get a sense of the Prussian Military’s situation in 1815, it is useful to understand the consequences of their actions against the French Empire in 1806.

The Prussian defeat by Napoleon Bonaparte at Jena and Auerstadt, subjugated Prussia to France until 1812, when the 6th Coalition was formed. Prussia lost its rich provinces, thus reducing its territory, whilst its army was limited to 42,000 men. The French also destroyed vast numbers of Prussian small-arms, ammunition and artillery, whilst redistributing the most efficient of these to their own allies. After the defeat of the French in 1812, the Prussians began work on manufacturing the Model 1813 pistol. However, limited funds meant restricted quantities of firearms were being produced and so the Prussian army instead began modifying whatever was available to them.

The most interesting features of these pistols are the royal cyphers located on their grips, which indicate modification. Both pistols bear the cypher of Frederick William III who reigned from 1797-1840.

Interestingly the form of the ‘W’s on the cyphers differ. The ‘W’ on XII.1843 (above) doesn’t quite look like it belongs there, as the actual ‘W’ on the cypher of Frederick William III is double lined (see below). This suggests that this darker stained pistol was assembled during the reign of Frederick William III but adapted from an earlier model, with a ‘W’ added to the cypher of Frederick the Great, who reigned from 1740–1786. The pistol’s overall length is also 15 mm too long for it to be a true Model 1789 suggesting that this is a Model 1731, used throughout the reign of Frederick the Great, reassembled between 1797 and 1815.

Frederick the Great

Frederick the Great, reign: 31 May 1740 – 17 August 1786

XII.1844, the second lighter coloured pistol (below) is also intriguing. In consulting the museum’s catalogue it has been previously identified as being from the reign of Frederick William II who reigned from 1786–97, successor of Frederick the Great and predecessor of Fredrick William III. Given that the pistol resembles a Model 1789 this is a savvy conclusion. Except that the cypher of Fredrick William II does not contain the letter ‘R’, though one is clearly shown below.

It is no wonder that this has been confused, as every King of Prussia for over 150 years (1701–1861) was either called Frederick or Frederick William! However the length of the barrel is still too long for it to be a true Model 1789. Therefore one could conclude that the lighter stained pistol was assembled partly from the barrel of the Model 1731, potentially with other parts developed for the Model 1789, which were not used until 1797–1815 during the reign of Frederick William III —  which accounts for the royal cypher being correct and untampered.

These two pistols have been on quite a historical journey, from the Model 1731 to the ‘hybrid’ Model 1789, and they both reveal much about the development and manufacture of Prussian firearms during the Napoleonic period.

William Siborne has played a major role in our understanding of the battle of Waterloo. He has left a lasting legacy of his work in the form of two large models, a collection of letters containing the eyewitness accounts of Waterloo veterans, and a History of the War in France and Belgium in 1815′ that has remained in print for almost 170 years. But Siborne’s skills as a model maker are largely unappreciated, and his work as a historian is clouded by controversy.

A curly haired soldier in blue uniform leaning on a cannon

William Siborne © Peter Hofschroer

Siborne the model maker

How Siborne developed his interest in model making is not known. It may relate to his time as a Gentleman Cadet at the Royal Military College, or his service with the Army of Occupation in Paris after the war. But when the idea was put forward in 1830 of constructing a model of the battle of Waterloo to form the centrepiece of the new United Services Museum, he was in an ideal position to undertake the project. He had recently constructed a model of the battlefield of Borodino, and had published ‘A Practical Treatise on Topographical Surveying and Drawing,’ to which he had appended some ‘Instructions on Topographical Modelling’. As a result he was invited by Sir Rowland Hill, General Commanding in Chief of the British Army, to make the model. Siborne immediately took leave from his job as Assistant Military Secretary to the Commander in Chief in Ireland, and spent the next eight months at the farm of La Haye Sainte surveying the battlefield with the aid of a plane table and alidade (such as used below).

The site had already been damaged by the construction of the Lion Mound, commemorating the location where William Prince of Orange (the future William II) was wounded, and so Siborne had to recreate part of the battlefield using an earlier plan by the Dutch surveyor Craan and the knowledge of the local farmers. The detailed plans that Siborne produced unfortunately do not survive, and the only hint that remains is a small-scale black and white engraving that was published by his son in 1891.

Making the model

When the survey was completed Siborne returned to Dublin and set about making his model. After working out an appropriate scale of nine feet to the mile, he calculated the size of the base, and divided it into a number of sections to make it easier to construct and to transport. He then transferred the details of his plan to each section, and used this information to sculpt a clay pattern. When the pattern was finished he created a mould, from which he made a plaster cast. He then added the fine detail – the roads, hedges, trees, crops and buildings – before the 10mm high lead figures were fixed in place. When completed the model measured 21 feet 4 inches by 19 feet 9 inches, and was populated by 80,000 figures, representing the 160,000 Allied, French and Prussian troops.

Siborne had entered into the construction of the model in good faith without any form of written agreement, and when his official funding was suddenly withdrawn, either as a result of the Treasury’s realisation that the cost (£3000) was much more than they had anticipated, or because the new Whig adminstration was not inclined to support a project celebrating the senior figure in the Tory party, he was forced to continue the project at his own expense.

The Model illustrating the Crisis of the Battle, when Napoleon launched the Imperial Guard in a last desperate gamble to gain victory, finally went on display at the Egyptian Hall off Piccadilly in 1838 to popular acclaim, with over over 100,000 people visiting the exhibition. Only one major criticism was raised, that it over represented the contribution of the Prussians in the final victory, and in the end Siborne rectified the ‘error’ by removing almost 20,000 figures.

Despite the success of the exhibition Siborne’s financial position remained precarious. His hopes that the Government would purchase the model remained frustrated, and his attempts to sell it were unsuccessful. He was finally able to raise sufficient funds to pay off his creditors, when to everyone’s surprise he announced an even more ambitious project to construct a series of smaller models showing critical moments in the battle.

The first of the smaller dioramas showing the charge of the British heavy cavalry under the Earl of Uxbridge at about 1.30 pm was the culmination of all Siborne’s skill, knowledge and experience as a model maker. He had long realised that because models were viewed from above, the choice of scale was critical to give the correct visual impression of the ground. He therefore chose to adopt for the New Model a horizontal scale of 15 feet to 1 inch (giving an overall base size of 18 feet 7 inches long by 7 feet 9 inches wide), and a vertical scale of 6 feet to 1 inch in order to best illustrate the undulating nature of the terrain. The result is a splendid impression of the battlefield that illustrates not only the ridge of Mont St. Jean, but the major features such as the the sunken road, the sand pit, the farm of La Haie Sainte, and the re-entrant.

A patchwork of fields showing a moment in the battle of Waterloo

Aerial shot of Siborne’s model of the Battle of Waterloo in the Royal Armouries

Siborne made an equally careful choice of figure scale. He wanted to show the tactical formations used by the opposing forces at the exact moment of the charge, the two ranks of the British infantry standing in line, the nine ranks of the French infantry advancing in column, and the broken formations of the cavalry and infantry in melee, flight or pursuit.

To do this he adopted the generous ratio of 1 figure to every 4 actual soldiers, and 1 model to every field gun or limber. All of the figures were to be hand painted in the correct uniform colours and facings. But Siborne also wanted to illustrate the action, and so he had each of the 20mm figures cast with separate heads, arms and weapons to allow individual infantryman and cavalryman to be given unique poses. The capture of the eagles of the 45th and 105th Regiments by Sergeant Ewart (Scots Greys) and Captain Clark (Royals), and other scenes were clearly indentifiable. Finally he had a number of special figures made to represent the Duke of Wellington, the Earl of Uxbridge, Sir Thomas Picton, and Count d’Erlon. The result is a dramatic interpretation of the charge of the Household and Union Cavalry Brigades, and the rout of the 1st Corps d’Armee.

The model was not perfect. There were some errors arising from Siborne’s flawed research, such as the transposition of the location of the 1st and 2nd Divisions of d’Erlon’s Corps, the misidentification of the French cavalry regiments, and the absence of Bijlandt’s Dutch-Belgian Brigade, as well as some inaccuracies in the uniforms and weapons. But Siborne’s intention was to produce a model that would enable ”a closer insight not only into the disposition and movements of the troops engaged, but also into those minutae of detail which characterize the actual battle-field”. In that he succeeded.

The Pattern 1796 Heavy Cavalry sword is one of the most recognisable and, to the British at least, iconic swords of the Napoleonic period. The sword was used by all regiments of British heavy cavalry (Life Guards, Royal Horse Guards, Dragoon Guards and Dragoons) throughout the Peninsular War (1807-14) and during the Waterloo campaign. In this blog post, we look at the development of the sword.

sowrd and scabbard

Pattern 1796 Heavy Cavalry Trooper’s sword and scabbard (XI.2710)

Although for ever associated with Waterloo due to the swords use in the massed charge of the British heavy cavalry of the Household and Union brigades, Pattern 1796 Heavy Cavalry sword was also used by other countries. As part of supporting allied nations warring against the French, Britain exported a huge amount of weapons to its allies over the course of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Amongst these were Pattern 1796 Heavy Cavalry swords, which were used by both Portuguese and Swedish cavalry against the French.

Red coated cavalry on grey and white horse charge with swords raised

‘Scotland for Ever!’ by Lady Butler, with the 1796 Heavy Cavalry Sword pictured. © Leeds Art Gallery.

Above you can see the 1796 Heavy Cavalry sword pictured in Lady Elizabeth Butler’s iconic ‘Scotland for Ever!’, which captures the charge of the Scot Greys.


The Pattern 1796 Heavy Cavalry sword was adopted due to the failings of its predecessor, the 1788 pattern sword. This first sword was found by a Board of Cavalry General Officers “from long and repeated experience”, to be “unmanageable, owing to the length of the blade and the weight of the hilt”.

Detail of the heavy cavalry sword hilt and handgrip

Heavy cavalry officer’s sword, British, late 18th century (IX.606)

The new heavy cavalry sword was adopted rather than developed in 1796, as unlike the light cavalry sword of the same year, it was not a new design. Whereas for the light cavalry the British cavalry officer John Gaspard Le Marchant had developed an entirely new sword, for the heavies he simply proposed an almost identical copy of the sword currently in Austrian service, the Dragoon Pallasch of 1769. This pallasch was a sword he had seen used to good effect by the Austrian cavalry during the Flanders campaign (1794-96). However it is likely that it was due to the Austrians’ high levels of training and superior levels of swordsmanship that the sword was used successfully, rather than due to the sword itself.

Use and Effect

Sword with a broken knuckle guard

Heavy cavalry sword (Model 1769 Heavy Cavalry Sword). Austrian, late 18th century (IX.1829)

Despite being a cutting sword, with a broad, single edged blade, the straight blade meant the sword was not optimised for cutting as it could not produce the slicing effect of a curved blade. Additionally the hatchet point made thrusting all but impossible. However, when compared with its predecessor, the 1788, the 1796 heavy cavalry sword was much better balanced and manoeuvrable, especially for the cutting based combat system that the British cavalry were taught.

Despite problems with its design, the sword could be used to fearsome effect, especially by the typically larger men employed as heavy cavalry. Both of the French eagles (Regimental standards) taken at Waterloo we secured by men wielding the 1796 Heavy Cavalry sword, however each used it in quite a different way.

Sergeant Ewart of the 2nd (Royal North British) Dragoons (Scots Greys) exclusively employed cuts, as prescribed in the training manual:

”The officer who carried it [the eagle of the 45th Regiment of Line Infantry] and I had a short contest for it; he thrust for my groin, I parried it off and cut him through the head; in a short time after whilst contriving how to carry the eagle and follow my regiment I heard a lancer coming behind me; I wheeled round to face him and in the act of doing so he threw his lance at me which I threw off to my right with my sword and cut from the chin upwards through the teeth. …I was next attacked by a foot soldier who after firing at me, charged me with the bayonet; I parried it and cut him down through the head; this finished the contest for the eagle which I was ordered by General Ponsonby to carry to the rear”.

Despite his method, it is thought that Ewart carried one of the swords that had had its hatchet point converted into a spear point; a process that Private Smithies of the 1st (Royal) Dragoons describes as happening in the days before the battle.  Captain Clarke of the same regiment clearly had his sword so ground as he took the Eagle of the 105th Regiment of Line Infantry in the same charge by thrusting with the point: ‘On reaching it [the Eagle], I ran my sword into the Officer’s right side a little above the hip’.

Heavy Cavalry sword

A spear pointed Pattern 1796 Heavy Cavalry Trooper’s sword of the 1st (Royal) Dragoons.

Modified tip of a sword compared to the original

Blades with modified spear (left) and original hatchet point (right)

These spear pointed swords are shorter than the unmodified versions and also have slightly less mass for cutting.  Even without the hatchet point the sword did not have a blade profile, being broad and single edged, for good penetration. However, the option of being able to use the point, especially when facing armoured Cuirassiers as the British were for the first time at Waterloo, made the modified sword a more versatile weapon.

Hilt and blade of cavalry sword shown edged on

A spear pointed Pattern 1796 Heavy Cavalry Trooper’s sword of the 1st (Royal) Dragoons.

The Royals were the regiment of British heavy cavalry which saw the most action during the Napoleonic Wars.

‘D’ Troop, which this sword is marked to, was led by Captain Methuen at the Battle of Waterloo. Captain Clark and Corporal Stiles of ‘G’ Troop took an Eagle from the French 105th  Regiment of Line Infantry during the charge of the Union Brigade.

Cartoon of trooper of the Royal Horse Guards, astride a black horse with a cavalry sword

The Royal Horse Guards were one of seven British cavalry regiments to use the sword at Waterloo

Below are two images of the Pattern 1796 Heavy Cavalry Trooper’s  sword associated with Corporal of Horse (Sergeant) John Shaw of the 2nd Life Guards. Shaw was a renowned prize fighter and is thought to have personally slain several French Cuirassiers during the charge of the Household Brigade.

Pattern 1796 Heavy Cavalry Trooper’s sword

Pattern 1796 Heavy Cavalry Trooper’s sword associated with Corporal of Horse (Sergeant) John Shaw of the 2nd Life Guards

close up shot of inscribed sword knuckle guard.

Inscription on the knuckleguard

Cartoon of three soldiers in sword combat on horseback

Shaw in combat with French Cuirassiers at Waterloo

Popular Culture

Of course one the most famous users of the Pattern 1796 Heavy Cavalry sword is a character of fiction – and one that would not have been issued with this type of sword. Bernhard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe, despite being an officer of the 95th Foot (Rifles), uses the sword throughout his adventures.  Cornwell has Sharpe carry the sword due to personal preference, with Sharpe favouring the  straight bladed heavy cavaly sword to the lighter, curved Pattern 1803 Flank Officer’s sword a Rifle officer would have more normally have carried.

Man dressed as a soldier, holding a sword in a defensive stance

Sean Bean as Richard Sharpe