“The sword is the weapon in which you should have most confidence, because it rarely fails you by breaking in your hands. Its blows are the more certain, accordingly as you direct them coolly; and hold it properly.”
- Antoine Fortuné de Brack (, 1876, p. 51)
Though Napoleon (1769-1821) started his own military career as an artillery officer and achieved several victories by clever use of cannons, edged weapons still played an important role on the Napoleonic battlefield. Swords and sabers could dominate battles and this was certainly the case in the hands of experienced cavalrymen. The general image, altough, is that Napoleonic warfare was dominated by firepower…
Smoothbore flintlock muskets indeed caused most of the wounds, but the accuracy of the weapon was strongly limited at ranges bigger than 100 m (Westwood, 2006, p. 375). An individual infantryman would be very lucky if he could hit something at more than 80 m and at 200 m only a concentrated mass of soldiers could be effective, so firing in muskets en masse had to be used as a military tactic (Westwood, 2006, p. 669).
In combination however with the bayonet it became an important weapon in close quarter fights and whole, well trained, devisions of soldiers armed with bayonets could even stop cavalry charges as proven in the Battle of Waterloo (18 June 1815). Some calculations esteem that only 5% of the casualties in war were caused by bullets fired at a range of about 100 m and that this number was even reduced to 2% when the bullets were fired from up to 200 m (Hughes, 1997, p. 127). Alessandro Barbero gives us other interesting numbers about the accuracy of musket fire in the Napoleonic time: only one bullet on 459 actually hit the person to whom it was aimed. In Waterloo, where many shots were fired at close range, only one bullet out of 162 hit its target (Barbero, 2010, p. 159).
Though Fortuné de Brack (see infra) is quite positive about the French firearms, which he considers as “the best in Europe” (de Brack, , 1876, p. 46), he nevertheless puts a lot of attention to the technical problems which can rise when using these weapons: flintstones can get lost, the barrel can be unclean, the cock can fall down without you wanting it (e.g. when you are at rest), the cartridges can get wet by rain or damp,… (de Brack, , 1876, p. 46-51). Louis Rilliet, second lieutenant in a cuirassiers devision (1804-1814) writes about a small battle near Janowitz, known as the Battle of Katzbach (26 August 1813) where infantry soldiers could not use their muskets because of the heavy rain (Rilliet, , 2013, p. 81).
It is also important to consider that pistols and muskets caused a lot of smoke so sometimes soldiers had the feeling that they where shooting blindfolded. This is also the reason why uniforms in the Napoleonic time had very bright colours, so soldiers could easily recognize their own regiments and cerrtainly not shoot at them… Besides muskets, pistols were also used, but these had the huge disadvantage that they are only certain when they are fired very close to the object, but not too close because when the muzzle of the pistol touches the enemy, “the pistol may burst and wound the man firing.’ (de Brack, , 1876, p. 48). Thus pistols were best used in combination with the saber and to make sure you don’t use time, it is best to fasten the lanyard of the pistol so you can throw it to your left and immediately use the saber (de Brack, , 1876, p. 50).
Rifles, which had barrels with grooves cut in, had a longer range and better accuracy, but the weapon was too costly and therefore it was seldomly used in the French army. In contrast, the British and their allies made big use of this weapon at the Battle of Waterloo, so their shots were more succesful (Westwood, 2006, p. 818-819).
Fire arms did play a significant role on the Napoleonic battlefield (only to be surpassed by artillery) but they were not always reliable and didn’t guarantee succes in personal combat. It is therefore no surprise that Fortuné de Brack says that a cavalry soldier should have most confidence in his saber (de Brack, , 1876, p. 51). Even modern scholars agree about this:
the cavalry’s principal purpose was to attack the enemy and engange hand to hand. To that end, the most imporant part of a cavalryman’s equipment was his sword
Haythornthwaite, 2002b, p. 29
Almost every soldier in the army of Napoleon carried a saber, not only the cavalry but even the infantry had their own shorter sabers. The purpose of this article is to shed some light on the use of the saber in the army of Napoleon, especially because this year the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo is celebrated. Many people will visit the huge reenactment (about 5000 actors will be present and at least 300 horses) which will take place at Waterloo on the 19th and 20th of June 2015. The fog of war, caused by tons of black powder, will probably cover the fields of Waterloo again, but I hope that you, dear reader, will certainly notice the shining steel of many sabers! May this article be of help to make us appreciate the role of the saber in the Napoleonic wars!
Training with the saber
Prequel: Fencing with the smallsword and epee
At the end of the 18th century France had a long tradition of fencing culture: not only was it here that the most famous Italian fencer and smallsword master Domenico Angelo Tremamondo (1716-1802) studied fencing under the wings of the French master Teillagory (Loades, 2010, p. 342), but it was also the place of origin of several fencing treatises.
Between 1623 and 1801 about 38 fencing manuals were published in France (Briost, Drévillon, Serna, 2002, p. 202 and 497), most of them dealing with the smallsword as – to mention only the ones published in the 18th century - Labat (Questions sur l’art en fait d’armes ou de l’épee, Toulouse, 1701), Jean de Brye (L’art de tirer les armes, Paris, 1721), Jean Jamin de Beaupré (Méthode très facile pour former la noblesse dans l’art de l’épée, 1721), Basnières (De la beauté de l’escrime, 1732), Martin (Le maistre d’armes ou l’abrégé de l’exercice de lépée, Strassbourg, 1737), Louis Charpentier (Les vrais principes de l’épee, 1742), François Bas (Nouvelles et utiles observations pour bien tirer les armes, Basles, 1749), Jean-Baptiste Le Perche du Coudray (L’exercice des armes ou le maniement du fleuret pour aider la mémoire de ceux qui sont amateurs de cet art, 1750), Gérard Gordine (Principes et quintessences des armes, Liège, 1754), Guillaume Danet (L’art des armes ou la manière la plus certaine de se servir utilement de l’épée soit pour attaquer, soit pour se défendre, simplifiée et démontrée dans toute son étendue et sa perfection, suivant les meilleurs principes de théorie et de pratique adoptées actuellement en France, Paris, 1766),…
In the 19th century one of the best known French treatises was certainly published by Antoine Texier La Boëssière (1766-1818), son of Texier la Boessière: Traité de l’art des armes, à l’usage des professeurs et des amateurs (Paris, 1818).
The importance of France as nation of fencing also explains why Angelo (Domenico Angelo Tremamondo), the “Angel of fencing” published his very influential work L’ecole des Armes (1763) in French, though he lived in England. It was he who put an emphasis on fencing as a sport and not as a martial art (Briost, Drévillon, Serna, 2002, p. 186). That fencing became more and more a sport and not a deadly art, can also be explained by the use of the foil (fleuret), depicted for the first time in Philibert de la Touche, Les vrays principes de l’épée (1667) (Amberger, 1999, p. 243).
Another French invention was the fencing mask, invented by Texier La Boessière (1723-1803). He introduced a mask with wire mesh and this replaced the old masks, which were made of leather or tinplate with small holes to see or with a horizontal eye slit (see illustration in the Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alambert). Though the new mask of Boessière offered a better sight, wearing a mask was still seen as an act of cowardice and of lack of trust in the capacities of the opponent. Here the philosophy was that a skilled fencer would not thrust his opponent in the eyes (Cohen, 2010, p. 75)
France also had some brilliant fencers, as le Chevalier de Saint Georges (1745-1799), who was a student of Texier La Boessière, and the famous Chevalier d’Eon (1728-1810). The contemporaries of d’Eon didn’t know for sure if she was actually a he, but nevertheless d’Eon was not only a secret agent for France, an officer in the French army, but also a brilliant fencer. He – or she? - gave lessons in fencing and sometimes fenced for a huge audience The most famous of these demonstrations was the bout against, le Chevalier de Saint Georges, who had to the reputation of being the best fencer of his generation. All newspapers wrote about the outcome of the game: d’Eon won with seven hits to one (Cohen, 2010, p. 84-91), which is a very surprising result, especially because Angelo had written about him:
“…he surpassed all his contemporaries and predecessors. No professor or amateur ever showed so much accuracy or so much strength, such length of lunge and such quickness; his attacks were a perpetual series of hits, his parade (parries) were so closed that it was in vain to attempt to touch him – in short, he was all nerve”(Cohen, 2010, p. 94).
The rise of the saber and saber manuals
But French fencing also had a very important martial and military side and fencing with the foil and epee is certainly nog enough to use on the battlefield. In the 18th century a new weapon was introduced in the French world of fencing: the saber! Because of the curved blade, the prime object of this weapon was to slice and not to thrust. In long version it was popular in the cavalry (though they also used ‘sabers’ with straight blades, so it’s better to call these ‘swords’), in short version it became known as the cutlass. The saber was much stronger than the epee and smallsword and also better to use against the bayonet. Quite soon, an in line of the literary tradition of Europe, the first manuals were published.
It is not my intention to provide a full list and detailed description or analysis of all French saber manuals or manuals written by soldiers who served in the army of Napoleon, but I only want to give the reader an idea of the richness of some saber treatises with a Napoleonic or French connection. Here I will present you the writings of de Saint Martin (1804), Alexandre Muller (1816), Fortuné de Brack (1831) and F.C. Cristmann (1838). I have selected these four works, because of the following reasons: de Saint Martin has without doubt published one of the most elaborated French treatises on saber fencing and can be situated in the middle of the reign of Napoleon (though he was not fighting or working under his command), while Muller was a soldier under Napoleon but published one of the shortest and most practical saber treatises. The work of Fortuné the Brack is not a real saber manual, but a military handbook which also contains a very short but interesting section on the use of the saber. Finally I end with Christmann, who fought in the French army, but wrote his work in German. Nevertheless, his experiences are those of a French cavalryman so in my opinion, it is a valuable source for saber fencing connected to or influenced by the army of Napoleon.
Further, it is important to notice that soldiers using the saber primarily also had to be excellent horsemen, and that many manuals were also published on horsemanship. Though horsemanship was also taught by the use of manuals (for more info see: http://fonds-ancien.equestre.info) and it was in combination with horse that the saber became most effective, I have more or less neglected this in this article because my focus is on the use of the saber.
To my knowledge, French manuals didn’t make much difference between extremely curved, lightly curved (demi-courbé) or even straight blades, as De La Roche-Aymon writes:
“Wether a saber is straight or curved, the use of it is almost the same, with the only exception that the straight blade, independent even from the use of the edge, must use its point more, not only for the attack, but also for the riposte” (my translation of De La Roche-Aymon, 1817, p. 301).
One of the first 18th century French fencing manuals where a saber like weapon can be seen is written by Pierre Jacques François Girard (1736), Nouveau traité de la perfection sur le fait des armes. It focusses on fencing with the smallsword (épée de pointe seule), not only in combination with another smallsword but also against the rapier, flail, pike and saber (espadon).
de Saint Martin: L'art de faire des armes réduit à ses vrais principes (1804)
The only information about M.J. de Saint Martin can be found in his own work, L’art de faire des armes réduit à ses vrais principes (The Art of Fencing Reduced to its true principles) (Vienna, 1804). He was a student of Guillaume Danet and calls himself ‘ancien officier de cavallerie et Maitre d’armes Imperial’ (ancient cavalry officer and imperial master of arms) and elsewhere ‘professeur imperial de L’Académie Thérésienne’ (Imperial professor in the Theresian Academy, this is the Austrian Academy named after empress Marie Thérèse). When his work was published he was already seven yeas in Austria, so he actually didn’t serve under Napoleon… (de Saint Martin, 1804, p. II) He states that he had about 30 years of experience before he published his arms, for the use of the saber he claims that he wrote his own theories, after he had put his ideas in practice in real combat situations (de Saint Martin, 1804, p. III and IX).
His work actually consists of two parts, but with one long and very interesting introduction to both parts. In part one he discusses the use of the smallsword, but more relevant for us is the second part ‘traité de l’espadron’ (treatise on the spadroon/saber)
According to de Saint Martin, the saber can be used against multiple opponents, cavalry against cavalry by the use of the moulinet including the coup de jarnac, que l’ennemi ne peut guere parer que par le plus grand hazard (which the enemy can hardly parry, only by the greatest coincidence) (p. IX-X).
He also teaches how to use the saber against the bayonet and is against using sticks as training tools (p. XII). It is interestin to see that after these brief general remarks, de Saint Martin offers a list of twenty rules – quite similar to the rules presented by Girard - to respect in the salle d’armes: don’t curse (rule 1), don’t speak evil about those who are or are not in the room (rule 2), don’t smoke or drink in the salle (rule 10), when one walks on the feet of another, one has to apologize (rule 16.), don’t blow your nose too loudly (rule 17),…
After the section on the smallsword, the section two starts, again with a brief introduction. De Saint Martin explicitly says that this section is meant for the cavalry (Espadon, p. II), though he always makes a distinction between saber techniques on foot and on horseback. After a short praise of s the Hungarian nation (for their brave spirit and military talents), he explains the intention of his section on the saber and then his lessons start…
De Saint Martin prefers the head and right arm as important targets (but other body parts as the belly are also targets) and strongly suggests to use many feintes.
Other advice is not to hold the saber too firmly, because this makes the swordsman tired (Espadon, p. 34), it is also interesting to look the enemy in the eyes, to read the lines of his attack (Espadon, p. 34).
De Saint Martin warns his readers for barbarians (Turks, Tartars and other people) with shorter and
more curved swords who try to behead ther enemies, but because these people have to turn their saber to make it easier to cut off a head, they frequently miss their cut (Espadon, p. 35). Nevertheless, de Saint Martin also tells how to fight against these ferocious people.
Finally the work ends with some advice on (using the saber in) naval warfare and a violent attack against duels with the pistol: having the idea to duel with pistols can only rise in the head of a fool, who wants to fight like this is nothing but a vicious animal (Espadon, p. 53-54)
Alexandre Muller: Théorie sur l’escrime à cheval (1816)
Not much information about the life of Alexandre Muller can be found. We know for sure he served as captain under marshall Claude-Victor Perrin (1764-1841) in the French calavray and that he obtained a serious wound during his military career. At the end of the Empire he became instructor in Lunéville and later he worked in a military school in Saumur. In this school his task was to instruct other instructors for cavalry regiments. After following the lessons of Muller, these officers had to go back to their regiments to teach what they had learned from the school in Saumur.
Alexandre Muller wrote three treatises on the use of weapons: two on the use of the bayonet (Le maniement de la baïonette), published for the first time in 1815 and republished (and updated) in 1828, 1835 and 1845. (Charlet, Pattyn, 2013a, p. 2-3)
In 1816 he published his third treatise, this time dedicated to the use of the saber: Théorie sur l’escrime à cheval, pour se défendre avec avantage contre toute espèce d’arme blanches (Theory on mounted fencing to defend oneself with advantage against any kind of edged weapon.). This work was published with 51 images of very high quality and was an attempt to satisfy the need for good instructors after the terrible loss of many experienced French soldiers during to the war in Russia (1812) (Charlet, Pattyn, 2013b, p. 1 and 8).
It is surprising to see that saber fencing is reduced to ‘easy’ principles without much theory, probably to make the instruction of saber fencing as efficient as possible. Muller only presents two (!) guards: the quarte and the tierce and in general the instructions are very brief, easy to understand especially because of the clear images.
Muller gives instructions on how to fight against with the saber against other sabers, but also against lances and bayonets. Generally, Muller advises to aim as much as possible to the face by cutting and by thrusting, this is certainly the case when one fights against cuirassiers who are better protected than other cavalry soldiers.
Hitting the reins of the horse is also advised by Muller (Charlet, Pattyn, 2013b, p. 28 and 34), as Flemish carabinier Joseph Abbeel experienced in the battle of Borodino (7 September 1812):
“After we had executed several charges on the cavalry of the enemy, I finally got wounded – at half past two in the afternoon – for the first time. In a charge on the dragoons of the Tsar, I moved myself a little bit to the side to make it easier for me to follow them. But one of them came to me and cut off the reins that I held in my hand. Without the leather of those bridles I would certainly have lost a thumb and a finger of my left hand. Immediately I took the watering rein (=bridle strap used to bring the horse to a river and let it drink) in my bloody hand and I used my spurs. My attacker thought he could escape me, but he didn’t get far because he didn’t have a copper or iron jacket as we have, which could protect him against the thrust of my sword. After this was done, I returned to my regiment with my sword full of blood. When my lieutenant saw that I was wounded and that I could not use my reins anymore, he wanted to send me to the infirmary, but I told him that I was not seriously wounded and that I would soon be able to put my hands on another pair of reins” (my translation of Welten and De Wilde, 2011, p. 78.).
It is also interesting to notice that Muller gives techniques to protect the head of the horse, because when a horse is hit on the head, the ranks of the cavalry can be disturbed, so it is easier for the enemy to break the Charlet, (Pattyn, 2013b, p. 32-33).
Editor's note: This was the first part of a 3 piece series by Mr. Gevaert on the Napoleonic saber.
Upcoming topics are:
Training with the saber
- Antoine Fortuné de Brack: Avant-postes de cavalerie légère’ (1831)
- F.C. Christmann (and G. Pfeffinger): Theoretisch-Praktische Anleitung des Hau und Stossfechtens (1838)
Types of sabers
-Infantry: grenadiers and officers
Duelling in the French army
Individual martial prowess on the battlefield
Wounds caused by the saber
Protection against saber blows to the head
Other ways of using the saber: punishment and prize
And Napoleon himself?
The following two parts will be published shortly and with the last article also a downloadable pdf-file collecting the contents of all three into one article.