By Gilbert Soldes
Originally appeared in the Philadelphia Public Ledger, June 3, 1917.
London, May 24.
The day after the battle of Arras began [probably the Second Battle, so April 9, 1917], two soldiers were found dead in a German trench. The British soldier had killed his man by thrusting his bayonet through the throat. But as the German fell he jerked his own bayonet forward and his opponent fell dead upon him.
From such incidents as this lessons are learnt and the training brought up to date in the schools which the British army has established with every command. These schools are the center of military intelligence. Everything done in them is the result of nearly three years of the most costly experience. Undoubtedly our own army will profit by this experience, and this article is written, not so much in praise of the wonderful system which the British army has evolved, as to give Americans a clear idea of the sort of training which our own soldiers are likely to get.
It is possible that the British system will be adopted in every detail,
in order to save time, to avoid mistakes and to insure uniformity. Since
the American army is likely to be fighting beside the British, it may be
very important that the two armies have the same general system of training.
For training makes the soldier. The system here described is in use not
only by the British army but by the forces of New Zealand, Canada and Australia.
Through the courtesy of the War Office I have been permitted to visit the
head and center of the whole system, the Physical
and Bayonet Training School at Aldershot, and there to gather material
for American readers.
Schools for Officers
This school and others modeled upon it are not for soldiers. Their purpose is to instruct officers and noncommissioned officers in physical drill and bayonet work sufficiently so that they may teach essentials to the rank and file. When the students at the Headquarters Gymnasium get their certificates they return to their units and put the men through exactly the same training they have received. In the end, every infantryman who carries a bayonet is trained in the same way.
The period of instruction lasts more than two weeks, but the actual working days are never up to fourteen.
From the beginning the men are impressed with the reality of their work. The bag of straw was first used in England. In some fashion the Germans got hold of the idea, but it is unlikely that they are using the same methods as those used at Aldershot. In order to keep the object of bayonet work always before the man the commanding officer had a series of pictures drawn. Each one shows the sack fading like a moving picture "fade out" into a German soldier. The student who sees these pictures hardly has to be told what his duty is.
After the man has learned to handle the rifle with bayonet attached he goes into the field and whole group is divided into squadrons of twelve. Six men in each group teach the other six for a time, then they change about. The men learn to point at the vital spots, the throat, at the stomach for an advancing enemy, at the kidneys for a retreating enemy. They are shown how versatile an instrument the bayonet can be. It can be used at arm’s length, or long point, and it can be used for the short jab when the German is closing in and Tommy has only about five inches to work in. The men are taught also how to reverse the bayonet, beat down the German bayonet with the butt, and shoot forward with the point again.
Along the side of the main field there is a course like a cinder path ready for an obstacle race. The first obstacle is a row of suspended sacks with a long stick protruding from each one. The stick represents and enemy bayonet and the men have to charge, parry the stick, drive home and withdraw.
The two operations of parrying and thrusting (technically known as "pointing") must be done in one motion. After the point, the withdraw is most important. It must be swift, clean and must be done without upsetting the balance of the bayoneter, so that he may be ready for another enemy. As a test of ability white discs of paper are attached to each bag in such a manner that a clean straight thrust and a proper withdraw will drag the paper off on the point of the bayonet.
About fifty feet beyond the suspended sacks is a trench, exactly like the trenches in France. After the advance guard of sacks has been "done in" the men charge into the trench. The sacks are moved from place to place at each trial, because no one knows precisely where the Boche may be when a raid comes off. When the first line trench is cleared the men go over the top again, meet a squad of Germans holding the next trench, take them, dash into the open space beyond, and throw themselves on their faces waiting for the word of command to begin firing.
When a soldier has learned how to put three inches of cold steel into a sack and to pull it out again, he has just begun to know the mysteries of the "white arm" and has not reaped any advantages from his training. The bayonet school would lose half its purpose if it did not teach a great deal more. It keeps men fit, in connection with the physical training department, and it teaches them to think and act like lightning. It also teaches them to think in unison. Whenever a group is sent out for training the prime necessity of cooperation is made clear at the start. Ten men in a German trench are useless if they think in ten separate ways. They must think and work together.
At first the instructors take out a group armed with the bayonet. The
instructor takes a stick a little longer than the ordinary rifle with a
rope-loop, like a deck
quoit, on one end and a ball of straw at the other. He stands in front
of the student and points the stick at him. If he points the loop, the
man has to put his bayonet through, withdraw and get into the position
"on guard." If he points the ball at him the man has to beat it down with
his butt, reverse the rifle and be ready to point.
The instructor generally works the trick just as a clever player works the trick in "Solomon Says Thumbs Up." He points the loop ten times in succession, and just as the student is getting to expect the loop, he tries him on the ball and, as that is parried off, he pops up with the loop again.
Later on in the course the students take each other on. Two men with sticks may take on one with the bayonet, or one stick will lay against two bayonets. Or the instructor may form a circle round himself, with all the men facing away from him. Then he will tap a man on the back and, as the man turns, will face him with either end of the stick. Sometimes an expert will be able to tap two or three men at one time, and the men will have to think together, so that they each do their bit without falling over or tripping up the next man.
The students are taught to accustom their men to the fact that they will seldom meet a single German and be allowed "to call it a day." There is always another round the corner. It is never enough to plunge. The attacking bayonet must be thrown aside, the point made and withdrawn, and the proper attitude for the next one must be taken, all in a matter of seconds, not of minutes.
In the gymnasium itself the men are taught to point while being attacked by a second enemy. A good kick or a shove from the shoulder has saved many lives while the bayonet was occupied.
The final step in bayonet work is in the trenches. All the schools in England work on what the law-school men call the "case system." The theory is given in classroom lectures, but every principle is tested in actual practice. In the bayonet school a section of the field has been dug up for trenches, with all the German tricks of the trade – false alleys, sharp and misleading corners, trenches which can be caught with enfilade fire, traverses around which a squad of Germans may be hiding, dugouts, and the rest. In these trenches are a number of Germans – sacks and sticks with dummy heads, placed in different positions for each attack. Sometimes the first line is stripped of men; at others most of the enemy are waiting to receive the first wave of the British infantry.
The attack starts after a bombardment, which is either left to the imagination or shown by smoke. The men come over in successive waves, leaping over their parapet, sneaking or rushing up to the German trench system.
The first wave leaps over the trench with a shout and attacks the Germans behind the parados. A moment after they have started the second wave is coming over more cautiously. These men go down into the trenches by twos. The leader scouts for dugouts and slowly works up to the place where the trench divides. Where he is met by a trench shaped like the letter T, with an additional spur off to one side, he must make a quick decision. He cannot cross the open space without being sniped, and yet he knows there may be a German in the next bay of the trench. Or he may have to go down into a dugout and clear it.
In any case, he must not work alone. The instructor, standing above the trenches, watches him, not only for his work but for his co-operation with the other men near him.
The men are watched for aggressiveness, for judgment, for quick intelligence, and they are anxious to make a good showing. But the eye of the instructor does not worry them half so much as the bag of straw frightens them. They jump every time they see one. Fortunately, the training which has gone before makes them jump forward, with the bayonet fixed for attack.
The attack goes on through the whole trench system until the men, minus the "casualties" placed out of action by the umpires, reach the open and get down for a shot at the next line.
The actual training in the trenches is the test of a man’s ability to face the enemy in France. He comes up against every possible situation, and as soon as the Boche tries a new dodge, it is reported back to H.Q. Gymnasium and is incorporated in the work. Where the risk of injury is minimized, the groups may divide themselves off into opposing parties and go into the trenches, but experience has shown that the safest and most productive way is to teach the man the actual thrust of the bayonet, even if the enemy be of straw.
This is the training which the soldier gets. But at the school the officers and the N.C.O.’s have to prove, in addition, that they are capable of teaching others. They are given groups, are ordered to put them through their work, are allowed to scold and praise as they see fit, and this part of their work counts heavily in the final judgment of their ability.
The training given at H.Q. Gymnasium is the basis on which drill rests,
because it teaches control of the will. The men are shown how they can
make themselves do what they are told to do. They are told to balance on
one leg, swing the other in a circle and come to rest. Few men can do that
without stumbling or hopping about. The instructors at H.Q. Gymnasium convince
each man that he can make himself do it. And the will power developed in
this way is carried into the training with the bayonet which goes on at
the same time and into the last test of all, the trenches.
Improvement over Swedes
The whole Swedish drill system [e.g., military gymnastics] has been stripped of its one bad feature. It was terribly slow. Necessity gave it speed in its British modification. In addition to speeding up, the British instinct for sport has brought a number of games into each drill. The whole thing rests on a scientific study of what men are capable of doing, of the best means of producing the best results and of the proper place for beginning and ending each lesson.
Americans will note with interest that when the war had taken off most of the available officers for the gymnasiums, men from the colleges, formerly sergeant instructors in the officers’ training corps, came to take their places. Gymnasium instructors familiar with the system of drill would be invaluable and scout masters could easily take their places in this work.
The development in England shows how much can be done in a short time. Out of a staff which was supposed to number 100, but which actually consisted of two officers, a quartermaster and six assistants, has grown a staff of 1600 and more, capable of training 6000 officers and noncoms every year. Now that the army knows exactly how many men are coming at any one time proper provision is made so that every new man gets his training in bayonet work.
Although these schools can show very little actual results in the communiqués,
they are the center of the army’s health. What is more, the bayonet is
the best means of self-preservation which the infantry soldier can have.
Our own American army, with its men drawn from every walk of life, most
of them keen for sport, but many without the physical development necessary
for the hard work of warfare, will have to adopt some system of physical
training. And our army will have to get into the "beastly business" of
using the bayonet for its proper purpose. When our men realize that their
own safety depends on their bayonet and that the only way to end the war
is to use the bayonet for "killing Germans," the experience of the British
army will explain the way in which that can be done.
1. "It [the machine gun] is a grossly over-rated weapon; two per battalion is more than sufficient." British General (later Field Marshal) Sir Douglas Haig, 1915.
2. From "Arms and the Boy" by Wilfred Owen, March 1918. http://www.hcu.ox.ac.uk/jtap/warpoems.htm
Once more I felt glad to be sent up to the trenches.
In one analysis of a series of battle casualties early in the War there were 39% bullet wounds, 58% wounded by shells, trench mortars etc. 2% by bombs & grenades and 1% by bayonet. The high proportion of shell and mortar wounds reflects the reality of everyday life in the trenches, as described by eyewitnesses such as Edmund Blunden; this was preponderantly an artillery war.
Later, gas became
important. In France & Flanders, from 1915 when it was first used until
the end of the War in 1918, there were 186,000 admissions with gas injury
of whom 5,900 died; these were almost 10% of the total wounded. There were
certainly many more gas casualties amongst those killed in action but no
attempt was made to collect statistics.