Note: This is part of a series. Read part I here.
At the onset of World War I, there was very little in the way of hand-to-hand training, or special operations forces for that matter. The only notable guerrilla forces during the war were led by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and the German, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, and both of them commanded indigenous forces whose only hand-to-hand skills were those they acquired in their indigenous cultures. From the outset, the only hand-to-hand training given to most soldiers on both sides of the trenches involved the bayonet and the trench knife. Industrialized warfare promised to deliver us from the need for hand-to-hand combat.
As the war wore on, the U.S. Army began training some of its three million recruits in hand-to-hand fighting in the U.S., especially those heading over to France as part of the AEF. But that training was heavily reliant on boxing, one of the most popular sports of that time, making it very impractical for the battlefield. Some units were taught some judo throws and joint locks to disarm an enemy. But these could only be taught if the unit had cadres or practitioners who could act as instructors. And thus, such training was on a unit-by-unit basis and not at all standardized. In other words, there was no FM or training manual.
There never was a more intense CQB environment than the trenches of World War I. When attacking troops did manage to make it across No Man’s Land, through the hail of machine-gun fire, artillery, and gas, and into the enemy’s trenches, fighting became very intimate, very close—a throwback to days long past when men fought with clubs and short blades. If a bayonet charge made it across No Man’s Land and into the enemy’s trenches, the bayonet became useless and the rifle became a club. Combatants were too close, the trenches too tight.
Troops on both sides began innovating special weapons and tactics to adapt to this new and intimate combat. By 1915, trench raids became a tactic used by both sides to disrupt the stalemate of the trenches, to capture prisoners, and gain intelligence on the enemy. Raiders would slip across No Man’s Land at night, by squads, platoons, and sometimes entire companies, and into the enemy’s trenches. Raids required special weapons and skills. Raiders left behind kit and gear that would slow them down or make noise and give away their presence. Often they did not take rifles, or not everyone did. CQB weapons were found to be more pragmatic. At first, those weapons were knives and pistols.
But that grew to include other innovations such as brass knuckles, trench knives, spiked clubs, sawed-off shotguns, even tomahawks and hatchets, hammers, entrenching tools, and, of course, hand-to-hand skills. So, the trench raiders were the special operators of that war, even though they were rarely organized into special units.
German generals first became aware of the needs of increased hand-to-hand training for the trenches following an analysis of the Russo-Japanese War. The advantage of Japanese troops over Russian troops in CQB situations was a clear lesson in that war. Germany began a few years prior to the war experimenting with training German troops in jiu-jitsu. Around 1916, U.S. generals also tried ordering American combat troops to be trained in jiu-jitsu, but that was abandoned in favor of boxing and wrestling, which were much more agreeable to American and Army culture at the time. Judo training was also offered to some units, depending on commanders and if units had a judo practitioner. Judo had more popularity and acceptance in the U.S. at that time, as a sport and as an exotic martial art.
At this same time, the British ignored martial arts entirely and remained focused on the bayonet. They even began training troops in fencing. The French developed their own jiu-jitsu-derived system known as savate. The Russians developed Samooborona Bez Oruzhiya, more commonly known as sambo, which was derived from judo and various folk-wrestling styles throughout the Russian empire. The British eventually came around and began training in jiu-jitsu and judo, most likely to the chagrin of the more traditionalist and conservative British generals who likely longed for the days of cavalry and cutlass.
The Canadians, widely considered to be the best trench raiders of that war, devised their own hand-to-hand system. It was a blend of boxing, wrestling, savate, jiu-jitsu, and judo, and was more standardized and adaptable than any of the other belligerent militaries. It is key to note that judo and jiu-jitsu are closely related. Judo, which originated in the 19th century, is the sport derivative of jiu-jitsu, which originated sometime around the 13th century. Brazilian jiu-jitsu, BJJ, originated in Brazil in the early 20th century.
John O’Brien was a key figure in the development of U.S. hand-to-hand fighting in World War I. He had lived and worked for 10 years in Japan, where he worked as a police detective and learned Japanese martial arts, in particular, jiu-jitsu. He returned to the U.S. in 1902 and even taught jiu-jitsu to President Theodore Roosevelt. He eventually found his way into the U.S. Army and was put in charge of developing a hand-to-hand program for the Army. O’Brien’s system combined boxing, wrestling, and jiu-jitsu. Boxing was included because it complemented bayonet training and Army culture. But O’Brien told his instructors and students, “Never use your fists, as the fist is the least effective of nature’s weapons. Especially without gloves, it is practically impossible to put an enemy hors de combat with the fist. Nature’s best weapons are: the feet, the knees, the head, and the elbows.”
Millions of troops in that war were trained in traditional martial arts, hand-to-hand combat, and what could be considered the vanguard of modern combatives. But so many did not survive that war, and the military and societal exhaustion that resulted from that war wiped clean the slate of lessons learned from it in terms of CQB and much else.
This article was originally published in 2015.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting our Veteran Editorial by becoming a SOFREP subscriber. Click here to get 3 months of full ad-free access for only $1