19th century British martial arts divide
roughly into military and civilian disciplines. Military martial arts included
the use of sword and lance on horseback, sword and bayonet on foot, sword versus
bayonet or lance and of course the use of military firearms. Civilian
disciplines included boxing, wrestling, foil and epee fencing, walking-stick
self-defence and so on. In reality there were a lot of cross-overs and sports
such as boxing and foil fencing were often taught to soldiers, whilst some
civilians took up military sabre fencing and military firearm shooting.
Singlestick was equally popular in both
military and civilian circles - in the former as part of sabre training and in
the latter as a fun sport in itself. In the second half of the 19th century
'Assaults of Arms' were popular and these often saw soldiers and civilians
competing against each other in activities such as singlestick and even bayonet
fencing. Towards the end of the 19th century there seems to have been a growing
interest in self-defence martial arts and combining European unarmed fighting
arts with those of Japan and elsewhere.
Great Britain's Empire stretched around the
globe, at its height encapsulating one third of the World's population. As a
Victorian British Army and Navy increasingly found themselves fighting
determined enemies who lived by the sword, spear and musket.
The Sikh Wars, the Maori Wars, the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny, the Afghan
Wars, the Ashanti Wars, the Zulu Wars, the Sudan Wars, the Boxer Rebellion.. All
of these and many more conflicts of the era involved hand-to-hand fighting, with
bayonet, cutlass, sword, spear and knife.
For most of the 19th century the British infantryman relied upon a musket or
rifle with a relatively slow rate of fire, sometimes prone to misfires,
blockages and vulnerable to the climate and weather. A British line might only
fire a couple of volleys before the enemy were within hand-to-hand range.
Scouting parties would be even more vulnerable and urban or jungle warfare often
left no time to reload. Simple machineguns mounted on stands or carriages had
been in use from the 1860's, but even as late as the 1880's they were relatively
uncommon, difficult to move and riddled with mechanical problems. Given a large
body of rapidly advancing enemy, or when not fighting in open environments, the
bayonet was still a vital life-saving piece of equipment. The bayonet was the
deciding factor in many Victorian engagements, especially during the Indian
Mutiny. Many argue that the bayonet is
still a vital piece of equipment, even in modern warfare.
The first weapon of Infantry Officers was their men. However, in this period
they often led by example from the front (even though officially discouraged
from doing so) and so they always carried a sword, which was a symbol of office
as well as a weapon of self defence. Increasingly as the 19th century progressed
officers carried pistols as well (though many did not even as late as the
1860's). Occasionally they carried longer firearms, such as
carbines or shotguns. However, until the 1850's these firearms were mostly
single or double-shot weapons, so the sword was still very important as a
back-up, due to how long it took to reload. Even when revolvers became more common, from the 1850's onwards,
they generally contained only 5 or 6 shots and were slow to reload - if they did
not jam or misfire, which they often did. There are also accounts of revolvers
failing to stop a determined enemy. For this reason and others we see that many
officers preferred to use their swords to firearms of the time and ironically
(despite improvements in firearms and ammunition) as the century went on it
seems that more and more attention was paid to the quality and strength of
swords. Edged weapons were still vital pieces of kit and saw extensive use,
especially in colonial conflicts.
For the British Cavalry the sword and lance remained the primary weapons
until WWI. Even with several machineguns in the British force, there was a large
cavalry engagement with swords and lances at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898 (the
famous charge of the 21st Lancers, amongst whom was a young Winston Churchill).
Cavalry played a critical role in many of the wars of the period, against other
cavalry, artillery and infantry. The Sikh Wars, Indian Mutiny and Sudan Wars saw
epic cavalry versus cavalry actions played out with sword and lance. Even
cavalry acting as mounted infantry and using carbines also carried swords and
used them when required.
Artillery crews also carried swords, and for them and musicians (who were vital for
communication of orders in an age before radio), swords were sometimes their
only personal weapons of defence.
The Armed Forces involved a greater proportion of the population than today.
There were also the Volunteer regiments - something like the Territorial Army of
today - made up of part-timers.
There were 'Assaults at Arms' in which soldiers competed in martial contests,
often with large audiences, and sometimes these even pitted civilian sportsmen
against professional soldiers in such sports as singlestick, foil fencing,
sheep-cutting, lead-cutting, bayonet fencing, tent-pegging and rifle shooting.
These were held with great pomp and circumstance, filled with the chivalric
fervour aroused by the gothic revival of the time. It was one of these contests
- the annual 'Assault at Arms' held by the London Athletics Club from 1868 -
that ultimately grew into the 'Royal Tournament' (first called the 'Grand
Military Tournament and Assault at Arms'), which was held annually from 1880
until 1999 and now revived.
In Great Britain the primary sources of study for swordsmanship on foot were the
regulation 'Infantry Sword Exercises' of 1842 (revised several times) by Henry
Charles Angelo and 1895 (the last British regulation sword manual that I am
aware of) by Ferdinando Masiello. These two manuals represent very different
styles of swordsmanship, almost at two opposite ends of the spectrum for fencing
with infantry sabres. The former makes extensive use of the hanging guards
(prime and seconde) with the blade at about 45 degrees and the elbow bent,
whilst the latter uses very point-forwards guard positions keeping the blade
almost horizontal to the ground and the arm almost straight in all guards. To
some extent these differences may be indicative of the move from the 1845 curved
cut and thrust blade to the 1892 straight narrow blade designed primarily to
thrust. The differences are also no doubt due to the different fencing
backgrounds of the two masters engaged in making the manuals.
In addition to these regulation manuals, during the reign of Queen Victoria
there were a number of non-regulation sword manuals released by other British
authors such as Sir Richard Francis Burton (1876), John Musgrave Waite (1880)
and Sir Aflred Hutton (1882 & 1889). These show different emphases to each other
and to the regulation manuals, falling roughly between the two extremes of the
regulation manuals. In addition, many foreign manuals were and are available to
someone wishing to study different methods - France, Italy, Spain and the USA
all produced many manuals during this period. Thus, a contemporary or modern
student of Victorian infantry swordsmanship may elect to follow a wide variety
of different methods, or to select individual parts from different manuals.
The primary source for the study of bayonet use at this time was the Bayonet Exercise by Henry Charles Angelo,
which seems to have had a major print run in 1853, with some earlier copies
(late 1840's) being published in smaller quantities. Until the 1850's it seems
that British infantry received variable quantity and quality of training with
the bayonet, but from the 1850's onwards bayonet training seems to have become
more regulated and encouraged. Sir Richard Francis Burton had
attempted to sell his manual to the War Department in 1853 unsuccessfully
(Angelo's manual instead remained the standard reference). Burton instead sold
his manual to German army authorities amongst others. This and other alternative
manuals were available to British soldiers, such as Waite's work of 1880 and
Hutton's works of 1882 and 1890. Again, as with sword manuals, foreign works
were available to those who wanted an alternative. In particular, there were a
number of bayonet manuals written in the USA during their civil war and the
French manuals were given some attention in the Illustrated London News and
Victorian manuals also exist for other weapons, such as naval cutlass (eg.
Angelo), Police truncheon (eg. Hutton 1889) and even the anachronistic
quarterstaff (eg. MacCarthy 1883).
On the home front, boxing, wrestling, fencing, rifle and pistol shooting and
singlestick were, as mentioned above, popular civilian activities (though of course not as popular as
growing sports like football and cricket). Singlestick, though subsequently
eclipsed in popularity by modern fencing, was still popular enough to be
included in the 1906 Olympics. In the later half of the 19th century various
other martial arts received the attention of publishers, such as
wrestling (eg. James 1878) and
boxing manuals (eg. Donnelly 1879). Towards the end of the Victorian era there
was a growing interest in self defence, both armed and unarmed, and contemporary
manuals concerning this are also available (eg. Doran 1889). There was also an
interest in foreign martial arts and combining different disciplines - this led
to various self-defence methods incorporating Jujitsu with various European
traditions of boxing, kick-boxing and wrestling, as well as knife fighting,
fencing and other disciplines. The end result of one such amalgamation became 'Bartitsu',
developed by Edward W Barton-Wright.