Some time before I started writing this blog, I asked myself: “Has there been anyone who has started, or transformed, the field of tactics in his type of adversarial combat? If so, what can be learned from him that can be applied to fencing?” I then set myself the task of trying to find such a person.
At first, I looked among various sports. Then I came to the conclusion that whatever the rules codified by such a game changer in a sport would be inextricably linked to the rules of that sport. Granted, some things might be transferable to fencing, but I thought it more fruitful to look at another type of combat – war.
So war it was. But which type of war? Which battlespace? Of the five types, I rejected two – cyber and information – out of hand, deeming them too dissimilar to fencing. That leaves the two age-old battlespaces, land and sea, and a relative newcomer, air.
War on land and at sea almost always share a characteristic not found in fencing – each side consists of many combatants, and in order to win it is crucial that all of those will work together. That is also the case in most aerial warfare, but importantly not, it was not the case during the beginning of World War I, the first war in which air forces were used extensively. Furthermore, aerial warfare post-WWI has had lots of instances in which each side is represented by one combatant.
Good use of camouflage and cover are crucial to land warfare, and have been since time immemorial. The same goes for naval warfare, albeit to a lesser degree. (This might seem counterintuitive if you are thinking about naval battles on the high seas, but there are lots of instances of littoral battles in which one combatant has been able to hide behind an island. Storms can be used to get the other side to lose contact, and if one side is more seaworthy, they can serve as temporary obstacles. Finally, submarines use the sea itself for camouflage). In contrast there is very little camouflage in the air, though it should be noted that Boelcke devoted one of his 8 rules to it. Also, there is no cover in normal aerial warfare. That makes aerial warfare the most similar battlespace to fencing, in this respect. Obviously, there is no camouflage whatsoever in fencing, and what little cover there is you have to provide yourself in the form of parries.
Finally, there is the aspect of logistics. Armies need enormous amounts of all sorts of goods. The need to find foodstuffs – for soldier and horse alike – has taken up a lot of time and resources of the soldiers, time that they could not spend doing combat. Also, they had to protect their own transport lines on occasion. This was easier in the case of naval warfare, since individual ships could serve as their own logistics centers. However, long-range warfare was for a long time hindered by the need to take along high-bulk items such as food, fresh water, an munitions. Now, desalination, dried food, and nuclear power plants have solved a lot of logistics problems in naval warfare, and extended the effective ranges tremendously. In contrast to that, logistics is less of a concern in aerial warfare, by a significant degree. Individual missions are so brief so that food and water are either not needed, or can be carried by the pilot. There is no need to carry repair materiel, since repairs in midair cannot be done anyway. That means that the weight and storage of fuel and munitions are the only limiting factors in the range of aerial warfare. Now, for fencing the logistics is not – or at least should not – be the factor that decides the level of competitive success. Any rookie can pack a fencing bag so well so that more time spent on packing the bag will not increase chances, provided that he is reasonably careful. The same goes for the individual match – there is not much to bring to the piste, and what is brought will rarely become useless or consumed during the bout: If a blade breaks, it is easy to replace it, and one will not be harassed by the opponent when doing so.
In short, there are three important aspects of warfare (individual actors, lack of natural hindrances, and limited importance of logistics) in which fencing is closer to aerial warfare than the two age-old battlespaces. I thus concluded that I should start looking for useful lessons among aerial warfare, rather than among other types of war.
That leads us to the next question: from whom should one learn? Powered, heavier than air flight was invented in 1902, but it took a few years until the first planes could be used for warfare. The first war in which planes were used was the Italo-Turkish war of 1911-1912, but in that conflict only one side had planes, so there were no conflicts between two pilots, and thus no impetus to think about the tactics of aerial warfare.
It would take a few more years, in the first war in which both sides had planes and used them extensively, for the first codified system of tactics of aerial warfare to come into being. The man responsible for that was Oswald Boelcke, and in so doing, he became the father of air combat.
More on him in the next blog post.