Magazine article The Spectator

The Turn of the Cavalry

Magazine article The Spectator

The Turn of the Cavalry

Article excerpt

A CLOSE RUN THING by Allan Mallinson

Transworld/Bantam, 15.99, pp. 336

There is obviously a real appetite for series of books celebrating the heroic feats of the armies of the Napoleonic wars. We see this in the huge popularity of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin stories while, after 50 years, Hornblower's adventures still give enormous pleasure both in print and now on television. On dry land, television has also popularised the exploits of the infantry officer Sharpe in the Peninsula, but until now the cavalry has lacked a chronicler. It was thus with a delicious feeling of anticipation that I curled up in front of a blazing fire to indulge myself with what I hope will be the first of many campaigns in the company of Cornet (later Lieutenant, ultimately Captain) Matthew Hervey of the 6th Light Dragoons.

A Close Run Thing is a serving cavalry officer's account of a cavalry officer's war and this is its great strength. Allan Mallinson's grasp of the technical side of his subject is effortless and impressive and we follow his expertise with perfect faith. We agree with him that the new shako complete with oilskin cover is definitely to be preferred to the old Tarleton helmet, we confirm his diagnosis of the sick charger as suffering from common rather than specific ophthalmia and we can immediately appreciate the advantages of the folding-butt Paget carbine which can be snugly stowed away in a holster on the saddle arch. All this is deeply satisfying and gives the same feeling of being in safe hands which is provided in the O'Brian books by the (to me at least) incomprehensible details of the rigging and finer points of seamanship. Just as we tack to and fro and make all kinds of subtle adjustments to the sails with Jack Aubrey, so, on the field of Waterloo we manoeuvre with Matthew Hervey in columns of squadrons, in line of squadrons, go three about, walk-march, draw swords and eventually race up the slope to destroy the batteries of big 12-pounders, `Les belles filles de l'Empereur'.

Matthew Hervey is a proper hero - no nonsense about the fashionable anti-hero here. He is a brave, honourable, dashing Christian gentleman with an enviable mastery of his profession - he is even bold enough to make suggestions on strategy to the Duke himself. The portrayal of the men of all ranks is excellent and contributes to the wider picture, for, as Colonel Mallinson points out in his introduction, the book is not only the story of an individual but also the story of a regiment - that peculiarly British institution which John Keegan has described as `an accidental act of genius'. …

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