Monday, 8 April 2013

Bayonets!

Last September Corporal Sean Jones, 25, of 1st Battalion, The Princess of Wales's Regiment, was awarded a Military Cross for leading a bayonet charge across open ground to dislodge a group of insurgents who were firing at his squad.

His citation stated that Corporal Jones demonstrated 'unflinching courage and extraordinary leadership in the face of extreme and tangible danger' and that his action 'reversed a potentially dire situation'. It further stated that he 'epitomised the best qualities of the British infantry: gritty determination, controlled aggression, tactical cunning and complete disregard for his own safety'.


I remembered reading about this award this afternoon when I was reading the latest book I had bought in the WARGAMING IN HISTORY series, which is about the Battle of Gettysburg. As I stated in an earlier blog entry, to me the most memorable scene in the film GETTYSBURG is the one when Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Chamberlain orders the bayonet charge down the slope of Little Round Top. His cry of 'BAYONETS!' never ceases to send a shiver down my spine every time I watch the film.


It also put me in mind of the line from the film ZULU when Lieutenant Chard (played by Stanley Baker) says, 'If it's a miracle, Colour Sergeant, it's a short chamber Boxer-Henry point-four-five calibre miracle', to which Colour Sergeant Bourne (portrayed by the inimitable Nigel Green) replies, 'And a bayonet, sir, with some guts behind it.'




This all set me thinking about the use of the bayonet in battle ... and something that I seem to remember Paddy Griffith saying about the psychology behind the use of the bayonet. His contention was that when troops fixed bayonets and charged they were making it clear to their enemies that they were willing to take the battle to them ... and that the fighting was going to get up close and personal. He also stated that in those siuations it took a lot of fortitude and training to stand and fight, especially when the normal human reaction in those circumstances was to turn and run (what psychologists call the 'fight or flight' reaction).

Judging by the fact that the charge led by Corporal Jones caused the insurgents to clear out – just as the charge led by Chamberlain forced the Confederates to withdraw and the fortitude and training of the defenders of Rorke's Drift defeated the Zulus – would seem to support this point of view.

22 comments:

  1. Ah the psychology of warfare, one of the hardest things to replicate in a wargame I think. How can you accurately reproduce thought and feelings both personal and collective in what is in most events a statistical exercise?

    Foer my money Dr. Griffiths was spot on.

    Cheers,

    Pete.

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  2. I noticed that story from MOD about the MC-winning bayonet charge in Afghanistan. I was struck by the bravery but also the rarity of it.
    I think you're right Bob that the bayonet is a psychological weapon first and foremost, but can usually be defeated by defenders equally resolute. I forget which modern British general it was who said that the only men bayoneted on the battlefield are the ones with their hands up. It's interesting that the US Army recently announced that it was discontinuing bayonet training in its recruit courses.

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  3. As another example, the 28th (Maori) battalion from the 2nd NZEF were renowned for their use of the bayonet on numerous occasions.

    Aaron

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  4. Pete,

    I don't think that you can model it with any accuracy. One way is to have some complicated set of plus and minus points for what is generally termed 'morale', but I have yet to find a mechanism or system that works for me ... which is why I tend not to have morale mentioned in the rules that I write.

    All the best,

    Bob

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  5. Michael Peterson,

    There have been a few cases over the past few years when British troops have fixed bayonets and charged, and it seems to have been a successful tactic to use.

    One wonders if the physical act of putting a bayonet onto your rifle triggers the aggression that proper training is supposed to engender ('Put on your killing face!'). It makes the soldier mentally and physically prepare for the coming close battle.

    As you state, a resolute defence can defeat a bayonet charge (back to Rorke's Drift again!), so it is important only to use the bayonet charge when the time is right ... that point when your side is prepared for it and the opponent is least likely to stand and most likely to run. Men being bayoneted whilst trying to surrender sounds very much like a case of what the Aussies called 'to late, mate!'

    So the Americans are giving up bayonet training? I wonder how long it will be before the reinstate it ... or the rest of the 'civilised' world follows their lead?

    All the best,

    Bob

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  6. Prufrock (Aaron),

    Almost all of what used to be termed 'the martial races' seem to have well deserved reputations for getting close up and personal, either with the bayonet or knife.

    The Maoris have such a reputation, as do the Gurkhas, whose dexterity with the khukuri is well-known ... and feared.

    All the best,

    Bob

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  7. Hi Bob,

    I think the combination of the factors is about right - the pumping up of the aggressiveness factor of the bayonet wielders and the fear factor of the recipients. I read somewhere that whilst bullets can be far less personal a bayonet is designed to be thrust into somebody and in a killing area - the torso for the main part.

    I also recall that during the Napoleonic Wars the threat of bayonet wielding French columns was very effective - especially against troops that have been properly prepared by artillery and skirmish fire - as was the British army platoon volleys to disorganise the target and then followed up with the bayonet.

    Just my 2p worth.

    All the best,

    DC

    PS Gotta love the Zulu quote!

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  8. David Crook,

    I think that you have hit the nail on the head. Disorganise the enemy by whatever means is available, and then hit them as hard as you can as quickly as you can. The bayonet is a physical signal to both sides that this is what is about to happen.

    All the best,

    Bob

    PS. Colour Sergeant Bourne had some great lines:
    'The sentries report Zulus to the south west. Thousands of them.'
    'A prayer's as good as a bayonet on a day like this.'
    'Mr. Witt, sir, be quiet now will you; there's a good gentleman. You'll upset the lads.'
    'Because we're here, lad. Nobody else. Just us.' (I wonder how many times NCOs have said something like that!)
    'Hitch... Hitch, I saw you. You're alive.'; 'I am? Oh, thanks very much.'

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  9. I'm with everyone else. This is not something that can be modeled in a game. It is a complex character trait that is unique and it's not something that is dependent on the roll of a dice.

    Zulu-one of the greatest films ever.

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  10. Anne,

    Trying to model an individual's or a unit's 'will to combat' (a much better phrase - in my opinion - than morale), is almost impossible because the same circumstances can produce such widely differing results.

    Elite status is no guarantee of 'will to combat'. When I have had discussions about this in the past I have cited the example of the French Imperial Guard at Waterloo. Two battalions of Chasseurs of the Guard were thrown back by the British Foot Guards when they were given a volley and a bayonet charge (leading to the famous 'La Garde recule. Sauve qui peut' ('The Guard retreats. Save yourself if you can!')). Survivors of that retreat then joined the rest of the Imperial Guard near La Belle Alliance, where they took part in a last stand. ('La Garde meurt, elle ne se rend pas!' ('The Guard dies, it does not surrender!')

    The same troops, on the same day, in the same battle ... but very different circumstances and results. How could that be modelled?

    All the best,

    Bob

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  11. One of the great moments n that film. I remember thinking that you wouldn't believe the charge of the 20th Maine if they had made it up.

    However, it may well be the threat of cold steel aspect that led to victory but I think it was hot, tired, thirsty men suddenly being surprised by something totally unexpected that won the day. Nothing freaks people out like being surprised.

    But back to bayonets, there is no doubting the effectiveness of the threat in the right situations but while the lack of records of bayonet wounds in field hospitals, once such things atarted to be recorded, is often used as supporting evidence any actual use, I have read in at least 2 places that bayonet wounds tended to be fatal and thus were not recorded since no one combed the field doing forensics. I should have made a note as to who wrote the comments, it seems to me that one was an ACW American surgeon but since I can't remember, it might as well have been my cat!

    -Ross

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  12. Ross Mac,

    The story of the charge by the 20th Maine is the stuff of legend ... but for once the legend is true!

    Your points about surprise, thirst, and fatigue being factors in the success of the charge are well made.

    I also remember reading that the lack of recorded bayonet wounds amongst battlefield casualties suggested that the bayonet was more a psychological weapon than an actual one ... but as you state, we don't know how many dead people with bayonet wounds were not counted because their wounds had been fatal. I suspect that it is more than most people might expect.

    All the best,

    Bob

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  13. Yes I think it takes a certain amount of intestinal fortitude to be on either end of a bayonet charge.

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  14. Sean,

    There is a quote from 1939 version of THE FOUR FEATHERS that sums it up. The Mahdist army is charging the British infantry, and one soldier says to the other, 'They're getting horrible close. When do we fire?'. His companion replies, 'When we're told. Stick it lad. If you can't watch them coming on, close your eyes. I'll nudge you when to open them.' (The clip is here.)

    All the best,

    Bob

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  15. Before this was another bayonet charge in Iraq in 2004, and before that Tumbledown Ridge in the Falklands. But in no case was anyone actually stuck with a bayonet.

    In the 2004 case it was a similar situation to this one: six men charging into an ambush, but the majority of the 30 Iraqi insurgent casualties in the battle were inflicted after they broke and ran from them - the equivalent of the "pursuit" phase of a classic to early-modern battle, which is when most casualties are inflicted anyway. So indeed it was a question of cohesion and determination (and perhaps the enemy not being able to deal with the unexpected) that carried the day.
    Bayonets are still issued, because they are still useful - but it's long been known that they are almost always used for other things - tin opener, tent peg, the Israeli Army even fitted up their Galil assault rifle so that you could hook the bayonet onto a pivot and use the two as a crude wire cutter.

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  16. Brtrain,

    The bayonet does still have a place on the modern battlefield ... even if it is as a tin opener or wire cutter ... and any army that gets rid of it will - in my humble opinion - either have to re-introduce them or find that their soldiers start buying their own.

    All the best,

    Bob

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  17. Don't give the goverment idea's. They'll not issue rifles next to save money. : )

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  18. REDTROOP,

    I'd be surprised if some bean-counter somewhere has not thought of it already!

    The interesting follow-up question would be what rifle individual soldiers would buy for themselves.

    All the best,

    Bob

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  19. Bob,

    Just a follow up on your (as always, excellent) post. As Brian (Train) mentioned in his earlier comment, there was a bayonet charge at Tumbledown Ridge in 1982. I remember, some time after, Robert Lawrence MC mentioning in a television programme on the bayonet ("Decisive Weapons", I think) that the bayonet was one of the very few weapons existing through which adversaries could be physically united on account of the insertion of the blade. That always sent a chill into my heart, and was a great description of what a terrifying weapon it can be. A fine post, Bob. Thank you.

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  20. Really interesting discussion. As someone said earlier, I imagine that much of the success of a bayonet charge could be put down to surprise and fear factor.

    The next question then must surely be what is it that (historically) allows a bayonet charge to be borne out and seen off, and do the qualities correspond?

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  21. Sidney Roundwood,

    That is indeed a very chilling analysis of the impact of using a bayonet, all the more so because it was made by a man who lost a large chunk of his brain to a high-velocity Argentinian rifle bullet ... and live to not only tell the tale, but also to make such a remarkable recovery.

    All the best,

    Bob

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  22. Prufrock,

    You pose a very interesting question ... and one that I don't feel knowledgeable enough to even attempt to answer!

    Any answers anyone?

    All the best,

    Bob

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