U.S. Naval Swordplay: A.J. Corbesier

Thanks to the U.S. Naval Academy, Maryland can claim a number of famous fencing masters who left instructional manuals to posterity. One of them was the Belgian Antoine J. Corbesier. He may not have been original. But he was influential enough to have a couple of ships named after him.

Includes link to FREE, complete text of his Broadsword Exercise!

by J. Christoph Amberger

Few manuals were ever specifically dedicated to the use of the sidearm in the navies of the United Kingdom and the United States. Only within the last third of the 19th century—at a time when naval engagements no longer were decided by boarding and hand-to-hand combat but by long-distance artillery—do we find printed manuals issued to provide uniformity to naval sword practice.

Which does not mean that sword practice was neglected aboard warships in the preceding decades. But the systems varied with the times—and closely reflected the favored edged-weapons systems as applied by the landlubbers of the period.

This close relationship between naval sword systems and those practiced on terra firma is not coincidental. Edward Anthony Angelo, grandson of the venerable Domenico Malevolti Angelo, son of Henry “Harry” Angelo, and brother of the influential Henry Angelo Jr., mentions that his late sibling’s Naval Cutlass Exercise was based on the one for the Highland Broadsword:

During the blockade of the Scheld and Dutch ports, in the summer of 1812, my brother was on a visit to his friend, Captain Rainier, of the ‘Norge’ frigate, and whilst on board that ship, thinking it might be beneficial, and an amusement, to the sailors, he drilled the crew in an appropriate use of their cutlasses, and it met with such approbation and practice in other ships, that it ultimately became a portion of the instruction for the Navy, on board the ‘Excellent’ in Portsmouth.

Given the height differential, an attack to the knee might be more advisable

A woodcut created around 1860 by W. Thomas depicts “Sword Practice Aboard H.M.S. Britannia” and shows ridiculously young sailors practicing singlestick with a bearded master-at-arms… at the same close distance that characterizes early Victorian backswording systems.

Illustrations dating from the last decade of the 19th century show squad practice at singlesticks on British warships that is clearly based on the medium-distance applications of later, broadsword-based singlestick practice. (In fact, the young fencers’ equipment closely resembles that worn by German students practicing Schläger.)

Cutlass Drill; Britain, c. 1900

Any port in a storm

A popular American postcard of the period, however, hints at an important difference: Young American sailors did not pose with singlesticks and heavy broadsword helmets—but with foils and sabers as used by civilians in the States since before the Civil War.

That circumstance, too, has a venerable history. An illustrated article in the Illustrated News dated March 26, 1853 depicts scenes from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland… where midshipmen since 1845 had received instruction in mathematics, ethics, chemistry, “steam”, modern language, drawing, gunnery, fencing, seamanship, fleet sailing, field artillery, battalion drill and other martial arts with the single-minded intent of enabling each single one of them “to take high rank as an officer and a gentleman“.

To the fencing historian, the illustration “Interior of the Battery—Battery Practice and Fencing” is of particular interest. In the foreground, eight pairs of fencers are engaged in squad practice of foil techniques under the stern observation of a fencing master and what appear to be his four assistants. And while the left-hand wall of the Battery is decorated with a dozen basket-hilted broadswords, there’s only a single pair of fencers practicing broadsword techniques in the background.

Still, it is that broadsword practice that establishes the U.S. Naval Academy among the first English-language contributors on the published canon of naval sword practice. The author is one A.J. Corbesier. And he is not only the author of America’s first-ever manual on naval sword instruction, but probably the only professional fencing master in history to have a warship named after him.

Belgian import

According to the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, Antoine Joseph Corbesier was born on January 22, 1837 in Belgium. He served in the French army (with Grisier) before coming to America, where he found gainful employment as Sword-Master of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. A brief advertisement in the New York Tribune, from October 19, 1863, places him in New York during the time of the Civil War, where he was a teacher at the New York Fencing Club before opening his own school.

Advertisemet in the New Your Tribune from 1863.

Advertisemet in the New Your Tribune from 1863.

His most well known contribution to American fencing literature is his Theory of Fencing, with the Small-Sword Exercise, published in Washington, D.C., by the Government Printing Office in 1873, a work well documented in most bibliographies.

But neither Vigéant, Thimm, or Castle in the late 19th century, nor Laszlo Nagy in his bibliographic attempts of 1985 include Corbesier’s first work in their compilations. (In fact, Thimm even lists Corbesier with the wrong middle initial: “A.F.”, which is carried through the various bibliographies for another century.) Only in the mid-1990s does Henk Pardoel finally add the following to his comprehensive bibliography of fencing literature:

665 Corbesier, Antoine, J., Principles of Squad Instruction for the Broadsword, Philadelphia, USA, J.B. Lippincott & Co., 47 p., 1869.

The small octavo (bound in green buckram for the first edition, in brown for the second) is embossed with a pair of crossed sabers, with the letters USN and an anchor in each quadrant… and framed with a border of rope with a fencing mask in each corner. There are ten plates with line engravings by an unidentified artist.

Corbesier is rather modest in his introductory remarks, protesting that his purpose is “not to present anything new or original, but simply to give, if possible, uniformity to the exercise with a most important weapon of attack and defense.

The program itself was established (at least in part) around 1867 and was intended to teach divisions of at least twelve Midshipmen in either one or two ranks, much like the group depicted in the 1853 Illustrated News illustration. The fencers execute pre-determined sets of drills, which all in all do not exceed very basic techniques and sequences.

Background check

While the very basic nature of the broadsword curriculum makes the tracing of direct influences on Corbesier’s training and fencing background as difficult as they would be dull, his second work on the foil and smallsword allows a glimpse at some of his influences.

Analyzing the structure (and especially the illustrations!) of his 1873 Theory of Fencing, there is one particular source that becomes clear: Cordelois’ Leçons d’Armes—Du duel et de l’assaut.

The great French fencing collector and historian Vigéant calls Cordelois “un des maitres estimés de la capitale” — one of the esteemed masters of the capital (Paris). But what unambiguously connects Corbesier and Cordelois are the latter’s illustrations: 42 figures that were engraved by a M. Brown, Professor at the Académie des Beaux-Arts at Brussels, Belgium.

If Professor Brown was personally known to Corbesier from his time in Belgium cannot be confirmed. It’s far more likely, however, that a copy of Cordelois’ second edition (published in 1873 in Paris at Dumaine) ended up in Corbesier’s hands, from which his illustrator (or himself?) appear to have copied the illustrations by simply placing a piece of parchment paper on the original and tracing the outlines in pencil.

Ultimate reward

Notwithstanding the unattributed reproduction of the artwork (which might get him fired these days), Corbesier was one of the most respected and popular fencing masters the Naval Academy ever had on its payroll. By special act of Congress, he was given the rank of first lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps on March 4, 1913.

He was so popular with his students that they rewarded his instruction posthumously with a distinction no other professional American fencing master has ever experienced.

They named a warship after him.

The Corbesier (DE-438) was launched February 13, 1944 by Federal Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. of Kearny, N.J., and commissioned on March 31, 1944.

The only warship to be named after a fencing master

The ship departed New York City on May 29, 1944 for Pearl Harbor, arriving June 26. Between 2 July and 9 August, she twice escorted convoys to Eniwetok and back to Pearl Harbor. She next escorted a cable ship to Midway, screened it until September 16 and proceeded with the cable ship to Eniwetok and Saipan, where she arrived October 2, and served on patrol and escort off Saipan from until November 11, 1944.

After missions to Guam, Leyte, San Pedro Bay and Ulithi, she carried out antisubmarine and escort missions. On January 23, 1945, in collaboration with the Conklin (DE-439) and the Raby (DE-698), she sank the Japanese submarine I-48 off Yap. In March 1945, she served with the logistics group, supporting the fast carrier striking force in the Okinawa Campaign… screening, guarding planes, and transferring passengers, mail, and freight until June 15, when she again was detached at Saipan.

Sailing from Saipan on June 28 for Okinawa, she operated on antisubmarine screening duty under the constant threat of kamikaze attacks and typhoons. After the end of WWII, the ship sailed for Nagasaki, arriving September 25, 1945, for various duties in support of the occupation of Japan, including transportation of passengers and freight between Nagasaki, Sasebo, and Okinawa.

The Corbesier was placed out of commission in reserve on July 2, 1946, and berthed at San Diego. The ship received two battle stars for World War II service.

Antoine J. Corbesier, however, did not live to witness the exploits of his ironclad namesake. He had died in the Naval Hospital at Annapolis on March 26, 1915, after plying his trade for more than 40 years, during which time he trained generations of Midshipmen according to his programmatic statement that

The art of fencing, in a military sense, is, undoubtedly, of immense value; but I can further, with safety, say that it is also part of a good education.

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