Friday, October 10, 2014

Swordsmanship the Navy's way -- Say what!?

Contradictory instructions and a touch of historical mystery make turn of the century Navy manuals more confusing than enlightening

Something very strange is to be found in The Petty Officer's Drillbook, Unites States Navy, 1904 Revised Edition: In this book there is a peculiar fencing method that combines the saber parries with point ripostes. Here is the PDF: Herein we read

"In this exercise all attacks are made by thrusting with the point of the sword, instead of attempting to cut with the edge. The attack with the point is more deadly, and there is less exposure to counter attack than there is in making slashing blows that alone render the edge effective."

That, of course, echoes common talking points in the point-versus-edge controversy as expressed around the turn of the century (19th to 20th). Gen. George S. Patton or some other point-only enthusiast could have written those words. As to the provenance of the Drillbook method, we read:

"This Sword Exercise was originally prepared by Prof. A.J. Corbesier, Sword Master at the Naval Academy, assisted by Lieut. W.F. Fullam, U.S.N."

It is a curious thing that the method uses only point attacks, in that Corbesier's earlier method, published  in 1872, emphasizes using the cut, just as all broadsword, saber and cutlass methods did at that time. The parries illustrated in the 1904 version are those of singlestick or cutlass or saber, but the ripostes have been changed. You are supposed to turn your point toward the opponent and then thrust, after parrying saber-fashion.

Fullam was a Navy career man who lived October 20, 1855 – September 23, 1926.

Corbesier was employed for a great many years at the U.S. Naval Academy, from 1865 to 1914, as their fencing master. He lived January 22, 1837 – March 26, 1915.

In Corbesier's obituary, Fullam wrote

"Professor Corbesier's record was one of complete loyalty to naval and military traditions. For many years he was my assistant as drill master in the Department of Ordnance and I have never a finer example of attention to every duty. His success with midshipmen was insured by his never failing enthusiasm and patience."

So the two men were well acquainted and doubtless held each other in esteem. I can find no indication of when, precisely, the revised cutlass method using only point ripostes was created, or the circumstances leading to its creation, or the nature of the collaboration. Those details would be very interesting as bits of historical lore but, as so often happens, they may be lost for good. We know that that the collaboration happened when Fullam was a lieutenant, for so it says, and he ended up a rear admiral, so that narrows the timeframe a bit.

In any case, the sword was very nearly useless for naval warfare by 1904, so whether this method improved or degraded sailors' abilities as swordsmen is moot. I have some reservations about fencing this way. I see the wisdom of retaining the saber parries, for they can answer either cut or thrust, and enemies (if any with swords could be found in 1904) would be quite as likely to attack using cuts as thrusts.

The ripostes with the point, though, require rotating the point through a long arc and then extending it. That takes time. It might be argued that it does not take very much more time than simply taking a cut at the adversary. It has to take a little more time because the blade must be aligned to the target, then the thrust must be made, while in a cut the blade is accelerating all the way to its target. Furthermore, making a cutting riposte closes the opponent out of that line with an arc of rapidly moving steel.

It may be only a matter of naval disorganization, but The Ship and Gun Drills, U.S. Navy, 1914, has a different exercise, and it cites the 1905 edition of Ship and Gun Drills as its source. It says,

"In this exercise attacks are made by thrusting with the point of the sword, or by cutting with the edge. The attack with the point is usually more deadly, and there is less exposure to counter attack than there is in making the slashing blows that alone render the edge effective; both methods may, however, be used; circumstance must determine."

The citation for this cut-and-thrust version is given as follows:

"Note:-- From Ship and Gun Drills, 1905. Originally prepared by Sword Master A.J. Corbesier, U.S. Naval Academy, assisted by Lieut. W. F. Fullam, U.S.N. It is inserted in this book to serve as a guide to officers or men who desire to perfect themselves in the use of the sword as a weapon." 

Feeling curious by this time, I looked at the source cited and, indeed, there we see the cut and thrust version of the drill. In 1904 the word was to use only the point; in 1905 that is either contradicted or rescinded in a different book.

The existence of this cut and thrust version of the Corbesier-Fullam method, nearly contemporary with the thrust only version, and using similar language and illustrations, presents the reader with something of a puzzle to work out. Military manuals disagreeing with each other, even within the same service, is perhaps not a very big puzzle, but this case may suggest something beyond typical bureaucratic disorganization, indicating instead that I am not the first to feel some reservations about the thrust-only version of Corbesier's method.

As the plot thickens, Fullam, now a lieutenant commander, is credited on the title page as having prepared the 1904 Petty Officer's Drillbook. He is also the first listed on the title page of the 1905 Ship and Gun Drills, among the preparers of that book. Fullam's responsible in both places, in consecutive years, yet we see different versions, differing in a highly important matter, of what he "assisted" Corbesier in preparing, previously--when Fullham was a lieutenant. It's all rather mysterious.

If you want a really good manual about using a broadsword, saber, cutlass, hanger, etc., I recommend, once again, Corbesier's  1872 method. The original continues to carry my highest recommendation among books on the military saber. Read and study that one; treat Fullam's later revisions as historical curiosities.

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