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Pattern 1908 cavalry sword

In this monthly blog series, our collections team write about their chosen Object of the Month. In this blog post, Henry Yallop, Keeper of Edged Weapons and Armour, explores the development of a sealed Pattern 1908 MK1 Cavalry Trooper’s sword in the years leading up to the First World War.

Sword with sheet steel bowl guard

Sealed Pattern 1908 MK1 cavalry trooper’s sword.

The development of arms in WW1

The First World War was a conflict waged with a vast array of weaponry. During the course of the war, new forms of weapons such as the submachine gun, automatic rifle, light machine gun and poison gas were developed.

Existing weapon forms such as the machine gun and heavy artillery changed warfare in the new ways in which they were used, with tremendous human cost. New arms, such a military aviation and armoured vehicles came into being, changing warfare forever. Even historical means were looked to reduce loss of life in the face of these new threats, which saw the return of infantry armour to the European battlefield after 250 years of absence.

By contrast with all this change, innovation and reaction, some weapons forms and their use remained constant: the cavalryman and his sword. The Pattern 1908 Cavalry Trooper’s sword was approved in July 1908 and, with minor modifications in 1911 and 1912, was to be the type of sword used by all British and many Commonwealth cavalry troopers during the First World War.

The development of swords

Despite considerable advances in firearms technology during the second half of the nineteenth century the sword was still generally thought to be, by almost all European militaries, the primary weapon of the cavalry. Nevertheless, there was considerable debate as to what form it should take and whether it should be for the cut, the thrust or both. Since 1853 Britain had opted for the latter, with numerous patterns along the same lines eventually found unsatisfactory for a variety of reasons.

The British Army had been slow to centrally standardise edged weapons, beginning only in the late eighteenth century with the creation of set forms of swords for different arms. These were conveyed not only by written proclamations but by the creation of ‘sealed patterns’, physical examples that were approved as being of the exact specifications to be produced on a wider level for issue to relevant troops.

This particular sword is the ‘sealed pattern’ Mark 1, approved in 1912. It is one of many ‘sealed patterns’ owned by the Royal Armouries, part of the unique Pattern Room Collection, gifted to the museum by the Ministry of Defence in 2005.

sword and scabbard shown alongside each other

Sword and scabbard

The failure of the previous pattern sword in the Second South African War (1899-1902) provoked the establishment of committees and trials to arrive at an improved sword for the cavalry. In 1903 a special committee was formed, including such distinguished cavalry officers as General Sir John French and Major General Douglas Haig which, in a break from a tradition of over 50 years, determined that the new sword should have a straight and narrow, t-sectioned blade for thrusting. 200 experimental swords of this type were made and issued to cavalry regiments for testing in 1904. Although largely well received, there were still those of influence that objected to a pure thrusting sword. This saw further experimenting along cut-and-thrust swords of the old style, which were found unsatisfactory.

cavalry trooper's sword

1904 experimental cavalry trooper’s sword.

In order to move forward, a new committee was established under Major-General Scobell in 1906 which consisted of a range of regimental officers who had a wealth of experience in mounted swordsmanship. Their remit was to decide upon a sword for the cavalry that was primarily for thrusting and to devise accompanying sword exercises. The committee examined 16 patterns of sword, including experimental types and cavalry swords in Foreign Service. After much deliberation, the committee decreed that the sword should be as the 1904 experimental sword, straight and narrow, but with a chisel edge so it could be used, on occasion for cutting. The sword makers Wilkinson and Mole produced a total of four experimental swords and, following some modifications, one of Mole’s swords was taken on for further trials.

The changes between this experimental 1906 sword and the final recommendation of 1908 were only minor. The Pattern 1908’s ergonomically sculpted grip, weighted pommel and thick, stiff, spear-pointed blade made it the perfect sword for delivering a thrust when mounted. Despite the scientific nature of the sword’s development, it still needed formal approval from Edward VII to enter service. The King thought it was a ‘hideous’ weapon and it took Generals French and Haig to convince him to do so. Adjustments to this pattern were made in 1911, with the addition of serrations to the shoulder of the blade to retain the buff-leather washer (ensuring a good scabbard seal) followed in 1912 by replacing the serrations with a metal pin through the blade – to finally arrive at the Pattern 1908 MK1.

cavalry sword with textured hand grip

1906 experimental cavalry trooper’s sword

The Pattern 1908 sword was such a departure from previous models that a new accompanying sword exercise was needed, and was incorporated in the new Cavalry Training manual of 1912. The single purpose of the new sword was fully reflected in this new sword drill, where it was simply stressed that ‘each man should ride at his opponent at full speed with the fixed determination or running him through and killing him’. In contrasts to previous sword exercises, ‘eliminating as much as possible the intricacies of the art’ [of swordsmanship] that did not serve this purpose was impressed upon instructors and pupils alike.

It was this pattern that was to see service in the First World War, where, in the open stages, cavalry with swords routinely made the first contact with the enemy. Here the new sword (and its officer variant the Pattern 1912) and sword drill performed well, even accounting for the first British ‘kill’ of the war, by Captain Hornby, 4th Dragoon Guards, in a skirmish with the German 4th Cuirassiers.

As siege-like conditions of trench warfare set in in the West opportunities for sword-armed cavalry rapidly diminished. In the Eastern theatres of Syria and Palestine, there was more occasion for mounted shock action throughout the war. However, with the changing face of weapons and warfare the era of horse-mounted soldier armed with edged weapons on the battlefield had passed and today this last pattern of combat sword of the British Army is only carried ceremonially.

To find out more about this object and others in our collection, visit Collections Online

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