Men of Iron: part two

(continued from part one)

A very vivid picture of this degenerative process is included in Otto Julius Bierbaum’s1 Gamasche, der Pommernfuchs.2 And since the awareness of just such an erosion taking place within yourself is one of the most prevalent fears of any Mensur fencer I know, I believe this account encapsulates the true nature of any Comment combat.

Henry, nick-named Gamasche (“Galoshes”), is a young millionaire who for some reason unfathomable even to him joined a duelling fraternity, the Corps Pomerania. Supported by Böhle, a veteran”two-ribbon-man” (i.e., a member of two different fraternities) and his second Kuttler, Henry is getting ready to fight his first Mensur as a pledge, against another first-timer, a pledge of the Corps Frisia:

The great hall in which the Mensuren were to take place was filling up slowly, while Henry, who was up for the first bout, was being bandaged up. Nonetheless, he felt utterly alone. Suddenly, he realized that he had absolutely nothing in common with all those people, that all this was essentially alien to him.

Only when Böhle approached, he felt that there was someone who was part of him. And only Böhle’s words made it into his consciousness; what the others around him said, particularly what Kuttler did not tire to preach to him in endless repetitions, was only empty noise, hollow sound, muted gushing.

‘So how do you feel,’ asked Böhle, who didn’t like Henry’s apathetic looks at all.

‘How am I supposed to feel? Not at all!’ Henry replied.

‘Does the neck brace sit alright?’

‘Probably. At least I can’t breathe.’

‘The goggles are cutting in a bit. But no matter, Galoshes, you’ll get used to it.’

‘No, it’s alright. Nothing matters at all. Even this disgusting stench of old blood that gets into my nose from the neck brace…’

‘It’ll pass.’

‘Might as well stay…’

‘Man. Don’t be so horribly apathetic. Would you like me to get you a drink?’

‘Yes, please. Cognac.’

‘Feel better now?’

‘Don’t really feel bad at all. I just don’t get the point of this thing.’


‘I’m so angry I want to shout.’

‘Good! Get angry! Anything but this damn apathy–Let me tell you something, Galoshes. This is something important now. Pull yourself together, to the utmost! Stand like a piece of wood, and do not leave out a single cut! Deliver an impeccable Mensur. And tomorrow you resign. Then you may do it. I’ll fight everyone who says anything against it. But now, for God’s sake, do not give any reason for offence.’

Henry felt that a friend’s concern motivated these words, and he found support in them. He now even could–what he had fearfully avoided up until this moment–turn his glance to the opposite side, where his opponent stood with a free smile and executed a whistling cut through the air.

Of course, he shouldn’t have done that. To him, this was an absolutely gruesome picture. The vague fear, which had manifested itself in dull apathy, turned into downright fright of something definite, personal: of this agile, tall, strong human over there, with this horrifyingly long Schläger that whistled through the air like a whip. His apathy dissipated; now something welled up inside him, something pressing, something captive that looked for a way out. Henry’s eyes began to dart back and forth, as if he himself was looking for an exit.

But even a vice couldn’t have gripped him tighter than his battle gear and the presence of all these murmuring, whispering, laughing strangers, who themselves were like tied down, and, with stern or laughing demeanor, represented the Principle that united and dominated them: The Principle of Overcoming Bodily Fear.

There was no escape. To admit one’s fear would indeed have required a moral sovereignty that would have counter-balanced any cowardice of the body–because it would have proved more than an over-abundance of bodily fear, namely real individual courage as opposed to the courage of peer pressure.

One has only found courage like this in men who after their first laughter or terror, depending on what excited their courage, were venerated and admired as saints. Even behind the holy courage of St. Francis of Assisi may have been a cowardice of the body, when he declared in the face of all the beautiful young ladies of his home town: my bride is poverty, and left the locale with ha-ha-has and hee-hee-hees.

Such and similar thoughts went through the head of the deviant member-of-two-Corps Böhle when he noticed what was now going on in Henry’s face.

Henry himself only felt one thing: ‘Now, I’ll be led to the slaughter.’

He stood on the chalk cross of the Mensur3 without knowing how he got there. His left hand mechanically closed tightly around the pulled-through strap of the fencing apron, his right arm rested in the arms of the Assisting Pledge4, his eyes were staring as into a maelström of fog.

Now someone put his Schläger into his hand and whispered: ‘Why don’t you put your finger through the sling, goddamn it.’

He did that. Someone put his cap on his head for the round of honor.5 From far, far away, he heard a voice: ‘Silence for a Mensur with Schlägers with wraps and bandages between Frisia and Pomerania.’ Then the command: ‘Silence for the round of honor! Bind the blades! They’re bound! Go!–Halt!’ The caps were removed.

Now it was serious.

‘Silence for the first round! Bind the blades! Go!’

Henry closed his eyes and waved his Schläger around in the air. But his opponent cut in earnest.


It was the opponent’s second who had called–and now added: ‘I request that a bloody hit on the quarte side be announced by the opposing party.’6[50]

Henry felt something warm running down the left side of his head and that someone was fingering around in his hair. Then a whisper reached his ear: ‘You’re asleep! Follow through with your cuts and don’t go back into cover after only half a blow!’

‘How weird,’ thought Henry, ‘now I’ve been hit and didn’t even feel it; this thing isn’t that bad after all.’

And he ventured to open his eyes.

There went his boldness again!

His opponent seemed even more gigantic to him than just a moment ago, and all the whispering that was done over there did not bode well at all. Why was this horrible brute grinning and nodding? What was he up to? No, it was much more sensible to close the eyes again. But he intended to follow through with the cuts.

‘Bind the blades.’

Henry shut his eyes so tight that it turned deep, dark night around him.


Splat! Splat! — Good lord, what was that? That brute was thrashing him with cudgels!

Henry had to bite down hard not to scream in pain.

His opponent had hit him with two flat blows, twice, right on the spot where he had received the small bloody one in the first round.7


Again it was the opponent’s second who had interjected.

‘Probably two bone splinters,’ Henry thought, as much as he was able to think because of the pain.

‘Why halt?’

‘I would like to inquire if the opposite side is still fencing.’

Henry had indeed preferred to remain covered and had not returned the first or second blow.8

Now it no longer was a whisper near his ear, but a hiss: ‘Man, you don’t do anything but lurk! Hit, goddamn it, or…’

‘We request a break, the neck brace is too tight.’

Kuttler saw the smirk triggered by his Mensur-lie, and this enraged him even more. He tore wildly at the brace and thus loosened the buckle a bit. Then he continued hissing: ‘It’s a bloody disgrace the way you’re acting. You deserve that he slaps you with the flat blade left and right. Hit, I say!’ He was just grinding his teeth now. Then: ‘We request continuation of the Mensur.’

‘O God, o God! Don’t hit the same spot again,’ Henry thought. And: ‘Hit! Hit! Cover doesn’t help at all.’

‘Bind the blades! Go!’

This time Henry hit blow upon blow simultaneously with his opponent, and he continued to hit, even though it splatted again twice, not in the least less painful than before, o God, no, not less painful at all.


This time Kuttler had called Halt.

To the question ‘Why: Halt?’, he responded growling: ‘The neck brace has loosened.’

A sunny smile radiated over everything that pledged allegiance to Frisia’s banner, while Pomerania stood in grim gloom.

‘What the hell is the matter now,’ thought Henry. ‘I didn’t leave out a cut.’

He was enlightened quickly. Kuttler pulled his neck brace together that his breath halted and grunted like a wounded boar. ‘Wait… do not retreat back into the brace! You’ll rather suffocate! And if the least bit happens now, we’ll kick you out right here and now. Never seen such a goddamn mess!’

He was so enraged that Herr von Spockhoff had to seriously admonish him not to lose his bearing.

Meanwhile, Böhle helped the now completely demoralized Henry to some cognac and whispered into his ear: ‘For God’s sake, head up! Chin firmly onto the neck brace! Put your self out forward as much as possible9 and stand firm, firm, firm. The thing’ll be over in a flash.’

‘Be over! Be over! Be over!’ Henry idiotically repeated to himself. His constricted neck hurt just about as much as his head, whose left half had visibly swollen up. The original small bloody one from the first round was gaping apart as a consequence of the subsequent flat hits, and was bleeding strongly. Henry was convinced that his skull was laying bare. And even while he now kept his eyes open, he fearfully avoided to look at the Terrible One, who was torturing him so viciously.

He was full of fright and horror and distinctly felt that there was not a soul in the hall who had compassion with him. In his painful emotional overextension, the smiles of the Frisians seemed like the grins of demons, who were feeding on his disgrace–their triumph–and would accompany his complete annihilation with resounding laughter.

This was the low point of his life. He felt like a whipped dog waiting for that last kick, and he only had the one wish to be liberated from this horribly constrictive neck brace as soon as possible, and thus to be free from this entire horrible nightmare in full daylight. His fear now was limitless. It completely filled him, he did not have the faintest hope for any somehow bearable outcome, and yet he did not in the least think that one thought, that he could simply say: I don’t want any more, let me go, I am a coward. Despise me as much as you want, but I do not want to be a caricature of your courage.

‘We request continuation of the Mensur.’

Kuttler shouted it overly loud, but made such a twisted face that you could see how little confidence he had. His mind was made up: At the first bloody hit, at the most minute scratch, he would declare the Abfuhr.10

‘Bind the blades! They’re bound! Go!’

Splat! ‘Halt!’

Kuttler threw away his weapon. The Assisting Pledge neglected to prop up Henry’s arm which now sank down heavily and remained hanging obliquely so that the point of his Schläger touched the floor.

The second of the Frisians put his left hand up to the broad rim of his cap as if shading his eyes, and said with dry sarcasm, yet seemingly very seriously and correct:

‘I request someone check out if the opposing fencer is still present in the hall.’

O sweet revenge! That beautiful million-dollar pledge of the Pomerania now was done in for good. To take an entire step behind the crux11: that was a bit much!

After this insult, Kuttler felt better. He declared termination and, as soon as the umpire had announced the outcome, stepped up to the impertinent Frisian with a cold but highly correct greeting, growling: ‘You will hear from us.’

The Frisian returned the greeting not any less correctly and replied: ‘Very well; it will be no small pleasure to us.’

They measured each other with a coldly courteous glance and turned around. And behold, the Spirit of the Pro Patria Suite hovered festively through the hall.12

None of the Pomeranians exchanged a word with Henry. Only Böhle stepped up close to him as if by chance, as Henry was groaning while being mended and said. ‘I’ll go over to your place and wait for you. There’s nothing left but getting out of here unnoticed. Ex est volupta.’13

Given the slippery slope of this degenerative mental process into complete demoralization, it is not surprising to me that the ordeal regarded the outcome of a fight as divine judgment: Any fighter who had to overcome the additional drag of a guilty conscience–and the never-ending period of anticipating divine wrath–must have been at a disadvantage to begin with–his defeat a logical consequence of his misdeed.

The other man

The element of fear and anticipation decreases dramatically with any minute that does not elapse between the awareness that an encounter will inevitably take place, and the actual face-off. Most antagonistic scenarios that do not involve a Comment of sorts, that occur spontaneously or with minimal premeditation, revolve around factors other than personal fear.

The most important, in my opinion, is the success or failure to immediately grasp and interpretation of the situation in all its consequences.

Training conditions the fencer to expect a certain behavior from his opponent. This expectation is a preeminent factor in the personal evaluation and classification of the imminent combat scenario and in the external development of the fight itself. Expecting an opponent to behave in one way or the other is not without danger. Often, being right or wrong determines who’s going to live or die at the end of an encounter–before the actual fight has begun.

Take the German patriot and poet Theodor Körner, for example. A member of Lützow’s Freicorps, he was one of the most popular and romantic figures of the German war effort against Napoleon.

Before he joined the volunteer partisans lining up in the great patriotic struggle against the French, Körner had studied at the Bergakademie (mining academy) of Freiberg, where he belonged to a student fraternity (probably the Landsmannschaft Montania) from 1809-10.

As his contemporaries attested, he had fought a number of duels and Mensuren with straight-bladed broadswords. His estate even included a sheet in which he had summarized a very basic “System der Hiebe,” a system of cuts.14

The way students fought at Freiberg in Körner’s day was roughly equivalent to the military spadroon and broadsword styles of the period. The sketch of the weapon used in his”System” indicates a classic cut-and-thrust sword closely resembling a spadroon, which in combat is aimed mainly at upper body, arms, and thigh of the opponent, without the Schläger’s later preoccupation with the opposing head and face.

But Freiberg’s duelling was regulated by a strict code of honor. It allowed and excluded certain cuts, prescribed a certain number of rounds that had to be fought, as well as stated that for a round to be valid, a bleeding wound had to be scored.

It is no longer possible to find out what kind of a fencer Körner had become at Freiberg. In fact, it is utterly unimportant, because his acquaintance with the heavily regulated fencing scene at university had conditioned Körner to expect a certain behavior from his opponent–a behavior that was as strictly bound and enforced as the actual exchange of cut and thrust on the duelling grounds. More importantly, it provided for a standardized, no-surprises set-up that eliminated the actual need to assess the situation.

Reality bites

For Körner, his sense of honor and conditioned expectation proved fatal. Willingly or unwillingly ignorant of the fact that he had left the dictates of the Comment and entered the wilderness of war, he allowed a captured French officer to hang on to his sidearm in deference to his rank. As could be expected, he received three feet of Klingenthal steel through his body for his trouble at the first opportune moment–leaving him to die like a dog because he had been unable to correctly gauge his opponent’s behavior.

It is interesting that the French officer was allowed to hang on to his sword–the symbol of his rank and social standing, which to the naive German poet-turned-soldier must have implied a mutual acceptance of where and on which occasions this symbol could be used as a weapon. His lack of circumspection and cynicism did not apply to the Frenchman’s firearms. Even though pistols were as common as sabers to settle disputes of honor among German students, they had been confiscated because they had been identified as weapons of war in their proper context.

All’s fair in love and war

With a worse man speak not / three words in dispute,
Ill fares the better oft / when the worse man wields the sword.

The Poetic Edda: Hávamál; verse 125

Swetnam records a similar incident:

I remember a tale as I heard out of Germany, thus it was, the Master and usher of a school had upon occasion appointed the field, and their weapon was each of them a two-handed sword, and meeting at the place appointed, said the Master ‘Thou art not so good as thy word.’

The usher asked him why. ‘Marry,’ said he, ‘thou promisest to bring nobody with thee, and yet looke yonder what a number of people are comming towards thee.’

The usher no sooner looked about, but the Master smote off his head, and afterwards meeting with some of his friends said ‘I have taught my man a new tricke in the field,’ said he, ‘which he never learned before.’15

Again, the usher is oblivious to the fact that the plane of combat has shifted from the competitive measuring of skill he was used to from the daily sparring and the Fechtschulen, to that of antagonistic combat to the death–unwitnessed, without a rule or regulation to protect the participants.

Seduction of art

“Hitting is not important. Hitting and hurting is.”

Dunraj Seth, foundry shop foreman and martial artist at Benares, India

Closed combative systems that condition the use of clearly defined (or even standardized) weaponry in defined, replicable environments also condition the fighter to expect certain maneuvers, and to respond to them within the parameters of the system. This enables system-immanent growth of complexity and sophistication. Hergsell warns his readers against “underestimating a naturalist gifted with great physical strength, otherwise it could be the case that the fencer who is accustomed to conventional [regelrechte] attacks will be conquered by the uninhibited attacks, the ruleless application of violence.”16

In mismatched combat, there’s also the temptation to equate accomplishment in any one system with superior ability in general. Nadi, an international champion in the competitive systems of foil, épeé, and saber, receives the first wound (of several) in his duel against Contronei–a middle-aged newspaper editor twice his age. Had this been a first-blood duel, Contronei could have been considered the “winner”–if the notion of winning were indeed compatible with the duel proper.

Contronei, who faced the twenty-four year old Nadi in 1923, appears to have had a gift for provoking duels with internationally acclaimed fencers. In the aftermath of the 1924 Olympics, he fought another duel, this time against Italo Santelli’s 27-year old son Giorgio–who had invoked the Code Duello to fight for his 60-years-old father.

The duel was fought in the town of Abazzia near the Hungarian border with heavy sabers. Santelli must have landed a tierce of quarte in the side of Contronei’s forehead, upon which the duel was terminated after only two minutes of combat time. (Nadi’s duel had taken 6 minutes of total fighting time.)17

Santelli must have perceived the 45-year old amateur Contronei (who was the fencing critic for an Italian newspaper, “with considerable knowledge of the sport”18) as a real threat to his father, a veteran fencing master and coach of the Hungarian Olympic team.

To become dangerous to a master of the art, a fighter’s inexperience–and therefore, his unpredictability–would sometimes serve as well as an equal or superior level of skill. That’s why the fencing books and duelling tracts throughout the centuries tend to warn against the naturalists and the “unferme” fencers–amateurs whose unorthodox way of handling their weapons made them as dangerous as champions to the duellist.

When ignorance is bliss

“The danger is death if ignorant people procure a combate.

Thomas Churchyard,”Epistle Dedicatorie” to di Grassi’s True Arte of Defence19

Sir William Hope devotes considerable space to the problems posed to the fencer by “Ignorants.” To Hope, the danger of Ignorants lies both in their unpredictable behavior, and in the elimination of natural responses in fencers with an incomplete grasp of the art.

An elementary understanding of the Art, according to Hope, makes the incomplete fencer abandon the offensive in favor of the defensive–of which he typically has limited understanding. With the offensive thus all but eliminated, a rash and furious Ignorant may easily gain the upper hand:

There are but few good Sword Men to be found, and many get the name of Artists when they are really but ignorants; for if a Man hath but a month or six weeks at a Fencing School, presently he is said to understand this Art, and when such a person as this is engaged against an Ignorant, in stead of having any Advantage by what he hath been taught, I can assure you he hath rather the disadvantage, because what he hath learned hath put away his Natural and forward Play, and maketh him understand the hazard there is in being too forward. (…) he hath the disadvantage of the altogether Ignorant, in so far as he is not so forward, because he knoweth the hazard of it, wheras the other’s ignorance maketh him more forward, and so is the occasion of his mastering the other, who getteth the name of an Artist. (…) And therefore he is rather the worse of that little Art that he hath (…) I say if an Ignorant meet with such a person, he will find that he hath but too great Advantage of him, if he come to meake use of Sharps: Yet Ignorants will sometimes overcome those who understand this Art very well.20

Again, the centuries do little to detract from the value of experienced advice. Bartunek, writing in 1904, still echoes this experience:

Even the best fencer should never forget that in dangerous situation weaker characters can be driven into a condition of raging courage by the thought of impending annihilation. (…) History has shown that even experienced tournament fencers, who even had passed several duels victoriously, succumbed to inferior opponents only because they felt secure and superior.

As such a feeling immediately results in a dropping of attentiveness and a simultaneous reduction in combat and mental energy, this may have sinister consequences. Thus one should never underestimate an opponent, because only few mortals are preordained to reach the heights of ideal perfection.21

Clearly, swordplay for artistic purposes and swordplay intended to dispatch an opponent as soon and swiftly as possibly not only have different objectives, but also demand a different mental approach from the fighter. In life-and-death fights, results were all that counted. This accounts for the importance of the botto secreta through all ages in which combat to the death was a more likely scenario than extended engagement in ritualized Olympic or Olympian environments.

(return to part one)

Copyright ©1998 J. Christoph Amberger. All rights reserved. Reproduced here with permission of the author.


  1. Otto Julius Bierbaum (1865-1910) was a popular writer specializing in student life. In 1887, he was accepted into the Corps Thuringia at Leipzig, and thus was experienced in the use of the bell- guard Schläger. This story takes place in Jena, Germany, thus also involving bell-guard Schlägers rather than the basket-hilt variety–even though the mention of a sling points at the basket. ↩︎
  2. Bierbaum, Otto Julius.–“Gamasche, der Pommernfuchs,” in Conrad, Heinrich (ed.) Das Duellbuch, Munchen: Georg Müller, 1918; p. 330f. ↩︎
  3. In pre-WWII practice, the positions of the Mensur participants were staked out by chalk marks on the floor. Stepping back over the mark (as in a retreat) meant disgraceful termination of the bout. ↩︎
  4. To avoid tiring of the right arm–weighed down by a massive cuff and steel-reinforced gloves–and to control the descending arm with the sharp blade after each round, an Assisting Pledge (Schleppfuchs) or close friend of the fighter supports the sword arm before and between rounds. From my own experience, I believe that a well-trained fencer does not require assistance to get his arm up… but I would have to admit that one and a half foot of honed edge always can do with an additional safety catch. ↩︎
  5. The Ehrengang, or round of honor, marks the opening or close of a Mensur, depending on local rules. It consists of a test run, with the seconds going through their phrases. The fighters either remain motionless in the Steile Auslage, or briefly clash the blades together. ↩︎
  6. During the bout, the seconds not only act as enforcers of the rules and protectors of their fighter, they frequently engage in verbal needling of the opposing party in the fashion of trial lawyers. ↩︎
  7. This may seem like deliberate cruelty, and without a doubt is interpreted as such by Henry, but the flat hits not only are indicative of Henry’s faulty cover, but also of his opponent’s lack of experience and skill. ↩︎
  8. Most German Comments today stipulate that the tip of the blade has to be constantly in motion after Go! Remaining passively in cover (called lauern–to lurk, to prey) would mean immediate exclusion from the bout. ↩︎
  9. Leaning forward while standing on the fixed, short distance of the Mensur means reducing the distance between fighters. Thus, the chances of a sharp hit are somewhat reduced. Or so you think… ↩︎
  10. Termination of the Mensur as the result of an “incapacitating” wound. ↩︎
  11. I.e., the chalk cross on the floor that marked the position. ↩︎
  12. A Pro Patria Suite pitches all or a pre-determined number of fighters from one Corps against an equal number of fighters from the other Corps in a series of bouts fought under rules providing for more cuts per round, more rounds per bout, and less restrictions on target area. ↩︎
  13. “Fun’s over.” ↩︎
  14. See Textor, Horst-Ulrich.”Die Bergakademie Freiberg und das Brauchtum ihrer Studenten (1765-1845)”, in Einst und Jetzt, vol. 41, München: Verein für corpsstudentische Geschichtssforschung, 1996; p. 234f. ↩︎
  15. Swetnam; p. 37. ↩︎
  16. Hergsell. Duell-Codex; p. 83. ↩︎
  17. Wallechinsky, David. The Complete Book of the Olympics, New York: Penguin, 1984; p. 247. Wallechinsky portrays Contronei as the captain of the Italian. foil team. Given Contronei’s age and the fact that his name does not appear in the team line-up, this must be an error. ↩︎
  18. Nadi. On Fencing, p. 24. ↩︎
  19. Grassi, Giacomo di. His True Arte of Defence (London, 1594) in Jackson; Three Elizabethan Fencing Manuals; p. 4. ↩︎
  20. Hope; “Epistle to the Reader.” ↩︎
  21. Bartunek; p. 146. ↩︎

This article first appeared in The Secret History of the Sword, 1998.