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The Most Incredible Sword Fights in History

Posted by JT Hats

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Next up we'll look at some battles. These involve multiple armies, often cavalries, and feature massive numbers of one-on-one showdowns.

Harry Wilson's Last Fight
Never mistake the enemy for your friend
Destruction: 5
Skill: 2
Honor: 4

One of the most confused swordfights in history took place between English and French cavalry forces during the Napoleonic Wars, and included one of the most powerful blows ever delivered by a light saber.

Private George Farmer of the 11th Light Dragoons witnessed the action while lying wounded on the battlefield and later recounted the story to author George Robert Gleig.

Things went wrong for the English cavalry from the start, in action near Elvas, Spain. Seeing a long line of mounted troops approaching behind them, the 11th Light Dragoons mistook the French cavalry for their Portuguese allies and fell back towards them to join forces. As they neared, the French attacked from either flank, and the British continued to fall back towards the center of the French lines, still believing they were on their way to reinforcements. At a hundred yards distance the mistake revealed itself.

With few options available, the British charged, breaking through the first French line but holding short at the second. Now the 11th Light Dragoons found themselves completely surrounded. Private Farmer recalled that the action quickly became "an affair of swords."

Napoleonic Wars

Only one member of the troop escaped, by spurring his horse into the middle of the fight and clearing a path for it with his saber. Eight of Farmer's fellows died, twenty were severely wounded, and the rest were captured.

At the center of the action, Farmer watched the saber fight between Harry Wilson and an unknown French dragoon. A French officer thrust a sword through Wilson from the side, in what should have been an instantly fatal blow, but Wilson stayed focused on the fight in front of him and with his last breath split the helmet and the skull of his attacker into two halves. Both men fell dead at the same moment.

According to Farmer, everyone was amazed at how cleanly that helmet had been cut.

Savoia Cavalleggeri vs. Siberian 812th Infantry Regiment
The most famous saber-wielding cavalry charge of WWII
Destruction: 3
Skill: 3
Honor: 5

Many misconceptions about horse soldiers in WWII dominate our view of that last epoch of mounted cavalry. Many believe that Polish cavalry defeats during the German invasion of Poland in 1939 marked the end of modern horse-mounted warfare. Although defeated, Polish cavalry units inflicted heavy losses on German armored units. Mounted troops from several nations fought important actions throughout the war.

The last mounted cavalry charge by American troops took place in the Philippines in 1942 when Lieutenant Ed Ramsey led a 27-man troop of Filipino scouts against Japanese infantry positions in the hamlet of Morong. Ramsey's victorious men were not bearing sabers, but some modern horse cavalry units continued to use swords efficiently.

The Polish Cavalry

The most famous cavalry charge of WWII which did involve sabers was undertaken by the Italian Savoia Cavalleggeri during combat with the Siberian 812th Infantry Regiment, in the Ukraine on August 24th, 1942. Severely outnumbered by Russian forces, Commander Alessandro Bettoni-Cazzago observed enemy tactics for two days before deciding a frontal cavalry assault might break the Russian ranks.

At dawn the regiment assembled, drew sabers, and charged the Russian positions in classic cavalry style — first trotting, then cantering, and finally galloping towards the Siberian troops. Supported by ground forces and heavy machine guns, the Italian cavalry caused 150 Soviet casualties and took 900 prisoners.

Battle of Brandy Station
The largest mounted-soldier battle in the history of the Western hemisphere
Destruction: 4
Skill: 3
Honor: 3

Early in the American Civil War, strategists expected the conflict to end quickly and gave little thought to arming cavalrymen with sabers. Sabers were in short supply, and those troopers who did carry them often knew little about how to use them effectively. Sabers were more common among the Union forces than in the cavalry of the South, and at first served more as a psychological weapon than a tactical one.

As the war progressed, commanders on both sides realized that in the close quarters fighting of a cavalry melee, sabers made good sense. One of the turning points of the war came at Brandy Station just prior to the Battle of Gettysburg, when Union cavalry charged the Confederate cavalry led by General Jeb Stuart.

The Battle of Brandy Station

On June 9th, 1863, ten thousand Union cavalrymen attacked the Rebel cavalry in a two-pronged assault, believing they would encounter a manageable force. Instead of a misplaced troop, the Federal cavalry met a well-armed Rebel force of nine thousand mounted men. Dust rose so quickly over the battlefield that firearms and artillery became useless. Most fighting involved mounted combat with sabers. Union cavalry overran Stuart's headquarters, but General Stuart's troops held on until reinforced by the cavalry of General Rooney Lee, whose men were encamped only a few miles away. After twelve hours of intense fighting, Union forces retreated.

The Battle of Brandy Station was the largest cavalry battle of the war — the largest engagement between mounted soldiers in the history of the Western hemisphere — and proved that for horse cavalry the saber was still an essential weapon.

Battle of Agincourt
Run of good luck allows 5,000 English to defeat 30,000 French

Destruction: 5
Skill: 3
Honor: 3

On October 25th, 1415, the army of English King Henry V found itself in difficult circumstances, weakened by disease and fatigued by weeks of fighting plus a grueling march. A long siege of the town of Harfleur had ended in British victory, but cut King Henry's troops down to only 5,000.

King Henry planned to march to Calais, already in English hands, and to avoid a direct confrontation with the army of Constable Charles d'Albret, who commanded at least 30,000 men. In a valley near Frevent in Picardy, the paths of the two armies crossed. The major strength of the French forces lay in their heavily armored knights, armed with two-handed broadswords and an assortment of other heavy weapons; while King Henry's army now consisted largely of lightly armored longbowmen.

The French were slow to attack, camping for the night to celebrate their pending victory — and giving King Henry's men time to build a simple wooden picket defense across the narrow stretch of open field between the wooded valley's sides. Rain during the night softened the ground, and the mass of French men and horses soon churned the area into deep soft mud. The English finally launched an attack themselves, expecting the worst. Many Englishmen kissed the ground and expected to die, but the weather and the favorable topography tipped the balance in their favor.

So many French knights crowded to the front of the French lines that there was not enough room for them to swing their own weapons, and the heavily armored French soon exhausted themselves in the deep mud. English archers attacked from the safety of the woods on either slope of the narrow valley, while the English knights held fast at the picket barrier. Finally running out of arrows, the longbowmen picked up swords and battle hammers from the battlefield and entered the melee. Within two hours, the English had won, losing hundreds of men themselves but killing more than 8,000 Frenchmen.

Battle of the North Inch
Spectator volunteers to join the battle, surprisingly doesn't die
Destruction: 5
Skill: 4
Honor: 5

Awards go to the Scottish for undertaking one of the most efficient sword battles in history — The Battle of the Clans at North Inch of Perth. At the suggestion of King Robert III, two Scottish clans settled a feud through equal combat at North Inch in 1396. The field of battle was first surrounded with barriers, to separate the fighters from the spectators. Thirty men from each clan, plus a minstrel and standard bearer for each side, assembled to settle their differences honorably with two-handed claymores.

Although no one suggests that the battle didn't happen, many details vary according to which author tells the story. Sir Walter Scott based a novel called "The Fair Maid of Perth" on the battle and kept many of the historical facts intact, since there's certainly no reason to exaggerate. Historians argue which clans actually participated, but probably the dispute began between Clan Chattan and Clan Cameron. Some accounts have both parties battling only with claymore swords, while others speak of a mix of weapons of the day.

The clan duel ran into problems immediately, since one of the chosen warriors of Clan Chattan failed to show. King Robert suggested one of the Camerons sit out the fight, but the compromise fell flat. Either Clan Chattan refused to fight without the number agreed upon; or none of the Camerons agreed to leave. Clan Chattan did agree to hire another man from the crowd of onlookers, offering one gold crown and the chance to "be killed a little." Henry of Wynd, a local blacksmith, volunteered and joined the ranks with a borrowed sword and chainmail hauberk.

The Battle of the Clans erupted into a spectacular example of Scottish mayhem and swordsmanship that shortly left 52 dead or dying men on the ground, including the bagpipers and standard bearers. Eleven surviving warriors of Clan Chattan converged on the one remaining Cameron, who leaped into the river and escaped. Henry of Wynd survived, earning his gold coin without being killed even a little bit. Later, when asked which clan he had fought for, he would answer that he fought for himself.

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