Fencing & World War II Military Theory

Sir Basil H. Liddell-Hart was a mid-20th century British military strategist.  And, as a strategist, Liddell-Hart wisely stuck to his strengths, writing a book titled Strategy.  As a military historian, Liddell-Hart had examined notable battles; from those studies, he distilled his eight maxims of strategy.  Published in 1954, Strategy became very influential on post-World War II military theory.

Although he wrote about military theory, Liddell-Hart’s theories are instructive for fencers as well.  (Indeed, given some of his maxims’ wording, one suspects that Liddell-Hart was a fencer himself.)  For instance, Liddell-Hart’s seventh maxim on strategy is:  “Do not throw your weight into a stroke whilst your opponent is on guard—whilst he is well placed to parry or evade it.”  This maxim epitomized Liddell-Hart’s theme of dislocation:  before you attack, the enemy must be distracted, thrown off balance, or otherwise disabled from defending properly.

For fencers, Liddell-Hart’s seventh maxim is the essence of acting “in time”: to be effective, your action must occur within the time period created by the start of the opponent’s action and the end of that action.

Note that this maxim is a negative statement:  do not do x.  In this case, we might more wordily say, “Do not attempt a simple attack from pied ferme, out of time, and while your opponent appears otherwise ready to receive it, i.e., he is not doing something else (improperly advancing, changing lines, etc.).”

But, given their nature, negative statements do not tell us what to do and, lacking further guidance, can thus leave us paralyzed.  So, positively stated, we can express this maxim by noting that, in general, we must dislocate our opponent before attacking.  (The qualifier “in general” is necessary because we may be faced with a sufficiently inexperienced or unskilled fencer who cannot defend against even a direct, out-of-time attack.  But, c’mon, don’t be a bully.) And, in fencing we can dislocate our opponent in a number of ways, such as with:

  • a beat (battement) and then lunging to the open line;
  • a feint, such as by counter-disengaging upon the enemy’s change of engagement, threatening the now-open line, and then evading the parry and lunging to another line; or
  • an expulsion (froissement), similar to the beat above.

Of course, these are only examples.  You can come up with your own applications.  The point is to learn from Liddell-Hart: act in time by disrupting your enemy’s equilibrium and then acting within the time of that confusion.

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