Peterborough during the First World War 1914 - 1918.

Peterborough, Ontario during the First World War 1914 - 1918.

Assault with the Bayonet in the Great War

1918 Lee Enfeld SMLE Rifle with bayonet

Recently in Peterborough there was a small exhibit created in partnership with the Peterborough Museum and Fleming College's Museum Management program. The exhibit showcased a French Graz Great War bayonet.

Film of Canadians preforming Bayonet Drill, Shorncliffe, UK.

I have always drawn to the subject of bayonets and the First World War. I grew up with the family folklore of my Great-Grandfather recalling bayonet drill at the CNE Grounds. Legend has it that my Great Grandfather would entertain his brood of 11 children by re-enacting his war crywhile holding an imaginary rifle and bayonet, and lunge at an imaginary strawsack.
Soldiers from the 2nd Contingent, 19th or 20th Battalion
Practicing Bayonet Drill, CNE.
Credit: Toronto Archives

Recently, British Historian Paul Hodges finished his doctoral dissertation on the examination of World War I atrocities committed by British Soldiers. Before completing his thesis, he wrote a very interesting article on the British obsession with using the bayonet in the Great War. A past article has demonstrated that Peterborough soldiers were also fascinated with using the bayonet. 
Canadian soldiers practicing bayonet drill, Toronto Armouries
Credit: The Story of the Great War, Vol. V.


‘They don’t like it up ’em!’: Bayonet fetishization in the British Army during the First World War
Paul Hodges
Birkbeck, University of London

Canadians Fixing Bayonets
Circa: 1916
The bayonet was widely fetishized in the British Army in the First World War era, both ‘from above’ and ‘from below’. A vibrant, rich and quickly transmitted culture grew around this, which had real effects on the battlefields of the war. Supreme confidence was placed in British masculinity, a masculinity that depended on the effective and brutal use of this weapon. Training frequently focused on it. Both this confidence and training focus were misplaced, as in fact the bayonet was not a particularly useful or effective weapon. The combination of this strong fetishization of the weapon and its ineffectiveness had a tendency to encourage atrocity and prisoner killing, in which some soldiers indulged keenly, as the main opponents on whom the bayonet could be used successfully were those who were unarmed or wounded

British Advance with Fixed Bayonets, N.d.
              It is not often that comedy catchphrase pearls have grown from a piece of grit of historic military culture, let alone one based on wounds and wounding. However, Corporal Jones’s stock epithet, ‘They don’t like it up ’em!’ from the popular sitcom Dad’s Army seems to have done so. The character and his catchphrase had origins in the co-writer’s Jimmy Perry’s experiences of the Second World War and roots even further back. Jones was based on an elderly, experienced lance-corporal under whom Perry served when aged 15in the 19th Hertfordshire Battalion, Local Defence Volunteers (the Home Guard’s precursor), and his catchphrase came from an instructor in the Royal Artillery, to which Perry was later called up (Webber et al. 2001: 7–8;Perry and Croft 2003: 15). But certainly the catchphrase would not have sounded out of place in the British trenches of the First World War and would not have been laughed at. 

             Confidence in the British infantry’s prowess with the bayonet was high and, indeed, compared with many contemporary soldiers’ texts, Corporal Jones’s love of ‘cold steel’ is positively anaemic. Such texts are highly revealing, displaying a self-supporting military culture, one that was uncompromising in its attitude to opponents. British military training at the time of the First World War laid strong emphasis on the usage of the bayonet. This standard piece of infantry equipment was difficult to use in open combat other than against prone opponents. Almost by definition, these prone opponents could have been considered potential prisoners. Despite this and other practical inadequacies, the bayonet retained its elements as a standard-bearer, a shibboleth and
 indeed, rather a fetish for the British Army. A fetish – defined as ‘something regarded with irrational reverence’ (Chambers 1988: 526) – is an apt description of the bayonet, for it was held in great esteem within the British Army despite its battlefield inadequacies. Other definitions of a fetish – ‘an object believed to procure for its owner the services of a spirit lodged within it’ and even ‘an inanimate object to which a pathological sexual attachment is formed’ (Chambers 1988: 526) – are not that far off the mark in some statements about bayonets made by troops. The latter can be discerned in a letter dated 25 April 1915 written by Lance Corporal W. Francis that described him and his comrades swarming up a hill and

the lust to kill is on us, we see red. Into one trench, out of it, and into another. Oh! The bloody gorgeousness of feeling your bayonet go into soft yielding flesh – they run, we after them, no thrust one and parry, in goes the bayonet the handiest way. (Gammage 1974: 96–97)

Similarly, the reported sergeant-major’s training ground cliché which went along the lines of ‘Fix bayonets! Don’t look down! You’d soon find the hole if there was a fucking tart on it’ (Vansittart 1981: 33), also carries a similar sexual charge.

Courcelette Sugar Refinery 15 September 1916
Credit: Canadian War Museum

Unlike other weapons, the bayonet was a universal part of all infantry-men’s equipment and concomitant with this status there had been a long-established emphasis on bayonets in the training of the infantry soldier of the British Army. The standard training manual frequently described its importance alongside that of the rifle. These assertions confidently began by stating that, ‘The rifle and bayonet, being the most efficient offensive weapons of the soldier, are for assault, for repelling attack or for obtaining superiority of fire. Every NCO and man in the platoon must be proficient in their use’ (War Office 1917: 91). Individual and team bayonet fighting were two of the five events making up the annual divisional competition known as the Grand Assault at Arms, fiercely competed for by the regular soldiers over the years.

The bayonet, however, represented much more to the British Army of the First World War era than a ‘simple’ weapon of assault. One of its major functions was (and continues to be) to inculcate the correct attitude in troops. In training, the bayonet’s ability within the Army’s teaching and practice regime to demonstrate the correct, aggressive approach towards the enemy seems to have been the key reason for its frequent and pivotal role in courses of instruction. It could also be argued that even by the First World War, troop motivation had become the primary purpose of the bayonet, as the stances and moves taught were applicable only to earlier situations where the infantry formed tightly gathered close ranks. Technically, the bayonets issued were not well designed and often were simply not strong enough to carry out the actions that soldiers had been trained to perform with them. A report by the British Small Arms School that investigated their efficiency in 1924 made this clear. Its expert authors testified that during the First World War:

the utility of the bayonet as a cutlass or dagger proved to be negligible, hence the demand for trench knives, clubs, etc. it is one of the most futile instruments imaginable. Even for cutting up duck boards and ammunition boxes for firewood it was ineffective, and it generally suffered severely in the contest […]. As a killing shape it makes a very nasty wound, but is of a bad section for penetration and worse for with drawal. Owing to its great length and the leverage exerted it frequently breaks or bends, even against straw-filled sacks and in spite of being kept properly sharpened. (Anon. 1924)

Other criticism in the report makes it clear that British lives were lost due to bayonets’ unwieldiness in a fight, their propensity to glint or reflect at night and their deleterious effect on shooting accuracy and ability, particularly snap and sharp shooting. Moreover, the seventeen inches or so of bayonet affixed to a four-foot Lee-Enfield rifle, with an overall combined length of 5 feet 3 inches, was singularly unsuited to the narrow confines of most trenches. In such circumstances it was exceedingly awkward to handle and often downright dangerous, as the medical officer Captain J.C. Dunn described in his well-known amalgamated journal of the Royal Welch Fusilier’s war. As well as the mud that debilitated rifles, he reported in an entry for 27 October 1914 that ‘some of our bayonets too were broken owing to the various uses to which they were put. In those hastily dug trenches the fixed bayo-net was an encumbrance’ (Dunn 1938: 85). Moreover, the technical deficiencies of the bayonet as a combat weapon forced soldiers to use it in a brutal manner, as mentioned by this anonymous commanding officer recounting the planning of an attack on a troublesome enemy position with some colleagues. Three of his companies

advancing in two waves were to deliver a rapid assault, capture the enemy’s machine-gun emplacements at the point of the bayonet, and drive any remaining Germans out of the wood. To those present it appeared to be a clear case of neck or nothing, and so it was to prove.(Officer 1918: 182)

The classic image of the First World War infantryman eviscerating enemies with a bayonet to the chest or stomach  is therefore somewhat fictional. These images, even before the irromanticization of a brutal form of combat is considered, should be considered as largely false as they do not depict the manner in which the bayonet was recommended to be used in the field. When attacking the chest with a bayonet it risked bouncing off the ribcage without inflicting the necessary debilitating injury, or else the bayo-net’s tip was broken or shattered completely on a rib. Sticking the enemy’s belly risked getting the bayonet stuck fast there, even with the quarter-twist to remove that was practised in training, as the strong stomach muscles sealed and gripped tight around the faces of the weapon. John Lucy’s platoon commander, interestingly depicting the ‘blooding of bayonets’ as almost a passive act, warned against this risk in his pep talk before the Battle of Mons on 22 August 1914. He told his platoon they were ‘bound to be successful but do not forget that when blooding your bayonets, yes, rather, blooding your bayonets, do not on any account bury them too deeply. Damn nuisance you know, endeavouring to withdraw an unnecessarily deep bayonet’ (Lucy 1938: 99). Alarmingly soldiers could discover how wise this advice was in the field, although it did not necessarily reduce their verve and excitement at using the bayonet successfully. One second lieutenant reported in a letter home dated 11 June 1915 that hi regiment did damned well, and our men fought magnificently, especially when they could get in with the bayonet: I myself had the extreme satisfaction of bayoneting three […] only in the excitement of the moment I left it sticking in the third, and ran on with only a revolver: anyhow it must have hurt him, when he pulled it out, if he was still alive, and I hope it did. (Savory 1915)

German 'dummy'

The neck, while presenting a much smaller and more difficult target to strike, posed no blade retrieval problems for the infantryman and very little risk of any weapon breakage. That it was a more instantly deadly and gushingly bloody method played a part in the popularity of this method. The advice to be found in training manuals to slash at the groin is interesting and similarly telling; it seemed to have been an allusion to the role of bayonet fighting in emasculating the enemy in the most basic castrating manner. It was couched in rather coy terms though – a ‘Rio blow’ to the ‘lower part’ for McLaglen (1916: 11) and a ‘lower stomach’ blow or ‘low left or right parry’ for the Officer (1915). By 1931 official advice was not so coy, with the groin and neck the only ‘pointing’ targets mentioned in standard drill (War Office 1931: 157).

Having faded in usage somewhat during the Boer War, British observations of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05 renewed interest in the bayonet. Interest in the force of the mass, spirited but attritional Japanese bayonet charges was reflected in the culture and language of British First World War soldiers, with the phrase ‘And if Turkey makes a stand / She’ll get Ghurka’d and Japann’d’ cropping up in the chorus of the song ‘When Belgium put the Kibosh on the Kaiser’ (Ellerton 1914: 50–52).Did British interest in the Japanese method of massed bayonet charges result in atrocity when contact with the enemy was made during the First World War? Euphemistic hints in this direction were contained in contemporary bayonet training manuals, such as when Captain McLaglen details advice on ‘delivering “point” to the downed opponent’ (McLaglen 1916:12–13). ‘Downed’ indicates that the opponent was probably disarmed or wounded but certainly little threat and thus protected under proper application of military law. The British Manual of Military Law was clear-cut on this (War Office 1914: 248).

Denis Winter goes as far as to assert that ‘no man in the Great War was ever killed by a bayonet unless he had his hands up first’ (Winter1978: 110). John Keegan opines, with particular reference to the first day of the Somme, that ‘edged-weapon wounds would have almost dis-appeared, for though the marks of bayonets were found on a number of bodies, it was presumed that they had been inflicted after the victim was dead; the best statistic available is that edged-weapon were a fraction of one per cent of all wounds inflicted in the First World War’ (Keegan1976: 264). Although this is a widely quoted piece of a hugely influential work, Keegan’s source, or possibly sources, are obscure and both the rather vague statistic and the notion of all bayonet wounds seen being post-mortem injuries can be doubted. Reports of the full-scale desecration of bodies in this manner, while not unheard of, were rare, although the checking of the status of bodies using bayonets to prod might well be rather more commonly expected (an atrocity in itself since this amounts to the killing of wounded soldiers). Both Winter and Keegan do then overstep the mark; neither paints an accurate picture of bayonet usage during the war. The disappearance of edged-weapon wounds was not the contemporary impression. Indeed, the major medical manual of the war thought that wounds caused by bayonets, knives and so on were on the increase. The manual’s author stated that ‘cold steel’ was the cause of 5 per cent of soldiers’ wounds; compared to well under 1 per cent in the 1870 Franco-Prussian war, but less than the 10 per cent rate sometimes reached during the 1912–13 Balkan wars (Delorme 1915: 1–2).
There were certainly occasions when bayonet wounds among the opposition could be very common, as reported by Dunn after his battalion conducted a large raid on The Warren, south of Festubert, on 5 July1916. It is possibly significant that the raid was in retaliation for the deaths suffered by the regiment when a large German mine created Red Dragon crater on 22 June. Dunn, a medical officer, states clearly that ‘most of the wounds were from shell and bomb splinters, and occurred in A Company, whereas bayonet-wounds were commonest among the German-prisoner wounded’ (Dunn 1938: 221). There were certainly many further actions that were widely and authoritatively reported to have been carried out by use of the bayonet. It is perfectly correct to suspect that the vast loss of life during the course of the war due to bullet, shell and disease did massively outnumber these small-scale, isolated bayonet-wound incidents. So Keegan’s overall fraction of well under 1 percent of deaths caused by bayonets might be correct. However, it is worth recognizing that the pattern of warfare was by no means even. At different times, in different units, and in different places bayonet wounds could even have been common.

The foundations of the fetishization of the bayonet were built upon its role in supporting troops’ self-confidence. In part, this comfort was derived from the fact that the bayonet could indeed sometimes be effectively used. In some circumstances, its real power as a psychological weapon could melt enemy resistance with little real fighting required. Thus the bayonet’s relatively rare but hugely psychologically impressive role in a rout was central to its fetishization. Similarly, an effective, successful bayonet charge could sometimes be far more enticing a method of victory than other means of achieving it, such as outflanking or prolonging trench warfare. On other occasions there was little real offensive alternative to a bayonet charge (Griffith 1981: 70).

More comforting still was the bayonet’s utility as a last line of defence or offence, as in this incident proudly recorded in an official brigade war diary on 26 December 1914: ‘In the wake of a British attack on December18–19, the Germans reported that most of their wounds were caused by bayonets, because their opponents’ rifles were jammed’ (20th Infantry Brigade 1914: 102). There was some truth in the conceit that what ever the situation, whether it was wet, muddy weather, or the non-appearance of ammunition and so on, you could rely on your trusty bayonet. Such beliefs could haunt British soldiers, as described here by an officer who was advancing with his troops to a vicious ongoing skirmish when he encountered a few retreating, ragged survivors of the battle described as

shattered, nerveless men whose human nature had been tried past endurance – now came surging back in twos and threes. Especially memory recalls the drawn haggard face of an officer who was making rather pathetic attempts to reform these twos and threes. He chattered wildly, disconnectedly, yet with a method of sense like a drunken man; ‘The bay’net!’ he kept repeating, ‘that’s the thing for them. Show them the bayonet, get at them with the bayonet, and they’ll run…’    (Officer 1918: 178)

The major contribution that their presumed prowess with the bayonet made to supporting British soldiers’ self-confidence was the thought that Germans greatly feared bayonets. ‘They don’t like it up ’em!’, indeed! This comforted the troops, reassuring them of their supremacy as soldiers and men. If popular, patriotic adventure stories had helped form a myth of empire that was ‘the story England told itself as it went to sleep at night’(Green 1980: 3), then the stories of easy slaughter and terrified Germans, told in the press and between soldiers themselves, formed a myth of the bayonet that helped soldiers as they went to sleep at night. Immediately on the outbreak of war, The Times was keen to reassure its readers that German infantrymen were jittery and eminently defeatable via the bayonet. The third headline after ‘First French Battle’ on its main news page for Monday 10August 1914 was ‘Germans routed with the bayonet’, a report on French troops occupying Altkirch ‘after a sharp action in which they drove the defending German force before them with the bayonet’ (The Times 1914a: 6). Similarly, four days later, the fourth main news headline after ‘French Frontier Success’ was ‘Village taken by bayonet charges’, reporting that Lagarde ‘was carried by the French infantry in bayonet charges with great dash’ (The Times 1914b: 6). When the war dispatches carried by the newspapers grew in depth and length, a focus on the Germans’ inadequacies as men is noticeable. 
The report of the thoughts of a Lieutenant Deppe, in charge of a small group of Belgian troops who had landed in Folkestone having escaped from Namur, before his enthusiastic return to the front, is typical. He described the opponents as: very well organized but German soldiers were great cowards. ‘They are very much afraid of the bayonet, especially the French bayonet,’ he said. ‘When they see a bayonet they turn and run. The Turcos say, “When we hit one German with a bayonet five fall down” and that is perfectly true.’ (The Times1914c: 7)
Undermining German masculinity seemed key to supporting Allied masculinity. It was when the British forces got into action that the press really went to town with their bayonet fetish. A report on ‘Tournai and after’ on 29 August1914 produced this remarkable paragraph entitled ‘BAYONET WORK’:

The German infantry fire here, as elsewhere, appears to have been very bad though the artillery work was deadly. At times the fighting was hand to hand and repeatedly our troops made excellent use of the bayonet. ‘Man,’ said a stalwart Highlander, almost with glee, ‘ye should hae seen them rin miles frae the wee bit of steel.’                (The Times1914d: 8)

Again, the reports attempted whenever possible to undermine German masculinity and even in this article entitled ‘In the fighting line’, their humanity. Germans were described as more like common swine than men when facing bayonets. The author is apparently directly quoting a private in the BlackWatch, who reported that ‘the Germans don’t like the bayonet. If you gone at them with a bayonet they squeal like pigs. When you are taking them prisoners they go down on their knees, evidently afraid of what is going to happen’ (The Times1914e: 6). Animalistic, de-humanizing descriptions frequently extended to the bayonet itself, most often in the form of ‘pig-sticker’, but in this case as a harpoon. Sapper Edward Hughes, watching the 4thAustralian Division attack on the Oosttaverne Line on 7 June 1916, thought

it was a magnificent, though dreadful sight to witness […] To watch the Huns run out of their trenches towards us – and to see the way the ‘Ossies’ harpooned them one after another, it was a sight that I shall always recall.     (Passingham 1998: 131)

Concomitant with its prominent position in popular military psychology and imagination, rituals developed around the bayonet, particularly prior to battle. Captain J.L. Jack described a typical ritualistic scene in his diary on 12 September 1915. His divisional reserve troops had been made aware of their participation in a forthcoming attack:

There is an immediate tuning up for action, the sharpening of ‘swords’ – as bayonets are called by rifle regiments – the practising of assaults, inspection of gas masks and special equipment, and all the other horrid ritual for battle, from which all ranks may draw their own conclusions … (Jack 1964: 110–11)

Such rituals can be observed in the official British films of the war, as well as more mundane but tellingly prominent shots of troops just fiddling about with bayonets. Shots of cheering Tommies waving their bayonets with buoyant enthusiasm were frequent throughout British films and newsreels of the war. The sheer presence of the bayonet seems to have inspired excitement and confidence; and it is particularly striking in many primary texts that over whelming belief was invested in the bayonet and the power of ‘coldsteel’. Lieutenant M.L. Walkinton provided a typical example. His 24thMachine Gun Company was in close support to the 2nd Battalion, Northamptonshire Regiment in their advance towards Bellewaarde Lake on 31 July 1917. All the men were ‘very excited and elated. Bursting shells gave light to see by and it was thrilling to see the Northampton bayonets flashing as the troops advanced. Surely nothing could stop us’(Walkinton 1980: 131). Such belief and over-confidence could prove fool-hardy and deadly, as a Scottish territorial, Harold Stainton, reported from near Kemmel in December 1914. One of his men witnessed a charge of the Gordons and
told me that a fine young subaltern of theirs who led his men through the hedge carried a sword (already a most unusual thing). Waving this ridiculous toy he rushed ahead shouting ‘Scotland for ever!’ only to be killed within twenty yards of our hedge. It was an attack far more in common with the battles of the eighteenth-century than the battles of eighteen months later on the Somme. Here was no slow steady advance behind a creeping barrage of shellfire, but the wild rush so dear to Highland tradition, with effective use of cold steel. Never, at any stage of the war, did I see so many bayoneted corpses as I did when, a few days later, we occupied that German trench.  (Stainton 1914: 23)

Trust in ‘cold steel’ as the ultimate effective intimidation, hated by the enemy, continued right up to the highest levels, as can be seen in Haig’s diary, as he described the recovery of some trenches lost to the enemy in Ypres area on 23 October 1914: ‘The Germans resisted until the very end and gave way only when machine guns were enfilading their trenches at very close range, and when they were threatened by cold steel’ (Cooper1935: 195–96).With such high-level support it is unsurprising that bayonet training had a high profile within the base camp training that troops received and in the further training exercise undertaken behind the front lines, a waiting or between actions. Notes taken by an officer preparing to provide infantry training in 1915 indicate that bayonet training in the British bases was undertaken daily and was rigorous. The notes envisaged much of the training being done on a course, the highlight of which would be a specially constructed lengthy zig-zagging trench, with at least nine dummies waiting to be bayoneted, mainly on the corners (Seys-Philips 1915).

Such courses were not the limit of the bayonet in training though; the field exercises of more advanced training would always end in a bayonet charge also (Hall 1916: 28). An identical focus was maintained at the main train-ing base in France, the daunting Étaples. Private Frank Bass described atypical day there in a diary entry dated 17 September 1916, expressing some surprise that there was no let-up at all for a Sunday. It was
apparently [the] same as any other day. Reveille 5.30. Breakfast 6. Parade8.00 for ‘Bullring’ or No. 2 Training Camp. Bayonet fighting with the Royal Scots. 8 of us, including Adams, Coulson and myself, went over final assault and went over all right, I think. After this, rapid loading and firing and then bayonet fighting again.            (Bass,  1916)

By 1916, bayonet training actually became more dominant in a trainee soldier’s preparation for the trench war at home and abroad. Second Lieutenant Harold Mellersh was puzzled to discover this, and contrasted it with the training he had undergone just over a year earlier. He returned to his base camp in Plymouth in October 1916 upon recovery from an injury and found that there was surprisingly little for him to do, as the

training of recruits was now even not much in the hands of the ordinary sergeants, let alone the officers: the accent had shifted to bayonet drill, with rows of stuffed dummies strung up on wires and experts, specially trained in simulating and stimulating ferocity, in charge. ‘In! Out! Jab!’ I don’t think we won the war at all by ferocity, or that the attempted inculcation of it suited the British temperament. (Mellersh 1971: 105)

Mellersh’s doubts over the pertinence and suitability to British troops of such prolonged and inflamed bayonet training were rare among officers or NCOs of the time. In his analysis of fears of brutalization, Jon Lawrence(2003: 577–89) makes it clear that, aside from isolated radicals and pacifists, such as Norman Angell, fears concerning troops’ brutalization did not form a major issue during the war but only exploded post-war. Officers at the front responsible for arranging training for the troops under them during periods away from the front line often relied on bayonet training, again mainly for its attitudinal benefits. The typical attitude of those in authority is expressed here by an officer in charge of a company, fresh from the heat of hard battle on the Somme in July 1915, who approved of the fact that activity was maintained whilst troops were nominally ‘resting’ near the Bois de Dames. He was glad to ‘use the time hereto renew clothing equipment etc. and to repeat musketry, close order drill bayonet fighting etc.’ (Gore-Browne 1915: 6–7).But it was not only officers who were keen on bayonet training. Private John Jackson, returning to training after an injury in 1916, recalled that there

was much practice in bombing, and bayonet fighting and we put in some hard and tiring work. But if it was hard training it was also interesting and we had great fun among the dummy figures, representing ‘Jerries’ in trenches, on our training ground. As a result of constant practice we became very proficient in the use of the rifle and fixed bayonet, but as a degree of proficiency in the art of using a bayonet might one day mean the difference between life and death for each of us, it was to our advantage to know all the tricks. (Jackson 2005: 85–86)

The support ‘from below’ that could exist for their officers’ views of bayone ttraining is therefore clear in this private’s words. It was not only in prior training and periods of spare time on the front that bayonet training was utilized as a handy filler. Significantly it was also used more extensively during the important periods leading up to large battles as the most adroit preparation. Major Jack on 15 July 1917 described his men getting strident advice during their battle training prior to the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele):

The day before yesterday a bloodthirsty fellow, Colonel Campbell, the Army bayonet-fighting expert, gave a lurid lecture to a large, thrilled audience on the most economical use of the bayonet, and to arouse the pugnacity of the men. He pointed out that to plunge the blade right through an opponent is a waste of trouble, and that three inches in the heart are quite sufficient. The cold-blooded science of the business seems to me rather horrid, even if necessary.        (Jack 1964: 227)

The ubiquitous Colonel Campbell could well have been one of the most influential British soldiers of the war (Gray 1978: 26). His memorable lectures were very well attended throughout the war. Lectures of the type that Campbell delivered so forcefully could have a direct effect on the battlefield. An exact mirror of the three-inch advice is contained in one private’s uncompromising letter home dated 14 September 1918. He promised:
I shan’t take many prisoners when it comes to going in the thick of it, a rifle and bayonet with three inches at each Bosh I come in contact with at close quarters. The more we send to Heaven, the sooner the war will be ended. (Spelman 1918)

Campbell’s advice to use short stabs was also memorably reported by Siegfried Sassoon: ‘“The bullet and the bayonet are brother and sister.” “If you don’t kill him, he’ll kill you.” “Stick him between the eyes, in the throat, in the chest.” “Don’t waste good steel. Six inches are enough”’(Sassoon 1930: 6).The effectiveness of such training at home and abroad for actual warfare is debatable, as truly practical training for using a bayonet is far harder than for other weapons of war. Throwing a grenade into a dummy trench or aiming a rifle at a target are not so different activities from the real tasks at hand in actual battle. Bags of straw – the usual target for bayonet practice – are very different from animate humans. It is interesting to note that bayonet training seems to have only relatively rarely taken the form of fighting one another with wooden replicas affixed or such like, as had previously been the case with sword fighting.

 Training for using the bayonet instead seemed to be singularly unrealistic. The artificial and unhelpful pike-influenced drill stances that had been practised and drilled during training were swiftly abandoned on the battlefield, as suggested by Lance Corporal Francis’s description quoted above, of bayonet action as being with ‘no thrust one and parry, in goes the bayonet the handiest way’ (Gammage 1974: 96–97). However, bayonet training remained popular both at home and at the front and one of the major reasons for its popularity, both with the men and officers, was its aggressive content. The aggressive nature and content of bayonet training was often emphasized. This even comes across in the official training textbooks; one later edition stated plainly and tellingly that ‘bayonet fighting produces lust for blood’ (War Office 1917:97). The simple act of wielding a bayonet was popularly imagined to have an immediate and powerful brutalizing effect on men. It was no accident that the limited time allowed to complete the bayonet assault course was popularly known in soldiers’ slang as the ‘mad minute’. The extreme nature of the training, based as it was on such texts and the enthusiasm of trainers, is often vividly described in anecdotes. Sassoon again turned to an anonymous trainer clearly based on Colonel Campbell:

The star turn in the schoolroom was a massive sandy-haired Highland Major whose subject was ‘The Spirit of the Bayonet’. […] 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.(Sassoon 1930: 14–15)

The titling of such lectures with the phrase ‘The Spirit of the Bayonet’, and the frequent references to this, are interesting. Although the phrase was no doubt often used unthinkingly as a mere stock epithet, the logic behind it, conscious or unconscious, was to imbue the physical object with an emotional life of its own. The bayonet itself was thought of as aggressive, vicious, bloodthirsty and murderous, rather than the man wielding it. Indeed, once the bayonet was in use, soldiers’ descriptions and recollections display a tendency to erase the agency of the combatant: it is as if the bayonet’s owner appeared to have no choice but to go along with its spirit. This has the effect of placing a comfortable distance between the man and the act of killing. For example, when Private John Jackson of the Cameron Highlanders recalled his first major battle experience at the Battle of Loos he admitted that the Germans

fought hard, but could not stand against our determination, and our terrible bayonets […] Machine-gunners slaying us from their hidden posts, threw up their hands crying ‘Kamerad’, when we got within striking distance, but these deserved and received no quarter. Cold steel and bombs did their duty then, and the village was strewn with dead and running with blood. (Jackson 2005: 54)

Here the step away from causing death, provided by the bayonets being described as ‘terrible’ rather than the soldiers wielding them, and both cold steel and bombs as doing ‘their duty’ rather than the men themselves ,is clear. The psychology, often running along such lines, that underpinned the strenuous training in the bayonet was understood by men in the field of combat. In a section of memoir covering the summer of 1917, an infantry captain, Stormont Gibbs, mused on the hatred and conquering of fear needed to turn a man into an effective killer. Gibbs noted that

In any sort of hand fighting there are the savage emotions that motivate the shot or thrust. The great horror of war is this prostitution of civilized man. He has to fight for his country and to do so has in actual practice to be brutalized for his country; he has to learn to hate with the primitive blood lust of the savage if he is to push a bayonet into another human being (who probably no more wants to fight than he does). Need he hate? In the case of the average man he must as the counter-balance to fear. (Gibbs 1986: 132)

Care must be taken not to react too strongly to ghoulish sentiments about the bloody physicality of the bayonet. As the above quotation indicates, this was a concern for some troops contemporarily also, but one that was subsumed by the necessity not to be frightened. Frightened soldiers could not have fought with a bayonet effectively. Confidence was a vital requirement; the bayonet was useless as an effective psychological weapon with-out it. Only a confident bayonet charge could effect a rout. Bayonet training was thus by no means unnecessary – or at least it would not have been had the level of bayonet fighting that was expected been achieved and if the standard-issue British bayonet had been more capable of achieving the tasks expected of it. It is also worth remembering in this context that bayonet fighting fell into the category of combat exchanges that soldiers generally found psychologically untroubling. It was not ‘senseless’, unlike shell deaths which soldiers frequently found very disturbing. Many soldiers summed up the sense of bayonet fighting neatly as ‘him or me’ and such an equation disturbed them little.
Despite these contexts, the effect of the aggression and hatred included and inculcated during training on the men who underwent it could however remain startling, approaching a ‘primitive blood lust’. William Johnson, a private in the 22nd London (‘Queen’s’) Regiment, described the immediate preparations for an attack on 7 November 1917:‘“Fix bayonets!” yells the colonel. And the shining things leap from the scabbards and flash in the light as they click on the standards. They seem alive and joyous; they turn us into fiends, thirsty for slaughter’ (Johnson1930: 323).
This conception of men undergoing a transformation by wielding bayonets was frequently referred to in soldiers’ texts. Patrick MacGill described the transformation wrought on his comrades by heavy hand-to-hand action on the first day of the Battle of Loos, 25 September 1915. He found it

interesting to see how the events of the morning had changed the nature of the boys. Mild-mannered youths who had spent their working hours of civil life in scratching with inky pens on white paper, and their hours of relaxation in cutting capers on roller skates and helping dainty maidens to teas and ices, became possessed of mad Berserker rage and ungovernable fury. Now that their work was war the bloodstained bayonet gave them play in which they seemed to glory. ‘Here’s one that I’ve just done in,’ I heard M’Crone shout, looking approvingly at a dead German. ‘That’s five of the bloody swine now.’(MacGill 1916: 84)

M’Crone is portrayed as the most transformed. MacGill had ‘never heard him swear before, but at Loos his language would make a navvy in a Saturday taproom green with envy’. Previously of religious turn of mind‘now, inflicting pain on others, he was a fiend personified […]’ (MacGill1916: 84–85).
But the aggressive training in the bayonet appears to have had even more grave consequences; that of facilitating atrocity and war crimes. Primary sources suggest that closing in on the enemy with bayonets encouraged the murderous killing of prisoners or potential prisoners. Wielding a bayonet seemed to reduce soldiers’ faculty to grant mercy. H.E. May, a sergeant in the Highlanders, portrayed a bayonet assault in a way that was typical of these sorts of depictions. He described a generic attack, although it seems to have been in the context of experience he had on the Ypres salient in late 1917:

You see a line of stumpy tree-trunks that, dimly, you realize is the objective. You creep up. A wild melee; stabbing with a bayonet. A gushing of blood from many wounds (oh! the nauseating smell of freshly spilled human blood in quantity), and then a cry of ‘Kamerad!’ and a whine for mercy. Unheeded, for all the enemy died.(May 1930: 200)

At times, the fetishization of the bayonet directly affected the mood and conduct of soldiers on the battlefield. T.H. Gore-Browne was stationed in trenches in front of Rue de Tillelay, Laventie, and wrote of the expectations of some troops newly arrived at the front in August 1915. He had command of  ‘a squadron of North Irish Horse […]. They are awfully sick at the class of warfare we are waging at present. I haven’t a notion of what they expected – a sort of orgy of shooting and stabbing I suppose […]’ (Gore-Browne 1915).

What do such expectations of an ‘orgy of stabbing’ in fresh troops reveal? They reveal strong tendencies for bayonet fetishization within the British infantry in the First World War, as has been suggested throughout this article. Moreover, such tendencies appear to have been transmitted to new troops potently and quickly, and possibly in an increased manner. A spiral of violence is not hard to conceive from this source.
To conclude, the fetishization of the bayonet often appeared to have been the direct result of the excesses involved in infantry training at thetime. The strong fetishization that had built up in the Army around thiscomplicated and revealing weapon had the potential for deleterious effects on the battlefield, tending to veer towards and facilitate atrocity.

This article is based on a paper given at the GWACS Body at War Conference in June 2004. I am grateful for useful comments from attendees and other read-ers, particularly Joanna Bourke, Gary Sheffield, Adrian Gregory and Jessica Meyer.


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Suggested citation
Hodges, P. (2008), ‘‘They don’t like it up ’em!’: Bayonet fetishization in the British Army during the First World War’, Journal of War and Culture Studies 1: 2, pp.123–138

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