Home Land War Weapons, Equipment and Uniforms The Cult of the Bayonet in the British Army on the Western Front in the Great War

The Cult of the Bayonet in the British Army on the Western Front in the Great War

(O.E.D. Bayonet = 1692, Bayonne, as first made or used there. A stabbing instrument of steel for fixing to the muzzle of a rifle or musket).

Introduction

The original 17th Century concept of the bayonet was to add the sword to the musket to provide a weapon to mimic the medieval pike when the musket was not ready or practical for firing, This made it particularly suitable for close quarters fighting when faced with cavalry or spear carrying natives.

Initially, the bayonet simply plugged into (c.1647), or screwed onto, the muzzle of the musket, and later the rifle (c.1800 for British Baker version). It was quickly realised that the musket/rifle could be simultaneous fired if the bayonet was provided with a socket that was fixed over the muzzle, or was under slung beneath it. (Another very early modification was the bayonet that folded away beneath the barrel, as they do today on some modern infantry weapons). In any event, the first recorded supply of bayonets to the British Army dates to 1673 when 900 'bynettes' were supplied to the Prince Rupert's Dragoons.

Napoleon's armies were famous for use their of the bayonet, as when the fearsome Imperial Guard columns brandished theirs after his artillery had wreaked confusion and destruction on the serried ranks of the enemy. But it was the British who were the main exponents of the use of the bayonet charge from the late 18th Century onwards.

The British Army in 1914 saw the spirited bayonet charge as the crushing culmination of an orderly advance on the enemy's position that would cause fear, panic, confusion, flight and surrender. The ability of a bayonet charge to incite what the French would call élan (offensive spirit), and to stimulate aggression in its participants, is well proven by ample evidence from the battlefield and military studies. These claimed that intensive training would develop 'the spirit of the bayonet', and every British and Empire soldier - even the auxiliary echelons - had to undergo it as part of their Basic Training.

The British 1907 Pattern, 42cm, (16.5-inch), bayonet in use throughout the British and Empire Armies in 1914 - and for the duration of the Great War - was a modification of the Japanese Arisaka sword bayonet. It was chosen to extend the length of the 0.303, Short Magazine Lee Enfield rifle (SMLE) to make it long enough overall for bayonet fighting. Presumably, the prospect of much trench fighting was not a consideration at the time. Reports from that time suggest that, at least initially, the British infantryman preferred this extra length of bayonet to the short 'spike' or 'needle' bayonet favoured by the French Army.

Accordingly, when the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) arrived in France, in August 1914, the 16.5-inch sword bayonet was a standard piece of equipment of every infantryman. And an aggressive bayonet drill was a well-rehearsed part of their armamentarium of skills.

British Army bayonet tactics on the Western Front

Many Great War soldiers semi-seriously claimed that the bayonet was more useful in such mundane tasks such as chopping wood, opening tin cans, digging and even hanging up clothes, than in was in combat. But there is no doubt that the bayonet became, as the war progressed, more a combat weapon of opportunity and was generally only employed when such a suitable situation presented itself.

The professed ideal bayonet target areas of the body were the throat, the chest and the groin. Many veterans soon learned that a bayonet thrust to the chest of the enemy could present problems in withdrawing the bayonet, whilst a stab to the groin meant the victim tended to grab the weapon and refused to let go. Such hiatuses in close quarter fighting made the bayonet wielder himself highly susceptible to attack. Some soldiers claimed that aiming a slashing blow at the face and the hands of the enemy was more immediately disabling to him.

During an advance on the battlefield, some British battalions had the deliberate policy of bayoneting the wounded enemy en passant to neutralise them. And there are reliable reports that wounded, and wound-faking, enemy soldiers fired at the backs of advancing British soldiers. There are also personal accounts by soldiers of both sides of bayoneting unarmed POW's, in and behind the lines, although this was rarely admitted officially by either side.

Perhaps the most often question posed to veterans of the bayonet was 'Why use the bayonet at all in close quarter fighting - why not just shoot the enemy?' Of course, there were occasions when ammunition had run out, was getting very short, or the rifle had jammed: as we shall see, this notoriously happened to the Canadians with their Ross rifles in April 1915. But a principal consideration was that to open fire when engaged in close quarter fighting was to put one's comrades at risk, either directly or by a bullet that had passed through one, or more, of the enemy. It was by no means rare for a British 0.303 bullet to pass through several bodies.

Notable uses of the bayonet on the Western Front

Reading the British Great War Regimental diaries at the Public Records Offices, Kew and the various books and accounts on the Great War, many reports on the use of the British bayonet are to be found in both spontaneous and pre-planned bayonet charges and mêlées. Below are listed some of the more possibly more notable.

1914.

  • Surprisingly, there was no notable British bayonet charge at Mons, where the British first clashed with the German Army in Northern Belgium in August 1914. But more than 500 Germans were killed by rifle and machine gun fire when two columns of the 12th Brandenburg Grenadiers bayonet charged the Royal West Kent Regiment on the 23rd August 1914.
  • 24th August 1914. At Elouges, in Belgium, a sergeant and ten men of the 1st Battalion, Cheshire Regiment, of 5th Division, made a heroic bayonet charge against vastly superior numbers of the German IV Corps, winning some breathing space for their beleaguered colleagues. Later that evening another charge was made by 50 men from A and B companies to cover the retreat of the remainder of the Battalion. But, by nightfall, the few remaining members, out of ammunition and entirely surrounded, were obliged to surrender. The Battalion suffered an 80+% casualty rate.
  • 26th August 1914. During the Battle of Le Cateau, nineteen men of Major Charles Allix Livingdon Yate's company of the 2nd Battalion, King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, made a 'forlorn hope' bayonet charge in an attempt to hold back the advancing Germans. The charge failed, and all the men were either killed or wounded. Subsequently the surviving members of the Battalion surrendered and were harshly treated by their enraged captors. Yate was awarded the VC but was killed in captivity before his award was announced.
  • 1st September 1914. In the region of Villiers-Cotterets, British 2nd Division was making a fighting retreat when the 2nd Coldstream Guards were at risk of being flanked by elements of von Kluck's 1st Army. Seeing the danger, Major George Cecil's No. 4 Company made a surprise bayonet charge on the leading German troops. Caught by this surprise charge the Germans fled and the Brigade was able to retreat southwards to safety.
  • 24th October 1914. In an incident that became to be known as the 'Battle of the Innocents', the old sweats of British Regular Army met the 18 year old university students of the German Volunteer Reserve Corps at Polygon Wood, in the Ypres Sector, Belgium; with catastrophic results for the former students. In a counter- attack, Major Hankey of the 2nd Battalion Worcestershire Regiment led his Battalion in a bayonet charge on the Wood. In a furious, but rather one-sided fight, the students were driven from the Wood until, engaged by machine-gun fire from the German reserve troops, the Worcesters were to a forced to a halt at the edge of Polygon Wood.
  • 31st October 1914. The Messines Ridge Sector was the next major British confrontation with the bayonet. After an earlier skirmish that got a bit out of hand, and over-extended, and in which a new faulty rifle magazine played an unhelpful role, Lt. Colonel G.A. Malcolm's London Scottish Regiment counter-attacked with the bayonet at 2 am. The Germans fought back and several hundred men milled around in the dark, bayonets glinting in the moonlight and in the light of scattered fires. At the end of the battle only 300 of the London Scottish Battalion answered a roll call.

On the same day, further north at Ypres, near Polygon Wood, British 5th Brigade was under sustained attack. After a short period of a hail of rifle fire, a counter-attack was launched by several British battalions including: the 2nd Gordon Highlanders; the 1st Northamptonshire; the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire; the 2nd Royal Sussex and dismounted cavalrymen from the Royal Dragoons. Under the leadership of Brigadier General Bulfin the bayonet charge was successful and the line was stabilised for several days.

  • 11th November 1914. The Germans, with an elite force of 17,500 Prussian Guards, stormed along the Menin Road, east of Ypres, pushing a weary and depleted force of less than 8,000 British infantrymen before them. The 1st and 3rd German Guards Foot Regiments and the 2nd Guard Grenadiers quickly established themselves in the Polygon /Nonne Bosschen Woods. In a stop-gap measure, the depleted Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, with only 300 men, bolstered by hastily mobilised auxiliary troops, readied to attack the German force on its flank at Polygon Wood. A and B Coy, of the Oxon and Bucks, led by Captain Dillon, plus various odds and sods, totalling around 500 men, moved up in support. Once everyone was in place, they bayonet charged the Germans and advanced through Polygon Wood routing them.

This relatively modest action completely disrupted the German objective and had far reaching effects. Both sides began to dig in; the former War of Movement became the Static War and both sides began the reorganisation of their forces to respond to the new reality of trench warfare on the Western Front.

Paradoxically, this amazingly successful British bayonet charge represented a sort of zenith of success in this mode of mobile warfare, and in the following months the bayonet charge became less frequent over No Man's Land as trench warfare became the norm. However, the commanders of both sides still saw the bayonet charge as an essential element of the follow-up to the much-touted 'Break-through' philosophy and their plans continued to foresee its deployment. But, as the machine gun and artillery fire began to increasingly dominate the Western Front battlefields, the unfeasibility of the mass bayonet charge under these unfavourable conditions was abundantly clear to all whom cared to see it.

1915.

  • 10th March 1915. The 2nd Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment at Neuve Chapelle, Northern France, launched the first significant bayonet charge of the year. The toll in No Man's Land was horrific and hardly a single infantryman was untouched. The 2nd Battalion of the Scottish Rifles also went over the top and suffered 90% casualties. A further two battalions subsequently met the same fate. Bayonets were no match for the ever proliferating and massed machine-guns: the standard British Army Bayonet Drill was not suitable for deployment over open machine gun bullet and shrapnel swept battle fields.


On the German side the response was characteristically studied and pragmatic. No more massed frontal bayonet charges. Instead, the shock tactic of toxic chlorine gas discharged from pressure cylinders secreted in the forward trenches.

  • 22nd April 1915. Some 15,000 French colonial troops holding the line in the northern part of the Ypres Salient troops were exposed to a wave of this poison gas. Over 5,000 were killed or died later, whilst many fled en masse. Another 2,000 surrendered. The next day the newly arrived Canadians and the British saved the day and prevented a rout. They advanced on the Germans with bayonets at the ready and charged into Kitchener's Wood. In many cases the bayonet became the only offensive weapon that the Canadian infantry had as many of their Ross rifles became ineffective when affected by the all-pervading mud. That night the Canadian's fought on despite heavy casualties in the man-to-man fighting and eventually captured the German trenches.
  • 23rd April 1915. Whilst the Canadians tackled the Germans head on, the British struggled to put together a scratch force to support them. As the three British battalions came into the line they were fed piecemeal into the battle, but casualties were enormous and the remnants of the scratch force slowly withdrew.

Later that day, the BEF's Commander, French, ordered another attack by five more British battalions, but this too ran into insurmountable machine gun and artillery fire and their bayonet charges stalled. Meanwhile, the Canadian's continued their man-to-man struggle facing the ferocious German counter-attacks with the bayonet; the Ross rifle was still giving serious problems.

  • 25th April 1915. Nothing deterred; the British 10th Brigade launched yet another unsuccessful attack. It was followed on the next day by a joint British and Indian Corps effort. But that too was stalled when the Germans used poison gas on the Lahore Division of the Indian Corps, who broke and fled. Aided by the treacherous use of the poisonous gas, the German machine gun bullet easily neutralised the Canadian/British/Indian exertions with the bayonet.
  • 9th May 1915. Further efforts were made by the British to penetrate the German line at Aubers Ridge, south of Ypres, with similar lack of success. However, several notable bayonet charges took place. The first was by the Gurhkas who used both the British bayonet and the Gurhka kukri to great effect. Secondly, the 1st Northamptonshire, 2nd Lincolnshire and 1st London Battalions jointly made effective use of their bayonets in the trenches with a VC medal being awarded to Corporal Charles Richard Sharpe of the 2nd Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment for his outstanding contribution.

In actions later that day, two more VCs were awarded to Corporals John Ripley and David Findlay, respectively of the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Black Watch, in similar close-quarter bayonet fighting. Over 12,000 British soldiers were killed on this single day.

  • 25th September 1915. The final British offensive of the year was at Loos in the coal fields of the Artois Sector of northern France. A significant bayonet charge by the 15th Scottish Division took the German position on the infamous Hill 70, but it soon fell back into German hands. The commander of the 6th Battalion of the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders, Lieutenant Colonel Angus Falconer Douglas-Hamilton, won the VC posthumously for leading these bayonet charges.
The 1st Brigade of the 1st British Division was also involved in hand-to-hand fighting with the bayonet, and some battalions were almost eliminated in the process. Another mass bayonet charge was made in desperation on the night of 25th/26th September by the 21st and 24th British Divisions, with over 8,000 killed and wounded against negligible German casualties. Heroic charges were just not enough against an enemy well supplied with machine guns and the skill to use them to their maximum efficiency: the British commanders had still not learnt this lesson as their troops continued to die in their thousands.

1916.

  • 1st July 1916

The British Battle Orders for the First Battle of the Somme clearly stipulated that the advance on the targeted 30 km of German trenches would be with bayonets, fixed at the ready in the 'port position'. But there was be no widespread British bayonet charge. Even if the BEF commanders had not insisted that the advance of the 100,000 infantry be at a walking pace, the 30kgs (66lbs) of equipment and accoutrements all the infantry carried would have prevented all but the most sedate jog. So, apart from the units led by a more independent battalion commanders, who deliberately 'misunderstood', or chose to ignore, the order, 20,000 men slowly paced their way in parade order to their death, and another were 40,000 wounded. The mainly volunteer, and inexperienced, New Army troops had been assured by the British Staff officers that the shell-blasted German defenders, who had not fled as a result of the eight-day preliminary barrage, would be cowering in their trenches and would offer little resistance.

For the troops who did manage to reach the German trenches, the bayonet was preferred for man-to-man fighting as it preserved the relatively small supply of rifle ammunition (100 rounds) issued to each individual infantryman and reduced the risk of accidentally shooting a colleague in the mêlée.

Some significant bayonet charges did take place across the Somme battlefield. The well fortified Swaben Redoubt, near Thiepval, was charged by the Northern Irish of the Ulster Division, who were one of the units that had largely ignored orders and discarded their more cumbersome equipment. Captain Eric Norman Frankland Bell, of the 9th Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and Corporal George Sanders, 1/7th Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment, were awarded VCs in this action; the former posthumously.

The New Army 'Pals' Battalions from Liverpool, Manchester and East Anglia, commanded by Major-General Ivor Maxse, 18th Eastern Division, who also chose to ignore the more restrictive orders of the Staff, had similar success with the bayonet in the Montauban Sector.

Later in the day the 2nd Battalion Seaforth Highlanders made a successful bayonet charge at the Quadrilateral redoubt with its Battalion Drummer, Walter Potter Ritchie, winning a VC at Y Ravine.

As the First Battle of the Somme continued its six-month span, innumerable smaller scale bayonet charges took place. But these were largely opportunistic dashes at the enemy's trenches when the distances were short and success was most likely. However, of note are the successes with the bayonet of: The 26th (Highland) Brigade, at Longueval on the 14th July; the Royal Muster Fusiliers at Contalmaison on the 26th; the Prince of Wales' Leinster Regiment at Guillemont on the 3rd September - that involved a 400 yard dash across No Man's Land - and the 51st Highland Division at Beaumont Hamel on the 13th November.

1917.

Throughout the year the principle of the vigorous deployment of the bayonet continued to be strongly supported by the BEF Staff Officers. But the commanders in the field had become wary of the effects of concentrated machine gun and artillery fire on massed infantry charges across open ground, and largely restricted the use of the bayonet charge to small surprise attacks on the enemy's trenches and fortifications.

Several notable bayonet actions took place in 1917, many being carried out by the Australian Corps. Examples of which were:

  • 4/5th February 1917. The 13th (New South Wales) Battalion at Geuedecourt in The Somme Sector, where Captain Henry William (Mad Harry) Murray led three bayonet charges and was awarded the VC.
  • 6th May 1917. A lone bayonet and grenade attack by Corporal George Julian Howell - of the 1st Battalion - at Bullecourt, in the Arras Sector, on the 6th May. Howell was severely wounded and was awarded the VC,
  • 26th September 1917. Private Patrick Joseph Bugden of the 31st (Queensland and Victoria) Australian Battalion - received the VC posthumously for his initiative with the bayonet at Polygon Wood, in the Ypres Sector.

    4th October 1917. Last, but certainly not least, a series of decisive bayonet charges, and close quarter fighting with the bayonet in the trenches, by three divisions of the Australian Imperial Force at Broodseinde, in the Ypres Salient.

1918.

All the armies on the Western Front had developed new strategies and tactics over the previous four years. and in early 1918 were busy training their troops in their use and deployment. Bayonet drill was still taught as a basic skill, but it was realised that although it was still highly efficacious when judiciously employed, it was not the decisive weapon and tactic that it was considered at the beginning of the War.

It was the more open and mobile warfare after the 1918 German March Offensive over the former battlefield of the Somme that once again permitted the bayonet charge to be used over open ground. In this more fluid fighting the enemy forces were not so well supported by well built and sited machine gun nests, fixed avenues of fire, and pre-ranged artillery.

Again there were many examples where the bayonet was deployed with success.

  • 12 August 1918. The Australian Army had grown particularly adept at the use of the bayonet use. Never more effectively than at the storming of the German defences on the Hindenburg Line. Here, typically, at Proyart, a small village in the Amiens Sector, Sergeant Percy Clyde Statton, 40th (Tasmania) Battalion led a 800 yard charge over open ground to neutralise a total of six enemy machine gun posts and enabled his battalion's advance. Sergeant Statton was awarded the VC for his part in this action.
  • 29th August 1918, In perhaps one of the most notable bayonet charges on the Western Front, the 5th Brigade of the 2nd Australian Division advanced at bayonet point on the defences of Mont St. Quentin and captured the infamous Gottlieb Trench. On the following day the 6th Brigade successfully employed the same tactics. Three Australian soldiers received the VC in this renowned action: Lieutenant Edgar Thomas Towner, 2nd Battalion Australian Machine Gun Corps, Sergeant Albert David and Private Robert Mactier, respectively of the 21st and 23rd (Victoria) Battalions.

Conclusions

  • The British bayonet played an important part in many actions on the Western Front and undoubtedly justified to an extent the belief of the BEF Staff Officers in its efficacy. But its principle effect was psychological: there is no doubt that considerable numbers of the enemy were prompted to surrender, either collectively or individually, when faced by cold steel of the determined British soldier. It also is apparent that the Australian infantryman was an even more willing and proficient user of the bayonet.
  • The number of casualties inflicted by the British bayonet on the enemy was comparatively small. Apparently, it was never systematically recorded - being generally lumped together with injuries and deaths due to accidents etc. at 1%. However, a figure is given in the British official casualty records of 0.3% of the total overall casualties. But the ratio of mortal bayonet wounds to recoverable injuries was very high indeed. Indeed, some accounts state that few bayoneted soldiers survived the trauma due to the heavy loss of blood it usually incurred.
  • The decision of the British to stick throughout the Great War to the Japanese Arisaka sword based design in the form of the British 0.303, 1907 Pattern, 16.5 inch rifle bayonet, was probably a tactical mistake: as was clearly demonstrated in later wars where a shorter bayonet was found to be more practical in conditions paralleling those pertaining to the trench warfare of the Great War.

 

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Last Updated ( Thursday, 11 December 2008 12:52 )  

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