A la bayonet, or, "hot blood and cold steel" (Part 2)

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"On Guard!"

The debate over the utility of the bayonet as an infantry weapon has been going on since the invention of the breech-loading rifle. In each discernible period of military examination and development since, cases have been put forward for its abandonment or its continuance. William T. Sherman, in 1878, suggested that the bayonet had lost its utility in combat and should be exchanged for a more practical armament. The same source quotes a lieutenant of the U.S. Third Infantry, writing in the 1870s, "Nobody … would … for a moment think of depriving the Infantry arm of half its force by taking away the bayonet." (14)

An article published in the British Army Review in 1967 offered the following as factors toward concluding for the bayonets retention:

Morale – "…to increase morale and determination."

Weight – "Modern bayonets weigh about 18 oz … practically imperceptible."

Combat effectiveness – "… as a last resort … could be used as a combat knife."

Cost – "…produced cheaply."

Non-combat functions – "…could be used as an all-purpose knife." (15)

Note that the two definitive arguments are cost and weight, the others remain subjective in tone. When the low cost of an object it put forth as an argument to keep a piece of soldier’s kit, one must immediately call into question its usefulness. No truly valuable item of soldier’s kit would ever be defended on such grounds, more likely its usefulness is demonstrated as being worth the expense of high-quality manufacture. Allowing the retention of the bayonet because it can be cheaply made defeats the argument for a good quality implement for general-purpose applications. Elliston described the desirable bayonet as a quality knife with a complementary role as bayonet in 1977. (16) He accurately noted that that the bayonet’s psychological role outweighs any practical or tactical effectiveness, and identifies its place in teaching infantrymen "that violent death is, indeed, a very real aspect of general warfare."

The weight of a bayonet is also a contentious issue. Viewed in isolation a one-pound (454 gram) bayonet does not seen unduly heavy, but when soldiers often acquire and carry general purpose knives to make up for the bayonet’s deficiencies, it may actually represent a much greater part of the soldier’s load. Also, most authors who talk of the bayonet’s weight seldom mention the complementary weight of a scabbard. A 1994 translation of a French document gives the British soldier of 1908 carrying a 1 lb. 9 oz. (710 g) bayonet and scabbard as part of total basic equipment weight of 58 lb. 9 oz to 62 lb. 5 oz. (26.6 – 28.3 Kg). (17) The overloaded soldier is a common theme throughout history, even in 1987, a US article described the bayonet and scabbard as 1.3 lbs. (600 g) out of a total basic load of 34.2 – 48.7 lbs. (15.5 – 22 Kg) (18) for the basic minimum equipment for an infantry soldier. This weight does not include climate or threat protection equipment, radios, night vision equipment, food, munitions beyond personal weapon basic load, etc.

In the US Army, bayonet training was highly ritualized by the 1960s. "Training commanders would yell, "What’s the spirit of the bayonet?" and the troops would yell, "To kill!" Then they would set about learning a complicated long-thrust series, short-thrust series, and a vertical and horizontal butt-stroke." (19) By 1982, the US Army Infantry journal was discussing the return of the bayonet following a ten-year absence from training calendars. While promoting the advantages of aggressiveness training and imparting awareness of the realities of close combat, the article also noted that the same four killing moves described in a 1918 publication were being taught in Fort Benning in the 1980s as part of the Instinctive Rifle Bayonet Fighting technique. (20)

The understanding of bayonets, and bayonet training, will always be worlds apart between the participants and the observers. Consider the following comments from a senior officer, alternate views are given in bold text:

"No weapon inspires the infantryman quite like the bayonet." – Or brings forth the bravado that masks the fear that he has not been well trained in its use as well as the gut-wrenching terror of close combat and closer death.

"After suggesting to the platoon leader [during a live fire assault course] that he should have his men fix bayonets … I watched the excitement level rise…" – Or was it the level of apprehension at the increased risk without the confidence of sufficient training.

"Some … had difficulty fixing their bayonets. The grenadiers discovered that bayonets could not be fixed … with … the grenade launcher attached. Several improperly assembled bayonets could not be fixed. Some soldier did not fire their rifles after their bayonets were fixed. – All these points are indicative of the amount of training with bayonets these soldiers had received before this particular live fire range.

"The U.S. Infantryman with fixed bayonets epitomizes our service." – Although it was not, as described in the article, an accurate representation of existing reality, as much as some may wish to believe in romantic idealism. (21)


The bayonet does not rate highly as a cause of wounds and death in comparison to other battlefield weapons. Napoleon’s own surgeon-general claimed that "for every bayonet-wound he treated there were a hundred caused by small arms or artillery fire." (22) One source gives sabre and bayonet wound statistics as 15-20 per cent before 1850 and only 4-6 per cent after 1860. (23) Similarly Puysegar is recorded as stating that one should "just go to the hospital and … see how few men have been wounded by cold steel as opposed to firearms." (24) And Duffy quotes Corvisier as giving bayonet wound statistics as only 2.4 per cent. (25) Statistics from the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 give two and a half percent as the overall casualty rate for spears, swords and bayonets. (26)

Byron Farwell, in his work on the pre World War I British Army, Mr Kipling’s Army, presents the following:

"The halberd was carried by sergeants until 1830, but the weapon most favoured was the pike, or rather its less efficient modern equivalent, the bayonet, which replaced it about 1700. When, during the First Sikh War, at the battle of Sobraon (10 February 1846), it was reported to General Sir Hugh Gough that the artillery was running short of ammunition, he exclaimed, ‘Thank God! Then I’ll be at them with the bayonet!’ This faith in the most primitive and least efficacious of available weapons persisted into the First World War and beyond. The bayonet is more intimidating than lethal; comparatively few have ever been killed by it." (27)

Wintringham offers a glimpse of the frequency of bayonet casualties during the First World War in stating that they were so rare no separate statistical records were maintained. Bayonet wounds treated were inclusive to the 1.02 per cent miscellaneous casualties and accidents. (28)

Statistics from the American Civil War state that over three months of action near Richmond, characterized by above average rates of hand-to-hand combat, casualty ratios for the Union Army were significantly in favour of projectile wounds. While over 32,000 men received treatment for bullet wounds, only thirty-seven were treated for bayonet thrusts. An observer from the same period confirmed that the wounds evident on the dead were in similar proportion. The damage inflicted during "bayonet assault" was most often executed by bullets. (29)

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(14)     Jamieson, Perry D., Crossing the Deadly Ground; United States Army Tactics, 1865-1899, Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama Press, 1994

(15)     Thompson, Captain A.L., RMP, The Bayonet, published in The British Army Review, Number 26, August 1967

(16)     Elliston, Captain R.J., The Bayonet, published in the Canadian Forces Base Gagetown Junior Officers Journal Edition 1, Vol. I, January 1977

(17)     Lavisse, Commandant Emile Charles, French Army, Field Equipment of the European Foot Soldier, Nashville, Battery Press, 1994 (reprint)

(18)     Mayville, Captain William C., A Soldier’s Load, Infantry, Volume 77, Number 1, January-February 1987

(19)     Steele, David E., Bayonets and Knives, Infantry, Volume 65, Number 3, May-June 1975

(20)     Garzone, John P., The Bayonet, Infantry, Volume 72, Number 2, March-April 1982

(21)     Tiso, Major Roland J., Jr., The Bayonet; Commonsense Lessons, Infantry, Volume 80, Number 4, July-August 1990

(22)     Van Creveld, Martin, Technology and War; From 2000 B.C. to the Present, Don Mills, Maxwell MacMillan, 1991

(23)     Dupuy, Trevor N., Understanding War; History and Theory of Combat, New York, Paragon House, 1987

(24)     (Puyseger, J.F. (1749), Art de guerre par principes et par règles, 2 vol., Paris) quoted in Duffy, Christopher, The Military Experience in the Age of Reason, Hertfordshire, Wordsworth Editions, 1987

(25)     "It is impossible to establish exactly what proportions of casualties were inflicted by various weapons. the most convincing evidence appears at first sight to come from records like those of the Invalides in Paris, which detail the admissions for 1762 as follows:

68.8% wounded by small arms
13.4% wounded by artillery
14.7% wounded by swords
2.4% wounded by bayonets (Corvisier, A. (1964), L’Armèe Française de las fin du XVIIe Siècle au ministère de Choisel. Le Soldat, Paris, 65)" - Duffy, Christopher, The Military Experience in the Age of Reason, Hertfordshire, Wordsworth Editions, 1987

(26)     Wintringham, Tom, Weapons and Tactics, London, Faber and Faber, 1943

(27)     Farwell, Byron, Mr, Kipling’s Army, New York, Norton, 1981

(28)     Wintringham, Tom, Weapons and Tactics, London, Faber and Faber, 1943

(29)    Bullet v. Bayonet – American Civil War, Canadian Army Journal, Volume 16, Number 1, Winter 1962

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