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.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Knife vs. Fixed Bayonet

The following article appeared in The Critic in 1888. The author, Archibald Forbes (1838 - 1900), a British war correspondent, was responding to a letter published previously by someone identified only as "C.B." Forbes makes the case for the fixed bayonet over bowie knives, kukris, or other stabbing implements.
A Good Word for the Bayonet. [Archibald Forbes, in The Pall Mall Budget.]

BOTH in Afghanistan and in Zululand it befell me to see something of the use of the cold steel, and I cannot agree with your correspondent 'C. B.' that against foes armed with stabbing implements as their main weapon, any advantage would be gained by discarding the bayonet for the short swords, the Ghoorka kukrie, the American bowie knife, or any other kindred instrument. Napier was right; the bayonet is the 'queen of weapons'—that is, of all varieties of l’arme blanche [bladed weapons]; of death-dealing instruments that one man can wield, the repeating rifle is unquestionably the most lethal.

Let me clear the air a little before coming to 'close quarters' with ' C. B.'—not, I hope, with 'tiger-like ferocity.' Hand-to-hand fighting is a thing of the past, except in campaigns against savages such as our three latest—those in Afghanistan, in Zululand, and this one on the Red Sea coast. The bayonet was but once used in the Franco-German war—in a street-fight in the village of Villiers-le-Bel; and only once to my knowledge in the Russo-Turkish war, at Skobeleff's final capture of the redoubt outside Plevna on the Loftcha road. Our men occasionally used the bayonet at Inkerman, where ' C. B.' thinks a shorter weapon would have been 'serviceable.' Why? They were fighting with men armed with bayonets like themselves, and in the single combats it was the man who was handiest with his bayonet who won. Those men of ours at Inkerman who were armed with shorter weapons—namely, the officers with their regulation swords—had rather a bad time against the longer-reaching bayonets. The Prussian infantry did, and perhaps still do, carry a short, straight sword, without a guard, which is never used in fighting; and in the Russian army the Guards and Grenadiers carried a similar weapon, concerning which Lieutenant Greene truly observes that the 'only use to which this antiquated weapon was put was in hacking twigs and wood for campfires, for which it is not adapted, and it will probably soon be abolished.'

We come then to 'special service'—our combats against savages. If there is one certainty in war it is this, that no beings armed with the white weapon—be they Zulus, Afghans, Arabs, or demons incarnate—can get within striking distance of, let alone break into, a resolute square armed with breechloaders. As an old dragoon, I make bold to hold that a cavalry charge ridden home can make a fiercer and weightier onslaught than any footmen in the world, yet the bayonet-fringed square with but muzzle-loading muskets remained intact against the most furious cavalry charges. Even a square of Persian infantry—poor creatures as the Persians were—held its own against our Indian cavalry till Malcolmson rode at it as if it had been a fence. I fear there was very little bayonet work done at Isandlana, where the cause of the catastrophe was simply the absence of close formation. At Ulundi no Arabs could have 'meant it' more intensely than did the Zulus, yet not a Zulu got within twenty yards of Lord Chelmsford's close-locked square. Again at El Teb, while the square was maintained, no Arab fell but by the bullet; nor at Tamanieb could the furious fanatics get up to within striking distance of Redvers Buller's firm-gripped square formation from whose faces streamed the deadly hail. The Arabs did not break the square formed by the 2d Brigade at Tamanieb, nor could have broken it, had it been true to the square formation. The charge of the front face—I do not now care to inquire how that charge came about—dislocated the square, and then the gaps thus made gave the Arabs their opportunity. The square, it is true, is not a handy offensive formation, but I have the strongest conviction that savages can always be made to take the initiative with teasing and patience.

It is only if they will not do this that close-quarter fighting can come into requisition, and now I, too, close with ‘C. B.’ On the one hand, you have the Arab armed with a driving, stabbing spear, with a shaft six feet long. For the sake of the balance, he cannot grasp it at the butt, but the length of his reach, including his aim and thrown forward body, makes up for this. You have the other Arab armed with a cutting sword, short and one-handed, or longer and two-handed. Opposed to either you have Tommy Atkins, with his bayonet, a stabbing weapon with which he can lunge well on to six feet. If he knows how to use his bayonet the swordsman Arab cannot reach him, that is surely clear enough. In fighting the spearsman, given the two men of equal physical calibre, the bayonet-wielder should have the best of it. Both Arab and Briton are tied to stabbing practice; neither has a striking weapon while they are at ‘out-fighting’; but the bayonet has advantages not possessed by the spear. It has greater strength for the parry; by reason of the weight of the rifle, which is its shaft, it has greater force for the lunge than the spear, which, even when lead-weighted at the butt, can accumulate no such impetus of penetration. It is for these reasons that in the school of arms the skilled footman with the bayonet has the mastery of the smartest mounted lancer; with him the dismounted lancer is simply ‘not in it.’ But there is no question that, spite of all I have urged, the Arab with his spear has the advantage of the British soldier with his bayonet. Why, then? Simply because in the one case you have a man inured to suppleness by constant exercise, lean and lithe and sinewy, an acrobat in agility, keen of sight, awe-inspiring of aspect, utterly unhampered by vestments. On the other, a man mostly of moderate physique, not in the best of condition, cramped inside a tunic, constricted by belts, weighted with ammunition and appurtenances, and, above all, not a master of his weapon, superior as that weapon is; unused to bayonet play in contradistinction to the formal bayonet exercise, and none too much practised even in this latter. I should like to see the champion Arab of them all stand up spear in hand against such a man as Corporal Macpherson of the Blues armed with the bayonet. Some of your readers may have witnessed the Corporal-major’s exploits at the Agricultural Hall Tournaments. As to 'C. B.’s’ ‘trap’ argument against the bayonet, that applies to every stabbing weapon, but less to the bayonet than to any other, except the rapier. Its shape renders it more easily extricable than lance or sword, to say nothing of the pulling-out purchase afforded in the greater weight of its shaft—the rifle.

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