BOOK REVIEW / A charge into the footnotes of history

A History of the British Cavalry by The Marquess of Anglesey Leo Cooper, pounds 35.00

In March 1914 the officers of the British Third Cavalry Brigade, stationed at the Curragh in Ireland, put paid to Herbert Asquith's Irish Home Rule Bill by making it clear that they would never go into action against the militant Unionists of Ulster. They doubtless agreed with their commanding general, Sir Arthur Paget, that they would not take orders from "those swines of politicians", only from His Majesty the King.

This fateful insubordination was perhaps the last decisive intervention of the equestrian classes in British history - the last insolent gesture of the knights who had for so many centuries clanked and jangled their lordly way through the nation's affairs. It opens this penultimate volume of Lord Anglesey's History of the British Cavalry, which also covers the first six months of the Great War, and it gives the whole book an allegorical tinge. The horsed patricians and their retainers were entering their last decade, and never again would hussars, dragoons and lancers be able to exert such moral pressure as they did at the Curragh that spring.

Nor, for that matter, would they exert decisive military pressure. At the fulcrum of the war which was so soon to break out, the cavalry would play a smaller role than in any previous great conflict. It is symbolically as well as militarily true that the last lance-to-lance charge ever made by British cavalry, by the 9th Lancers at Moncel in September 1914, was in Anglesey's words ``thoroughly ineffective" (even though the 9th were led by Lieutenant-Colonel David Campbell, who had won the Grand National on The Soarer in 1896...)

This is the seventh volume of Lord Anglesey's magnificent history, and by the nature of things it is the palest. Once we are out of Ireland, into the early battlefields of the Great War, little that happens is central to great effects. The cavalry formed a minor part of the British Army in France, and the British themselves, in November 1914, held only 21 miles of the western front compared with 430 miles held by the French.

Lord Anglesey has stuck to his role as a chronicler specifically of the cavalry, giving us only the sketchiest outlines of general strategy. In recalling the opening months of the war - the first German advances, the retreat from Mons, the battle of the Marne, Joffre's great offensive- he is often reduced to blow-by-blow descriptions of skirmishes almost unnoticeable in a wider view of the conflict.

Not that the British cavalry was insignificant. It was undoubtedly the best in Europe at that time, having learnt much from its experiences in the Boer war - notably the skilful use of the rifle in dismounted combat. General Allenby indeed thought his Cavalry Corps "the best-trained officers and men that had ever taken the, field in European war''. If they were sometimes timidly used by the higher command (though certainly no more timidly than the German cavalry), they seem to have fought their petty actions with all their legendary flair - the "View-Halloo" spirit, brought from Galway or the shires to these more awful fields of death.

The author assures us that the cavalry action fought at Nery in September 1914, together with other generally forgotten small battles, was crucial to the entire Allied resistance in France - even, in the long run, to the conclusion of the war. Nevertheless the interest of his book lies far more in its detail than in its surmises. Throughout his immense task he has always liked to call himself an amateur: and although his volumes are scrupulously scholarly, equipped with the full apparatus of historical research, endlessly patient in their listing of units and movements, still it is his exuberant love of the subject that gives the work its unique charm.

Some of his anecdotes, it is true, seem rather less hilarious today than they probably did in 1914, but the book is fascinatingly full of asides, cross-references and allusions. Here are a few:

The 20th Hussars, having no spades, dug their trenches with broken plates, mess tins, knives and forks.

The Royal Dragoons were mounted on Basuto ponies they had brought from South Africa.

Light-coloured horses were camouflaged with potash dye, applied with whitewash brushes,

Sergeant Smeltzer of the 12th Lancers was given a commission: within two years he commanded an infantry battalion and had won a DSO and bar and an MC.

The Queen's Own Oxfordshire Hussars were variously known as "The Agricultural Cavalry'' or "Queer Objects On Horseback''.

Cavalry officers sometimes relied on maps torn out of railway timetables, and spelt place-names phonetically because they knew them only from the replies of local people.

The Northumberland Hussars Yeomanry were also known as "The Noodles".

Brigadier-General Richard Lucas Mullens was known as "Gobby Chops''.

"That's the way to serve them bastards'', said Trooper Bellingham of the 1st Life Guards, having run a surrendering German through with his sword (he wiped the blood off on his horse's mane).

But for me it is the allegory that means most. All over Europe the cavalry was about to die, and with it the last remnants of feudalism, as of chivalry. The grey-cloaked German Uhlans, the French Cuirassiers in their plumed helmets, the English huntsmen with their high spirits and nicknames - all were relics of a soon-to-be-lost society, and it is no coincidence that German and British cavalry regiments sometimes shared the same Colonels- in-chief - kings, queens and princes from the doomed hierarchy of Europe.

Within a generation, most of the kings and queens would be gone, and so would the horses that were the ancient emblems of nobility. The proud old regiments would be trundling about in tanks, and Gobby Chops, The Noodles and the Agricultural Cavalry, even the Third Cavalry Brigade at the Curragh, would be hardly more than curious footnotes of history.

Only those swine, the politicians, would ride on regardless.

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