The upcoming Weapon title, The Bayonet is the absorbing story of the complementary weapon to every soldier's firearm from the army of Louis XIV to modern-day forces in all global theatres of conflict. On the blog today, author Bill Harriman explores how this title came about.
Having written two books on specific rifles for Osprey’s Weapon series – The Mosin-Nagant Rifle (WPN 50) and The Arisaka Rifle (WPN 70) – I determined that I would like to write about a generic weapon type for my next title. Choosing a weapon that had not already been covered was not easy, however, as there are many excellent books on generic weapons already in the series. Despite racking my brains to come up with a title, inspiration eluded me. Then, by a stroke of luck, my eye was drawn to one of the titles in the large section of books on edged weapons in my library. I have owned The Bayonet Book by Watts and White since 1980. I bought it for Continuing Professional Development purposes as I had just started out as a cataloguer for a firm of arms and armour auctioneers and I was assured by colleagues that it was the definitive work. It is strange to think that something I bought four decades ago should inspire me to write something today; but it did.
With hindsight the choice of subject matter was entirely logical as I have always collected bayonets. I acquired my first specimen aged about five years old in the early 1960s. I came across it while rummaging around in my parents’ attic. This was a magical place to a child, full of untold delights and unusual treasures; its draw was all the stronger as it was forbidden to me. I found the bayonet in a chest full of my father’s old Royal Air Force uniforms and was immediately taken with its elegance of form and deadly functionality. I did not know then that it was a bayonet; I fondly imagined it to be a sword. After special pleading with my mother I was allowed to keep it.
I think that my father was somewhat flattered by my interest in his relics and reassured enough that I would be unlikely to inflict any harm with it, as I was not yet strong enough to undo the stud on the securing strap and pull the bayonet out from its scabbard. Dad never told me how he came by it and quite why an RAF Engineer would have such a thing must remain a matter for speculation. At the time, I fantasized that Dad had won it in single combat; however, I suspect the reality was much more prosaic and that it was probably swapped for cigarettes or food.
My bayonet was an S 84/98 (3rd Model), made in 1944 for the German 7.92mm Mauser Kar 98k rifle. It was in very good condition with nearly all the original blue, matching serial-numbered scabbard and correct leather belt frog. Initially, I was simply thrilled to own it and for it to be the centrepiece of my growing militaria collection; over the years, it has given up its secrets, and I now know from the manufacturer’s ‘secret’ code that it was made by WKC Stahlwaren und Waffenfabrik in Solingen-Wald. It is clearly a late-war production bayonet as the standard of finish – especially the blade polish – is very rough, with numerous grinding marks under the blue. Its blade has never been sharpened and, to judge from the minor dings and dents on the scabbard, it probably never left the training depot. Today, it hangs in my study or forms part of the micro-collection around my Kar 98k.
My next bayonet, a Lee-Enfield No. 4 Mk II, was acquired for pennies when I was a teenager in the Combined Cadet Force at school. We were armed with .303 Lee-Enfield No. 4 rifles and several of us thought it a good wheeze to affix our ‘pig stickers’ on field days. I think it was then that I actually realized that the bayonet’s real power was more psychological than physical.
Over the years I have acquired over 100 bayonets. These are merely adjuncts to my collection of military rifles as I am not a bayonet collector, per se. My collecting policy has, however, long been to acquire the appropriate accessories for every rifle I have bought, e.g. an ammunition pouch, some original cartridges, a cleaning kit and, in particular, the correct bayonet. To my mind this is logical as a rifle, its ammunition and bayonet constitute the complete weapon system. It is not possible to view each object in isolation, but I take my hat off to those whose collections are composed solely of bayonets. Their concentration in observing and recording variants, listing manufacturers and other such important detail work takes the study of militaria ever onwards, for the benefit of all.
My anecdote about the Lee-Enfield No. 4 Mk II bayonet actually illustrates an important point, namely that bayonet collecting is open to all irrespective of their financial means. An interesting collection does not have to include expensive bayonets – there are bayonets on the market to suit every pocket. As military surplus, they are plentiful and not just confined to the stock of specialist dealers. Most outlets that sell antiques or collectibles will have bayonets in their stock, and it is here that bargains may be found as dealers fail to identify that which they are selling.
In writing this book, I have been at pains to record the history of the bayonet. As far as I can tell, this information is not available elsewhere, though it is presented in varying degrees in other books. This is very much incidental, however, as most books on bayonets are chronological catalogues of the bayonets used by particular countries. From a purely collecting perspective this is very useful, because it allows the enthusiast to identify with certainty any new addition. My purpose, however, is to relate the wider history of the bayonet and to attempt a typography while examining some of the more bizarre examples of the genre in detail. I shall also examine the military philosophy behind bayonet fighting and how troops were trained to achieve this. I shall also document some of the written experiences of those soldiers who used bayonets in earnest, albeit that there are relatively few of them.
While this study seeks to understand and chart the development and use of the bayonet from its European genesis to its eventual global adoption, I have kept in mind that the essential nature of its concept has not changed since an anonymous musketeer converted his musket into a makeshift half-pike by pushing a pointed object into its muzzle during the mid-17th century in a classic instance of necessity and desperation driving invention. The bayonet has not developed fundamentally, but it has been subject to much tinkering and refinement over the years. I shall attempt to chronicle those minor changes.
As a young soldier in the 1970s, I was issued with an L1A3 bayonet for the 7.62mm L1A1 Self-Loading Rifle and trained in its use. On some drill nights we were told off into two squads, drawn up to face each other a few paces apart and repeatedly drilled in the ‘On Guard’, ‘High Port’, ‘Thrust’, ‘Butt-Smash’ and ‘Recover’ positions. On other occasions we were allowed to attack hanging dummies while emitting blood-curdling screams. All this was intended to foster aggression and self-confidence; and it certainly worked as there was a strange feeling of invincibility when running at a pretend enemy while yelling one’s head off.
While this training was a pleasant interlude from the drudgery of military life, in mid-1982 a friend and former colleague led a bayonet charge for real during the Falklands War. Lieutenant Alasdair M. Mitchell of 15 Platoon, 2nd Battalion, Scots Guards led his men with fixed bayonets in a successful offensive against Argentine positions on Mount Tumbledown in the Falkland Islands on the night of 13/14 June 1982.
With notable exceptions, the age of the bayonet as a fighting weapon has now passed. The modern soldier has so much technology at his disposal that such an antiquated weapon has no real place in ground warfare today – or does it? In the final analysis, only an infantryman can take ground from the enemy and hold it against him. If a fixed bayonet and a visceral yell persuade that enemy to yield ground by running away, then that tactical objective has been achieved. The bayonet continues to symbolize and imbue fighting spirit while giving comfort to the ordinary soldier that when all else fails, he still has ‘cold steel’ to rely on.
That then is the raison d’etre behind this book. I hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I have enjoyed researching and writing it.
The Bayonet publishes next week. Preorder your copy now.