H/T Beyond The Band Of Brothers.

Some of these weapons used in the trenches during World War I are wicked looking as well as deadly.

This is a long post but it has historical education value.

Hand-to-hand weapons of the world wars.   

We tend to associate hand-to-hand weapons with the Age of Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Al though the time of the sword and the spear is past, close combat weapons have never fully lost their relevance. Even in the era of firearms, a soldier might find himself in close quarters with no chance to reload his gun: even a simple knife might be a lifesaver.

The First World War saw the ascendancy of rapid-fire weapons and fixed defenses. Yet even as traditional massed rifle formations and charges withered in the face of machine gun fire, close combat weapons found a niche to thrive in with trench raiders who crept up to enemy lines at night and executed rapid attacks before retreating. The bayonet was the designated tool of hand-to-hand combat but was soon found to be unsuited for the job. Before the war, rifle barrels and bayonets were made long to offer better reach. In the cramped quarters of a narrow, zig-zagging, partially collapsed trench, however, such long weapons were too unwieldy and combatants scrambled to jury-rig more appropriate weapons.

British infantryman with a WWI-style long bayonet during training in 1941

The simplest solution was the trench club. At its simplest a wooden club or the shaft of an entrenching tool, it was quiet, an advantage for nocturnal attacks, and could knock a man unconscious with a single blow. Most of the time, however, it was made even deadlier by driving long nails into it or wrapping it in barbed wire. An improvised metal head could be added, the British were fond of using the empty hand grenade shells, or metal bands with spikes or flanges, resulting in a mace that wouldn’t have been out of place on a medieval battlefield.

WWI trench clubs in an Italian museum, some with a downright medieval appearance

The French nail was made of a long metal spike normally used to deploy barbed wire. One end was sharpened to a point and the other bent around to form a handle. It was a simple but effective design and influenced a number of mass-produced weapons, perhaps most famously the American Mark I trench knife and its predecessors. The M1917 and M1918 still copied the French Nail by having a point but no edge, but the Mark I added a slashing edge and more elaborate knuckle guards.

Reproduction French Nails

A Mark I trench knife just after it was used to dig up a mine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Germans had the Nahkampfmesser, a general-purpose knife that proved such a solid design that it remained part of the German soldier’s gear in World War II, though they also used a variety of specialized trench knives.

British forces originally didn’t even have a knife as part of the standard equipment and many infantrymen bought one with their own money. Some went for a push dagger, whose handle was held in the palm with the 4 inch blade protruding between the index and middle fingers. British knives were often used in conjunction with other close combat weapons such as clubs and hatchets.

A WWI-period British Dudley punch knife, another name for a push dagge

One unit of the British Commonwealth who were especially noted for their use of the knife were the Nepalese Gurkhas. The traditional Gurkha knife, the kukri, has a long, inward-angled blade which gives it surprisingly long reach and allows it to be used in a chopping motion akin to an axe. Renowned for their ferocity and fearlessness, the Gurkhas went on to wield their knives with great effect in World War II.

Members of the 3rd Queen Alexandra’s Own Gurkha Rifles presenting their kukris for inspection in London, shortly after the end of WWII

The trench wasn’t the only place where hand-to-hand weapons saw some use. Still retaining a 19th century mindset about the use of the horse, several nations, most notably Germany, Austria and Russia, had cavalry units equipped with 10ft lances. The purpose of these units, similarly to their 17th-19th century predecessors, was to stay in reserve and exploit a breakthrough, running down and killing fleeing enemy infantry before they could get reorganized. Thanks to the system of multi-layered trenches, such a breakthrough never manifested but German lancers did see some use against the Russian Empire on the Eastern Front, which was more mobile.

German cavalry patrol with lances

One particular American weapon of the period that was probably never drawn in anger but still deserves a mention, is the Model 1913 Cavalry Saber. Though designated a saber, it actually has a straight edge, while sabers are typically curved. It was designed by future General George S. Patton, a highly accomplished fencer in his youth.

The cavalry saber designed by Patton

Another, downright bizarre, use of a close combat weapon occurred in the early days of military aviation. Before the birth of gun-armed fighter planes, the pilots of scout aircraft tried to bring each down with various methods, mostly by shooting handguns or throwing bricks or grenades. Alexander Kozakov of the Imperial Russian Air Service was even more inventive. He attached a grappling hook to a cable and towed it under his Morane-Saulnier G plane with the idea of snagging enemy scouts on it and yanking them apart. The unique weapon never scored a kill, since Kozakov never got close enough to a target to use it.

Artist’s depiction of how the grappling hook was meant to be used

With the end of trench warfare and the rise of the tank and mechanized armies, the niche use of hand-to-hand weapons disappeared but shorter bayonets remained a staple of the soldier’s equipment. Knives were generally relegated to a general purpose tool rather than a combat weapon but several types of specialized knives were also introduced, such as the dagger-like British Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife that inspired many later designs, and the USMC Mark 2 combat knife, better known today as the “Ka-Bar.”

Commando training with the Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife

Surprisingly, polearms almost made a brief reappearance. On the first day of the war, September 1, 1939, Polish defenders performed a cavalry charge against German forces near the village of Krojanty. Popular culture holds that the horsemen attacked enemy Panzers with lances but this is a modern myth first spread by Nazi and Soviet propaganda. In actual fact, the cavalry was equipped with anti-tank rifles which were a genuine threat to the small Panzer Is and IIs on the field.

Polish uhlan cavalryman in 1938 with an anti-tank rifle. Definitely not a close combat weapon.

Actual polearms were produced but not used by the British. By late 1940, when a German invasion of Britain still seemed like a possibility, close to 740,000 members of the Home Guard were unarmed, prompting Churchill to write a missive stating that “every man must have a weapon of some sort, be it only a mace or a pike.” The War Office took him a bit too literally and ordered a quarter million of “Croft’s Pikes:” hollow metal tubes with a bayonet welded to the end. The uproar quickly proved that equipping civilian volunteers with spears was causing more damage to morale than it ever could to enemy troops and the pikes were not issued.

Home Guard members with some of Croft’s Pikes

The Japanese also planned to use spears to defend their island nation to the last man. The Volunteer Fighting Corps, actually comprised of conscripted men and women, was supposed to fight a guerilla war against Allied invaders. Due to the lack of shortages by the end of World War II, most of them were only equipped with swords and bamboo spears.

Members of the “Volunteer” Fighting Corps being instructed in the use of the bamboo spear

Swords, of course, were also used by the actual Japanese military, and, of course, Mad Jack Churchill. Japanese officers were all required to wear a sword but most of these were so-called shin guntō (new military swords). Some were handmade by traditional blacksmiths but the majority were mass-manufactured weapons of lower quality. After the war, the U.S occupying forces initially wanted to ban and destroy all swords but MacArthur was convinced to limit the measure to guntō and allow swords of artistic and historical merit to be preserved.

American soldiers with the shin guntō of Japanese officers

You can learn more about the weapons used in the world wars and see many of them up close at various museums in Europe and the Pacific on our historical tours scheduled for 2018 and 2019.

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