An Olympian Fencer, he reinvented cavalry saber, fighting style
Editors Note: The following is reprinted from American Fencing Magazine, Vol. 41, No. 4.
George S. Patton, famous for panache, ivory-handled pistols, and tanks, was also one of America’s most prominent swordsmen.
He occupies an important position in the age-old argument about the superiority of the cut or the thrust. He was the first U.S. military officer to hold the title Master of the Sword, and perhaps the last.
(Note: The director of athletics at West Point has a parking space reserved in that title but the academy has no varsity fencing team.)
His career, which culminated in the mechanized armored fighting of World War II, began in the days of horse and saber.
Patton began fencing at West Point as a freshman in 1904. He studied the dueling sword (epee) and the broadsword (cavalry saber). Broadsword practice was not the light contact sport which saber is today. Patton described his classwork in a letter to his father in 1908.
“I am the best or one of the best in the class with broadsword. It is lots of fun and I practice it as much as possible. You should see the sparks fly on some of the parries, also the blood if you chance stick your unguarded left hand in the way.
“The other day I was fencing with a man who would not acknowledge my touches though they nearly knocked him down, so I tried duelling cut not supposed to be used in fencing at the right wrist. As a result he could not hold a pen for a day, but will probably be a better sport in the future.”
In a letter to his future wife, Patton described a fencing victory over a professional member of a fencing club in New York.
“I think he was out of practice, still I was glad to beat him. Please pardon my boasting but…I would like so to be good with the sword.”
In 1912 Patton represented the Army in the fifth Olympics held in Stockholm. His event, the modern pentathlon, included riding, pistol shooting, fencing, swimming, and running. It was based on a fictitious military scenario. A messenger rides, loses his horse, fires at the enemy, engages the enemy with a sword when out of ammunition, swims a river, and runs to deliver the message. In fact, the five events were held on separate days.
Overall, Patton placed fifth out of 42 contestants. He ranked third in fencing and was the only competitor to give the fencing champion of the French army a loss. The weapon used was the epee, then called the duelling sword. Patton called it, “the rapier of history and the ancestor of all swords…The curved saber is a hybrid, being a cross between the rapier and the scimitar and having the good qualities of neither.”
Patton inquired of his fellow Olympic fencers in Stockholm about who was considered to be the best fencing master in Europe. The consensus named Clery, master of arms and instructor of fencing at the Cavalry School in Saumur, France. He was the professional champion of Europe in the foil, saber, and duelling sword.
For two weeks following the Olympics, Patton studied saber and duelling sword with Clery. For mounded combat Clery stressed the thrust with the saber rather than the cut commonly favored in U.S. cavalry training.
On his return to the U.S., Patton submitted the following conclusion to the Adjutant General.
“The whole French system of mounted saber fencing is concentrated in the word: ‘Attack!’
“The recruit is taught little or no fencing mounted, but he has the one idea to reach his adversary with the point hammered into him constantly, and he spends much time running at dummies mounted.
“It is argued that America, being a country of axmen, the edge comes more natural, but from what I saw and was told the French recruit wants to use the edge just as much as ours do, but it is drilled out of them…
“Charging with the point gives the advantage of reaching the enemy at least a year sooner than does our, of presenting during the approach about one third of the human target and of instilling the desire to speed up and hit hard…
For these reasons the French, English, and the Swedes are adopting straight sabers.”
Patton’s weeks with Clery were decisive in the development of the Patton Saber, US Model 1913, the last sword manufactured for combat in the United States. Under Clery’s influence, Patton reversed the emphasis on cutting in American cavalry swordsmanship.
Patton aggressively promoted the adoption if a straight saber and training that would emphasize the trust almost to the exclusion of cutting and parrying. He circulated quotations from the British Cavalry Sword and Saber Notes, 1911, and his own translation of the French Cavalry Drill Instructions of the same year.
“In the melee…the troopers single out their adversaries, seeking especially the officers,” he wrote. “They attack with the point, shouting, ‘Thrust, thrust!’”
In the summer of 1913 Patton received permission to return to Saumur and continue his studies with Clery for six weeks before reposting to the Mounted Service School at Fort Riley, Kan., on Oct. 1. At the end of their time together, Clery presented Patton with a picture of himself in fencing attire inscribed in French, “To my best pupil.”
At Fort Riley, 2nd Lt. Patton was both a cavalry student and a sword instructor. His title was Master of the Sword. Many of his students were superior officers. While he taught, he wrote a manual for the use of the new saber published in March 1914, as Saber Exercise. He announced his philosophy on the first page.
“The saber is solely a weapon of offense and is used in conjunction with the other offensive weapon, the horse. In all the training, the idea of speed must be conserved. No direct parries are taught, because at the completion of a parry the enemy is already beyond the reach of attack. The surest parry is a disabled opponent.
“In the charge and in the melee, the trooper must remember that on the speed of his horse in attack, and on his own offensive spirits, rest nine-tenths of his chances of success.”
The manual details a course of instruction that progresses from the exercise on foot, to mounted charge over obstacles and against dummies, to full scale combat with masks and dull exercise sabers. A trooper who has touched was required to raise his saber and leave the designated area. Perhaps remembering his opponent at West Point, Patton wrote:
“A man who does not admit touches should be tried (by court martial) or in some other way have his sensibilities awakened.”
In June 1915, Patton published The Diary of the Instructor of Swordsmanship. He repeated the importance of the saber as an offensive weapon. The saber was: “not an individual defense…The men must be impressed with the idea that the proper defense is a transfixed opponent.”
In 1916 the Cavalry Board of Equipment considered replacing the 1913 saber with a curved weapon. Patton vigorously defended the weight, length, shape, and balance of the weapon he designed. The distribution weight “was very carefully arranged to give maximum effect to the charge with the point and to the lunge…In this particular the present saber is the superior of any existing weapon in the hands of foreign nations.”
He cited the effective cutting power of the straight swords used by medieval knights, Scottish high-landers, Rupert and Cromwell in the English Civil War, Charles XII, and Peter the Great. He quoted numerous historical advocates of the point, including Napoleon.
“At Wagram, when the cavalry of the Guard passed in review before a charge, Napoleon called to them: ‘Don’t cut! The point! The point!’”
Patton’s career as Master of the Sword ended in 1914 soon after Pancho Villa raided Columbus, New Mexico, and killed 17 Americans, Patton was assigned to the 8th Cavalry at Fort Bliss, Texas. He described a regimental review in a letter to his wife.
“It was a fine sight, all the sabers drawn and all my sabers. It gives you a thrill in my eyes filled with tears…
“It is the call of ones ancestors and the glory of combat. It seems to me that at the head of a regiment of cavalry anything would be possible…”
Patton’s dreams were soon to be frustrated. On Thanksgiving Day 1914, he was ordered to attack a band of 80 Mexicans who were camped on the American side of the Rio Grande. Patton planned a saber charge at dawn. But his immediate superiors ordered the sabers to be left at the fort. The Mexicans were not found and his men returned after eleven hours in the saddle.
During this campaign Patton and 10 soldiers traveling in three automobiles shot and killed a well-known Villista officer and two of his comrades. This was the first time that a U.S. Army unit had motored into action. The days of the saber were in decline and mechanized warfare was born.
Patton remained an interested theorist in fighting with the sword, but he became a monumentally successful practitioner of modern mobile warfare.
In April 1934 the Adjutant General’s Office discontinued the saber as an item of issue to the cavalry and completely discarded it as a weapon. By that time Patton was involved in the development of the U.S. Tank Corps and the demise of the saber passed without his documented comment.
Patton never used his saber in battle, but he demonstrated in World War II this will to charge the enemy with the tanks and half-tracks that earned his armored cavalry the nickname, “Hell on Wheels.”
Original Article: The Gold Standard