A Letter by Pierre Vigny Sheds New Light on an Old Feud

Charles Charlemont (left) and Pierre Vigny strike pugilistic poses.

A newly-discovered letter written by Pierre Vigny illuminates both the style of savate he taught at the Bartitsu Club and his feud with Parisian savateur Charles Charlemont.  Although Vigny was a prominent professor of antagonistics and was quite widely quoted via articles and interviews, this letter represents one of the very few known instances of his direct commentary.

In early October of 1901, Charlemont wrote a letter objecting to Vigny being promoted as the “champion in French boxing and single-stick” in connection with Bartitsu events.  In this letter, which was published in several English newspapers, Charlemont asserted that Vigny had lost to Charlemont himself, M. Mainguet (then an assistant at Charlemont’s school) and “other boxers in Paris.” Charlemont closed by suggesting that Vigny was a “bluffer” who was trying to make a name for himself as a self defence teacher in London.

E.W. Barton-Wright, who was Pierre Vigny’s employer at the time, replied that Vigny saw Charlemont as being a “fantastic dancer only, without the slightest right to the title he has assumed” and noted that Vigny’s championship claim vis-a-vis stick fighting was specific to his own style.  Barton-Wright then offered to financially back Vigny in two “World Championship” contests with Charlemont, the first being straight French kickboxing and the second in which Charlemont could kick and punch, but Vigny would restrict himself to boxing.

Barton-Wright further noted that if Charlemont did not accept the challenge, he (B-W) would “allow Vigny to go to Paris and publicly horse-whip him”, before closing with a few choice remarks about the infamous Charlemont/Jack Driscoll savate vs. boxing contest (which ended in a very controversial win to Charlemont).

Despite an exceptionally heated exchange of letters to the editor, the various parties couldn’t agree on terms and so the proposed Vigny/Charlemont challenge fight never happened.  Their dispute was, however, illustrative of a wider controversy within the world of French kickboxing.

As we have frequently noted in the past, the academic, touch-contact style promoted by the Charlemonts was coming under increasing criticism at the turn of the 20th century.  On October 13th, 1900, Pierre Vigny’s comments in the following letter to Frank Reichel, then Secretary of the French National Sports Committee, were published in the journal La Constitutionelle.  They confirm our theory that Vigny was a member of the minority camp, arguing for a radical reform of French kickboxing:

(…) As for the way of organizing this World Championship, why do we not agree upon the rules in force in England, namely: a number of completed rounds, for example six bouts of three minutes each, one of which is a minute of rest, during which the jury, taken naturally from among the most competent, would make notes upon the hits and the work by each opponent in each resumption.

If one of the two opponents is not out of the fight before the end of the sixth resumption, the jury will declare the one who has the most points to his credit to be the winner, or if the two champions are found to be “ex-œquo” (“in an equal state”), they will decide a new meeting.

A good reform would be to remove, in this championship, the announcement of touches; if it is necessary to announce that one has been touched on the shin (which is one of the most frequent strikes), we lose, by the slight pauses resulting from those announcements, whole combinations; it prevents those interesting and scientific passes that may follow.

These rules are those of my boxing and savate school which I introduced in London and which is a branch of what Mr. Barton-Wright, the well-known initiator of the new method of personal defense , calls ‘Bartitsu’.

The editor of La Constitutionelle agreed with Vigny, adding that:

We never say anything else: French boxing is full of inertia and nonsense. It is derisory for one to stop on receiving a light stroke, crying “touché!”, when, in reality, one would “reply” thoroughly. By not going beyond these conventions, we have made French boxing a superb exercise in flexibility, but that is all. From the truly combative point of view, it is especially practical on an ignorant opponent, or perhaps a passing drunkard.

A fighter who “replies” bravely removes the effect of the cross-over and turning kicks; cancels all this virtuosity, all this affected elegance.

French boxing lacks strong punches. The punch of the Joinville style does not land heavily upon the body.

The victory over Driscool (sic – Driscoll) is not an affirmation of the French method; it is a proof of the high personal worth of Charlemont, of his fine courage, his temperament and his dash.

What is needed is a rational method, less elegant and more useful.

Some further context may be useful.  In a follow-up letter to the editor in December, Barton-Wright reported that Charlemont had by then refused the challenge because “he says he is not a pugilist, but a Professor of Savate”. Barton-Wright also claimed that it had actually been Pierre Vigny’s brother who had lost the bouts referred to in Charlemont’s original letter, and closed with some very disparaging remarks about Charlemont’s character.

This issue is confused by the facts that Pierre Vigny evidently had at least one brother, named Eugene, and possibly another, named Paul, and that when the newspapers referred to “Professor Vigny of Geneva” they did not always specify which Vigny brother had actually fought.  It is certain that, on March 11, 1897, one of the Vigny brothers lost conclusively in a boxing match against an English boxer named Attfield, and was then defeated in a savate match against Charles Charlemont.  It may also be notable that Pierre Vigny initially travelled to England to improve his boxing, before joining forces with Barton-Wright.

Addressing Vigny’s point re. shin kicks; the reliable efficacy of those techniques had been in serious question since the aforementioned Charlemont/Driscoll debacle a few years earlier.  Many French observers were startled when Charlemont’s low-line kicks didn’t have the presumed devastating effect upon Driscoll, who was able to evade or simply ignore most of them, while dealing considerable damage with his gloved fists.

The rules of that bout, which were very close to those Vigny himself later instituted via the Bartitsu Club, represented a radical departure from the Charlemonts’ favoured style of French kickboxing.  Vigny’s larger point, though, does not advocate a reformation of technique so much as of protocols.

Following the convention of academic fencing, the Charlemonts’ style required the formal courtesy of calling “touché!” at even the lightest touch of the opponent’s fist or foot.  This had the effect of rewarding speed and dexterity, but at the cost of complexity and realism, given that it essentially paused the bout, artificially requiring both fighters to re-set and start again.

One experienced witness to the Charlemont/Driscoll fight noted that Charlemont was handicapped by his long experience of kicking lightly in academic bouts, to the extent that those low kicks that did land lacked stopping power.  Parsing the entire range of eyewitness reports on that fight, from both French and foreign observers, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusions that Charlemont would have lost if not for an accidental but strictly illegal kick to Driscoll’s groin, and that he certainly shouldn’t have been awarded the victory because of it.

The argument over academic touch-contact vs. professional full-contact continued in French kickboxing circles until the outbreak of the First World War, which had a devastating effect on the sport.  Many young fighters naturally served as soldiers during that awful conflict, and many were badly wounded or killed.  Hubert Desruelles, who appears to have at least occasionally taught at the Bartitsu Club as well as at his own schools in France, was severely injured in both arms during the war, putting an end to his athletic career.

During the post-War decades, French kickboxing slowly rebuilt itself to include both the traditional “touch” (assaut) style and a full-contact style influenced by the no-nonsense ethos of British and American boxing.  If only a similar compromise could have been reached circa 1900 …

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