By Craig Gemeiner
By 1874 Paris was swarming with vagabonds. Consisting mostly of juvenile delinquents, these ten thousand or so ruffians would evolve into a new generation of street-fighter, banding into a gang which came to be known as the Apache.
The word “Apache” (pronounced “ah – PAHASH”) is a Parisian term used to describe the French street gangs of the early 1900s. The era’s local newspapers often described the violence perpetrated by these gangs as synonymous with the ferocity of Apache Indians in battle.
The typical French Apache was a young, lower-class, pimp-type vagabond with connections to the underworld. An interesting by-product of this underground culture was “Apache dancing” — a type of “street swing” which simulated actions and movements of urban violence, and actually contained combat techniques particular to the typical Apache’s repertoire. This dance was reportedly so violent that participants sometimes died of injuries sustained from being thrown across bars, onto tables, or after being struck with mistimed blows.
Understandably, this form of dancing was confined to the Apache culture, although for a short time it did attract the attention of the upper class, who came to appreciate a toned-down version which was said to be somewhat similar to the tango.
The Apaches most prominently focused on their own form of street combat however. Crude and unscrupulous, yet highly effective, “French Apache street fighting” emphasised the use of elementary street kicks, hand strikes, head-butts, throws, and an assortment of weapons both standard and improvised which included knuckle dusters, knives, razors, scarves, bodkins,,jackets, hats, the Apache gun and even sheep bones!
And the techniques of the French Apache were all set-up with dirty tricks.
This article will touch on some of the combat skills used by the typical Apache fighter, as well as effective countermeasures formulated by various Savate instructors of the era.
Tricks of the Apache
Firstly, the Apache favoured the head-butt as a primary close range technique when attempting to rob their victims.
Using one particular trick, the Apache would distract an unsuspecting victim by asking for the time or a light while simultaneously tipping his hat . When the victim responded by reaching into his pocket, the Apache would suddenly throw his hat into the opponent’s face, quickly step forward and deliver a low head-butt to the solar plexus. This would usually be followed with the grabbing of the victim’s legs and the throwing of him or her into the ground .
Another manoeuvre involved a low head-butt to the solar-plexus, then a straightening-up with a butt under the chin.
Pulling the victim’s jacket over his shoulders to secure and bind the arms, and then following-up with hand-strikes to the unprotected face was also an old Apache trick.
While using the jacket as a weapon, the Apache would often engage the victim using “Hooding” techniques. These involved gripping a jacket in both hands and quickly covering the opponents face, momentarily blinding and disorientating him, allowing for uninterrupted follow ups.
Grabbing the lapels to control the opponent’s upper body while delivering a combination of head butts into the face was also another time-tested Apache tactic.
Next to the knife, the scarf was the Apache’s favourite weapon. Often working in concert, a number of Apaches would use the scarf to great effect. A popular ploy involved an unsuspecting individual being set up by an Apache girl who would strike up a conversation. A male accomplice would steel silently up from the rear and loop the scarf around the victim’s neck, drawing the crossed ends of the scarf over his shoulder. From here, the Apache would bend forward raising the individual’s feet of the ground allowing the confederate uninterrupted access to the valuables on the now-garrotted victim’s person.
Another nasty trick involved two Apaches following their intended victim up a flight of stairs, one in front of the victim, and the other behind him. The Apache in front would abruptly stop to turn and confront the victim, momentarily startling or confusing him. In the mean time the second Apache would drop to his knees and slide his hands around the ankles, jerking the trouser cuffs back, and forcing the person to fall forward. Should the Apache land hard on the victim, a broken foot or leg could result from the sandwich-type effect.
No “below the belt” restrictions hindered the Apaches, who took full advantage of their thick boots to deliver brutal low kicks to the shins and groin. Should one of these kicks successfully drop the opponent to the ground, a Mexican hat dance on the victim’s face would often result.
Amidst the reign of “hooliganism” spreading throughout Paris, various Savate masters, including Vigny, Renuad, Andre and Dubious, developed specific methods to counter the brutal attacks of these French thugs.
Vigny’s thoughts on the Apache:
“One does not stop to consider the matter of etiquette when the robber’s hand grabs the gold watch and a confederate tries to garrotte you from behind. In such a case, a straight punch on the point followed by a kick on the knee cape are fair means”.
While the unarmed skills of Savate provided suitable means for combating the French thugs, the problem was that most Apaches had practical knowledge of Savate’s techniques. When Ju Jitsu arrived in France an attempt was made to integrate many of the skills with those of the French method, and for a short time several hybrid systems emerged. Most failed miserably, but some were successful and provided a new weapon in the fight against the Apache.
Many Savate instructors took full advantage of clothing and fashion accessories for use in personal combat against the Apache.
An interesting weapon of defence was the bowler hat. Originally designed as a durable head covering for Gillies and field workers, the bowler became an indispensable fashion accessory for the European gentleman. The hat was so strong that instructors of self-defence taught its use as an improvised buckler to guard against knife attacks. Techniques included a combination of bowler hat and walking stick, with some of the skills used resembling those of the Renaissance sword and buckler. Another combination was the bowler hat and Le couteau ( knife), which may have been influenced by the Sevillian schools of knife fighting.
Jackets produced on the continent were often constructed of heavy material such as Gingham (a thick woven hemp), and when wrapped around the forearm a Gingham jacket provided a dense, shock-absorbing gauntlet against bludgeoning attacks.
“Gingham is an excellent weapon of defence; it will surprise you, if ever you have any occasion to use it, the covers and the loss ribs deaden a blow in a remarkable way ”
Other tactical uses of the jacket included aggressive sweeping and whipping strikes, which were usually directed at the face. To add weight to the movement, coins were often knotted at the end of sleeves or placed in pockets.
Another fashion accessory popular amongst the upper class was “La Canne”, or walking stick, which in trained hands provided a formidable weapon. Long-range manoeuvres resembled the cut and thrust techniques of the Sabre, and it was sometimes used in conjunction with Le Couteau. Close range application was based partly on the French bayonet.
Many Savate maitres advocated the principle of utilising whatever was at one’s disposal. This often included the chair, which was readily accessible for use as an improvised weapon in urban environments. When used aggressively, the chair could clear a room if one was outnumbered, and provided an excellent defence against knives and projectile objects.
While today’s fashions may have changed from those of our ancestors, it is still vital to be aware of improvised applications of clothing and every day items as weapons for personal defence. European masters of defence have left us with principles that can never become out dated.
The outbreak of World War 1 provided a brutal solution to the Apache epidemic. Most were sent to the front lines, where a generation of young French hooligans (most under the age of 25) were killed fighting German troops.
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