The lance is one of the oldest cavalry weapon and it is still in use today even though it’s now for ceremonial duties only around the world. A Lancer was a type of light cavalryman who fought with a lance. Lancers were used in mounted warfare by the Assyrians as early as 700 BC and then by the Greeks, Persians, Gallic, Han-Chinese, Nomadic and the Romans.
The lance was used widely in Asia and Europe during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance by armoured cavalry, before being adopted by the light cavalry particularly in Eastern Europe. But by the mid-seventeenth century the lance had almost disappeared from warfare. The lance was mainly a Polish weapon, and by the late Revolutionary Wars to the early Napoleonic period the French, Russian and Austrian armies employed Poles and adopted their Polish style uniform for most of their lancer regiments.
The first lancers were raised in the French army in 1807. Napoleon Bonaparte was so impressed with some Polish soldiers he saw armed with lances that he decided to arm French horsemen with the weapon. The length of the lance gave the soldier the ability to stab his foes at a longer distance than he could with a sword. This made the lancer greatly feared.
The lance was 275cm long and its blackened shaft was made of hardwood such as ash or deal. The bottom has a steel ‘shoe’ to protect the wood when the lance was rested on the ground. The center of the shaft has a Hungarian whitened leather grip and a loop for the fingers called a martingale. The lance was usually decorated with a small flag called a pennon. This dove tailed shaped flag was usually red over white but other combination of colours were used depending on nation and their regiments. The steel point was made with a flattened diamond section which allowed it to easily penetrate an enemy soldier’s body. It is secured by long steel straps called langets which made it harder to chop off the point with a sword. The lance weighed three kilograms (about six pounds, ten ounces)
Not all the soldiers in a lancer regiment carried the lance. It was confined to those who were in the front rank. Soldiers in other ranks carried swords, pistols and short muskets called carbines. During the Napoleonic Wars many of the nation’s Austrian, French, Polish, Prussian and Russian fielded cavalry armed with the lance. They allowed the light horsemen to hit hard during the attack and with the use of the lance they had greater reach to poke the infantry in square formation although with limited success.
In many of the Napoleonic armies the lancer regiments were called Uhlans especially in the Austrian and Prussian service and they offend used the Polish style of dress with the distinctive ‘Czapka’ cap.
It was only the British army that was without Lancers during the Napoleonic Wars and this was to prove them costly when the French used them with good effect during the battle of Waterloo.At Waterloo the British did not have any lancers in the army but after seeing them in action and what damage they could do they were finally introduced into the army but not until the following year in 1816.
At Waterloo according to historian Alessandro Barbero, he said that the French lances were "terrifyingly efficient."
Commander of the French 1st Corps, 4th Division General Durutte, who saw the battle from the high ground in front of Papelotte, would write later, "I had never before realized the great superiority of the lance over the sword."