My book Bowie Knife Fights, Fighters, and Fighting Techniques is available from Paladin Press. This blog contains additional information about the bowie knife, as well as the fighting knives of other nations.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Bayonets and Blades in Late 19th-Century Warfare


Some cinematic scenes of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 with a cast of thousands and lots of bayonet action. No Russian language skills necessary.

The following article, "Surgical Experiences and Observations as an Ambulance Surgeon in Bulgaria During the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78," by Robert Pinkerton, was published in the Glasgow Medical Journal in August 1879. It contains some interesting observations on the use of the bayonet and other bladed weapons in modern battle.
DURING the late Russo-Turkish war, I was sent out by Lord Blantyre, as a surgeon, to assist the Turkish wounded, and in that capacity acted both independently, and attached to Ottoman Red Crescent ambulances, and also, for a short time, took charge for Stafford House Society of their hospitals at Philippopolis. The first point I would call your attention to is the fact that only very few of the wounded, in modern wars, are wounded by cuts or stabs, so few, indeed, that to one who reads, in newspaper accounts of battles, of desperate charges with the bayonet, of fearful hand-to-hand fights at the taking of redoubts, and so forth, where the imagination pictures the wounded from bayonet stabs at hundreds or more, the real number must appear absurdly, even incredibly, small. In the late Russo-Turkish war, where I had the opportunity of seeing thousands of wounded men, I am sure I did not see more than half a dozen suffering from sword, or sabre, or lance, or bayonet wounds. And all the enquiries I could make did not enable me to come across any one whose experience differed much from my own. 
Why is this? I suppose it is due to the recent improvements in the firearms with which troops are armed, especially the introduction of breech loading, by which the rapidity of fire can be so very much increased. In consequence of the ease and rapidity with which a soldier can load and fire his rifle now-a-days, the firing of shot takes place even at close quarters. Even in a regular charge, I believe, it is in great measure only those who fall wounded who are bayonetted -- the attacking party and the attacked both trusting more to a rapid fire of small arms than to the bayonet. In the case of an assault, for example, on an earthwork, the holders of the earthwork, if moderately cool and steady, pour in a close and murderous fire up to the very moment the enemy enter the defences, and although there then may be some little hand-to-hand fighting, it is comparatively trifling, as the defenders of the earthwork, if beaten, either retire precipitately, in which case they are fired upon, and only those who fall wounded are bayonetted by the pursuing enemy, or they retire slowly, showing a steady front and keeping up fire, so that the enemy prefer to answer them in like manner.

There is another reason why we see so few wounded by either cuts or stabs, besides the fact that in recent wars cuts or stabs are comparatively rarely given or received. And that is, that I believe the great majority of cases of cuts or stabs prove fatal on the field, and are, therefore, to be numbered among the killed. If you think for a moment of the circumstances of a close hand-to-hand conflict with the bayonet, a scene where the wildest passion reigns, and a tiger-like ferocity seems to characterise the combatants, where an enemy is not only overthrown, but trampled upon, you will see the reasonableness of allowing that few of those wounded under such circumstances, and with such a weapon, survive the final thrust, and hardly one lives to be taken off the field.

Then there is the fact that the bayonet is, after all, a clumsy and inefficient weapon for close quarters. In fact it not unfrequently acts as a sort of trap for its unfortunate employer. It may become fixed in an enemy's body beyond power of withdrawal, in time at least to be a defence; or it may be rendered useless by having a body hurled upon it, as was done with so much success by the Zulus at the recent battle of Isandula. Soldiers, at least Turkish ones, don't like the bayonet as a weapon; they distrust it; and, as a rule, prefer firing their rifle to using the bayonet. A weapon such as the short heavy knife with which our Indian Gurko regiments are armed, or the regulation bowie knife of the Americans, is the deadliest instrument in hand-to-hand fighting.
If you want to read the rest of the article, which covers bullet wounds, you can find it here.

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