Excerpted and adapted from Riding to Arms: A History of Horsemanship and Mounted Warfare, by Charles Caramello; University Press of Kentucky. Used with permission of the author and publisher.
In a century filled with dashing, colorful, and controversial British cavalrymen, Captain Lewis Edward Nolan (abt 1820-1854) may hold pride of place. Following a commission in the Austrian Imperial Hussars, Nolan joined the British 15th Hussars and served with distinction in India, while also “making his name as a superlative horse-master, swordsman and steeplechase rider,” as the Marquess of Anglesey wrote in his magisterial History of the British Cavalry.
Next posted to Crimea, Nolan entered history in the storied “charge of the light brigade” at the Battle of Balaklava in October 1854. Joining the 17th Lancers for the charge and killed by fragments from a Russian shell, Nolan was the first British casualty, his death generally described in highly romantic terms. “From [Nolan’s] throat there came an unearthly shriek,” Anglesley wrote, “and as his frightened horse swerved back through the 13th Light Dragoons, [his] sword arm, no less than his impeccably gripping knees, remained uncannily frozen in the positions they had held at the moment of death.”
Immediately preceding his death, Nolan had played a central if still undetermined part in a notorious miscommunication of orders that led to the British debacle and 600 battlefield casualties. Subsequently, the military, the press, and the public either eulogized Nolan as gallant or, often if less fairly, made him the scapegoat — the choice between gallant and goat generally reflecting one hidden agenda or another.
While Nolan’s posthumous defenders and detractors alike agreed on his gifts as horseman and swordsman, they differed on his personality, typically regarding him either as self-confident or as arrogant. In the sneering assessment of Lord George Paget, for example, Nolan was a poseur who “writes books, and was a great man in his own estimation”, a sentiment quoted, but also softened, by Henry Manners Chichester in the Dictionary of National Biography. As Chichester added, the accomplished Nolan “spoke five European languages and several Indian dialects”.
More relevant to readers of Horsetalk, Nolan, despite his short life, made two important contributions to the literature of horsemanship and mounted warfare: The Training of Cavalry Remount Horses, A New System (1852) and Cavalry: Its History and Tactics (1853) — the former a thorough but neither doctrinaire nor pedantic Baucherist treatise on military dressage and equitation, and the latter a widely cited history of cavalry and survey of tactics and a polemical, if diplomatic, statement of Nolan’s opinions on the current and future states of cavalry.
An early British advocate of the mid-19th-century French dressage master François Baucher, Nolan immediately credits Baucher with the “invention” of the new system of equitation that Nolan lays out in Training of Cavalry Remount Horses. Nolan’s New System, more specifically, comprises a translation and adaptation of Baucher’s thinking and writing in his Nouvelle Méthode. It offers an applied system for British cavalry informed by Nolan’s experiences training cavalry horses on Baucherist principles. “I had at first intended translating [Baucher] from the French,” Nolan writes, “but experience showed me that certain modifications were necessary to adapt it to the use of our cavalry.”
Following preliminaries, Nolan’s Training of Cavalry Remount Horses unfolds a systematic program of lessons for the dressage of military horses, together with recommendations on equitation for the military riders who must conduct that dressage: Two lessons, totaling 10 days, “On the Snaffle”; plus seven lessons, totaling 54 additional days, for “Horses Bitted”. The prefacing endorsements from fellow officers both emphasize the short time required by Nolan’s system to train a horse and commend the uniformity of its results.
Nolan as pitchman promoted his “new system” on its brief training period, one that would save military resources while improving cavalry preparation. Nolan as horseman, however, defended it on the soundness of the training itself, a program that instills self-confidence and mutual confidence in horses and riders alike, and that also makes use of veteran horses to instill confidence in recently acquired “remounts,” or cavalry horses newly assigned to service.
Based “on a few simple principles,” the system enables “the rider, at last, to reduce his horse to perfect obedience”, while preserving the horse “from the effects of bad temper in the rider”. The system also takes as axiomatic that the military horse must be supple and in hand, for “A horse not up to the bit, is unfit for cavalry duty … and in warfare totally useless in a mêlée or single combat”. Nolan thus advocates manège training. “My object … is merely to detail that work which requires the man to have patience and ‘tact,’ and which shews decided intelligence in the horse,” and manège work, in his view, was the surest means to that end.
A year after the New System, Nolan published Cavalry: Its History and Tactics. Introducing a modern reissue of this classic text, Jonathan Coulston called it “an extraordinary statement on theory and practice of the mid-century period … the product of long and deep reflection by a consummate horseman”. As Nolan had written in his original preface, since few “special books exist … treating exclusively of cavalry, and none certainly of any importance in the English language”. he would offer “suggestions [that] may assist in bringing forward this important arm to the level of the intelligence of the age.”
Disclaiming thoroughness or originality, Nolan pretended only to organize and illuminate what others had said, together with his opinions. While his first four chapters indeed sketch a standard history of cavalry and survey of its current tactics, the following 10 chapters offer “all that I have to propose as a New System, or as a partial improvement upon the old one.” Particulars aside, Nolan’s central point is that the right men with the right arms, trained with an emphasis on “individual efficacy” and inspired to be “bold, resolute, and rapid”, will defeat even superior numbers: “individual prowess, skill in single combat, good horsemanship, and sharp swords, render all cavalry formidable”.
Given Nolan’s training with Baucher and his own expertise as “a riding-master for years”, he naturally devoted a full chapter to military equitation. Like his French contemporaries Le Comte d’Aure and Alexis-François L’Hotte, Nolan wanted to meld manège and cross-country riding, though he came to the challenge from a British rather than French point of view. British officers, Nolan argues, continue to ape the once fluid but now “stiffened” Continental style of equitation when riding in military drills, though “none of our dragoon or hussar officers would for a moment think of riding across country [when riding to hounds] in a foreign seat, or in any other way in the manège fashion”.
He thus urges against “copying this seat and system from the foreign riding schools” and for taking “example from our bold cross-country riders”. Yet, he also exhorts, “Our cavalry now is wanting in its most essential qualification — ‘riding.’ It is not sufficient that a dragoon can sit his horse; he should be completely master over him.” Among other reasons, “charges resolve themselves into mêlées … and the unfortunate fellow who cannot manage his horse is lost.” The cavalryman, in short, must cultivate the finesse of the true European school rider while showing the boldness of the British cross-country rider.
Nolan would reappear twice in the public imagination a century later, as cinematic icon rather than as military author. Michael Curtiz’s interwar romantic adventure, The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), set in a history more fanciful than factual, parallels public state conflict with a private romantic triangle; and, in both plots, it embodies integrity and loyalty, as against perfidy and betrayal, in the person of Major Geoffrey Vickers, played with dash by Errol Flynn. In a key plot device, the film replaces the actual miscommunication of battle orders accidentally conveyed at Balaklava with fictional orders intentionally forged by Vickers. In effect, the film absolves British military command of ineptitude that led to 600 casualties.
An American production nostalgic for the British Empire, the film employs the figure of the flawed but ultimately heroic and vindicated Vickers as its vehicle for affirming imperial reach, might, and rectitude. While its secondary characters include the historical Lords Lucan and Cardigan by name, suitably whitewashed, its central character Vickers, a conspicuously good horseman as well as the agent of the misguided charge, clearly alludes to Lewis Edward Nolan.
Tony Richardson’s corrosive Vietnam Era military satire, The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), by contrast, evokes historical detail and accuracy in its skewering of the British general staff in the Crimea. Richardson portrays Lords Raglan, Lucan, and Cardigan, the latter of whom led the charge, as arrogant aristocrats whose family connections and landholdings enabled their rise through the ranks despite their incompetence, and whose snobbery and knavery conspired to justify their eventual decision to blame the fiasco on the dashing professional soldier Captain Nolan, dismissed by Raglan, in the film, with the self-damning assessment: “He rides too well. Knows a lot, but he has no heart.”
Although absent as a named historical figure in Curtiz’s version, Nolan is the lynchpin in Richardson’s telling: The film opens with a shot of Nolan mounted, and it closes with a silent montage that crosscuts shots of Nolan’s corpse, trampled in battlefield dust, with shots of an obviously symbolic wounded horse being put down by a trooper. Audible but offscreen, Raglan, Lucan, and Cardigan blame one another for the disaster, Richardson leaving unspoken, in a move more damning than forgiving, their subsequent decision to make Nolan their scapegoat.
Charles Caramello is professor emeritus of English at the University of Maryland and John H. Daniels Fellow at the National Sporting Library and Museum in Middleburg, Virginia.