(This paper was 'published' in the Spring 2000 edition of the Canadian Army's Infantry Journal. Due to its relative length, it was listed in the publication's table of contents as internet only.)(Download pdf version)
by: Capt Michael M. O'Leary, The RCR; Copyright, 1999
"The officers will take all proper opportunities to inculcate in the mens’ minds a reliance on the bayonet; men of their bodily strength and even a coward may be their match in firing. But the bayonet in the hands of the valiant is irresistible." – Lieutenant-General Burgoyne, General Orders, 20 June 1777 (1)
"The sole object of weapon training is to teach all ranks the most efficient way of handling their weapons in order to kill the enemy." (2) "The object of bayonet training [is] to fit the soldier to take his place as one of a team, with confidence in his own and his comrades’ skill with their weapons, and thereby imbued with a mutual determination to close with the enemy. The importance of the offensive will therefore be emphasized throughout [this] training …" (3)
"The rifle is the most accurate killing weapon in the platoon. … With the bayonet attached it is a good weapon for hand-to-hand fighting." (4) Bayonet training is part of the weapons training you will learn as a combat arms soldier. It is one of the weapons used by the platoon in battle.
Today we are going to learn about bayonet fighting. As with the effective application of any weapon, you must understand the tactical situation in which you can expect to use it: "A bayonet charge will normally be delivered in lines, possibly many deep, against a defending force also in lines, over rough ground, which may be covered with obstacles. Single combat will therefore be the exception, while fighting in mass will be the rule. This will make manœuvring for an opening impossible." (5) "But, once hand-to-hand fighting begins, it is unlikely that any regular formation can long be maintained." (6)
I want you to keep in mind throughout this lesson that your "… rifle and bayonet, being the most efficient offensive weapons of the soldier, are for assault…" (7) The bayonet is your strongest psychological weapon. Infantry are always victorious in a bayonet charge because "in a bayonet fight the impetus of a charging line gives it moral and physical advantages over a stationary line."(8) "Bayonet fighting produces lust for blood…" (9)
Writers of military subjects, including those staff officers who wrote the foregoing passages, have long had a fascination with the bayonet. With regularity, in various infantry corps journals, a case is made for its obsolescence, others defend its continued role in infantry close combat, and still others focus on its psychological significance. Few attempt to argue strongly for the value and recognition of either the "war-fighting mindset" itself or the practical skills of bayonet fighting. Perhaps it’s just all too bloody for simple neo-military bureaucrats to ponder, let alone pen. Perhaps what we’ve lost is the actual capability of understanding the bayonet and whatever role it may have prior to and now during the ongoing revolution in military affairs through the end of the 20th Century.
Despite this underlying controversy, the bayonet has developed almost mystic prominence over the centuries. The charge of troops intent on carrying a defended post by bayonet is considered a heroic, undeniable act of courage which, once begun, must prevail. It connects the subconscious mind of the modern soldier with that of his earliest forbears. The fixing of bayonets converts his technically advanced weapon (whether it be the New Land Service Musket of 1812, the Martini-Henry of 1879, or the Lee-Enfield of 1950)(10) into the most rudimentary of weapons, a combination of short stabbing spear and bludgeon. How appropriate for that shift from the discipline and order of "load" and "fire" to the brawling bloodlust of a pell-mell rush to ill-considered single combat en masse.
Beyond its much-debated utility as a weapon, what has been the actual role of the bayonet in history?
Soldiers for centuries have been taught to "fix" bayonets and to handle the weapon according to the prevailing manual of arms. Parries, thrusts, points and butt-strokes provided a structured awareness of the possible movements. Originally, all bayonet movements were developed to account for the soldier’s place in close packed ranks. The threat was directly to his front and was usually expected to be a single opponent, either an enemy infantryman, similarly armed, or perhaps a mounted cavalryman.
The fixing of bayonets before a battle was a precaution to ensure preparedness, not necessarily indicative of a conscious plan for their employment. And for a brief moment during the apprehensive wait while the enemy closed to engagement range, it occupied and steadied the voices and hands of officer, sergeant and soldier. There was comfort in the familiarity of the drill. Anyway, once engaged, infantrymen would not have time to fix bayonets in the heat of battle.
One's own forces, perhaps, gained a measure of psychological advantage merely from the act of fixing bayonets. In the sight of each soldier the forming of the long rows of polished steel bayonets served to give the battalion’s frontage a more menacing aspect, and offer a greater measure of protection to himself. The infantry square became one of unbroken bristling spines, offering death on every approach. To the soldier it was the danger of impalement that deterred cavalry, rather than the simple appearance to the horse of a mass blocking its path. (11)
The act of fixing bayonets became, increasingly over time, the physical manifestation to initiate the offensive mindset. This step of preparation before meeting the enemy survives today in the infantry section battle drills. Soldiers learning to "put on their killing face" (12) and preparing to meet their enemy in manly, gladiatorial combat. Bayonet training has become the last training event that actually encourages personal physical violence toward one’s fellow man. It allowed the sanitizing of other soldierly duties. In training you learn to "fire" a machine gun, "use" mines or "throw" grenades, all sterile description of employment, not focussing on purpose. But there can be no softening of the task requirement to "kill a sentry with a bayonet," (13) there is no gentle way to describe the employment or the purpose of a weapon designed to be thrust into another soldier’s entrails. But this trend has demonstrated a tendency toward making the skills of an infantry soldier more clinical and detached from the Corps’ role of closing with and destroying the enemy. Only through the execution of bayonet training for basic infantrymen is that need still acknowledged. And yet the training itself remains strangely detached from the concept of death.
Bayonet training never evolved with the changing tactics of infantry throughout the early decades of the 1900s. In particular, the highly ritualized bayonet fighting movements were increasingly inappropriate for the radically changed level of dispersion of infantry soldiers. This has been one of the principal reasons for the ongoing debate over their usefulness and viability in a modern infantry. Even bayonet fighting test courses deal more with structured sequences of movement than challenges to reaction and innovation which are more properly the realm of a desperate face-to-face fight for survival.
Bayonet training lessons, while martial in context, are usually as structured as any drill lesson and as fitness oriented and repetitive as an aerobics class. This fitness training argument has been put forth as an additional justification for maintaining the current system, but it is insufficient support for the bayonet as a principal means of killing on the modern battlefield.
(1) Duffy, Christopher, The Military Experience in the Age of Reason, Hertfordshire, Wordsworth Editions, 1987
(2) Small Arms Training, Volume I, Pamphlet No. 12, Bayonet, 1942, The War Office, 1942
(3) Small Arms Training, Volume 1, General, Rifle, Bayonet & Revolver, 1931, His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1931
(4) Canadian Army manual of Training, Infantry Section Leading and Platoon Tactics, 1954, Ottawa, Canadian Forces Headquarters, 1954
(5) Infantry Training (4 – Company Organization), 1914, London, His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1914
(6) Small Arms Training, Volume 1, General, Rifle, Bayonet & Revolver, 1931, His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1931
(7) Instructions for the Training of Platoons for Offensive Action, 1917, Issued by the General Staff, 1917
(8) Infantry Training (4 – Company Organization), 1914, London, His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1914
(9) Instructions for the Training of Platoons for Offensive Action, 1917, Issued by the General Staff, 1917
(10) Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, Vol. XLV, No. 184, Winter 1967; "The Principal Small Arms Carried by British Regular Infantry," compiled by Major G. Tylden, E.D.
(11) A horse’s natural reaction is to swerve and pass around an obstacle which appears before it. The knee-to-knee formation of a cavalry charge combined with its speed and momentum was designed to counter the collective tendency of the horses to avoid collision. The infantry soldier might have believed that his bayonet deterred the cavalry’s horses, but the explanation remains much more mundane.
(12) "But the star turn in the schoolroom
was a massive sandy-haired Highland Major whose subject was "The Spirit of
the Bayonet". Though at that time undecorated, he was afterwards awarded
the D.S.O. for lecturing. He took as his text a few leading points from the
Manual of Bayonet Training.
To attack with the bayonet effectively requires Good Direction, Strength and Quickness, during a state of wild excitement and probably physical exhaustion. The bayonet is essentially an offensive weapon. In a bayonet assault all ranks go forward to kill or be killed, and only those who have developed skill and strength by constant training will be able to kill. The spirit of the bayonet must be inculcated into all ranks, so that they go forward with that aggressive determination and confidence of superiority born of continual practice, without which a bayonet assault will not be effective.
He spoke with homicidal eloquence, keeping the game alive with genial and well-judged jokes. He had a Sergeant to assist him. The Sergeant, a tall sinewy machine, had been trained to such a pitch of frightfulness that at a moment's warning he could divest himself of all semblance of humanity. With rifle and bayonet he illustrated the Major's ferocious aphorisms, including facial expression. When told to "put on the killing face", he did so, combining it with an ultra-vindictive attitude. "To instil fear into the opponent" was one of the Major's main maxims. Man, it seemed, had been created to jab the life out of Germans." - Siegfried Sassoon, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, 1930
(13) A-P9-031-L03/PH-B01 Total Force training Plan Basic Infantryman 031/R031 OSQ Code 031.3 (AABS) April 1997
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