During World War I, soldiers who fought in trench warfare had to endure grueling conditions— being in long, narrow trenches, soldiers were covered in mud, with the threat of death just waiting in the corner. The conditions were far from ideal. All sorts of weapons were used, even entrenching tools. They used whatever it was that would get the job done. But what could be the reason why soldiers chose to take out enemies using their shovels over their bayonets?

The Trench Warfare

A German trench occupied by British Soldiers near the Albert-Bapaume road at Ovillers-la-Boisselle, July 1916, during the Battle of the Somme.

 Trenches were a common sight on the Western Front during the first world war, where the Allied forces fought against the German troops. They were long, narrow, deep excavations where soldiers would live for weeks, sometimes even longer. These trenches would shelter them against artillery-like machine guns and offer some level of protection against weak gas attacks. When the American troops later joined the war, they had their rifles, bayonets, helmets, and entrenching tools to make it easier for them to dig trenches, latrines, even graves.

Problem with Bayonets

A British cavalry sergeant major instructs an American soldier in bayonet charging at Texas’ Camp Dick. Cassowary ColorizationsCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

According to History, “Later in the war, forces began mounting attacks from the trenches at night, usually with the support of covering artillery fire. The Germans soon became known for effectively mounting nighttime incursions behind enemy lines, by sending highly trained soldiers to attack the trenches of opposing forces at what they perceived as weak points.” So sneaking into enemy camps became a thing but back when trench knives weren’t invented yet, soldiers would use their bayonets to stab their enemies. However, there were two problems: 1. These weapons were long to be used in narrow, cramped trenches, and 2. The blade usually got lodged in the enemies’ corpses. You wouldn’t want to be caught by a German soldier while struggling to pull out your blade stuck from his comrade’s ribcage, for sure.

Sharpening Entrenching Tools

World War I era entrenching tool. Auckland MuseumCC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The American soldiers figured they could sharpen the end of their entrenching tools until they were razor-sharp and use them instead as a melee weapon. It turned out that these weapons were more efficient in taking out enemies without having to struggle with their length and getting stuck in the enemy. These weapons were much shorter than their bayonets and were fairly easy to carry and use in close combat since you could wield them like an ax. Whatever works, right?

In the first chapter of the 1945 novel The Pursuit of Love, it was even mentioned that there hangs an entrenching tool “with which, in 1915, Uncle Matthew had whacked to death eight Germans one by one as they crawled out of a dug-out. It is still covered with blood and hairs, an object of fascination to us as children.”

As mentioned above, it wasn’t until 1917 that trench knives were invented and patented. There was the M1917 design which was immediately improved into M1918, and then the Mark 1 Trench knife that was also used during WWII.