Tommy, p.44Richard Holmes
used their bayonets to great effect. 1,656 Pte. William Williams was seen to dispose of several of the enemy, until with a furious thrust he completely transfixed a German and was unable to free his bayonet. He knocked another down with his fists, and seized yet another by the throat, when they both fell into a shell hole. More Germans rushed up, and the gallant Williams did not rise again.35
And when 3rd Australian Division took Windmill Hill, near Zonnebeke in the Ypres salient, on 4 October 1917, there was such sustained large-scale bayonet fighting that the Official History commented on the fact.
Charles Carrington illuminated a fundamental truth when he wrote that ‘the sword-bayonet was an essential part of our armament even though the deaths it inflicted were few. I never knew the enemy to stand if your men with their long gleaming blades could get within charging distance.’36 Lance Corporal F. Heardman of 2/Manchester Pals was advancing on 1 July 1916 when:
I came face to face with a great big German who had come up unexpectedly out of a shell hole. He had his rifle and bayonet ‘at the ready’. So had I, but mine suddenly felt only the size of a small boy’s play gun and my steel helmet shrank to the size of a small tin lid. Then, almost before I had time to realise what was happening, the German threw down his rifle, put up his arms and shouted ‘Kamerad’. I could hardly believe my eyes.37
This is a vivid example of what could happen when armed men met at close range on the battlefield: one surrendered or ran away, and determination to take those last few steps was often the deciding factor. But if bayonet training gave men confidence to press on at moments like this, it often went further, and made them reluctant to show mercy.
Frank Crozier argued that the bayonet put killing spirit into a man.
‘Mercy, mercy,’ shouts a German ex-waiter on the left, as he sees the cold steel of a North Staffordshire potter quivering above his head, for he has just been felled by a rifle-butt swing by a Wolverhampton striker of past four-and-forty years. ‘Mercy be damned,’ shouts the potter, whose blood is up, and he thrusts to the windpipe in the most up-to-date manner.38
A soldier in this frame of mind was unlikely to accept surrender, especially if he had something to avenge. In the summer of 1915 Captain Billy Congreve was at Hooge, in the centre of the Ypres salient, and wrote in his diary that:
They killed a lot of Boches during the attack. The Durhams were especially fierce (the Zeppelin [bombing raids on England] was it, or the cruiser shelling [of east coast towns]?). About fifty Boche were found hiding in the crater and they were all dealt with most unmercifully. Dads [his father, the then Major General Walter Congreve] tells a nice (?) story. He was going round some of the DLI [Durham Light Infantry] – one old man he asked, ‘How are you now?’ ‘I be all right, thank’ee, sir. Slept foine last night, better than night before.’ ‘Why, how was that?’ ‘Well, you see, I come to a trench and in I tumbles, roight on top of two other blokes. One of ‘em was dead, t’other aloive. The aloive one ‘ad a great long whoite beard as long as my granfeyther’s!’ ‘Well, what did you do then?’ ‘Do!’ (unutterable scorn). ‘Whoi do; put ‘un on the point, o’course.’39
One soldier on the Somme was so enraged that his best friend had been buried alive by a shellburst that he bayoneted three Germans in a matter of minutes. The Germans, for their part, went round No Man’s Land in the sector attacked by the Accrington Pals: ‘They kicked one or two of the bodies; any showing signs of life were shot or bayoneted.’40
The ever thoughtful Lieutenant C. P. Blacker suggested that however strong the logic for the spirit of the bayonet, it was no easy matter to convert its theory into practice on the battlefield. ‘It was, of course, splendid that our forceful corps commander should tell us that the real business of war was done with the bayonet and the rest was mere by-play,’ he wrote. ‘But bayonets would not stop the autumn rains or dry up the waterlogged crater-fields.’41 Nor would they stop hostile machine-gun fire or shelling: the pre-war emphasis on the spirit of the offensive had undoubtedly made too much of what the bayonet could achieve in physical terms. Both British and French bayonets began the war with their quillons (the guard between grip and blade) hooked so as to catch the enemy’s blade in bayonet fighting, enabling it to be snapped with a smart twist of the rifle. Hooked quillons disappeared during the war as it became evident that elaborate fencing like this would never happen. Yet, start to finish, the bayonet played its part in steeling men to face the battle of the last five yards.42
German infantry carried hand grenades at the very start of the war, partly because they expected to have to deal with French and Belgian fortifications. The grenade proved so useful in trench warfare that the British quickly developed their own, though once again they faced the problem of introducing new weapons at precisely the same time that they were expanding the production of old ones to equip a burgeoning army. For the first eighteen months of the war private ingenuity vied with official manufacture as the army struggled to produce grenades that were both lethal to the enemy and safe to their users. Some early versions were so delicate or unstable that their users – ‘bombers’, first grouped as a platoon within the battalion, and eventually spread more widely so as to constitute ‘a nucleus of one officer and eight men’ per company – shared with the crews of early trench mortars the discouraging nickname ‘Suicide Squad’. The first grenades were empty jam tins – Mr Tickler making a further contribution to the war effort – filled with guncotton or the more effective and more stable ammonal. A detonator was inserted into the guncotton and ignited by a length of safety fuse which the thrower ignited with a match or lighter before hurling it at the enemy. The Official History advised its readers how to make one.
Take a jam pot, fill it with shredded guncotton and ten-penny nails, mixed according to taste. Insert a No 8 detonator and a short length of Bickford’s fuze. Clay up the lid. Light with a match, pipe, cigar or cigarette, and throw for all you are worth.43
By early 1915 there was even an up-market version of the jam-tin bomb with a friction primer.
Gerald Burgoyne first met the jam-tin bomb on Hill 60, outside Ypres, in May 1915:
The Brigade bomb officer showed us some bombs he was going to use this morning, huge spherical affairs like cannon balls, about 7” to 8” in diameter, he also showed us what up till now we’d only heard of: the ‘jam tin bomb’, a tin the size of a 1 lb tin of jam, with a piece of fuse on top and on the fuse a cardboard cap, which the operator forced down, giving it a sharp turn; this caused a friction spark to ignite the fuse which was timed to burn five seconds.44
Private Harold Dolden was then a bomber in the London Scottish.
Six of us, including myself, were Company bombers and we were issued with eight cricket ball bombs which were carried in pockets in an apron strapped round our kilt. The bombs had a detonator jutting out of the top covered with a piece of sticking plaster. On our wrist a band was worn, to which was attached the striking part of a box of matches, and we were also provided with matches. The procedure was as follows – to take the bomb from the pocket of the kilt apron, tear off the sticking plaster on the detonator, strike a match on the wristband and light the charge, hold the bomb for three or four seconds, then throw as far as possible. I do not know what genius devised this bomb with its farcial method of ignition, but I am very doubtful whether he ever spent a night in the pouring rain and tried to strike a match on his wristband …
I have a further criticism to make; when one ‘belly-flopped’ these eight bombs strung over one’s kilt caused considerable pain in our most sensitive parts, and when we were wearing gas masks our eyes watered so much that we could not see out of the goggles. Of course one must be fair, and the underlying idea might have been that the enemy would have been so intrigued by our antics that he would have forgotten to fire.45
The obvious disadvantages of the jam-tin bomb and other early grenades encouraged a plethora of inventions, and the War Office departments and committees responsible for such th
There were too many grenades adopted for service to be included here, but they fell into three main types: percussion, ignition and mechanical grenades. Percussion grenades, such as Hand Grenades Nos 1 and 2, had percussion detonators secured by removable safety pins, and cloth streamers which ensured that the bomb fell nose downwards. The pin was removed and the grenade was thrown. ‘Care should be taken that the streamers do not get entangled,’ warned a pamphlet. ‘The bomb should be thrown WELL up into the air.’47 Percussion grenades were the cause of frequent accidents, usually because the thrower hit the rear of the trench with the grenade as he drew his arm back to throw it. James Dunn, medical officer of 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers, saw that ‘so many of our wounded are the victims of our own bomb accidents’,48 and Cyril Helm of 2/King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry agreed that ‘they caused heavy casualties among our own men’. Ignition grenades included Hand Grenades Nos 7–9, and the Battye, Ball, Picher and Oval grenades. These were lit by a variety of patent lighters, often a friction lighter like a large version of the striker on a box of matches, and the pamphlet was generous enough to observe that some were ‘somewhat complicated, and special instruction should be given …’: 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers reported that their strikers were ‘so wet as to be useless’ at the battle of Loos.
However, the future was destined to lie with the mechanical grenade, which embodied a spring-loaded mechanism igniting a fuse which exploded a detonator and thus the bomb itself. The Hand Grenade No. 12 ‘Hairbrush pattern’ looked like a large hairbrush, with the explosive where the bristles would normally be, and a wooden handle to assist throwing. The Mills Hand Grenade No. 5 was the now-familiar ‘pineapple’ grenade, with a serrated cast-iron case containing a spring-loaded striker, explosive cap, fuse and detonator, weighing 1½ lbs. The thrower ensured that he had a firm grip of the grenade and its long, flat lever, removed the safety pin, and threw the grenade. As it left his hand the lever flew upwards and away, allowing the striker to shoot down and hit the cap. This ignited the fuse, which usually had a burning time of four seconds before it set off the detonator and exploded the bomb.49
The Mills bomb was easily the best of the wartime grenades, but it had numerous teething troubles, and as late as mid-1916 there was still one accident for every 3,000 grenades. Sometimes grenades exploded prematurely because of a manufacturing fault, but sometimes soldiers overdid the process of pinching the safety-pins so that they would pull out easily, and pins simply slid out. This may be what caused the most celebrated grenade accident of the war. Rifleman Billy McFadzean of the Royal Irish Rifles was carrying a box of grenades forward early on the morning of 1 July 1916 on the Somme when he heard the pop of an igniter cap within the box. He knew that there would be an explosion, lethal in a packed communication trench, in just four seconds, so he flung himself on the box to absorb its force: he was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
Soldiers (then as now) were often nervous of throwing their first grenades, and Sergeant George Ashurst of 16/Lancashire Fusiliers had a narrow escape when one of his recruits dropped a grenade with the pin out during training in France in 1917. ‘Quickly in the few seconds left to me before it exploded,’ he wrote, ‘I picked the bomb up and threw it out of the trench, but even as it was in the air above the trench it exploded, scattering the metal all about.’50 Mills bombs could be carried in pouches, specially-made canvas bombers’ waistcoats, or even canvas buckets, and were generally regarded as being easier to carry than the German potato-masher grenade, with its long handle, which could be clipped onto, or tucked inside, the waist-belt, but was generally bulkier. However, the handle gave the potato-masher ‘a much longer range than the Mills bomb, which was rather big and heavy for many to grasp’.51
It was a short step from the hand grenade to the rifle grenade. The Rifle Grenade No. 3 – usually known as the Hale’s Rifle Grenade – was a small grooved tube filled with explosive and fitted with a detonator. It was attached to a long tube which was slipped down the barrel of the rifle. The firer loaded a special cartridge containing extra cordite but no bullet, and the gases produced on firing sent the grenade on its way. The Mills grenade was modified, by the addition of a steel rod fitted to its base-plug, to be fired in the same way. A cup-discharger, fitted to the muzzle of the rifle, was issued to the British army at the rate of four per company in September 1916, and there were sixty-four per battalion at the war’s end.
As the development of grenades improved the infantryman’s lethality in one direction, so the introduction of the light machine gun did so in another. The British Expeditionary Force went to war with two belt-fed machine guns per infantry battalion or cavalry regiment, making eight machine guns per brigade. The Germans, in contrast, had a machine-gun company in each three-battalion regiment, six guns in 1914, rising to fifteen in mid-1916 – and extra machine-gun companies in addition. But it was not the sheer numbers of their machine guns that gave the Germans an advantage: it was in their organisation. A German regimental commander, disposing of roughly the same resources as a British brigadier, could centralise his firepower if he wished to do so, with ‘the German concentration of fire giving the impression of superior numbers’.52 If a British brigade was holding the line with two of its battalions up and two back, then the machine guns of the two reserve battalions would probably be out of the line. This suited the machine-gunners, as Guy Chapman discovered when he became his battalion’s machine-gun officer. ‘I was liking my new job,’ he wrote. ‘The machine-gunners considered themselves the elite of the battalion. They lived apart from the companies and except in emergency were excused fatigues. In trenches they were responsible only for their immediate surroundings.’53
However, the unsatisfactory nature of this arrangement was very clear to George ‘Boss’ Lindsay, a Boer War veteran and pre-war instructor at the Small Arms School at Hythe, who argued strongly that ‘centralised control of the whole machine-gun belt’ was essential if the best use was to be gained from these weapons.54 Machine guns were occasionally massed in 1915; the practice had become widespread a year later, and by then organisational form had changed to conform with tactical function.
The Machine Gun Corps was brought into being by Royal Warrant on 14 October 1916, with its depot at Harrowby Camp, Grantham and (though not till March 1916) a training school at Etaples. George Coppard, wounded on the Somme, passed through Grantham on his way back to the front, and discovered that: ‘We ex-wounded types were quickly told to forget any experience acquired in France, as it counted for nothing at Harrowby.’55 Belt-fed machine guns were now concentrated into brigade machine-gun companies, numbered the same as their brigades, each commanded by a captain, the senior of the four section commanders making them up. The Machine Gun Corps had three proper branches, MGC (I) for the infantry, MGC (C) for the cavalry, and MGC (M) for light motor machine guns. The Heavy Branch of the MGC was the cover for what soon became the Tank Corps.
Coppard had been a machine gunner in 1/6th Queen’s, part of 37th Brigade in 12th Division. In February 1916 he found himself in 37th Company of the Machine Gun Corps with a new regimental number, new identity discs and a new cap-badge. ‘I had some regrets about losing the Queens’s badge with the lamb,’ he wrote, ‘but welcomed the new one with the two crossed Vickers guns surmounted by the British crown.’56 In late 1915 Burgon Bickersteth, commissioned into the Royal Dragoons early in the war, was his regiment’s machine-gun officer, his two guns and forty men forming part of the brigade machine-gun squadron. The following year he wrote that his men had had to display Machine Gun Corps badges. ‘I hate it, but I suppose it is in
The next step was to bring brigade machine-gun companies together into divisional machine gun battalions, and this made it easier to produce even greater concentrations of fire, most notably with the machine-gun barrage, with guns firing at distant targets identified from the map. Although machine-gun battalions did not appear until the last year of the war, the trend towards centralisation and volume was clearly evident. On 24 July 1916 Graham Seton-Hutchison’s guns of 1000th Company Machine Gun Corps fired just twenty-five rounds short of one million: one gun fired 120,000 rounds. Simply keeping the guns topped up with water became a major logistic feat, using all available petrol tins filled with water and the company’s individual water bottles into the bargain.
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