A New System of Sword Exercise for Infantry/Introductory Remarks
|A New System of Sword Exercise for Infantry by
Before proceeding to develop my New Sword exercise for Infantry, I would offer a few remarks upon the changes proposed in these pages. Whilst the last half century has witnessed an immense improvement in the projectile weapons of the civilized world, the theory and practice of the sabre or cutting arm have remained in statu quo ante; indeed, if there has been any change it is for the worse. The two systems authorized in the British army are completely behind their time. First and senior is the 'Infantry Sword Exercise' (with plates): Revised Edition, Adjutant-General's Office, Horse Guards. London: Printed under the superintendence of H.M. Stationery Office: 1874. The second is the 'Instructions for the Sword, &c. (without plates), for the use of Cavalry.' Adjutant General's Office, Horse Guards. June 1871.
The latter can be despatched very briefly. Despite the late date, it is obsolete as the older system; it is, in fact, only the 'Infantry Exercise' with the addition of "pursuing practice," and "post practice" -- the latter upon a sort of modern Quintain not made to revolve. So far, so good. The practised swordsman has little to learn when mounted, except the few modifications which he can teach himself. His real study is on foot. But some of the remarks appear not to have been written by a practical hand. For instance, we read (p. 27): "In delivering a forward thrust, very little force is necessary when the horse is in quick motion, as the extension of the arm, with a good direction of the point, will be fully sufficient." "Fully sufficient" -- I should think so! The recruit must be carefully and sedulously taught when meeting the enemy, even at a trot or canter, to use no force whatever, otherwise his sword will bury itself to the hilt, and the swordsman will either be dragged from his horse, or will be compelled to drop his weapon -- if he can. Upon this point I may quote my own 'System of Bayonet Exercise' (p. 27): --
"The instructor must spare no pains in preventing the soldier from using force, especially with the left or guiding arm, as too much exertion generally causes the thrust to miss. A trifling body-stab with the bayonet (I may add with the sword) is sufficient to disable a man; and many a promising young soldier has lost his life by burying his weapon so deep in the enemy's breast that it could not be withdrawn quickly enough to be used against a second assailant. To prevent this happening, the point must be delivered smartly, with but little exertion of force, more like a dart than a thrust, and instantly afterwards the bayonet must be smartly withdrawn." In fact the thrust should consist of two movements executed as nearly simultaneously as possible; and it requires long habit, as the natural man, especially the Englishman, is apt to push home, and to dwell upon his slouching push.
The 'Infantry Sword Exercise' is nought but a snare and a delusion. Except in pagination, it is the same as the "Revised Edition" of 1845 -- the only difference or revision that I can detect is the omission of a short sentence in p. 26 of the older issue; it even retains the General Order of Lord Hill, 23rd April, 1842. Thus "Revision" is confined to the plates. In 1845 the figures wear the milk-pail shako widening at the top, the frock coat and the scales; the last edition, dated April, 1874, dons the tall modern chimney-pot, the tightly buttoned tunic with stiff collar and, like its predecessor, the sash and the scabbard. It is no wonder that the figures display an exceeding gêne, the stiffness of pokers, as the phrase is: here we might with profit borrow from the French or Italian artist.
I am opposed to almost every page of this unhappy brochure, especially to the "Seven Cuts and Guards" of the target; to the shape of the target -- I never yet saw a man absolutely circular; to the grip of the sword; to the position in guard; to the Guards or Parades, especially the inside engaging guard (Carte); to the Lunge; to the angle of the feet, and to the system of "loose practice."
The "Cuts" will be noticed in a future page. Of the grip I may remark that the one essential, the position of the thumb, both in attacks and parries is, as a rule, neglected by the 'Sword Exercise.' [FN1] As early as 1828, Müller made his point d'appui a grasp of the handle with the four fingers, the thumb being stretched along the back, in order to direct the edge, and to avoid the possibility of striking with the "flat." The only exception to this universal law is when doing the "Moulinet" movements, which will be explained farther on. Some professors, both with broadsword and small-sword, would stretch the index, when pointing, along the right of the handle. I have objected to this practice in the rapier and the foil: except when done to change position for relief, it serves merely to fatigue the wrist. But the proper use of the thumb, "le pouce allongé sur le dos de la poignée," which is troublesome at first, and which demands some study, especially from those who have acquired bad habits, is the base of all superior "counterpoint." [FN2]
The position on guard is a debated point. Many, indeed I say most, of the moderns follow the rule of all the older swordsmen, namely reposing two-thirds of the body-weight (as in p.19 of the 'Exercise,' which, however, is an exaggeration) upon the left leg. The reasons usually given are that in this position the person is not so much exposed; moreover, that the centre of gravity being thrown back adds spring and impetus to the Lunge. We may remember how Cordelois (1862) made a step towards change in his fencing schools at Paris. My objection to the old style is that the farther you are from your opponent, the longer and slower will be your attack; moreover, I have ever found, in personal practice, that it is easier and more convenient to "sit on guard" with the weight equally distributed on both haunches and legs. In fact, that the backward position is not natural any pair of thighs can ascertain for itself after trying it for five minutes: whilst the muscles of the right or forward limb are relaxed as much as possible, those of the left are tight strung, so as to do double work and threaten cramp. This single objection is serious enough to counterbalance any other claims to superiority.
Again, there is no excuse for the guards in the 'Exercise.' The "Hanging guard" (p. 18, in the older issue p. 21) is the worst that can be imagined -- a painful spectacle, a lesson of "what to avoid." The head ignobly cowers, and the eyes look up, in a forced and wearying position, when the former should be held upright, and the glance should be naturally fixed upon the opponent's eye and blade-point; the body is bent so as to lose our national advantage of height and strength, and the right fore-arm in such a position is, and ever must be, clean uncovered. Let the recruit, however strong may be his haunches, stand a few minutes in this "Hanging guard," and he will soon feel by his fatigue how strange, awkward, and strained it is. The Carte or inside Engaging Guard (pp. 19, 22), again, endangers the fore-arm. The Tierce or outside Engaging Guard (pp. 20, 23) holds the hand too low, and unduly shortens the arm, thus offering an undesirable amount of exposure; it is in fact not a Guard, but a bad parry in "low Tierce." Worse still is the Lunge (pp. 14, 17): here the body is placed bolt upright, instead of being easily bent, without exaggeration, to the fore, prolonging, as every man instinctively would do at his first attempt, the line of the left leg. The former position is not only fatiguing and "against the grain;" it also shortens the reach and carefully places the opponent safely out of measure. Many swordsmen still contend for the stiffly upright position in Lunge: [FN3] I am disposed to consider it a mere survival of the classical and artificial French school of arms, which aimed at opposing nature as sedulously as the Italian, who always leans to the fore, attempted to follow her dictates. Moreover, their arguments are founded upon the abuse, not the use, of the inclined pose which the body naturally assumes. In teaching the recruit it is well to see that he does not fall into the dangerous habit of throwing the chest forward (poitriner) to meet his opponent's point; but the truth of muscular motion must be consulted.
Finally, I would note the mistake of "loose practice" with the single stick instead of the sabre; it probably arose from a mistaken economy in saving swords and paddings. Single stick is a different weapon, a cane or light cudgel with a basket-hilt covering the back of the hand, like the imperfect guard of the Highland Clay-more; it is straight, not curved, and as the rod has no edges, so in practice every blow equally represents a cut. Single stick has merits of its own, and even the 'Exercise' seems to recognize the fact, for the guindés figures are armed with officers' Regulation swords.
Both 'Sword Exercises' carefully avoid naming "Tierce" and "Carte;" preferring "right" and "left" (of the Sword) or "outside" and "inside," as if such mysteries were too high or too deep for our national intelligence. I would again quote a few lines from my 'System of Bayonet Exercise' (Introductory Remarks, pp. 8, 9): --
"But why, it may be asked, should the English soldier be deterred by difficulties which every French voltigeur can master? We admire the intelligence of our neighbours in military matters: we remark that they are born soldiers, and that their men learn as much in four months as ours do in six. Is not this, however, partly our fault? In my humble opinion we mistake the cause of their quickness, attributing to nature the effect of art. When our system of drill is thoroughly efficient; when the Manual and Platoon is much simplified, when a salle d'armes is established in every corps, and when the bayonet exercise becomes a recognized branch of instruction; then, I believe, we shall find our soldiers equal in intelligence to any others." These words were written in 1853; in 1875 I add, "When we enlist the right kind of recruit either by improving his condition and his prospects, not his pay, or better, far better, by securing a superior man through the conscription [methods] of modern Europe." We Britons are no longer physically divided from the total orb; nor can we afford to remain morally insulated and isolated. The logical effect of union with the outer world will be to make us do as the world does, and all our exceptional institutions, such as the system of volunteer recruiting, must sooner or later go by the board.
Nor is the most modern French Treatise (pp. 229-256, Manuel de Gymnastique et d'Escrime, officially published by the Ministre de la Marine et des Colonies; Paris, Dumaine, 1875 "Escrime au Sabre" much superior to our home growth. The position of the left hand (pp. 232, 233) is bad throughout: it must slip during the Lunge and make the play loose. The retreat of the left leg (Fig. 5, p. 235) is carried to an extreme of caution. The body is always perpendicular in the Lunge, whereas the same volume shows (Fig. 16, p. 20) the trunk naturally inclining forwards. The Cuts are not double nor continuous, as they should be. The "Hanging Guards" (pp. 240, 244, 245) are deplorable. On the other hand, the Manuel (p. 231) places the thumb along, not around the handle; the moulinets, the enlevés, and the brisés (presently to be explained) are good stuff, and moreover, they are applied to the Cuts (p. 239). Finally, nothing can be better than the advice (p. 249), "Après avoir touché, retirer vivement le sabre en arrière en lui imprimant une direction oblique dans le sens du tranchant, de manière á scier."
Of the points or thrusts with broadsword nothing will here be said: they belong to another order of things, and they should be studied in the fencing school. [FN4] But the soldier must be taught that if his adversary attempt a thrust, the broadsword is easily disarmed. When the opponent comes to the position of pointing, that is, extends his blade, a sharp glissade along its length will make the grip fly out of his grasp. Another way of embarrassing the attack is to cut right and left at the hand, the wrist, or the fore-arm, when the adversary begins to present point.
General Lamoricière was a firm believer, as we all are, in the thrust, and the French Sword Exercise for Cavalry (p. 178 Règlement Provisoire sur les Exercises de la Cavalerie, officially published at the Ministère de al Guerre; Paris, Dumaine, 1873), justly remarks: "Les coups de pointe doivent toujours étre employés de préférence, comme exigeant moins de force et ayant un résultat plus prompt, plus certain et plus décisif." The reason of its confessed superiority to the Cut is as old as the axiom, "a straight line is the shortest way between two points." The Thrust describes a diameter, the Cut, a segment, of a circle and, with equal velocity, the Cut will traverse a distance occupying some two-thirds more of time than the Thrust. The French tactician therefore proposed to abolish the use of the edge for cavalry, thus traversing the instinct of the man-at-arms who, especially on horseback, loves to slash at his enemy, and who runs far less risk of entangling his blade. But he of course advocated a straight and tapering sword with no edge to speak of; indeed the cuirassier's latte is still a kind of rapier, but it is rendered useless by prodigious length and by the weight of the handle. The modern Italian School of Sabre uses, especially in single combat, all the dégagements of the salle d'armes: this is thoroughly illogical; the weapon is chosen because it is supposed to be less fatal than foil or rapier, and yet it is so used as to become even more deadly. I need hardly say that the weight and shape of the broadsword, together with the positions of guard, render pointing with it awkward in the extreme. [FN5]
I have now finished with the ungrateful task of criticizing, and I proceed to propose a system which it is hoped will be as severely criticized by others. It is only candid to state that its pretensions are high, that it contains two distinct novelties, the Manchette System and the Reverse or Back-cut; and finally, that it aspires to be the first Treatise in which the broadsword is scientifically taken in hand.