The bayonet: A short, sharp history
Even the sound of a bayonet could be frightening. The audible sharpening of bayonet blades in the enemy’s trenches could puncture a night’s rest with premonitions of steely death. The sight of gleaming blades, too, turned the stomachs of many a soldier. For all the sheer, witless terror it could produce in those who heard, saw and perhaps felt its cold steel, there was no weapon more visceral than the bayonet.
It might have been a moment of inspired panic that brought the bayonet into existence. The bearer of a musket – maybe a soldier, maybe a hunter – having fired his weapon and missed his target, found himself at the mercy of a fast-approaching assailant. With no time to reload, he plunged the handle of a dagger into the muzzle, converting it from firearm to elongated knife. Perhaps he had missed his target altogether and expected to be assaulted at any moment, or perhaps his wounded quarry had disappeared into a thicket and needed to be chased at speed. As time was of the essence, it could not be squandered in the cumbersome act of reloading. Shoved snugly inside the muzzle of firearm, even a short dagger of the kind for which the region of Bayonne had won fame could deliver a lethal strike.
From its first use somewhere in southwestern France sometime in the first half of the seventeenth century, the genius of the invention spread far and wide. History has it that the first acknowledged use of the bayonet was at Ypres in 1647. It also reveals that, for all its genius, the days of the ‘plug bayonet’ were numbered. While the wooden handle was plugged in the musket, the weapon could not be fired. Worse than that, over-vigorous use might damage the barrel, or the blade might break while wedged firmly inside. If that happened, then the weapon would be useless as a firearm.
A Russian grenadier with bayonet in 1732. Wikimedia Commons
Over time, ways were found to attach blades to the outside of barrels, whether running alongside, on top or beneath them. That could be with rings or sockets. The blades themselves could be kept separately from the firearm, typically on their bearer’s belt, and then slid or slotted into place when the occasion required it. In some variations they might be permanently attached to the firearm and then folded or sprung into position. The blades could be short and dagger-like, barely long enough to pierce the enemy’s clothing, let alone deliver a lethal incision. Or they could be as long as swords, so that when attached to long-barrelled weapons they could deliver their bearer the advantage of reach which might easily account for the difference between life and death. In cross-section they might be broad and thin like a carving knife, round like a stiletto, or star-shaped.
In their countless variations, bayonets appeared on many a battlefield in Europe and then other parts of the world as well, until in the last decades of the nineteenth century they appeared to have met their match. The American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War seemed to teach one incontrovertible lesson – that the advances in military technology had rendered the humble bayonet obsolete. In the face of machine-gun fire or a bombardment of artillery, the infantryman with a fixed bayonet might never see his killer, let alone plunge the cold steel into him. The days of the bayonet, its detractors insisted, were numbered.
Against that, the weapon’s advocates pleaded for its enduring value. Most killing, they conceded, could be performed at an anonymous distance; there was no need to wait to see the proverbial whites of the enemy’s eyes. Yet while machine-guns, mortars and artillery might serve to mow down the serried ranks of the enemy or blow them apart, ultimately even positions strewn with corpses had to be occupied and claimed. For all its firepower, the most modern technology of war still lacked in mobility; it remained the infantrymen’s humble but vital role to make contested territory their own. If the very sight of fixed bayonets did not persuade any surviving defenders to turn tail or surrender, then the bayonets might still have work to do.
The War for the Union, 1862 – A Bayonet Charge (Harper’s Weekly, Vol. VII) Wikimedia Commons
The twentieth century proved that declarations of the bayonet’s demise had been premature. It remained standard issue for infantrymen all over the world, even if its shape and use varied. The Russians clung fanatically to their faith in the socket bayonet. The Japanese reintroduced a sword bayonet in 1897, inspired by a French weapon. Where stealth was of the essence, as it was in night attacks in the Russo-Japanese War, the bayonet delivered silent death. Americans, too, insisted that their infantry carry long bayonet blades – an intimidating 40 centimetres – on their belts, ready to be fixed when the need arose. In time and with experience, though, the Germans opted for shorter knife bayonets of 25 or 30 centimetres.
A German bayonet from the first world war. Wikimedia Commons
In Britain, and all her Dominions, the so-called ‘Pattern 1907’ bayonet was preferred. Over the centuries, the fundamentals of the bayonet had barely changed, and the Pattern, too, consisted of a blade, a guard with crosspiece and muzzle ring, and a wooden hilt. Along much of the length of the blade ran a groove, a fuller. It reduced the weight of the weapon and also allowed air to pass into the wound, making it easier to extract the blade.
While most of the standard weapons of the British Empire’s armies were manufactured in Britain, Australia, like India, manufactured its own Pattern 1907 bayonets in both wars. In the First World War they were made in a factory in Lithgow, while those from the Second World War were stamped with 13 (for Orange Arsenal) or 14 (for Munitions Australia). The wooden grips were stamped with ‘SLAZ’, an abbreviation of their British maker, Slazenger, active in the sporting goods business back to the 1880s. By the time of the Second World War the blades also had stamped upon them the number of the military district in which they were issued, along with their weapon serial number. Kept normally in a scabbard attached to the soldier’s belt, when fixed to the standard-issue Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE) rifle, the Pattern 1907 extended the soldier’s reach by a further 17 inches (43 centimetres).
Bayonets were widely used in the First World War, even as the accelerated development of military technology enforced the trend to mechanised, industrial killing. Australians earned themselves a reputation for using their bayonets with relish. Well trained and drilled in their use, they plunged, parried and stabbed with great vigour at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. The Australians, as the historian Bill Gammage has put it, ‘by reputation and probably in fact, were among the most willing to kill. They had an uncomplicated attitude towards the Hun, conditioned largely by propaganda and hardly at all by contact, and they hated him with a loathing paralleled, at least in the British Army, only by some other colonial troops. Accordingly many killed their opponents brutally, savagely, and unnecessarily.’
Australian infantry in the trenches with bayonets during World War One. Frank Hurley/Wikimedia Commons
It was not only the Germans who became acquainted with the Pattern 1907. At Gallipoli Albert Jacka won Australia’s first VC of the war by shooting five Turks and bayonetting two others. Another Australian, Nigel Ellsworth, noted that when in advance of a night attack on Turkish lines, ‘one can’t buy a place in the main firing trench, and men are known to have refused ₤2 for their positions during the fighting. They stand up in the trenches & yell out “Come on, we’ll give you Allah”, & … let some Turks actually get into our Trenches then tickle them up with the bayonet.’ Archie Barwick, a farmer from New South Wales, spoke of being transported into a state of ‘mad intoxication’ when he took to the Turks with fixed bayonet. ‘I can recollect driving the bayonet into the body of one fellow quite clearly, & he fell right at my feet & when I drew the bayonet out, the blood spurted from his body.’ A New Zealand officer writing home from Gallipoli claimed that the Turks ‘redoubled’ their fire over the New Zealanders’ positions at night. It was ‘the one hope of deterring the dreaded bayonets of our men … steel has an unearthly terror for them.’
The Western Front was no different, and there too some of the men left a record of their work with the bayonet, and of the spirit in which it was wielded. In recalling his experience of Pozières in mid-1916, Private Thomas of the 6th Battalion claimed that he was so enraged at the Germans’ ‘infernal bombardment & loss of splendid young comrades that my blood was up & I was like a fiend & felt terrible & I worked every man jack of them up to the same pitch … A German officer loomed up & raised his revolver point blank at me, with a yell I dropped a bomb at him, I held it two seconds in my hand & it did its infernal job. I suppose we all went stone mad then for I finished my bombs & then my bayonet & they ran calling for mercy great big burly hounds, how they scooted falling over each other, jabbering & shrieking & probably cursing. In a similar vein, another Australian wrote boastfully to his family of the short work he made of Germans: ‘They get it too right where the chicken gets the axe … I … will fix a few more before I have finished. It’s good sport father when the bayonet goes in their eyes bulge out like a prawns.’
If there was a danger in the over-zealous use of the bayonet, it was that the weapon might be driven so far and firmly into the opponent’s body that it was difficult to extract it. The Queenslander Hugh Knyvett recalled a case where a fellow Australian drove his bayonet through a German and into a hardwood beam, from which it could not be extracted. The blade had to be released from the rifle, ‘leaving the German stuck up there as a souvenir of his visit’. In other instances, too, Knyvett warned, ‘many of our men have been killed through driving their bayonet too far into the body of their opponent, not being able to draw it out, thus being helpless when attacked by another of the enemy. It is no use telling men not to drive their bayonet in more than three or four inches, for in the speed and fury of a charge they will always drive it in right up to the hilt.’
By the latter stages of the First World War, the Australians’ skill had manifested in the use of a particular movement with the bayonet known as the ‘throat jab’, designed to deliver a lethal blow to the enemy’s most vulnerable point. It is well illustrated in William Longstaff’s painting ‘Night attack by 13th Brigade at Villers-Bretonneux’, which shows an Australian holding aloft his Lee Enfield, bayonet attached, and thrusting it into a German’s exposed throat. In recalling his own role in that battle in the night from 24 April to Anzac Day, Walter Downing wrote:
There was no quarter on either side. Germans continued to fire their machine-guns, although transfixed by bayonets; but though they were crack regiments of Prussian and Bavarian Guards, and though they were brave and far outnumbered the Australians, they had no chance in the wild onslaught of maddened men, who forgot no whit, in their fury, of their traditional skill. The latter were bathed in spurting blood. They killed and killed. Bayonets passed with ease through grey-clad bodies, and were withdrawn with a sucking noise … Many had tallies of twenty and thirty and more, all killed with the bayonet, or bullet, or bomb. Some found chances in the slaughter to light cigarettes, then continued the killing.
Night attack by 13th Brigade at Villers- Bretonneux. Australian War Memorial
For all the stories of the frenzied wielding of the bayonet, in reality its role in the First World War was more prominent in the telling than on the battlefield. At the end of the war, its detractors remained. Field hospitals, they pointed out, reported very few bayonet wounds. Sober analysis showed that the vast majority of deaths and casualties were put down to machine-guns and artillery. As for the Australians themselves, more than half those admitted to field hospitals in France suffered injuries from shells and shell shock, and more than a third from bullets. The combined tally from bombs, grenades and bayonets was just over 2 per cent.
After the war, even former combatants voiced their awareness of the bayonet’s shortcomings. It might have been helpful for certain mundane tasks like opening tins, chopping firewood or perhaps roasting meat over a fire, but in a charge across open land in the sights of German machine-gunners it was at best an unwelcome burden. In close quarters, it had its drawbacks. Fixed in readiness to the end of a Lee Enfield and lugged along a trench, its most likely victim was a comrade in arms, who might receive a prod to the buttocks or a poke in the eye.
A Pattern 1907 bayonet with hooked quillon. Australian War Memorial
Nonetheless, as the growling of the dogs of war reached a crescendo in 1939, the bayonet still had its place in every army. Its advocates had won their case, and not because the evidence about the impact of the bayonet in the Great War had deceived. Rather, it was because those who made the case for its retention recognised that in any war, including the next, its value would lie not in its capacity to kill large numbers. No sane mind could argue that the bayonet would supplant artillery or the machine-gun. Rather, the wiser heads who prevailed knew that the true value of the bayonet was in the soldier’s mind, not at the end of his rifle.
That was true in two ways. While the greatest threat to the twentieth century soldier was the bomb or the bullet delivered anonymously from afar, the most animating of fears was that of ‘cold steel’ inserted into his body in a mortal duel, the most intimate form of combat death. The most feared weapons in war are not necessarily the most dangerous. One reason why field hospitals counted relatively few casualties caused by bayonet wounds may well have been that many a soldier turned and ran before taking his chances against a surging line of men, bayonets glistening, and in all likelihood adorning their advance with the kinds of cries or yells designed to curdle blood. In those circumstances, only in the rarest cases would bayonet steel clash with steel. Unlike the arrival of the bullet or the shell, the bayonet’s advent was seen, was possibly heard, and with judicious retreat was probably avoidable. As one soldier of the Second World War put it, ‘If I was that close to a Jerry, where we could use bayonets, one of us would have already surrendered!’
More crucial, though, than the psychological effect of the bayonet on the enemy was its impact on the men who wielded it. Killing fellow human beings comes naturally and easily to only the very few, yet this was the task set every man sent off to war. He had to overcome not only his fear of dying but also his fear of killing. To do so required not just weapons, but a mentality that tolerated the act of killing and even facilitated it.
In this war, as in the last, at military training schools across the world, instructor sergeants taught their charges to lunge, thrust and parry. Bayonets in hand, recruits were exhorted to plunge their weapons into swinging sacks of sawdust or bags of straw, aiming for those parts marked as weak and vulnerable. The sacks, as a British Army training manual insisted, ‘should be filled with vertical layers of straw and thin sods (grass or heather), leaves, shavings, etc., in such a way as to give the greatest resistance without injury to the bayonet. A realistic effect, necessitating a strong withdrawal as if gripped by a bone, is obtained by inserting a vertical layer of pieces of hard wood.’ To ramp up the level of realism, by the time of the Second World War, some British recruits practised ‘in abattoirs, with warm animal blood thrown in their faces as they plunged home their bayonets’. Commonly, too, in training with the bayonet, men were incited to emit wild, adrenaline-pumping screams.
British soldiers practising with bayonets in the first world war. Wikimedia Commons
Confidence in the use of the bayonet, it was believed, would give infantry the courage to advance from their positions and confront the enemy directly. A lesson taken from the First World War was that only the men assured of their ‘own power to use the bayonet’ were likely ‘to wish to come to close quarters’. The great advantage of the bayonet that they developed was what some called ‘the spirit of the bayonet’, l’esprit de la baïonnette. More crudely, it was a ‘lust for blood’, or perhaps Archie Barwick’s ‘mad intoxication’. Although the statistics insisted it was unlikely that the bayonet would be used to kill, it was crucial because it engendered in its bearer the desire to advance and to kill.
Ideally the effect of such training, then, was not just to impart the physical wherewithal to brandish a bayonet effectively, to acquire the strength and skills akin to those of a fencer or swordsman. More than that, the training was to develop a psychological reflex perhaps best understood as the form of associative learning that psychologists term ‘classical conditioning’. Just as Pavlov’s dog was conditioned to salivate on the appearance of a metronome – an artefact the dog had been trained to associate with the presentation of food – so in the mind of the infantryman the command to fix bayonets would trigger a hyper-aggressive state. At that point it might even have seemed to the soldier that all agency had shifted to his bayonet, which would tug him into wild acts of violence, as if he had ‘no choice but to go along with its spirit.’ As one infantryman put it, the ‘shining things leap from the scabbards and flash in the light … They seem alive and joyous; they turn us into fiends, thirsty for slaughter.’
If any soldiers in the Second World War were entitled to the view that the march of military technology had rendered the bayonet obsolete, it was the parachutists and mountain troops Hitler sent to invade the island of Crete in May 1941. Superbly trained and equipped, they had proved to themselves and the world that warfare had entered a new era. From Warsaw in the east to London in the west, from Narvik in the north to Athens in the south, Germany’s armed forces, the Wehrmacht, had demonstrated that in the modern age death could be delivered anonymously and at a distance, above all from the skies. The age of intimate killing was over.
Or so it seemed. In Crete they were to confront Australians and New Zealanders who, like their fathers, were deeply familiar with the spirit of the bayonet. On the upturned brim of their slouch hats, the Australians displayed their allegiance to a powerful tradition in the form of the Rising Sun badge, a semi-circle of glistening bayonets radiating from a crown. Like the Anzacs of the Great War, the Anzacs of 1941 were well trained in the use of the Pattern 1907 – they could lunge and stab with it with all the skill and deadliness of their forebears. When the order was given to fix bayonets, these Anzacs of 1941, too, would be expected to spill blood.
This is an extract from Battle on 42nd Street - War in Crete and the Anzacs’ bloody last stand by © Peter Monteath (NewSouth Books).
Published with author’s permission.
Peter Monteath is Professor Modern European History at Flinders University
 TH McGuffie, ‘The Bayonet: A Survey of the Weapon’s Employment in Warfare over the past three centuries’, History Today, 12, 8 (August 1962), p. 590; Anthony Carter and John Walter, The Bayonet: A History of Knife and Sword Bayonets 1850–1970, Based on the ‘Guns Review’ Articles, Arms and Armour Press, London, 1974, pp. 13–14.
 Bill Gammage, The Broken Years: Australian Soldiers in the Great War, Penguin, Melbourne, 1990, p. 257.
 Gammage, The Broken Years, p. 98.
 Diary of Archie Barwick, 22 August 1914 – September 1915, pp. 110–11, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, MLMSS 1493/Box 1/Item 1.
 Barbara Harper (ed.), Letters from Gunner 7/516 and Gunner 7/517, Anchor Communications, Wellington, 1978, p. 21.
 Gammage, The Broken Years, pp. 256–57.
 Cited in Jeff Sparrow, ‘Oh, what a lovely war’, The Age, 21 June 2008, <www.theage.com.au/national/oh-what-a-lovely-war-20080621-ge76c6.html>.
 R Hugh Knyvett, ‘Over There’ with the Australians, Project Gutenberg e-Book, 2005, p. 82.
 WH Downing, To the Last Ridge, Duffy & Snellgrove, Sydney, 1998, p. 118.
 AG Butler, Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services in the War of 1914–1918, Vol. II, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1940, p. 495, cited in Gammage, The Broken Years, p. 259.
 Fred Cederberg, The Long Road Home: The Autobiography of a Canadian Soldier in Italy in World War Two, General, Toronto, 1984, p. 146. Cited in Joanna Bourke, An Intimate History of Killing: Face-to-face Killing in Twentieth-Century Warfare, Granta, London, 1999, p. 92.
 American Medical Corps psychiatrists conducting studies of battle fatigue in the European theatre in The Second World War found that fear of killing, rather than the fear of being killed, was the most common cause of battle failure, and that fear of failure ran a strong second. SLA Marshall, Men against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command in Future War, Peter Smith, Gloucester MA, 1978 (1947), p. 78.
 Cited in Bourke, An Intimate History of Killing, p. 92.
 Whiting, Poor Bloody Infantry, p. 113, cited in John Stone, ‘The Point of the Bayonet’, Technology and Culture, 53, 4 (2012), p. 888.
 Bourke, An Intimate History of Killing, p. 92.
 Paul Hodges, ‘They don’t like it up ‘em!’, pp. 133–34, cited in Stone, ‘The Point of the Bayonet’, p. 901.
 Cited in Stone, ‘The Point of the Bayonet’, p. 901.