WWI Trench Weapons: The Club and the Knife
Volunteers were sometimes sought for night-time trench raids. The men would blacken their faces and, lightly equipped, cross over no man's land. Once in the enemy trench they would be prepared for rapid hand-to-hand combat in close quarters. This is when their trench clubs, knives and daggers would have come into their own. As a last resort, an officer might carry a revolver and grenades would be thrown to assist their escape.
The object of a trench raid might be to knock out an enemy machine gun, capture papers and plans, keep up the pressure on the enemy or reconnoitre for an upcoming assault.
Medieval Weapons in the Trenches of WW1
In the years leading up to World War 1, the major European powers had spent a considerable amount of time and money in developing and stockpiling modern weapons. Indeed, the tension caused by the arms race was one of the reasons that war became inevitable. When war was declared in the summer of 1914 each side was confident that the superiority of their weapons would see a swift end to the hostilities. In the event, the war dragged on for more than four years. During that time an incredible amount of ammunition was expended, poison gas was released, tanks made their first lumbering appearance and the aircraft took the skies.
Despite the appearance of new weapons of war both on the fields of Flanders and above it, down in the trenches, the soldiers found that they had more basic needs. When they went on trench raids, their rifles were of little use. Firing their weapons would alert the enemy; bayonets fixed to rifles were unwieldy in the narrow trenches. They needed something silent but deadly weapons. Their weapons of choice took were anything but modern:
- trench clubs
- trench knives
- push daggers
The Trench Club
Trench clubs were a simple yet effective weapon for silencing the enemy in raids on their trenches. Made of wood, they were both produced by the troops themselves as well as issued by the army. As men often had time on their hands between actions they could fashion their own clubs. Many more were manufactured by army carpenters.
The trench club was, at its most simple, akin to a police truncheon or baton. Other designs were more fearsome and took on the characteristics of the medieval mace; a wooden shaft with a reinforced metal head which often had flanges or spikes. In World War 1, trench clubs could have hobnails, horseshoe nails and flanged metal rings attached to them. Ingenious troops found that the handles of their entrenching tools made an ideal base on which to attach metal embellishment. The club was often finished off with a leather wrist strap.
Were Trench Raids Effective?
There were two contrasting views on trench raids. Many officers considered raids to be a welcome break from the tedium and stalemate of trench warfare. They considered raids to be opportunities not only to inflict casualties on the enemy, but to keep their own men alert, aggressive and ready for action.
The men, on the other hand, often dreaded the dangerous missions which were likely to provide few results at too high a price.
The Trench Knife
Both the Allies and the Germans made use of trench knives. The Germans had the edge over the British; their Nahkampmesser was standard issue and proved so successful that it was used again in World War 2.
The British Army did not issue knives, but this did not mean that knives were not in use in the trenches. In the early years of the war, men made their own or asked a company blacksmith to fashion them. Bayonets could be shortened or metal spikes attached to handles. One version of the "home-made" trench knife was the French nail. This was a metal stake, one end bent into a handle, the other having a stiletto-like spike attached. The French Army produced its own, more refined, French Nail, the Poingnard-Baïnnotte Lebel M1886.
The French Nail proved popular and the US Army based the design of its trench knives on the French design. Henry Disston & Sons produced the M1917, closely followed by the improved M1918. The later Mark 1 design added a knuckle-duster type handle and saw service again in World War 2.
The blades of trench knives and push daggers would typically be blackened before a raid to avoid any glinting in moonlight.
Robbins of Dudley Push Dagger
Push daggers were not a new invention in World War 1, dating back to perhaps 16th Century India. Europeans and Americans took up the weapon in the 19th Century, with versions becoming popular very popular in the USA. These small weapons were in daily use by both men and women, rich and poor, all over the USA.
The push dagger had a short blade set into a "T"shaped handle, which was designed to be gripped between the index and middle finger, with the blade facing out from the front of the fist.
Although the British Army did not supply push daggers to its men, commercial companies saw a need for such a weapon and started producing them for sale. Robbins of Dudley produced one of the first and most popular push daggers, along with a variety of other "fighting knives".
A few of the Robbins of Dudley knives are available today as reproductions, costing around £100 ($60).
Storm Troopers and Trench Raids
In 1915 a Frenchman, Captain Andre Laffargue, published a pamphlet advocating infiltration of enemy trenches. The French did not take up his ideas, but gradually the British did, first using Canadian troops, who came to be known as the "storm troops of the British Empire".
The German Army had their own storm troopers, the Sturmtruppen. Their methods, developed by Willie Rohr, remain the pattern for modern infantry infiltration tactics.