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- Last updated: 09/07/2023
When a new form of weaponry is designed, it goes through a period of evolution to develop and keep pace with changes in warfare. Some eventually fall out of use, such as the flintlock musket, making way for new weapons. Some change the way battles have traditionally been fought, such as the machine gun. However, few military developments have had the same profound level of strategic and tactical effect as the humble bayonet.
Introduced into the military in the early 17th century, long before powered flight, the bicycle, the machine gun, and the atomic bomb, the bayonet was already there when they took their place alongside it. In an era of supersonic flight and inter-continental ballistic missiles, this simple, bladed weapon is still to be found in the equipment carried by all soldiers on the battlefield. Such a history makes it of special interest to military enthusiasts, re-enactors, and collectors.
The bayonet was probably first used in its basic form around the 1640s, since which time it has remained a soldier’s weapon. The design has changed during this time, developing from what might have been a hunter’s dagger, to become a weapon which could change the course of a battle. The first style was like a heavy-duty, wooden-handled dagger, rather like a WWII Commando dagger, which was jammed into the muzzle of a musket after it had been fired. This gave the infantry a longer reach and gradually replaced the pike as a means to deter cavalry.
By the time of the Napoleonic wars, the shape of the bayonet had changed, with the handle formed into a tube known as a ‘socket’, allowing it to be fitted over the muzzle of the musket. The tapering flat-bladed design was replaced by a blade that was triangular in section, and ‘cranked’ to be offset from the barrel. These changes meant that weapons could now be fired and reloaded with the bayonet fixed.
Before the end of the 19th century, a new style of bayonet began to emerge, which reverted to a flat, knife-like blade. It fitted to a handle with a spring-loaded catch, which was attached under the muzzle of the barrel
Across the centuries, soldiers have been taught drills in the use of the bayonet, something which continues to this day. It seems hard to believe that something which was put into practice during wars, such as the campaigns of Marlborough, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, and the Crimean War of 1853-1856, should have a place in today’s armies, and on the modern battlefield. During the Falkland Island War of 1982, the Scots Guards at Mount Tumbledown were given the order to ‘fix bayonets’, and then charged Argentine positions.
This longevity of use has created an interest among collectors, many of whom have amassed many different types from countries around the world. In America, collectors have established organisations for like-minded military enthusiasts, such as the Society of American Bayonet Collectors (www.bayonetcollectors.org), which can be used as a forum to clarify points of detail and seek advice about items. In fact, there are several websites for collectors, including www.worldbayonets.com
Traders at militaria fairs frequently have on offer a range of bayonets varying in price for new collectors, plus more exotic types for the experienced collector. Being bladed items, the sale of these pieces of history is restricted to persons over the age of 18 years. Items of interest can even turn up unexpectedly at car boot fairs, and on bric-a-brac stalls in village halls. Regimental museums and other establishments, such as the National Army Museum and the IWM, have displays of bayonets where collectors can compare and check aspects of designs.
When visiting a battlefield where bayonets would have been used, it is possible to imagine massed ranks of infantry moving across the battlefield with bayonets fixed. For example, Waterloo, where the spectacle would have presented an intimidating sight. Napoleon, who had been wounded in the thigh by a bayonet thrust at the Battle of Toulon on 13 December 1793, held the bayonet to be a high-value weapon. Even in the First World War, troops on all sides advanced with fixed bayonets, including French troops, who referred to their bayonet as the ‘Rosalie’.
Re-enactment groups span a wide period of time in their presentations, some of which depict the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, by which time so-called ‘plug bayonets’ were being used by troops in Britain. This presentation allows the earliest form of the bayonet in use to be displayed as it would have been almost 350 years ago. Socket bayonets were developed not long after, and groups depicting the Marlborough Wars and the American War of Independence can use these styles in displays.
The socket bayonet remained in use throughout the Napoleonic Wars, and a battle re-enactment display with the British and French advancing on each other is a memorable sight. The real thing would have been momentous, with thousands of men with fixed bayonets closing in to press home their advantage. Care has to be taken with these displays and safety is of the highest consideration.
At events where American Civil War battle re-enactment displays are presented, the opposing groups often fire at one another with bayonets fixed. The actual engagements in this war often numbered in the tens of thousands, and accounts record how the bayonet featured in the outcome of some of these battles. Yet for all that, one doctor serving with the Union Army recorded having only ever treated 37 bayonet wounds. An examination of all those wounded and hospitalised during the war revealed that only 922 were recorded as having been admitted suffering from either bayonet or sword wounds.
By WWI, bayonets had changed a lot and were increasingly being used for a variety of purposes other than those for which they were intended. Soldiers were using them to chop firewood, open boxes, and stir their stew. Engineers and pioneers were issued with heavy-bladed, knife-type designs, with a saw-backed, serrated edge, and these were intended for use as heavy-duty tools. The standard issue British army bayonet measured about 18” in length, which was very intimidating.
During WWI, a young ensign in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment encountered a German face-to-face, in what could have turned into a bayonet fight, had he not kicked his opponent to the ground to be taken prisoner. The young officer would rise to become Field Marshal Lord Montgomery of Alamein. The actor, Arnold Ridley, best known as Private Godfrey in the comedy series ‘Dad’s Army’, served in the Somerset Light Infantry during WWI, and received bayonet wounds to his hand and groin during the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
By WWII, the bayonet had all but ceased to be used in battle, but photographs of Allied soldiers with nothing more than a rifle with a fixed bayonet guarding long columns of Axis prisoners were great for boosting morale. Photographs of the period also show troops being trained in the use of bayonets to probe for mines, something which re-enactors demonstrate at displays.
The bayonet will continue to be used as a weapon and tool for many years to come, and they will change in style to meet the new challenges faced by soldiers. In turn, collectors will acquire examples of these when they become available, and re-enactors will put them into their static displays. The history of the bayonet is far from being over, and this particular weapon will remain in service for as long as it has a function.