Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, March 10, 2017

Just How Useless Was the Bayonet in the Great War?

Fix Bayonets

Rob Engen

The soldier should not be taught to shrink from the bayonet attack, but to seek it. If the infantry is deprived of the arme blanche, if the impossibility of bayonet fighting is preached, and the soldier is never given an opportunity in time of peace of defending himself, man to man, with his weapon in bayonet fencing, an infantry will be developed, which is unsuitable for attack and which, moreover, lacks a most essential quality, viz., the moral power to reach the enemy's position. 
Colonel William Balck, Tactics: Introduction and Formal Tactics of Infantry, 1911

Looking into the obsolescence of the bayonet during the First World War is a complicated issue. As a direct killing weapon the bayonet was certainly past its prime, though it is debatable whether or not it ever had history. At best, a fraction of a percentage of total casualties were inflicted by the bayonet during the Great War, though unfortunately we will never know the true account for many deaths on any battlefield in modern numbers.

Bayonet Practice
Simple statistics, however, belie the true uses of the bayonet before and during the fighting. As discussed in this paper, bayonet assault doctrine was the result not of wistful nostalgia among the high commands—though it would have satisfied traditionalists—but of deliberate strategic decisions made to overcome existing difficulties. The problem of moving men forward through the fire-swept zone dominated tactical thinking at the turn of the 19th century, and after the Russo-Japanese War it was sincerely believed that such problems could be overcome by morale and the mass bayonet charge. During the war itself, the bayonet found use as a psychological tool, capitalizing on a natural human revulsion at the thought of being stabbed to both frighten the enemy and carry soldiers wielding it forward. Allied units with a reputation for closing with the enemy and engaging in hand-to-hand killing, such as the "savage" non-white colonial troops, were feared by the Germans out of all proportion to their success in the line.

So while doubt can (and should) be cast on the bayonet's efficacy as a killing weapon, it was never intended as an anachronistic substitute for firepower, but rather as a solution to defensive fire. Given the theoretical difficulty of integrating fire and movement in the doctrines of the time, the bayonet charge was a rational—if not entirely successful—solution in overcoming it in infantry doctrine. Even when the coude à coude (elbow to elbow) formations failed, though, the "offensive spirit" engendered by the bayonet was held in high regard by commanders and military theorists during the war, and it saw frequent use as a morale booster and component of the war's many infantry advances. Given all of this, a serious reassessment needs to be made of how the bayonet is portrayed and demonized in the histories of the Great War, and the bolstering of the moral power of soldiers in pitting steel against fire demands broader acknowledgment in the literature.

The rarity of bayonet fights does not prove the uselessness of the bayonet, but shows that opponents will rarely be found who are equally capable of making use of it. Indeed, the bayonet cannot be abolished for the reason, if for no other, that it is the sole and exclusive embodiment of that will power which alone, both in war and in every-day life, attains its objective, whereas reason only tends to facilitate the attainment of the object
Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill 
in War and Society, 2009)

Source: Over the Top, September 2009


  1. Times when bayonet charges were successful:

  2. My guess is that on the Western Front at least the bayonet was used primarily to finish off enemy wounded or dispatch unwanted prisoners.
    Jim Cameron

  3. Thing is, it's hard to tell how many battle deaths may be attributed to the bayonet. MOST bayonet injuries resulted in death to the victim, and burial parties didn't exactly perform field autopsies when burying hundreds/thousands of corpses - not to mention how many casualties' bodies were mutilated by artillery so that even the best Medical Examiner would have had problems identifying such a wound as the cause of death.

  4. I think Baron Larrey's study of casualties in the Napoleonic Wars may have some relevance. He found that, in an era in which it was actually possible to close within killing distance of the enemy with some regularity, only 7 % of wounds were from the bayonet. This was not because the weapon wasn't deadly, but because it was frightening. The weapon was one of moral force, and when the opposed forces were close enough to becoming decisively engaged, one side or the other normally took to its heels and postponed the problem to another day.

  5. My father, who was a combat engineer in WWI, wrote of its value in the role the engineers played in the Aisne-Marne Campaign. His personal use of the bayonet is recorded in his book "Remembering World War I: An Engineer's Diary of the War."

  6. Being a history buff and engineer I wonder how I can get or borrow a copy of Virginia Dilkes, Dad's book "Remembering World War I: An Engineer's Diary of the War"