Secret attacks

This article is the translation of a portion of the Traité d’Escrime Moderne (1928) of Jean-Joseph Renaud, originally quoted in a fencing anthology (the rest of which is well worth the read, by the way). In this section the author discusses the concept of secret attacks and the degree of truth behind what is otherwise a popular myth.

Although it is much later than the sources I prefer to study, it makes great points on what makes a successful attack, and how personal style and tactics can end up achieving the effect of the mythical, impossible to parry secret attack. I thought it deserved to be more accessible to an international audience! I am unfortunately not a professional translator, and I probably cannot do justice to the lively and elegant French Joseph-Renaud uses… Anyway, here it is:

A fencer smiles when he hears of secret attacks1. He knows, or thinks he knows, all the resources of fencing and does not really admit he could be surprised by an unknown trick. Oh, he does not think himself untouchable. He does not deny that any of the most ancient blows could land square on his chest, on the condition of being executed at the right time or with a speed exceding his own. But the mysterious moves called secret attacks seem to him to be inventions of popular writers, and only worth impressing starry-eyed girls who read their serials in the subway or on a Tuileries bench, between two sandwiches, at lunchtime.

Despite the extraordinary verisimilitude that Paul Féval managed to give to Nevers’ attack2, the reader who has set foot in a fencing salle refuses to believe that such a strike could ever have been used – and he is correct.

However, there existed and still exist secret attacks. In our days, in our time of airplanes and wireless telegraph, I have known some, I have seen them practiced, I have practiced a number of them myself. But it is important to make a distinguo here – a secret attack is not a blow which would reach with certainty, almost magically, any opponent and which is not avoidable by ordinary means. Even the cut with which Jarnac, crouching to the ground, torn apart La Châtaigneraie’s hamstring, could have been parried or stopped, and to enter into fiction, the thrust between the eyes which Lagardère uses in Le Bossu to dispatch so many goons, would not be much of a bother for a fencer well set in his guard.

Nevers’ attack strikes the villain in the finale of Le Bossu

A secret attack is not a novel trick. It is an older one which, executed or prepared in a novel fashion, surprises the antagonist on which it is attempted for the first time. When, in a time when nobody was targeting the advanced targets, Jules Jacob taught one of his first pupils who, completely ignorant of the art of fencing, was to fight the day after with a very dangerous foilist : Lash out to the arm, sometimes above, sometimes below, without interruption, while keeping your distance, he was teaching a secret attack. The adversary received a foot of iron in the forearm, almost at the get-go. Ah! Had the fight been started again, the result would probably have been much different! But the in extremis lesson of Jules Jacob had made its surprise effect. The secret attack, because it was indeed one, had succeeded. To surprise, here is all you can expect of a blow executed or prepared in a novel fashion; but to surprise in a duel or in a one-touch match is a lot!

A blow executed or prepared in a novel fashion can therefore amount to what is commonly called a secret attack. When my excellent comrade Collignon replaced in his swordplay the classical lunge by the running attack which he had worked on with master Thiercelin, he enjoyed an astonishing series of victories. However they were simple straight attacks. And it cannot be said that the straight attack is not the most ancient and simplest in fencing. The execution was different, that is all!… And the surprise effect was considerable. Of course, after some time, people realized that the fleche was avoidable by ordinary means, and Collignon could not use it as easily. The efficiency diminished with the secret. Today, our comrade does not use much the attack which he made popular.

A bit before Collignon, Mr marquis de Chasseloup Laubat had also astonished a lot of opponents with another sort of running attack, less direct, complexified by redoublements [doubling the attack] and starting from a guard belonging to ancient fencing. Very few opponents of this famous epeist could avoid the finale of his offense the first time they faced him in a pool. Afterwards, better informed and having watched Mr de Chasseloup Laubat, they were more successful, because as Mr de La Palisse could have said, a secret attack, in order to remain powerful, must remain secret.

When Baudry (the father) replaced parries by counter-offense, his pupils met extraordinary success on the field, during a decade. Counter-offense had always existed in French or Italian fencing, but Baudry had adapted it to the shell and length of modern épée, and taught it silent3 which gave it a novel note. Of course, when the secret was revealed, opponents no longer threw themselves on this spindle; tension with superior length no longer enjoyed surprise effect, and Baudry had to find something else.

Fencers who are now about fifty of age remember Alfonso d’Aldama who was in truth a very fine fencer, but obtained sometimes on the field results beyond his skill. Here is how he managed this: in his days, strong fencers were not as notorious as today; it was not before the end of his carreer, when he settled definitely in Paris, that Alfonso enjoyed a true celebrity. The majority of his duels, and the most dangerous, took place in Italy, in Spain or in Cuba. The opponent was totally ignorant, or almost totally, that he was facing someone of note. At the call of Allez, Messieurs !, Alfonso played the inexperienced. He was clumsily falling in guard, the left hand and feet incorrectly positionned; on the first feints of the adversary, he made wide and clumsy parries; he even pretended by coughing and panting to be as sick as he was clumsy. The antagonist could think he had an easy game; if, before the match, someone had told him that Alfonso was a proper fencer, this tip now seemed to him to be quite inaccurate. Convinced that he was dealing with a mazette [an easy target], he attacked without precautions and received either a lightning fast riposte or a stop-hit taken with a lifted foot4.

The good Thomeguex, who had studied Aldama a lot and also obtained on the field results which were far beyond his very ordinary talent as a fencer, was too known to be able to trump the opponent with a trick of this sort. But he had trained three or four blows which he never, under no circumstances, used when people were there to see him fence. He would rather have finished last in a pool than to employ one of them. He repeated them in the salle when nobody was watching. These blows were well known in themselves, but he executed them in a specific way. Thanks to them – and thanks to his courage – this big man, apparently robbed from all chances by his obesity, wounded adversaries infinitely better than him.

The marquis de Morès too had two or three rather strange plays which he had worked on a lot and which derived, in a curious but after all rather practical fashion, from the figure-eight of canne fencing; he was repeating them with assiduity, either with Ayat (the father), either with Bougnol who was then prévôt under Ayat – but on the condition that no one could see the lesson. It would be useless for me to describe them here. All I’m willing to say is that in front of an experienced opponent they could succeed only once; but in a duel or in a pool, once is enough. It is even the reason why the psychology of the one-touch match is very special and extremely interesting.

With the foil, any blow executed in a novel fashion has the effect of a secret attack for as long as the exact process is not divulgated. For example, the famous left-hander Rüe had a personal way to send a straight attack; he was starting it slowly, accelerating progressively to the finale. This was very surprising. When fencing Rüe for the first time, one was likely to receive a lot of his straight attacks, even Louis Mérignac or Pini. But after observing the tall left-hander, it was possible to reach much better results simply by attacking, or even just beating, on the begining of the straight attack. The attack was no longer secret.

Such and such preparation can turn the most banal attack into one which remains mysterious for much longer than if it was just a simple specificity of execution that any fencer notices quickly. In fencing, as in theater, the art of preparation is difficult and subtle. The spectator of a drama feels the effect of a beautiful scene but does not see the way this scene has been brought up; much the same, many fencers applaud a beautiful strike, but do not see how it was prepared. I have already mentioned how efficient certain preparations of Louis Mérignac were; however people mostly discussed his springy footwork5. When he struck with a straight attack, only the speed of the blow was noticed; only some amateurs and professors – two or three maybe – knew how the dazzling finale of such an attack had been prepared.

An example: Louis Mérignac scored with prime coupé6, not only as most of his colleagues on second rate opponents that can be toyed with, but on much feared antagonists and in encounters where the great master’s reputation was at stake. Out of this old parry-riposte which had always belonged to fantasia, Louis Mérignac had forged a hardened bouting blow. People were amazed; they were almost screaming for witchcraft. They tried to mimic him, to do prime coupé as he succeeded to, and they just got hit. Well here again, one could say secret attack, because nobody saw the secret of the blow, which resided entirely in its preparation. To manage prime coupé even on a very commited attack, for example after sixte and prime on one-two inside is extremely difficult; to succeed with this, one needs to be facing a beginner or a naive. But Louis Mérignac was doing things differently. He was sending first, with an advance, a rather wide compound attack which did not offer much cover, cautiously held back by the way, which did not hit and did not seek to hit but to give the opponents the idea of doing a stop-hit; then the great master was doing the same attack again, or rather was starting it only; this time the opponent extended on the arm into the wide feints of Louis Mérignac; then the latter, retracting his arm a little, executed prime coupé on the extension with lightning speed. The prime, very difficult to execute from the shortened guard position, became easier with the arm extended by retracting it a little. Instead of using it as a parry, Louis Mérignac was using it as a counter-extension. Simple! And this remained a secret because it was not noticeable any more so than the trick of an illusionist, if he is skillful. People were saying What speed, just like watching a nicely done vanish they would say it went into the sleeve, although magicians almost never use their sleeves and roll them up all you want! Only the execution was seen. The preparation without which the execution would have failed, was not.

People were also amazed by Pini’s ripostes which were indeed frighteningly efficient. To the point that after a few minutes of bouting people did not dare launch a frank attack anymore. But other fencers, Italian and French, had equally quick ripostes but hit less well. Pini, who was fencing in the head7 first and foremost, knew how to very skillfully attract the attack in one opening or the other, where a brutal parry was waiting for you which would bruise your arm. He had for example a way to accent the contre de quarte which could give you an irrepressible desire to go with a double disengage inside, which meant throwing yourself into a parry-riposte which not only would cost you a touch, but left you with a numb arm for the rest of the bout. Even warned as I was, having worked a lot with the famous master from Livorno, I sometimes fell for it, not able to resist this terrible temptation for the double disengage, because to know what a fencer will do when you are watching from the outside and when you are facing him are two very different things… The secret resided not as was commonly believed in the toughness of the parry, but in the preparation.

To sum things up. Secret attacks exist; not steel charms whose effect would be magically irresistible, that you would only need to employ in order to reach the antagonist with certainty and thanks to which a beginner could overthrow a champion without any effort, but ordinary fencing devices which achieve a strong surprise effect either due to the way they are performed, or due to a preparation.

The attacks whose value hang on a material detail soon lose their secret. But those that rely on a preparation to achieve their effect can long remain mysterious, and therefore effective. That is because the fencers who can observe a physical mean of execution are many, whereas those who can notice a preparation are few.

  1. Translating the French phrase botte secrète is a bit of a headache. Botte is a fencing term originating in the Italian botta, meaning any strike with a sword – mostly thrusts at the time it was imported, but it applies to cuts as well. The term does not just cover a single attack but came to include all the preparations as well; I’m picking a general secret attack here.↩︎

  2. Le Bossu is a French novel in which the protagonist inherits a secret attack called la botte de Nevers, culminating in a thrust between the eyes. It has more or less become the archetype for secret attacks in France, despite it being a relatively late invention and entirely fictional. The author Paul Féval made the wise decision not to include much more details about it, at least not enough to work it out fully, leaving much to the reader’s imagination (and giving steady work to generations of fight choreographers). Here is, as far as I reckon, the most complete description he gives, at the moment when the protagonist teaches the attack to an old provost friend:

    Tubleu ! fit Lagardère en tâtant le fer du prévôt, comme tu es devenu mou !… Voyons, engage en tierce… coup droit retenu ! pare… coup droit, remets à fond… pare prime et riposte… marche… prime encore sur ma riposte… passe sous l’épée, et aux yeux !

    Or in English:

    My God! said Lagardère while touching the provost’s blade, how soft you have become!… Let us see, engage in third… straight attack, holding back! parry… straight attack, remise all the way… parry in first and riposte… walk… first again on my riposte… pass under the sword, and to the eyes!

  3. à la muette, that is, without vocally instructing the student to perform the action, the student acts upon physical clues of the instructor↩︎

  4. The French says au pied levé. This has gone into common language to mean a last-minute, improvised action, but in this text I believe the litteral meaning is a better translation.↩︎

  5. The original is coup de jarret, literaly hamstring stroke, which denotes the capability to quickly spring from the knee.↩︎

  6. Interestingly, a prime also features prominently in Never’s attack… Reality meeting fiction?↩︎

  7. The French calls Pini a tireur de tête, tireur being a French term for fencer↩︎

3 thoughts on “Secret attacks

  1. Absolutely brilliant, thanks a lot!
    Also, it bears uncanny semblance to J. Harmenberg’s views on the “Olympic touches” and “Area of Expertise”.

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