Frederick Charles Laing was born in India on December 5th of 1865, the son of Major Frederick Ernest Laing and Lucy Augusta Laing. The young Frederick attended an English boarding school and then underwent military training, probably at Aldershot Camp. He also learned foil fencing at two schools of arms, one in London and one in a South Coast town.
Returning to India in early 1887, Laing joined the Bengal Staff Corps and thereafter the 12th Regiment of Bengal Infantry. He made a determined effort to start a regimental fencing club, but this attempt was unsuccessful despite the enthusiastic support of his commanding officer.
Between 1895 and 1897, Captain Laing’s regiments saw a good deal of action. His experience in numerous armed skirmishes, both mounted and on foot, spurred him to seriously re-consider the quality of close-combat instruction that had become standard for both officers and enlisted men. As Laing wrote in his essay “The Encouragement of Fencing” for the Journal of the United Service Institution of India:
There still appears to be some doubt in the minds of the authorities as to the advantages of the new sword exercise of 1895, and the first thing to do is to determine on some method, French, Italian, English, or any other which seems best all round, for a method, even if defective, can be rectified by degrees as time and experience point out, and, any way, some system is better than none; and the next thing is to induce officers to become proficients. This cannot be done by merely issuing orders, nor by Inspecting Generals; and we already know what a farce the “toasting fork drill” is as usually shown to the latter under the misnomer of Infantry Sword Exercise; as a spectacle it is possibly not devoid of humour, but for teaching a man how to defend his own life is worse than useless.
It is only in England and on the Continent that experts can be found to teach, and consequently it is in England chiefly we must induce officers to learn the art. Considerable expense is incurred in attending the various schools of arms in London, and this also contributes largely to the reluctance displayed by most officers when at home on leave to take lessons. I would therefore venture to suggest that the following plan be adopted, or at all events tried :—Let one officer at least from all regiments, British and Native, be granted a free return passage from England on the production of a signed certificate that he is capable of instructing efficiently in fencing.
In 1901 Captain Laing trialed a version of this scheme himself. Returning to London on furlough, he spent several months in intensive training at the Bartitsu Club in Shaftesbury Avenue, specialising in a combination of jiujitsu and stick fighting.
Laing’s April, 1903 essay on the latter subject, titled “The Bartitsu Method of Self Defence”, was published in volume 32 of the Journal and is reprinted in the second volume of the Bartitsu Compendium. Illustrated with simple line drawings, it presents Laing’s impressions of the Bartitsu Club together with a selection of basic stick fighting techniques and some more advanced “combined exercises” or set plays.
… it may be necessary to explain one or two details about which I am frequently asked when mentioning walking stick defence: one usual question is, what difference is there between it and ordinary single-stick?
Every difference: the guards are different; but its chief difference and also advantage lies in the fact that it is ambi-dexterous, the left hand being employed in the same way as the right and alternately as required, and further the butt or short end of the stick is used for close fighting; it must be remembered that although throughout the whole of “Bartitsu” it is possible to practice without injuring one another, the final object of the system is directed towards rendering your assailant not only powerless, but, if necessary, of so severely injuring him that he is at your mercy.
Laing finished this article by stating his intention to write a further essay setting forth some “combined exercises” blending stick fighting with jiujitsu, but unfortunately that essay appears not to have come to pass. Curiously, he did not refer to having met Captain Alfred Hutton, the Bartitsu Club fencing instructor, who was famous for his own efforts to reform Army swordsmanship via an infusion of skills from Elizabethan fencing.
In the same edition of the Journal, Laing proposed a novel cavalry weapon which he referred to as the “sword-lance”. A year later he followed up with another article, expanding his ideas about the sword-lance in considerable detail and including his vision for a new type of cavalry sword, designed to pair with the lance:
… a straight thrusting weapon with a triangular section from the hilt towards the point, perhaps a rapier in its nearest approach, with a double cutting edge of some twelve inches up to the point, say the length of the “feeble”; a light steel guard, and instead of the usual button, a sharp spike two to three inches in length.
The reasons for having a sword of this pattern are as follows:—
(1) In the blind fury of a hand-to-hand combat there is small chance of even a fair swordsman guarding a blow in the orthodox way; instinct will make him put up his sword, but it must be strong enough to bear the blow at any angle, and this is only possible with a blade of triangular or round section if the thickness and weight are to be kept within moderate bounds.
(2) The blade is made straight because the thrust is the most deadly, and also to enable it to fit into the lance shaft.
(3) The cutting edge is useful because the average man will be tempted with excitement of a hand-to-hand combat to make a “slog” at anybody or anything which comes before his half-dazed vision, and he may be able to inflict some damage on his adversary.
(4) The “spike” is for close fighting where there is no room for cutting or thrusting, or if unhorsed he is assailed by two or more opponents at the same time, or again if he is locked in a death struggle with a man and unable to get free; in this case it takes the place of a dagger and can be used as such even if the blade is broken off short.
Captain Laing further mentioned that he was having a prototype sword made to this design and that he hoped it would soon be available for testing by experts. He went on to advocate Bartitsu stick fighting as his ideal model for military swordplay:
… I quite admit that the expert swordsman stands a good, if not the best, chance of coming out of a fight alive, but I fear that the average man is never likely to be an expert, and we must therefore train him to do well what his instinct teaches him to do badly. The expert swordsman has his nerves, his eyes, and his muscles all working together, all under control and all helping one another, and he can perhaps even in the excitement of battle have sufficient command over himself to be able to utilise his previous knowledge, but this is not the case with most men; the skill of the great fencer cannot be attained without years of incessant toil, and few soldiers, officers or men, can hope to become great fencers.
In place then of the swordsmanship taught in the army at present I would suggest a form of it based on the “stick defence” described in this Journal last April, and my reasons for doing so are, that it is fairly simple to learn, it comes more instinctively to a man, it is ambidextrous and the “spike” is a formidable adjunct to its offensive powers. The sword must in fact be used in a way similar to the stick, and if the reader will refer to the article mentioned, he will see the principles of its use described and all that is necessary is to substitute the sword for the stick. In support of my suggestion I may mention that when Mons. Vigny, the instructor and inventor of “stick defence” met the best military exponents of single stick, his system enabled him to defeat them with ludicrous ease.
In his 1901 stick fighting articles for Pearson’s Magazine, Bartitsu founder E.W. Barton-Wright had omitted to detail any techniques corresponding with Laing’s use of the “spike”, though Barton-Wright did mention that he had been asked by his editors to remove certain particularly dangerous techniques from the article. Captain Laing, writing for a presumed audience of soldiers, was operating under no such restrictions. His “combined exercises” of Bartitsu stick defence included several techniques in which the butt of the stick was driven into the opponent’s throat at close range, strongly implying that this was one of the types of techniques omitted from Barton-Wright’s articles.
Coincidentally or otherwise, the system that Laing broadly outlined would have had much in common with that advocated by Captain Hutton and his protégé, Cyril Matthey, for the reformation of military fencing; an emphasis on simplicity and “natural movement” from predominantly high, hanging guards, considerable attention to close-play with the butt of the weapon and an aliveness to the possibilities of grappling and disarming. As it happened, though, neither the Laing nor Hutton/Matthey systems ever gained much traction; by the advent of the Great War, army swordsmanship had been almost entirely relegated to ceremony and sport.