In a series of blog posts, I will be going though the 8 rules in the Dicta Boelcke, and outline what can be applied to epee fencing. At first I thought that I should do all of this in one blog post, but on second thought that would be enormously unwieldy. Therefore, I limit myself to just one rule per blog post.
The rules, as Boelcke formulated them, are quite succinct. However, they are much better understood if given sufficient context. Micheal Shackelford of The Great War Public Document Archive has done that much better than could have done, so I will use his annotations for this and the following blog posts. Without his work, the value of the blog posts would have been much diminished indeed. So, let us begin with Boelcke´s first rule, and Shackelfords annotations of it:
1. Try to secure advantages before attacking. If possible keep the sun behind you.
‘Advantages’ for WWI aircraft included: speed, height, surprise, performance and numbers.
Speed – the pilot with the faster of two machines has control over the combat. He has the choice to break off combat and retire. The slower machine can not catch him. The pilot of a slower machine must stay on the defense. He can not run to safety. A fast moving aircraft can perform elaborate manoeuvres, giving its pilot many options. A machine flying close to its stall speed can do little beyond wallowing in a more or less straight line. Aircraft engines available in 1914 and 1915 provided just enough thrust to keep machines airborne at 80 mph, and not much more. Level flight was fine, but climbing to a higher altitude took several minutes and cut air speed nearly in half. Diving, on the other hand, could add half again to a plane’s top speed. By 1916, engine power and speed increased. By the end of the war, aircraft were operating regularly at speeds over 130 mph. Speed was critical.
Height – From the advantage of flying above his opponent, a pilot had more control over how and where the fight takes place. He could dive upon his opponent, gaining a sizable speed advantage for a hit and run attack. Or, if the enemy had too many advantages, numbers for instance, a pilot fly away with a good head start. On average, WWI aircraft climbed slowly. Altitude was a hard earned ‘potential energy’ store not to be given away capriciously.
Surprise – getting the first shot before one’s opponent is prepared to return fire was the ‘safest’ and preferred method for attack. Most air victories were achieved in the first pass. Without all-seeing devices like radar, a pilot could approach his foe stealthily, using clouds, haze or even using the enemy aircraft’s own wings or tail to conceal his approach. The glare of the sun, especially, provided an effective hiding spot.
Performance– Knowing the strengths, weakness and capabilities of your own aircraft, and that of your foe, was also critical. Who was faster, who could turn tighter, how many were there, etc.? He argued against foolish acts of ‘heroism.’ If he could not ‘secure advantages,’ he would not attack. One of Boelcke’s pupils, Manfred von Richthofen, learned this rule very well and became the war’s top scoring ace.
A documented example of Boelcke ‘securing advantages’ took place on 17 September 1916. Boelcke and his pilots intercepted a flight of bombers and fighters crossing the lines. He chose not to attack right away, but had his Jasta climb higher above the bombers, keeping themselves between the bombers and the sun. There they circled and waited. When the bomber pilots, observers and fighter escort pilots were preoccupied with the destruction they were causing on the ground, Boelcke signaled for his pilots to attack. Several enemy aircraft went down and Jasta 2 lost no one.
Thus concludes the annotations by Shackelford.
The first sentence of the rule (getting advantages before the attack) is quite straightforward, and probably applies to just about any sort of combat. What differs between different types of combat are the various types of advantages, and how one acquires them. More on that later.
The second sentence in the rule (keeping the sun behind you) is much more specific, and seemingly inapplicable to fencing. Strangely enough, I have personally once been in a situation in which it applied, in a somewhat modified form. This was a competition where there were so many bouts and so many fencers so that all available rooms in sports hall had to be used. Also, this was a competition where fencers were expected to self-referee during the poule stages, and at this time fencers pressed into reffing duty were less than vigilant in telling the fencers which side of the piste they were supposed to go to. Some of the poules were fenced in a room that was designed for archery and target shooting, which meant that the lighting was quite unusual – the roof was made with a zigzag pattern, with lamps in the inside corners pointing towards one end of the room. That gave ample lighting on the targets without any glare for archers and shooters, but during fencing bouts it lead to a situation in which one fencer got better vision, and the other got glare in his eyes. Fencers at this competition quickly learnt to run for the right guard line before their bout started.
Back to securing advantages beforehand.
Speed, whether it is in the hand, legs, or thought confers many advantages to the faster fencer. However, one should note that not only is maximum speed relevant here – maximum acceleration and deceleration are also important. The faster fencer can open up the distance if necessary, and has the option to go for complex offensive movements with much less risk of being caught and parried (or counterattacked) by the defender. The slower fencer is to a significant degree forced to build his strategy and tactics around grinding his opponent down, if has strong arms and can perform lots of beats on the blade, or catch the faster opponent unawares, or perform deceptive movements (the learning of which is what makes old people viable in fencer at a higher degree that in other sports, where it is a viable option to simply run away from slower opponents.)
Height – we all know that a lot of the best epee fencers are tall. With a tall body generally comes a great reach, making it easier to pick off incoming attacks with arret hits to the attacking fencers hand or lower arm. Tall fencers can also beat their opponents blade from above without having to do anything special to get into position. This is advantageous for two reasons: Firstly, the anatomy of the hand and lower arm gives a better force when you are beating from above downwards that in the opposite direction. Try hammering in a nail from below, and you will feel the difference good and well! Secondly, the bend of the blade ensures that the tip of the blade will be pointing somewhat towards the upper surface of the lower arm if you have beaten your opponent’s blade from above, but if you have beaten it from below the tip of your blade will be pointing somewhat away from the lower surface of his lower arm.
Surprise – in aerial warfare, it is possible to start attacking against an opponent that is not even aware that you are there. We do not have that opportunity in fencing, so we have to go one level down in the types of surprises – attacking him when he is not expecting an attack. Feint attacks, if executed so well so that your opponent does not see them as such early on, will make him slower – if he knows that he cannot dismiss a movement of yours as a feint attack he must devote his mental resources to dealing with it, and he cannot safely do something else (counterattacks) instead. Do several feint attacks which he does not recognize as such early on, and many opponents will fence from a longer distance, from where you do not have to worry so much.
Performance – in aerial warfare, one combatant will often have the better plane, which might settle the outcome even if that plane is flown by the inferior pilot. Not so in fencing, where are weapons have the same blade length, guard size, and roughly the same blade flexibility. In fencing, it is the performance of the fencer wielding the blade that is crucial. This means that you shall assess your strengths and weaknesses in relation to your opponent, and choose strategies and tactics in such a way so that your strengths and his weaknesses get important, while the others do not enter into the equation. (I have said so many times in previous blog posts, but the point should be hammered home.) Both the assessment and the selection of strategies and tactics can and should be done before the match starts, by observing your opponent is his previous matches and then processing the observations. If you have done that and your opponent has not, then you can start the match doing actions that are more likely to score, while he has to spend time observing you, or hoping that his go-to actions will work. That increases the chances of you getting the early lead, which forces him to play catch-up, and takes away some strategic possibilities.
Next rule, to be covered in the next blog post: Always carry through an attack when you have started it. In epee fencing, that usually applies to attacks, but even more so to counterattacks. Why? That will be dealt with in that blog post.