My Bonnie Light Horseman… A ‘lite’ look at British Cavalry – Jonathan Hopkins

Haloo All!

I am pleased to be introducing onto my blog this week, Jonathan Hopkins, a 19th Century cavalry expert and author of the Cavalry Tales series.

This week, right here, right now, as a very apt follow-on from Bennett’s previous blog on the Napoleonic Wars, Jonathan delves, rather humorously, into the lives of real Dragoons and their not so genteel Officers:

‘Ah…the cavalryman – a favourite Regency hero. What could a lady possibly find more romantic than being swept off her feet by a flamboyantly dressed and daring young officer of hussars on his prancing steed?

18th Hussars 1815 - Jonathan Hopkins - 19th Century Cavalry
18th Hussars 1815

Unless he was broke, and not even a gentleman.  As ever, in reality things were often not all they seemed.

The Arme Blanche

Most fictional cavalrymen are, or were, officers. After all, a lady needed to maintain a certain standard of living so it was no use becoming romantically involved with a private soldier. And since officers had to purchase their commissions, provide their own uniforms, horses and equipment, all on a level of pay which hardly covered daily subsistence, (a lieutenant received only £164 5s 0d a year before deductions and income tax) most needed private means of some sort: family money.

So it’s somewhat surprising to find in real life the majority of officers were not members of the aristocracy at all but sons of wealthy farmers or industrialists, doctors and lawyers, even clergy – the moneyed middle class – who could afford to subsidise their offspring’s careers. They weren’t real gentlemen.

Uniforms alone could be prohibitively expensive. At a time when clothing mirrored status wealthy Light Cavalry colonels in particular were fond of trying to outdo each other in matters of quality and intricacy of design (that well known profligate and dandy HRH The Prince of Wales was colonel of the 10th Hussars, for example). These beautiful silver or gold-braided creations looked magnificent at balls or around Town but were not exactly practical wear on a battlefield.

7th Light Dragoons - Jonathan Hopkins - 19th Century Cavalry
7th Light Dragoons

Fortunately for rank and file cavalrymen, their uniforms were supplied by the colonel (who claimed an allowance from government) and while less decorative than officers’ garments were still grand enough to turn many a young woman’s head.

Unlike conscripted forces in the rest of Europe, joining the British army as a ‘dragoon’ was completely voluntary. Being used to dealing with horses ‘strong farm boys’ were preferred recruits, though with the Industrial Revolution underway many a disenchanted factory or office worker joined up.

That the glamorous cavalry was a far more popular choice than the infantry is proven by the fact it cost less to recruit a dragoon (£16 11s) than an infantry private (£19 19s). But if a newcomer believed life on horseback would be far easier than for his foot-slogging cousin, his hopes were very soon dashed. For while an officer might employ a groom or servant to look after his mount (if he could afford the extra expense), a private dragoon did all grooming, feeding, mucking out and cleaning tack himself.

Training? Oh yes, old man – you mean CHARGING practice!

Ownership of horses was the preserve of the wealthy so newly-commissioned officers were expected to both ride well and be familiar with sword and pistol, these latter arts usually studied as part of a gentleman’s formal education.

For the rank and file there were riding and fencing masters, often long-serving NCOs. Recruits were taught to ride in a style laid down in the regimental bible or ‘Standing Orders’ so standards varied  Once a recruit handled his mount with a degree of competence, sword and pistol exercises could be taught on horseback instead of practiced on foot.

Training Cavalry Recruits - Jonathan Hopkins - 19th Century Cavalry
Training Cavalry Recruits

Officers were expected to know and be able to carry out a set of parade-ground manoeuvres, including the much-overused ‘Charge!’, via shouted commands or trumpet calls. But since many rarely attended training sessions they relied on their sergeants to give the correct orders. One commander, drilling his troops on a beach, wheeled them into the sea to the point where a dragoon and horse almost drowned because he had no idea how to manoeuvre them back out again.

All the ladies love a dragoon…maybe

Unless the country was at war troops at home were unpopular, mainly because the government used them to quell civil disturbances. This was particularly true of cavalry regiments which could reach troublespots much faster than men on foot. Increasing urbanisation meant fewer members of the public had direct involvement with animals and being looked down on from horseback fuelled resentment based on very ancient prejudices, a situation which, as riders know, survives to this day.

Wartime was different. All soldiers were the salt of the earth and welcomed just about anywhere, especially dragoons. Somehow their twin reputations of gentility and always being officered by gentlemen were never really dented by facts.

And for a lady who discovered her beau was not quite as she first imagined, there was always the chance he might not return from the wars. The memory of a hero’s death (even if it was more likely to have been from disease than enemy action) was probably better than a lifetime of penury.

‘He was my Bonnie Light Horseman,

In the wars he was slain’

Jonathan Hopkins - Cavalry Dress - 19th Century CavalryYou can visit Jonathan Hopkins website Cavalry Tales and have a gander at his works in progress including: LeopardKill and Dog Watch. His book, Walls of Jericho is out now to buy in both Kindle Format and Paperback.

You can also keep up to date with his research and musings at his blog Cavalry Tales Blog.

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