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This guide is part of Louis Rupert Wachter’s book Aperçus équestres au point de vue de la méthode Baucher, published in 1862. It was written by Wachter but following the lesson plan of Pierre Billès (named, for some reason, “Billesse” in the book). So this is not only a catalogue of techniques but a full lesson plan destined for small groups of soldiers to study.

One important aspect of training in fencing back in the 19th century was the focus on one on one instruction, often in the shape of plastron work. The instructor would dictate actions to his pupil who had to perform them against another student, or directly against the master serving as a training target; a method you still see traces of in Olympic fencing today.

The Billès lesson could be taught this way (and some of the italic characters could be used as commands), but is rather meant to be executed à la muette (mute) meaning that the students learn the lessons by heart and simply execute them without the commands. Even though this is meant to be practiced without a master present, I would not recommend this text to beginners as Wachter only briefly explains the basics, when he does at all, and does not include any illustrations.

This text takes for granted that you already have a solid understanding of 19th century fencing. It recommends later on- in a part I did not translate as it ceases to be relevant to fencing- to first develop a strong base in foil, as do most authors of the period. I would indeed recommend you to do so, or at the very least to start with a more simple fencing manual such as the French Army 1877 manual which shares many points in common with this method, or Rondelle who is basically presenting the same method in a slightly different format. Once there, Billès will give you more tools and advanced techniques to work with.

For those who can read French, I also recommend the transcript of François Gilles, who also made a few video interpretations of the lessons.

 

About the professor

Pierre Saturnin Billès was born on the 11th of February 1813 in Perpignan.

He had served in the 2nd Spahis Regiment, most probably during the invasion of Algeria, and illustrated himself enough to become one of the first soldiers to receive the médaille militaire from Napoleon III on the 10th of May 1852.

It is not impossible that, in his time fighting with the Spahis, Billès fought alongside Marey-Monge, himself the creator of the Spahis regiment and author of “Memoir on Swords”.

guillaume_stanislas_marey-monge_original

Guillaume Stanislas Marey-Monge as Colonel of the Spahis Regulars circa 1837

In 1852, Billès was fencing master at the Imperial School of cavalry in Saumur, France, and a maréchal des logis; a non commissioned officer rank of the cavalry roughly equivalent to a sergeant.

The Saumur school was created in 1763, following the Duke of Choiseul’s great military reforms.  The Reason the town of Saumur was chosen is so interesting that I cannot help but make a small parenthesis about it.

The school was first supposed to be in Angers and destined to house the Royal Carabiniers, but the bishop of Angers, fearing the arrival of all those carabiniers womanizers pressured to have the school moved to Saumur. This, he thought, would punish the people of Saumur who were mostly protestants.

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The Saumur School of Cavalry – The charge

The Royal Carabiniers trained cavalry officers of all regiments. The school went through a series of reforms following the succession of regimes, and in 1830 became the only school of cavalry for the French military, and was by then world-renowned for its expertise. American readers might know that this is the school where the future General George S. Patton studied fencing while in France.

We do not know exactly when Billès started his career in Saumur, but when he was made a Knight of the Legion of Honour in 1858 he was then noted as the “former” fencing instructor at the school. In 1861, he is noted as being an adjudant there and having served more than 30 years in the army, supporting the idea that he was involved in the Algerian wars.

A cursory search reveals little else about the man, other than the organization of an assault of arms in 1856 at Saumur, which brought up the fencing masters of various cavalry regiments. Billès is said to have invited them and to have “demonstrated abilities above all praise” (Le moniteur de l’armé, 1856). In 1872, he was retired in Bordeaux and passed away on the the 7th of January 1880.

The method that Billès is presenting is called contre-pointe by Wachter, and is very interesting in two ways. First, it already shows us the basis of what will become the official French Army fencing method with the establishment of the Joinville school and the publishing of the 1875 and 1877 regulations. These regulations having been written by fencing masters of the fencing school of Vincennes (Vigeant, 1882), we can then see that a certain tradition was already taking shape in the Army and the Navy. This tradition can also be seen in other contemporary works such as the Règlement sur le service intérieur à bord des bâtiments de la flotte of 1851 which gave a standard method for training sailors in the use of the cutlass.

We can also see that elements of this tradition are already in place at the time of Valville in 1817 if not well before. The naming of the cuts and parries are extremely similar, and so are some tactical choices.

A second interesting aspect is how some elements taught by Billès seem to be coming out of a different era. Of course, by this time, Billès is close to 50 years old, and has served in the army for 30 years. We can expect that his method bears some old school traits, but the use of voltes and steps is not seen very often beyond Napoleonic fencing masters. What this tells us is that these techniques stayed on, at least in the cavalry, well into the middle of the 19th century. We cannot, of course, say that what Billès was teaching was the same as what was used at, let’s say, Austerlitz. For example, the habit of drawing back the arm into guard to facilitate a sawing cut seems to be a relatively new addition, perhaps taken from the campaigns in North Africa.

About the author

Louis Rupert Wachter was born in 1827 in Grand Bourg, Guadeloupe. He was the son of Reine Elisabeth Boulogne and Nicholas-Donatien Wachter, and is said to have been a “creole” (i.e. of white European and Black African descent) through his father (Les maîtres de l’oeuvre équestre, 1979). He entered the army with the 2nd Cuirassier at 18 years old, transited to the 7th Cuirassier as a sub-lieutenant and attended Saumur to become an instruction officer between 1855 and 57, where he probably studied with Billès. The same year, he published a manual on horse riding for women. 

In 1867, he became Captain Instructor for the 8th Cuirassiers. He was not involved in the Franco-Prussian War as his ill-health stopped him from doing so, but he managed to join the 8th Cuirassiers in its fight against the Paris Commune in 1871. His health failed him again in December 1872 when he died at the military hospital of Moulins. 


The weapon

An interesting aspect of this short method are the sabres that Wachter envisions being used. At the time, Billès would have taught fencing for a diverse array of sabres, ranging from the very curved 1829, the classical 1822, and even the relatively new 1854 for cuirassiers. But Wachter writes mainly with the cuirassiers in mind.

In his book, he mentions how most cuirassiers fight with an unsharpened 1854 – or “latte”- used only for thrusting, but that they should be using it to cut as well. Wachter seems to prefer the previous 1822 model, which he calls the “demi-bancal” for its moderate curve. You might know by now that the French do not refer to the shape of the blade to identify a weapon as a sabre or a sword, but rather by the hilt. A straight sabre is called a latte, a curved one is a bancal, and one with a moderate curve would be a demi-bancal.

1920px-carabinier_1854

1920px-1822_officier_ligne

The 1854 and the 1822 Heavy Cavalry Sabres

Regardless, this method, like most military ones, is applicable to most types of sabres though I would say that a well enveloping guard would fare better if only to execute head parries as Billès and Wachter intend to.

 

Sabre fencing on foot

Applicable on horse, except for some modifications

Translated by Maxime Chouinard
Edited by Jean-Philippe Wojas

 

On Guard

Position. The same as for the sword, but the right hand in tierce the right elbow well erased, the left hand on the left hip.

Parries

Parry the inside face (that is to say the left side of the face), the hand in quarte, at head’s height and in line with the left shoulder, the arm outstretched, the blade in the direction of the arm, the point slightly higher than the wrist. (It is the parry of quarte by stretching the arm.)

Parry the outside flank (the right flank), the hand in tierce, at the height of the elbow and slightly to the right, the arm half stretched, the blade in the direction of the forearm, the point slightly lower than the wrist. (It is the parry of seconde).

Head parry, in forming the prime like in sword, but with the hand slightly to the right and above the head, the edge above, the point slightly to the left and at belt height.

Parry the flank.

Parry the head.

Parry the flank and the head, while passing rapidly from the first to the second parry,

Give a thrust all the way, by starting from the position of prime, stretching the arm to its whole length, edge up, the wrist higher than the head, and slightly to the left to cover yourself. (It is the riposte of prime).

On guard.

While engaged in tierce, that is outside, turn the hand in quarte, and give a thrust to the eyes all the way, while maintaining the blade on top of the adversary’s, so that he elevates his sabre, and in that position give a bandoleer cut inside (cut given to the left flank) by sliding your blade, top to bottom, on the opponent’s edge (who is elevating the wrist to parry), without bending the arm, flexing the wrist slightly and giving a sawing cut, come back immediately.

On guard.

Observations. – All sabre cuts are given by sawing, that is to say by retreating the arm to better cut and to return faster to the parry. All the parries and ripostes that precede are repeated after all series of three sabre cuts, as we will indicate in time and place.

 

I. Attacks and manchette cuts

1st attack of manchette.-
Being engaged in tierce outside (all our engagements, in the lesson, will be done in tierce; be it said once and for all) do the feint of a face cut inside, by executing half a moulinet from left to right above the head, the hand turning to quarte.
Give a manchette cut above, by half a moulinet in the opposite way to the first, that is to say from right to left, above the head, the hand coming back to tierce, the edge aimed to the right forearm of the opponent.
The opponent parries tierce and gives a head cut.
Parry the head and riposte with a thrust, the edge up as above.

On guard.

2nd attack of manchette.-
Move the sabre to the other side by passing the point below the adversary’s blade, the hand always in tierce, and as soon as you meet the opponent’s blade inside
Give a manchette cut underneath by lowering yourself a bit, turning the hand to quarte and sawing the underside of the right forearm of the opponent.

On guard.

3rd attack of manchette.-
The opponent threatens with a face cut inside.

Give the manchette cut underneath rapidly by bending the knees well, and as soon as it is done.

On guard.

Repetitions of the parries of face, flank, head, riposte of thrusts and bandoleer.

 

II. Mustache cuts or face and flank

1st attack.-
Press on the blade
by bringing the hand to the right and turning in quarte.
Give the mustache or face cut all the way to cut the left side of the face and at the same time
Give a flank cut, the hand in tierce while coming back up.
On guard.
The opponent parries to the flank and ripostes a head cut.
Parry the head, riposte with a thrust

On guard.

2nd attack.-
Change sides with the sabre by a half moulinet from left to right over the enemy’s point, the hand in tierce, and as soon as you are engaged inside
Press on the sabre as you are engaged inside, to the left, still in tierce,
Give a flank cut, the hand in tierce, while coming back up.

On guard.

The opponent parries to the flank and ripostes a head cut.
Parry the head, riposte with a thrust.

On guard.

3rd attack.-
The opponent feints a face cut.
Parry the inside face.
Give a thrust to the eyes, by lunging all the way, the hand in quarte, slightly to the left to cover yourself, and at the same time
Give a bandoleer cut.

On guard.

Repeat the parries of face, flank, head and riposte, etc.

 

III. Attack by feints of face cuts and flank cuts all the way.

1st attack.-
Feint a face cut inside going over the opponent’s point.
Give a flank cut, by going over the point a second time.
Parry the head by coming back up.
Riposte with a thrust.

On guard.

2nd attack.-
The opponent makes a feint to the face and gives a flank cut all the way.
Parry the face and the flank.
Riposte with a thrust, being in the flank parry position.

On guard.

3rd attack.-
The opponent makes a feint to the face and gives a flank cut all the way.
Parry the face and the flank.
Riposte with a bandoleer cut, after having raised up the opponent’s sabre and turned the hand in quarte.

On guard.

Repeat the parries, etc, etc.

 

IV. Attacks by thrusting

1st attack.-
Disengage by giving a thrust all the way.

The opponent parries by taking prime and ripostes a head cut.
Parry the head while going back up.
Riposte with a thrust.

On guard.

2nd attack.-
The opponent attacks by a thrust disengaged all the way.
Parry the thrust by knocking the sabre with a parry of quinte crossed, that is to say by lowering the hand in tierce, the point, to the left (the quinte is a parry of quarte nails down).

3rd attack.-
The opponent attacks by a thrust all the way.
Parry the thrust by knocking down the sabre.
Feint a face cut and give a flank cut.
The opponent parries the flank and riposte with a head cut.
Parry the head, riposte with a thrust.

On guard.

Repeat the parries, etc, etc.

 

V. Retract the leg

1st attack.-
The opponent attacks with a leg cut to the outside.
Retract the leg by bringing it to the rear, and at the same time give a head cut by stretching the arm well and bringing the upper body forward.

On guard.

2nd attack.-
The opponent gives a leg cut outside.
Retract the leg and at the same time give a face cut outside, the hand in tierce.

On guard.

3rd attack.-
The opponent gives a leg cut inside, the hand in quarte.
Retract the leg and at the same time give a face cut inside, hand in quarte.

 

VI. Feints to the thigh, to the face, flank cut

1st attack.-
Give a feint to the thigh, to the face, and give a flank cut all the way.
The opponent parries the flank and ripostes with a head cut.
Parry the head, riposte with a thrust.

On guard.

2nd attack.-
Make the feint to the thigh, send a thrust to the eyes all the way and the bandoleer cut.

On guard.

3rd attack.-
Make the feint to the thigh, give a thrust to the eyes, and the bandoleer cut.
The opponent parries and ripostes to the head.
Parry the head and riposte with a bandoleer cut.

On guard.

Repeat the parries. etc, etc.

 

VII. Face cuts all the way, parries and ripostes without pause

1st attack.-
The opponent gives a face cut inside.
Parry the face cut inside, riposte with a face cut outside, hand in tierce.

On guard.

2nd attack.-
The opponent gives a face cut inside and then outside.
Parry the face cut inside and outside, riposte with a face cut inside, the hand in quarte.

On guard.

3rd attack.-
Bring the sabre to the other side, pushing on the opponent’s sabre, hand in quarte, to entice him to send a manchette cut, and as he sends the manchette cut
Revert the hand in tierce, to parry and riposte with a face cut inside, hand in quarte.

On guard.

Repeat parries, etc, etc.

 

VIII. Stop thrusts

1st attack.-
Feint a face cut and give a flank cut all the way.
Stay in lunge.
The opponent parries the flank. When he ripostes a head cut
Give him a thrust to the body without going back up, while making sure to elevate the hand above the head to protect yourself.

On guard.

2nd attack.-
Make the feint to the thigh, send a thrust to the eyes and a bandoleer cut.
The opponent parries prime and ripostes with a head cut.
Give him a thrust to the body without going back up.

On guard.

3rd attack.-
The opponent sends a head cut.
Lunge all the way and send a thrust, the hand in tierce and higher than your head.

On guard.

Repeat of the parries, etc, etc.

 

IX. Attacks by sabre cuts inside and outside

1st attack.-
Send a face cut all the way to the inside.
The opponent parries the face cut and ripostes a flank cut all the way.
Parry the flank cut while going back up and riposte with a head cut all the way.
The opponent parries the head while going back up and ripostes a face cut all the way.
Parry the face cut while going back up and riposte with a flank cut all the way.
The opponent parries the flank cut while going back up and ripostes a head cut all the way.
Parry the head cut while going back up and riposte with a thrust all the way.

On guard.

2nd attack.-
The opponent sends a face cut inside all the way.
Parry the face cut and riposte with a flank cut.
The opponent parries the flank cut while going back up and riposte with a head cut all the way.
Parry the head cut while going back up and riposte with a face cut.
The opponent parries the face while going back up and ripostes a flank cut all the way.
Parry the flank while going back up and riposte with a head cut all the way.
The opponent parries the head cut while going back up and ripostes a face cut all the way.
Parry the face cut while going back up and riposte with a flank cut all the way.
The opponent parries the flank cut while going back up and ripostes a head cut all the way.
Parry the head while going back up and riposte with a thrust all the way.

On guard.

3rd attack.-
Make a feint to the face and send a flank cut all the way.
The opponent parries the flank cut while going back up, makes a feint to the head and sends a flank cut all the way.
Parry the flank cut while going back up and riposte with a thrust all the way.

On guard.

Repeat the parries, etc, etc.

 

X. Retreating in sabre

1st attack:-
The opponent threatens a head cut.
Retreat in sabre while parrying the head cut and putting the right foot behind the left, 1/3 of a metre of the left heel.
The opponent sends a flank cut.
Parry the flank cut, while putting the left foot behind the right as to find yourself on guard, and riposte with a thrust all the way.

On guard.

Advancing in sabre

2nd attack.-
Advance in sabre by sending a face cut inside and passing the left foot forward, 1/3 of a metre from the right.
The opponent parries the inside face cut while retreating the right foot.
Send a bandoleer cut under the blade, before he has time to get on guard to the back, taking time to well remove his sabre by putting the right hand in tierce, to then send him the cut, hand in quarte

On guard.

Sidestep to choose your ground to the right

3rd attack.-
The opponent sends a head cut.
Parry the head cut while putting the left foot in front and to the right at 1/3 of a metre of the right foot.
Send a bandoleer cut while putting the right foot on the right side, at 2/3 of a metre and slightly in front of the left.
The opponent parries the bandoleer cut, by turning on the heel or the ball of  his foot to turn himself on your side.
Execute the same movement as him by turning on the right foot, to face him, and putting the left foot in line behind the right.
By executing the volte rapidly, getting close to the left flank of the opponent, and sending without intermission the bandoleer cut behind his left leg, we reproduce the coup de Jarnac.
The opponent feints a head cut and sends a flank cut all the way.
Parry the head cut and flank cut.
Make a feint to the head and lunge to the flank.
The opponent parries the head cut and the flank cut and threatens the head.
Parry the head cut anew and send a thrust all the way.

On guard.

Sidestep to choose your ground on the left

4th attack.-
The opponent sends a face cut inside.
Parry the inside face cut while putting the right foot on the left, 2/3 of a metre.
Send a flank cut while turning on your heel or the ball of your right foot and putting the left foot behind the right, to find yourself on guard.
The opponent executes the same movement at the same time, to face you.
Make a feint to the head and send a flank cut all the way.
The opponent parries the flank cut, makes a feint to the head and lunges to the flank.
Parry the head cut and the flank cut and riposte with a thrust all the way.

On guard.

Repeat the parries, etc, etc.

 

Observation. –

All these sabre strikes can also be used on horse as well as on foot. They will always be useful by themselves to dismounted horsemen, being applicable against the bayonet as well as against sabres.

There would be little modifications to do to apply them on horse. The left arm could intervene, as a parry against cavalry, if it was protected by two bands of steel, flattened, articulated and hidden between the lining and the exterior of the sleeve. The riposte would happen at the same time as the parry of the arm.

We could have wooden sabres made around the same weight and length as the combat sabre, in sufficient quantity to arm one platoon per squadron, and when the cuirassiers were to be recognized as skilled in the use of the half-bancal on foot, we would send in turn a platoon per squadron on the field of manœuvres; there we could deploy them for individual work and allow them, by tumbling, volting and passing, to fence at their ease as on a battlefield. To avoid accidents, we would convene to mark only the attacks, parries and ripostes, without sending strikes all the way. The horsemen could then be brought there regularly by a special progress that would recognize in advance the best strikes and the best parries and ripostes to use after this volte or that tumble.

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