A fall’s a’ hawful thing…
Ever fallen off a horse?
It happens to everyone who rides, sooner or later. To be fair, most falls are ‘soft’, if travelling five feet through the air at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour can ever be called such a thing. ‘Soft’ simply means ending up in a heap on the floor with only a bruised ego to show for the experience. And, if you’re riding in a group, the jeers of those who stayed in the saddle ringing in your ears. They’re usually nervous jeers, however, because where horses are concerned, there but for the grace of God…
A ‘proper’ fall is a different animal altogether. ‘Proper’ falls hurt. Unfortunately as one gets older and the body less inclined to bounce, these seem (to me, anyway) to get more common. And while conventional wisdom says you should try to roll as you hit the ground, that’s often easier said than done.
Cavalrymen who fell from their horses in battle were extremely vulnerable. Heavy cavalry in particular were hampered by knee-high boots. Whilst they protected the mens’ legs when mounted, these made even walking difficult, let alone trying to make a run for it. French heavy Cuirassiers had steel breastplates and backplates (as the Household Cavalry wear today) to struggle with. In the Waterloo campaign many of these men, their horses killed, became stuck in the thick mud, physically unable to rise until they had unbuckled their armour – nicknamed ‘lobsters’ by British infantrymen because they lay helplessly on their backs with their legs in the air. How many of them must have lain winded after crashing to the ground under such a weight of metal?
Light cavalrymen had fewer problems with their uniforms but still had to carry ‘rib-breakers’ on campaign. A circular wooden canteen, about four inches deep and holding a quart of water, was carried slung over one shoulder on a leather strap. Falling on one of these couldn’t have been very pleasant. And if that wasn’t enough, light dragoons wore a leather cartridge pouch. That sounds okay, but buckled to a strap so it sat roughly in the small of the back, it was fitted with a shaped wooden block, bored with holes to hold pistol or carbine ammunition; another rock hard lump to cause injury in a fall.
I’ve not even mentioned the sword!
I suppose landing on your sabre when falling was accepted as an occupational hazard. If it bruised bits of you, at least its scabbard meant it shouldn’t cut you. And it was vital the sword stayed with you. Because even if you lost your horse, which carried your carbine and pistols, at least you still had something to fight with.
Light cavalry were helped, to a degree, by their saddles. The ‘hussar’ pattern, introduced in 1805, was made with tall front and rear arches, the so-called ‘spoon’ pommel and cantle, which helped prevent a rider being physically dislodged. In this the design was similar in idea to saddles in use by medieval armoured knights. These had built-up backs to help stop the knight being forced backwards from the saddle by a lance or pike thrust.
If you did suffer a fall, the wool uniforms of the day were quite thick enough to offer a degree of cushioning to the body. Helmets, while not being anywhere near the standard of today’s safety headgear, did give some protection to the head. Apparently, those of the French offered better protection in a fight than those the British wore, which I suppose is par for the course. (French weapons were generally regarded as superior, too). But having said all that, a fall was (and still is) something to be avoided at all costs.
The sporting cockney grocer-turned-master of foxhounds John Jorrocks, anti-hero of R S Surtees 1854 novel Handley Cross, said, ‘A fall’s a’ hawful thing.‘ And since he often ended up off his feet rather than in the saddle, he knew what he was talking about.
So – the moral of this piece is…try not to fall off your horse in the presence of the enemy. Or any other time, for that matter. You know it makes sense.