Au Galop! Horses and Riders of Napoleon’s Army
Book Review: Au Galop! – Horses and Riders of Napoleon’s Army by Paul Dawson
Most histories of Napoleon’s cavalry concentrate on the actions they took part in. Their victories and defeats: their officers and brigade structures. As a horseman I’ve always been slightly disappointed by a lack of basic information: the training, equipment and horsemastership which must have played crucial roles in French cavalry success. So I looked forward to this new book, which promised such things, albeit with a certain amount of trepidation.
I need not have worried. Paul Dawson’s book largely ignores battles, instead delving deeply into Revolutionary and First Empire cavalry structure and organisation. The blurb promised plenty of previously unseen information and I can’t argue with that. Many sources were familiar, but a huge number were not, to me at any rate.
The first half of the book concentrates on the horse, both draught and ridden, the various types of riding horse, use of mules and pack animals, horse procurement and breeding. The latter two are real eye-openers and go a long way to explaining why the French were rarely short of remounts.
Four further chapters discuss recruitment of cavalrymen, their training together with that of their horses, and their equipment. I was amazed to find that period French curry combs were identical in design to the one I use today!
The final three chapters concentrate on horse care, shoeing and feeding. French cavalry were often accused by their enemies of neglecting their animals. This section attempts to show that actually, in theory at least, they operated a system of care and welfare well ahead of its time.
So what’s bad about the book? Frankly, not much. The section devoted to an explanation of harnessing artillery horse teams is hard to follow and cries out for a couple of diagrams. This is a shame, because the rest of the book is littered with, mostly good, illustrations spaced throughout the text. The chapter on feeding may be unnecessarily over-complex for the layman, especially since the mechanisms of nutrient digestion and energy production were unknown in the 19th century. And the editing could do with a few tweaks, mainly to eliminate duplication.
Oh – and I’d have preferred a hardcover, because such a large format softback is a pain to shelve in my bookcase. But I understand the reasons for it: producing new, very specialist non-fiction in the current economic climate is no cheap undertaking.
If galloping hooves and slashing sabres are your thing, then Dawson’s book is probably not for you. But it contains so much information impossible to find elsewhere that it must become an essential resource tool for any serious student of French cavalry and the reasons they became the finest mounted force in Europe, before Napoleon’s disastrous foray into Russia in 1812 precipitated their decline.
I understand the author has further books planned, this time on the Allied cavalry, as we head towards the Battle of Waterloo bicentenary. If the level of research in this volume is anything to go by, I’ll be buying them too.