Monday, April 26, 2010


Misconception or Reality?

Courtesy of Seven Years’ War Association Journal Volume XIV #4 - Winter 2008/2009
Bill Protz

There has been thinking that French heavy cavalry did not wear breastplates at times or at all during the SYW. In my case, this goes back through decades of dimly recalled memories reminding me of three things. First, officers refused to wear them out of a sense of misplaced bravery/honor. Second, the piece was thrown away because it was too heavy or uncomfortable. Third, many uniform illustrations don’t show them. Are these misconceptions or realities?

Lieutenant General Sir Reginald Savory, His Britannic Majesty’s Army In Germany During The Seven Years War

At the battle of Hastenbeck, “The gallant Chevert led his [infantry] men forward, wearing his ‘cordon-rouge’ and without his cuirasse. When pressed to don his cuirasse, he replied, pointing to his men, ‘Have these brave fellows got any?’ Page 32.

Lee Kennett, The French Armies In The Seven Years’ War. Duke University Press, 1971.

“…the Count of Gisors, received a mortal would leading a charge at Krefeldt; had he been wearing the cuirasse, it would probably have saved his life.” Page 70.

“Cavalry officers were to wear the complete breastplate [front and back], though as has been seen, the custom was more honored in the breach than in the observation.” Page 117. Kennett is perhaps referring to the death of the Count of Gisors here. The regulation comes from the Ordonnance du Roi concernant l’armement des officers et des sergeans des companies de fusiliers du 31 octobre 1758.

“The practice may have been dictated as much by comfort as vanity. The physician Colombier said the cuirasse or breastplate was too heavy and troubled the respiration and constricted the shoulders and neck.” Page 117. From Code I, page 131.

”Regulations stipulated that cavalrymen …were to wear as defensive armor a half-breastplate or plastron, and an iron skull cap inside their hats.” Page 117. From Sautai and Desbrère’s on pp. 13-15 of Cavalerie.

Liliane and Fred Funcken, The Lace Wars Part 2. Ward Lock Limited, 1977.

“The breastplate alone was in theory worn by all cavalry regiments, but there was little enthusiasm for it, and it was often left off, contrary to regulations.” Page 22.

René Chartrand, Louis XV’s Army (I) Cavalry & Dragoons. Osprey Publishing, 1996.

“All troopers were also equipped with a steel breast-plate painted black, but this bulky item was unpopular and not often worn, even in wartime.” Page 13.

Lucien Mouillard, THE FRENCH ARMY OF LOUIS XV. G.F. Nafziger translated the 1882 work in 2004.

“The armament and equipment of the cavalry trooper was excellent in the time of Louis XIV, but did not change after that, and consisted of: The iron breastplate, fastened at the back with leather straps, that crossed on the back. Only the Cuirassier Regiment wore a double breastplate [front and back]. The officers carried … a double cuirass.” Pages 71-72.

Writing about the Gendarmes, “The plastron of the cuirass was of bronzed iron, lined with linen padding, trimmed with crimson silk, fixed at the shoulders with red leather suspenders with buckles and hooks of bronzed iron,” Page 101.

Mouillard’s original artwork depicting French heavy cavalry from 1737-1762 all wear the breastplate with the exception of the Cuirassiers du Roi wearing the front and back cuirass. The breastplate is not depicted on the Gendarmes or Guard cavalry perhaps to show details of the outer coat.

Lucien Rousselot Reference Sources cited in Part 10 of R. D. Pengel’s and G. R. Hurt’s FRENCH CAVALRY & DRAGOONS 1740-1762. 1981.

“When wearing [the buff vest for practice exercises but not in action] the officers wore cuirasses and the other ranks black plastrons. The plastron was often worn by officers and other ranks under the coat in action. The cuirass was bordered in red lace with yellow metal fittings. Unlike the Prussian style it had a back protection also.” This citation appears to the left of the plate RG1 about half way through this booklet. Several sketches appear of the breastplate.

Christopher Duffy, PRUSSIA’S GLORY. The Emperor’s Press, 2003.

In the aftermath of the Prussian victory at Rossbach Duffy remarks, “It took several days to clear the wreckage from the battlefield and the neighborhood…’The roads were littered with French cuirasses, great riding boots which had been thrown away…. and with lost hats. The sunken road by Markwerben was full of hacked-about Frenchmen.” Page 85.
Christian Rogge on the SYW yahoo egroup on October 17, 2007 wrote:

Having done a bit of closer research on 7YW French vs. Allies campaigns, I would forward (my personal) conclusion based on the below:

A) We/I know of accounts of French cav. wearing breastplates at [1757] Rossbach and 1758
Lutterberg. The first because of the recorded abandoned cuirasses during the rout (see
Duffy), the latter because existing records of Hanoverian infantry at Lutterberg deliberately aiming at the horses on the French cav. charges for the French were in armour. The charges of the 6 esc. Dauphin brigade identified here – not that of the Cuirassiers [du Roi] !!! (see French language, but Hanoverian origin relation publ. in Westphalen). To my knowledge, no such records exist for Minden or Krefeld, to name the two other most famous engagements. That doesn't say NO armour was worn on these occasions.

B) The wearing of cuirasses was 7YW regulation - especially in battle!

C) It wasn't popular - so, (I say) - avoided with the marches - i.e. usual everyday service.
Armour [was] conventionally kept with the regimental baggage - somewhere behind during
the march periods.

D) Idea of no armour for French cav. is based mainly on uniform illustrations of French cavalry without cuirasse/plastron. Most are based on 18th c. contemporary material most often illustrating uniforms without cuirasses, because you would not see much of the uniform distinctions with the cuirasse.

Conclusion: French did wear armour in deliberately planned or expected engagements, but
might have not done so at unexpected combats, such as Korbach or Warburg, or of the more operational then pitched encounters like Gruenberg or Nauheim, which really happened to make up for most of the engagements during this war in this part of the world.

Ingo Beringer on the Lace Wars yahoo egroup on July 26, 2006 wrote:

At the battle of Crefeld Hessian light troops on foot were interspersed in the first line of the attacking Allied wing. When the heavy cavalry of the French were attacking, the Hessians were ordered to aim at the horses instead of the riders as the cuirassiers wore breastplates, which would have made them invulnerable. The Hessians did as they were told, with cruel effect. Source: the report of a sergeant named George Bess who took part in the fight

More information from Ingo in an email: (George Beß). „Aus dem Tagebuch eines Veteranen des Siebenjährigen Krieges. Mitgetheilt durch den Obersten z.D. Wilhelm Beß." Zeitschrift des Vereins für hessische Geschichte und Landeskunde, N.F., Band 2, S. 193–241. - (My) translation: From the Diary of a Veteran of the Seven Years' War. Communicated by Colonel (in active service) Wilhelm Bess. Journal of the Society for Hessian History and Geography, new series, vol. 2, pp 193 to 241. (The name of George Bess is not given in the title of the paper). - It is a most interesting paper excerpting from the original papers of George Bess who was a subject of the Landgraf of Hessen-Kassel. He lived from 1734 to 1810. He was a hunter by occupation. Shortly after the start of his career he was (more or less forcefully) recruited for a Jäger company. I suppose you know that Jäger is the word for the civil trade of a hunter as well as the military troop type. George had such a positive record in his activities that he was promoted to Corporal in the first year of his service, then Sergeant in the following year, and Sergeant Major in the year after. He took part in three battles and was wounded five times. After the war he was granted a senior employment in the Landgraf's forestry service, in recognition of his merits. Colonel Wilhelm Bess was the author's grandson. (As a quite irrelevant note: GEORGE was at that time pronounced Schorsch (or English: shorsh), not Georg (English: gay-org) as today).

Ingo Beringer on the SYW yahoo egroup on October 18, 2007 wrote:

As for Minden I clearly remember having read about French breastplates in the context of battlefield findings in one of the commemorative books of the 1959 anniversary though I forgot the exact place.

1. Regulations ordered heavy cavalry troopers to wear frontal armor breastplates called plastrons.

2. The same regulations ordered officers to wear front and back armor.

3. Wearing armor was unpopular for some due to weight, breathing issues and encumbrance.

4. Some officers flouted the regulation due to vanity.

5. Every heavy regiment was issued with armor.

6. Armor was thrown away in the rout following the defeat at Rossbach. To get away easier?

7. Is the Rossbach anecdote the genesis of the idée-fixe that the French threw away their armor?

8. A lot of artwork does not show armor so uniforms are not obscured.

9. Thus miniatures designers have not crafted SYW French heavy cavalry in plastrons. Nor do we find officers with front and back armor except for the Cuirassier du Roi Regiment. This total absence is unjustifiable. My familiarity is with 25mm-30mms only.

10. Those unaccustomed to research, lacking resources, trusting rules writers as their sole source of information and also trusting manufacturers may think there was no armor worn.

11. There is a philosophy afoot these days that if a wargame miniature does not have something on the casting, it cannot have it in a wargame. In view of Items #s 8 and 9, this is wrong.

12. There is a difference between disliking armor and wearing it anyway, especially in battle.

13. What percentage of troopers and officers did not wear their armor?

14. What percentage wore armor?

15. Per Table 3 of Kennett, The Army of the Lower Rhine on 17 June 1758 shows:

83 squadrons of heavy horse presumably wearing breastplates. (70.9% of all cavalry)

10 squadrons of hussars without armor. (8.5% of all cavalry)

24 squadrons of dragoons without armor. (20.5% of all cavalry)

117 squadrons total

16. Are the percentages of Item #15 viable? Yes and no. Hussars and dragoons were normally not present on main battlefields. They were usually on the flanks but more usually miles away guarding lines of communications, scouting, screening, protecting supplies, blocking, foraging, marauding and so forth. Thus in a large main battle, the percentage of breastplated horse would be much higher than 70.9%. However, at smaller affairs the story would be very different. The heavies might be a small minority if not absent altogether.


{a} The French Cuirassiers du Roi Regiment wore front and back armor on top of their coats.

{b} Other French heavy regiments were supposed to wear breastplates (plastrons) under outer coats but on top of waistcoats. They did this unless in a surprise engagement.

{c} Officers at the regimental level and above were supposed to wear front and back armor. Some did not.

(d) Ask wargame miniatures manufacturers to provide French heavy cavalry wearing plastrons under the outer coat and officers wearing front and back armor if they do not now do so.