Ben Miller

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Bayonet, Pike, Dagger and Sword: Martial Arts, Nationalism, and the Gaelic Revival in Early Twentieth Century Ireland

In Edwardian Era, Military, Victorian Era, Weapons and Armor on October 25, 2017 at 1:42 pm

“Superiority in fighting is extremely valuable in view of the large proportion of recent battles where the issue has been decided with cold steel. There is no reason why this superiority should not be at once gained by the Irish Volunteers…”                       —Séamas Ó hAodha, 1914

 

Two major surges of interest in the martial arts—both inspired and informed by a romantic interest in the past—can be observed during the last three centuries of Irish history.

The first occurred during the 1780s, and was spearheaded by the Knights of Tara, a celebrated group of fencers and duelists which formed as a result of a “call to arms” issued in an Irish treatise on swordsmanship, entitled A Few Mathematical and Critical Remarks on the Sword (1781). This first wave of interest–mostly led by members of the Protestant ascendancy–coincided with the establishment of the militant Irish Volunteers, as well as with a resurgence of interest in ancient Gaelic Ireland (exemplified by the founding of the Royal Irish Academy in 1786). It also resulted in the publication of a number of treatises on the art and science of fencing with the sword and bayonet, written between 1783 and 1805, and, in many ways, peaked with the failed United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798.

The second martial revival occurred towards the end of the nineteenth century, and continued into the early twentieth. Just as in the case of the first wave, the second coincided with a resurgence of militant sentiment (which arose in Ireland during the 1890s), as well as with a renewed interest in traditional and ancient Irish Gaelic culture (referred to today as “the Gaelic Revival”)—all of which combined to manifest in new forms of cultural nationalism, such as the Gaelic Athletic Association, the Gaelic League, the Fianna Éireann, and the birth of more militant organizations such as Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

The first surge has already been written about at length in the newly published book, Irish Swordsmanship: Fencing and Dueling in Eighteenth Century Ireland. It is the second wave, about which little has been written to date, that this article is concerned with.

THE FIANNA ÉIREANN

During the 1890s, a few noted individuals became instrumental in confluence of the Gaelic Revival and the militant New Nationalism. Among the most prominent of these were Sir Roger Casement, Thomas MacDonagh, Patrick Pearse, Countess Markievicz, and Eoin MacNeill. The Gaelic revival may be briefly defined as the late-nineteenth-century national revival of interest in the Irish language and in old Irish Gaelic culture–which included folklore, sports, music, literature, and other arts. Pearse and MacNeill were especially noted leaders of both the Gaelic revival and militant revolutionary organizations.

Members of the Gaelic Revival: pipers from county Cork. An Claidheamh Soluis, April 18, 1914.

Indeed, the attempt to re-popularize the Irish language was considered to be related to the martial arts, as can be seen in the following passage, which appeared in the pages of the nationalist journal An Claidheamh Soluis on February 4, 1915:

Our duty is to guard the great gift [the Irish language] and preserve it. When a man is fighting for his life he must use the best weapon at his command. If he have not a machine gun or rifle or automatic pistol, then a blunderbuss is good. If he possess no firearms, a sword or pike is useful, and a bata or stone may disable the enemy and help to gain breathing space…The Irish language army is reduced, if not to the bata and the stone, to the conditions of guerilla warfare.

Sir Roger Casement (1864-1916) was at the forefront of the Irish militant circles which brought about the 1916 Easter Rising. In 1911, the Dublin-born Casement was made a knight for his humanitarian efforts on behalf of the Amazonian Indians. Such exploits gained him the notice and admiration of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who based the character of Lord John Roxton in The Lost World on Casement, and who defended him till the very end. Casement would eventually be stripped of his knighthood due to his Irish revolutionary activity, and hanged. Prior to that, however, he was instrumental in the publication of the first handbook of the Fianna Éireann, an Irish nationalist youth organization founded in 1909. For this handbook, Casement wrote an essay on “Chivalry” which referenced ancient Irish history and mythology, and which compared Irish martial culture to that of the Japanese:

Fianna Éireann badge, with pike on sunburst. Source: National Museum of Ireland.

Na Fianna Eireann, long before Christianity came to our island revealed in their conduct the very virtues that Christian chivalry, in later ages, inculcated as essential to the order of knighthood. So, too, “Bushido” inspired in the Japanese a spirit of sacrifice, of daring and of unselfish devotion to chief and clan that in our day has made the armies of the Mikado more powerful than the mighty hosts of imperial Russia…a nation can only retain its chivalry by retaining its nationality; and it destroys this when it assails the national life of another people. It is because Ireland is guiltless in this, above all other lands, that we may hope to revive in her, as national life revives, the guiding impulse of her earlier years. (p. 76)

The Fianna Handbook also included an article by Patrick Pearse, and a series of illustrated bayonet exercises. Although, being targeted at youth, these exercises did not delve into the nuances of hand-to-hand combat, they nevertheless are indicative of an interest in the subject of martial education.

A specimen of Fianna weaponry resides in the National Museum of Ireland. This dagger was made to the design of Liam Mellows (1892-1922), a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Irish Volunteers, who would go on to participate in the Easter Rising and War of Independence. The dagger was made by James Lynam, a Fenian blacksmith of Athlone. The intent was that it could be carried in the stocking of the Fianna Éireann uniform, and used in the manner of a sgian dubh. It is not currently known how prevalent such daggers may have been.

Fianna Éireann dagger made by James Lynam. Source: National Museum of Ireland.

A number of photographs taken during this period show members of the Fianna Éireann posing with bayonets, sheathed at the hip in the manner of daggers:

 

THE IRISH VOLUNTEERS

The Irish Volunteers (in Irish, Óglaigh na hÉireann), also known as the Irish Volunteer Army, was a military organization established in 1913 by Irish nationalists. The Volunteers included members of the Gaelic League, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Sinn Féin, and, secretly, the Irish Republican Brotherhood. It was the forerunner of what would become the Irish Republican Army.

Noted leaders among the Volunteers included Roger Casement, Thomas MacDonagh, Patrick Pearse, and Eoin MacNeill (1867-1945)—a professor of early and medieval history at University College Dublin, and a secret member of the I.R.B.. In 1914, MacNeill was put in charge as editor of the the Volunteers’ official organ, An tÓglách, or, The Irish Volunteer, which aimed to provide guidance and to further develop the movement. Within the pages of this rare publication are to be found some of the most interesting and detailed methods of hand-to-hand combat propounded by early twentieth century Irish revolutionaries.

The methods of bayonet use presented in An tÓglách have their foundation and inspiration from mainland European techniques, as well as from British Army experience, which many Irish soldiers-turned-revolutionaries had obtained. And yet, there are many peculiarities in these methods well worth examining. Moreover, the approach taken by the writers of An tÓglách is one that is distinctly “Irish”—that is, modified to suit the particular landscapes and conditions of Ireland. This can be most clearly seen in the focus on “Hedge Fighting,” found throughout such martial writings, and which often mentioned the use of the pike:

Irish Volunteer, Jan 15, 1916.

It is also clear, in perusing these passages, that Irish revolutionaries were interested in looking back at the past—both for romantic and practical reasons. As one writer explained,

“The best available weapon may be the magazine rifle with bayonet, a rifle without a bayonet, a bayonet without a rifle, an automatic pistol, a common revolver, an old ’98 pike, and anything from that down to a pointed stick or a catapult, provided it can be handled so as to put the man on the other side out of action. While you are waiting for a present of a machine gun with ammunition for a whole campaign, get the thing you can get now, and exercise yourself with it till you feel sure that you can make the other man afraid of you.” – The Irish Volunteer, Vol. 2, No. 27.

Or, as another wrote,

“If it is contended that the rifle is better than the sword in a bayonet-charge, there is no reason why officers should not carry a half-pike or partisan, as they did in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries…When the enemy is close at hand his revolver and pike should be a sufficient defence, if he knows how to use them.” – Irish Volunteer, March 25, 1916.

The Irish Volunteers were thereby ordered to immerse themselves in “physical culture” and to train in a variety of close-quarter combat methods; we find, for instance, the following prescribed in early 1916:

“If you can get a hall or house of sufficient size you should meet for indoor work once night every week, and for outdoor work every second Sunday…In addition to drill, Bayonet and pike fighting…if desired you can have physical drill, gymnastics, boxing, singlesticks, and so on.” Irish Volunteer, February 5, 1916.

A mounted leaflet in the possession of the National Museum of Ireland, entitled Equipment – Fianna Fail – The Irish Volunteers, Leaflet A-1, outlined the prescribed kit for Volunteers and Officers in 1914. Regarding weapons, the Volunteers were to be armed with the following:

FOR ALL VOLUNTEERS…

As to arms: rifle, with sling and cleaning outift; 100 rounds of ammunition, with bandolier or ammunition pouches to hold same; bayonet, with scabbard, frog and belt; strong knife or slasher.

Indeed, so keen was the interest in the martial methods utilized by Irish revolutionaries of the past, that–most impressively–several obscure treatises from previous centuries, evidently gleaned from old library shelves, were printed among the pages of the Irish Volunteer for the benefit of its readers. Such treatises included the Plan of Review for the Volunteer Corps which are to Assemble at Belfast in July 1782 (see Irish Volunteer, Vol. 1, No. 19 and 20), and the 1848 United Irishman “Pike Drill” by John Mitchel (see Supplement to the Irish Volunteer, Feb. 27, 1915).

Irish Volunteer bayonet drill – 1st prize winners: Part of A Company, 4th Battalion, Dublin Brigade, at a tournament held at St. Enda’s College on September 5, 1915.

 

THE USE OF THE BAYONET

Bayonet drill was a common feature of Irish Volunteer exercise. Various essays and articles in An tÓglách advocate its use in both the conventional sense, as well as in the manner of a club or (detached) dagger. An official and fully detailed method of bayonet combat, by F.P. Mullin, was published in the journal, intended for all recruits. This method can be read in full by clicking on this link.

In addition to the foregoing, numerous “hints” on the use of the bayonet, such as the following, were also published in the pages of An tÓglách:

“There are very few countries in the world in which bayonet fighting would play so large a part in warfare as in Ireland, and consequently instruction in the use of the bayonet should be a prominent aspect of the training of the Irish Volunteers. This will naturally include instruction in the actual bayonet exercises and in bayonet fencing, which must be taught by an instructor; but there are also a great number of useful hints to be picked up without actual practical demonstration.

“Thus it is easy to explain the easiest way to carry the rifle with the bayonet fixed when running forward in a change. It should be held with both hands in front of the body—left just inside the sling, right at the small of the stock—in the position of Port Arms. The weight feels least in this position, and from it one can easily assume the attack. If you try running with the rifle in this position you will at once see how easily it comes.

Irish Volunteer, Dec. 11, 1915.

“When arriving opposite the hostile line choose your opponent and attack him vigorously in whatever way seems to give the best opening. If you miss your attack and he is not in a position to counter-attack close and grapple with him if you are a bigger man; if not, resume the attack with your bayonet at the first chance.

“As a rule thrust low at the body; the face is a smaller mark and the chest is protected by the bones. If you disable your own antagonist look round to see if you cannot help one of your comrades. They should also come to your aid if you are hard pressed.

“If fighting a mounted man keep on his left or near side. He must then use his sword across his bridle arm, where his reach is much shorter and his parries much weaker. If he tries to ride you down, thrust at his horse and then attack him if the horse gets out of hand, as will probably be the case.

Rifle drill in Irish. From the Irish Volunteer, Dec. 25, 1915.

“When awaiting an enemy at night the best way is to kneel with your weapon in readiness. Then when the opponent’s figure is outlined against the background and he is near enough, spring up and lunge hard at the middle of the body.

“Always disentangle your bayonet at once—you will probably be attacked by a second man after you have disabled the first. Set your left foot on the body and pull: then you are ready to get on guard at once.

“Always attack whenever possible and attack fiercely. Bayonet fighting is not a game: it is brutal business, to be finished as soon as possible. But see to it that it finishes with your side on top.” – Supplement to the Irish Volunteer, Dec 26, 1914.

“Always attack: should an attack fail, follow it up with a second before your opponent can attack: keep him on the defensive. If you have to defend for a time, always be on the look-out for a chance to resume the offensive.

“Always cast a hasty glance round with a view to secure the best footing.

“In personal combat watch your opponent’s eyes if you can see them plainly. If you can’t, watch the movements of his weapon or body: this will mostly be the case in night attacks.

“Keep the body well covered and attack vigorously. Keep your point as nearly as possible in the line of attack. The less the piece if moved up, down, or to either side, the readier you are for attack or defence.

Members of the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army, armed with bayonets, inside the General Post Office, Dublin, 1916.

“Always watch for a chance to attack your opponent’s left hand: it is the nearest to you.

“The butt is used for close, sudden attacks.

“Against a man on foot armed with a sword, be careful he doesn’t grasp the muzzle of your piece. He will try his hardest to get past the bayonet. Attack him with short, stabbing thrusts, and keep him beyond striking distance of his weapon.

“Against odds a small party of men can fight to best advantage by grouping themselves so as to prevent their being attacked from behind.” – Irish Volunteer, Sept 4, 1915.

THE RIFLE-BAYONET USED AS A CLUB

“At close quarters the rifle—even without the bayonet fixed—is a formidable weapon in the hands of a soldier who knows how to use it. A shot-gun is practically as good a weapon as the rifle in the same conditions.

“There are two ways in which the butt of the rifle or shot-gun can be used. In the first the weapon is held as if for bayonet combat, the right hand at the small of the stock, the left just inside the sling of the rifle or mid-way on the barrel in the case of a shot-gun. A terrific blow can be delivered by holding the left hand in front of the junction of the neck and left shoulder and smashing up the butt by straightening the right arm; the muzzle of the piece then points back over the left shoulder, and the butt crashes into the opponent’s face. The same blow may be delivered at the pit of the stomach: a single glance will show which of the two points of attack promises best.

“The second form of attack is by swinging the piece like a club. Grasp the barrel firmly with both hands—hands together—about six inches from the muzzle: swing it up over the right shoulder so that the butt is a little behind the line of the shoulder. Don’t bring it back very far or you’ll lose control and the weapon will put a dead weight on your wrists. The arms should not be fully straightened. Smash the rifle down on your opponent’s head. In this case the head is the point of attack because if your rifle drops too far you lose control.

“There is just a single case where you could select another point of attack. If your opponent is on a slight height over you—for instance, a man on a blank thrusting at you—you will probably be able to break his leg by a smashing blow near the knee. The solider who knows these few points is a formidable enemy even after his ammunition is all fired away, and even if he has no bayonet at all.” – Irish Volunteer, December 12, 1914.

THE BAYONET USED AS A KNIFE OR DAGGER

M1871 sword bayonet as used by members of the Irish Volunteers.

“A Military Causerie.

“When the soldier jumps down into a trench full of enemies—as he must do when charging unless he remains above to be shot—he is no longer able to use rifle or bayonet to advantage. He is like a man in a close crowd, who cannot draw back his weapon so as to make it effective. Accordingly we read of men taking off the bayonet to use it by hand, and also of men resorting to their fists. Everything points to the advisability of a short knife or dirk being at instant command when the jump into the trench is made. And this is not for thrusting forward, as in striking a blow, but for back-handed action, the arm being swung with the blade projecting—a dagger action, in fact, which is much the quickest and most effective way of dealing with an enemy who is close up to you. The mode of use would be to have it out just before jumping into the trench, and to swing it into the face of the nearest man, and as rapidly as possible into the faces of as many men as can be reached—no stabbing at the body. The purpose should be to “flabbergast” your man more than merely to wound. A jab in the face is the best way of getting in first, which is everything in a hand-to-hand struggle, and a most disconcerting injury.—Well, boys, why not get a few knives?” – Irish Volunteer, February 26, 1916.

Another article published in the Volunteer considered similar advice from an Australian report:

“Another recommendation was that the pike-head should be detachable so as to be capable of being used as a dagger upon occasion…For more than a year past Headquarters have pointed out a general similarity between modern trench warfare and fighting in an intersected country like Ireland.” – Irish Volunteer, Jan 15, 1916.

 

THE USE OF THE PIKE

Irish Volunteer, Oct. 24, 1914.

Perhaps no weapon has been more associated with Irish military history than the pike. The arm was especially prevalent during the United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798, used with bloody effect in Dublin, Antrim, and Wexford, and famously utilized in the battles of Vinegar Hill and New Ross. The pike became firmly cemented in the popular mind as the Irish national weapon, and in subsequent decades, would be commonly referred to by militant Irish authors as the “Queen of weapons” or the “Queen of arms.” During the nineteenth century, pikes continued to see use in the Irish rebellions of 1803, 1848, and 1867.

British soldier with Irish pikes captured during the Easter Rising. The Great War Newspaper, 1916.

Later, too, the weapon would continue to see limited use during the Easter Rising of 1916, as well as in the Irish War of Independence and Irish Civil War. According to an article by Lar Joye,

Pikes used in 1916, National Museum of Ireland.

“On Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, a small group of Irish Citizen Army soldiers under Captain Seán Connolly…attacked the centre of British administration in Ireland—Dublin Castle…The insurgents, despite being few and poorly armed, succeeded in taking the guardroom but failed to take control of the castle, leaving this pike behind when they retreated….This pike represents the reality for nationalists throughout the period from 1912 to 1922—the lack of modern weapons. During the nineteenth century the pike had become the definitive symbol of Irish revolt, especially after the 1798 Rebellion, and it was recommended in 1914 that Irish Volunteers who could not afford to buy or procure a rifle should use a pike as a substitute.” (History Ireland)

Pike use during the Irish War of Independence was also recounted by IRA veteran James J. Comerford in the exceedingly rare My Kilkenny I.R.A. Days: 1916-22 (Dinan Pub. Co., 1980). In the pages of his memoir, Comerford recounted that the volunteers of Muckalee parish “made pikes–patterned after the ’98 Wexford pikes.” He further related:

“Handles for the pikes were scarce. Expected to be six or seven feet in length, they were difficult to obtain in places outside of timber saw mills in towns. Shovel handles, sprong and fork handles could be had easily, but these were too short for Pikes. In actual combat, where lives would be at stake, a six foot pike handle gave the Irish Volunteer a chance in hand to hand fighting to outreach the English Soldier with his Rifle and Bayonet on close combat conditions. It gave the Irish volunteer some time to see the whites of the English Soldier’s eyes when he was parrying with him while waiting for an opportunity to thrust his pike into the Soldier’s body. Killing or wounding was the name of the game in Bayonet and Pike fighting.” (p. 102)

Comerford continues to recount specific instances of pike use in several other sections of his book (see pages 100-104, 187, 215, 772-775).

Kilmurry Volunteers carry pikes through the streets of Cork with hundreds of others in the city’s 1916 St Patrick’s Day parade. Source: Niall Murray’s blog.

Following is a selection of instructions and “hints” on pike use which appeared in the Irish Volunteer. The author of the first piece is none other than Séamas Ó hAodha (James J. Hughes)–a noted member of the Gaelic League, the secretary of Cumann na nGael, and an intelligence officer under Michael Collins.

“The suggestion that the pike should be revived in our day as an arm for the Volunteers has had a mixed reception. The most frequent objection is that it is not a modern weapon, and that it is no substitute for the magazine rifle and bayonet. On the other hand, it is fairly well agreed by all that, for man-to-man fighting, the pike would be superior on the grounds of lightness, handiness and length to its shorter, heavier, and clumsier rival. Many who admit this advantage are afraid of the ridicule its appearance in the 20th century would surely elicit from the adorers of modernism. The only substantial objection seems to be that pikemen as such could be easily slaughtered from a distance by an enemy armed with the rifle, it being impossible for a man to use a modern rifle and a pike at the same time.

“Superiority in fighting is extremely valuable in view of the large proportion of recent battles where the issue has been decided with cold steel. There is no reason why this superiority should not be at once gained by the Irish Volunteers without any corresponding disadvantage when in the Mauser automatic pistol we have a first class weapon of fire, sighted to 1,000 yards, with which our pikemen could be equipped and thereby rendered equally formidable at a distance….One hundred pikemen armed with Mauser auto pistols could be attached to every battalion and would be the most modern and efficient arm in Europe when properly trained.

“These two weapons are eminently suited to the Irish temperament and the topography of the country. The thousands of trained hurlers through the country would be magnificent material for pikemen, trained in a body, foot and eye, for their work. The broken nature of the surface in Ireland would make a range of more than 1,000 yards rare for engagements. We would thus have combined in the pike corps all that is most efficient in steel and bullet. A point or two not to be forgotten may be mentioned. Pikes can be made at once locally and for a few shillings…The fact that 100 men in a battalion carried pikes would not prevent the remaining 900 from carrying bayonets; in other words, the pike would not replace the bayonet; it would supplement it. Let those light-brained people who believe that to conform sheepishly in everything to the accepted notions of the day is to be most progressive and efficient enjoy their laugh to their heart’s content at the expense of the pikemen. If ten or twenty thousand Volunteers can be armed in a few weeks with the most perfect in-fighting weapon known, their strength as an army will be immensely increased (pending a fuller supply of rifles.) If in addition these men carry the most deadly of modern firearms, we will then be in the very vanguard of military progress.

“SEAMAS O’HAODHA.”

– Irish Volunteer, August 8, 1914

Eire, November 6, 1914.

“THE RUSH OF SPEARMEN”

“Our Volunteers are possibly not fully informed about the numerous occasions on which battles have been won by hand-to-hand fighting. It is a matter of history that not once nor twice but many times disciplined forces armed with modern rifles have been wiped out by a rush of spearmen. It is a great mistake to suppose that these cases were accidental, as is often heard. They were not. Like any other military manoeuvre, the rush of spearmen succeeded when the conditions favoured it, and failed when the conditions were against it. [Continues to cite anecdotes from history of British failures in Eygpt and Sudan.]

“The lessons of these fierce encounters in the Sudan are well worth pondering. It should be borne in mind, too, that the bodies of spearmen concerned were very large and consequently difficult to handle. The task of a small body fighting a corresponding body of regular troops would be much simpler.

“The Volunteers as a whole do not seem to realize the great importance of hand-to-hand fighting. There is no reason for this, because Headquarters has urged the need for training in this particular branch of the soldier’s business often enough, both in orders and in the official organ. It cannot be too forcibly impressed upon our men that there is no more important point than this, for many reasons.

“The temperament of the Irishman causes him to excel in close fighting. He is essentially an attacker, and is active in body and quick in mind. His ready presence of mind enables him to defend his life in the quick, sudden exchanges that occur constantly in the bayonet combat. There is no need to lay any additional stress on this point: the present European war has furnished numerous incidents proving that the same aptitude exists now in as great a degree as it ever did.

“Again, it should be borne in mind that the ground in Ireland is very suitable for this style of fighting. “Close country—close fighting:” this is an invariable rule. Just as on the veldt in South Africa long-range shooting was customary, so in Ireland a main reliance would always be the bayonet.” – Irish Volunteer, July 3, 1915.

“Certain of the Volunteer officers favour the adoption of the pike as the best arm for the officers and sergeants, and a very strong case can be made out for it. First of all it is desirable that, if possible, the officer should have a distinctive weapon: it is a badge of authority on parade, and on service points him out as the man to look to for guidance. The objection that in battle it draws the hostile fire upon him is not so strong in Ireland, where good cover is everywhere obtainable, as elsewhere.

“In particular there is the objection to uniform armament among the Volunteers. The officer armed with a rifle—especially if better than an average shot, as many Volunteer officers are—is sorely tempted to devote his attention to picking off some of the enemy. Instead his aim should he to direct the fire of his own men. It is poor fire-control for one picked shot to ‘snipe’ half-a-dozen while the 30 odd men under him fire into the ground twenty yards to their front.

“This would not be a new departure, either. In the English Army up to and during the Peninsular War all leaders of sections carried a pike, or halbert, as it was called. The idea was precisely the same—increased facilities of fire-direction; and that the custom was not detrimental to military efficiency is evident from the success of the English Army at that time, when it was better than ever before or since. The new custom could be introduced by the officers carrying pikes when route marching.” – Supplement to the Irish Volunteer, Feb. 27, 1915.

“DISPOSITION or a Small Force on the Defensive.”

PIKEMEN FOR THE COUNTER-ATTACK.

Advertisement for pikes in Eire, Nov. 7, 1914.

“There remains to be considered the question of supports. It may happen that the fire of the firing-line is not by itself sufficent to repel the attack, and that a counter-attack may prove necessary. For this, the dependence must be upon the supports, who should be held in a distinct body. Experience in Flanders has proved that the best method of action by the support is as follows:—

“They are posted as near the firing-line as circumstances allow, and when advancing do not fire at all, but rely on the bayonet.

“This again is a point of special interest to the Volunteers. From the nature of the case it has been found advisable to arm a certain proportion of the men with pikes; and these, evidently, are the men to form the supports. They are posted within easy rushing distance—say 50 yards or less: they are fresh, and have the advantage of surprise in their attack. In such a case their action should be instantly and speedily effective. All that is needed is proper foresight in deciding on the direction of the attack. It should always be delivered against a flank if possible.

“This will often be decided by the following circumstance. Frequently in a combat of this nature the assailant will expose a flank: in fact, for every separate field he advances across he exposes two flanks—and he is powerless to avoid this. Hedges and fences running parallel to the direction of the advance and perpendicular to the line of the defender’s position inevitably split up his front into fragments. Consequently it will often be possible to select the point of counter-attack well ahead and take suitable measures for the disposal of the supports accordingly.

“It will form a very instructive exercise for the commanders of Volunteer corps to carry out a defence on lines like those indicated—the attacking force being imaginary. Half the corps with rifles form the firing-line, and the other half with pikes the supports. The point is that if proper use is made of the enclosed nature of the country a force half armed with pikes can be considered as fully armed. At all events, that is the experience of the French and German armies.”

– Irish Volunteer, August 7, 1915.

PIKEMAN AGAINST CAVALRYMAN

“It might easily happen that pikemen would be required to hold some point such as a bridge, barricade, or the like against a body of horsemen, and naturally in such a case their success would depend entirely upon their individual readiness and skill-at-arms.

Irish Volunteer, Oct. 24, 1914.

“In such encounters it would often happen that the charging horsemen would be to some extent protected by their horses from a direct attack, and in this case the proper method is to attack the horse first and then the rider when he loses control.

“The most obvious point of attack and the nearest to hand is the chest, but this is not at all the best way. First of all, if the horse is so hard stricken as to be brought down, he falls forward on to the weapon and forces it from the pikeman’s grasp; and at the same time the rider—if any sort of a horseman—can slide easily out of the saddle, and while doing so whip out his carbine and do considerable damage. On the other hand, if the horse is only slightly wounded and not brought down he plunges madly forward and throws the opposing ranks into confusion, in which case the pikemen are speedily ridden over by succeeding troopers.

“But suppose the pikeman on the contrary thrusts at the head or neck—preferably the nose. In that case the horse rears at once and the rider is hard set to keep in his seat. In this case the pike is disengaged and the pikeman is very well places for a thrust at the horseman before the latter can recover control. In addition the horse swerving round now disorganizes his own ranks and not those of the pikemen. Accordingly, the invariable rule is: When attacking a horse thrust at the head. Naturally this applies in the case of a man armed with rifle and bayonet with the same force, except that his weapon being shorter is a trifle easier to disengage.” – Irish Volunteer, July 3, 1915.

 

THE USE OF THE SWORD

Cutting exercises shown in Manual of the Sword.

The sword received less attention in Volunteer literature than the pike or bayonet. However, a few references can be found. We know that militant Irish publications advocated training in the use of the “singlestick” (Irish Volunteer, Feb. 5, 1916), which was the training weapon for the saber or broadsword. Likewise, the sword was a prescribed sidearm for Volunteer Officers.  A 1914 leaflet, entitled Fianna Fail – The Irish Volunteers, now in the possession of the National Museum of Ireland, declared,

The following are the articles prescribed by Headquarters for the personal equipment of Vounteers on field service…

FOR ALL OFFICERS…

As to arms: automatic pistol, or revolver, with ammunition for same, in lieu of rifle; sword, sword bayonet, or short lance.

An Irish Volunteer’s equipment, ca. 1913-1921. Source: Whyte’s Auctions.

Volunteer Officers were frequently photographed wearing their swords. The photograph below, courtesy of collector Conchúir O’Duilacháin, shows several Irish Volunteers with their swords. On the left is Edward Daly, the commandant of Dublin’s 1st Battalion during the Easter Rising of 1916, for his role in which he was later executed.

Photograph courtesy of collector Conchúir O’Duilacháin, https://www.facebook.com/groups/EarlyIrishMilitaria/

Following are images of an antique Irish Volunteer sword, courtesy of collector Derek Jones:

Irish Volunteer Officer’s sword. Photograph courtesy of collector Derek Jones.

Detail of hilt of Irish Volunteer Officer’s sword. Photograph courtesy of collector Derek Jones.

A rare manuscript on the use of the sword, simply entitled Manual of the Sword, was written between 1923 and 1925, and can be found in the former Papers of Colonel Padraig O’Connor (now in private hands). This treatise is only about ten pages long, and it has not been the good fortune of this author to have access to it. However, this text may have been the basis for the much longer Manual of the Sword, published by the Irish Free State (Saorstát Éireann) in the years to come, and shown here. Although mostly treating of the ceremonial use of the sword, this booklet presumes a basic knowledge of fencing (for instance, the use of tierce and quarte) and includes “wrist exercises” utilizing circular cuts similar to the moulinets of classical fencing.

Irish Free State officer’s sword, ca. 1930. Source: Whyte’s Auctions.

“Sword drill under supervision of Capt Flanagan and Capt Nolan at McKee Barracks Dublin,” March 12, 1927.

 

A FINAL WORD

During the initial outbreak of the revolution in 1916, the bayonet and pike saw use in various battles and skirmishes, including those which took place in Dublin on Easter Monday, April 24. The bayonet was also pivotal to the Volunteer’s victory at the battle of Ashbourne, which took place four days later on April 28, 1916:

“Following a five hour long gun battle it was a bayonet charge led by Richard Mulcahy which finally broke the moral of the RIC. However the bayonet was employed by the forces under Thomas Ashe’s command from the very start, earlier on the morning of the battle…” – Battle Of Ashbourne 1916, Commeration 2016

Despite their vast training in pike, bayonet, and hand-to-hand combat methods, however, the prime focus of the Irish Volunteers was always on marksmanship and firepower. In the years following the Easter Rising of 1916, the tactics of the Volunteers were thoroughly revised by Michael Collins, the Director of Intelligence for the Irish Republican Army. Determined to avoid the large-scale engagements which had resulted in massive military and civilian losses, Collins devised new guerrilla tactics relying almost exclusively on firearms, and embodied by ambush and hit-and-run tactics utilized by the I.R.A.’s “flying columns.”

Thus, in the end, hand-to-hand combat techniques did not play a pivotal or prominent role in the Irish War of Independence or Civil War, although such weapons and techniques were used to some degree (see, for instance, the anecdotes recounted in Tom Barry’s Guerilla Days In Ireland, and in Comerford’s My Kilkenny I.R.A. Days: 1916-22). Nevertheless, the prolific interest in these methods shown by the Volunteers provides interesting insight into the role of the martial arts in Irish history and culture.

In the years following the end of the Irish Civil War, the Irish Free State’s Department of Defence published a number of texts, often in both English and Irish, concerning the use of the bayonet, which possibly represent a continuity of the techniques utilized by Volunteers:

Bilingual Irish-English Free State text: Drill Arm le Muscaeid. Rialachain Forsai Cosanta (Baile Atha Cliath: Oifig an tSolathair).

Today, the Irish Defence Forces still include bayonet training among their curricula–though, by all appearances, these modern, extremely simplified techniques bear little resemblance to the more sophisticated, fencing-based methods used in Ireland during the early twentieth century.

The author would like to thank collectors Conchúir O’Duilacháin and Derek Jones for generously sharing their photographs of Irish militaria for inclusion in this article.

Text of this article, excepting extracts reprinted herein, © 2017 by Ben Miller.

 

FURTHER READING:

The martial wisdom of Ireland’s swordsmen survives in Irish Swordsmanship: Fencing and Dueling in Eighteenth Century Ireland. The product of more than ten years of research, the first part of this book tells the story of eighteenth century Ireland’s most renowned duelists, gladiators, and fencing masters. The second part of this book contains the text of A Few Mathematical and Critical Remarks on the Sword—an almost completely overlooked fencing treatise, now published again for the first time in more than 230 years, that is currently the only known original treatment of swordsmanship by an Irish author published in Ireland during the eighteenth century. The Irish pike exercise has also been included among the book’s many appendices. “Irish Swordsmanship” contains extensive footnotes, more than sixty drawings, paintings, and engravings from the period, a comprehensive glossary of terms, and seven appendices.

Irish Swordsmanship is available in both paperback and hardcover editions from Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon EuropeBarnes & Noble, and other national and international retailers.

You can also read extracts, view images, and read articles pertaining to the book and its subject by visiting the book’s Facebook page.

 

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The Bayonet Exercise of the Irish Volunteers

In Edwardian Era, Martial Arts, Military, Weapons and Armor on October 23, 2017 at 1:03 pm

Drill Display, 1st prize winners: Irish Volunteers, A Company, 4th Battalion, Dublin Brigade, at a tournament held at St. Enda’s College’s Aeridheacht on Sept. 5, 1915. From the Irish Volunteer. Oct 9, 1915.

“Make him quick and precise in his movements…”

The following short treatise, written by F. P. Mullin, appeared in the Nationalist Revolutionary journal, the Irish Volunteer (also known by its Irish name, An tÓglách) on July 18, 1914. The method of attack and defense with the bayonet presented therein is similar to other fencing-based methods of the period, utilizing the lunge, numbered parries, beat-attacks, the “throw point,” and other techniques. This exercise gives insight into the martial methods used and propagated by Irish Republican rebels in the years leading to the 1916 Easter Rising and the Irish War of Independence.

* * *

THE BAYONET EXERCISE.

For bayonet exercise the squad is formed into two ranks, with arms at the “order.”

At the command: “For Bayonet Practice—Prepare.” The men of the rear rank will step back two paces. The odd numbers of the front rank will advance four paces, and the even numbers of the rear rank will retire four paces.

At the “Engage.” Keep the head and eyes directed to the front, and turn on the heels to the right, and the left toe to the front. At the same time raise the rifle, seizing it with the left hand at the lower hand and with the right hand at the small behind the guard.

This plate, from the bayonet treatise of David Fallon (a native of County Mayo), published in 1916, shows a guard position similar to that described in the 1914 exercise. Fallon spent time in both the British and Australian armies. Thanks to Jono Roe for finding this image. Credit: National Library of Australia.

Lower the rifle with the left hand until the point of the bayonet is in line with the left ear, the butt being raised above the right hip, right forearm horizontal, kept well forward and close to the body, and the left elbow slightly bent and clear of the body. At the same time draw back the right foot about eighteen inches, the body held upright and balanced equally on both feet, the knees well bent and forced apart.

In bayonet fighting the soldier has two things to consider simultaneously: attack and defence. Therefore, bayonet exercise is a repetition of points and parries which when thoroughly understood should be practiced with the utmost quickness, but at the same time with coolness and precision.

From the “Engage,” deliver the first point as high as the breast by forcing the rifle out to the ful extent of the left arm, the butt in line with the shoulder. At the same time incline the body well forward and straighten the right leg, both feet to be kept flat on the ground.

Return to the “Engage.”

“Second—Point.” Deliver the second point as high as the breast by throwing out the rifle to the full extent of the right arm, at the same time quit the rifle with the left hand, which should be cut away quickly to the side. In this movement the body and right shoulder should be forced well forward, the right leg straightened, and the foot flat on the ground.

Recover the rifle, and come to the “Engage.”

“First—Parry.” Keep the right forearm close to the side, and without any movement of the body, jerk the rifle to the right front by a swift straightening of the left arm, at the same time turning the sling towards the right. This parry wards off a thrust directed towards any part of the right side and head.

Return to the “Engage.”

“Second—Parry.” Keep the right forearm as mentioned in the first parry, and give the rifle a quick turn to the left by straightening the left arm. This parry protects the left side.

Recover smartly to the “Engage.”

“Third—Parry.” (Seldom used). With a slight circular sweep of the rifle to the left depress the muzzle sharply by turning the left arm until the point of the bayonet is opposite the right knee, at the same time allow the butt to come under the arm-pit.

Parries and Points in succession: From the first parry quickly deliver the first point, and return to the “Engage.” From the second parry deliver the first point, and return to the “Engage.” From the third parry deliver the first point, and return to the “Engage.”

From the first parry, deliver the second point, and return to the “Engage.”

Form second parry deliver second point and come to the “Engage.”

Form third parry and proceed as above.

The point should be delivered quickly after the parry; but a distinct pause should be made between the points and the “Engage.”

The above exercises are sometimes performed with the Lounge and when retiring that is: Lounging with the point and forming parries while retiring.

The Lunge: The left foot is moved forward about twelve inches, at the same time straightening the right leg. The left knee should be perpendicular over the in-step, the right foot flat on the ground, and the weight of the body thrown well forward.

Another plate from David Fallon’s treatise, illustrating the “Point with Lunge.”  Thanks to Jono Roe for finding this image. Credit: National Library of Australia.

In lounging with the second point, rise on the toe of the right foot.

Another plate from Fallon’s book, showing an attack (on the left) similar to the 1914 treatise’s “lounging with the second point.”  Thanks to Jono Roe for finding this image. Credit: National Library of Australia.

To “Advance.”: Move the left foot about eighteen inches forward, and bring the right foot up to the position of the “Engage.”

These exercises are performed to accustom the young soldier to handle his rifle with bayonet fixed, and to make him quick and precise in his movements.

For attack and defence between two ranks facing each other, spring bayonets are used. The men must wear masks, body pads, and gloves, and the point of the bayonet must be well protected. The squad formation is the same as in Physical Drill with Arms. “Full interval from the left. Right Close—March.”

The rear rank retires one pace, and the front rank turns about. Both ranks come to the “Engage.”

To “Prove Distance,” the men of the front rank will give the first point slowly and the men of the rear rank will advance or retire, as necessary, until the bayonet points of the front rank are over their left hands.

The front rank will then return to the “Engage.”

The first point is delivered by the front rank. Without drawing back the rifle, lower the point of the bayonet, passing it under the opposing weapon, and, without pause, deliver the point. The rear rank will form first parry, and return with first point.

The front rank will disengage, and deliver the first point.

The rear rank will form second parry, and return with first point.

The front rank will deliver first point at the waist.

The rear rank will form third parry, and return with first point.

The front rank will deliver second point.

The rear rank will form first parry and return with second point.

The front rank will disengage, and deliver second point.

The rear rank will form second parry, and return with second point.

The front rank will deliver second point at the waist.

The rear rank will form third parry, and return with second point.

To beat and point: With a quick, sharp blow strike the opponent’s weapon to one side, and as soon as the opening is formed deliver the point.

The front rank will beat and deliver second point.

The rear rank will form first parry and return with second point.

The front rank will beat, disengage, and deliver second point.

The rear rank will form second parry and return with second point.

To vary the exercises the rear rank will be made take the offensive and front to parry.

When recruits are efficient in the performance of above practices they are taught to execute them by attacking rank lounging, the rank acting on the defence retiring as far as necessary.

Apart from its utility in the actualities of war, bayonet fighting is a splendid training for the young solider. It generates in time a fighting spirit, a martial ardour, and is a wonderful incentive to individual effort.

Above: From the nationalist Eire newspaper, Dec. 4, 1914.

FURTHER READING:

The martial wisdom of Ireland’s swordsmen survives in Irish Swordsmanship: Fencing and Dueling in Eighteenth Century Ireland. The product of more than ten years of research, the first part of this book tells the story of eighteenth century Ireland’s most renowned duelists, gladiators, and fencing masters. The second part of this book contains the text of A Few Mathematical and Critical Remarks on the Sword—an almost completely overlooked fencing treatise, now published again for the first time in more than 230 years, that is currently the only known original treatment of swordsmanship by an Irish author published in Ireland during the eighteenth century. The Irish pike exercise has also been included among the book’s many appendices. “Irish Swordsmanship” contains extensive footnotes, more than sixty drawings, paintings, and engravings from the period, a comprehensive glossary of terms, and seven appendices.

Irish Swordsmanship is available in both paperback and hardcover editions from Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon EuropeBarnes & Noble, and other national and international retailers.

You can also read extracts, view images, and read articles pertaining to the book and its subject by visiting the book’s Facebook page.

Misconceptions about Northern Italian Sabre

In Dueling, Edwardian Era, Martial Arts, Victorian Era, Weapons and Armor on November 9, 2016 at 5:28 pm

Luigi Barbasetti, the Italian fencing master who brought Northern Italian fencing to Paris and Vienna, and who trained champion fencers, gained renown in the fencing world for bringing the Northern Italian style to the international stage. As such, he stands as one of the most prominent students of Maestro Giuseppe Radaelli, who is typically given credit as the founder of the Northern Italian style of sabre fencing in the 1860’s. In t

Source: Misconceptions about Northern Italian Sabre

A History of Cane Self-Defense in America: 1798-1930

In Colonial (American) Period, Dueling, Edwardian Era, Federalist Period, Martial Arts, Victorian Era, Weapons and Armor on August 18, 2016 at 12:24 pm

During the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, America could be a dangerous place, and knowledge of self-defense was often necessary for use in both urban and rural environments. To those ends, fencing masters and instructors often modified and applied fencing techniques to the cane or walking stick, creating their own systems of self-defense. This article proposes to look at various methods of cane defense, taught by fencing masters and instructors, that were specifically intended for practical use in self-defense encounters in the everyday world…

Martial Arts New York

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A History of Cane Self-Defense in America:

1798-1930

During the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, America could be a dangerous place, and knowledge of self-defense was often necessary for use in both urban and rural environments. To those ends, fencing masters and instructors often modified and applied fencing techniques to the cane or walking stick, creating their own systems of self-defense. This article proposes to look at various methods of cane defense, taught by fencing masters and instructors, that were specifically intended for practical use in self-defense encounters in the everyday world.

The individuals who taught such techniques hailed from a variety of backgrounds—from England, France, Italy, Ireland, Poland, Belgium, Denmark, and Germany—and specifically discussed the cane’s efficacy in defending against other potentially deadly weapons such as the sword, sword-cane, stick, dirk, Spanish knife, Bowie knife, bayonet-rifle, boarding pike, and revolver. These fencing methods were applied to…

View original post 8,906 more words

The Best Defense Is a Good Offense… Really?

In Antiquity, Dueling, Edwardian Era, Georgian Era, Martial Arts, Middle Ages, Renaissance, Victorian Era, Weapons and Armor on March 14, 2016 at 4:45 pm
L'illustration_July_21_1888 CROP

The Floquet-Boulanger duel, L’Illustration, July 21,1888

Almost everyone has heard the expression, at one time or another, that “the best defense is a good offense.” Today, this adage has made its way into the modern consciousness, and is often quoted in books on the martial arts and “practical” self-defense, of which the following is only one recent example:

“In realistic combat situations, the best defense is a good offense.” [1]

Although the origins of this expression are uncertain, since the 1930s, the quote has mainly been attributed to the world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey. [2] However, the statement can be found in print as far back as the nineteenth century [3], and some authors have gone so far as to attribute the sentiment to George Washington, who wrote in 1799,

“Make them believe, that offensive operations, often times, are the surest, if not the only (in some cases) means of defence.” [4]

The sentiment may well seem to hold true—at least to a degree—in “combat sports” such as modern boxing, MMA, Olympic sport fencing, as well as (ostensible) martial arts tournaments involving Karate, Taekwondo, Kendo, historical Western/European martial arts, and other contests simulating a combat with glove-covered fists or blunted weapons, wherein the body is able to absorb blow after blow, and wherein the life of the participant is not in serious danger, should he or she be hit. Likewise, as George Washington suggests, aspects of the philosophy may also hold true in the context of military operations, wherein the lives of large numbers of individual soldiers may be sacrificed en masse for the sake of a winning strategy.

However, the idea of “emphasizing offense over defense” becomes extremely problematic when applied to the martial arts, or to individual armed combat. Except in the rarest of cases, the human individual, as a holistic being, does not have the luxury of sacrificing a limb or a major organ in the pursuit of victory—that is, if they wish to maintain the ability to defend themselves, and to be of full service to their family, to their nation, to humanity, and to themselves. Nor, of course, does the average martial artist or combatant have the luxury of sacrificing their own life during the course of a fight.

The truth of this fact has been proven time and again in countless instances throughout history, and, as shall be shown, has been eloquently opined on by some of the greatest martial artists who ever lived.

The aim of this article is not to disparage offensive tactics or techniques (which, indeed, are an integral component of any martial art), but rather, to put them in their proper context by illustrating the dangers that can arise when giving such tactics and techniques priority over one’s own defense and personal safety.

The Floquet-Boulanger Duel


An excellent real-life example that illustrates the perils of emphasizing offense over defense is the Floquet-Boulanger duel, in part because the episode is so well-documented.

To briefly summarize this incident, which occurred in 1888: the French General Georges Boulanger had publicly quarreled with, and insulted, Prime Minister Charles Floquet, who was ten years Boulanger’s senior. Floquet promptly challenged the General to a duel with swords. The latter accepted, and the two promptly arranged a meeting on an estate at Neuilly-sur-Seine, frequently used as a dueling ground, and only a short distance from Paris.

combine_images

General Georges Boulanger and Prime Minister Charles Floquet

Contemporaries noted that General Boulanger was expected to have the advantage due to his youth, vigor, and considerable military experience. However, of the ensuing combat, a French correspondent to the New York Times reported that

“General Boulanger tried hard to kill M. Floquet, flinging himself upon him again and again. He made a lunge at M. Floquet’s left breast, but only slightly touched the mark. Gen. Boulanger then received a wound in the throat, which put an end to the encounter. The wound was a severe one…”[5]

Illustrated London News - based on a sketch drawn by an eye-witnesses in 1888

Floquet defeats Boulanger, as pictured in the Illustrated London News

A similar account in the Illustrated London News clarified:

“Boulanger, who had rushed wildly at his opponent, received a serious wound; M. Floquet had quietly raised his sword, and Boulanger, stumbling forward, got it in his throat. The seconds, by common consent, stated that General Boulanger’s wound made it impossible for him to continue to fight.” [6]

LeMondeIllustre_July_21_1888

The final action of the duel, as pictured on the cover of Le Monde Illustre

A more detailed French account, appearing in L’Univers Illustré, noted that Boulanger attacked Floquet immediately at the outset of the duel with “extraordinary ardor,” and continued to do so multiple times. However, rather than impaling himself, Boulanger was defeated by a simple parry-riposte:

“M. Floquet parried, and with a quick riposte, hit his adversary in the upper anterior part of the neck. The blade penetrated several centimeters into the tissue; the result was very abundant bleeding.” [7]

Whatever the precise manner of Boulanger’s defeat, the accounts were unanimous: the General had aggressively, passionately, and repeatedly attacked Floquet, who had remained cool and on the defensive.

Further insight was provided by Colonel Thomas H. Monstery (1824-1901), a fencing master who had served under twelve flags, and had survived participation in somewhere between 53 and 61 duels [8]. Consequently, during the late nineteenth century, he became regarded by the American press as an authority on dueling. When asked about the Floquet-Boulanger duel, Monstery replied:

“Gen. Boulanger…from what I learn by the papers, brought about his defeat by his lack of coolness and consequent fury of attack. He rushed blindly on his foe, losing all sight of prudence and skill in the desire to inflict injury. For an expert swordsman to overcome such an attack is an easy matter. He has only to wait coolly for his antagonist to leave an opening and then sail in . . . Between you and me, I think Boulanger was in great luck. A man who employs the tactics he did in the presence of a skillful swordsman will be killed in nine cases out of ten.” [9]

Above: Colonel Thomas H. Monstery

Colonel Thomas H. Monstery

Monstery’s views on mindset and tactics are by no means unique, and have been echoed numerous times by some of the greatest martial arts masters of past centuries—from both Europe and Asia. In particular, masters of the past have warned against attempting to overcome an adversary through fury, passion, and aggression. For instance, in an addendum to Johann Liechtenauer’s Recital on the Longsword, a medieval author notes that a person who fences “wittily and without all wrath” will “seldom lose.” [10] Likewise, Don Jeronimo de Carranza (1539-1600), the founder of La Verdadera Destreza (the Spanish school of swordsmanship), stated in 1569:

Carranza

Jeronimo de Carranza

“The vulgate, although he professes knowledge of swordsmanship, is easy to discover when in times of anger and conflict he forgets his professed skill and commits vulgarity in his manner and actions.” [11]

Nearly two-hundred years later, Zachary Wylde, in his treatise on the use of the smallsword, broadsword, quarterstaff, and wrestling, stated in 1711:

“Let not Passion, Fury, nor Choler, which are absolute Enemies to skill, in no Case prevail, if you do, it will destroy your Judgement.” [12]

Again, in the nineteenth century, Joseph Roland, fencing master of the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, wrote,

“Being in a passion, [such swordsmen] are not masters of them themselves; and if the adversary is only cautious and cool, the passionate man will inevitably fall on the other’s sword.” [13]

Authors of treatises on dueling with sharp swords continued to express such sentiments up until the early twentieth century. In 1901, the Hungarian Army Cavalry-Lieutenant Zoltán Cseresnyés Fels-Eöry wrote in his book Safe Outcome of the Sabre Duel:

“If you want to survive a duel with sabres, you must first defeat your uncontrolled urges.” [14]

These statements are thrown into further light with knowledge that the very word “fencing,” used to encompass armed European martial arts for more than six-hundred years, comes from the word “defence”:

fencing (n.) mid-15c., “defending, act of protecting or keeping (something) in proper condition” (short for defencing) [15]

Likewise, throughout the vast number of fencing treatises and advertisements that existed in centuries past, instructors referred to fencing as the “noble science of defense,” the “true art of defence,” or simply “self-defense.” [16] As far as the very definition of Western swordsmanship is concerned, the emphasis has always been on defense, rather than offense.

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Miyamoto Musashi, self-portrait in later years

Nor must it be thought that the sentiments expressed above were the domain of the West alone. Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645), widely revered as one of the greatest Japanese swordsmen of all time, and a survivor of more than sixty duels and countless battles, noted in his Thirty-Five Instructions on Strategy:

“The mind should be neither solemn nor agitated, neither pensive nor fearful; it should be straight and ample. This is the state of mind that should be sought after…in this way you make your mind like water that reacts appropriately to shifting situations.” [17]

Likewise, in their notes on his teachings (Notes on Mind, Energy, and the Body in Strategy), Musashi’s disciples elaborated,

“It is important to place yourself in a state of calm and to work out your way of mastering your own mind and work on the manner in which your vital energy emanates from you…If you are capable of mastering your own mind by placing yourself in a state of calm, you will be able to see clearly what is happening in your opponent.” [18]

Plate from the

Plate from Art of the E’mei Spear

Martial arts masters from China—a region regarded by many as the original fount of the Eastern martial arts—also emphasized these principles, and expounded upon them in great detail. An early Qing dynasty treatise by Cheng Zhen Ru on the use of the spear devoted an entire chapter to “calmness” and another to “mind mastery,” stating:

“It is easy to use techniques, but difficult to gain control over one’s own mind…the flame in the heart must not burn. The four elements must be calm from within oneself.” [19]

Li Yiyu (1832-1892)

Li Yiyu (1832-1892)

The Bubishi, otherwise known as the 19th century “Karate Bible”, but with roots stretching back to 16th century China, stipulates that “the mind must be calm but alert,” and advises the practitioner to “remain calm when facing your opponent.” [20] In a classic Chinese treatise penned in 1881—said to contain much older techniques from centuries past—the boxing instructor Li Yiyu (1832–1892) condensed his martial principles into a “Five Word Formula,” the very first of which reads as follows:

“1. The mind is CALM. If your mind is not calm, it will not be focused, and each movement of your hands, be it forward or back, left or right, will not be in any definite direction. Therefore your mind should be calm…Over time, you will reach the point in which you can say ‘[the adversary] is under my control and I am not under his.'” [21]

Such wisdom is clearly universal, and extends to both East and West.

 

Boulanger’s Tactics

 

“Labour to parry well, rather than to hit at random, by too much ambition or heat of passion.” – A. Lonnergan, The Fencer’s Guide, 1771

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General Boulanger

One might well ask what was going through Boulanger’s mind when he decided to use the tactics that he did during his duel with Floquet. Fortunately for us, we do not have to wonder.

Approximately three years after the combat, the following remarkable article appeared in the pages of the London Standard, recounting Boulanger’s visit to a fencing instructor only a few hours before the duel was scheduled to take place. According to this account,

“Before the meeting, the General, who had never fenced since his cadet days at St. Cyr, was persuaded to take a lesson from a famous swordsman. The moment he stood on guard his instructor saw that he knew nothing about fencing.

‘You don’t know how to parry,’ he said to the General.

‘No,’ was the reply; ‘I charge.’

‘Then you will spit yourself.’

‘Tant pis. I have never had time to learn the simplest parade [parry], and it would be absurd for me to try to fence in the regulation manner. I shall charge as I did just now.’

He had previously run himself on to his opponent’s sword exactly as, a few hours later, he fared with M. Floquet.” [22]

Représentation du général Boulanger à cheval (extrait d'un document électoral)

Representation of Gen. Boulanger “leading the charge”

Twenty-six years earlier, the French swordsman Baron de Bazancourt (1810–1865), in his 1862 Secrets of the Sword, had recounted a similar conversation—one that the General would have done well to learn from:

“May I ask one more question?” said one of my friends. “I have often heard it said that if you don’t know much about fencing the best thing to do is, as soon as you come on guard, to make a sudden rush at the other man before he has time to collect himself.”

“Well,” I replied, “if you wish to make sure of being incurably spitted, that is the most infallible way to set about it.” [23]

Given the timing of this publication, Bazancourt may well have been thinking of the duel between Dillon and the Duc de Gramont-Caderousse, which also occurred in 1862. Dillon’s second, the more experienced Colonel de Noé, had advised him to use defensive tactics, by first commencing with a false attack, and then hitting his adversary with a counter parry-riposte. However, Noé recounted,

“Dillon followed my advice at first, but he made a flourish. The Duc had then only to thrust and poor Dillon fell a corpse.”

The Daily Telegraph observed,

“Dillon, like many other inexperienced fencers, relied on his mere physical strength and on the impetuosity of his assault, and…the Duke, hard pressed by a furious albeit clumsy foe, was forced to thrust where he could, and to thrust home.” [24]

The fact is that the consequences of such tactics could be disastrous, especially in a combat with sharp weapons.

Le duel Boulanger Floquet , a Neuilly , gravure d'aprés Destez 1888

Aftermath of the Floquet-Boulanger duel, after an engraving by Paul Destez, L’Univers Illustre, 1888

The following details of General Boulanger’s injuries were related by Dr. Labbé, the well-known surgeon who attended him immediately following the duel, and vividly illustrate the very serious consequences that could result from such tactics—even in duels with the relatively light, thin 19th century dueling sword:

“The point of the sword…[penetrated] on the right side, about the level of the hyoid bone. At this moment, the General having bent down, the point of the sword was directed downwards, wounding the anterior and superficial jugular vein, which caused profuse haemorrhage, which, however, was soon arrested, and the wound was dressed antiseptically. There was also some effusion of blood about the wound. It is probable that the phrenic nerve was also wounded, as immediately afterwards serious trouble of the respiration, accompanied with violent pains about the level of the insertion of the diaphragm, occurred. These were followed by several attacks of oppression. During the night following the day of the duel the patient suffered so intensely from pain in the chest, so agitated, that recourse was had to a subcutaneous injection of morphia, which relieved the pain and quieted him. Thirty-six hours afterwards emphysema made its appearance on the right side of the neck, which would prove that the point of the sword had penetrated into the larynx, or trachea… Till now the general reaction has been moderate, and the wound has healed up; but, fearing a lung complication, Dr. Potain was yesterday called in consultation, and this gentleman detected a slight congestion at the base of the right lung. The bulletin of this morning states that the patient is doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances, but the four doctors who are in attendance are reserved as to the issue of the case, as it is impossible to foresee what complications may arise.” [25]

Following his recovery, Boulanger’s conduct during the duel was much criticized. His political career dwindled, and he later spent his life in exile in Belgium and Great Britain. As Monstery suggested, however, Boulanger was still in “great luck”–he had survived the duel. Not all swordsmen who tried the same approach fared so well.

In 1898, a duel between Signor Cavallotti and Count Macola took place near Rome, in the villa of the Comtesse Cellere, and was captured in a series of photographs. The chosen weapons were sabers. Cavallotti was on his thirty-third duel, and Macola his sixteenth. According to a journalistic account, Cavallotti

“strongly attacked his opponent, his head bent forward, and attempted to deliver cuts to the flank. M. Macola broke the attack, extending his arm. During the second engagement, the same tactics were used by both sides.”

Photograph of the duel between Cavallotti (on right) and

Photograph of the duel between Cavallotti (on right) and Macola (on left)

The duel ended when,

In the third and final engagement, during a furious charge by M. Cavallotti, M. Macola, his point always in line, stopped his opponent on the mouth. The point penetrated and immediately caused an abundant hemorrhage. The doctors attempted tracheotomy, in vain. Cavallotti died in their arms, without being able to utter a word.” [26]

The fatal outcome.

The fatal outcome of the Cavallotti-Macola duel.

Three years later, Fels-Eöry would appropriately write in his Safe Outcome of the Sabre Duel:

“There is no more dangerous manner of attack than when one charges, full tilt, at his adversary, to which we can truly say, that only his enemy’s sword will be capable of arresting him, onto which he will fall.” [27]

The Cavallotti-Macola duel is yet another vivid example of the disastrous consequences that can befall a martial artist when offense is given greater priority over defense during an actual combative encounter with sharp weapons.

 

Problems in Training

 

“The same Awe ought to be paid to the Foil, as to the Sword, whose Representative it surely is. Nothing ought to be attempted with the one, that would be feared with the other…” – Captain John Godfrey, 1747

To return, briefly, to the Floquet-Boulanger duel: this particular combat raises another issue that is relevant to all martial artists: namely, the disparity between the conditions of training and that of actual combat.

As noted in the Standard’s account, during his duel, Boulanger had resorted to the same aggressive tactics that had actually failed him during training:

“[Boulanger] had previously run himself on to his [fencing instructor’s] sword exactly as, a few hours later, he fared with M. Floquet.” [28]

As recounted previously, Boulanger charged his fencing master, was promptly hit with a blunt training weapon, but, ignoring the ramifications and feedback received, decided that he would continue to use those same tactics in actual combat. Essentially he neglected to treat his training weapon seriously (failing to envision what the same outcome would be with a sharp weapon), and neglected to modify his tactics accordingly.  The history of fencing is filled with similar accounts, wherein aspiring swordsmen resorted to strategies, previously used with foils or blunted swords, which became fatal to themselves when used with sharp weapons.

MonsteryEngravingDuring the 1870s, Colonel Monstery, himself a veteran of dozens of duels, observed such a trend in the American fencing world, in which contestants emphasized offense over defense in the attempt to “score a hit.” Monstery derisively referred to such contests as “poker games”—that is to say, “jabbing with the blade” formed the chief method of attack, while the defense was ignored. [29] Such tactics often resulted in double or simultaneous hits to the two combatants. Monstery publicly warned that if such practices were to persist, “it is only a matter of time for [fencers] to become proficient in this sort of cheating, and to ruin the art of fencing in the United States for ever.” He explained,

“There is only one safe practice to follow in foil fencing. This is to imitate as closely as possible the contest with the naked point. No one but a maniac would take thrust for thrust from an adversary with sharp points, unless, indeed, he were a very inferior swordsman, who wished to take some sort of revenge by piercing his enemy’s shoulder, at the price of a mortal wound through his own lungs…The consequences of simultaneous blows with sabres cannot fail to be disastrous to both parties. In an actual sabre duel, their delivery would require two maniacs instead of one.” [30]

More than three hundred years earlier, the German fencer Joachim Meÿer had expressed exactly the same sentiment in his treatise on the longsword:

“It is no use to be overly aggressive with striking, or to cut in at the same time against [the adversary’s] strokes recklessly as if with closed eyes, for this resembles not combat but rather a mindless peasants’ brawl.” [31]

Plate from manuscript edition of Meyer's treatise

Plate from manuscript edition of Joachim Meyer’s fencing treatise

During the late medieval era, around 1409, the fencing master Fiore de’i Liberi (1340s-1420s) noted the disparities between contesting with blunt weapons and engaging in actual combat with sharps, and described how contestants modified their tactics accordingly:

“Also I, Fiore, told my students who had to fight in the barriers that fighting in the barriers is much and much less dangerous than fighting with cut and thrust swords in zuparello darmare (arming jacket) because to the one who plays with sharp swords, failing just one cover gives him death. While the one who fights in the barriers and is well armoured, can be given a lot of hits, but still he can win the battle. Also there is another fact: that rarely someone dies because he gets hit. Thus I can say that I would rather fight three times in the barriers than just once with sharp swords, as I said above.” [32]

Fiore’s comments certainly echo Monstery’s, and prove that this issue is indeed an old one.

 

Martial Art or Martial Game?

 

In 1691, fencing master William Hope (1660-1724) observed similar mistakes among swordsmen training with blunted weapons. Although Hope was somewhat coy about his own combat experience with sharps [33], his books on the art of fencing give great insight into the techniques and approaches of his era, and echo many of the martial points of other masters which we will examine. In his writings, Hope speaks of the “assault,” later defined as “the exercise with blunt weapons, representing in every respect a combat with sharps, in which we execute at will all the maneuvers of the fencing lessons.” However, in his observations, Hope makes it clear that not all participants were wont to treat the assault as a “combat with sharps”:

“When People Assault, it is commonly with Blunts, and when an Ignorant, who undervalueth the Art of the Sword, and trusteth all to his own Forewardness is desired by an Artist to shew his Natural Play, he very well considering that he can receive no prejudice by his being hit with a blunt fleuret [foil], Rusheth and Rambleth still forewards (let him receive never so many Thrusts) until he either hitteth the Artist with one of his Rambling Thrusts, or otherwise cometh so close, that the Artist must inclose with him, and he thinketh, if he hath given the Artist but one Thrust (although he himself should receive three or four in the time they are playing) that he hath carried the Day, and quite run down the Art of Fencing, whereas if they were either to play with Real Sharps, or with Fleurets having a quarter of an Inch of a point beyond the button, I make not the least doubt, but their rambling would be a little slower…” [34]

Hope_1691

Such gamesters were variously referred to as “blunderers,” “ignorants,” “irregulars,” and “ferrailleurs.” Joseph Roland, who preferred the latter term, was unsparing in his criticism:

“Indeed, a man must be an idiot to call this fencing;——since, in a serious affair, he would, by such conduct, rush headlong on his own destruction.” [35]

Hope wastes no time in prescribing a solution for how to deal with such “ignorant” fencers:

“To prevent this inconveniency, if I were to play with an Ignorant for a Wager, I would play alwayes with pointed [sharp] Fleurets, and then in GOD’s Name let him Ramble his Belly full; For in that case I would know a way to come at him, which might perhaps cause him repent his Forewardness.” [36]

This sentiment of Hope’s would find further realization during the nineteenth century, when fencers practicing with the épée de combat (the dueling sword) adopted the point d’arrêt (“stopping point”), a one to three pronged point with small protruding spikes, which would typically cause pain to the fencer being hit, thus encouraging a more defensive mindset, and better preparing the fencer for actual combat. Although, during the twentieth century, the point d’arrêt was discarded by modern Olympic sport fencers along with the advent of electronic scoring apparatus, the point d’arrêt remains in use today among certain circles of classical fencing traditionalists. [37]

Point d'arrets, from an old catalogue. Source: Benjamin Arms

Various point d’arrets, 19th century. Source: benjaminarms.com

Despite such training methodologies, as well as numerous warnings, it is clear that many combatants (Boulanger being an obvious example) went on to use suicidal tactics in actual combat—either out of ignorance, lack of control, so-called “nerves,” or the fact that they had become used to pursuing such tactics while engaging safely with blunts. Thus, some authors and fencing masters wrote of the need to be prepared for such tactics applied to actual sharps, and to know how to fence accordingly. Fels-Eöry, in his Safe Outcome of the Sabre Duel, includes a section on “Advice For Utilizing Mental & Physical Powers,” in which he explains:

“…Every good and capable fencer should watch out for simultaneous cuts (doubles), which consistently result in the ugliest of cuts.

While fencing in assaults, we experience a lot of double-touches. These result either from real attacks occurring simultaneously, or from poorly utilized ripostes while defending.

But these double-touches occur even more frequently in dueling.

Not overcoming obsession, anger, and hatred: these manifest in forsaking all defense, and attacking one’s opponent wildly.

How easy it is, with calm parries and mindful demeanor, to disarm such opponents.” [38]

The Art of Manual Defence, 1799

The Art of Manual Defence, 1799

These same issues can be observed in the historical development–and subsequent devolution–of Western boxing. Originally, in previous centuries, boxing had been practiced in Europe and America as a bare-knuckle martial art intended both for self-defense and the settling of disputes. It included a variety of techniques such as striking, grappling, and tripping, as well as defenses against head butting and eye gouging. The following passage, from Thomas Fewtrell’s Science of Manual Defence (1790), explicates the eighteenth century martial approach to boxing:

JackRandall_ART BY T. JONES - ENGRAVER UNKNOWN“I wish it to be universally understood, that I recommend the practice of Sparring, as if in real action. No manoeuvres, no attitudes ought to be adopted, unless experimentally, but what would be introduced in an actual fight.” [39]

The following technique, attributed to the celebrated fighter Daniel Mendoza, gives an idea of how eighteenth century bare-knuckle techniques differed from those that would later be used in modern boxing:

“A blow on the bridge of the nose with one of the large knuckles, if given either by striking straight, or striking the chopper, slits the nose from top to bottom.” [40]

Such techniques were not to last. By the late nineteenth century, the focus and objective of boxing had largely shifted to winning at gloved competition—even though the “art” was still often taught under the pretext of “self-defense.” The new sport of boxing gave rise to many changes—including a less conservative guard position (which relied on the use of large, padded gloves to shield the body and head), the use of a horizontal (rather than vertical) fist when striking, and a whole new host of techniques that were only effective when executed while wearing gloves. Colonel Monstery, in one of the last American treatises devoted to pure bare-knuckle boxing, describes (with derision) many such techniques—which he forbade at his academy, due to the fact that they would be useless or ineffective in an actual self-defense situation. Monstery catalogued these techniques as:

“1. Whipping; 2. Cutting; 3. Palming; 4. Round blows…” [41]

Monstery elaborates on the technique of “cutting”:

“Cutting is the common way of striking used by natural and unscientific boxers. If tried in a fight with the bare hands, it does not hurt like a true blow in the line of power, and it exposes the knuckles to injury in giving it. In glove sparring it is a malicious way of striking, as it forces aside the padding of the glove, and the blow comes with the edge of the hand, made harder by one fold of leather… Nevertheless, cutting is the most popular of all sorts of hitting in public sparring matches. A cut is a smart slap, and makes a loud noise, wherefore uninstructed audiences generally applaud a loud cut. A true blow, however heavy, makes no noise with the gloves, and is only noticed by its effects.” [42]

The "Right Hand Counter" in How to Box, 1882

The “Right Hand Counter” in How to Box, 1882

Such techniques would go on to dominate the ever-evolving sport of modern boxing—derisively referred to as “sandbagging,” by one ageing veteran named William Madden. In 1885, another author explained that modern boxing had become

“the mere shadow and semblance of what it was formerly. Fifty years ago sparring with the gloves was regarded chiefly as a means to an end. The teacher of it instructed his pupil, not with a view of enabling him to use the glove prettily, but how to use his fist with most effect…Tthe far greater part of those who now take lessons do so purely with the desire of excelling in competitions with the gloves. Half the men who win the most honours and prizes in these competitions have never struck a blow with the bare fist since they were at school, and are little likely to do so till the day of their death. Accordingly, the spectators at an assault of arms, which is now the favourite occasion for a display of pugilistic science, no longer try to imagine what each blow would be like if the glove was off when it was delivered. They count the hits, not for what they represent, but for what they are; and thus often a loud-sounding slap with the half-open glove is applauded as a most telling stroke, while the neat ‘upper cut,’ which would tell ten times more heavily in a real battle, passes comparatively unnoticed and possibly unseen except by a few.”  [43]

The preceding passages and examples make clear that when any martial art shifts its intent and focus from the reality of combat to the requirements of success in a game, it becomes watered down to become only a shadow of its former self; indeed, the notion that success in competition can be equated to success in an actual armed encounter, is, at best, delusional.


The Survivor of One Hundred Duels

 

“Now being Sixty-three Years of Age, [I] resolve never to Fight any more, but to Repent for my former Wickedness.” Expert Sword-Man’s Companion, 1728

Portrait of Donald McBane

Portrait of Donald McBane

Another authority worth consulting on this issue is Donald McBane (1664-1730s), a highland Scot who took part in, by my estimation, close to one hundred duels. During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, McBane also served throughout much of Europe, participating in sixteen battles and fifty-two sieges. At age fifty he commenced fighting as a gladiator at the Bear Gardens (see this previous post for a description), where he fought thirty-seven prizes. At age sixty-three, McBane fought his last combat against a tough young Irishman named O’Bryan. McBane wounded his adversary seven times and broke his arm with a falchion. Thereafter McBane retired, and proceeded to write a memoir of his life, along with a detailed fencing treatise containing sections on the broadsword, smallsword, rapier, dagger, quarterstaff, spear, shield, double-handed ax, and knife. Surely, considering his immense experience, it is worth knowing what McBane had to say on the subject of offensive versus defensive mindset. In the pages of his treatise, McBane notes:

“Commonly those People who are unskill’d do thus, they think (and indeed with Reason) that they must not let you Attack, because they do not know how to Defend as they ought, for the Defencive part is the most difficult, therefore they drive on you with great Fury, (whils’t they have Strength) to put you out of your Play, but once that is over they are at your Mercy.”

McBane thus brings up an excellent point: a good defense is only possible with training and experience. It is for that very reason that unskilled swordsmen (referred to heretofore as “peasants” or “ignorants”) often resort to rash and overly aggressive tactics. Because they are lacking in defensive skill, choosing to constantly attack the adversary may seem like the only viable option.

Plate from McBane's Expert Swordman's Companion

Plate from McBane’s Expert Swordman’s Companion

McBane also indicates that inexperienced swordsmen were apt to use these tactics in actual combat with sharps, even at the risk of eventual suicide:

“Some men care not (at least don’t think of it, being only intent upon hitting their Adversary) if they receive a thrust, if it be not immediately mortal, so that they can but give one, but this may properly be called Rashness, or Fool Hardiness.”

Following is an account one of McBane’s many duels, in which he describes how he dealt with such wild aggressiveness. In the combat described below, McBane used a smallsword, while his adversary used a heavier broadsword:

“We drew, and after two or three turns, he making a great stroak at my leg, I slipped him, and Thrust him through the Body before he could recover himself; finding he was Wounded he struck furiously, and [I] giving way he fell forward; I seeing that, [thrust] him in the Leg, lest he should Run after me as before. I then commanded him to give me his Sword, which he did…”

Donald_Macbane_ESM_icon2

Plate from McBane’s treatise, showing the spear versus the sword and targe

In the pages of his treatise, McBane offers the following pertinent advice to the aspiring swordsman:

“Command your Temper and you will do much better, than if you give way to your Passion; and if you do Command it, and are Engaged with a Person who can not, you will have very much the Advantage of him, for his Passion will make him Play wild and wide, and consequently exposes himself to be Hit very often, wheras your thoughts not being in Hurry and Confusion, you may Defend your self with ease and judgement, and take an Advantage readily when ever you have a mind, you are the more capable of doing this, because your Strength, Mind and Spirit are not Spent or Exhausted.” [44]

 

A Samurai’s Perspective


An Eastern opinion on these issues may be found in the writings of Yamaoka Tesshu (1836-1888), a celebrated samurai of the Bakumatsu period. Initially a leader of ronin (masterless samurai), Tesshu would go on to join the personal guard of the Shogun, and would later help to negotiate a peace that would lead to the Meiji Restoration. During his youth he participated in thousands upon thousands of contests with some of the best swordsmen in Japan; at age twenty-four, he engaged in more than 1400 matches within a single week. In his letters, Tesshu addresses many points regarding the offensive and defensive mindsets, such as the following, written on Jan. 5, 1882, wherein he discusses notions of “True and False Swordsmanship”:

Yamaoka Tesshu

“When [swordsmen of other schools] confront an opponent, they immediately get agitated and attempt to defeat the other swordsman through a hot-blooded frontal attack. This is a grave mistake…when they can no longer depend on physical power due to age or ill-health, their inadequately formed techniques will fail them—it is as if they had not studied swordsmanship at all, a needless waste of effort. This is false swordsmanship. Students of the Way must awaken to this principle while training harder and harder.” [45]

In his book Lives of Master Swordsmen, author Makoto Sugawara noted that “Swordsmanship with bamboo swords…produced various techniques far removed from those required in fights with real swords.” [46] In another letter, penned in November of 1884, Tesshu describes, how, historically, such tactics became popularized:

“In the past the practice of swordsmanship in all schools was understood as practice with a wooden sword and no protective armor. However, about one hundred years ago most schools began to use helmets, gloves, and chest protectors. The reason for this change is that protective gear enables trainees to act with less inhibition and allows them to apply the techniques with full force—this is the sole advantage.”

1867-69. National Library of New Zealand.

Japanese soldiers fencing, ca. 1867-69 (National Library of New Zealand)

Tesshu provides further instruction that is relevant to any martial artist using arms:

“Contests conducted with a wooden sword and no armor are quite different from modern matches. In such contests, there is much more reserve because of the fear of injury; even a skilled swordsman is in danger of being struck.

In the case of contests conducted with a wooden sword and no armor, that condition alone necessitates a proper frame of mind. If one is not careful, it is very dangerous…hot-blooded swordsmen who rely on physical strength and attack as if they are still wearing protective gear will quickly be injured in a contest with wooden swords. Reflect upon this deeply and there will be no need to worry about injury.” [47]

Such disparities in combat conditions, and the confusion that could arise in matches conducted in protective armor, were thrown into sharp relief during the following episode from Tesshu’s career, involving a demonstration before the emperor. As the fencing was “rather subtle,” the emperor missed Tesshu’s decisive hit, prompting the following exchange:

“If we use live blades,” Tesshu said with perhaps a certain amount of sarcasm, “Your Majesty will be able to see when a point is scored.”

“Isn’t that dangerous?”

“No,” Tesshu assured him. “A slight cut will draw blood and Your Eminence will get a clear view of the action.”

The emperor declined. [48]

Tesshu3Tesshu would go on to found the renowned Itto Shoden Muto Ryu school of swordsmanship –which he regarded not so much as a new creation, but rather as a “restoration” of old martial principles. His system was informed by fudo-shin, the “imperturbable mind” developed in the course of Zen training. In a letter about the martial arts, written in 1883, Tesshu elucidates on the profound concept of “substance,” which he defines as “the inner quiet of mind, free from individual failings.” Tesshu advises,

“Recklessly striking and thrusting will not prevail over an opponent’s mind. The lack of calm in one’s own heart causes agitation to arise from all quarters, thus preventing mastery of the opponent. Know that this occurs for no other reason but one’s lack of substance. Depending on chance and lucky breaks to win never results in true victory. True attainment must be accomplished within the quiet of one’s mind.” [49]

 

The Art and Science of Defense

 

“It takes great courage and skill to take out an adversary with a calm mind. True masters establish a balance between their lives and their art to a degree that their lives become as much a product of the art as is the art a product of their lives…Diligent training cultivates an inner calm that enhances one’s instinctive ability to counter any offensive.”Bubishi, 19th Century

We are already well-versed in examples of disastrous combats in which the participants neglected their defense in favor of a purely offensive strategy.

Now let us ask the reverse question: what happens when true defensive tactics are used by highly skilled combatants who have mastered their art and science?

One such example from history can be found in the career of Jean Louis Michel (1785 – 1865), widely considered to be among the greatest swordsmen of the nineteenth century, and perhaps of all time. As one author of the period described him,

“The founder of the modern French school of swordsmanship, and the greatest swordsman of his century, was a mulatto of San Domingo, that famous Jean Louis, who in one terrible succession of duels, occupying only forty minutes, killed or disabled thirteen master-fencers of that Italian army pressed into service by Napoleon for his Peninsular campaign.” [50]

L'AlmanachDesSports1899_JeanLouis

Jean Louis and his fencing master, M. D’Erape. From L’Almanach Des Sports, 1899.

As referenced above, Jean Louis Michel’s most famous exploit as a swordsman was his participation in a “mass” regimental duel that took place near Madrid, Spain, in 1814. The incident began when French soldiers from the 32nd Regiment and Italian soldiers from the 1st Regiment quarreled, and a regimental duel was arranged. Within forty minutes, Jean-Louis killed or disabled thirteen Italian fencing masters in succession.

Examining the accounts of this combat, one is struck by the defensive, rather than offensive, tactics employed by Jean Louis. His first combat was fought with Giacomo Ferrari, a celebrated Florentine swordsman and fencing master of the First Regiment, and is described in the following passage:

“[Maestro Giacomo] Ferrari took the offensive, but Jean-Louis followed all [Ferrari’s] flourishes with a calm but intense attention; every time Ferrari tried to strike, his sword met steel. With a loud cry Ferrari jumped to the side and attempted an attack from below, but Jean-Louis parried the thrust and with a lightning riposte wounded Ferrari in the shoulder…”

Illustration of Jean Louis's regimental duel, published in Le Pelerin, March 24, 1895

Illustration of Jean Louis’s regimental duel, published in Le Pelerin, March 24, 1895

Following is a sample of passages describing Jean Louis’s subsequent encounters with additional fencing masters:

“Another adversary came at him. After a brief clash, Jean-Louis lunged and, while recovering, left his point in line. Rushing at him, his opponent was impaled. A second corpse lay at the French master’s feet.

“His third opponent, a taller man, attacked fiercely, with jumps and feints, but Jean-Louis’ point disappeared into his chest, and he fell unconscious.” [51]

jean-louis-michel-cropped

Jean Louis Michel, in later years

Although this event is an excellent illustration of the successful employment of defensive tactics, it must be admitted that Jean-Louis’ opponents, though fencing masters, were nevertheless clearly outclassed by their adversary.

One may, then, well ask the question: what happens when two masters, equally matched, both employ such defensive tactics? We can find no better example than the Pini-Malato duel.

Athos de San Malato, 1901

Baron Athos de San Malato, 1901

This “remarkable duel,” which lasted more than two and a half hours, took place in 1904, and was fought by Cavaliere Eugenio Pini and Baron Athos de San Malato. Both were among the most celebrated Italian fencing masters of their generation. Pini, a “phenomenon among fencers,” was a luminary of the Livornese school of fencing, while San Malato, according to fencing scholar Egerton Castle, had fought forty duels and was “one of the finest fencers in the world.” [52]

Journalists noted that the duel between the two, which was well-attended by more than sixty people, was one of the longest that had taken place in France, and was declared a “wonderful exhibition of science,” and an “exhibition of remarkable swordsmanship.” San Malato, according to one account, “made his attacks with the rapidity of lightning,” while Pini moved with “the spring of a panther.” Pini was wounded twice, about 1.5 hours into the duel, in the arm and on the nose, yet due to the minor nature of these wounds Pini insisted on continuing. More than one hour later, the combat was terminated when San Malato could no longer continue, due to his hand being excessively blistered by the hilt of his sword, thus rendering him at an unfair disadvantage. [53]

Malato_Pini

Maestro Eugenio Pini

Maestro di Scherma Eugenio Pini

Though it may seem incredible to the average person that a duel with deadly weapons, fought in earnest, could last for a duration of several hours, the fact is that the Pini-Malato duel was not unique in this regard. Examples of other such combats are uncommon, but do exist. For instance, the renowned Italian fencing master Agesilao Greco fought a duel in Naples that lasted three hours [54]; in 1900, the Comte Albert de Dion and M. Saint-Alary fought a duel lasting more than an hour and a quarter [55], as did Benito Mussolini and Francisco Ciccotti in 1921 [56], as well as San Malato and M. Pons in 1881 [57]; in 1873, two French swordsmen fought a “skillful” duel in Pennsylvania that lasted more than one hour [58]; and in 1891, Count Bertazzoli and Signor Calderoni reportedly fought a rencontre with daggers in Lugo, Italy, that lasted forty-five minutes. [59] In his saber dueling treatise, Fels-Eöry explains the reasons for the disparity in lengths of duels:

“‘Two bad fencers’ clumsy and foolhardy cooperation always results in both getting gravely injured in a short amount of time.’ In this case it’s safe to say that the [outcome of the] duel is entrusted to luck… An abrupt end to a sabre-duel usually bespeaks two vehement parties who can’t fence; because a contest between two good fencers is generally arduously long…

A good fencer, against a bad one, will exert the greatest of care, which takes time. The weaker fencer will act in this knowledge, if he’s acting strategically and soundly, knowing that he will not get suddenly injured, and, knowing that, he will not suddenly injure.” [60]

The Pini-Malato duel was, of course, not your average combat, considering both the experience and extremely high skill of its two participants. Yet it serves as a model and example of what can be achieved at the higher levels of swordsmanship. Both Pini and Malato accomplished something remarkable—not by killing or seriously maiming the other, but by preserving their own lives; by both surviving a sword combat that lasted continuously for two and three-quarters of an hour.

Jack Dempsey’s Final Word


As much of the preceding article has been devoted to the subject of armed combat with potentially deadly weapons, let us now turn back to the subject of unarmed combat.

As stated previously, since the 1930s, modern texts have mainly attributed the quote “the best defense is a good offense” to the boxing heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey.  It is, then, perhaps worth looking at what Dempsey himself actually had to say on the subject.

Jack Dempsey

Jack Dempsey, circa 1935

In 1950, Dempsey published a treatise on his method of fighting, entitled Championship Fighting: Explosive Punching & Aggressive Defense. In Chapter 18, Dempsey addresses the issue at hand, and, in point of fact, does not say that the best defense is “a good offense.” Instead he states:

“The best defense in fighting is an aggressive defense.”

Clearly aware of the quote that had been falsely attributed to him, Dempsey proceeds to elucidate:

“Each defensive move must be accompanied by a counter-punch or be followed immediately by a counterpunch. And you cannot counter properly if you do not know how to punch. That does not mean that ‘a strong offense is the best defense.’ That overworked quotation may apply to other activities; but it does not apply to fighting. It does not apply when you’re pitted against an experienced opponent. You may have the best attack in the world; but if you’re an open target—if you’re a ‘clay pigeon’—you’ll likely get licked by the first experienced scrapper you tackle. YOU MUST HAVE A GOOD DEFENSE TO BE A WELL-ROUNDED FIGHTER. AND THE BEST DEFENSE IS AN AGGRESSIVE DEFENSE.” [61]

 

Conclusion


In perusing these many passages, some readers may be tempted to presume that the aim of this article is to suggest that offensive techniques and tactics have no place in the martial arts at all, or that when engaging in combat, one should simply do nothing but defend, and wait for the adversary to attack. However, that is absolutely not the case.

Combative situations can vary greatly. The tactical considerations, for instance, between a one-on-one combat scenario (such as a duel) and a battlefield, or a street encounter involving multiple opponents, may differ. Against an attacker with bare hands, one may also be willing to take greater offensive risks than one would in an encounter with an adversary wielding a knife or a potentially lethal weapon, wherein a single mistake can result in death or serious injury.

It should also be noted that all of the classic martial arts treatises quoted throughout this article contain offensive techniques as well as defensive. A prime example is Miyamoto Musashi, who frequently emphasizes the goal of ending the combat as quickly as possible—by striking first or attacking on the adversary’s preparation. Another example is Joseph Roland, fencing master of the Royal Military Academy, who warned, “To parry well is of great service, but it is nothing when you can do no more.” [62] We may also look again to Colonel Thomas Monstery, quoted heretofore several times. Monstery, in his treatise on both armed and unarmed methods of self-defense, writes of numerous offensive techniques—such as methods of attack, how to seize the initiative, how to take advantage of the adversary’s mistakes, and pressing the attack. For instance, in Chapter 10, in his “Advice on Street Encounters,” Monstery states:

“Always try to get in the first blow in a chance encounter. Parley with your enemy, and watch him till you see that you will be assaulted. Then give the first half-arm left-hand blow at his nerve system, and follow it with a full-arm right-hander at same place. I have generally found that I could finish such a battle in the one round.” [63]

Above: Image from Colonel Monstery's treatise on bare-knuckle boxing, Self-Defense for Gentlemen and Ladies.

Image from Monstery’s treatise.

How, then, are we to reconcile such advice with a mindset that emphasizes defense? The answer is, that even when attacking, one’s defense is still the primary consideration. Self-preservation, according to these authors, must always be kept in mind—even when executing offensive techniques or tactics. One can find many specific examples illustrating this throughout Monstery’s text. For instance, in his section on unarmed self-defense (bare-knuckle boxing), Monstery instructs:

“The left hand is the only one used in feinting. The feint with the right is too dangerous, as it takes away the guarding hand.” [64]

Likewise, in his section on armed self-defense with a stick or cane, Monstery instructs the pupil to

Section...

Cane defense in Monstery’s treatise.

“keep his hand high in striking, and to end his blow with the point lower than the hand in all high cuts. This is important, for two reasons: 1st. It makes a perfect blow, and compels the enemy to come to a perfect parry. 2nd. It leaves the hand in a position to guard against the return blow. If the hand is low, the return blow is sure to catch you, as the upper body and head are open. This makes the danger of striking at an enemy’s legs, as the hand must be low to strike at them.” [65]

Here, as in many other examples throughout his text, we can see that even when instructing in offensive techniques, Monstery is still giving great importance and consideration to one’s defense. Regarding offensive techniques applied to the sword, we can find similar admonitions in the treatise of Donald McBane, such as:

“Never over Lunge yourself, because one or other of your Feet may slip, and you can’t recover yourself to a Guard so soon as you should, and may be Hit in that time…” [66]

In their excellent article “The Medical Reality of Historical Wounds,” Dr. Richard Swinney and Scott Crawford examine numerous historical records of wounds resulting from combats with sharp weapons. One of the most obvious conclusions to be drawn from this article is the absolute unpredictability of how wounds can affect the victim. Included are recorded cases of combatants surviving (and remaining active following) halberd-chops to the head, sword-thrusts through the torso, severed jugular veins, and half-severed limbs. Swinney also notes, in his own experience as an ER physician, that

“I have met and treated countless individuals who remained capable of fighting or fleeing for minutes to hours after sustaining significant neck and chest injuries…I have met a number of patients with penetrating trauma to or through the heart who remained active and conscious for a minute or more after the injury, have made it to the emergency room alive, and with the benefit of modern surgery, have survived…it is clear that with adequate resolve, a person so wounded in a swordfight might attempt one or more desperate attacks in the moments immediately after sustaining such an ultimately fatal injury.”

The lesson to be drawn from these examples is clear: one cannot abandon the defense in the pursuit of dealing out a perceived “mortal” blow to the adversary, because there is very little guarantee that such a blow will actually be incapacitating, no matter how devastating it may at first appear. Swinney and Crawford thus conclude,

“The belief that a particular blow or thrust will instantly incapacitate an opponent is, more often than not, inaccurate or even silly. [Modern] historical fencing practices based on these erroneous assumptions weaken the art. Were swords still in earnest use, several common modern training practices might cost the swordsman limb or even life.” [67]

Conversely, there are many recorded examples in modern times in which combatants quickly became incapacitated (and even died) as a result of comparatively minor wounds to the arm or leg, in which the major veins and arteries reside. Thus, from this fact, one can draw a second lesson—that in an encounter with potentially lethal weapons, the defense can never be abandoned, because even apparently minor wounds to extremities can unpredictably result in incapacitation or death.

In conclusion, it is important to note that since time immemorial, martial artists have used the arena of contest to hone and test their abilities. Likewise, martial artists of both east and west have utilized various training methods to prepare themselves for live encounters with fully (or nearly fully) resisting adversaries. These include the concepts of sparring (as in the case of boxing and grappling), of the assault (as in the case of traditional fencing), and of gekken (as in the case of Japanese swordsmanship). To ensure that such practices remained safe, it was also necessary to develop protective equipment and specialized training weapons. These are all good, and indeed necessary, aspects to the healthy and effective practice of martial arts.

However, it has been shown that when such training methodologies, and contests, become the ends rather than the means—that is, when practitioners shift their intention from studying the martial arts systems of the past (whether Western or Eastern), to concentrate on success in tournaments or games, these arts lose their martial applicability and effectiveness. This as just as true today as it was in past centuries. It is of special significance that even in the context of a warlike culture such as the samurai of Japan, this phenomenon has still occurred.

We can do better than to end this article with the words of the Virginia fencing master Edward Blackwell, who wrote in 1734:

“The nicest Part of Fencing consists in the Defensive, and particularly against the Bold Ignorant…No Person ought ever to make any other Use of his Skill in Fencing, than in his own Defence; and then in such a cool and temperate Manner, as neither to be exasperated by Passion, or afraid to exert his judgment; then a Gentleman will reap the benefit of his instruction.” [68]

Or, in the words of Colonel Monstery,

“Above all things, never lose your presence of mind.” [69]

———

Special thanks to Levente Barckzy for his translations from the original Hungarian to English of Fels-Eöry’s “Safe Outcome of the Sabre-Duel” for this article.

[1] J. Barnes, Speed Training for Combat, Boxing, Martial Arts, and MMA, 2005. For other examples, see C. R. Jahn, Hardcore Self-Defense, 2002, Page 72; Mike Young, Martial Arts Techniques for Law Enforcement, 2014, Page 95; Kevin J. Robinson, S.M.A.R.T. Self-defense, 2003.

[2] “Dempsey believed the best defense was a murderous offense. For that reason he never bothered about protecting himself.” “The Othello of Boxing Faces His Inexorable Destiny With the Dignity of the Noble Moore,” by Frank Scullt in Esquire, Volume 4, 1935. p. 34. A simple search using “Google Books” reveals additional attributions to Dempsey throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

[3] The Christian Science Journal, 1883, Volume 88. p. 535 “It has been said that the best defense is a good offense…”

[4] George Washington to John Trumbull, June 25, 1799. http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-04-02-0120

[5] New York Times, July 14, 1888.

[6] Illustrated London News, July 28, 1888. http://www.hadesign.co.uk/SSA/html/Duel.htm

[7] L’Univers Illustré, July 21, 1888.

[8] Thomas H. Monstery, Self-Defense for Gentlemen and Ladies (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2015), 10.

[9] Ibid., p. 35.

[10] Thomas Stoeppler (translator), Nuremberg Hausbuch (MS 3227a), ca. 1389. http://wiktenauer.com/wiki/Other_Masters_(14th_Century)

[11] Don Jerónimo Sánchez de Carranza, Of the Philosophy of the arms, of its art and the Christian offense and defense, 1569.

[12] Zachary Wylde, The English Master of Defence, or, the Gentleman’s Al-a-mode Accomplish (York: John White, 1711).

[13] Joseph Roland, The Amateur of Fencing; or a treatise on the Art of Sword-Defence, theoretically and experimentally explained upon new principles; designed chiefly for persons who have only acquired a superficial knowledge of the subject (London: Printed for the author by W. Wilson, and sold at Egerton’s Military Library, 1809), 211.

[14] Zoltán Cseresnyés Fels-Eöry, A Kardpárbaj Veszélytelen Kimenetele És Annak Eshetségei [Safe Outcome of the Sabre-Duel], Budapest: 1901, 48. Translated here from the original Hungarian by Levente Barczy. Earlier (2015) English translation by Krisztina Nagy accessible at https://www.academia.edu/21543638/Safe_Outcome_of_the_Sabre-Duel

[15] http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=fence

[16] Ben Miller, Fencing in Colonial America and the Early Republic: 1620 – 1800 (Estafilade, 2009).

[17] Kenji Tokitsu, Miyamoto Musashi: His Life and Writings (Boston & London: Shambhala, 2004), 203.

[18] Ibid., 229.

[19] 程眞如 (Cheng Zhen Ru), Art of E’mei Spear (Translated and edited by Jack Chen), 13. http://www.chineselongsword.com/emeispear.shtml

[20] Patrick McCarthy, The Bible of Karate: Bubishi (Tokyo: Tuttle, 1995),  65.

[21]  Li Yiyu, For Hao Weizhen to Cherish: 王宗岳太極拳論 後附小序並五字訣 “Wang Zongyue’s Taiji Boxing Treatise” Appended with my Preface & “Five-Word Formula,” [A treatise handwritten by Li Yiyu, presented to his student, Hao He (Weizhen), 1881] Translation by Paul Brennan, 2013. https://brennantranslation.wordpress.com/2013/05/25/the-taiji-classics/

[22] The Standard, October 1, 1891.

[23] Baron Cesar de Bazancourt, Secrets of the Sword (London: George Bell & Son, 1900), 219. [Translation of 1862 French original].

[24] Paul Kirchner, Dueling with the Sword and Pistol (Boulder: Paladin Press, 2004), 146-151.

[25] The Lancet, July 21, 1888.

[26] L’Almanach Des Sports, 1899. p. 213.

[27] Fels-Eöry, 86. Translated here from the original Hungarian by Levente Barczy.

[28] The Standard, October 1, 1891.

[29] Monstery’s comments were recounted in the New York Globe and Commercial Advertiser, April 2, 1904, p. 5.

[30] Monstery, Self-Defense for Gentlemen and Ladies, 180.

[31] Joachim Meyer, Jeffrey L. Forgeng, The Art of Combat: A German Martial Arts Treatise of 1570 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). Page?

[32] Robert Brooks, “DO YOU DO FULL-CONTACT?” – NOT UNLESS I WANT TO MAIM OR KILL YOU. http://www.hotspur.org.uk/blog/do-you-do-full-contact-no-not-unless-i-want-to-maim-or-kill-you

[33] Duels between gentlemen were private affairs, and were rarely spoken of (swordsmen-authors who were not gentlemen, such as Donald McBane, had no such qualms). In his A Vindication Of the True Art of Self-Defence, Hope explains:  “[some might wonder] …how I come to give such positive directions for fighting, when it is not well known if I ever drew a sword in good earnest all my life? And if not, how I can know, so exactly as I pretend, the true rules so strictly to be made use of, when engaged for the life? To which I answer, that whether I have ever been engaged in good earnest or not, is none of the querists busines to know; neither will I let them at present into that matter: For I never much approved of being vain-glorious, especially where the victory is obtained, for the most part, at the expence, less or more, of the vanquisher: but if I have ever been engaged, when I might have prevented it, I am now very sensible that I ought not to have done it, according to the principles of true honour laid down in the fore-going Vindication; nothing but being attacked, and necessary self-defence, being what can vindicate any man’s running the hazard, as well as the sin, of taking away another man’s life. And if I have never fought, yet I have had the practice of near 50 years with foils…” William Hope, A Vindication Of the True Art of Self-Defence. London, 1729.

[34] William Hope, The Sword Man’s Vade Mecum (Edinburgh: John Reid, 1691).

[35] Roland, 198.

[36] William Hope, The Sword Man’s Vade Mecum (Edinburgh: John Reid, 1691).

[37] Examples of schools wherein the traditional use of the point d’arret can still be seen today include the Martinez Academy of Arms (New York City), the Salle Saint-George (Seattle, Washington), Palm Beach Classical Fencing (West Palm Beach, Florida), and the Destreza Pacifica School of Arms (Arcata, Calif.).

[38] Fels-Eöry, 87. Translated here from the original Hungarian by Levente Barczy.

[39] Thomas Fewtrell, Boxing reviewed: Or, the science of manual defence, displayed on rational principles. Comprehending a complete description of the principal pugilists, from the earliest period of Broughton’s time, to the present day (London: Printed for Scatcherd and Whitaker, Ave-Maria-Lane: 1790), 15-16.

[40] The Modern art of boxing: as practised by Mendoza, Humphreys, Ryan, Ward, Watson, Johnson, and other eminent puglists: to which are added the six lessons of Mendoza, as published by him, for the use of his scholars: and a full account of his last battle with Humphreys ([London]: Printed for the author, 1789), 18.

[41] Monstery, 177.

[42] Ibid., 118.

[43] Ibid., 38-39.

[44] Donald McBane, The Expert Sword-Man’s Companion: Or the True Art of Self-Defence. With an Account of the Authors Life, and his Transactions during the Wars with France. To which is Annexed, the Art of GunnerieGlasgow: 1728.

[45] John Stevens, The Sword of No Sword (Boston: Shambhala, 1984), 128.

[46] Makoto Sugawara, Lives of Master Swordsmen (Tokyo: East Publications, 1985), 203.

[47] Stevens, 143-144.

[48] Ibid., 37.

[49] Ibid., 137.

[50] Lafcadio Hearn, Miscellanies, Volume 2, William Heinemann, ltd.: 1924.

[51] Ben Miller, “The Greatest African American and Afro-American Martial Artists in History.”  https://outofthiscentury.wordpress.com/2014/03/25/the-greatest-african-american-and-afro-american-martial-artists-in-history/

[52] “Egerton Castle: Reminiscences of Baron de San Malato’s Life” in the New York Times, Jan. 10, 1909.

[53] Kirchner, Dueling with the Sword and Pistol, 178-184.

[54] Steven C. Hughes, Politics of the Sword: Dueling, Honor, and Masculinity in Modern Italy (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2007), 93, 145n.

[55] Le Figaro, April 8, 1900. This account noted that, “Until [the tenth round], these two gentlemen had struck only at the chest, but as those blows were marvelously parried on both sides, it was no longer necessary to worry that the combat would end in a mortal wound…The fifteenth bout was the most lively: the Count de Dion and M. de Saint-Alary attacked by turns, and during the most interesting piece of swordplay, the Count de Dion parried in sixte, riposted above and thrust M. de Saint-Alary in the right arm, on the upper side of the elbow. The wound was five or six centimeters deep. The duel was halted. The time was quarter to one. Finally! … one will be able to go to lunch with a good appetite and good spirits…”

[56] “Il Duce’s Deulist Dies in Argentina,” Spartanburg Herald, September 15, 1937.

[57] New York Herald, April 21, 1889. “Here is a translation of the proces verbal signed by the seconds:—’They—the seconds—met Monday evening and decided that the duel should take place at Vesinet, in front of the left stand of the Champ do Course, on Wednesday, the 4th day of May, 1881, at two P. M., with the weapon chosen by the tribunal of arbitration, and consented to by both parties. ‘The weapon designated for M. Pons was the triangular French duelling sword, and for M. San Malato the flat bladed Italian duelling sword. ‘The meeting took place yesterday. Wednesday, May 4, at three P. M., at the place indicated above , and out of respect for M. Paul de Cassagnac, who had been chosen as arbitrator, the four seconds thought it best to give him entire direction of the combat, without, however, neglecting the interests of their principals or their own responsibility. The duel lasted one hour and a quarter, and was renewed five times…At the fifth, M. de San Malato being touched by a hit above the right wrist made by a counter disengagement after parry of prime, the two surgeons and the four seconds declared M. San Malato hors de combat. “For M. Pons, MICHEL, CAIN; For M. San Malato, PAUL RUZE, BRUN BUISSON.'”

[58] New York Times, July 28, 1873.

[59] Le Petit Parisien, Oct. 30, 1891; United Service Magazine, January, 1898, p. 432. Pall Mall Gazette, Oct. 30, 1891. Unlike the other lengthy combats mentioned here, this one was excessively bloody: “They agreed to fight, without seconds, a duel to the death. The weapons chosen were daggers. They met in the wood without witnesses, and were fighting for three-quarters of an hour. Both were stabbed in many places, but neither could kill or disable the other. With blood flowing from many wounds, they continued to combat till neither was able to stand, and, when found by servants, both were lying helpless. They were hurried at once to the hospital and treated, but their condition is critical.”

[60] Fels-Eöry, 52. Translated here from the original Hungarian by Levente Barczy.

[61] Jack Dempsey, Championship Fighting: Explosive Punching & Aggressive Defense. N. Kaye: 1950.

[62] Roland, 220.

[63] Monstery, 122.

[64] Ibid., 90.

[65] Ibid., 154-155.

[66] McBane, 15.

[67] Richard Swinney and Scott Crawford, “The Medical Reality of Historical Wounds,” SPADA 2 (Chivalry Bookshelf, 2006).

[68] Miller, Fencing in Colonial America and the Early Republic: 1620 – 1800, 6.

[69] Monstery, 134.

Colonel Thomas Monstery, and the Training of Jaguarina, America’s Champion Swordswoman

In Dress and Fashion, Dueling, Edwardian Era, Gender Roles, Martial Arts, Victorian Era, Weapons and Armor on March 31, 2015 at 6:14 pm

Martial Arts New York

“In the encounter with Monstery, at the end of a four hours’ bout neither of the parties had gained a point, and the combat was declared a draw.”

During the late nineteenth century, the field of women’s self-defense would be greatly advanced by two very special individuals—a fencing master and duelist, Colonel Thomas Hoyer Monstery, and his precocious student, Ella Hattan (popularly known as “Jaguarina”), who would go on to become regarded by many as one of the greatest swordswomen of the nineteenth century, and possibly of all time.

Above: Colonel Thomas H. Monstery Above: Colonel Thomas H. Monstery. Image from the author’s collection.

COLONEL THOMAS MONSTERY

“It is a great mistake to suppose that women cannot learn fencing as quickly as men…”

In 1870, one of America’s most distinguished martial arts masters opened a “School of Arms” in New York City. He was a fencing master, boxer, marksman, sailor, adventurer, street fighter, soldier of…

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The Victorian Gentleman’s Self-Defense Toolkit – Part II

In Edwardian Era, Martial Arts, Victorian Era, Weapons and Armor on March 16, 2015 at 4:11 pm

Pierre Vigny

Continued from PART I.

During the Victorian era, numerous males (and some females) went beyond their martial training by adopting the habit of carrying special, concealed weapons which ladies and gentlemen could display without attracting attention. The author Rowland George Allanson-Winn, 5th Baron of Headley, describes these weapons in detail in his martial arts treatise, Broadsword and Singlestick. While his book mostly treats of fencing with the broadsword, singlestick (this particular section being authored by C. Phillipps-Wolley), bayonet and quarterstaff, Allanson-Winn includes a special section in the back of the book covering Victorian “street weapons,” including the cudgel, shillelagh, walking stick, umbrella, sword-cane, umbrella-dagger, and others.

THE CUDGEL.

Allanson-Winn describes the cudgel as follows:

“Any thick stick under two feet long, such as a watchman’s staff or a policeman’s truncheon, may be fairly called a cudgel, and it is not so long ago that cudgel-play formed one of the chief attractions at country fairs in many parts of England… Considering the cudgel as a modern weapon, I am inclined to advocate its use for prodding an enemy in the pit of the stomach, for, with the extra eighteen inches or so of reach which your cudgel gives you, it is likely that you may get your thrust well home, at any rate before the opponent can hit you with his fist. Many of us know what a blow on the “mark” with the naked fist will do. Well, the area of the knuckles is very much greater than the area of the end of even a very stout stick, so that, if you can put anything like the same force into the thrust that you can into the blow, you will bring a smaller area to bear on a vital point, and consequently work on that point with greater effect.”

He proceeds to advocate a deadlier, modified version of the cudgel, for those nightmare-scenarios when a ruffian might steal into one’s house in the dead of night:

“A grievous crab-tree (or blackthorn) cudgel, with two or three ounces of lead let into one end, is a good thing to have under your pillow at night. Armed with this instrument, you can steal up behind your burglar whilst he is opening your wife’s jewel case or bagging your favourite gold snuff-box; but don’t get excited about it, and remember to hit his head rather on the sides than on the back or front.”

Very similar to this leaded cudgel is the so-called “life preserver”:

THE LIFE PRESERVER.

“The “life-preserver” consists of a stout piece of cane about a foot long, with a ball of five or six ounces of lead attached firmly to one end by catgut netting, whilst the other end is furnished with a strong leather or catgut loop to go round the wrist and prevent the weapon flying from or being snatched from the hand.

Of course this instrument may be very effective, very deadly, but what you have to consider is this: the serviceable portion is so small–no bigger than a hen’s egg–that unless you are almost an expert, or circumstances greatly favour you, there is more than a chance of altogether missing your mark. With the life-preserver you have, say, at most a couple of inches only of effective weapon to rely on, whereas with the cudgel at least a foot of hard and heavy wood may be depended upon for bowling over the adversary.”

Cane4

Professor Pierre Vigny recommended a similar weapon in 1903, which he described as, “a silver-mounted Malacca cane,” noting that “everyone uses one…Everyone knows that in choosing a Malacca, it will not only serve the purpose of something to carry in one’s hand, but that this beautiful cane, the most up-to-date of all sticks, can render great service as a means of self-defence, for it can become a formidable weapon in the hands of those who have learnt how to use it. ”

Allanson-Winn elucidates:

“A leaded rattan cane is a dangerous instrument in expert hands, but my objections to it are very similar to those advanced with regard to the shorter weapon. Leaded walking-sticks are not “handy,” for the presence of so much weight in the hitting portion makes them extremely bad for quick returns, recovery, and for guarding purposes.

To my mind the leaded rattan is to the well-chosen blackthorn what the life-preserver is to the cudgel–an inferior weapon.

One does not want to kill but to disable, even those who have taken the mean advantage of trying to catch one unprepared in the highways and byways. To take an ordinary common-sense view of the matter: it is surely better far to have a three to one chance in favour of disabling than an even chance of killing a fellow-creature? The disablement is all you want, and, having secured that, the best thing is to get out of the way as soon as possible, so as to avoid further complications.”

THE SHILLALAH [Shillelagh].

Shillelaghs

“The shillalah proper is about four feet long and is usually made of blackthorn, oak, ash, or hazel; and it is a great point to get it uniform in thickness and in weight throughout its entire length. It is held somewhere about eight inches or so from the centre, and my countrymen, who are always pretty active on their pins when fighting, use their left forearms to protect the left side of their heads.

The length of the shillalah gives it a great advantage over a shorter stick, for, when held about a third of its length from the end, the shorter portion serves to guard the right side of the head and the right forearm. Indeed, the definition of the quarter-staff, given at the commencement of Chapter II., seems to me to apply far better to the shillalah, which may in a sense be regarded as the link between the ordinary walking-stick and the mighty weapon which Robin Hood wielded so deftly in his combat with Little John.”

THE UMBRELLA.

Umbrella

“As a weapon of modern warfare this implement has not been given a fair place. It has, indeed, too often been spoken of with contempt and disdain, but there is no doubt that, even in the hands of a strong and angry old woman, a gamp of solid proportions may be the cause of much damage to an adversary…”

Here, the author offers a vivid anecdote which attests to the surprising deadly potential of the umbrella:

“It is, of course, an extremely risky operation prodding a fellow-creature in the eye with the point of an umbrella; and I once knew a man who, being attacked by many roughs, and in danger of losing his life through their brutality, in a despairing effort made a desperate thrust at the face of one of his assailants. The point entered the eye and the brain, and the man fell stone dead at his feet. I would therefore only advocate the thrusting when extreme danger threatens–as a dernier resort, in fact, and when it is a case of who shall be killed, you or your assailant.”

Allanson-Winn now proceeds to technique:

“There are two methods of using the umbrella, viz. holding it like a fencing foil–and for this reason umbrellas should always be chosen with strong straight handles–for long thrusts when at a distance, or grasping it firmly with both hands, as one grasps the military rifle when at bayonet-exercise. In the latter case one has a splendid weapon for use against several assailants at close quarters. Both the arms should be bent and held close to the body, which should be made to work freely from the hips, so as to put plenty of weight into the short sharp prods with which you can alternately visit your opponents’ faces and ribs. If you have the handle in your right hand, and the left hand grasps the silk (or alpaca), not more than a foot from the point, it will be found most effective to use the forward and upward strokes with the point for the faces, and the back-thrusts with the handle for the bodies. Whatever you do, let your strokes be made very quickly and forcibly, for when it comes to such close work as this your danger lies in being altogether overpowered, thrown down, and possibly kicked to death; and, as I have before hinted, when there is a choice of evils, choose the lesser, and don’t be the least squeamish about hurting those who will not hesitate to make a football of your devoted head should it unfortunately be laid low.

The author goes on to mention the following modified version, containing a concealed dagger:

“Sometimes umbrellas have been made even more effective weapons by what is called a spring dagger, which consists of a short, strong knife or dirk let into the handle, and is readily brought into play by a sudden jerk, or by touching a spring. This may be all very well for travellers in the out-of-the-way regions of Spain, Sicily, or Italy, but I don’t like these dangerous accessories for English use, as they may be unfortunately liable to abuse by excitable persons.”

I actually saw one of these up for auction on e-bay several years ago; alas, it sold for $110 dollars (out of my price range), and I haven’t seen one since.

THE SWORD CANE.

Sword canes

“The sword-stick is an instrument I thoroughly detest and abominate, and could not possibly advocate the use of in any circumstances whatever.

These wretched apologies for swords are to outward appearance ordinary straight canes–usually of Malacca cane. On pulling the handle of one of these weapons, however, a nasty piece of steel is revealed, and then you draw forth a blade something between a fencing-foil and a skewer.

They are poor things as regards length and strength, and “not in it” with a good solid stick. In the hands of a hasty, hot-tempered individual they may lead to the shedding of blood over some trivial, senseless squabble. The hollowing out of the cane, to make the scabbard, renders them almost useless for hitting purposes.

In the environs of our big cities there is always a chance of attack by some fellow who asks the time, wants a match to light his cigar, or asks the way to some place. When accosted never stop, never draw out watch or box of lights, and never know the way anywhere. Always make a good guess at the time, and swear you have no matches about you. It is wonderful to notice kind-hearted ladies stopping to give to stalwart beggars who are only waiting for an opportunity to snatch purses, and it would be interesting to know how many annually lose their purses and watches through this mistaken method of distributing largess.”

SwordCanesDuel

Several bloody affrays with sword-canes were fought in the late 1800s in both Europe and America. Typically these were not incidents wherein gentlemen defended themselves against ruffians, but rather, hot-headed brawls–perhaps attesting to Allanson-Winn’s reasons for loathing the weapon.

THE WALKING-STICK.

Cane5
Above: Image of fencing master Justin Bonnafous’s self-defense with the cane

This is the weapon which Allanson-Winn most heartily recommends for everyday self-defense purposes:

“The choice of this useful adjunct is by no means as easy as many people suppose, for it involves not only a knowledge of the prerequisities–in the matter of various kinds of woods, etc.–but also an acquaintance with the situations a man may find himself in, and the uses to which he may have to put his walking-stick.”

Here, Allanson-Winn goes on to discuss several types of inferior wood often used for walking sticks–oak (too stiff and apt to snap) hazel (too light), ash (too pliant), and rattan (too much bend to thrust with). He thus concludes:

“Where, then, shall we look for a stick which combines all the good qualities and is free from the drawbacks just enumerated? Without the slightest hesitation I refer you to the Irish blackthorn, which can be chosen of such convenient size and weight as not to be cumbersome, and which, if carefully selected, possesses all the strength of the oak, plus enormous toughness, and a pliability which makes it a truly charming weapon to work with.

It is a matter of some difficulty to obtain a real blackthorn in London or any big town. You go into a shop, and they show you a smart-looking stick which has been peeled and deprived of most of its knobs, dyed black, and varnished. That is not the genuine article, and, if you buy it, you will become the possessor of a stick as inferior to a blackthorn as a pewter skewer is inferior to a Damascus blade.

The best way is to send over to Kerry, Cork, or some other county in the Emerald Isle, and ask a friend to secure the proper thing as prepared by the inhabitants.

The sticks are cut out of the hedges at that time of year when the sap is not rising; they are then carefully prepared and dried in the peat smoke for some considerable time, the bark of course being left on and the knobs not cut off too close; and, when ready, they are hard, tough, and thoroughly reliable weapons.”

Here, it may be of interest to the modern enthusiast that the problem of obtaining true, reliably treated blackthorn is just as much a problem today as it was in the Victorian era (if not more so). Liam O Caidhla, one of the last traditional blackthorn stick-makers in Ireland, notes in the Sunday Mirror that “there are very few people making the authentic shillelagh these days – probably less than 30 people. Most of the shillelaghs sold in souvenir shops are made from hawthorn wood – not the traditional blackthorn wood. They are just made from roughly cut hawthorn and painted black.” Liam’s authentic blackthorns are available online here: http://misticshillelagh.tripod.com/id10.html

“The length of the blackthorn depends on the length of the man for whom it is intended, but always go in for a good long stick. Useful lengths range between 2 ft. 10 in. and 3 ft., and even 3 ft. 6 in. for a very tall man.

The blackthorn, being stiff and covered with sharp knots, is a first-rate weapon for defence at very close quarters. When, therefore, your efforts at distance-work have failed, and you begin to be “hemmed in,” seize the stick very firmly with both hands, and dash the point and hilt alternately into the faces and sides of your opponents.

Always have a good ferrule at the end of your stick. An inch and a half from an old gun barrel is the best; and do not fix it on by means of a rivet running through the stick. Let it be fixed in its place either by a deep dent in the side, or by cutting out two little notches and pressing the saw-like tooth into the wood. It is also a good plan to carry these saw-like teeth all round the ferrule and then press the points well into the wood; there is then no chance of the fastening-on causing a split or crack in the wood.”

Here Allanson-Winn recommends training in fencing as the best preparation for an armed encounter with the stick:

“I would always say, commence with the foils and work hard, under some good master, for a year or so without touching any other branch. Then go on to broad-sword, and keep to alternate days with foils. Later on take up the single-stick, and then go on to bayonet-exercise, quarter-staff, and anything else you please.

This extended range of work will give you a wonderful general capability for adapting yourself at a moment’s notice to any weapon chance may place in your hands: the leg of an old chair, the joint of a fishing rod, or the common or garden spade; any of these may be used with great effect by an accomplished all-round swordsman.”

Allanson-Winn now offers an anecdote which attests to the extreme effectiveness of the walking stick:

“It once fell to my lot to be set upon by a couple of very disagreeable roughs in Dublin, one of whom did manage to get the first blow, but it was “all round” and did not do much harm. Before he could deliver a second hit I managed to lay him out with a very severe cut from my blackthorn, which came in contact with his head just between the rim of his hat and the collar of his coat. Now, had my knowledge of stick-play been insufficient to enable me to accurately direct this cut (cut 5) to its destination, I might not now be scribbling these pages. As it turned out, this poor injured rough was placed hors de combat, and was afterwards conveyed to the hospital, and I only had to tackle his friend, a stubborn varlet, who, after knocking me about a good deal and also receiving some rough treatment at my hands, ran away. He was “wanted” by the police for some time, but was never caught.

This little episode is only given to show that the proper delivery of one blow or hit is often enough to turn the tables, and how advisable it is to practise often, so as to keep the eye and hand both steady and quick.”

WHY A MAN’S GOTTA DO WHAT A MAN’S GOTTA DO

In conclusion, Allanson-Winn offers one of the most thoughtful and profound statements on the importance of martial training ever set down in print:

“I can almost hear people say, ‘Oh, this is all rubbish; I’m not going to be attacked; life would not be worth living if one had to be always ‘on guard’ in this way.’ Well, considering that this world, from the time we are born to the time we die, is made up of uncertainties, and that we are never really secure from attack at any moment of our lives, it does seem worth while to devote a little attention to the pursuit of a science, which is not only healthful and most fascinating, but which may, in a second of time, enable you to turn a defeat into a victory, and save yourself from being mauled and possibly killed in a fight which was none of your own making. Added to all this, science gives a consciousness of power and ability to assist the weak and defenceless, which ought to be most welcome to the mind of any man. Though always anxious to avoid anything like ‘a row,’ there are times when it may be necessary to interfere for the sake of humanity, and how much more easy is it to make that interference dignified and effective if you take your stand with a certainty that you can, if pushed to extreme measures, make matters very warm indeed for the aggressor? The consciousness of power gives you your real authority, and with it you are far more likely to be calm and to gain your point than you would be without the knowledge. Backed up by science, you can both talk and act in a way which is likely to lead to a peaceful solution of a difficulty, whereas, if the science is absent, you dare not, from very uncertainty, use those very words which you know ought to be used on the occasion.”

WHERE TO LEARN TODAY?

While fencing schools of the Victorian era commonly offered instruction in weapons such as rapier, broadsword, dagger, cudgel, walking stick, cane, and staff, it is now extremely difficult to find masters authentically teaching these martial arts.

Maestro Ramon Martinez

Currently the best source for instruction is Maestro Ramón Martínez, who runs a traditional Academy of Arms in New York City. Unlike most modern instructors of historical fencing, who reconstruct their techniques from books, Maestro Martinez is the inheritor of a living tradition which can be traced back directly to the nineteenth century. He was trained and certified as a master by Frederick Rohdes, a German fencing master born in Western Prussia in 1897. Rohdes, who taught fencing in New York until his death in 1984, learned a variety of historical fencing systems from his own master, Marcel Cabijos. A Frenchman born in 1893, Cabijos attained great renown in his day by defeating the saber and épée champion of the United States (Leo Nunes) with only a twelve-inch dagger, in a well-publicized contest held in New York City in 1926.

Marcel Cabijos
Maître d’Armes Marcel Cabijos (1893-1964)

Thankfully, these techniques were passed down intact from master to student, and are still taught today at the Martinez Academy of Arms. Instruction is available in rapier, military saber, dueling sword, sword & dagger, single dagger, cane, staff, bayonet, and numerous other styles. Maestro Jeannette Acosta-Martinez (Ramon Martinez’s wife, and a fencing master as well) also teaches her own style of stick fighting, based on French fencing theory. It is in this salle d’armes, one of the last places of its kind in the world, where through martial, physical and mental discipline, one can attain the noted characteristics of the thoroughbred gentleman or gentlewoman.

For those not living in New York City, there are three other schools in the United States which are run by instructors trained by the Martinezes: Salle de St. George, Palm Beach Classical Fencing, and the Destreza Pacifica School of Arms.

Rapier & Dagger fencing
Illustration of fencers with rapier, cloak and daggers. New York, 1891.

Sources and further reading:

Broad-Sword and Single-Stick With Chapters on Quarter-Staff, Bayonet, Cudgel, Shillalah, Walking-Stick, Umbrella and Other Weapons of Self-Defence, by R. G. Allanson-Winn C. and Phillipps-Wolley. Pub. 1890.

The Cane Self-Defense of Maitre d’Armes Justin Bonnafous

Cane Defense Against Stick-, Knife-, and Gun-Wielding Thugs in the New York Tribune, 1903

Stick Defense for Women in New York: The “Royal Cane” Fencing of Regis Senac, 1898

The Martinez Academy of Arms – Profile & Interview

 

 

Theodore Roosevelt trains in Catch and Cornish Wrestling as N.Y. Governor

In Edwardian Era, Martial Arts on October 15, 2014 at 2:26 pm

youngteddyroosevelt

President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt cross-trained in a variety of combative arts including western boxing, wrestling, jiu-jitsu, and fencing. The following article details his training in the styles of Catch-as-catch-can (or “Catch”) wrestling as well as Cornish wrestling while serving as Governor of New York state:

Theodore Roosevelt trains in Catch and Cornish Wrestling as N.Y. Governor.

The Greatest African American and Afro-American Martial Artists in History

In Bizarre and Unusual, Customs and Traditions, Edwardian Era, Middle Ages, Military, Renaissance on March 25, 2014 at 4:34 pm

By Ben Miller

When asked to recall a great martial artist of African descent born in the Americas, the average person is likely to mention a twentieth-century boxer such as Joe Louis, or a more recent exponent of the Asian martial arts, such as Jim Kelly. Or, those of the younger generation might name the modern mixed martial arts competitor Anderson Silva, regarded by some as the greatest pound-for-pound fighter of all time.

What many do not know is that in centuries past, some of the greatest practitioners of European martial arts were of African descent.

Although Africans brought a number of their own indigenous techniques with them to Europe and the Americas (as can be read about here), they also sometimes trained in, adopted, and excelled at European swordsmanship—also known as classical and historical fencing.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, it was even possible (albeit difficult) for a person of African descent to achieve renown to such a point that they would be revered, and even sought for instruction, by whites—and the historical record shows that such was the case for multiple individuals.

This is not to in any way minimize the oppression and ordeals that African Americans and African Europeans endured in the past. Rather, it is a testament to the extraordinary skill, ability, dedication, and perseverance of these individuals, which allowed them to triumph–at least as much as was possible–over the prejudices of their time, and ascend to the highest ranks of martial achievement.

An early instance of one such person can be found as early as 1733, when the following advertisement appeared in a southern Colonial newspaper, informing the public about a runaway slave or indentured servant:

“Run away, from Mr. Alex. Vanderdussen’s Plantation at Goose-Creek, a Negro Man named Thomas Butler, the famous Pushing and Dancing Master.” – South-Carolina Gazette (Whitmarsh), May 19 to May 26, 1733.

In eighteenth century terminology, to “Push” was to launch an attack with the smallsword, a fact which confirms that Thomas Butler was a fencing master—and one who had achieved some degree of fame, at least on a local scale. Butler was apparently so esteemed that in July of 1734, his former master was impelled to post the following additional notice:

“Whereas Thomas Butler, Fencing Master, has been runaway these two years since, and has been entertained by several gentlemen about Ferry who pretend not to know that he had a master, this is therefore desired that they would not do the like in the future…” – South-Carolina Gazette, July 20, 1734

These passages are all the more remarkable when one considers that they are the earliest known reference to a fencing master in the American South—the next being Edward Blackwell, who in 1734 posthumously published his treatise on the art of fencing. Although not much else is known about Thomas Butler, the above passages prove that as early as the 1730s, it was not impossible to achieve fame and esteem as a black martial artist (and instructor) in white society. This article will profile three of the greatest such individuals—the Chevalier de Saint Georges, Jean Louis-Michel, and Basile Croquere.

 

Historical Background

 

As far back as the age of antiquity, there is evidence of martial artists of African descent testing their abilities in Europe. In ancient Rome, numerous African gladiators, mainly from Ethiopia, fought in the arenas made famous at Pompeii and the Coliseum. Most were, of course, brought to Rome as slaves; however, some gladiators were able to win their freedom due to their celebrated fighting ability, and even continued to fight in the arenas. Although a period image of African gladiators wielding swords could not be found for this article, on the right is a mosaic depicting an Ethiopian retiarius, or net-and-trident-wielding gladiator, currently housed at the Musée Granet, Aix en Provence, France. Likewise, below is a photograph of two ancient roman terracotta statues, probably from the 2nd or 1st century BC, depicting two African pugilists appearing to wield the cestus, a fighting glove sometimes used in pankration. Made of leather strips, cesti were sometimes filled with iron plates or fitted with blades or spikes, and could be devastating weapons.

As early as the late middle ages, people of African descent began appearing in European treatises on swordsmanship and the martial arts, such as the book of Hans Talhoffer (1467), plates of which are featured below:

Tall1

Above: Plates from the work of Hans Tallhoffer (thanks to Michael Chidester for locating these images)

Above: Plates from the work of Hans Tallhoffer (thanks to Michael Chidester for locating these images)

About seventy-five years later, combatants of African descent were also illustrated in the martial arts treatise of Paulus Hector Mair (1542).

Above: A sickle fencer, clearly of African descent, pictured in Paulus Hector Mair's De arte athletica, published in Augsburg, Germany, ca 1542. Source: http://infinitemachine.tumblr.com/post/80881463031/medievalpoc-paulus-hector-mair-arte-de

Above: A sickle fencer, clearly of African descent, pictured in Paulus Hector Mair’s De arte athletica, published in Augsburg, Germany, ca 1542. Source: http://infinitemachine.tumblr.com

Rapier

Above: A fencer of African descent, wielding an early rapier (or “sidesword”) pictured in Paulus Hector Mair’s De arte athletica, published in Augsburg, Germany, ca 1542. Source: http://www.hammaborg.de/de/transkriptionen/phm_dresden_2/05_rapier.php

Later, in 1657, a highly detailed account of Africans practicing European swordsmanship was sent down by Richard Ligon:

Some of [the African servants], who have been bred up amongst the Portugals, have some extraordinary qualities, which the others have not; as singing and fencing. I have seen some of these Portugal Negres, at Colonel James Draxes, play at Rapier and Dagger very skillfully, with their Stookados [Stoccatos], their Imbrocados, and their Passes: And at single Rapier too, after the manner of Charanza [Carranza], with such comeliness; as, if the skill had been wanting, the motions would have pleased you; but they were skilful too, which I perceived by their binding with their points, and nimble and subtle avoidings with their bodies, and the advantages the strongest man had in the close , which the other avoided by the nimbleness and skillfulness of his motion. For, in this Science, I had bin so well vers’d in my youth, as I was now able to be a competent Judge. Upon their first appearance upon the Stage, they march towards one another, with a slow majestick pace, and a bold commanding look, as if they meant both to conquer and coming neer together, they shake hands, and embrace one another, with a cheerful look. But their retreat is much quicker then their advance, and, being at first distance, change their countenance, and put themselves into their postures and so after a pass or two, retire, and then to’t again: And when they have done their play, they embrace, shake hands, and putting on their smoother countenances, give their respect to their Master, and so go off.

– Richard Ligon, A true & exact history of the island of Barbados, 1657.

Ligon’s account provides evidence that despite their low social status, people of African descent living in the American colonies were sometimes allowed—even encouraged—to train with various weapons, including the rapier and dagger, and became skilled at multiple styles—including Italian rapier fencing, as well as the profound system of Spanish swordsmanship (La Verdadera Destreza) founded by Jerónimo de Carranza.

Portrait of a Moor by Jan Mostaert, early 16th century

Colonists of African descent also undoubtedly learned from less savory channels such as piracy; an estimated one-third of pirates during this period were black, and in such company, knowledge of swordsmanship was paramount. The following passage, culled from Captain Johnson’s General History of the Pirates (1728), gives rise to the possibility that black members had access to sword instruction:

“[Pirate Captain] Misson took upon him the Command of 100 Negroes, who were well disciplin’d, (for every Morning they had been used to perform their Exercise, which was taught them by a French Serjeant, one of their Company, who belong’d to the [ship] Victoire)…”

During the early 1700s, a number of swordsmen of African descent also fought as gladiators in the British colonies. Although these highly ritualized combats took place in locations as remote as Jamaica, Barbados, and rural Ireland, during the seventeenth century the most popular setting for such fights was undoubtedly the infamous “Bear Garden” in Southwark, London. In 1672, a Frenchman named Josevin de Rocheford visited the Bear Garden and observed:

“We went to the ‘Bergiardin’, where combats are fought by all sorts of animals, and sometimes men, as we once saw. Commonly, when any fencing-masters are desirous of showing their courage and great skill, they issue mutual challenges, and before they engage parade the town with drums and trumpets sounding, to inform the public there is a challenge between two brave masters of the science of defence, and that the battle will be fought on such a day.”

What followed these processions was violent and often gruesome. On the appointed day, to the sound of trumpets and beating drums, the two combatants would ascend the stage, strip to their chests, and, on a signal from the drum, draw their weapons and commence fighting. The combat would continue until one man conceded, or was unable to continue. In de Rocheford’s account, the combatants continue fighting while enduring horrific wounds, including severed ears, sliced-off scalps and half-severed wrists. Bouts occurred with different types of weapons, including longsword, backsword, cudgel, foil, single rapier, rapier and dagger, sword and buckler, sword and gauntlet, falchion, flail, pike, halberd, and quarterstaff. Although such fights were not intended to end in death, the wounds received were often serious enough to incur it.

At least a small number of these gladiators are recorded as being of African descent. One of the earliest known instances was in May of 1701, when “George Nervil Turner, a Black, Master of the Small Sword,” who had “fought several Prizes,” and “William Tompson, a Black…Master of the Science of Defence,” appeared at the Bear Garden in London, challenging several other gladiators to a contest with sharp weapons. It was announced that “all four do intend to fight a double Prize, James Harris and William Page against the two Blacks…by reason each man doth intend to exercise the six usual Weapons.”

Another such example was “Thomas Phillips, the Black from Jamaica, Master of the Noble Science of Defence,” who fought in at least several public contests between 1724 and 1725. Many of these public challenges were racially charged (a common feature of the period), as can be seen in the following specimen, published on September 14, 1724, and fought between Phillips and a white Englishman named Robert Carter:

During the early 18th century, an English fencing treatise entitled “The Art of Defence,” printed and sold by one “John King”, was published containing several plates in which black fencers demonstrated various fencing techniques:

Above: Illustration of a black fencer making a “disarm in cart. Source:www.truefork.org”

Above: Illustration of a black fencer making a “disarm in cart.” Source:www.truefork.org

Above: Illustration of a black fencer making a “pass in tierce with the knuckles up,” while checking the adversary’s blade with his unarmed hand. Source:www.truefork.org

Above: Illustration of a black fencer making a “pass in tierce with the knuckles up,” while checking the adversary’s blade with his unarmed hand. Source:www.truefork.org.

Although such illustrations were the exception rather than the rule, they provide further evidence that blacks could be regarded as potentially serious fencers. In fact, one such fencer—Julius Soubise (1754-1798), a freed Afro-Caribbean slave, was hired to be the personal fencing instructor to Catherine Hyde, the Duchess of Queensbury, and was sent to train under Domenico Angelo, one the most renowned European fencing masters.

Also at this time emerged one of one the greatest fencers of all time, who just happened to be of African descent.

 

The Chevalier de Saint-Georges

 

Portrait of Saint-Georges. Source: Wikipedia

Portrait of Saint-Georges. Source: Wikipedia

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745–1799) was born in Guadeloupe, in the Caribbean, the son of George Bologne de Saint-Georges, a wealthy planter, and an African slave named Nanon. Although his father also had many white children, he took a special liking to Joseph, and in 1753 took his son, age seven, to France, where he began his education in a variety of arts including fencing.

According to the son of the fencing master La Boëssière, “At 15 his [Saint-Georges’] progress was so rapid, that he was already beating the best swordsmen, and at 17 he developed the greatest speed imaginable.”

He was still a student when he publicly defeated Alexandre Picard, a renowned fencing-master in Rouen who had foolishly referred to Saint-Georges as “Boëssière’s mulatto.” Heny Angelo, son of the famous Domenico (and a highly reputed fencing master in his own right) often went to fence with Saint-Georges while in Paris, and wrote about him in his memoirs:

“No man ever united so much suppleness with so much strength. He excelled in all the bodily exercises in which he engaged…He was a skillful horseman and remarkable shot; he rarely missed his aim when his pistol was once before the mark…but the art in which he surpassed all his contemporaries and predecessors was fencing. No professor or amateur ever showed so much accuracy and quickness. His attacks were a perpetual series of hits; his [parry] was so close that it was in vain to attempt to touch him; in short, he was all nerve.”

Fencing Assault between Saint-Georges and D'Eon

Fencing Assault between Saint-Georges and D’Eon. Source: Wikipedia

Angelo also related some details about Saint-Georges in the following anecdote, regarding an episode wherein the two crossed blades:

“It may not be unworthy of remark that from his being much taller, and, consequently, possessing a greater length of lunge, I found that I could not depend upon my attacks unless I closed with him. The consequence was, upon my adopting that measure, the hit I gave him was so ‘palpable’ that it threw open his waistcoat, which so enraged him that, in his fury, I received a blow from the pommel of his foil on my chin, the mark of which I still retain. It may be remarked of that celebrated man that, although he might be considered as a lion with a foil in his hand, the contest over he was as docile as a lamb, for soon after the above engagement, when seated to rest himself, he said to me: ‘Mon cher ami, donnez-moi votre main; nous tirons tous les jours ensemble.’”

Although there are too many anecdotes about Saint-George’s prowess to recount here, one of the best comes from Alfred Hutton, and occurred in Dunkirk.

Saint-Georges was attending a party with a large number of ladies, when a Captain of the Hussars began boasting of his own skill in fencing—oblivious to the identity of Saint Georges. The latter calmly asked the captain, “That is interesting…but did you ever happen to meet with the celebrated Saint-Georges?” The Captain responded: “”Saint Georges? Oh yes; I have fenced with him many a time. But he is no good; I can touch him just when I please.” Whereupon Saint-Georges challenged the Captain to a bout at foils on the spot. Hutton’s account continues:

“The Captain, seeing that he is opposed to a man much older than himself, is inclined to treat him with contempt, when the veteran fencer calmly turns to the ladies and asks them to name the particular buttons on the gentleman’s coat which they would like him to touch. They select half a dozen or so.

The pair engage. The famous swordsman plays with his man for a few minutes for the benefit of his audience, and then proceeds to hit each of the named buttons in rapid succession, and finishes by sending the foil of his vainglorious enemy flying out of his hand, to the great delight of the ladies, and the discomfited Captain is so enraged that he wants to make the affair a serious one [a duel] there and then. His victorious opponent corrects him with: “Young gentlemen, such an encounter could have but one ending. Be advised; reserve your forces for the service of your country. Go, and you may at last tell your friends with truth that you have crossed foils with me. My name is Saint Georges.”

Saint-Georges also became a respected music composer, and became the instructor of Queen Marie Antoinette. In her diary, the Queen referred to Saint-Georges as her “favorite American.”

Sketch entitled "St. Georges and the Dragon," depicting Saint-Georges boxing

Sketch entitled “St. Georges and the Dragon,” depicting Saint-Georges boxing. Source: http://theprintshopwindow.wordpress.com/2013/04/16/a-truly-british-art-images-of-pugilism-in-georgian-caricature/

Not one to forget his African roots, Saint-Georges was also an ardent and active abolitionist, stating in public, “The slave trade is a barbarous practice and must be eliminated.” Saint-Georges’s activism drew the ire from many in the slave trade, who attempted to silence him with violence—attempts which were thwarted by the Chevalier’s considerable martial prowess:

“Early in July [1789], walking home from Greenwich, a man armed with a pistol demanded his purse. The Chevalier disarmed the man… but when four more rogues hidden until then attacked him, he put them all out of commission. M. de Saint Georges received only some contusions which did not keep him from going on that night to play music in the company of friends.”

The Journal General de France, on February 23, 1790, also reported that: “the Chevalier was peacefully walking to Greenwich one night where he was going to make music in a house where he was awaited when he was suddenly attacked by four men armed with pistols. Nevertheless he managed to drive them off with the help of his stick.”

Saint-Georges meets a rival fencing master who has challenged him to a duel, under L'arche Marion

Saint-Georges meets a rival fencing master who has challenged him to a duel, under L’arche Marion. Source: Source: Wikimedia Commons

Saint Georges also commanded, as colonel, the first all-black military regiment in Europe, a unit that came to be known as St. Georges’s Légion. Among its officers was a lieutenant colonel named Thomas Alexandre Dumas. The father of the famous novelist, Dumas would go on to become a general in Revolutionary France, and the highest-ranking person of color of all time in a continental European army.

General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, painted by Olivier Pichat. Source:http://s236.photobucket.com/user/DeeOlive/media/GeneralDumas_zps10105513.jpg.html

General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, painted by Olivier Pichat. Source:http://s236.photobucket.com/user/DeeOlive/media/GeneralDumas_zps10105513.jpg.html

Saint Georges was evidently looked upon by the French with great veneration, for a number of drawings and paintings of fencing salles show his famous portrait displayed upon the wall with considerable prominence:

Angelo's famous Salle d'Armes, displaying Saint-George's portrait

Angelo’s famous Salle d’Armes, displaying Saint-George’s portrait

Although Saint Georges passed away in 1799, his name and image is venerated among classical and historical fencers throughout the world.

 

Jean-Louis Michel

 

“The founder of the modern French school of swordsmanship, and the greatest swordsman of his century, was a mulatto of San Domingo, that famous Jean Louis, who in one terrible succession of duels, occupying only forty minutes, killed or disabled thirteen master-fencers of that Italian army pressed into service by Napoleon for his Peninsular campaign.” – Lafcadio Hearn, 1886

Jean-Louis was born in Haiti (then Saint-Domingue) in 1785, the son of a French fencing master. Later, he served as a soldier in Napoleon’s army.

His most famous exploit as a duelist was a regimental “mass” duel that took place near Madrid, Spain, in 1814. French soldiers from the 32nd Regiment and Italian soldiers from the 1st Regiment quarreled. Within 40 minutes, Jean-Louis killed or disabled thirteen Italian fencing masters in succession:

The regiments were assembled in a hollow square on a plain outside Madrid. At its center was a natural elevation forming a platform where, two at a time, 30 champions would duel for the honor of 10,000 men. As the premier fencing master of the 32d Regiment, Jean-Louis was the first up. His opponent was Giacomo Ferrari, a celebrated Florentine swordsman and fencing master of the First Regiment.

Drums rolled. The troops were ordered to parade rest, and as they slammed down the butts of their muskets in unison, the earth shook. Jean-Louis and Giacomo Ferrari stepped onto the fencing strip, each stripped to the waist to show that they wore nothing that would turn a thrust. An expectant silence filled the air as every eye was fixed on the two masters…

The fencing masters crossed swords and the bout began. Ferrari took the offensive, but Jean-Louis followed all his flourishes with a calm but intense attention; every time Ferrari tried to strike, his sword met steel. With a loud cry Ferrari jumped to the side and attempted an attack from below, but Jean-Louis parried the thrust and with a lightning riposte wounded Ferrari in the shoulder. “It is nothing, start the fight again!” cried Ferrari, getting back to his feet. Jean-Louis’ next thrust struck home, and Ferrari fell dead.

Jean-Louis wiped the blood from his blade, resumed his first position, and waited. His battle had only begun. The victor in each bout was to continue until he was injured or killed, and Jean-Louis still faced 14 swordsmen of the 1st Regiment, all of them eager to avenge their comrade.

Another adversary came at him. After a brief clash, Jean-Louis lunged and, while recovering, left his point in line. Rushing at him, his opponent was impaled. A second corpse lay at the French master’s feet.

His third opponent, a taller man, attacked fiercely, with jumps and feints, but Jean-Louis’ point disappeared into his chest, and he fell unconscious.

The next man approached. The regiments watched in fascinated silence. They were accustomed to the wholesale music of slaughter: the booming of artillery, the bursting of shells, the rattle of musketry, the clash of sabers. All are impressive, but none so keenly painful as the thin whisk of steel against steel as men engage in single combat. As one contemporary observer wrote, “it goes clean through the mind and makes the blood of the brain run cold.”

Jean Louis and his fencing master, M. D'Erape. From L'Almanach Des Sports, 1899.

Jean Louis and his fencing master, M. D’Erape. From L’Almanach Des Sports, 1899.

After 40 minutes only two Italian provosts were left awaiting their turn, pale but resolved. A truce was called, and the colonel of the 32d approached Jean-Louis.

“Maitre,” he said, “you have valiantly defended the regiment’s honor, and in the name of your comrades, and my name, I thank you sincerely. However, 13 consecutive duels have taken too much of your body stamina. Retire now, and if the provosts decide to finish the combat with their opponents, they will be free to do so.”

“No, no!” exploded Jean-Louis, “I shall not leave the post which has been assigned me by the confidence of the 32d Regiment. Here I shall remain, and here I shall fight as long as I can hold my weapon.” As he finished his statement he made a flourish with his sword, which cut one of his friends on the leg. “Ah,” cried Jean-Louis, distraught, “there has only been one man of the 32d wounded today, and it had to be by me.”

Seizing upon the incident, the colonel said, “This is a warning; there has been enough blood. All have fought bravely and reparation has been made. Do you trust my judgment in the matter of honor?” After Jean-Louis said he did, the colonel said there was nothing more to do but extend a hand to the 1st Regiment. Pointing to the two provosts who still waited, he said to Jean-Louis, “They cannot come to you!”

Jean-Louis dropped his sword, approached the two Italians, and clasped them by the hands. His regiment cheered, “Vive Jean-Louis! Vive the 32d Regiment!”

Jean-Louis added, “Vive the First! We are but one family! Vive l’armee!”

– Paul Kirchner, The Deadliest Men

1816 match between the Comte de Bondy and the fencing master Lafaugere by Frederic Regamey. Jean Louis served as the President de Combat, and can be seen at center, behind the fencers' blades.

1816 match between the Comte de Bondy and the fencing master Lafaugere by Frederic Regamey. Jean Louis presided as “President de Combat,” and can be seen at center.

Jean Louis’s fencing style would become a major influence on the French school of fencing, and he is credited with the saying—now famous among fencers—“A foil should be held as one holds a little bird; not so tightly as to crush it, but just enough to prevent it escaping from the hand.” He became sought out by members of the nobility for fencing instruction.

Jean-Louis retired from the army in 1849, at age sixty-five, and began teaching fencing permanently at his school in Montpellier. Later he came to denounce dueling. He instructed his daughter in the art of fencing, and she would go on to become one of his most accomplished disciples.

JeanLouisPortrait

Arsene Vigeant, a famous writer on fencing, remarked of him “Jean-Louis’ face which appeared hard at first meeting, hid a soul of great goodness and generosity.”

 

Basile Croquère

 

During the nineteenth century, New Orleans came to be regarded by many as the dueling capitol of the western world. There, duels were fought more frequently than in any other American city. As to exact statistics, one nineteenth-century visitor noted that “in 1834 there were no less than 365 [duels], or one for every day in the year; 15 having been fought on one Sunday morning. In 1835 there were 102 duels fought in that city, betwixt the 1st of January and end of April.” In 1839, another resident noted “Thirteen Duels have been fought in and near the city during the week; five more were to take place this morning.” Most of these duels were said to have been fought by those of French Creole descent, however, in 1833 William Ladd noted that blacks “are taking it up [dueling]” in the city.

In fact, African Americans fought a large number of duels in Louisiana, which were reported throughout newspapers of the era. One example, published in April 1872 by the New York Times, noted that:

“Two young colored men fought a duel with small swords in New Orleans, on Tuesday, and one was slightly wounded in the breast. One is a son of an internal revenue assessor, and the other a son of a Custom-house official. The quarrel grew out of testimony given before the Congressional Investigating Committee.”

Photograph, likely posed, of African American men preparing for a pistol duel, ca. 1895

Due in part to this prolific dueling culture, the tradition of classical and historic fencing flourished in old New Orleans. From about 1830 until the Civil War, at least fifty maitre d’armes (masters of arms) operated fencing academies in Exchange Alley, from Canal to Conti between Royal and Bourbon Streets. Of these, the author has personally come across six New Orleans fencing masters of African ancestry. Among the most notable of these were “Black” Austin, a free black man, and Robert Severin, also of African ancestry—who fought at least one duel in the city, and served as a second in at least another.

The most renowned of these masters, however, was Basile Croquère.

Croquère, according to Lafcadio Hearn, was “the most remarkable colored swordsman of Louisiana.” For much of the last century, Croquère’s life has been shrouded in mystery, and what is known about him consists mostly of scraps of anecdotal information set down in local histories. What is certain is that he was born in New Orleans around 1800 to a white father and a mother of mixed African-European ancestry.

At a young age, Croquère took part in the War of 1812, and likely participated in the famous Battle of New Orleans (1815)—in which the Americans soundly expelled the British and effectively won the war. In 1879, Croquère was listed as a member of L’Association des Vétérans de 1814-15.

Like the famous St. Georges, Croquère was sent by his white father to be educated in Paris, where he obtained a degree in mathematics, and probably received some, if not most, of his fencing instruction. After completing his studies in France, Croquère returned to New Orleans, where he set up shop as both a fencing master and a staircase builder, in which profession he applied his mathematical knowledge to construct the “soaring, multidimensional staircases” which became the staple of antebellum southern mansions.

By all accounts, Croquère was one of the best masters-of-arms in New Orleans. As one author of the period recounted:

“Though the population could count a considerable number of these fencing experts and duelists, Basile Croquère was proclaimed their superior in all things…He employed his talent to train the youth, to give them the benefit of his skill and his knowledge in arms.”

In a city known as the fencing and dueling Mecca of North America, where men literally lived and died by the sword on a daily basis, this was high praise.

“Mr. Basile was an educated and respectable man; he knew how to estimate and consider by his character, his behavior and his distinguished manners.

It was not therefore strange that a man having these recommendable qualities should enjoy a certain credit among people of high society, in whom he cultivated an elite clientele…

As to his profession of arms, it is told that he could touch his opponent almost as though composing a ballad…He often said that his chest was a holy place: it was filled with air because, we are told, no adversary’s foil was ever able to touch it…”

John Augustin (1838-1888), a New Orleans poet, editor, and Confederate veteran, recounted that Croquère “was such a fine blade that many of the best Creole gentlemen did not hesitate, notwithstanding the strong prejudice against color, to frequent his salle d’armes, and even cross swords with him in private assaults.”

Although little is known about this extraordinary master, his legend continues to endure among New Orleans guidebooks and books about dueling. Although it would be presumptuous to declare him the greatest of African American martial artists, he was, by all accounts, an extraordinary person and a swordsman of the highest caliber.

Above: A duel under the famous "Dueling Oaks" in New Orleans' City Park.

Above: A duel under the famous “Dueling Oaks” in New Orleans’ City Park.

Further reading:

 

Alain Guédé, Monsieur de Saint-George: Virtuoso, Swordsman, Revolutionary: A Legendary Life Rediscovered

Alfred Hutton, Sword & the Centuries

Tom Reiss, The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo (Pulitzer Prize for Biography)

Paul Kirchner, The Deadliest Men

T. J. Desch Obi, Fighting for Honor: The History of African Martial Art in the Atlantic World (Carolina Lowcountry and the Atlantic World)

African American Knife-Fighters of Old New York

African American Soldiers fight off 24 Germans with Bolo Knives during World War I

Fencing in Colonial America and the Early Republic

http://sworddueling.com/2010/03/08/jean-louis-michel/

Benjamin Truman, The Field of Honor

 

This article © 2015 by Ben Miller. All rights reserved. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that credit is given with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Forgotten Female Accessories

In Dress and Fashion, Edwardian Era, Everyday Life, Gender Roles, Victorian Era on March 10, 2010 at 3:03 pm

During the 1870s to 1890s, there were gadgets called skirt lifters also known as dress holders.  These devices were hooked onto the skirt waistband or chatelaine (a belt hook from which dangled by chains many useful items such as scissors or thimbles).  The end of the chain had a tong like device used to grip the bottom edge of the skirt.  I’ve read conflicting accounts as to whether it was used in the front to lift the skirt out of the way when climbing stairs or mounting a wheel or horse, or if it was used towards the back of the skirt for picking up the long fashionable trains, thus keeping them dirt free on outdoor walks.

Dress Holder

Victorian Era Skirt Lifter

The larger loops on the chain of the skirt lifter were hooked onto the metal loop on the waistband clip.  This would give the wearer a choice as to how much lift was needed.

Skirt Lifter in Use

Skirt Lifter Height Adjustments

Also from this time period up to perhaps the early 1900s there were clever little pieces of jewelry called hankie holders.  Most of them consisted of a gold ring sized to fit the pinkie, a 2.4 inch chain and a small gold pair of tongs (more often than not found in a seashell or fan shape).

Hankie Holder

Mid-Victorian Hankie Holder

I’ve read stories on the internet that they were used as a means to flirt with Victorian gentleman.  Letting the hankie fall to the ground and him being obliged to pick it up.
I’ve also read, which I believe to be far more likely, that they were used in the ballroom, adding an extra flourish to a couples dance.

Hankie holder in action
Finally in use during the 1930-1950s were glove holders.  I’ve seen confused people on Ebay selling these as skirt lifters, which they most certainly were not.  Ladies would hook the chain around their purse handles or through a button hole and keep their gloves safe while dining.

Ladies Glove Holder