Friday, September 2, 2016

Winston Churchill - School Fencing and the Victorian Saber

Young Winston

Fencing helped to build the character of Winston Churchill (1874-1965). From a young age he felt he was destined for greatness and invincible in battle. But the future Prime Minister of Great Britain was not an exemplary student at school. He enrolled at Harrow in 1888, and it was probably his family name that helped him to get through his academics. However, Winston excelled in subjects that appealed to him such as English and History, and he took an interest in athletics. This pursuit prompted him to write a letter to his mother Lady Randolph about a desire to take up fencing.

“I want to learn fencing. I go to the Gymnasium a great deal and I think it would be so much better for me to learn something which would be useful to me in the army, as well as affording me exercise and amusement. I’m sure, since I have been working well, you will not hesitate to sign the enclosed order and return it by post.”

Described as a small and delicate boy at 5 foot 6 inches tall with a 31 inch chest, fencing gave Winston the chance to prove himself. He took to fencing with great enthusiasm and soon became the best fencer in his school. He was gratified to earn the honor of representing Harrow in a tournament at Aldershot. The winner would be England’s public-school fencing champion.
He wrote: “My fencing is now my great employment out of school as now that I represent the School it behoves me to ‘sweat up’.”
Winston crossed foils with boys from several other schools such as Eton and Winchester. He beat them all, winning the Public Schools Fencing Championship in 1892.
He wrote home proudly: “I have won the fencing. A very fine cup. I was far and away first. Absolutely untouchable in the finals.”
Winston displayed his knack for self-promotion and attention that would follow himself in later years by having photographs made showing himself in fencing gear with his awards.

After his victory the school newspaper the Harrovian reported: "His success was chiefly due to his quick and dashing attack, which quite took his opponents by surprise."
And the paper added: “Churchill must be congratulated on his success over all his opponents in the fencing line, many of whom must have been much taller and more formidable than himself."

At 18 years of age, Winston entered Sandhurst Military Academy where he showed particular skill with horses and graduated eighth in his class of one hundred and fifty. He was commissioned as a Cornet (Second Lieutenant) in the 4th Queen's Own Hussars in 1895.

Now in the military, Winston would be armed with a sharp sword. He would serve with the 4th Hussars, and is seen photographed with two models during his service. The light cavalry sword and the heavy cavalry sword.

The light cavalry pattern saber had a slightly curved steel blade 35 1/2 inches long, suitable for both cutting and thrusting. It weighed about 2 pounds. The grip was of wood covered in fish skin and bound with silver wire. The hand-grip was protected by a steel three-bar hilt.

In 1896 light cavalry officers adopted the heavy cavalry pattern sword. It was only slightly heavier and of similar length, though straighter. The grip protection was a scroll bar made of steel.

Winston would rarely us the sword in battle, though he recognized its usefulness to the British campaigns in the North West Frontier (Pakistan and parts of Afghanistan) and the Sudan (Northern Africa).

Eager to see adventure and action, he entered his military career as a junior cavalry lieutenant and a war correspondent. While in the North West Frontier in 1897 he showed a rash desire to make sure he made a name for himself, riding a grey charger so that he stood out. The Afghans knew they were no match for the British using regular formations in battle. Instead, they relied on guerilla tactics and ambushes. This often resulted in fierce hand to hand combat.

During the Mamund Campaign in 1897 Winston engaged in a scene reminiscent of Indiana Jones. He was confronted by a sword wielding enemy who had just finished hacking at a wounded officer. As he later wrote in his book: “I forgot everything else at this moment except a desire to kill this man. I wore my long cavalry sword well-sharpened. After all, I had won the Public Schools fencing medal. I resolved on personal combat a l’arme blanche. The savage saw me coming. I was not more than 20 yards away. He picked up a big stone and hurled it at me with his left hand, and then awaited me, brandishing his sword. There were others waiting not far behind him. I changed my mind about the cold steel. I pulled out my revolver, took, as I thought, most careful aim, and fired. No result. I fired again. No result. I fired again. Whether I hit him or not, I cannot tell. At any rate he ran back two or three yards and plumped down behind a rock. The fusillade was continuous. I looked around. I was alone with the enemy. Not a friend was to be seen. I ran as fast as I could. There were bullets everywhere.”

Winston was also at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, participating in one of the British Army’s last full-scale cavalry charges. The young officer wrote of the hand to hand fighting that occurred: “It was the kind of fighting they thoroughly understood. Moreover, the fight was with equal weapons, for the British too fought with sword and lance as in the days of old.”
Winston suffered from an old shoulder injury, though, and made more use of his pistol than sword.

Such exploits helped to make a name for himself, and aided his rise in politics to become one of the best known statesmen in the 20th century.