Fixing Bayonets

In my post on the P-17 Enfield, I mentioned the practice of fixing that rifle with a 16-inch-bladed bayonet, thereby … Continued

In my post on the P-17 Enfield, I mentioned the practice of fixing that rifle with a 16-inch-bladed bayonet, thereby rendering the gun nearly useless in the confines of a World War I trench.

“Why?” I asked myself, “had the army taken leave of all sense?”

So I did some research, and found that prior to the War to End All Wars there was an “outreach” theory among Deep Thinkers of the Bayonet that if what you had was longer than what the other guy had, and you thrust it at him one-handed for maximum reach, you could put his lights out without being within sticking distance of his bayonet.

The weakness in this theory, soldiers eventually discovered, was that you needed enormous strength in your thrusting hand and forearm, and that if you missed, it was very easy to parry your stroke and very difficult to recover, leaving you wide open for a counter thrust.

I have a certain fondness for the bayonet. I have a relative, now long departed, who actually faced a bayonet charge in World War I. Great Uncle Oskar fought in the Kaiser’s army, and was not much impressed by the French, Americans, or English, but the Scots scared the hell out of him. You’ll have to imagine the following spoken in a heavy German accent, since Spellcheck will not let me write Teutonic dialog:

“The Scots were devils. When you heard the bagpipes warming up on the other side of No Man’s land you looked for a way to retreat. We killed them and we killed them and we killed them, but they never stopped coming AND THEY DID NOT TAKE PRISONERS!”

When I was in the Army I taught bayonet, and I believe I can still do that stuff. The Army viewed it as good exercise, and a way to instill aggression, but I don’t think anyone really expected the trainees to get in a bayonet fight. The whole system was based on the assumption that you’d have level ground to fight on and not mud, or shellholes and a tangle of human body parts.

The Army’s bayonet drill in the early 1960s had been in place unchanged since World War II, and was divided into thrusts (long and short), smashes (horizontal and vertical, with the butt of an M-1 or an M-14, which would smart some) and slashes, a downward diagonal chop with the bayonet. As I recall, it was very difficult to get out of the way of a short thrust if the soldier was fast, and the long thrust gave you far more reach than your opponent would anticipate until he learned the hard way.

But that was several wars ago when you could still pull KP. As I understand it, the Army stopped teaching bayonet in 2009 or 2010, but the Marines still include it in Boot Camp.

The last American war in which the bayonet was universally issued and widely used was the Civil War, but even so it caused less than 1 percent of the casualties. Soldiers in both armies were extremely reluctant to use it for anything except picking a coffee pot out of the campfire, and when a bayonet charge was made, the side receiving it would almost always break and run.

The classic case is Little Round Top where the 20th Maine made a do-or-die bayonet charge at the 15th Alabama during the Battle of Gettysburg. The Mainers were nearly out of ammunition; the Alabamans were exhausted, had taken fearsome casualties, and had to advance uphill, so when they saw the 20th coming at them bayonets fixed, they performed a rapid retrograde movement or, as their colonel, William C. Oates put it, “We ran like cattle.”
“What’s the spirit of the bayonet?” we yelled at the trainees.

“Kill, kill, kill,” they yelled back.

Richard Pryor had it more accurately. “Why die,” he asked, “when you can RUN?”