25 March 2009

Swords and Strategy

Last night was a dismal one on the fencing front, with me somehow contriving to lose all seven of my bouts. I'll freely admit I'm not the best of the club's novices, but I'm nowhere near the bottom of the pile. We've all got our distinctive weaknesses and strengths, whether those relate to strength, speed, size, skill, or strategy, and I'm generally good enough at the last one to do okay if a bout goes on long enough. Not this week, though: it started badly, with me having to stop several times when up against Jane, who trounced me, and got worse as I was toppled by fencer after fencer.

I'm tempted to just put this down to having been an off week, but I'm fairly surely the likes of Aldo Nadi would have no truck with such notions. I've recently been perusing his On Fencing. It's rather dated now, especially given the rise of electronic scoring and the parallel rise of to ubiquity the pistol grip and fall to near-obsolescence of his beloved Italian grip, but it's got lots in its favour for all that.

Um, skipping to the bit on tactics in competitive bouts:
Apart from what you have been told in the preceding chapter, it is impossible to tell you what to do in a bout. True, a great deal depends upon you; but your adversary is as free as you are, and no two fencers are alike. Strategy and tactics must therefore be applied differently to each opponent.

What I can describe, however, is the general pattern of combat the great champion employs against an unknown adversary. Even if you are a novice, and cannot be expected to apply it successfully in a week or two, I think you will readily understand what I mean. Engrave it in your mind forever.

First, I would like to quote a part of the Napoleonic record as related in the Encyclopedia Brittanica. It reads: "He said, 'The whole art of war consists of a careful and well-thought out defensive, together with a swift and bold offensive.' Simplicity, energy, rapidity was his constant admonition. . . . One must concentrate one's own forces, keep them together, lead the enemy to give battle in the most unfavourable conditions; then, when his last reserves are engaged, destroy him with a decisive attack. . . . Napoleon's power of rapidly summing up a situation and making his decision, explains his victories." . . . "One of the characteristic features of Napoleonic strategy," says Marshal Franchet d'Esperey, "is that, the goal, once chosen and boldly chosen, the method does not vary, though, being supple, it adapts itself to circumstances."

When I first read this passage I could hardly believe my eyes. For, almost word for word these were the same principles I had been repeating incessantly to pupils ever since I started teaching -- a long time ago. What a perfectly stunning similarity between the war principles of one of the greatest soldiers of all time and the fundamentals of the competitive fencing war! Well, to become a good fencer, memorize and assimilate the above quotations.
In the meantime, I may work on my lunges and parries.

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