Guest Blog: work experience student William shares his research into a 200 year old sword

18th March 2022 / Museum, Museum blog

During my week of work experience at Chippenham Museum I was able to take on many tasks and attempt many activities, one of these was researching a pattern 1796 light cavalry sabre from the museum storage.

The sabre was initially designed by a British Cavalry Officer in the 16th Light Dragoons named John Gaspard le Marchant who used his knowledge of fighting on horseback to create a sword alongside the Birmingham sword cutler, Henry Osborn.

An Officer of the 7th (or The Queen’s Own) Regiment of Light Dragoons; Richard Arnold; National Army Museum

The sword was designed to have a curved, single edged blade between 32.5 and 33 inches with a stirrup hilt. The sword wasn’t designed to pierce but to slash, this was because the Light Dragoons were soldiers mounted on horseback and trying to stab someone on a moving horse is extremely difficult. The Light Dragoons were often tasked with chasing down broken formations of standard infantry, and therefore because the sword was much less likely to get caught in an enemy whilst being able to split a skull meant the sword was very efficient and was very effective in the hands of the Light Dragoons. The scabbard was made of metal and covered in leather and had two metal rings allowing it to be hung from a sword belt for easy access and use.

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), Emperor; Robert Lefevre; English Heritage, The Wellington Collection, Apsley House

The sword was used in the Napoleonic wars which were a series of conflicts between France and different coalitions (groups) of nations that rejected their revolutionary ideals and new government system, the struggle against the first coalition lasted from 1792 – 1797. This is where Napoleon first led an army and gained the full respect and loyalty of his men despite them being demoralized and underprepared. These soldiers were led through several Austrian controlled countries and states, and giving these places the same revolutionary ideas that France had just executed, even setting up sister states to France in these regions. The war of the second coalition which included the UK, Austria and many smaller nations lasted from 1798 to 1802 and again ended with the Austrians Suing for peace.

The war of the third coalition lasted from 1805 – 1806 and saw the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. The fourth coalition was defeated very quickly in 1807 and the fifth was defeated in 1809. Eventually after more conflict Napoleon abdicated and was sent to Elba (a small island off the coast of Italy). Later though he returned to France but was defeated at the battle of Waterloo by British and Prussian soldiers. He was then sent to an isolated Island called Helena where he was kept under constant watch from British soldiers and two ships that circled the island 24 hours a day. Napoleon died on that island officially of cancer but some suspect he was poisoned.

Charles William Vane-Stewart, 3rd Marquess of Londonderry; Lawrence, Thomas; National Portrait Gallery, London

The sword became the standardized weapon for British light cavalry as before commanders would be given a set budget and would choose the items and equipment to outfit their soldiers with, this often led to soldiers being underprepared for a battle. However the weapon was only manufactured from 1796 – 1821 and was replaced in 1822 by a newer cavalry sword.
The sword in the museum’s collection is quite worn and so a lot of symbols or markings that may be useful in understanding the history of that particular sabre could be missing. However on the scabbard is written “Dawes Birm”, Dawes is the manufacturer and a company that still exists today, Birm is short for Birmingham which is where Dawes is located.

On the blade near the hilt is a crown with the number 2 engraved below it, below this is the letter “W” which is worn and another worn letter to the right. The “W” potentially could mean that it was examined by the war department as swords that were examined by the department have “WD” engraved into the blade. The crown with the number 2 below it is most likely a viewing stamp created by Joseph Witton to show that the sword had been tested and was suitable and safe for use.

Overall the museums sword is extremely interesting and intriguing and I thoroughly enjoyed researching and learning about it and its origins and experiencing the inner workings of a museum and the different roles of staff and volunteers.