On Aggression. Militant Enthusiasm Part Two

This is the second part of the extract of  Konrad Lorenz’s On Aggression that was posted yesterday. Once again, I have edited and omitted some paragraphs in the text below. This is done for brevity and to remove passages that might prove confusing outside the context of the book. I strongly urge you to read the original work!
Militant enthusiasm is particularly suited for the paradigmatic illustration of the manner in which a phylogenetically evolved pattern of behaviour interacts with culturally ritualized social norms and rites, and in which, though absolutely indispensable to the function of the compound system, it is prone to miscarry most tragically if not strictly controlled by rational responsibility based on causal insight. The Greek word enthousiasmos implies that a person is possessed by a god, the German word Begeisterung means that he is controlled by a spirit, a Geist, more or less holy. In reality, militant enthusiasm is a specialized form of communal aggression, clearly distinct from and yet functionally related to the more primitive forms of petty individual aggression. Every man of normally strong emotions knows, from his own experience, the subjective phenomena that go hand in hand with the response of militant enthusiasm. A shiver runs down the back, and, as more exact observation shows, along the outside of both arms. One soars elated above all the ties of everyday life, one is ready to abandon all for the call of what, in the moment of this specific emotion, seems to be a sacred duty. All obstacles in its path become unimportant, the instinctive inhibitions against hurting or killing one’s fellows lose, unfortunately, much of their power.
Rational considerations, criticism, and all reasonable arguments against the behaviour dictated by militant enthusiasm are silenced by an amazing reversal of all values, making them appear not only untenable but base and dishonourable. Men may enjoy the feeling of absolute righteousness even while they commit atrocities. Conceptual thought and moral responsibility are at their lowest ebb. As a Ukrainian proverb says: ‘When the banner is unfurled, all reason is in the trumpet.’ The subjective experiences just described are correlated with the following, objectively demonstrable phenomena. The tone of the entire striated musculature is raised, the carriage is stiffened, the arms are raised from the sides and slightly rotated inwards so that the elbows point outwards. The head is proudly raised, the chin stuck out, and the facial muscles mime the ‘hero face’, familiar from the films. Down the back and along the outer surface of the arms the hair stands on end. This is the objectively observed aspect of the shiver! Anybody who has ever seen the corresponding behaviour of the male chimpanzee defending his band or family with self-sacrificing courage, will doubt the purely spiritual character of human enthusiasm. The chimp, too, sticks out his chin, stiffens his body, and raises his elbows; his hair stands on end producing a terrifying magnification of his body contours as seen from the front. The inward rotation of his arms obviously has the purpose of turning the longest-haired side outwards to enhance the effect. The whole combination of body attitude and hair-raising constitutes a bluff. This is also seen when a cat humps its back, and is calculated to make the animal appear bigger and more dangerous than it really is.
Our shiver which, in German poetry, is called a heiliger Schauer, which means a ‘holy shiver’, turns out to be the vestige of a pre-human vegetative response of causing to bristle a fur which we no longer have. To the humble seeker of biological truth there cannot be the slightest doubt that human militant enthusiasm evolved out of a communal defence response of our pre-human ancestors. The unthinking single-mindedness of the response must have been of high survival value even in a tribe of fully evolved human beings. It was necessary for the individual male to forget all his other allegiances in order to be able to dedicate himself, body and soul, to the cause of the communal battle. ‘Was schert mich Weib, was schert mich Kind’ – ‘What do I care for wife or child’ says the Napoleonic soldier in a famous poem by Heinrich Heine, and it is highly characteristic of the reaction that this poet, otherwise a caustic critic of emotional romanticism, was so unreservedly enraptured by his enthusiasm for the ‘great’ conqueror as to find this supremely apt expression. The object which militant enthusiasm tends to defend has changed with cultural development. Originally it was certainly the community of concrete, individually known members of a group, held together by the bond of personal love and friendship. With the growth of the social unit, the social norms and rites held in common by all its members became the main factor holding it together as an entity, and therewith they became automatically the symbol of the unit. By a process of true Pavlovian conditioning plus a certain amount of irreversible imprinting these rather abstract values have in every human culture been substituted for the primal, concrete object of the communal defence reaction. This traditionally conditioned substitution of object has important consequences for the function of militant enthusiasm.
On the one hand, the abstract nature of its object can give it a definitely inhuman aspect and make it positively dangerous – what do I care for wife or child? – on the other hand, it makes it possible to recruit militant enthusiasm into the service of really ethical values. Without the concentrated dedication of militant enthusiasm neither art, nor science, nor indeed any of the great endeavours of humanity would ever have come into being. Whether enthusiasm is made to serve these endeavours, or whether man’s most powerfully motivating instinct makes him go to war in some abjectly silly cause, depends almost entirely on the conditioning and/or imprinting he has undergone during certain susceptible periods of his life. There is reasonable hope that our moral responsibility may gain control over the primeval drive, but our only hope of it ever doing so rests on the humble recognition of the fact that militant enthusiasm is an instinctive response with a phylogenetically determined releasing mechanism, and that the only point at which intelligent and responsible supervision can get control is in the conditioning of the response to an object which proves to be a genuine value under the scrutiny of the categorical question. Like the triumph ceremony of the greylag goose, militant enthusiasm in man is a true autonomous instinct: it has its own appetitive behaviour, its own releasing mechanisms and, like the sexual urge or any other strong instinct, it engenders a specic feeling of intense satisfaction. The strength of its seductive lure explains why intelligent men may behave as irrationally and immorally in their political as in their sexual lives. Like the triumph ceremony it has an essential influence on the social structure of the species.
Humanity is not enthusiastically combative because it is split into political parties, but it is divided into opposing camps because this is the adequate stimulus situation to arouse militant enthusiasm in a satisfying manner. ‘If ever a doctrine of universal salvation should gain ascendancy over the whole earth to the exclusion of all others,’ writes Erich von Holst, ‘it would at once fall into two strongly opposing factions (one’s own true one and the other heretical one) and hostility and war would thrive as before, mankind being – unfortunately – what it is!’
The first prerequisite for rational control of an instinctive behaviour pattern is the knowledge of the stimulus situation which releases it. Militant enthusiasm can be elicited, with the predictability of a reflex, when the following environmental situations arise. First of all, a social unit with which the subject identifies himself must appear to be threatened by some danger from outside. That which is threatened may be a concrete group of people, the family, or a little community of close friends, or else it may be a larger social unit held together and symbolized by its own specific social norms and rites. As the latter assume the character of autonomous values, in the way described in Chapter 5, they can, quite by themselves, represent the object in whose defence militant enthusiasm can be elicited. From all this it follows that this response can be brought into play in the service of extremely different objects, ranging from the sports club to the nation, or from the most obsolete mannerisms or ceremonials to the ideal of scientific truth or of the incorruptibility of justice.
A second key stimulus which contributes enormously to the releasing of intense militant enthusiasm is the presence of a hateful enemy from whom the threat to the above ‘values’ emanates. This enemy, too, can be of a concrete or of an abstract nature. It can be ‘the’ Jews, Huns, Boches, Tyrants, etc., or abstract concepts like world capitalism, bolshevism, fascism and any other kind of -ism; it can be heresy, dogmatism, scientific fallacy or what not. Just as in the case of the object to be defended, the enemy against whom to defend it is extremely variable and demagogues are well versed in the dangerous art of producing supra-normal dummies to release a very dangerous form of militant enthusiasm.
A third factor contributing to the environmental situation eliciting the response is an inspiring leader figure. Even the most emphatically anti-fascistic ideologies apparently cannot do without it, as the giant pictures of leaders displayed by all kinds of political parties prove clearly enough. Again the unselectivity of the phylogenetically programmed response allows for a wide variation in the conditioning to a leader-figure…
…A fourth, and perhaps the most important prerequisite for the full eliciting of militant enthusiasm is the presence of many other individuals all agitated by the same emotion. Their absolute number has a certain influence on the quality of the response. Smaller numbers at issue with a large majority tend to obstinate defence with the emotional value of ‘making a last stand’, while very large numbers inspired by the same enthusiasm feel an urge to conquer the whole world in the name of their sacred cause. Here the laws of mass enthusiasm are strictly analogous to those of flock formation described in Chapter 8; here, too, the excitation grows in proportion, perhaps even in geometrical progression, with the increasing number of individuals.
This is exactly what makes militant mass enthusiasm so dangerous. I have tried to describe, with as little emotional bias as possible, the human response of enthusiasm, its phylogenetic origin, its instinctive as well as its traditionally handed-down components and prerequisites. I hope I have made the reader realize, without actually saying so, what a jumble our philosophy of values is. What is a culture? A system of historically developed social norms and rites which are passed on from generation to generation because emotionally they are felt to be values. What is a value? Obviously, normal and healthy people are able to appreciate something as a high value for which to live and, if necessary, to die, for no other reason than that it was evolved in cultural ritualization and handed down to them by a revered elder. Is, then, a value only defined as the object on which our instinctive urge to preserve and defend traditional social norms has become fixated? Primarily and in the early stages of cultural development this undoubtedly was the case. The obvious advantages of loyal adherence to tradition must have exerted a considerable selection pressure.
However, the greatest loyalty and obedience to culturally ritualized norms of behaviour must not be mistaken for responsible morality. Even at their best they are only functionally analogous to behaviour controlled by rational responsibility. In this respect they are no whit dierent from the instinctive patterns of social behaviour discussed in Chapter 7. Also they are just as prone to miscarry under circumstances for which they have not been ‘programmed’ by the great constructor, natural selection. In other words, the need to control, by wise rational responsibility, all our emotional allegiances to cultural values is as great as, if not greater than, the necessity of keeping our other instincts in check. None of them can ever have such devastating effects as unbridled militant enthusiasm when it infects great masses and overrides all other considerations by its single-mindedness and its specious nobility.
It is not enthusiasm in itself that is in any way noble, but humanity’s great goals which it can be called upon to defend. That indeed is the Janus head of man: the only being capable of dedicating himself to the very highest moral and ethical values requires for this purpose a phylogenetically adapted mechanism of behaviour whose animal properties bring with them the danger that he will kill his brother, convinced that he is doing so in the interests of these very same high values…
…The fourth and perhaps the most important measure to be taken immediately is the intelligent and responsible channelling of militant enthusiasm, in other words helping a younger generation which, on the one hand, is highly critical and even suspicious and on the other emotionally starved, to find genuine causes that are worth serving in the modern world. I shall now proceed to discuss all these precepts one by one….. What is needed is the arousal of enthusiasm for causes which are commonly recognized as values of the highest order by all human beings, irrespective of their national, cultural or political allegiances. I have already called attention to the danger of defining a value by begging the question. A value is emphatically not just the object to which the instinctive response of militant enthusiasm becomes fixated by imprinting and early conditioning, even if, conversely, militant enthusiasm can become fixated on practically any institutionalized social norm or rite and make it appear as a value…However, I think we must face the fact that militant enthusiasm has evolved from the hackle-raising and chin-protruding communal defence instinct of our pre-human ancestors and that the key stimulus situations which release it still bear all the earmarks of this origin. Among them, the existence of an enemy, against whom to defend cultural values, is still one of the most effective. Militant enthusiasm, in one particular respect, is dangerously akin to the triumph ceremony of geese and to analogous instinctive behaviour patterns of other animals. The social bond embracing a group is closely connected with aggression directed against outsiders. In human beings, too, the feeling of togetherness which is so essential to the serving of a common cause is greatly enhanced by the presence of a definite, threatening enemy whom it is possible to hate. Also, it is much easier to make people identify with a simple and concrete common cause than with an abstract idea. For all these reasons, the teachers of militant ideologies have an enviably easy job in converting young people…The actual warmonger, of course, has the best chances of arousing militant enthusiasm because he can always work his dummy or fiction of an enemy for all it is worth….
…If I have just said that considerable erudition is necessary for anyone to grasp the real values of humanity which are worthy of being served and defended, I certainly did not mean that it was a hopeless task to raise the education of average humanity to that level, I only wanted to emphasize that it was necessary to do so. Indeed, in our age of enlightenment, human beings of average intelligence are not so very far from appreciating real cultural and ethical values.
There are at least three great human enterprises, collective in the truest sense of the word, whose ultimate and unconditional value no normal human being can doubt: Art, the pursuit of beauty; Science, the pursuit of truth; and, as an independent third which is neither art not science, though it makes use of both, Medicine, the attempt to mitigate human suffering…
…Of course, education alone, in the sense of the simple transmission of knowledge, is only a prerequisite to the real appreciation of these and other ethical values. Another condition, quite as important, is that this knowledge and its ethical consequences should be handed down to the younger generation in such a way that it is able to identify itself with these values. I have already said what psycho-analysts have known for a long time, that a relation of trust and respect between two generations must exist in order to make a tradition of values possible. I have already said that Western culture, even without the danger of nuclear warfare, is more directly threatened by disintegration because of its failure to transmit its cultural and even its ethical values to the younger generation. To many people, and probably to all of those actively concerned with politics, my hope of improving the chances of permanent peace by arousing, in young people, militant enthusiasm for the ideals of art, science, medicine and the like, will appear unrealistic to the point of being fatuous. Young people today, they will argue, are notoriously materialistic and take an insuperably sceptical view of ideals in general and in particular of those that arouse the enthusiasm of a member of the older generation. My answer is that this is quite true, but that young people today have excellent excuses for taking this attitude. Cultural and political ideas today have a way of becoming obsolete surprisingly fast; indeed there are few of them on either side of any curtain that have not already done so. To the extra-terrestrial observer, in whose place we should be trying to put ourselves, it would seem a very minor issue whether capitalism or communism will rule the world; since the differences between the two are rapidly decreasing anyhow. To such an observer the great questions would be, first, whether mankind can keep its planet from becoming too radio-active to support life, and secondly whether mankind will succeed in preventing its population from ‘exploding’ in a way more annihilating than the explosion of the Bomb.
Apart from the obvious obsolescence of most so-called ideals, we know some of the reasons why the younger generation refuses to accept handed down customs and social norms (pages 254–6). I believe that the ‘angry young men’ of Western civilization have a perfectly good right to be angry with the older generation and I do not regard it as surprising if modern youth is sceptical to the point of nihilism. I believe that its mistrust of all ideals is largely due to the fact that there have been and still are so many artificially contrived pseudo-ideals ‘on the market’, calculated to arouse enthusiasm for demagogic purposes. 
I believe that among the genuine values here discussed science has a particular mission in vanquishing this distrust. Honest research must produce identical results anywhere. The verifiability of science proves the honesty of its work. There is no mystery whatsoever about its results; where they are met with obstinate incredulity they can be proved by incontestable figures. I believe that the most materialistic and the most sceptical are the very people whose enthusiasm could be aroused in the service of scientific truth and all that goes with it.
 Of course, it is not to be suggested that all of the earth’s population should engage in active scientific research, but scientific education might very well become general enough to exert a decisive influence on the social norms approved by public opinion. I am not speaking, at the moment, of the influence which a deeper understanding of the biological laws governing our own behaviour might have, a subject I shall discuss later on, but of the beneficial effect of scientific education in general sense that its content will stand the test of Kant’s categorical question, will act as an antidote to national or political aggression.
Dr J. Hollo, an American physician, has pointed out that the militant enthusiasm by which a man identifies himself with a national or political cause, is so dangerous mainly for the one reason that it excludes all other considerations the moment it is aroused (by the mental processes described on pages 259–60). A man really can feel ‘wholly American’ when thinking of ‘the’ Russians or vice versa. The single-mindedness with which enthusiasm eliminates all other considerations and the fact that the objects of identification happen, in this case, to be fighting units, make national and political enthusiasm actually dangerous, to the point of its being ethically questionable Humanistic ideals of this kind must become real and full-blooded enough to compete, in the esteem of young people, with all the romantic and glamorous stimulus situations which are, primarily, much more effective in releasing the old hackle-raising and chin-protruding response of militant enthusiasm. Much intelligence and insight, on the side of the educator as well as on that of the educated, will be needed before this great goal is reached.  


On Aggression. Militant Enthusiasm Part One

Yesterday I completed my reading of Konrad Lorenz’s On Aggression. The last couple of chapters are well worth reading, as indeed is the whole book. Below is the first part of another extract from the book. The second part will be posted within a day or two. I have edited and omitted some paragraphs in the text below. This is done for brevity and to remove passages that might prove confusing outside the context of the book. I strongly urge you to read the original work!
As already mentioned, norms of social behaviour developed by cultural ritualization play at least as important a part in the context of human society as instinctive motivation and the control exerted by responsible morality. Even at the earliest dawn of culture, when the invention of tools was just beginning to upset the equilibrium of phylogenetically evolved patterns of social behaviour, man’s newborn responsibility must have found a strong aid in cultural ritualization. Evidence of cultural rites reaches back almost as far as that of the use of tools and of fire. Of course we can expect prehistorical evidence of culturally ritualized behaviour only when ritualization has reached comparatively high levels of differentiation, as in burial ceremonies or in the arts of painting and sculpture. These make their first appearance simultaneously with our own species and the wonderful proficiency of the first-known painters and sculptors suggests that even by their time, art had quite a long history behind it. Considering all this, it is quite possible that a cultural tradition of behavioural norms originated as early as the use of tools or even earlier.
Through the processes described in Chapter 5, customs and taboos may acquire the power to motivate behaviour in a way comparable to that of autonomous instincts. Not only highly developed rites or ceremonies but also simpler and less conspicuous norms of social behaviour may attain, after a number of generations, the character of sacred customs which are loved and considered as values whose infringement is severely frowned upon by public opinion. As also has already been hinted in Chapter 5, sacred custom owes its motivating force to phylogenetically evolved behaviour patterns of which two are of particular importance. One is the response of militant enthusiasm by which any group defends its own social norms and rites against another group not possessing them; the other is the group’s cruel taunting of any of its members who fail to conform with the accepted ‘good form’ of behaviour. Without the phylogenetically programmed love for traditional custom human society would lack the supporting apparatus to which it owes its indispensable structure. Yet, like any phylogenetically programmed behaviour mechanism, the one under discussion can miscarry. School classes or companies of soldiers, which can both be regarded as models of primitive group structure, can be very cruel indeed in their ganging up against an outsider. The purely instinctive response to a physically abnormal individual, for instance the jeering at a fat boy, is absolutely identical, as far as overt behaviour is concerned, with discrimination against a person who differs from the group in culturally developed social norms – for instance a child who speaks a different dialect.
The ganging up against an individual diverging from the social norms characteristic of a group, and the group’s enthusiastic readiness to defend these social norms and rites, are both good illustrations of the way in which culturally determined conditioned stimulus situations release activities which are fundamentally instinctive. They are also excellent examples of typical compound behaviour patterns whose primary survival value is as obvious as the danger of their misfiring under the conditions of the modern social order. I shall have to come back later on to the different ways in which the function of militant enthusiasm can miscarry and to possible means of preventing this eventuality. Before enlarging on this subject, however, I must say a few words about the functions of social norms and rites in general.
First of all I must recall to the reader’s memory the somewhat surprising fact, mentioned in Chapter 5: we have no immediate knowledge of the function and/or survival value of the majority of our own established customs, notwithstanding our emotional conviction that they do indeed constitute high values. This paradoxical state of affairs is explained by the simple fact that customs are not man-made in the same sense as human inventions, are, from the pebble tool up to the jet plane. There may be exceptional cases in which causal insight gained by a great lawgiver determines a social norm. Moses is said to have recognized the pig as a host of the Trichina, but if he did, he preferred to rely on the devout religious observance of his people rather than on their intellect when he asserted that Jehovah himself had declared the porker an unclean animal. In general, however, it is quite certain that it hardly ever was insight into a valuable function that gave rise to traditional norms and rites, but the age-old process of natural selection. Historians will have to face the fact that natural selection determined the evolution of cultures in the same manner as it did that of species.
In both cases the great constructor has produced results which may not be the best of all conceivable solutions but which at least prove their practicability by their very existence. To the biologist who knows the ways in which selection works and who is also aware of its limitations it is in no way surprising to find, in its constructions, some details which are unnecessary or even detrimental to survival. The human mind, endowed with the power of deduction, can quite often find solutions to problems which natural selection fails to resolve. Selection may produce incomplete adaptation even when it uses the material furnished by mutation and when it has huge time periods at its disposal. It is much more likely to do so when it has to determine, in an incomparably shorter time, which of the randomly arising customs of a culture make it best fitted to survival. Small wonder indeed if, among the social norms and rites of any culture, we find a considerable number which are unnecessary or even clearly inexpedient and which selection nevertheless has failed to eliminate. Many superstitions, comparable to my little greylag’s detour towards the window, can become institutionalized and be carried on for generations. Also, intra-specific selection often plays as dangerous a role in the development of cultural ritualization as in phylogenesis. The process of so-called status-seeking, for instance, produces the bizarre excrescences in social norms and rites which are so typical of intra-specific selection.
However, even if some social norms or rites are quite obviously maladaptive, this does not imply that they may be eliminated without further consideration. The social organization of any culture is a complicated system of universal interaction between a great many divergent traditional norms of behaviour, and it can never be predicted without a very thorough analysis what repercussions the cutting out of even one single part may have for the functioning of the whole. For instance, it is easily intelligible to anybody that the custom of head-hunting, widely spread among tropical tribes, has a somewhat unpleasant side to it, and that the peoples still adhering to it would be better off, in many ways, without it. The studies of the ethnologist and psycho-analyst Derek Freeman, however, have shown that head-hunting is so intricately interwoven with the whole social system of some Bornean tribes that its abolition tends to disintegrate their whole culture, even seriously jeopardizing the survival of the people.
The balanced interaction between all the single norms of social behaviour characteristic of a culture accounts for the fact that it usually proves highly dangerous to mix cultures. To kill a culture it is often sufficient to bring it into contact with another, particularly if the latter is higher, or is at least regarded as higher, as the culture of a conquering nation usually is. The people of the subdued side then tend to look down upon everything they previously held sacred and to ape the customs which they regard as superior. As the system of social norms and rites characteristic of a culture is always adapted, in many particular ways, to the special conditions of its environment, this unquestioning acceptance of foreign customs almost invariably leads to maladaptation. Colonial history offers abundant examples of its causing the destruction not only of cultures but also of peoples and races. Even in the less tragic case of rather closely related and roughly equivalent cultures mixing there usually are some undesirable results, because each finds it easier to imitate the most superficial, least valuable customs of the other. The first items of American culture imitated by German youth immediately after the last war were gum-chewing, Coca-cola drinking, the crew cut and the reading of coloured comic strips. More valuable social norms characteristic of American culture were obviously less easy to imitate.
Quite apart from the danger to one culture arising from contact with another, all systems of social norms and rites are vulnerable in the same way as systems of phylogenetically evolved patterns of social behaviour. Not being man-made, but produced by selection, their function is, without special scientific investigation, unknown to man himself, and therefore their balance is as easily upset by the effects of conceptual thought as that of any system of instinctive behaviour. Like the latter, they can be made to miscarry by any environmental change not ‘foreseen’ in their ‘programming’, but while instincts persist for better or worse, traditional systems of social behaviour can disappear altogether within one generation, because, like the continuous state that constitutes the life of an organism, that which constitutes a culture cannot bear any interruption of its continuity.
Several coinciding factors are at present threatening to interrupt the continuity of our Western culture. There is, in our culture, an alarming break of traditional continuity between the generation born in about 1900 and the next. This fact is incontestable; its causes are still doubtful. Diminishing cohesion of the family group and decreasing personal contact between teacher and pupil are probably important factors. Very few of the present younger generation have ever had the opportunity of seeing their fathers at work, few pupils learn from their teachers by collaborating with them. This used to be the rule with peasants, artisans and even scientists, provided they taught at relatively small universities. The industrialization that prevails in all sectors of human life produces a distance between the generations which is not compensated for by the greatest familiarity, by the most democratic tolerance and permissiveness of which we are so proud. Young people seem to be unable to accept the values held in honour by the older generation, unless they are in close contact with at least one of its representatives who commands their unrestricted respect and love. Another probably important factor contributing to the same effect is the real obsolescence of many social norms and rites still on aggression valued by some of the older generation. The extreme speed of ecological and sociological change wrought by the development of technology causes many customs to become maladaptive within one generation. The romantic veneration of national values, so movingly expressed in the works of Rudyard Kipling or C. S. Forrester, is obviously an anachronism that can do nothing but damage today. Such criticism is indubitably over-stressed by the prevalence of scientific thought and the unrelenting demand for causal understanding, both of which are the most characteristic, if not the only, virtues of our century. However, scientific enlightenment tends to engender doubt in the value of traditional beliefs long before it furnishes the causal insight necessary to decide whether some accepted custom is an obsolete superstition or a still indispensable part of a system of social norms. Again, it is the unripe fruit of the tree of knowledge that proves to be dangerous; indeed I suspect that the whole legend of the tree of knowledge is meant to defend sacred traditions against the premature inroads of incomplete rationalization. As it is, we do not know enough about the function of any system of culturally ritualized norms of behaviour to give a rational answer to the perfectly rational question what some particular custom is good for, in other words wherein lies its survival value. When an innovator rebels against established norms of social behaviour and asks why he should conform with them, we are usually at a loss for an answer. It is only in rare cases, as in my example of Moses’ law against eating pigs, that we can give the would-be reformer such a succinct answer as: ‘You will get trichinosis if you don’t obey.’ In most cases the defender of accepted tradition has to resort to seemingly lame replies, saying that certain things are ‘simply not done’, are not cricket, are un-American or sinful, if he does not prefer to appeal to the authority of some venerable father-figure who also regarded the social norm under discussion as inviolable. To anyone for whom the latter is still endowed with the emotional value of a sacred rite, such an answer appears as self-evident and satisfactory; to anybody who has lost this feeling of reverence it sounds hollow and sanctimonious. Understandably, if not quite forgivably, such a person tends to think that the social norm in question is just superstition, if he does not go so far as to consider its defender as insincere. This, incidentally, is very frequently the main point of dissension between people of different generations.
All this applies unrestrictedly to the ‘solidified’, that is to say institutionalized, system of social norms and rites which function very much like a supporting skeleton in human cultures. In the growth of human cultures, as in that of arthropods, there is a built-in mechanism providing for graduated change. During and shortly after puberty human beings have an indubitable tendency to loosen their allegiance to all traditional rites and social norms of their culture, allowing conceptual thought to cast doubt on their value and to look around for new and perhaps more worthy ideals.
There probably is, at that time of life, a definite sensitive period for a new object-fixation, much as in the case of the object-fixation found in animals and called imprinting. If at that critical time of life old ideals prove fallacious under critical scrutiny and new ones fail to appear, the result is that complete aimlessness, the utter boredom which characterizes the young delinquent.
If, on the other hand, the clever demagogue, well versed in the dangerous art of producing supra-normal stimulus situations, gets hold of young people at the susceptible age, he finds it easy to guide their object-fixation in a direction subservient to his political aims. At the post-puberal age some human beings seem to be driven by an overpowering urge to espouse a cause, and, failing to find a worthy one, may become fixated on astonishingly inferior substitutes. The instinctive need to be the member of a closely knit group fighting for common ideals may grow so strong that it becomes inessential what these ideals are and whether they possess any intrinsic value. This, I believe, explains the formation of juvenile gangs whose social structure is very probably a rather close reconstruction of that prevailing in primitive human society.
Apparently this process of object-fixation can take its full effect only once in an individual’s life. Once the valuation of certain social norms or the allegiance to a certain cause is fully established, it cannot be erased again, at least not to the extent of making room for a new, equally strong one. Also it would seem that once the sensitive period has elapsed, a man’s ability to embrace ideals at all is considerably reduced. All this helps to explain the hackneyed truth that human beings have to live through a rather dangerous period at and shortly after puberty. The tragic paradox is that the danger is greatest for those who are by nature best fitted to serve the noble cause of humanity. The process of object-fixation has consequences of an importance that can hardly be overestimated. It determines neither more nor less than that which a man will live for, struggle for and, under certain circumstances, blindly go to war for. It determines the conditioned stimulus situation releasing a powerful phylogenetically evolved behaviour which I propose to call that of militant enthusiasm.

Alaskan Packboard Rucksack

A friend of mine was recently asking me about rucsacks. I suggested he take a look at alaskan packboards. Building your own is much easier than you might think. I know, because during my early twenties and of limited means I built one, with nearly all of the stitching done by hand (it shows!) . I’ve used this pack for a number of trips, the longest being a tour around Holland, Germany and Austria. I would have  used it more were it not that externally framed packs are not a good idea if airport baggage handlers and carousels are likely to be involved. My European trip was during a threatened continental air traffic controllers’ strike so I travelled by train and overnight ferry.

The source for my rucksack plans was a British magazine called “SWAT” (Survival Weaponry And Tactics). Apparently identical illustrations are now available in a number of places on the internet.
The heart of the thing is the frame. I think this may have been made from common pinewood, since my knowledge of the properties of woods was rather minimal back then. You might be better off using ash or hickory, but my frame has never given me any problems. It can be built using very simple carpentry skills. The joins are “glued and screwed” for a belt and braces approach. The inside angles have a number of metal brackets added as reinforcement.

The carrying straps are made from 25mm and 50mm polyester or nylon webbing. The wider pieces are used for the shoulder section. The shoulder straps start on the inner side of the upper crosspiece, go under and up the back. These are glued into position and then secured by a metal plate on each side and secured with bolts. Add some extra glue for more strength. The metal plates were constructed from a door “fingerplate”. I suggest you put the bolt heads on the inner side, using countersunk heads if you can get them. Saw the shanks of the bolts down to the nut and upset the ends if you wish. The lower straps are attached to the outside bottom of the verticals and a piece of fingerplate bolted over them.
A piece of 25mm strap is sewn to the bottom of the 50mm pieces. Foam is wrapped around the 50mm pieces and covered with some waterproof nylon, in this instance salvaged from an old umbrella.
The wooden frame is given a number of coats of synthetic waterproof varnish.
The frame is surrounded by a cloth cover. This should be something breathable such as heavy duty cotton. This part is going to make contact with your back but creates an airspace between your back and the pack proper. The cover is laced taunt and screw-eyes inserted through into the verticals of the frame. These are used to attach the pack to the frame. Each screw-eye passes through an eyelet on the edge of the pack and then a rod is passed down through the screw-eyes. The original article suggested using flux-less wielding rods for the rods. I use two aluminium rods that a friend put screw threads and nuts on each end.

The design of the pack can be varied. Potentially you can make a number of different packs to work with the same frame. Mine was made mainly from condura. A double piece was sewn in the bottom and some umbrella nylon used to create a drawcord snowlock. Pockets were made from a combination of left over condura, PU-nylon and the cotton used for the frame cover. The latter was impregnated with wax to prevent water absorption.

The flap was made from a separate piece of waterproof PU-nylon with a camouflage pattern. This is one feature I might redesign. While this flap is very good at keeping rain out it is not loadbearing. A sales assistant in a bookstore attempted to bring me the rucksack by lifting it by the flap and tore the stitching. Last day of the trip and I have a sewing kit so not a major problem. The correct way to lift it is by the crosspiece of the frame. Either add an obvious carrying handle or add the PU-nylon over a condura flap formed as a continuous piece with the back of the sack. There is a large pocket sewn on top of the flap. One side of the pack has two pockets while the other has a long pocket suitable for taking a 2.5 litre plastic bottle of water (conscripted soda bottle!). This pocket can also take my large size platypus bottle.

The pack and frame are actually a lot lighter than you expect them to be. I suspect that some of my smaller, internally framed packs are heavier. I think I once worked out that the pack has a 110 litre capacity, but that was not including the external pockets! A pair of Dutch lads I travelled with were rather put out that my pack could carry tent, supplies, stove and sleeping bag all inside the main compartment, rather than having to strap stuff to the outside like they had to.
The long uprights of the frame take the weight off your back when you sit down.

Misadventures with the pack have been few. The cloth cover comes closer to the crosspiece than you expect. You can see a small hole in the cover where a bolt end rubbed through. I ended up sawing off and filing down the bolt shanks with my Swiss Army Knife while riding a German bus. The slot in the cover that the upper straps pass through was not quite right and I ended up having to reinforce that with the piece of green cloth visible (formerly part of a youth hostel’s curtain, if I recall!). I cannot remember if I added the green nylon strap reinforcing piece before or after this trip.


Helping the Enemy : Grey Warfare.

           Decades back there was a British comedy series called “Who Dares Wins”. It was most famous for its dialogues between Giant Pandas. but many of its other sketches were very clever. One in particular springs to mind. It starts with an “aged” film clip of two stereotypical hippie protest singers. Both are long-haired and the man is bearded, they wear kaftans and so forth. Switch to a shot of the two actors “now”. They are clean cut. The man is shaved and wearing a blazer and tie, his wife equally conventional. They are laughing self-consciously and good naturedly at the film clip.
           Interviewer: “So, are you still active in politics?”
           Woman: “Oh yes! We have recently become the regional organizers for the National Front.”
           (The National Front is a British racist organisation that exploits working class youths as its muscle)
           Interviwer: (pauses) “Ahhh….so, your politics have changed quite a bit?”
           Man: “Oh gosh no! We have always been right wing. Our musical career was to ensure that no one could hear any left-wing ideas without automatically thinking of beads and face painting…”
           This was from a comedy show, but all good satire contains at least a grain of seriousness. You could easily flip this sketch and have the protagonist working so that no right wing idea could be heard without associating Nazism and camouflaged rednecks preaching conspiracy theories! Poe’s law means that many left and right wingers have done a fine job of achieving the above without any influence from the opposition! I have at least one friend whose passion and dogmatism tend to drive more sympathetic people from his causes than towards them.
           Regular readers will know that I tend to avoid political posts. I am, however, interested in perception and consider this relevant to both self-defence and preparedness. So the question I will propose to you today is : Are you helping what you most despise?
           Think about this after you read this very interesting article on “Grey Warfare”: 

Fictional Measurement System.

As is the tradition, the Friday blog will be on something more abstract or light hearted than the usual topics.
Over the years I have read a number of sci-fi and fantasy books where the author has given a world its own measurement systems. Most of these seem to be fairly arbitrary rather than based on aspects of that world. It is with this in mind that I have pursued the following train of thought.
While doing some background reading for the last series of posts I came across a description of a duelling sword as being of “four palms length”. Seemed rather short for what was described as an excellent weapon for the duel! I did a little research and discovered that “palm” was a term sometimes used for a measurement based on hand length. Like many old measurement standards it varied from city to city but was between 8 and 10 inches long. 32 to 36” is about right for a handy duelling sword.
I began to read about anthropic measures. Something that occurred to me was that a “foot”, despite its name, was not an anthropic measurement. Very few people have feet twelve inches long. According to Vitruvian proportions a foot should be a seventh of your actual height. I’m about 71” tall so my feet should be over 10” long. The 15.3% value on the wiki article would give me 11” feet. Actually they are 9” long.  Someone with a 12” should be seven feet tall if Vitruvian proportions are correct! Vitruvian proportions don’t work for feet. Many people my height have feet larger or smaller than me. Many smaller people have larger feet. It has been suggested that “foot” as a measurement is a synonym for “shoe”. Coincidentally my favourite boots are exactly 12” long. My ancestors probably did not have moulded rubber soles so their shoes were probably shorter than this.
A fact I did come across was that the Romans used a measurement based on the pace. The Roman passus was a “double pace”, measured from the heelprint of a foot to the next heelprint of the same foot. It was standardized at 1.48m and also described as being five Roman “pes”. One pes or “roman foot” is 11.6 modern inches. The Romans used a decimal system for large measurements so one thousand passus or five thousand pes was a Roman mile. It seems likely that the pes was created as an increment of a passus rather than anything to do with the size of a human foot.
My reading also turned up the interesting fact that the metre was originally derived as being a ten-millionth of the distance between the equator and the north pole of the Earth. While logical there are a number of objections to this. One is that a measurement of the Earth will vary with how it is done. If we fly an aircraft from the equator to the north pole the actual distance it travels will depend on its altitude. It may occasionally have to fly higher to cross a mountain range so the distance travelled will be different to that on a map. If it was practical to walk this distance the walker would have to move up hills and down across valleys that the aircraft simply fly over. Again, the total distance travelled will be different. Perhaps our walker takes a little dog with him. Poor Fido will have to clamber across rocks and negotiate furrows and thus walk a different distance to the human beside him. Another objection is that this derivation does not make the measurement unit particularly tangible:
      “Fred, do you think it is less than a hundred metres to the pub?”
     “Well, Bert, do you think that looks like a hundred-thousandth of a quadrant?”
Suppose, for discussion’s sake, we had a measurement system based on something else. I am going to use the Roman passus (1.48 m) for this example. A pace is quite a handy, easily visualized measure. There are obvious useful real world applications for working out ranges or travel distances in paces. It is probably more useful to know something is twelve paces away than twenty yards. Pacing a distance gives a fairly accurate approximation even if your pace-length is not exactly 1.48 m.
           For reasons that will become clear in a moment I am going to suggest decimalizing the passus. Each passus is divided into ten deci-passus or “desips”, each equivalent to 14.8 cm or 5.8”. Interestingly, three desips equals 17.4”/44.4 cm, a shade under a standard (Biblical) cubit and nearly identical to the Roman cubitus. Vitruvian proportions gives the height of a male as four cubits. Twelve decips works out as 177.6cm or 5’ 9.6”, a fairly good estimation for the height of an average man. We can therefore create a second measurement called a “kupit” and use the length between a middle finger and elbow tip as an approximate measure. A cubit is quite a handy measure. It is readily to hand and in Vitruvian proportions is equal to a shoulder width. A man’s height or armspan is meant to be four cubits. The Wikpedia page on Vitruvian man defines a pace as four cubits, but this is obviously incorrect since men do not walk in bounds equal to their height. Cloth or rope can be easily measured out in “double cubits” by stretching it from centreline/nose to fingertip. This is a traditional way to measure yards but our system does not need yards (or feet) when we can use passus, kupits and double kupits.
One passus = Ten desips
One kupit = Three desips
Three passus = Ten kupit
So, our standardized measures of length are the passus, kupit and desip, two of which can be easily estimated by pacing or comparison to a body part. For smaller increments we can have the centi-passus, milli-passus  (centip and millip?) etc. For longer distances we have the kilo-passus (kilop?) equal to ten-thousand desips or 1.48 km/ 0.925 miles. A league, the distance that can be marched in an hour, is 3.25 kilo-passus. 200 passus is a shade under 300m, which is about the limits of the effective range of a rifle for many shooters. 150 passus around the battlefield range of a bow.
Kupits to Passus = n x 3/10
Passus to Kupits = n x 10/3
 A hektopassus is an area measurement equivalent to a square ten passus to each side. Ten thousand hektopassus make a square kilop.
Once we have a linear measurement we can move to volumes. A cubic desip works out to be 3.24 litres, not a very useful aliquot to base a system on. Instead, I am going to suggest a cubic half-desip, which is a cube of 5 centi-passus to a side. Eight of these will fit in a cubic desip and each is about 405mls. This is just under an American pint so is a handy amount to deal with. We will call this a “skulp”. Skulps can be divided into milli-skulps and micro-sculps, each milli-sculp being equivalent to a cube of 5 milli-passus sides. For larger volumes there is the kilo-skulp, eight of which make a cubic passus. Whereas the liner measurements are based on 3s and 10s the volumes are related by 5s and 8s!

For a unit of mass we might as well use the mass of a single skulp of water. We will call this a “skud” so one skulp weighs one skud or 405 gms. A milli-skud is 405 mg and a kilo-skud is 405 kg.
One milli-skulp of water masses one milli-skud and is a cube of 5 milli-passus per side.
One centi-passus cube of water masses eight milli-skud and contains eight milli-skulp
A cubical cup with internal dimensions of half a desip (2.9″) provides a handy standard. For a skulp, fill it up to the line. To weigh a skud measure a cup filled with water against its empty twin. The internal sides of this standard cup are half a desip across. The single standard cup is therefore a useful standard for mass, volume and length! All merchants should have a set! Beer mugs will hold a skulp so an improvised standard will seldom be far away. One skulp is a handy size for a scoop or ladle.
There you have it. A fairly simple but useful measurement system for a fictional realm. 
The derivation of a skulp suggests that a passus might be more logically subdivided into twenty parts rather than ten. I will call this unit a “vingt”. This is approximately a handbreadth. The desip becomes redundant. There are five centi-passus to a vingt. For convenience the centi-passus will be renamed “ort”.
 A two kupit (twelve vingt) pendulum allows the derivation of a time increment of 0.945 seconds at Earth standard gravity. This is only about 1/20th difference from an actual second so is effectively the same for most purposes. Using the system of counting to 144 on the fingers allows the use of seconds in multiples of twelve. 144 seconds is 2.4 minutes. Twelve such units (a zagier) is 28.8 minutes and 50 zaiger-seconds is 24 hours. 144 “short” seconds is just over two and a quarter minutes. A zagier of short seconds is just over 27 minutes.
One passus is 20 vingts. One kupit is 6 vingts. A skulp is a cubic vingt. A skud is the same weight as a skulp of water.
8.5 to 10 vingts would probably be a good length for the blade of a handy sword. Half a passus the height of a battle shield. A typical spear might be 5 kupits, a light lance 2 passus and a pike 12 kupits.
    • A passus is a standardized double pace. One passus = 1.48 m, 58″, 20 vingt or 100 orts.
    • One kupit is a standardized cubit. One kupit = 44.4 cm, 17.4″, 6 vingts or 30 orts.
    • One vingt = 7.4 cm, 2.9″ or 5 orts.
    • One ort = 14.8 mm or 0.58″.
    • One skulp = 405 mls or 14.25 fl oz. A cubic vingt.
    • One skud = 405 gms or 14.25 oz/ 0.89 lb. Weight of a skulp of water.

1796 Light Cavalry Sabre.

           Continuing our brief look at cavalry weapons.
           1796 saw the introduction of new patterns of sword for both the light and heavy British cavalry. The 1796s were the first successful official patterns of sword used by British cavalry. Today’s blog looks at the 1796 Light cavalry sabre. I may write something in the future about the 1796 heavy cavalry sabre but today I will confine my comments to the light cavalry’s weapon. “1796” in the following passages should be taken to refer to the light cavalry weapon.

           Light cavalry in the Napoleonic era were tasked with skirmishing, scouting, foraging and raiding. In the British army light cavalry were designated as either hussars or light dragoons. After the Napoleonic war Britain raised a number of lancer regiments who were also classed as light cavalry.
           In previous blogs I have mentioned that there was a long running dispute as to whether cavalry sabres should primarily be designed for thrusting or cutting. The cuirassier sword, 1908 sabre and M1913 Patton Saber are examples thrusting sabres. The 1796 light cavalry sabre can be taken as one of the seminal examples of cutting sabres.
           The 1796 light cavalry sabre was the creation of the British officer John Gaspard Le Marchant and was to be the standard weapon of British light cavalry for much of the Napoleonic wars. The 1796 was officially replaced during the 1820s, although some Yeomanry regiments are known to have been using it as late as 1860.

           In the further corners of the Empire the 1796 seems to have served longer. Le Marchant was inspired by eastern weapons when designing the 1796 and many Indian fighting men took to the weapon with enthusiasm. Some 1796 blades are known to have been refurbished with tulwar-syle hilts. Victorian writers describe Indian soldiers performing fearsome feats of cutting with “old sabres” and many of these were 1796s. One unit of Indian horsemen would wear shields across their backs and lie along their horses’ necks. As the enemy’s sword harmlessly hit the shield they would make a backhand slash at him as he galloped past. These horsemen replaced their sabre’s metal scabbards with wooden sheathes, having found that the metal items tended to blunt the cutting edge.

           “The sword-blades they had were chiefly old dragoon blades cast from our service (the 1796). The men had mounted them after their own fashion. The hilt and handle, both of metal, small in the grip, rather flat, not round like ours where the edge seldom falls true; they had an edge like a razor from heel to point, were worn in wooden scabbards, a short single sling held them to the waist belt, from which a strap passed through the hilt to a button in front, to keep the sword steady and prevent it from flying out of the scabbard.
           The Swords are never drawn except in action.”

Several other nations copied the 1796, most notably the Prussians as the 1811 “Blücher” sabre. The US Dragoons used a copy of the 1796. Large numbers of swords were exported to the USA during the war between the states and some of these were probably 1796s or Blüchers. British light infantry also seem to have taken a liking to the 1796. Rifle, Grenadier and Light Infantry company officers took to using curved swords and some of these may have been 1796s. The official curved sword that was eventually adopted for these units has a blade that looks identical to the 1796, although the pattern 1803 infantry sabre was a little shorter and lighter at 30-31½” x 1 3/8″ -1 ½” and 1 lb 15oz.
           The blade of the 1796 light cavalry sabre was 32.5-33″ x 1.5” x 3/8″, single edged except for the last 10″ which was double edged and hatchet pointed.  The guard was 4.75″ with 4″ long grip area and weight was 2lb 2oz. The guard is a very simple “stirrup” knucklebow.

Handling a 1796 gives me a new found respect and insight into those hussars and light dragoons of centuries past. The 1796 has its weight towards the point and the grip needs to be grasped quite firmly if it is not going to run away from you. If you actually try swinging the thing around you find it has a lot of momentum so keeping the weapon under control and in hand requires considerable wrist and forearm strength. The 1796 is supposed to be manipulated by movement of the wrist and shoulder rather than the elbow. Light cavalry must have spent many hours of practice and exercise to master this weapon.
As a weapon for fighting on foot, opinions vary. Some claim it is a little clumsy, others claim it is perfectly balanced. I am probably more inclined to the former opinion, but might feel differently if I had put in the months of exercise needed to handle it with more confidence. In fairness, foot combat is not what it was designed for. It is intended to defend a rider and his horse and to fight from the saddle against both mounted and unmounted enemies.
The debate on whether the cavalry should have a sword primarily designed for thrusting or slashing raged through the 19th century. Napoleonic French favoured the point, and it is claimed that the thrusts from French horsemen killed more men than the slashing of British Hussars. Fatally wounding someone and eliminating them from a fight are not actually the same thing, however. This is best illustrated by two contemporary accounts:
“We always thrust with the point of our sabres, whereas they always cut with their blade which was three inches wide. Consequently, out of every twenty blows aimed by them, nineteen missed. If, however, the edge of the blade found its mark only once, it was a terrible blow, and it was not unusual to and arm cut clean from the body.”
Captain Charles Parquin, “Chassaurs à Cheval of the Imperial Guard”
from Charles Parquin, Military Memoires, ed (1969)
p56 The World Encyclopaedia of Swords and Sabres. Harvey J S Withers.

“Just then a French officer stooping over the body of one of his countrymen, who dropped the instant on his horse’s neck, delivered a thrust at poor Harry Wilson’s body; and delivered it effectually. I firmly believe that Wilson died on the instant yet, though he felt the sword in its progress, he, with characteristic self-command, kept his eye on the enemy in his front; and, raising himself in his stirrups, let fall upon the Frenchman’s head such a blow, that brass and skull parted before it, and the man’s head was cloven asunder to the chin. It was the most tremendous blow I ever beheld struck; and both he who gave, and his opponent who received it, dropped dead together. The brass helmet was afterwards examined by order of a French officer, who, as well as myself, was astonished at the exploit; and the cut was found to be as clean as if the sword had gone through a turnip, not so much as a dint being left on either side of it…..It is worthy of remark, that the French cavalry, in nine cases out of ten, make use of the point, whereas we strike with the edge, which is, in my humble opinion, far more effective. But, however this may be, of one fact I am quite sure, that is as far as appearances can be said to operate in rendering men timid, or the reverse, the wounded among the French were more revolting than the wounded among ourselves. It is but candid to add, that the proportion of severely wounded was pretty equal on both sides;”
Account of a skirmish on the Guadiana River in 1811, during the Peninsular War.
 George Farmer. 11th Regiment of Light Dragoons
The Light Dragoon (Ed. George Gleig,, London, 1844) Vol. I, Ch. 4.
The French had a very healthy respect of the effects of 1796. It could cleave off limbs and inflict other ghastly wounds, and one can’t overlook the psychological effects this had. One of the functions of light cavalry is to fall upon routed foot, and my personal feeling is that the hussar’s slashing sabre was far more likely to keep a foe panicked than any lance or thrusting sword. Notably, the instruction manual written for the sabre by Le Marchant illustrates six cuts with the head as the target of choice.

After the Napoleonic wars there were attempts to design a common sword for both heavy and light cavalry. Nearly all of these prior to the 1908 were slightly curved single edged weapons with double edged spear points. This is a form used for many successful swords over the centuries but in practice the British issued weapons never seemed to be satisfactory, there being frequent problems with metallurgy, construction, weight etc. One officer observed that a charge he saw would have inflicted more damage if the horsemen had been wielding stout sticks! Nobody appears to have pursued this alternate approach –if they had we may have seen a return of the horseman’s hammer!

1908 Sabre

Continuing the brief discussion on cavalry weapons started yesterday

The simplistic popular view of history maintains that the machine gun made cavalry an obsolete anachronism by the First World War. The truth is not so clear cut. At least as early as the American Civil War infantry weapons could deliver enough firepower to devastate a cavalry charge at medium range. The increasing military use of obstacles such as wire and entrenchments were a further problem for cavalry. Cavalry continued to have an important role for strategic operations such as raiding. The horse was the best cross country system that the military had available. Tracked vehicles did not start to see wide military usage until the latter part of the First World War. Wheeled vehicles were dependent on firm ground or roads and supplies of petrol. Cavalry forces were a significant component of the Russian Civil War 1917-1922. During the invasion of Poland a cavalry attack successfully dispersed a battalion of German motorized infantry. German propaganda changed this event to a futile “charge against panzers” that many people still believe actually happened. During the Russian campaigns both the German Army and the SS expanded their cavalry components into a force of several divisions’ strength.
By the beginning of the 20th century cavalrymen mainly used their horses for transport and were encouraged to dismount for combat. The cavalryman effectively became a mounted rifleman. Recognizing this in 1904 the British Army took the controversial step of issuing both cavalry and infantry with the same pattern of rifle, the SMLE. For mounted combat multi-shot revolvers and automatic pistols saw increasing use. In the latter half of the 19th century the practice of mounting a sword on the saddle rather than the cavalryman’s belt becomes increasingly common. A dismounted cavalryman no longer expected to need his sword to defend himself. Given this, it may be asked why cavalry swords were not only issued, but continued to be refined and developed.
While large scale charges had become costly shock action could still be highly effective against disorganized or retreating infantry or softer targets such as artillery and baggage trains. A cavalry unit could not outgun a larger formation but correctly applied shock action was capable of proving decisive.
In the latter part of the nineteenth century a debate had raged over whether a cavalry sword should primarily be a cutting or a thrusting weapon. The British 1908 sabre was a victory of the latter school of thought. Theoretically the 1908 sabre was also intended to be capable of cuts but in practice the designers seem to have not worried too much about trying to make it an effective slashing weapon. The result resembles a sort of “horseman’s rapier”. The blade is often described as “T-section”. The forte has a strengthening rib down the back and is fullered to within 8 inches of the point. The blade becomes narrower and double edged for the last six inches. While cuts can be made with a 1908 I feel it is unlikely to bite that deeply.The grip of the trooper’s model was made of plastic. The officer’s model (the 1912 sabre) uses leather. Aluminium was considered for the guard material but steel was used on the final pattern. The grip has a curved shape and features a prominent thumb rest. For me, one of the most striking features about the grip is its length. The entire hilt is 6¾ inches long. I believe this feature is intended to allow part of the grip to rest pressing up against the wrist area and counter-balance the blade when the weapon is held in the charge position. A variant intended for Indian troopers had a shorter grip to accommodate smaller hands. The point of the blade aligns nicely with the extended arm and the 1908 does not require the wrist and forearm strength needed to manipulate some slashing sabre designs. In an age when more time had to be spent on marksmanship rather than sword exercise or when recruits were briefly trained conscripts this was an advantage.

The 1908 has a blade of 35¼ inches length, 1 inch wide and 5/16th inch thick.Weight 2lb 15¾ oz. Balance point is 3 inches ahead of the guard. The balance is such that the 1908 feels lighter than some lighter swords such as the 1796 Light Cavalry Sabre. The reach of the 1908 has been described as similar to a 1896 pattern cavalry demi-lance held in standard grip. As a thrusting weapon the 1908 is used in much the same way as a cavalry lance but is more convenient to carry hung from a saddle. It proved itself to be a handy weapon even against lance-armed foes during the Great War. Many potential adversaries in the colonies still used body armour that had been found to be effective against slashing cavalry weapons. In many “modern” armies heavy cavalry still wore breastplates. The thrust of a 1908 with the speed and weight of a horse behind it would counter these protections.

 I have heard it suggested that the 1908 “was not designed or intended for sword fighting” but I take that statement with some reservation. In the early 20th century the British Army was still policing the Empire and many of its enemies still made effective use of spears, lances and swords. More modern foes would be expected to use bayoneted rifles. George Patton’s manual for the similar US 1913 saber shows a number of guard positions intended to protect man and horse. Interestingly these are similar to the guards shown for use with a cavalry lance in some other manuals.

The 1913 cavalry saber invented by George Patton had a double-edged blade, although the upper edge was only sharpened for part of its length. It is often described as being influenced or derived from the British 1908. Patton studied swordsmanship in France so it is likely that French ideas and designs also made a contribution. The manual for the 1913 saber (Saber Exercise 1914) often emphasises that the speed of the horse was an important component of an attack with a saber. The manual does not bother teaching parries and encourages the trooper to ignore an enemy’s blade sinceThe speed of the horses is such that the enemy will be out of reach before the trooper can make an effective lunge at him (if parrying), whereas if he disregards the other’s saber and lunges at his body, he will, in so doing, force his adversary’s saber aside and transfix him.”   

The 1908 was a logical design for an age when the cavalry had become mounted riflemen and did not routinely use shock action. To claim the 1908 was introduced after swords had become obsolete is a nonsense, however. A number of successful sword charges were conducted during the Second World War. Shock cavalry action may have been used as late as the 1970s in Rhodesia. How effective the 1908 sabre would have been if introduced a century or more earlier is hard to judge. Certainly cavalry had made effective use of thrusting swords in the past. The medieval knight had his estoc and the Polish Hussar his Koncerz.

An interesting bit of trivia is that the first German killed by a British Solider during World War One was killed by a 1908/1912 sabre.


French Cuirassier Sword

I was reading about cavalry recently so some comments on cavalry use and armament may be of interest. The first topic will be the French cuirassiers and their weapon.
To discuss cavalry, and the French cuirassiers in particular, it is necessary to understand a few basic facts. While not the most intelligent of animals, most horses are not so stupid that they can be made to charge into a wall, be the wall composed of bricks or men. An infantry unit in correct formation can withstand a cavalry charge so long as it maintains its integrity, nerve and discipline. If an infantry formation can be disrupted, either physically or psychologically, it may be shattered by a cavalry charge and either destroyed or routed. On these simple facts much of the course of human history has often pivoted.

The French cuirassiers were formed by Napoleon in 1801 and were intended for a specific purpose. The cuirassiers were intended to be a heavy cavalry reserve. Scouting, skirmishing, foraging and screening were the tasks of other cavalry. Cuirassiers were to be held back until the time and conditions were right for them to deliver a sledgehammer blow. During the Battle of Waterloo unsupported cavalry had to try and break British squares and the cuirassiers were deployed too early.

A cuirassier’s reason for being was the charge. The approach of massed charging cuirassiers is reported to have had a mesmerising effect on an enemy. This was recognised by the cuirassiers themselves and a gorgon head is a common decorative motif on their equipment. The psychological effect of being charged might successfully delay the enemy’s adoption of a formation that could resist it. Although issued with carbines the cuirassiers often did not bother carrying them or the associated paraphernalia necessary for loading them. Only 20% of cuirassiers felt inclined to carry pistols. The cuirassier’s attack of choice was the arme  blanche and the massed charge. During a charge there was not time to fire firearms. If the charge was successful the enemy would be broken and routing and the advantage would need to be pressed home with the weapon in hand.

Now that we have some context we can examine the type of sword used by the cuirassier. Cavalry charges were made with the point of the sword directed forward like a lance. The French were also notable advocates of the thrust being superior to the cut or slash. Marshal Saxe wanted cavalry to be equipped with a triangular-section blade that could not be used to cut. Not surprisingly the blade of a cuirassier’s sword was straight, long and designed for thrusting. The first swords issued to the cuirassiers had a flat blade and a hatchet point. Readers familiar with British cavalry swords of this period will know that the 1796  Heavy Cavalry sabre of this time also originally had a hatchet point and was influenced by the Austrian 1775 cavalry sword. Unlike the British weapons the French swords had a tapered blade.

The cuirassier sword continued to evolve until it reached the form typified by the Model 1816 French Cuirassier’s Sword. With minor variations swords similar to the 1816 seem to have armed the cuirassiers well into the 20th century. The 1816 had a 95cm long straight tapered blade with a spear point and double fullers for lightness and rigidity. Many earlier hatchet pointed swords were reground to have a spear point.

The French favoured the use of the sword point since it was more likely to inflict a fatal wound. This tactic was not without its potential drawbacks, however. If delivered from a speeding horse a bad strike could result in a sword wrenched from your hand and left behind buried in your target, leaving you unarmed on a battlefield. If attacking a routing enemy their backs might be protected by their packs and equipment. In his manual on the 1913 Saber George Patton advocated thrusting at the flank of a fleeing enemy but the successful timing and execution of this from a speeding horse might prove problematic. In one of his books Bernard Cornwell describes cavalry attacking fleeing infantry with a backhand cut at the face as they passed. While not necessarily fatal the physiological effects of such attacks on a fleeing unit should not be overlooked. It is also worth remembering that in the chaos of combat even the best trained man may swing rather the thrust and there will be times when a cut can be made in less time than it takes to position a point for a thrust.

I have never personally handled a cuirassier sword but it seems an intelligent design for heavy cavalry. It has a long reach and the taper of the blade probably helps handling. The blade appears well designed for thrusting but offering the option of cutting when needed. Some writers consider the French Model 1816 and the British 1908 as the best cavalry swords of all time.