Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Cavalry: Its History and Tactics by Louis Nolan

Louis Nolan - he died as he lived, on horseback

Louis Nolan was an odd old soul - born in Canada, he served first in the Austrian cavalry and would end his life in the British service. Known most famously for his role in the "Charge of the Light Brigade" during the Crimean campaign. I have been unable to find any reference to his having seen action in India, it would seem that he first saw active service in the campaign that ended his life. Yet he was a thoughtful officer and gave a great deal of his time to attempting to improve the state of the British cavalry.

Along the way, he wrote two books - but of particular interest is "Cavalry: Its History and Tactics" first published in 1853, but republished by Westholme in a handsome hardback in 2007. It's a nice book and I much prefer the experience of carrying a book with me, but for those of us without the €30 to spare, it can be found here.

I have only read the first fifty pages or so, but the central points so far are -

- firearms are anathema to cavalry because they dissaude men from closing with cold steel.
- armour is a waste of time, because...
- speed, good horsemanship and sharp swords are the most important attributes of cavalry, with them all things are possible, without them mounted men are merely more expensive infantrymen.

General Flashman famously described Nolan as "...a cavalry maniac who held everyone in contempt" in his memoir of the Crimean campaign and I can see his point. There is a great deal of scorn in this work, though I have only read a quarter of it so far. I suspect the message at the beginning, that light cavalry are the apotheosis of the mounted arm will be much the same in the end.

In many ways Nolan reminds me of specialist trainers in the college, each man a prophet for his discipline and holding all others in contempt, if he regarded them at all. The chap who taught the correct use of the notebook held all other things cheap, while the handcuffs instructor maintained that once you'd mastered handcuffs all other aspects of the job would simply fall into place, while the legal instructors thought that anyone who didn't master the finer points of their discipline was an idiot.

It is unlikely that I will get the opportunity to read much more this week, but we shall see how the thing develops.


  1. Interestingly I just got a DVD of "The Charge of the Light Brigade" on Friday and watched the movie this past weekend.

    -- Jeff

  2. My my, it had escaped my attention that he was born in Southern Ontario, like my friend Tom Nolan, and that he was 1/2 brother to a bevy of Macfarlanes!

    Have you seen the interesting obit from the Illustrated London News?

    Colonel Denison's Award winning (literally won a competition set up th the Tsar) History of Cavalry is big on using revolvers as a shock weapon and even provides one example of its use by a privately acquired one at Balaclava though during the retreat rather then the charge, but also on mounted riflemen. My copy is the 2nd ed written after the Boer War which allowed him to write "told you so"
    but the 1st edition is on line.

    Anyway thanks for bringing Nolan up. So many books, so little time.

  3. I think I picked this one up for a fiver in Chapters!