There are few military exercises as thrilling as the charge of a cavalry unit, sabers flashing as they face off against the enemy. Of course, with today’s advanced military weaponry, the saber has been relegated to ceremonial use.
However, as recently as the early days of World War II, you could have witnessed a cavalry charge. Two such events, considered to have been the last of them, took place in 1942. In January, the US 26th Cavalry mounted a charge and scattered a group of Japanese troops in a skirmish on the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines (later, the starving cavalrymen were forced to eat their horses as they fought against superior enemy forces). On August 23 (or 24), a unit of Italian cavalry using sabers and hand grenades conducted a successful charge against Soviet troops armed with machine guns and mortars in a battle along the Don River.
In the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum collection, we have an outstanding representation of American and foreign saber evolution. Among them is the last American design: the M1913 Army model, designed and advocated by none other than General (at the time, Lieutenant) George S. Patton, Jr. His design in the strict sense is a sword and not a saber since it employs a straight, rather than curved blade. It was based on the British M1908 weapon. Patton’s relatively lightweight saber uses a large, basket-shaped hilt and a double-edged straight blade designed for thrusting at an opponent, rather than the slashing motion used in a traditional saber attack.
In the early 20th century, the Army had decided to replace the cavalry saber that had been in use since 1861. At the time, Patton, a passionate believer in the power of the saber, was “Master of the Sword” at the Mounted Service School at Fort Riley, Kansas. A highly accomplished swordsman who had competed in the Olympics and trained in Europe where he perfected his aggressive thrust attack pattern, Patton was known among his peers as “Saber George”. On his return from training with the best fencing master in Europe, Monsieur Clery, Patton told the Army’s Adjutant General,
The whole French system of mounted saber fencing is concentrated in the word, “attack!”
That one word would become synonymous with Patton’s entire Army service.
While at Fort Riley, Patton designed a radical new weapon and prepared a detailed training manual for its mounted and dismounted use. The official manual he authored in 1914 outlined both mounted and dismounted saber techniques emphasizing the aggressive “cut and thrust” attack. With his typical assertive style, he managed to have his saber approved for general issue.
Quoting from then Lieutenant Patton’s report:
In the Peninsula War the English nearly always used the sword for cutting. The French dragoons, on the contrary, used only the point which, with their long straight swords caused almost always a fatal wound. This made the English protest that the French did not fight fair. Marshal Saxe wished to arm the French cavalry with a blade of a triangular cross section so as to make the use of the point obligatory. At Wagram, when the cavalry of the guard passed in review before a charge, Napoleon called to them, “Don’t cut! The point! The point!”
The saber commonly used by US Cavalry units up until the acceptance of Patton’s saber was the M1906, which had changed little from the curved weapons carried by US cavalry units in the U.S. Civil, Western Indian, and Spanish-American Wars. The Varnum Memorial Armory Museum’s Lounge is also home to a Model 1872 officer’s saber, which is representative of the style of weapon that preceded the implementation of Patton’s design.
But his new weapon did not have a long use. At the beginning of the American involvement in World War I, several U.S. cavalry units armed with the M1913 were sent to the front, but they were held back. Horse-mounted troops were easy prey for enemy troops equipped with Gewehr 98 rifles and MG08 machine guns (examples of both are also in the Varnum collection). Those cavalrymen who saw combat did so dismounted, using their horses only to travel.
Although an avid swordsman, Patton readily recognized that warfare was rapidly changing and he adapted his style of “move forward and attack” to his use of tanks in battle, a technique that became his trademark combat style in World War II. Patton had gone to war as an aide to General John J. Pershing with whom he had also fought in the pre-war punitive action against Mexican outlaws. The fiery Patton was not interested in a rear echelon position and was able to secure a role in organizing the Army’s tank warfare program. Wounded in action, he successfully demonstrated the effectiveness of the tank in battle and ended the war as a Lieutenant Colonel. Typical of Patton, he visualized the future role of armor in warfare and continued to advocate for its use between the two world wars. (On a side note, Patton joined with Dwight D. Eisenhower in the early development of tank warfare during and after World War I.
The Patton Saber in the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum collection is 44 inches overall, with a 35-inch blade and weighs 2.5 pounds. The blade is two-edged, straight and tapered, made of forged steel the front edge running the whole length of the blade and double-edged for half its length. It has bloodletting grooves running down each side of the blade to within 4.75 inches of the point. The grips are hard black rubber. The basket guard is sheet steel. The entire weapon weights about two pounds. The hickory wood scabbard is covered with rawhide and then waterproofed olive drab canvas, woven to eliminate a seam. Considering the weight of the bell and grip assembly, it is balanced much closer to the hand than the typical weapon associated with the name “cavalry saber”, reinforcing Patton’s intention that it was to be used to thrust, rather than slash at an opponent. However, he never had the opportunity to use his weapon in battle.
In 1934, the Adjutant General’s office discontinued issuing the saber to the cavalry. Its days as a military weapon were over. Despite strong lobbying by many supporters including Patton, who tried valiantly in 1938 to keep the weapon in use, the decision was made just prior to the start of World War II to place the majority of sabers in storage and use them only for ceremonial purposes. In 1941, the Springfield Armory, where many sabers had been manufactured, was gearing up for massive production of the Army’s M1 Garand rifle.
Patton went on to polish his reputation as a commander who transferred his assertive saber technique to the fast-moving armored warfare through the course of World War Two. He replaced his saber with his trademark ivory handled pistols. Always at the head of his commands, Patton was instrumental in giving the Army Armor its nickname of “hell on wheels.”
Today, in the hands of a trained expert, the saber still presents a powerful reminder of its role in war. Today, the title “Master of the Sword” still exists. At the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the head of the Department of Physical Education who is responsible for both an academic and non-academic physical program carries the title. Patton held the title at Fort Riley simultaneously to the officer assigned to the role at West Point where the “Master” or MOSH as he (or she) is known, has existed since the academy’s first Swordmaster, Pierre Thomas, was appointed in 1814. And, yes, a woman has held the position” Col. Maureen LeBoeuf who served between 1997-2004.
The entire Varnum Armory collection of swords and sabers, including the Patton Saber, can still excite the imagination, calling to mind the skill and training required to successfully use these weapons in combat.
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