Bayonet The Weapons That Changed The World

It’s October 2011 Kakaran village, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Corporal Sean Jones of the 1st Battalion The Prince of Wales’s Regiment was second-in-command of a patrol that came under coordinated fire from Taliban fighters in Helmand.

Backed into a corner by the ambush he sprang into action. After firing a rocket at one of the insurgent’s positions, Cpl Jones knew what had to be done.

He ordered three of his men to fix their bayonets to their weapons. They were going to lead a charge right into enemy fire. Breaking cover, he led the bayonet charge for over 80 meters.

The speed, aggression and audacity of Cpl Jones counterattack struck fear into the insurgents, who fell back in disarray.

Cpl Jones was later awarded the Military Cross for his act of bravery. Charging into a storm of bullets might not be the first thing you would think to do when pinned down in an ambush, but it was a success thanks to using one of the oldest weapons in a soldier’s arsenal, the bayonet.

Listen to the first episode of 'Weapons That Changed The World' in full below...

The bayonet very clearly evolved from the rich lineage of sharp metal melee weapons.

The first copper daggers appear back as early as 3000BC.

It took around one and a half thousand years for these to develop into the first swords. Named after the city of Bayonne, the bayonet’s combat story begins in 17th century France. By fitting a blade to the end his musket, a solider was able to use his gun defensively as a pike against cavalry charges.

In its earliest form the bayonet was a literal plug, inserted into a musket’s muzzle.

While this meant the weapon could be used for melee attacks, it also prevented it from being reloaded or fired.

But with early muskets having a slow rate of fire, poor accuracy and unpredictable reliability, the bayonet was a welcomed addition to a soldier’s inventory.

Early Dagger
Early Dagger

Scotland, 1689 and the Battle of Killiecrankie, saw the first recorded use of the bayonet.

Two and a half thousand Jacobites faced off against four thousand men loyal to the British government.

After waiting for the sun to set, the Jacobites charged down from their strong point atop a hill.

With the government men unsure of their new bayonets, the Jacobites speedy charge meant the battle lasted less than 30 minutes.

As its potential benefits were realised, the bayonet continued to evolve in the 18th century from a plug into a socket.

Unlike its predecessor, the socket fitted over the musket’s muzzle like a sleeve. This new adaptation allowed the weapon to be reloaded and fired.

But this new design still wasn’t foolproof, it had no lock to keep it in place. As a soldier, you could fix your bayonet onto your musket only to have it fall off in the heat of battle.

Battle of Killiecrankie
Battle of Killiecrankie

In 1703, the French infantry overcame this issue with a spring-loaded locking system, which meant you could now be confident your bayonet would stay firmly in place on the muzzle of your musket.

In 1715, the single and sometimes double-edged blades were replaced with stronger triangular ones.

If you were unfortunate enough to find yourself on the receiving end of one of these blades your chances of a full recovery were slim.

Your wounds would be so much harder to treat as the scar tissue would pull apart the triangular incision.

The British infantry went on to hone its bayonet skills in the 18th century continental wars against France.

The British were capable of delivering three volley shots a minute, before charging forward with their bayonets.

Now developed into an offensive weapon, the bayonet proved its value did not lie with stabbing and slashing, but installing fear into the enemy.

Truly a psychological weapon, it demonstrated a soldier’s fearlessness and determination to kill savagely in close quarters.

The design of the bayonet changed again in the 19th century when the rifle was introduced into service.

The blade now resembled a short sword, becoming narrow and straight at 24 inches in length.

The socket bayonet continued to see use through the Crimean war at the battles of Alma and Inkerman, where the Russian Army learned to fear its use.

The 1860s saw the volunteer movement change the design of the bayonet yet again, as most of the volunteers preferred the carbine of the two band Enfield Rifled Muskets.

These were supplied with a 24-inch-long curved sword blade, a standard piece of equipment for the Engineers and the Artillery.

Continued development through to 1888 meant the Lee-Metford magazine rifle was a huge step up in quality.

A double-edged, 12-inch blade with a knife type grip, this new bayonet locked directly under the barrel.

During rigorous testing, the flat side of one of these bayonets was bent over a 12-inch radius curve, and after being returned to its natural position there was no bend set into the blade.

Bayonet - The Weapons That Changed The World

Then came 1914 and the start of the First World War. Different countries took different approaches when it came to the design of their bayonets.

The French went for a needle blade design on their Lebel rifles. Meanwhile, the German military developed more types of bayonets than all other countries combined.

They even produced special adaptors so that captured enemy bayonets could be fitted to the common Gewehr 98 rifle.

But probably the most notorious German variation was the saw-back bayonet. A double row of teeth on the on the back edge of the blade was designed for sawing.

For allied propaganda, this was a blessing, as they were able to present the German army as a bloodthirsty ‘huns’. The British design was dependent on the model of rifle.

From the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield’s long 17-inch bayonet to the nail-like 8-inch-long Lee-Enfield No4 rifle bayonet. In 1914 the British War office published ‘Infantry Training’.

This manual explained all the necessary skills an infantryman would need on the frontline.

On bayonets, it reads:

“The bayonet is the weapon for hand-to-hand fighting, and its use, or the threat of it, finally drives the enemy from his position or causes him to surrender.”

U.S. Marines with OKC-3S bayonets fixed to their M16A4
U.S. Marines with OKC-3S bayonets fixed to their M16A4

But the advantage of these offensive tactics, and the use of the bayonet was about to come to an end.

Whilst the bayonet had proved itself to be a formidable weapon, its simplicity couldn’t hope to compete the mechanisation of warfare.

July 1st 1916 marked the start of one of the bloodiest conflicts of the First World War, the Battle of the Somme. After seven days bombarding the German lines with artillery fire, British forces believed the Germans would be broken.

So when the order to ‘go over the top’ came in the form of a piercing whistle, the British troops attached their bayonets and walked into a slaughter.

As they crossed no-mans-land, the men were cut down by the German machine guns, which had been protected from the artillery fire by their concrete bunkers.

The first day of the Somme cost the British 57,470 causalities, and after 141 days of battle those numbers would build to 419, 654 wounded, missing or dead.

The machine gun’s ability to mow down soldiers quickly and in great numbers, forever changed the face of warfare. The tactical advantage of the bayonet had been forever blunted.

Somme

But that’s not to say the bayonet was completely renegaded to the history books. Instead, the weapon continued to see use through the Second World War.

September 16th 1944 saw the 1st marine division take Peleliu Airfield from the Japanese military.

After lining up four battalions, they charged into open ground with bayonets fixed. Whilst the marines did take heavy losses, they were able to reach the Japanese, engage them and take the airfield.

Then in the Korean War, American troops again proved that the bayonet could still be an effective tool.

On the 4th of February 1951 Captain Lewis Millet led a bayonet charge up Hill 180. The 31-year-old WW2 veteran dashed out into enemy machine gun fire, leaving his two platoons of GIs gobsmacked.

After catching up with their commander the group cleared the hilltop of communist troops. Millet was awarded the Medal of Honour for his actions.

Bayonet - The Weapons That Changed The World

With the adoption of powerful new machine guns and grenade launchers, it is often impossible to use the bayonet in 21st-century combat.

The SA80 rifle, for example, cannot be fitted with a bayonet if a grenade launcher is attached.

Yet by providing a last resort where the only way to kill the enemy is by charging right to them, it’s no wonder the bayonet weapon has been connected to so many unquestionably heroic acts.

Weapon technology is increasingly becoming ever more advanced but in some cases, it’s the decidedly low tech solutions that are right for the job.

This episode is the first in a new series of podcasts exploring 'The Weapons Which Changed The World'. 

New episodes will be released weekly exclusively on forces.net

Comments