by Jean Binck
Fourteen years after the collapse of the disastrous M1882 universal sword's system, the French government decided to make another attempt with the design of the M1896 cavalry sword. This straight bladed sword was designed for both heavy and light cavalry, the only difference being the length of the blade: 950mm for the heavy cavalry troopers and 900mm for the light cavalry. The full basket five bars brass hilt had two sidebars symmetrically arranged each side of the knuckle bow.
A limited quantity of M1896 trooper swords was issued to the heavy and light cavalry for service use in parallel with the existing M1854 heavy cavalry swords and M1822 light cavalry swords. However, the M1896 trooper sword was subject to the same problem as the M1882, the blades were found too brittle and the use of the existing swords was restricted to training purpose. [cf. Ministère de la Guerre - Instruction sur l’armement et le materiel de tir 1924/37]
As usual with French regulation swords, an officer’s pattern with an embellished hilt was issued simultaneously with the trooper pattern. The design of the hilt ornamentation was entrusted to the sculptor Jean Alexandre Falguière, professor at the School of Fine Arts of Paris.
There is no doubt the embellishment of the French Model 1896 cavalry officer’s sword was largely influenced by the Art Nouveau style.
Art Nouveau, a French term meaning new art, refers to an essentially ornamental style with which the characteristic line, a curvilinear, was to give Art Nouveau the descriptive nicknames noodle or cigarette-smoke style. It appears as the answer to a problem that had become apparent by the end of the 19th Century: to find a style suitable for the industrial ages rather than applying past styles to contemporary works. The style’s leaders refused the idea of a separation between “noble arts” as painting and sculpture, and “minor arts” as commercial and decorative arts.
Falguière arranged intricate flowing curves and botanical forms in abstract patterns symmetrically arrayed around the guard. On the pommel, an open wreath of acanthus and oak foliates surrounded the initials of the owner of the sword. The grip was made of black buffalo horn.
Much of the enigmatic form of Art Nouveau is related to the spirit of symbolism. Such motif as the mythic Medusa head found on the reverse side of the quillion, although already seen on Napoleonic swords and accoutrement, was incorporated in the new style decoration.
It is maybe a good opportunity to remind the reader of the meaning of the Medusa head found on 19th Century French weapons and accoutrement like the sword belt buckle shown below.
In Greek mythology, Medusa was the only mortal of the three Gorgons, daughters of the sea god Phorcys. Originally very beautiful women, they were transformed into ugly monsters, with serpents for hair, claws of bronze, and staring eyes capable of turning anyone who looked at them into stone. The hero Perseus killed Medusa by cutting off her head, and used Medusa's head to petrify his enemies. Later he gave the head to Athena, who put it in the centre of her shield.
Many officers remained faithful to the M1854 Dragoon's officer's sword and M1822 Light Cavalry officer's sword which were still regulation patterns. However, light cavalry officers who favoured the thrust, or officers who simply wanted to keep up with fashion, purchased the new sword M1896 directly from Châtellerault or from private sword makers.
Following the regulation, all the officers' service blades, even assembled by private cutlers, should have been manufactured and controlled in the government's factory of Châtellerault from where they were available in three sizes:
1st size (1re Taille) = 95 cm
2nd size (2me Taille) = 90 cm
3rd size (3eme Taille) = 85 cm
These blades bore inspection stamps on the ricasso and the usual factory marking in cursive letters on the spine like: Sabre d' Offer de Cavalerie Mle 1896 - 2eme Taille - Manufacture d'armes de Châtellerault - Juin 1903 - JH (cavalry officer's sword Model 1896 - 2nd Size - National arms factory of Châtellerault - JH), letters JH being for Jacob Holtzer provider of the steel.
Actually, the regulation not having been strictly followed, many swords made by private sword makers bear no markings at all and the ornamentation and size of the hilts are found to vary.
Characteristics of the illustrated sword:
Total Length = 110 cm
Blade Length = 95 cm
Blade Width at ricasso = 25 mm
Blade Thickness at ricasso = 8.5 mm
Weight without scabbard = 1040 grams
Remark : the hilt decoration follows closely the original drawings of Falguière.
This sword bears no marking.
ARIES Christian – Armes Blanches Militaires Françaises – (Nantes 1966-1990 )
Ministère de la Guerre - Instruction sur l’armement et le materiel de tir 1924/37 (Paris 1939)