In the early years of firearms, the bayonet turned a discharged weapon from a marginally useful club to a more practical, for medieval and Renaissance warfare, pike. As late as 1900 the bayonet was thought to be fully one-half of the infantryman’s tactical armament. But of course, that was mistaken: the bolt-action, magazine rifle, the Maxim machine gun, and the barbed-wire entanglement, were soon to demonstrate that cold steel and élan were no match for 20th-Century defensive arms in prepared positions. This was clear in the siege of Port Arthur in the Russo-Japanese war, although some particularly blockheaded European officers couldn’t learn from foreign experience, and would have to have their own, to the detriment of a generation.
But the bayonet wasn’t obsolete, because of, as we’ve said, what the bayonet is. And what it is, is a psychological weapon. The Argentine draftees around Port Stanley in 1982 faced the horrors of modern war with fatalism, if not exactly equanimity. But two things put them to flight, or surrender: thoughts of Gurkha’s kukris, and thoughts of cold steel bayonets. Likewise, that 2004 British unit in Iraq did not so much increase their combat power when they fixed bayonets, as they increased their psychological dominance of the battlefield. The psychological effect of the bayonet is two-sided: it strikes fear into the enemy at point end, and stirs confidence in the soldier behind the bayonet. Such de minimis subtleties are the foundation stones of many a victory.
The poem The Kiss has been described as resulting from a lecture that young infantry officer Siegfried Sassoon received early in the World War One. Sassoon wrote about the lecture, in which a fierce officer from a Highland regiment repeatedly stated that, “The bullet and the bayonet are brother and sister.”
To these I turn, in these I trust
Brother Lead and Sister Steel.
To his blind power I make appeal,
I guard her beauty clean from rust.
He spins and burns and loves the air,
And splits a skull to win my praise;
But up the nobly marching days
She glitters naked, cold and fair.
Sweet Sister, grant your soldier this:
That in good fury he may feel
The body where he sets his heel
Quail from your downward darting kiss.
This post is excerpted from weaponsman.com
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Photo courtesy of the US Army.