By Peter Busch
Generals and Field Marshals for that matter, had historically been considered somewhat of a law unto themselves. With their rank in the military this is hardly surprising, and in a bygone age when greater leeway in personal dress and accroutrement was tolerated, it is not surprising that these ranks within the military took to wearing ‘exotic’ weaponry. Indeed it would appear that it was not actually until 1831 that Field Marshals specifically were ordered a particular pattern of sword (Robson 1996).
The historical background
Although the ivory hilted scimitar is epitomised in British oriented circles as typically being the sword of a senior official (whether military or civil), we must realise that such swords did not come into general senior use until the 1830s. Indeed in the British example, regulations were not even laid down for swords in general until 1788, and for general officers specifically until 1796 (Robson 1996). So it is with this in mind that we must examine the earlier patterns relating to these senior officers.
The 1796 Patterns
One of the first swords prescribed for General Officers, as noted by Robson (1996), was that of the 1796 Infantry Officers sword (Norman’s (1980) hilt type 112?). This choice of sword was perhaps to some degree not particularly surprising, given that such senior ranking officers were hardly likely to be engaged in frenetic hand to hand combat with their militarily and socially inferior peers, not to mention the fact that at their age, they were not likely to be as fit as a younger fighting man for that matter either (apart from the obvious desire of an army not to loose such a senior ranking officer to the enemy should they be captured), so a ‘dress’ rather than a ‘combat’ sword makes sense. An example of such a sword appears directly below.
Now admittedly, Generals (and Field Marshals) were also used to wearing the 1796 pattern Heavy Cavalry Officers dress sword (of Norman’s (1980) hilt type 113), indeed a portrait of Frederick Augustus Duke of York by Sir David Wilkie (Wilkinson-Latham 1966), as a Field Marshal illustrates exactly that. Note however that this heavy cavalry style of dress sword might either be of the type shown directly below (i.e. more British), or may perhaps have been of a more Germanic type, still broadly within Norman’s (1980) type 113.
Again it should be pointed out that Officers not actually on campaign often wore an ‘off – duty’ sword. The 1796 pattern Heavy Cavalry Officers ‘dress’ or ‘full dress’ sword (the hilt of which is shown below), is just such an example.
What may be noticed from both of these 1796 patterns, whether the infantry officer’s or heavy cavalry officer’s dress swords is that for all intents and purposes, they are essentially small-swords. And as such were designed not so much for combat but duelling in restricted or should one say ‘civilised’ circumstances. Once again a General or Field Marshal was not however likely to be engaged in hand to hand combat in any case.
The year 1822
From 1821 – 1822, in the wake of the Napoleonic wars, a major overhaul was undertaken of British Swords (amongst many other military items), this being initiated to quite some degree by the militarophilic King George IV (1820 – 1830). The military regulations however stipulated that the standard “English” infantry officers “gothic – hilted” sabre should be adopted by Generals and their staff (meaning staff officers). In this case however, ‘standard’ meant nevertheless that a General’s (sword and baton with crown) or Field Marshal’s (crossed batons with crown) cipher made up the cartouche (as shown to the right) rather than the usual GivR (George IV Rex), WivR (William IV Rex (1830 – 1837)) or VR (Victoria Regina (1837 – 1901)) cipher as seen on more common infantry officers examples of the pattern 1822 sword, an example of which may be evidenced in the previous issue’s article dealing with the Highland Officers Basket Hilted Broadsword.
The 1831 Pattern
The main offender for the introduction in 1831 of the ivory hilted scimitar into British military and civil ranks must surely be Arthur Wellesley (1769 – 1852), First Duke of Wellington. This milestone truly marked the beginning in the British Empire of the adoption of Arabic swords for all manner of senior personnel. No doubt much to the chagrin of staff officers, it appears they were not permitted to ape their military superiors in adopting the scimitar, remaining instead with the special 1822 pattern (Robson 1996).
The Duke of Wellington became Commander in Chief for the first time in 1827, and in his year of office, before being succeeded by Viscount Hill, he carried his own particular choice of weapon, an Eastern Scimitar with a ‘mameluke’ hilt presented to him by an Indian potentate. In 1831, this style of sword was made regulation for all officers of the rank of major general and above [although the writer has held an example purchased by an obviously optimistic Colonel!]. From the portraits of the Duke it would appear that by the time that he next come to the highest office in the army, in 1842, he had ceased to carry his presentation sword, and was wearing the regulation ‘mameluke’ hilted weapon (Wilkinson-Latham 1971 :50)
We may see an example of just such a regulation weapon in the picture below.
And yet another example.
The official specifications (Wt, 26971 20 3/98 – H&S 5906 in Stephens 1976 :140) are given as follows:
• Length of Sword …………………….. 2ft 11 1/2 inches
• Length of Scabbard ………………….. 2ft 7 inches
• Length of Blade from shoulder to point … 2ft 6 inches
• Length of Sword and Scabbard …………. 3ft 0 inches
• Balance from hilt …………………… 4 1/2 inches
• Weight of Sword …………………….. about 1lb 10 1/2 ozs
• Weight of Scabbard, complete …………. about 1lb 1 oz
• The blade recovers straightness after being subjected to a weight of 10 lbs vertically with 1 inch depression.
The hilt is typical of ‘mameluke/marmaluke/mamluk/mumluk’ swords. With it’s ‘pistol grip’ (although the writer has never really seen a pistol grip in this sword) proportions, gilt brass guard and ivory grip scales the sword could well be considered handsome. Today to the relief of many no doubt, the grip scales are no longer of ivory (Masters 1998), but a synthetic material, namely a form of plastic (possibly micarta?), similar to that used on the Wilkinson or WK&C US Marine Officers scimitar. The grip scales are held in place by two ‘rosette’ screws (rather like a nut and bolt combination) going through the grips and tang of the sword. In actual fact the tang sits snugly inside a ‘handle’ portion which widens the grip somewhat making the whole assembly feel quite ‘full’ in the hand.
As one would expect however the shape of the grip does vary to some degree from one example to the next. For instance some scimitars have a more squarish grip, while others are more rounded and hence feel slightly smaller in the hand (this difference can largely be pinned down to the amount of ivory originally removed when carving the grip scales). Indeed this difference may almost be noted between the example shown directly above (seemingly round) and the example directly below (seemingly square).
A sword knot hole lined with a bushing is also characteristic of all of these swords, and the entire unit appears to be threaded together through the grip scales, as may be noted in the pictures above and below.
The official specifications do not of course go into such detail, rather they simply mention the basics to which manufacturers were supposed to broadly adhere.
Sword The mounting is metal gilt, and consists of crosspiece, strap, two studs and screws, and sword-knot bushed (all ornamented). The grips are of ivory, fastened on the tang with the above-mentioned studs and screws (Wt, 26971 20 3/98 – H&S 5906 in Stephens 1976 :140)
Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, it is the assembly of the hilt that enables the collecter to almost immediately determine whether what they are holding is the genuine item or a fake. What tends to give the fake away are the gaps to be found between the grip scales and the gilt brass fittings, most notably where the grip scales come into contact with the guard. Also if anyone has had any experience with ivory one notices almost immediately the slight ‘coldness’ of ivory, versus the ‘warmth’ of plastic.
What seems to be most commonly manufactured today however is the style encountered in examples by the Wilkinson Sword Company (Wilkinson example). Unfortunately the steel scabbard notable in the picture is considered by the author not to be as attractive as the brass one, and the blade if anything appears to have become lighter as the 20th century progressed.
The blade of the 1831 pattern could be considered classically beautiful in it’s proportions. An examination of the blade reveals that no fuller is typically present and there is a latching roughly 30cms in length along the top end of the blade, this making the blade classically ‘arab’ in proportions. An example of such a latched back characterising many scimitars may be seen in the picture below.
Admittedly in earlier (immature) years the writer had preferred the blade style as used on it’s ‘cousin’, the U.S. Marine Officer’s scimitar , namely a fullered blade, minus the latched back, however the writer has since changed his mind. As an aside it is interesting to note that Wilkinson-Latham (1966) nevertheless mentions that the 1831 pattern appeared originally to have a fullered blade, although the writer has found no other written evidence for this.
Also noticeable on most examples is the typically British military profuse acid etching, the process being shown admirably in a film commissioned by Wilkinson Sword (Swordcraft 1967). Stephens (1976) and the official specifications nevertheless note that a plain blade could be had, or if etching was desired, the choice of design was often up to the purchaser.
Initially there were actually two scabbards for the 1831, a black leather with gilt brass mounts one for use in full dress (dress worn for full formal occassions, at court etc.), and a brass one for day to day wear. Soon however, the black leather scabbard was abandoned, and only the brass scabbard ordered to be worn.
The official specifications once again stipulate only brass construction by 1896:
Scabbard The scabbard is of brass, and fitted with an iron sputcheon with brass mouthpiece, brazed on and fixed in scabbard with two screws. Two bands with loose rings are fixed on with two screws 3 inches and 12 inches respectively form the top of the mouthpiece. The lining consists of two strips of wood held in position by the sputcheon (Wt, 26971 20 3/98 – H&S 5906 in Stephens 1976 :140).
For some reason, which even Robson (1975; 1996) does not elaborate on, the brass scabbard was replaced by one in nickel plated steel from 1898 onwards as illustrated in the picture to the right. Presumably the reason being one of serviceability, steel being more durable than brass (nevertheless Harris (1997) notes that steel scabbards were more expensive to produce). Perhaps also for reasons of uniformity, steel having been used for essentially all other dress scabbards by this stage, save for that of the Royal Naval sword (the Air Force of course having then not been in existence). Note nevertheless in the case of both brass and steel scabbards, the square toe and shoe.
Officially the line was as follows, “when the brass [Brass scabbards could be basically polished brass, or gold – plated brass, whilst steel scabbards were more usuallly silver – or nickel – plated on steel (Stephens 1976 :141)] scabbards at present in use are worn out General Officers now serving will replace them by steel scabbards (Amendment to dress regulations, dated April, 1898 Dress of General Officers Wt, 26971 20 3/98 – H&S 5906 in Stephens 1976 :141). Today the steel scabbard is only worn in full dress (or No. 1 dress), that is the traditional formal uniform as seen on parade. In field or service dress, (in other words the slighly less formal khaki or green uniform, but not actually combat dress), a leather covered timber scabbard used to be worn (as shown with an example of another British Army scimitar below). Such scabbards were introduced for the 1831 pattern in 1899 (Robson 1996). This seems now to be a thing of the past for most intents and purposes, as Generals (and Field Marshals for that matter), simply use their ‘original’ branch of service sword when ‘in the field’:
General Officers may, in future, wear in all orders of undress, the sword and spurs of the arm of the service from which they were promoted. The present scimitar pattern sword will, however, be worn in review order (Amendment to dress regulations, dated April 1898 Dress of General Officers Wt, 26971 20 3/98 – H&S 5906 in Stephens 1976 :141).
Notice however that the scabbard shown below also has a leather strap which allows it to be carried in a frog attached to the Sam Browne belt , (in honour of Colonel Sam Browne who in 1858 lost his left arm in India due to a swordcut), so commonly worn by officers of many nations today.
It should be pointed out, that the 1831 pattern is also encountered with various other designs on the ecusson (centrepiece of the quillons), other than the sword and baton for generals or the crossed batons for field marshals.
For instance, examples exist with an ‘A’ on the ecusson for equerries of Prince Albert (Victoria’s consort)(Robson 1996). Also to be found are examples with a rose, or thistle, or shamrock, or Prince of Wales feathers for Lord Lieutenants (i.e. senior representatives of the crown) for respective English, Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh counties (Wilkinson-Latham 1971; Robson 1996).
Another with the Royal arms on the ecusson was worn by members of the Indian Political Service (presumably during the Raj, 1857 – 1947) (Robson 1996). No doubt similar versions are still being worn there today.
The Master of Her Majesty’s Horse also wears an ivory hilted scimitar, as do Governer’s General of nations in the Commonwealth (the scabbard being of black leather with gilt mounts, or today quite possibly nickel plated steel), as does the City of London Marshal wearing an unusual variation with the crosspiece in the shape of the Arms of the City of London (Wilkinson-Latham 1971).
Yet another interesting variation of the General Officers pattern was that adopted by Naval officers of Flag rank (i.e. Admirals).
In 1842 permission was given for Flag Officers to wear, at their discretion instead of the usual pattern [by this stage the 1827 half basket hilt sword still worn by Commonwealth naval officers today], a sword with a mameluke hilt in imitation of General Officers of the Army. …. [with] Royal Crowns at the ends instead of knobs, and langets embossed with a foul anchor surrounded by a wreath instead of the crossed sword and baton used by the Army. ….. The scabbard instead of being brass was of leather with a single locket, with two rings, and this and the chape had oak leaf and acorn decoration. In addition the locket was embossed with a V [presumably for Victoria] and shell and the chape with two intertwined dolphins and a shell.
These swords were not universally popular and their use was abandoned in 1856. Nevertheless some officers continued to wear them and it is noteworthy that Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Keppel G.C.B. who did not reach flag – rank until 1857 and had therefore never been entitled to wear one, was photographed in 1896 for the Navy and Army Illustrated so equipped (May et.al. 1970 vol. 1 51 – 52).
Finally note should be made of the fact that similar swords were also worn by masters of military bands (Dufty 1974; Robson 1996)
Clearly then the Ivory Hilted Scimitar as typified by the 1831 pattern is a sword for senior personnel. The fact that it’s price even in 1903 (WK&C Catalogue) was 46 (German) Marks, whereas many other swords produced by the same company at that time were perhaps 20 to 30 Marks would also seem to indicate that it was not and still is not a sword for the average officer. As a generalisation, the Ivory Hilted Scimitar, mostly commonly seen today at the side of Generals from many nations, represents perhaps more than any other sword the fact that ‘one has arrived’.
I would like to thank Mr. Robert Miller of Liongate Arms and Armor for providing pictures of the 1831 pattern, and Ali Hainstock for pictures of her 1831, the item in question having formerly belonged to the James Ewin collection.
To be acknowledged for their contributions are Mr. Harvey Withers for his pictures of the 1822 pattern General Officers sword cartouche and other mameluke scimitars featured in the article. Not to mention Dana Thomason of Napanee, Ontario, Canada. And also Mr. Robert Harlock of Sportingadvertising.com for the pictures of the 1796 pattern Heavy Cavalry Officers Dress Sword. Finally thanks should also be given to Messrs. Len McCready and Peter Jansa of Jansa Arms for the picture of the scimitars with both steel and brass scabbards.
• Dufty, A., (1974), European swords and daggers in the Tower of London, H. M. Stationary Office London, U.K.
• Harris, A., (1997), The military small arms of South Australia 1839 – 1901, A.F. Harris, Mitcham, South Australia
• Masters, D., (1998), Personal communication P. Blashki & Sons Pty. Ltd Makers of Fine Regalia and Academic Wear, (Retailers of Wilkinson Swords for Australia), 322 Burwood Highway Hawthorn, Victoria 3122
• May, W.E., Annis, P.G.W., (1970), Swords for sea service vols 1 & 2, H.M.S.O. London, U.K.
• Norman, A.V.B., (1980), The rapier and the small-sword, 1460 – 1820, Arms and Armour Press, London U.K.
• Robson, B., (1975), Swords of the British Army: The regulation patterns 1788 – 1914, Arms and Armour Press, London, U.K.
• Robson, B., (1996), Swords of the British Army: The regulation patterns 1788 – 1914 The revised Edition, The National Army Museum, Chelsea, London, U.K.
• Stephens, F., (1976), Edged weapons: A collectors guide, Spur Books, Bourne End U.K.
• Swordcraft (1967), Motion picture produced by Mithras for Wilkinson Sword , London, U.K.
• Weyersberg, Kirschbaum & Co., (1903) WK&C Blanke Waffen (Sword Catalogue), WK&C, Solingen, Germany
• Wilkinson-Latham, J., (1966), British military swords: from 1800 to the present day, Hutchinson, London, U.K.
• Wilkinson-Latham, J., (1971), British cut and thrust weapons, David & Charles: Newton Abbot London U.K.
Peter Busch is a Ph.D. student at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.
Copyright 2002 by The Oakeshott Institute