Friday, 20 April 2012
Send in the Penguins
The Romans were supreme pragmatists, expert at ‘borrowing’ the best military tactics and weaponry from those they conquered. The British, too, are noted pragmatists, operating on the maxim of ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.’ As the British Empire reached its peak so, too, did the eccentricity of its top Generals, their ability to recognise what was broke, or indeed a dead parrot, floundering in complacency.
The Boer war proved something of a shock, our eventual victory a close run thing, and immediately afterwards the Elgin Committee was established to explore what had gone wrong.
Some pushed for the abolition of the sword and lance as viable weapons for cavalry. Sir Ian Hamilton argued that ‘compared to a modern rifle the sword or lance can only be compared to a medieval toy.’
Leading generals were not impressed and continued to champion the use of lance and sword as cavalry weapons of choice.
General French and General Douglas Haig – key figures in World War I – were the most vociferous against reform, arguing the virtues of slashing and stabbing; the shock of the charge.
General Brabazon went one step further – the tomahawk. He argued that the power and momentum of a cavalry charge - with men swinging tomahawks - would sweep all before it. It had, he argued, proved highly effective on the Afghan frontier – which is clearly where we’re going wrong now.
Lord Esher, a man of dry wit, recorded Brabazon’s appearance at the commission:
‘He drew graphic pictures of a cavalry charge under these conditions, so paralysing to the imagination of the Commissioners that they wholly failed to extricate the General or themselves from the discussion of this engrossing subject.’
It was an interesting position to take because the Boer war had clearly demonstrated the devastating effect of artillery and long range rifles. Generals with their powerful, aristocratic connections, however, carried some clout.
The Elgin Commission did what the British always do in such circumstances.
The cavalry would be allowed to keep their swords but, much to the disgust of traditionalists, they would carry rifles as well, and learn how to dismount and fire.
I love eccentricity and so, clearly, did General Brabazon* but was the tomahawk any more eccentric than the lance – a nine foot bamboo cane, tipped and reinforced with steel?
The British tomahawk would have been made from English oak, steel from Coalbrookdale, and decorated with pigeon feathers, perhaps coloured. They’d have made a pretty sight charging against machine guns. It could have been worse. We could have had Generals arguing for blow-pipes.
We could of course have sent in the penguins.
*Ordered to shave off his beard, the younger Brabazon also shaved off one half of a large and luxuriant moustache, startling observers on the regimental parade ground.